Book 3: The Centre

by Rick Beck

Chapter 3

Out of Oregon

Carl whistled and hummed with the radio and seemed happy to be alive. I was happy to be with him. It felt like our first days together had been a real big success. Being with him was enough for me, although the trip was pretty amazing. Finishing the climb up Cabbage didn't take long. I'd expected a trip downhill once we reached the top, but instead the road leveled out at our new elevation.

While we climbed small hills and went down others, our abrupt climb up out of the valley farmlands deposited us in the hill country above. My idea of an equally abrupt drop off down into the next valley wasn't confirmed by the geography of Oregon as we continued our drive eastward.

Carl was as devoted to his driver's duties as he could be with me there to pester him for whatever attention I could get out of him. Otherwise, we held hands and smiled back and forth. Being there was good for me.

Keeping us on course and heading in the right direction kept Carl focused on the road ahead. He was an ordinary guy in a natural sense. He held the steering wheel with both hands when I'd let him, and he was in complete control, staying alert for any anomaly. His presence was powerful without him having a need to point it out or posturing to take advantage of his size.

He liked being where he was with no apparent desire to be something or someone he wasn't. He had a confidence that hadn't been there before. He was on the way home rather than on his way to a world that was foreign to him. It could explain the difference. He was older. He'd had well over a year and a half in the Army to grow on. It could all account for the more mature and more in control Carl.

There was no mistake. My judgment about Carl and the feelings that had flowed between us was accurate. Being young and clueless when we met meant I was never completely sure I was capable of making sound judgments with so little time in such an intense situation. I felt like I was in love but was I?

The maturity and self awareness I'd achieved in the past year told me love was in the air. I'd passed the age of consent, had my first job, and was now with the man I loved. Our meeting and falling in love was no fluke. We were heading in the right direction at last.

Leaving the extraordinary scenery behind us in favor of a far less rugged drive out the back of Cabbage, we were soon in larger and larger groves of pine trees whose density partially obscured the great height of the trees.

It was a beautiful day as we headed toward Idaho and out of the back of Oregon's mixture of rolling hills, rivers, and forests.

Idaho was rugged. It wasn't mountaintop-rugged; the landscape was covered with short wiry bushes with enough space between them to give the feel of a harsh barren wilderness. I saw no evidence that anyone could live or prosper there. We crossed the Snake River shortly after getting into Idaho. A wicked chasm had been carved by a river that resembled a snake winding its way deep within the canyon below. A bridge crossed the river giving us a clear view of the rushing waters hundreds of feet below. It was yet another incredible view.

Carl stopped for gas and checked the oil, tire pressure, and took a quick look under the van. It ran smoothly at all speeds and he seemed pleased by what he'd found. We grabbed cold drinks from the cooler and were on our way again. The country was open and I could see a long way on either side as the hills rolled out in front of us.

Not long after filling up we entered Utah, where the landscape totally changed into one of cliffs of chiseled brownstone rock. Beyond were flatlands and a body of water that could qualify as an ocean. It was The Great Salt Lake. Salt Lake City stood at its far end.

Major signs of civilization sprang up north of the City near Provo and grew denser, after a morning of relatively uninhabited land. The traffic was heavy going as we approached the City, but lightened once we were out on the other side. An hour south, civilization had gradually thinned out to the occasional truck stop, gas station, and restaurant. There were more green flatlands and the kind of trees and scrubs we had in Minnesota.

We pulled off the highway and into a small rest area not large enough for more than a handful of cars, but it had several picnic tables and a place to set up our cooking gear. Carl indicated this was more like what you might find in rural Alabama. We parked the truck in the shade of the trees surrounding the area.

Carl fixed the chicken and pork and beans, while I opened the Ruffles potato chips and set the table. Sitting out in the fresh air, after hours of riding, created the perfect atmosphere for fine countryside dining. Food had never tasted better than those first few meals Carl prepared for us.

I'm sure Carl's cooking them made all the difference. It was his way of reconnecting to the life he had before he went to Japan. Watching Carl move around the stove and the cooler might have had something to do with my appetites. His unbuttoned shirt flapped in the warm modest breeze. The smoke drifted around us and brought me the scrumptious smells of the food.

