by Nick Brady
I got home with enough time to wash up for supper without hurrying and sat down at the kitchen table at the same time as Dad and Kevin. Dad was asking Kevin about his 7th grade classes. Middle school was organized more like high school than like elementary school and Kevin liked his school. He had been put in a couple of accelerated classes and thought they were cool. Kevin was another sharpie.
I got asked about my day and talked a little about school, then mentioned that I had stopped by Joseph's. I told them everything, about Alice and how she had raised Joseph since he was a baby, about his music and need to spend a lot of time practicing, how I could do my school work at the same time and get that out of the way early, about some of the things we wanted to do together like his choir and about riding his bike. I told them almost everything.
"You had a busy afternoon," Mom observed.
"And I made home in plenty of time for supper." I grinned.
"What's this about the choir?" Mom asked. "I didn't know you liked to sing."
I glanced around to see that everyone was looking at me with interest. "Well, uh, Joseph thinks he can teach me."
Dad gave a deep chuckle. "If Joseph can get you singing in the choir of Trinity Episcopal he will be a very gifted young man."
Kevin asked, "Don't you have to be a member of the church or something?"
I hadn't thought about that. "I don't know. I guess I'm not really going anywhere else, am I?"
Dad looked thoughtful, "We are members at First Methodist, but other than Christmas, Easter, and a few Sundays in between, I'm afraid we aren't too faithful –- Other than Kevin."
"I just like the Sunday school," Kevin explained.
"If you wish to participate in church services with your friend Joseph I would have no problem with that at all," Dad said, and looked at Mom.
"Are you sure that's what you want to do Nicky?" Mom asked. "That kind of thing requires some commitment."
It was decision time. I took a deep breath and said, "I want to do it and if I can sing well enough to be in the choir with Joseph I will suit up and show up."
"Well OK then," Mom said with a smile. "Anything else while court is in session?"
"Uh, actually there is," I said. "Riding my bike is working out a lot better than riding the bus, but my old dirt bike is pretty slow. Joseph has a 10 speed he isn't using that he is gonna see if he can loan to me."
"You could keep up with the traffic on a faster bike and it would be a lot safer." Kevin said quickly.
"Dad looked at Kevin and then at me, "That's true. But you would have to be responsible for it. If you wreck it or if anything breaks you will have to make it right."
"Oh, well sure. I'll be real careful with it. Joseph has a newer bike and maybe we can go riding together on the weekends and stuff."
Mom looked at me pretty straight. "We'll see. You and Joseph may get sick of each other after awhile."
I started to assure Mom that I would never get tired of Joseph but realized that didn't sound quite right so said nothing. Things were going too well to say too much and mess things up. Then I remembered one more thing that I wanted to tell everybody.
"Hey guess what?" I said, "We all have birthdays in September. Joseph is 15 on the 7th, I am 14 on the 15th, and Kevin is 12 on the 22nd. Isn't that cool?"
"Really? That is quite a coincidence," Mom observed. We should do something about that."
"Yeah, that's what I was thinking," I agreed.
"Hey, maybe we could have a pizza party or something," Kevin said.
Mom laughed, "Joseph may have other plans, but I guess anything is possible."
Dad cleared his throat like he had been waiting to say something. "Your friend Jack wants to talk with you Nick. Why don't you go up and check with him after supper."
"Yes sir," I answered. I hadn't seen Jack for weeks, and now Dad was sending me up to talk to him. Things were getting interesting.
I ran up the stairs to Jack's apartment full of curiosity. What did Jack want to talk to me about? I knocked on the door and after a moment it opened.
"Hey Nick!" Jack grinned, opening the door wide and motioning me inside.
I slipped inside and threw my arms around Jack as he shut the door behind me. "Jack! I've missed you."
Jack hugged me close, "I've missed you too Nicky. I have been so busy I haven't been around much." Disengaging himself he stepped to the kitchenette and opened the refrigerator door. "Let me grab a soda for you," he handed me a can of root beer.
