Book 3: The Centre

by Rick Beck

Chapter 13

Care & Feeding

Argyll was suddenly convinced Denny, Danny, and Donnie needed to be protected from the street and themselves, and in particular from Donnie's idea he could take care of his brothers. The story of the body had been enough to shake Donnie's confidence in his ability to support his brothers. He liked being in charge but could become very much the little boy if you encouraged him to express what he kept locked up inside of him most of the time. He held tightly to the idea of protecting his brothers, but slowly gave into tolerating our protection.

Father Flannery came to talk about establishing a food-for-street-kids program, using willing members of his parish to furnish healthy meals and snacks, and delivering them to where there was a need. He would put the arrangements necessary into the hands of his staff, who would recruit volunteers. He left with a promise to furnish a tutor for the boys and the sanctuary of the church for us if we got in over our heads. Housing the kids would be too controversial for him to risk, which meant he'd look for other options outside the social services network.

Once Argyll made up his mind to do something, he didn't waste any time. He studied his law books for the laws concerning children who can't go home. Argyll had studied to be an attorney but was always more interested in police work. He was smart enough to know where to go to find the answers he needed. After discussing the problem of homeless gay kids on his beat with his supervisors, without mentioning the ones living with him, he acquired the services of the law firm his father was associated with.

Matilda was hired to come five days a week. She would be there whenever Argyll and I weren't. This gave the boys a strong kind woman in their lives, and the fact she was a fine cook of exotic cuisines didn't hurt none. Even Argyll had difficulty keeping his fork out of her multifaceted casserole, though the ingredients were a mystery, which meant he didn't know what was in the rich flavorful dishes.

The boys devoured anything she put in front of them, so if Argyll was late getting home, he didn't have to worry too much about the evils of good food. Matilda took to preparing a separate smaller serving for Argyll, so he always had a fresh meal when he came in from work.

At times I'd find Matilda seated in the overstuffed chair in front of the silent television. She'd be surrounded by boys as she wove wonderful tales of pirates, treasures, and Voodoo curses. The boys liked the Voodoo stories the best, but the idea she knew how to cast a spell on them kept them well-behaved when Matilda was in the house.

I was almost always in the house with the kids. We did take trips to the park and we got gloves and a bat so we could play baseball, or some version of that game that was ill defined. Donnie knew the most about it and I went along with his ideas. The Frisbee was more my speed but simply roaming the streets of San Francisco with the three towheads following along was best. We particularly liked Fisherman's Wharf and the Pacific Coastal region for day trips.

On Monday morning of the following week Father Flannery arrived with the tutor, shortly after Matilda finished her breakfast cleanup and while she was in the midst of a particularly grisly recount about the exploits of Blackbeard the Pirate. With Father Flannery and the tutor looking on, waiting for an opening, Matilda took this time to reveal Blackbeard's real name was Teach.

Father Flannery was obviously amused, the boys enthralled, the teacher, not so much.

"Okay, young ones, you be sitting your butts at the counter and be givin' your tutor your full attention, and I just might finish the story before lunch."

"Aw," the boys agreed, definitely wanting more.

The small female tutor seemed humorless, and she got a groan from the boys. It was time to face the fact they were once again a part of the social order, which meant they had a job. It wasn't a concept they liked. They didn't protest vehemently and I got the idea going to school wasn't the worst thing they could conceive.

Father Flannery agreed to stay to see Mrs. Cho through her first session. Speaking to the boys individually, she established where to start each in his lessons. Father Flannery sat with the two boys the tutor wasn't interviewing. Denny was fine and the most talkative. Both Donnie and Danny were made uncomfortable by the priest. I didn't know him but Argyll's word was good enough for me and I simply took in the activities.

Here I was in a spectacular kitchen with a cook, a priest, and a tutor, who provided what was best for the boys. A week ago they were living in doorways and eating out of dumpsters. I knew, because little more than a year ago, that's what I was doing. The incongruity was inconceivable.

Why couldn't all the good people who wanted to help provide for all the poor and homeless people? They would if they were asked and provided with a plan. It didn't need to be such a deadly struggle. If Donnie, Danny, and Denny were left to their own devices, what would become of them? What would become of them now, living in luxury, wanting for nothing, being fed, nurtured, and educated?

