Book 3: The Centre
by Rick Beck
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Gardner Rust
© OLYMPIA50 2015 - 2017 all rights reserved
In book I of Billie Joe's Journals, Billie Joe goes in search of what it means to be gay after the suicide of his best friend, who left a note saying he was gay. They both kept the same secret and now one of them was dead.
Billie Joe is determined not to follow in Ralphie's footsteps. He decides to leave home in order to find out what being gay means. Before he gets very far, he meets Carl on the bus to Seattle. They have a short romance, which ends when Carl ships out for Vietnam.
Billie Joe ends up on the streets of San Francisco with dozens of other homeless gay youth. The streets get darker and more hostile as Billie Joe struggles to survive.
In The Return Home, book II of Billie Joe's Journals, once it's known Billie Joe has been tested for AIDS, his enemies do their best to make his decision to finish high school a tough proposition. The gay people Billie Joe has kept his distance from, are now his only friends,
In book III Billie Joe goes to meet Carl, who is returning from Southeast Asia. The reunion is a bit overwhelming for both of them. They pick up right where they left off before Carl left for overseas.
Carl doesn't understand Billie Joe's need to return to San Francisco to help the street kids. Being in love with Carl, Billie Joe realizes that he must return to the mean streets to do his best to save other gay homeless kids.
Carl returns to his family's home in the East.
Billie Joe goes back to the mean streets of San Francisco.
I was certain the final week before I got to see Carl again would be the longest week of my life. Much to my surprise it wasn't. It flew by so fast that I wasn't sure I was ready to transition out of my new life into his. Doubts were easy to come by. I had a good job at a company I liked and with people who liked me. I was earning a living, albeit modest.
There was pizza the last day. After one piece I had a lump in my throat and my stomach became a pizza-unfriendly zone. When Mr. McMichael came down to say goodbye, I felt like I was making a mistake leaving his company. He took a few bites of pizza and a few sips of his ginger ale.
"Billie Joe," he said, "If you ever come this way again, there will always be a job at RamTech for you. I want you to promise me you'll keep in touch with me. I want to know what you're up to."
"Yes, sir. I will," I said, trying not to tear up. "Thank you."
We shook on it and he patted my back before he left the mailroom.
"He's genuinely fond of you, Billie Joe," Ms. Mars said to make sure I didn't doubt his words. "You've made quite a good impression on us."
I was left feeling like a kid again. I'd been out working on my own and doing a fine job as an adult, and now, as I prepared to leave to meet my lover, I felt stupid and like I was doing something silly and childlike. Why was I leaving such good people? What was I doing?
My brother stopped by for a complimentary piece of pizza. About half the secretaries who took mail deliveries from me came down to wish me well. They didn't eat pizza and I'd delivered my last mail. It was then I understood how final the goodbye party was. I found myself leaving more than a job.
I'd been there little more than two months and it was more painful leaving RamTech than it had been leaving home. Just before leaving that afternoon, Ms. Mars made it worse by taking a box out from under her desk. I knew I was going to hate this part.
"Good Luck Billie Joe' was written across it in her handwriting.
In the box was a light weight black jacket with the RamTech decal in red affixed to the back of it. I put it on and left the box behind, taking the card with me.
"Thank you, Ms. Mars. It'll be hard to find another boss I like as much as you."
"Billie Joe, what a nice thing to say. I doubt I'll soon see another mailroom employee I've enjoyed as much as I've enjoyed working with you. You are a delight and I predict you'll do well in life."
There was no conversation on the drive home from RamTech. My brother seemed to sense I wasn't in a talking mood. I had a life waiting for me just beyond my reach, but the life I was leaving had grown on me in a way I never expected it could.
At ten the following morning the overnight flight from Japan would fly into SeaTac. My brother John would let me off at the airport before he went to work and then what came afterward was all up to Carl.
