Book 3: The Centre

by Rick Beck

Chapter 26


Argyll found me.

Adam called to see if I got home okay. I didn't.

Donnie cried a lot. Danny gave up impersonations. Denny sucked his thumb.

Argyll searched through my things to find Carl's number, but he didn't notice his parent's number inside the cover of my journal.

Father Flannery said a special Mass for me with the front pew filled with white haired ladies clasping dampened lace handkerchiefs.

Carl was on guard duty in Georgia. He drove all day with the copy of the San Francisco Chronicle on the seat next to him. It told of my fate. After getting off-duty, he'd come out of the shower and opened the paper to the section where the articles about me appeared. The headline was all he read. Leaving his fresh uniform laid out on his bed and his dinner uneaten, he contacted his commanding officer about emergency leave.

A division head at RamTech, who was from San Francisco, took the article about me to Mr. McMichael as she'd taken all the articles about me before.

Mr. McMichael called my brother to his office to find out what he knew.

My brother John called my parents to break the news to them, but they knew I'd come to no good end.

Ms. Mars had a cabinet built for the articles. She told anyone that showed an interest, "He worked here once."

Brit and Simon heard at the gay center on campus. Brit sang for me in church. Simon wanted to scratch somebody's eyes out.

Gene, living in LA with a gentlemen who fancied him, read about it in the LA Times and called the hospital each day until they gave his number to Argyll.

Sal brought a bouquet of flowers to my hospital room and laid them with the many floral arrangements that came from all over.

Everyone in my life saved the Chronicle articles documenting my progress.

San Francisco turned unusually warm and sunny, heralding an early spring, or so I'm told.

San Francisco Chronicle

"Boy Crusader Badly Beaten"

San Francisco Chronicle

"Billie Joe Hangs On"

San Francisco Chronicle

"Billie Joe Will Live, Docs Say"

San Francisco Chronicle

"Coma, Day-16"

San Francisco Chronicle

"Crusader's Future Uncertain"

The room was green. I can't tell you if it was green green or maybe mint green, but it was green. I'm not sure if I was seeing the color green or if maybe I might have felt the green. I can't say if my eyes were open or closed then, but I knew the room I was in was green.

San Francisco Chronicle

"Billie Joe Improves Slowly"

San Francisco Chronicle

"Coma, Day-22"

People came and went from the room where I was. At times I wanted to scream for them to go away and let me sleep. People talked but never close enough for me to hear their words or understand what was being said. This was maddening. Then, when after hearing the words, I couldn't understand them. Where was I? Why didn't they speak English?

I dreamed of running in fields of flowers. The smell was everywhere and my nose smiled when it recognized the difference in the fragrances, except I wasn't able to make out the kinds of flowers I smelled.

Where was I?

I kept hearing someone yelling at me. All I wanted to do was sleep, but this asshole wanted to yell. I didn't know where this hotel was, but I sure wasn't ever coming back. I think he was calling me by name. I knew my name. Who was he?

"Billie Joe…. Billie Joe…. Open your eyes for me, Billie Joe," he yelled at me.

"Fuck you," I said. I didn't have to do anything I didn't want to do.

He wore a white robe and stood at the foot of my bed and he yelled. I couldn't understand the words and I didn't like him yelling. I had it in mind to give him the finger, only for some reason I couldn't locate my arms. How'd he know my name? I didn't know him.

This place was fucked.

I went back to sleep.

More people came and they jabbered nonsense. I either couldn't understand the words or they talked so softly I couldn't hear what they were saying.

I couldn't figure out where I was or why all these strange people came to look at me. I'd often feared going around the bend, because that's where my mother seemed to have gone, and I wondered if this was what was around the bend?

The only one who seemed to be talking to me was that damn dude in the white robe. I'd been told about guys coming for me in white coats. Was it a white coat? Was this the funny farm?

I wasn't amused.

I dreamed I was back with Gene and Jesús. That was weird, because Gene went to LA, and street kids who went to LA were actually dead. LA was code to explain why they never appeared again on the streets. No one told me that's what it meant, but when someone told me Donnie went to LA, it was obvious. His body was found a few blocks from The Castro, and when someone would say in front of me, 'Donnie? Oh, he went to LA.' To which I replied, "Yes, that's what I heard, too. Donnie went to LA." Why would I think about Donnie? Donnie was in LA.

Had I gone to LA? If I'd gone to LA this was fucked. Maybe that's why everything was so fucked? I never liked LA.

This was when I considered I might be dead, but I was sure you can't be dead and be tired at the same time. Wake me when it's over. Sleeping was the easiest thing to do and I did.