My experience on the streets gave me insights into what was needed to solve the problem, but living there with Argyll distorted the entire mess. It was so easy to see from the comfort of my overstuffed chair, while eating gourmet food. Who could take me seriously? Why would anyone take me seriously? Oh, yeah, you know just what you're talking about, a kept boy, with a lover on one coast and a sugar brother on the other. What did I really know that wasn't confused by Argyll, Sal, the boys, and even Carl?

My friend died. I ran away from home. I survived. I went home. What the fuck did any of that mean?

"Billie Joe. Billie Joe," Father Flannery had to try a few times.

"Yes, Father?"

"Will you bring the boys to church on Sunday?"

"If they want to go, Father," I answered without thinking.

"Will you come, Billie Joe?" Father Flannery asked.

"No, Father," I said, feeling bad for his solicitation. "I don't believe in God."

"I'm sorry," he said. "We offer community and brotherhood. You might feel better if you come."

"A friend of mine committed suicide because of religious people who tormented him because he was gay. I couldn't live there, where we were friends, after he died. I came here, Father. Friends of mine died and some disappeared. I don't know what happened to them. When I was out there, there was one way to survive. We depended on each other. When one of us disappeared, we got closer, held each other tighter, and we didn't let go until it was daylight. There's no God, Father. Even if there is, I still won't believe in him. That God is responsible for those kids that died and disappeared. It's his game and last year, I decided not to play that game. So, I'm sorry, I'm not a hypocrite and I won't pretend for my boys. If they want to go to church, I'll take them and I'll sit with them, otherwise, no dice, Father. I got better things to do."

What I intended to be a polite no thank you turned into a soliloquy that everyone heard. It was a precise expression of my experience. Considering what Father Flannery was doing for us, it could have gone unsaid. The response came without thought or concern. It seemed a truth that was impossible to deny. It was my truth.

Everyone, including the boys, stopped what they were doing to listen to my dissertation, and yet I felt nothing. The impolite aspect came as an intellectual response to my impertinence. It was nothing I felt. While I wish I hadn't said it, at the same time I was glad I did. If it didn't make a lot of sense, I didn't really care.

"I'm sorry, Father," I said, excusing myself from the kitchen.

I sat in Argyll's library and read Tom Sawyer. I'd never read it before. I'd read from it and it was in school, but this was the day I picked it up and started to read. There was a welcome simplicity. I fell immediately into it and I could picture the characters and the setting as Mark Twain set it out for me.

Ten minutes after opening the book, I had company. Donnie sat in the chair with me. After a few minutes, he wrapped his arms around me. There were no words exchanged, but he seemed to be simpatico with me, knowing more after my outburst in the kitchen. If hurting Father Flannery's feelings was the cost of receiving Donnie's unconditional trust, it was well worth it. Perhaps things made more sense than I liked to believe.

It didn't take long for both Danny and Denny to join us. I wasn't sure if they were done, but I didn't question them. If they needed to be with me, no matter the reason, that's the way it was. I didn't question them and they weren't talking.

A few minutes later Father Flannery came and sat in the chair across from mine. He took time to talk with each boy. I continued reading and the boys came and went from my chair. I used my free arm to embrace whichever one sat in the proper spot and this got each of them under the protective arm at one time or another. I was trying to let them know I was protecting them, but I came to believe it was they who wanted to protect me from the pain and the anguish of the world I'd spoken about.

We seemed to have come together there in front of Tom, Huck, and old Mark Twain, not to mention Father Flannery. I never sensed any of the three of them ever again tried to con me. Up until that morning they each, especially Donnie, practiced their manipulation skill if they thought it might get them what they wanted. It wasn't necessary thereafter.

They trusted me and by virtue of my being with Argyll, they trusted him. Matilda was easy; she fed them nourishing food and filled them with flights of fancy. Little boys can resist neither. The priest and the tutor came with the package in spite of what they represented. Although they were children, they saw it as being in their best interest to compromise.

With all the strangers under foot, it felt something like the first day on a new job. I finally relaxed with the feeling the boys were in excellent hands. Each of them got his own individual tutoring session before they were all called back to the kitchen table for some lessons they shared in common. They seemed engaged with Mrs. Cho who was polite and soft spoken.

With the morning slipping away, Matilda was in the midst of creating something only she could identify by name. The universal reaction was noses sniffing at the air. By the time it was ready, we were all in the kitchen. Mrs. Cho moved back from the table, seeking to get out of the way, before Matilda objected.