Sleeping was not easy the final night at my brother's. I kept getting up to eat cookies and drink milk. At least John would have milk in the morning now that I was leaving. Each time I went back to bed I saw Carl and Raymond and the car with dark tinted windows. I saw the Prince and Harvey, Ty and Gene, and I saw and smelled the dank dirty smell of the street. I'd get up and have more milk and cookies.
The rest of my life was about to begin, but my mind was once more affixed on the events from the summer before. I didn't see this as particularly unusual, but it was a reminder that those memories would likely be there for a good little while to come. It had all happened since I last saw Carl. The thoughts and faces hadn't been so vivid since the night of the dress rehearsal of the senior play. Fortunately, they weren't as powerful as they were that night. Perhaps it meant that the worst of the nightmares was over. I continued to remember the details without the pain coming back to life in my dreams. I wasn't likely to forget the hard times. My worry about hard times hadn't left me simply because Carl was on the way back to me.
There was no reason for anything but happiness and joy, but the uncomfortable visions from my past seemed to have a mind of their own. It was a past Carl knew little about. He'd always said we'd talk about it once he was home. I knew we wouldn't if I left it up to him. He didn't want to spend time dwelling on things we could do nothing about. It's the attitude he had about being in the Army and being in Japan. There were certain obligations, and we'd deal with our lives once those obligations were satisfied. Until then we'd work around the inconvenience of his prior commitment.
We'd both been out in the world now and I knew I could make it. I wasn't sure how it worked. Maybe it was as simple as going to work for a company that cared about more than their bottom line. Whatever the reason, I was successful. Carl was also successful and we'd be able to build a life together. I'd had questions about that before I went to work at RamTech. I didn't know if I could hold my own on a job. Being qualified for the job made the difference. From day one I was anxious to make a good impression, and I had, and the job was great.
It beat the hell out of school. It didn't mean I wasn't going back to school. I hadn't gotten that far yet. I didn't want to go back to school until Carl and I settled into our own lives and then we'd talk about how best to get the most out of our lives. The idea of college no longer turned me off. I was more comfortable with myself and with my options and I was in no hurry.
By the time I was leaving RamTech, Simon and Brit were together at Princeton. They went East and I'd come West. Brit was training for the cross-country season and Simon was studying Brit as he went through orientation. Simon signed up for a liberal arts curriculum while Brit was in prelaw. I'd told them all about my job but all they were interested in was the day I'd finally meet Carl. The final hours were the longest with my mind refusing to let loose of the memories from my summer in San Francisco.
I got to go home to face the dirty little minds that figured out what I did on my summer vacation. They had no evidence but what difference did that make? I wasn't talking. Being bullied by adults or other kids was nothing new. My life was easy when compared to the lives of the boys I left behind.
The last thing on my mind was returning to San Francisco. I went there so I could take off my invisibility shield. I went there because I was tired of hiding my true identity. Once Ralphie had died there was nothing holding me back home. I was still paying the price for that bit of naivety. Once I was back with Carl I'd put it all to rest. Having our life to live meant I'd probably never think about San Francisco again, except maybe for its bridge. I always liked the Golden Gate Bridge. That was a piece of work.
That's how the night went. There was no rhyme or reason to it, just sleeplessness. I suppose I did sleep, but every time I noticed what was going on in my mind, I was pondering my past. There was a time it was clear. Now it was a jumble. There were faces with no names, names with no faces, and events I couldn't be sure happened. My final thoughts were of Carl as I heard John struggling to get up just above me. He'd given up an hour of sleep to get me to the airport to start the rest of my life.
"You up, kiddo?" he asked, sounding groggy.
"Yeah, I'm awake."
"You packed?" he asked.
"All week," I said.
"Give me a few minutes. We'll stop for coffee on the way," he promised with no enthusiasm in his voice.
I'd been lucky to make the friends I'd made. Up until Ralphie died he was the only person I was close to. In the past year I'd made all kinds of friends in all kinds of places, but the one that left me feeling the best about was my brother John. I suppose it was impossible for us to become close in the house where we lived, but John had taken me in, gotten me a job, and made sure all my needs were taken care of while I waited for Carl. I was sure he'd be happy to get his life back, but I'd miss him. I'd never known what it was like having a brother before.