Jack sat down on the sofa and motioned for me to sit on the chair opposite. "How are you doing Nick?"
"I'm OK. Dad said you wanted to talk with me."
"That's right." Jack said. "Look around. Notice anything?"
I had been looking at Jack and had not really noticed his apartment. When he moved in it had been trashed by some bad renters. Now it looked completely different. The appliances were gleaming white, the walls were painted, the wooden floor had been sanded and re-varnished, and there were new blinds on the windows. It looked totally different and brand new.
"Wow, this looks great! You really fixed it up nice."
"It was a lot of work but it looks pretty good, don't you think? At least your Dad thinks so. He is going to let me stay on and remodel most of the other apartments in exchange for my rent. In fact, he is going to pay me some extra."
"Great! That way you will be staying here for a long time."
"I hope so. I quit the Y and am working at the college now. It pays better and I am learning something."
"Is that what you wanted to tell me?" I asked.
"Well yes, I wanted to tell you what I was doing, and I wanted to see you and ask how things were going with you – and Joseph."
"Oh, you just wanted to see me?" I asked, pleased with that idea. "I'm OK. I think I might go out for the baseball team in the spring, and Joseph is really neat. I appreciate your introducing us. I have never met anybody like him before."
Jack smiled, "I was hoping that things would work out for you two."
I wasn't sure what Jack knew. "Joseph is, I mean we are both, uh, you know...."
Jack smiled again. "I think maybe all three of us have something in common. I wasn't sure of that, but I thought so."
I told Jack all about Joseph and me. How we had discovered each other and come together. That I was riding my bike to school and stopping by Joseph's house afterwards. Our plans to do things together and my concerns about where things would go.
I confessed to Jack, "Joseph is so nice. He is so..., innocent." Thinking about Carlos and Tony and the old man in the shower, I said, "I have done some things that would seem really gross to Joseph. I'm afraid that if he really knew me he wouldn't like me."
Jack shook his head. "I think Joseph knows you Nick. He knows that you are good and kind, and full of enthusiasm for everything. He knows that you are very interested in him and his music and that you want to be his friend. He doesn't need to know any more than that and I doubt that he really wants to know more than that."
"Remember Nick, Joseph needs a friend as much as you do. And don't be too hard on yourself. You are young and curious and rather innocent yourself if you want to know the truth. If you have a sin it is an overabundance of excitement for living, and that is hardly a sin at all."
I just looked at Jack. "You make me feel so good about myself. You are always so kind to me."
Jack sat back against the old sofa with his legs stretched out in front of him. His left arm was draped across his waist, holding his right elbow, his right hand at his face tracing and pulling at his lower lip. He looked thoughtful and I waited for him to speak.
"You're OK Nicky. There is nothing mean or hurtful about you. You are a good person. Just keep being honest, honest with yourself especially. Joseph is a good person too. You two will be good for each other."
I waited for a minute to see if Jack was going to say more. When he didn't I asked, "Did you know that Joseph and Kevin and me have birthdays right together?"
"No, I didn't know that," Jack said. "When are they?"
Joseph's is next week, then mine, then Kevin's. All about a week apart. Maybe we can have a pizza party or something."
"Cool. Don't forget to invite me."
"What about you?" I asked. "Do you have any new friends?"
Jack rapped the knuckle of his first finger on his pursed lips and smiled. "I have friends Nick. No one really special like you and Joseph, but I have friends. I don't have time for much besides work and school."
"I'm your friend Jack," I said. "I'll always be your friend."
Jack's smile broadened. "I know Nicky. I love you too." Then he stood and said, "I have things to do, kid. I have to run you off."
I stood up and slid my arms around Jack's waist. "I don't ever see you any more," I complained.
Jack wrapped his long arms around me and hugged me close. "I know Nicky. This is a busy time for me. I may have only one shot at college and I have to make the most of it. I want to do things and I need an education to do them."