"Not so fast. Matilda has put enough together for everyone. You be movin' that chair back up to this table," she ordered. "You can't go without having a nourishing lunch."

Matilda pulled the tea towel off the platter of hot fresh buttered bread with specs of something seasoning the butter.

"Bring a chair, Father. Scoot the boys together. They'll have all day to eat. You'll be leaving here satisfied," she bragged as I pushed my chair up beside Donnie's and Denny's.

Matilda wasn't a woman you wanted to offend. None of us was completely certain whether the stories she told about curses and spells were truth or fiction. But we never questioned their veracity. Besides, she was a goddess in the kitchen and why take chances if all it took to keep spells and such at bay was to eat your fill of fine food.

Mrs. Cho would happily join us for lunch each day she came thereafter. Father Flannery's arrival to check on the boys' progress often coincided with lunchtime. One word from Matilda and he was seated patiently at the table, fork in hand.

Matilda refrained from finishing any particularly audacious stories she was weaving at the time of the priests arrival, but Mrs. Cho listened intently, and even Voodoo was a subject she found fascinating. It was she that always asked for the rest of the story once the coast was clear.

On that first Monday with Matilda taking pains to see that everyone got their fill, we had yet another visitor not so easily persuaded.

"Agnes Holleran, DHS. Mr. Argyll Fisherelli, please."

"Fiserelli," I corrected.

"Yes, I'm here to inspect the premises. He's being considered for our foster parent's program."

"It's not a good time," I said, thinking of the scene in the kitchen and the confusion the formal lady would bring to our lunch.

"That's the best time," she said. "Mr. Fiserelli, we don't make appointments so we can get some idea of what the home is like. I'd like to see…," she said, looking through several sheets of paper, "Donnie, Danny, and Denny if you don't mind producing them for me to inspect."

"I'm afraid it's a little hectic, and I'm Billie Joe. Argyll is at work. He's a police officer, you know," I said, stressing the point so she'd have that information at the top of her page.

"Of course I know," Mrs. Holleran said in a snippy bureaucratic informative kind of a way. "I wouldn't be here if his boss hadn't made it clear he wanted it taken care of today. We are busy people. Please, the boys."

When I opened the door to the kitchen, chaos was in progress. The boys were all laughing. Matilda was making some kind of strange face that had to involve one of her pirate stories. Mrs. Holleran didn't seem amused, but as quick as Father Flannery caught site of her, he stood and introduced himself.

"I'm Father Flannery. You're from DHS? We were just having lunch."

"That we were," Matilda exclaimed. "And you look like you haven't had lunch yet. It'll only take a minute."

Matilda had Agnes in a seat before she could make her formal protest. Father Flannery sat down next to her pointing out the different flavors he'd identified in Matilda's casserole. Mrs. Cho added one he'd left out. Luckily Agnes responded to having a priest introduce her around and explain his relationship with Argyll, since his arrival in San Francisco.

"We don't usually put our charges in the hands of someone as young as Mr. Argyll," Agnes informed Father Flannery.

"Except Argyll is no ordinary young man. I can assure you if he's made up his mind to take care of these boys, they couldn't be in better hands. Knowing the shape DHS is in, it's a good thing he's willing to take the responsibility to remove the worry from your shoulders.

"Lord knows how you manage with the heavy workload that is the responsibility of your department. The church and I stand behind Argyll if you have any question about his fitness. As you can see, he's gone the extra mile to make sure the boys have the best he can offer."

"He certainly has," Agnes said, looking at the immaculate kitchen before holding up her empty plate as Matilda came in her direction. "This is quite good. Could I have the recipe?"

"Certainly… not. It's a family secret, I'm afraid. My mother would cast a spell on both of us should I dare reveal the ingredients to you," Matilda said with deadly pirate like seriousness in her voice.

Matilda glanced toward the priest, not sure it was the thing to say, but Father Flannery was seriously amused by her style. Agnes accepted the edict without alarm, holding out her plate until it had been refilled. She made quick work of the second helping, looking very unbureaucratic in doing so.

After several tries, Agnes was unable to find out where the boys came from or their last name. Father Flannery assured her he'd used his many resources to get that information, but the boys weren't talking. They'd decided it was best to take their chances without a last name or a past, beyond what I'd learned about their early exposure to sex at the hands of boyfriends the mother brought home. Agnes listened carefully but said nothing. It couldn't have been a new story for her.