A guy in a beard was sitting next to me. Each time I became aware of what was in the room where I was, he was there. I don't know how long he'd been there. I just became aware he was. He didn't know I was awake and I didn't talk to strangers. A few times he leaned over me and jabbered. I couldn't make out what he was saying.

Was this France? I'd never been to France like I'd never been to LA. I wonder if they talked funny in LA. Why doesn't anyone speak English? If this was my dream why wasn't I dreaming in English?

It took me a long time to realize the guy in the beard was Carl. Why didn't he shave? Why wasn't he in the army? Did the guys in the white coats come for him too? I never knew anyone less likely to go around the bend than Carl. Were we all in LA? There were a lot of questions I didn't ask. This place was strange and I wasn't talking to Carl until he shaved.

I knew Carl spoke my language, but I also knew he shaved, so I figured it was another in a long stream of dreams. That's why I wasn't going to talk to him this time. Besides, if I talked to him and it was a dream that would prove I was around the bend. I hadn't forgotten he needed a shave, big time.

As weird as my dreams were, I didn't want to wake up. I was very tired. Sleeping was easy and I went back to sleep.

One time I watched him sitting next to me. His eyes were closed and he was snoring. I don't know why I couldn't shake him to make him quit, but I couldn't figure out how to do it. I knew I had arms somewhere but I couldn't find them, so with some difficulty I went back to sleep.

Argyll stood at the foot of my bed with a long serious look on his face. Some times he and the Carl with the beard sat together, too close for my taste. They were always looking at me. Man, this dream was way weird; I couldn't imagine Carl and Argyll sitting next to each other to watch me. They had always been careful not to spend too much time too close to each other, except in this dream.

The screaming doctor was back. This time he lifted the sheet and took an interest in my feet. I must not have washed them because he started yelling at me again. What a Bozo. Maybe the people in the white coats were the crazies. When I found my arms, he was getting the finger.

The side of my face was itching, but I was lost for a solution. When I opened my eyes to look to see what it was, beard boy was kissing my cheek. He laid his head on my chest and the itching stopped. I tried to tell him he needed a shave but I fell asleep instead.

More people came and went, until I lost track of them. I wasn't sure if I might be in some sort of hell that would be like this for the rest of my life. Was this being dead? I didn't want to go to LA. Maybe there was someone I could talk to about it.

One day the screamer was back and both Argyll and Carl stood beside him. They were all staring at me. Carl came around to the side of the bed and he was holding my hand. He pushed his bushy face against mine, kissing my cheek. Man, did it itch. I turned my head. He was jabbering again, but it made no sense. Argyll was jabbering and they were all happy like it was someone's birthday, except the guy in the white coat, he never smiled. The party was over.

What were they doing here? Carl had soldiering to do and Argyll was supposed to be working during the day. Was it day time?

There was that furry face again. I knew Carl needed to be somewhere. Argyll still stood at the foot of the bed. He hardly ever sat down. Carl kissed my cheek, then he put that prickly beard against my skin again. I turned my head and they acted like I'd just recited the Encyclopedia Britannica. Unabridged.

Carl spoke and it finally made sense.

He said, "I love you, babe."

Argyll stood staring at me.

I tried to lean my mouth toward Carl and I whispered, "I used to wear his socks."

Carl's concerned face came closer, "What did you say?" he was yelling now.

"I used to wear Argyles," I said.

Carl started to laugh as he stood up, looking at my face. He looked at Argyll as tears ran down his cheeks. He laughed and laughed, looking like he'd lost his mind.

It was the funny farm.

Where's the asshole in the white coat when you need him?

"What?" Argyll asked with alarm on his face. "What happened?"

"He said, 'I used to wear his socks. I used to wear Argyles," Carl repeated happily, laughing harder as he cried.

Argyll looked confused before he smiled. Then, he started laughing and crying at the same time.

What was going on?

The next thing I knew they were dancing at the foot of my bed. Did I tell you how weird this dream was? A nurse, hearing the commotion, came running. Finally, someone sane.

"He spoke. He knows Argyll. He's going to be okay," Carl yelled at her, and for a second they danced with the nurse.

She did what I'd have done if I'd thought of it, she ran from the room.

The next thing I knew the screamer was back. He looked at my chart, marked something on it, looked at me, and I wanted to put my fingers in my ears, but he said in a normal voice I had no difficulty understanding, "Welcome back, Mr. Walker. We've been waiting for you."

"I haven't been anywhere," I whispered, feeling like my throat was on fire. "My throat's sore," I complained. "Am I sick or something?"