We sat across from one another, digging into the chicken thighs. Grease slicked Carl's luscious lips. With a little help from the chicken drippings canned beans became gourmet food. The chips and soda made the meal complete. I suppose the quality of those moments had more to do with the company I kept than the quality of the cuisine. I'd never been as happy anywhere as I was, while sitting in that turn out right off the Interstate in Utah.

Carl was fastidious about cleaning everything before we retired to the back of the van for what he called R&R. We laughed at tasting the chicken on each other's lips, but a little chicken fat wasn't going to stop us. Making love became our dessert. It took time to do it right, and once done, our appetites were soon back in earnest. We rolled, sweated, and wormed our way around the back of the van, burning off all the excess calories we'd built up on the road.

I never knew what registered with Carl. I'd watch his face for reactions, but they weren't apparent in many instances. The way I knew he heard everything I told him was after the quiet. Many times, once we'd made love to our mutual satisfaction, he'd lie with hands behind his head, then came the questions about the things that troubled him.

"So those two guys you said you stayed with in San Francisco?" Carl pondered.

"It didn't have anything to do with them. It had to do with me finding what I was looking for," I intercepted him.

"They were creeps?" he continued.

"At the time I saw them that way. That was before I knew anything. They were middle-aged guys with lust in their hearts and access to boys who'd play for pay."

"Prostitutes!" Carl muttered, needing a name for it.

"Giving it up to eat isn't a new concept. They called it hustling for change. It's how you survive."

"Why would that dude do that? It sounds slimy."

"Harvey? I think it was a game for him. In his own weird way he wanted to feel wanted. They certainly wanted him."

"Why didn't you just go home? You went home anyway. Why'd you put yourself in danger like that? It was bad enough you hitchhiking on your own, but living on the street…?"

Our bodies didn't touch and I didn't want to touch him for fear that it would repulse him just as the details of our time apart repulsed him. It was difficult to read someone I only knew through the eyes of lust. It was difficult to say which part of the details upset him most.

"I didn't know I'd end up on the street. I saw something I didn't like and I left. How'd I know what I was about to get myself into? When Harvey left, I left with him. He led me to the street. Would you rather I stayed with those guys? I couldn't stay."

Carl seemed distant and stared up at the ceiling. I watched his chest rise and fall as he considered the details of the story I was telling. I feared his reaction to what I'd done as well I should. I'd been so stupid it was difficult to explain it to myself. I felt like a different person from the boy who went in search of some meaning in his life. I knew so much more now than I did then.

"No one is there to help them?" he asked in a pained voice. "I can't believe in this country kids are going hungry on the street to be taken advantage of by the creeps. Someone has to do something."

"It would be nice. I'm telling you what it was like for me. Most of those kids don't get to tell anyone about their experience, not anyone that gives a shit. You see, I went home, but most of those kids have no home to go back to. That's the hardest thing for me to deal with. I dream about them."

"It's not right, Billie Joe. It pisses me off."

"It would piss a lot of people off to know about it, but on the other hand they don't want to know about it. Even the gay people ignore the homeless kids. They sit in doorways, invisible to the world passing by them. They sleep in squats and sometimes cardboard boxes," I remembered for him and for myself, the memories too vivid to lose.

"My mother would cook and carry food to them. If she knew what those men were up to she'd take a rolling pin after them."

I laughed at the picture it created in my head. It wasn't the reaction I expected.

"So you aren't that mad at me for going?"

"I'm sorry, Billie Joe," he apologized.

"Sorry for what? You didn't do anything."

"No, I didn't. I left you and I didn't argue with you about going on the road alone. I never liked the idea and I should have told you no, but I loved you so much I couldn't say no to you. I'll never be that weak again, Billie Joe."

"You still love me?"

"What?" he asked as if he were unable to fathom the question.

Rolling over, he grabbed me to plant a big greasy chicken kiss on my lips. I giggled as his whiskers rubbed my smooth face. I giggled because he still wanted to hug and kiss me. When I thought about San Francisco, I didn't feel all that huggable.

I wanted to keep driving east. I wanted to get a country between me and the memories that were more powerful than ever. I didn't want to live with them for the rest of my life.

"I don't know, Billie Joe," he said after a long silence. "You'd never catch me letting some old fart swing on my dick. I don't care what kind of cash he offered me."

"The streets are mean, Carl. Hunger is powerful. Once you go hungry for a while, you'll do what you've got to do to never go hungry again?"