I'm not certain what Agnes wrote down on the official forms she carried with her, but there were no more questions. Father Flannery sat with her until he saw her to the door. He didn't offer any reservation about her visit and I didn't bother to inquire. I knew the agents of the government could do about anything they wanted, and all we wanted was to do what was best for the boys. Thinking back on it now, I never had a social worker walk into a situation so totally out of control and yet under control, all at the same time.

I was impressed by the forces Argyll could rally around him with short notice. I suppose having money made all things possible, and whatever it took to take care of Denny, Danny, and Donnie was fine with me. I was blessed when I found Argyll, or he found me, but it had nothing to do with Father Flannery's God. Argyll had now made my first steps into helping homeless gay kids easy, but his place wasn't large enough for them all.

I had no objection to money. I saw how useful it could be under certain circumstances, though I was without a desire to wield stacks of dollar bills myself. Perhaps it was the time I spent on the street without anything that made my desire for things far more modest than it once might have been.

Argyll went through his attorneys and the Public Service Office in his precinct to arrange for him to take temporary custody of the boys. Father Flannery's pledge to use the resources of the church to assist in keeping the boys in a wholesome environment sealed the deal.

While I benefited from Argyll's money, it wasn't the money that made my time with him so memorable. He was worth remembering because of the kind of person he'd become at such an early age. He was a man of his word, of vision, and of conscience, and he acted in concert with those qualities.

Had I not been in love with and devoted to Carl, I might have felt that way about Argyll. I never used his fondness for me to get anything out of him, but what I got out of him was an experience worth having, even if it might end badly and without the possibility for me to tell him how I felt in a more complete way.

Life for me in the days after we took in the three boys was focused and happy. I believed I was accomplishing what I'd set out to do. It was only three boys, but three boys who were in danger, and I removed it from them or them from it. I went there to save all the street kids, especially those I'd left behind when I went home. Starting with these three seemed to be a good place to begin. There was a great deal of pride in it and in Argyll's roll.

Doing good was good and I wasn't expecting a reward, because it felt good doing good. Even when life is good, there's no law that says it can't get better, and so it did.

By Friday I was more than a little stressed out by my first week of fatherhood. So much had gone on, it had worn me out, and I was glad we'd have two days of no one coming over to what had once been a quiet oasis. The best laid plans of mice….

"I've got to go to the airport," Argyll announced, coming in early from work on Friday afternoon. "Why don't you guys come along?"

There was no time to get the logistics straight and we ended up on the curb in front of the building, while Argyll brought the car around. It was a white six-door Cadillac limousine, what else.

"Cool!" Denny said, sitting in the middle of the seat furthest back as Danny followed him. I sat in the seat facing them and Donnie sat beside me.

We headed south away from the city. It was easy to remember the last time I took that trip. I was with my father the previous summer, and I was on my way home to Minnesota.

It wasn't a particularly happy memory. I'd left home a pliant kid my father had no trouble controlling. Upon my return to Minnesota, I was a more mature and difficult person with plans of my own. My parents didn't understand the change. I didn't care, even if I didn't understand my anger either. I'd gone to San Francisco to find out what it meant to be gay, and what I found was a city too busy to care about the kids lost on their streets. My quest ended without success and the people who kept me alive were left to fend for themselves.

I'd done the right thing, when I agreed to go home. Finishing school and learning to adjust under tough conditions forced me to grow up faster. The last thing on my mind was ever returning to San Francisco. I couldn't explain what made me return, but it came down to unfinished business. I'd found something in San Francisco I didn't know existed before I left home. Once I knew, I had to do something about it. Maybe it was my payback to the boys who protected me and kept me alive, even though they were gone, as I suspected they would be.

"Where we going?" Donnie asked suspiciously, as he watched Denny bouncing on the backseat.

"I've got to pick up a friend. He called me at work and said he was coming to town. You'll meet him," Argyll said, speaking into my ear as he turned his head toward us.

"Who is it?" Donnie asked.

"Not anyone you know, Don," Argyll answered as we moved through the evening traffic. "You'll see."

We pulled into a VIP parking strip up against one side of the terminal.

"Your father?" I asked, thinking it had to be someone important enough for Argyll to take off early from work, but the question came too late as we left the car with Argyll leading the way.

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