"We'll take care of that. Bring a container of ice, nurse. We'll do some testing as fast as I can arrange it. The fact he's talking is a very good sign. It doesn't mean we won't run into trouble later down the road. It seems as though we have a very lucky lad here. I think he's going to make a nearly full recovery in time."

I heard all the words this time. Giving them meaning wasn't as easy. What was going on? Why was I here? Why did I need a doctor? Why was I in a hospital?

People came and went, and some times I did. The time frame eluded me. I wasn't able to put things into the proper sequence. My brain was working but there were gaps. Carl was almost always next to me in the room. He talked to me a lot. It didn't occur to me to talk back most of the time. When I did, I usually wanted ice or ice cream. No matter the request, Carl seemed happy to receive it. I got ice immediately. Ice cream took longer. I liked Butter Pecan. I loved Carl if not his beard. People came to see me and brought ice cream. I was starting to like this deal, but I was sure I was supposed to be somewhere.

The doctor was a different story. He demanded a response when he questioned me. From time to time he got one, but more times than not I went back to sleep with him standing at the foot of my bed with his official looking chart, waiting for me to answer. It didn't seem important.

One day Argyll came up in his uniform, before going to work. With him were three of the saddest sacks I'd ever seen. They rushed my bed, as Carl and Argyll tried to slow them down. The next thing I knew the bed was full of boys and my face was showered with kisses. No beards.

I finally located my arms and hugged them close. This time I cried, the boys cried, Argyll cried, and Carl was always crying.

It was the best I could ever remember feeling. Having the boys there gave me a vitality I'd lacked before. The piece that had been missing was about to be revealed.

Denny sat on Carl's leg. Danny stood behind Carl with his arms draped around his neck, and Donnie stayed in the bed with me, sobbing softly against my face. Why was he so sad?

"It's okay," I told him. "I'm okay. I'll be fine, baby."

"You aren't. You nearly died," he protested loudly, keeping one arm around me as he sobbed softly, unable to let go of me.

There was no comforting him so I held him as tightly as I could manage.

"I did?" I asked Carl, looking at his face for confirmation.

"It was touch and go, babe. You were quite the mess when they brought you in here," he explained as both Danny and Denny moved away from the conversation, preferring to stand behind Argyll rather than listen.

"What was…?" I lost track of what it I wanted to ask. "Damn it," I said, for the first time frustrated by my new shortcomings.

My head was jarred as something flashed into my brain. It was a blur that jolted me from head to toe. I shook my head to clear up the picture, but it vanished as quickly as it came to mind. I closed my eyes to bring some kind of clarity to the picture. My temples throbbed but I was unable to get my hands up far enough to rub them. Something was wrong.

What did happen to me? I struggled to remember and fell asleep. When I woke up again the room was almost empty. Only Carl was there. It was dark with only one small lamp on in the corner. He leaned forward and kissed my cheek, once he noticed my open eyes.

"You need a shave, my love," I advised him. "You itch."

He kissed me again, laughing. He squeezed the hand he was always holding. My head no longer hurt. I wanted to touch my head but wasn't able to reach it. There was something wrong with my head.

"I don't want to leave you," he said.

"Get Argyll to bring my shaving gear. Get him to browbeat one of the nurses into letting you take a shower. You'll feel better," I said. "I really hate that beard. I want to see your lovely face. I love your face, Carl. I want to see it without hair blocking my view."

For some reason the idea of a shave made him cry. He looked into my face with tears flooding his eyes. He seemed happy that I'd thought of it. I remembered just before I left for San Francisco two years before, I'd put Carl on a plane to Japan. He was crying even harder then, because he had to leave me. I think I almost left him this time.

"When did you come back from Japan?"

"A while back," he said.

"Aren't you supposed to be in the army?"

"I'm on leave, babe."

"Oh, yeah."

I couldn't figure out what happened to me, but I remembered that. I remembered my boys and Argyll. Why couldn't I remember what happened to me. Each time I worked on remembering, my head started to throb.

The gurney made a noise like it was rushing downhill at the Soap Box Derby. We moved swiftly through the corridor, ending up in a tunnel, me that is, not the gurney. People talked in the background and there was a knocking that disturbed my slumber.

I was always waking up or going to sleep without much to connect me with what was going on. I got that I was in the hospital. I didn't understand why. It's a question I didn't think to ask. I didn't think much but there wasn't much to think about.

My parents came. They'd been there the first week I was in the hospital, or so I was told. They stayed in town a couple of days, visiting me a couple of times while I was awake. They had to go back because my father had business. What they knew from the police was, I'd been attacked and severely beaten by assailant or assailants unknown.