Jack peeled my arms from around his waist and stood me at arms length from him. "I have this image of who I want to be Nick. I think I know where I want to go and I am trying to get there. Joseph has a vision that he is trying to follow too. What about you? At some point you will need to set your sights on something. You might want to start thinking about that."
He cocked his head to one side a little and raised his eyebrows as if to ask a question. Then he turned me around by my shoulders so that I was pointed at the apartment door. "Now scoot."
"Ok, I can take a hint," I laughed. "I'll call you about that birthday party."
"I'll make time for that," Jack said.
I tramped down the stairs with my head full of what Jack had said. Talking to Jack made me feel like I had been picked up and pointed in the right direction. I thought to myself that I was lucky to have so many people in my corner cheering me on. My family, Joseph, and Jack. Having somebody like Jack for a friend was amazing. I really didn't understand why Jack thought so well of me but I was grateful for him.
The next day after school I waited for Joseph for a little while then thought maybe I had missed him. I jumped on my bike and charged off to his house. When I got there I knocked on the kitchen door but no one answered it so I sat down on the back steps to wait. After about 15 minutes Alice drove up in the Lincoln with Joseph inside. The garage door opened as she drove up to it and she parked the car inside. I followed it into the garage and stepped over to the passenger door as Joseph got out.
"Hey Joseph. I thought I had missed you," Then I said, "Hi Alice."
Joseph opened the door and got out carrying his book bag. He didn't look right. His hair was messed up and his shirt was rumpled and pulled out of his pants in back. His face was kind of red and he looked upset.
"No, you didn't miss me," he mumbled, "I was late."
I glanced over at Alice who gave me a nod and a smile. "Hello Nick" she said.
I looked back at Joseph. "What's up?"
Joseph ran his fingers through his hair and attempted to straighten up his shirt. "Oh it's nothing really. I just had a little problem that made me late."
"What happened?" I asked as I followed him into the house. "You look like you have been in a fight."
"Oh hardly much of a fight," Joseph muttered, heading upstairs for his room.
I followed him quietly until we got in his room. He went into the bathroom and leaned over the sink to cup his hands and splash his face with cold water. He wet a wash cloth and wrung it out to wipe his face and the back of his neck. I could see that he was trembling a little. He opened his mouth but nothing came out but a squeak and his eyes teared over. He walked over to the sofa and sat down.
I sat down next to him and asked him again in a quiet voice, "What happened Joseph?"
Joseph put his face in his hands and shook his head. "I just hate this sort of thing. I just hate it!"
I waited while Joseph blew out his breath and composed himself. Finally he straightened up and wiped his face with the wash cloth, then pulled a handkerchief out of his hip pocket and blew his nose. He took a deep breath and let it out.
"There is this guy in my 6th hour math class who is -- a smart ass." Joseph began. "I don't know what his problem is but he doesn't like me. He makes fun of me when I talk and bumps into me when class is over. This afternoon he pushed me into a locker when he walked by me and made me drop my books." Joseph paused and continued to look down at his hands. "I said something to him and he called me a faggot. It made me really angry Nick. I have done nothing to his guy and he hates me. Anyway, when he said that he said it loud, and some kids laughed at me. So..., I shoved him. And then he slammed me back against the lockers and made me look like a fool," Joseph shook his head from side to side. "I'm a sissy Nick. Sometimes I wave my hands around and talk like a girl. I know that. If I think about it I can do better but if I don't think about it, well...." He looked up at me. "That's just who I am Nick. I can't help it. Why does this guy care? I'm not bothering him." Then he dropped his head back down in his hands.
I took this all in and thought about what Joseph had said. He was kind of effeminate sometimes, but why would that bother this guy? "So then what happened? Is that why you were late?"
Joseph tossed his head and rolled his eyes. "I was late because some teacher saw all this and took us to the office. We had to see one of the counselors who chewed us out royally and made it clear that he would not tolerate trouble makers like us at Edison High School. And all the time this guy was just glaring at me like - wait until I get you again."
"Who is this guy?" I asked.