"You look like shit," he said, making his way downstairs not looking all that dapper himself. "You couldn't sleep? Excited, huh?"
"Yeah, I can hardly wait."
"Go splash some cold water on your face before we leave. It'll make you feel better. We'll stop and get some coffee in us and we'll both feel better. I'm going to be late for work anyway. I may as well get a cup of coffee out of the deal."
"Tell Carl I'm sorry I couldn't wait around to say hello, kiddo," John said as I slipped out of the car in front of the main terminal.
"I will," I said.
I carried a paper with Carl's flight and arrival time at SeaTac written on it. I would be there waiting when he came off the plane. It would be like starting over. I was willing to do whatever it took to recapture the love we once shared, even if it was only for a few days.
"You can't stand there, kid. Move along," a gruff voice ordered me from behind.
I'd come 1500 miles to meet my man, and no want-a-be rent-a-cop was going to move me.
"Yeah, I can. See," I said, undeterred once I'd worked my way to the closest point I could get to where Carl's plane would unload. I wanted to see him coming. I wanted to be the first familiar thing he saw. No silly rule was going to stop me.
"I said move it," the authoritarian ordered like some top sergeant motivating his troops.
"Stick it in your ear," I said, holding fast to my vantage point.
"An interesting proposition to be sure, but if memory serves me correctly, a physical impossibility," a slowly softening voice with a Southern drawl observed as a big hand clamped around my neck.
"Carl!" I screamed turning and jumping into his arms all in one motion. "Carl. Carl. I missed you so much."
I hugged him and cried on his crisp green uniform. He held me tight to his chest. For a couple of minutes we held each other without regard to the sensitivities of the world moving on around us.
"How did you get past me?" I asked, wiping my eyes and standing back to get a good look at him.
"The plane was early. I thought to myself, where would Billie Joe be? It didn't take Sherlock Holmes to bring me here. I got to watch you bump all those people out of the way so you could get to the front of the waiting area."
"Carl! Carl," I said, grabbing him again, hugging him for all I was worth, crying some more.
I felt like I did when I was with him the year before. I felt like I did before I'd gone off on my own. It was a good feeling, an innocent feeling. I remembered how different I was. Would we still be able to salvage something out of a past that amounted to a week, when two boys fell in love?
We'd both become men in our time apart. The street made a man out of me and the army made a man out of Carl.
"Let's get out of here. You've grown," he said, backing away from my arms. "You gained some weight. You look older."
"You got skinny," I said, seeing how his uniform hung on him.
"A few weeks of my momma's cookin' will fix that."
"Was it rough over there?"
"No, mostly boring. The place was full of foreigners."
"That was you," I said, grabbing his duffle bag before he could string it over his shoulder.
"Me what?" he asked.
"You were the foreigner. It was their country," I explained.
"Yeah, sure, but not on base it wasn't. That's heavy, better let me carry it, squirt."
"I got it and don't call me that," I tempered my objection, catching the tone before it bit him. "I can handle it."
I all but knocked myself off my feet as I hoisted the seventy or eighty pound duffle bag onto my slender shoulder.
"Have it your own way. Where's your stuff?"
"Right here," I said, holding up my gym bag stuffed with socks, underwear, and my bathroom gear.
"You certainly travel light," he said, taking my bag before clamping his hand around the back of my neck as we walked against the incoming hordes of fliers.
Carl stepped off the curb right outside the front doors, throwing his arm in the air. Starting toward us, two uniformed men objected to his solicitation of transportation, but backed off when Carl glared in their direction.
"He's been overseas for a year. He's in a hurry," I explained.
"Carry on soldier," one man said with a smile. "Thanks for your service, son."
Carl bristled at the use of the word son, but the cab had pulled up beside us by then, and he opened the back door. Taking the duffle out of my hands, he tossed it into the far corner, making the cab shudder. I sat in the middle and Carl sat next to the door.