"Scarlett O'Hara," Carl said with certainty.

"What?" I wondered out loud.

"It's a line from a book," Carl advised. "She, Scarlett, vows never to go hungry again, and boy does she mean it. It's a Southern thing, babe. Not the line, the book."

"Was she a street kid?" I asked.

"Hardly. I thought there are people who take care of homeless kids? Foster homes and stuff. Why aren't they in foster homes if their parents don't want them?"

"Think about it, Carl; if you were a kid and you were thrown out of your house by your parents, how anxious would you be to trust people you don't know?"

"My parents wouldn't throw out one of their kids," he informed me firmly. "They'd die first."

"That's not the kind of parents these kids have. Their parents would rather they die on the street than live in their home, because they are different."

"We're all different," Carl argued.

"Not so different, not really. We all get hungry. We all need to eat. We all want to feel safe."

"You lived with them. You lived like them. Why didn't you go home?"

"I was them. The only difference, I was dumb enough to leave home without being thrown out. My parents are no walk-in-the-park, but they're not demented."

"They need to be shot," Carl snapped angrily, unable to let go of what I'd told him.

"My parents? They weren't all that bad. I left home on my own."

"No! the kids… I mean those kids' parents ought to be shot. Anyone who can throw away his own kid is sick. There are laws, aren't there?" he asked.

"These kids are invisible. No one sees them. If there were laws about that you'd have to admit you've got a social problem and we all know there are no social problems in America."

"Why didn't you go home?" He still had to have an answer.

"Carl, there are some questions without answers. I went looking for what it meant to be gay in the gayest city I knew about. I figured there was some social order and community. I'd heard about the gay community, where we could all be together and support one another. I just wanted to be with people who didn't mind my being myself. When I found the street kids, I assumed they'd lead me there, except, there was no 'there' there.

"There is no gay community, not one that takes care of its own anyway. They meet to drink, party, go to book stores and bars. They notice you if they want something off you. The rest of the time they ignore you. They have short memories. They have forgotten what it's like to be a gay kid and all alone."

"You could have gone home, Billie Joe," he insisted.

"It was too late to go home. I ended up going down the rabbit hole. It was easy," I explained in terms that described how I felt looking back on it. "At first I had no where else to go. I followed Harvey. Then, I met others like him. Before I could take time to consider my options I was being saved from harm, drawn in, becoming one of them. There was genuine community with them. They protected each other, fed each other, and shared what little they had.

"You don't join so much as they assimilate you. You're a kid. You're on the street. You're one of them. It was that simple. I was one with them. In some strange way I found the community I went looking for, only not in the form I expected."

"Why didn't you go home? You could have gone home."

"I forgot I could," I said in all honesty, remembering the way it was. "I don't know how to tell you how fast the street swallowed me. I was dependent upon a strange alliance with the other kids. I was safe with them when outside forces threatened us. They were all there was between me and being alone.

"The hypnotic spell wove its way around me—how is a mystery and still beyond my ability to understand. I could have called it off at any time I wanted, and maybe that's why I didn't, because I could and no one else could. Once assimilated you are the one, unable to separate from the many. They were loyal to me and I was loyal to them. Then, the cops came."

"What happened?" Carl asked with interest.

"We ran. The cops were no match for a dozen street kids. Oh, they'd get lucky and grab one or two every once in a while, but mostly we slipped their grip and took off to places where cops dared not go."

"Where couldn't they go? I thought cops could go anywhere?"

"They weren't very good at taking off over rooftops, or squeezing between two buildings that sit a foot a part. The kids knew all the escape routes and so did the cops. They didn't even bother once we reached one."

"You were running from the law?"

"More than once," I admitted.

"That's not very smart," Carl observed.

"It was never about smart. It was about survival. I was surviving. I forgot everything else. There was always a boy to follow, and I followed him. That way I couldn't end up alone. That was the worst thing, alone."

"You wouldn't have been alone at home," he insisted.

"No, I wasn't alone at home. There is no way to equate what you do for survival with some kind of measure of your character. Survival is the art of reducing your life to its lowest factor. You throw everything else overboard.

"We can go over each event incident in detail, but you aren't going to understand or like it any better. I'm not proud of it, Carl, but I'm not going to let it shame me either. If I'd known then what I know now, I'd have gone home when you left me. I didn't go home, because I didn't know then what I know now."