I don't know, Jeff something," Joseph said. He is not quite as tall as I am but a little stockier, maybe a little bigger than you. I'm bigger than him, but I'm not rough Nick. That's not who I am."
"No, but you took up for yourself didn't you?"
"Not very effectively I'm afraid," Joseph nodded his head a little, "I did try though."
'You're no sissy Joseph. A sissy would have run away. You fought back," I smiled at him. "Way to be Joseph."
Joseph looked up at me for the first time and almost reluctantly smiled back at me. "Thanks for that Nicky. You are a true friend."
I thought of Jack. "You're OK Joseph. You are a good person. Don't take any shit off of this guy. If you stand up to a bully he will usually back down."
"Thanks. I really appreciate your encouragement," Joseph hesitated. "But I'm not very effective with that sort of thing."
"Where is your math class?" I asked.
"First floor, far East end. Why do you ask?"
"I just wondered. Now, am I going to your choir practice with you tonight?"
"Oh. I had forgotten all about that. Yes, I hope so. Will you come?"
I laughed. "I'm willing but I'm not sure I can carry a tune. You were going to show me how."
Joseph leaned back and really smiled for the first time. "I think I can do that."
We went back downstairs to the music room and the house smelled really good. Like fresh baked cookies kind of good. Without saying anything Joseph and I gravitated to the kitchen where Alice was taking big cookies off of a baking sheet onto a platter. You might say that our nostrils flared.
"Well now Alice, what do you have there?" Joseph asked.
"Oatmeal cookies with chocolate chips and pecans," Alice answered. "Do you think that you and Mr. Nick might be interested?"
"Well," I responded, "Mr. Nick would grovel for those."
Alice laughed loudly. "You don't have to do that honey, I made them for you." She glanced at Joseph. "You boys looked like you could use some cookies."
Joseph smiled and reached over to tug at the edge of Alice's apron. "What would I do without you, Alice?"
Alice didn't respond but took a pair of glasses to the refrigerator and filled them with milk. She turned back to the kitchen table and set them beside the cookies. "Here you are. By the time you have eaten these you will feel right as rain."
"I feel much better already," Joseph said, taking a cookie and smiling broadly.
They were good cookies, still hot, and washed down with cold milk were very good. After we each ate several of them we went back into the music room and Joseph sat down at the piano.
He struck a key and held it. "Sing that note."
I gave him a blank look. "Do what?"
"Sing this note," he said. "Match that pitch."
I suddenly felt intensely embarrassed. I cleared my throat and tried to sing the same note that he was playing. "Ahhhhh."
"That's about a third low," he said and struck a lower note. Then Joseph struck the note he had played first. "Listen. This is higher. Sing this note."
"Ahhhhh." I tried again. Now the note I was singing did sound the same as the one he was playing. I started to get the idea. Now it was the same – I thought.
"Right, that's very good," Joseph said. Then he started on that note and played a very simple tune that I recognized. "You have heard that before. Sing it." he commanded.
"London bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down," I sang in a rather wobbly voice as he played the same notes on the piano.
"Of course. You can sing just fine if only you are familiar with the tune. Now let's see what your range is."
Joseph began to play notes higher and higher a half-step at a time. I matched them as best as I could until I started to croak. Joseph laughed then returned to the starting note and began to go down a half-step at a time. I lowered my chin and followed him down but soon ran out of voice.
"With a little practice you will make a fine tenor," he said. "You can do this Nick."
I felt very proud of myself. "Do you really think so?"
Joseph put his hands in his lap and laughed. "Yes, I really think so Nick. You know, we really are good for each other."
"I don't know, singing in front of a bunch of people is pretty scary."
"Oh you can do it Nicky. I really don't think that you will faint from fright. That isn't your style is it?"
"No, I guess not," I sighed. "Where and when should I show up for practice?"
"Go in the rear entrance of the church. Practice is at 7:00 but I will be there a little early and will meet you inside."