He took a roll of bills out of his pants pocket, stripping off a twenty and dropping it onto the front seat.
"I need a used car lot. I want one that can sell me a decent van. I'm a mechanic, so no games and there's twenty more for you once we're there. Tell me if that's not enough."
"You say a van?"
"Yeah, no windows around the back of it. I plan to go across country in it. We'll be camping in it, sleeping in the back."
"Your lucky day, soldier. My brother-in-law has such a van he's got up for sale. It's eight years old and has tags good for three more months if memory serves me correctly. It's a little hungry when it comes to gas but it's three-quarter tons and built to pull the big grades."
"Where's he live?"
"About ten miles or fifteen miles up Route 5."
"Will the forty cover it?" Carl asked, sounding expectant.
"Yeah, I'll hit him up for a cut. Twenty is fine if you buy it. He's had trouble selling it. I'll insist he gives me a finder's fee. You guys don't make enough money to be throwing it around."
"Thanks," Carl said, settling back next to me with a smile.
"It's a horse of a van. It can climb like a cat. Most people are looking for something to tool around town in and take it for a weekend run to the coast over the summer. I think that's why he hasn't sold it. It's meant for a man who doesn't need to stay on the road to get where he wants to go. Sounds like it might be what you're looking for."
The cab driver used his cell-phone and arranged for his brother-in-law to get from where he was to meet us. In a little more than an hour we were heading back toward Route 5 in the high riding van. I'd watched Carl peeling off hundred dollar bills to pay the $1200 without saying anything. The man threw in a road atlas, pointing out his favorite way east. Carl seemed pleased after he took a test drive and spent some time poking about under the hood and under the van. The man waved and smiled happily as we backed out of his yard and we were really on our way.
"Where'd you get all the cash?" I asked, unable to get the roll of money out of my mind..
"I robbed a bank," he said, glancing at me. "Credit Union. Put my pay in there each month and took it out before I flew out. I never spent any money over there."
"Where we going?" I asked.
"I want to see some of the country. We can take our time. I'll buy some camping gear once we get away from the coast. We'll cook out and breathe some fresh American air. I want to see some mountains. I want to feel some cool air. You game?"
"I'll follow you anywhere, big guy," I said, smiling and remembering the last time I camped out with Gene and Jesus in an industrial strength appliance box behind a warehouse. I wanted to describe it as well as everything I'd done since he'd been gone, but we had time.
Reaching the signs directing us to Route 5, there was one more thing I wanted to do before getting on with the rest of our lives.
"Carl, can we go back up to Seattle?"
"Seattle? Didn't you just leave Seattle?"
"Yes. Can we make a stop there? I have something I need to do."
"We're in no hurry, Billie Joe. We can stop anywhere you like. I'd think after a couple of months you'd have had time to do everything you needed to do."
"This is something I can't do without you," I said, smiling and holding his hand.
"In that case we shall go to Seattle, my love."
Pulling into the RamTech parking lot I directed him to the mailroom's parking zone where the mail truck stopped.
"Come on," I said, and I led him to the mailroom.
"Billie Joe," Ms. Mars said, jumping up to greet us at the door.
"Hi, Ms. Mars. This is Carl," I announced to her. "I wanted you to meet him."
"Ah, you're the one on the other end of all those letters I posted for Billie Joe?" she remembered, shaking Carl's hand politely.
"Yes, ma'am, I reckon that's me."
"A touch of the South," she said, smiling happily.
"He's the reason I'm leaving RamTech. We're going to live in Alabama. I had to show him where I worked."
"I have a better appreciation for your decision. I hope you two find happiness. I did wonder about why you wrote to him so often," she said, still smiling. "I'm glad you brought him by."
"I want to introduce him to Mr. McMichael. Do you think that's a good idea?" I asked, still not completely certain I should risk telling him.