"No, I don't think I want those kinds of details. I'm not very happy with you, Billie Joe. I think you made some bad decisions. You put yourself at risk. I wasn't here to stop you and I'm sorry for that. I should have said you couldn't go."

"I was going to go whether or not you said I could," I reminded him.

"I know that. That's why I said you could go. I loved you enough to allow you to do what you felt you had to do."

"Not half as much as I loved you," I said, squeezing myself close to him, feeling his arms tighten around me. He comforted me.

"Let's not start measuring up whose love is largest."

"That's a game I couldn't possibly win," I said, giggling as I grabbed his half erection.

"You do just fine," Carl said, holding me tight. "I just worry about you, babe. Promise me you'll never ever do anything like that again, Billie Joe. I couldn't stand it if anything happened to you. I can hardly stand knowing how much danger you were in while I was gone."

"Oh, Carl, I love you so much. My biggest fear was of you turning your back on me once you knew what I'd done."

"Never," he said, kissing me passionately.

Carl was tough and tender and being in his arms made me feel as safe as I'd ever felt, but even in those arms, the faces of the boys I'd known on the street refused to leave my brain. As much as I wanted to be honest with Carl, the honesty didn't come without a price. While Carl's arms were strong enough to make me feel safe, they were unable to keep the faces at bay.

My mind kept leaving the van to go back to where I'd routinely seen those faces. The distance between us didn't seem to matter. The idea of outrunning them seemed remote. The country wasn't wide enough and they were only a thought away. There had to be another way to put my memories to rest and allow me to get on with my life.

Carl's thoughts converged with mine as he lay with me.

"I've got to report to Augusta, Georgia, in a little over three weeks. We'll go home to my place in Alabama. You'll meet my family and we'll enjoy being together, but once I report, it'll be two or three months before I'm able to make arrangements to have you with me in Augusta. That would be off-base housing, or we can just live at my parents and I'll have one or two weekends a month when I can come home to be with you."

"We'll be spending a lot of time apart," I observed.

"I'm in the Army, Billie Joe. Once I've completed my obligation to them I'll be back home with you. Until I get established at my new base, I won't get much say in the matter and probably only a few days off."

"You know what I need to do?" I asked.

"You mean besides being with me like we've been planning for so long?"

"I can do something if I go back and tell people what's happening on their streets. I don't know I can stop thinking about it, Carl. If I don't do something I don't know if I can live with myself."

"If you think you can do some good by going back there for a few weeks, then this is the time you need to get it done. Don't expect me to go along with you living on the street again. No way! No how! Billie Joe Walker. That ain't going to happen. I'll go along with only so much."

"Junior. I'm Junior, my father is Billie Joe Walker," I corrected, feeling suddenly whole.

"Oh, hush. You know what I'm saying. Go see if there's some way you can help those kids. But you can't stay on the street, and you've got to get it done in short order. I want you with me. Is that clear? I'm more than meeting you half way here."

"Yes, sir," I said. "I'll do anything you say."

"Yeah, right, I wasn't born yesterday. Do what you need to do but when I get settled, you come home."

I leaned to kiss him and wrap my arms around him.

"That's why I love you," I whispered in his ear. "You're the best."

"Why, because I'm a pushover when it comes to you?"

"No, because you care, Carl; I love you because you care. Your heart is the size of Alabama."

"I'm just getting ahead of the curve. I know you're going back there. I may as well get used to the idea. Don't think it makes me happy, but someone needs to speak for those kids and as far as I can see you're the one that knows what to say. Go out there and find someone in charge and tell him to get off his ass and get 'er done."

"That's what I'll say," I said, laughing at his diplomatic style.

It was a solution I hesitated to let cross my mind, until it crossed Carl's, and he had a timetable and a game plan that hadn't occurred to me. It wasn't going to keep us apart for any longer than the Army was going to separate us, while he settled in at his new base. In this way I had a project to keep me occupied, until Carl was able to get us a place off base.

The plan eased my conscience. I didn't want to leave Carl, but the guilt I felt over leaving the boys on the street behind, after they protected me, was growing. Living happily ever after with them still out there no longer seemed possible.

After twenty-four hours on planes and a day-and-a-half of driving, Carl was ready for a break. We settled in for the night and my appreciation for him expanded in more ways than one. There was so much for me to be thankful for.

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