"OK. It wouldn't hurt to be a little early the first time. That way I can find my way around."
Joseph smiled and nodded his head. "You will do just fine Nick. But now I need to practice for some time and maybe you have some school work?"
I did and pulled some books out of my bag and began to work through my homework.
Joseph began to play. First he did some exercises, running up and down the keys with both hands in unison, first slowly then much faster. Then some more with each hand doing different things but repeating the pattern over and over going up and then down the keys. When he finished warming up he played a piece he seemed to know. It sounded very confident and was really nice to listen to. After that he began to work on something new. He would play part of it, stop, work through something slowly then repeat it more rapidly.
When he was satisfied he would work on the next part in the same way. Then he would go through the whole thing until he came to a new part, work it out, and start over. It was like he not only had to get all the pieces right but had to be able to connect them properly.
I really didn't know what he was doing and was very curious about some things. I wanted to ask him questions but didn't want to interrupt him. We would have time to talk about a lot of things as time went by. Besides, I had to do my homework and became absorbed in that. By 5:30 I was about finished except for some reading in English.
I stood up and said. "I need to go."
Joseph stopped and looked at me as if he had forgotten that I was in the room. "Oh yes, of course," he said. "I'll walk you out." When we got out to where my old BMX bike was parked he asked, "Would you like to have my old 10-speed?"
I looked at my old one speed dirt bike. "Sure. It's OK with my Dad. What about your parents?"
"Absolutely, they are happy you can use it. I really think it was headed for Goodwill although it is in good condition. I didn't ride it much." He shrugged. "Let's have a look at it."
We went into the garage where it was standing off to one side with his nice new one. It was in good shape although the tires were low. Joseph produced a tire pump and we aired them up tight. He held it off the floor while I turned the crank and took it though all the gears. The brakes were tight and it was dusty but looked good.
"Wow, this is great. What will I do with my old one?"
"Oh, just leave it here. We can get it over to your place later I'm sure. Jack has a truck," he laughed.
"OK then, Cool!" I made an adjustment to the seat. "You ride these different than a dirt bike. You sit up higher on them. I know that much."
I slipped on my ruck sack filled with books and took a practice turn around his driveway. I decided that everything worked fine, waved goodbye and pedaled off at full speed. It took a few tries to get the hang of the gears. I finally left the front dérailleur in high and just adjusted the rear one as I worked through streets and traffic. When I came to a hill I could drop the front gear down, work the rear up and get more power to climb. On the down side I could gear up and really fly. This would be a lot better. I was home in nearly half the time.
I wanted to clean it up later so pushed it inside and into the apartment.
Kevin was in his usual spot on the sofa. "Whoa! Where did you get that?" he asked.
"It's Joseph's," I said. "He is loaning it to me -- giving it to me really. I can fly on this thing."
Kevin got off the sofa and joined me to check it out, examining the dérailleurs, the brake levers, seeing that everything was tight. "All you have to do is clean it up a little and it's like new."
"Yeah, that's right. It's really neat isn't it?" I said, enjoying Kevin's enthusiasm.
My mother heard us from the kitchen and came in the living room. "Well well, what have we here?"
"It's Joseph's old bike. Isn't it cool?" I exclaimed.
"We'll be calling you Speed Racer," Mom laughed. It really doesn't belong in the house though."
"I just brought it in to clean it up. I'll put it back in the shed before I go to bed."
"OK, but you better put it out of sight before your father sees it."
"Uh, I am going to choir practice with Joseph after supper," I said.
"Oh really?" Mom raised her eyebrows. "Did he convince you that you could sing?"
"Sure. It's really easy, if you know the tune," I said, with more confidence that I felt.
"How are you going to get there?" she asked.
"It's not that far over to Trinity, and there are street lights all the way. I will ride my new bike!" I rolled the bike into the bedroom leaving Mom looking kind of surprised.
By the time I had the bike shined up with an old ratty pair of undershorts, Mom called for dinner. As soon as I ate it was time to go. This would be a new adventure.
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