"I think it would go a long way to explain your motivation for leaving us. He wondered if he might have put too much pressure on you. Let me call upstairs to see if he has a minute."
Ms. Mars talked to Barbara then told us to go on upstairs via the executive elevator. It seemed logical Barbara would clear us with security, although the guard knew who I was and didn't need any coaxing to allow us into the elevator. He did give Carl a once over and took notice of his uniform.
"Hi, Billie Joe," Barbara said, greeting us cordially as we stepped out on the fortieth floor.
"What a view," Carl said, having a similar reaction to mine the first time I looked out of the wall to wall windows.
After I introduced Carl to her, she told me to go on in that Mr. McMichael knew I was on the way. I knocked and opened the door, making sure Carl was behind me.
"Well, couldn't stay away from us," Mr. McMichael said, smiling from behind his desk. "I told Ms. Mars to keep your job open in case you changed your mind."
"I was reluctant to explain to you why I was leaving, Mr. McMichael. I was afraid you'd think less of me if I told you the truth."
"I don't think I understand," he said, looking at me carefully before standing to come around in front of his desk.
"Billie Joe," he said sincerely. "Trust goes in both directions. I'd like to think you could tell me what's on your mind and trust me to treat it fairly."
"Fair isn't always fair. You treated me like you cared about me. I figure I owe you the truth, but I also owe myself. I don't want to be afraid anymore. I want you to meet my lover, Carl. We're going to live in Alabama. He's been in Japan," I said.
I could see Mr. McMichael was already curious about Carl. Once he processed what I said, he smiled and moved to shake Carl's hand.
"Thank you for serving your country, Carl. It's nice meeting you. I hate losing a bright young man like Billie Joe. He obviously knows where he's going. I'm glad to find out he isn't going alone."
"Not while I'm alive. He won't ever be alone," Carl said.
I held his hand and Mr. McMichael sat on the corner of his desk. He seemed undaunted by my confession.
"Don't forget what I told you. While I don't have anything for you in Alabama, Raleigh-Durham and Atlanta are major tech towns. We do a lot of business there. I'm sure I could find you something if you needed work, but stay in touch even if your life is perfect in every way. I meant what I said about that."
Being with Carl made all the difference. I didn't have to stand alone when telling people I was a gay guy. I couldn't leave without knowing if Mr. McMichael's interest in my life was sincere. He had to know who I really was so I could take his offer of future help seriously. He didn't disappoint me and Carl got to see where I worked and meet both of my bosses.
Now I was ready to leave without looking back.
"Oh, Billie Joe," Mr. Michael stopped me at the door. "What size jacket do you wear, Carl?"
"Large," Carl said.
"Send me your address when you get where you're going, Billie Joe, and I'll have Ms. Mars send Carl a RamTech jacket like yours."
"All right!" Carl said enthusiastically. "I didn't tell him I really liked his jacket, but I do. Thank you, sir."
"Take care of him, Carl. He's a special young man."
"Yes, sir, I plan to."
Ms. Mars called for my brother to come to the mailroom and when he saw Carl he came in to give him a hug. He then shook his hand and John thanked me for bringing Carl by before I left for good. I said he could come to visit us and Carl agreed. John liked the idea.
We were finally on our way home together.
"They all seem like nice people," Carl said, as he turned toward Route 5 southbound.
"I didn't think I'd like working all that much, but it wasn't really work. I was doing things I liked. I learned some stuff that I wouldn't have learned otherwise. It was totally cool," I said.
There was so much to say to Carl, but there would be plenty of time for talking about the last year.
He reached for my hand once the traffic thinned out. I leaned to kiss his cheek. He blushed. I kissed him again and giggled with delight as I settled back in my seat to look at him.
Even though Carl had eaten several times on the plane, mostly because they didn't want returning servicemen to eat the seats, he hadn't been satisfied with the food, which he couldn't identify, except for the bags of nuts they coerced out of the stewards. It was obvious he was ready for food with a definite American flare to it.
What I wanted for lunch couldn't be found at a restaurant.
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