No one else spoke of it but now I knew why I was there. My head hurt and I was very angry about what my parents told me. What had I done to make someone want to kill me? Why didn't Carl tell me? I didn't like it. I didn't like being there.

Adam came with Argyll the day they rolled me around the hospital for half a dozen more tests. It might have been the next day. Carl wasn't there when they moved me off the gurney and back onto the bed. I might not have noticed, except he was usually helping me get back in bed, when I returned from tests.

It was the day of the tests, because I asked Argyll, "Where's Carl? Is he okay?" once I was back in bed.

"He'll be right back, Joe. How you feeling today?"

"Fine. I'm tired," I said. "How's Adam?" I asked, forgetting he'd come in with Argyll.

I didn't know Adam at first. It wasn't like with Carl, Argyll, and the boys. He needed to remind me and after he reminded me, with Adam in the room, I didn't remember. How stupid was that? There was something wrong. Why would I keep forgetting Adam was Adam?

"I'm okay, Billie. You look better today," Adam said, so Argyll didn't need to explain that he was right there.

I could tell by the way he looked at my face that he was examining it to compare with something he'd seen before. This had me wondering about my face.

"You've been here before?" I asked him, thinking about that look he gave me.

"You were sleeping. I came a couple of times on my own, just to look in on you. Argyll and I come to see you whenever we go out. I stay with the boys on the days Matilda wants time. She's a trip, Billie Joe. I told Argyll he's got to keep her."

"Argyll, don't bring him here on your dates if you're trying to make a good impression," I advised.

"I insist on it," Adam replied. "We want to see how you are. I can't wait for you to get better."

"I'm not getting better?" I asked, finding someone that was willing to go further than, 'nice day. Everything's just ducky.'

"Yes, you are. You doing way better, Billie Joe."

"Do you have a mirror?" I asked, not forgetting how he looked at my face.

Adam slid the mirror out of the hospital table, holding it in front of me so I could get a look at myself. My head was bandaged in crisp white linen. My eyes were dark hollows, my cheeks puffed out like I was a squirrel collecting nuts for winter.

"Okay," I said. "I look like shit."

This got a laugh from them, but there wasn't an argument over my observation. It shocked me to see how I'd been damaged. I felt a sharp pain on the side of my head. There was that jolt of white hot pain again and I was back in the alley. 'I smelled the moisture and I heard the water dripping. I saw the three shadowy figures. I heard the ax handles being hit against their palms.

"Adam, leave me and Argyll alone for a minute," I said. "I need to talk to him alone."

Adam went out and closed the door. Argyll was already next to my bed leaning close to my face.

"What is it, Joe."

"They followed me," I remembered for him. "They were in a car. I left the dinner and was walking home. I didn't want to interrupt your movie. I went up the side blocks toward our building. They drove slow and laid back for a block or two."

"Who?" he asked, leaning his ear close to my mouth so he couldn't miss anything I said.

"Just three guys in a car. They drove close to me. I couldn't get away from them. I was scared. I didn't recognize the guy on the passenger side. The windows were tinted but there was the driver and someone in the backseat."

"You're safe now, Joe. No one can hurt you here."

"Did they paralyze me? I can't seem to make my arms work right when I want them to," I said.

"They messed you up pretty good, Joe. The jury is still out on how much damage. The doctor is hopeful. When you came in, he didn't hold out much hope you'd ever regain consciousness. Anything you can remember would help. Think, Joe. Anything at all. Think hard. There were three of them. They followed you in a car."

There was another white jolt and I felt my head recoil. I heard the words, 'no one here to protect you this time,' and I knew the voice. I had plenty of time to think about it now.

"I'm sorry, Argyll."

"It's okay. You'll remember later. It's been a month. I'm worried the trail will go cold. We have no leads. No one saw anything."

"Is Carl here. I don't want him to hear."

"No, we're alone, Joe. What is it?"

"I'm sorry I was mad at you. You were right. You did know how to handle Page Cross. It was him, Argyll. He's the one that hit me first. He's the one that picked me out. They had ax handles. He beat me with an ax handle."

"You're sure, Joe? Don't tell me if you aren't sure."

"He said, 'There's no one here to protect you this time.' I didn't realize it was him that moment. I was too scared to think about the voice. I just now remembered. It was his voice. It was the same voice as the day he caught me tailing him. It was Page Cross. I'm certain."

"Okay, Joe. I'll take care of it. I've got to go. Carl will be right back. I need to go. I'll be back in a few minutes."

"One more thing, Argyll, I hurt one of them pretty bad," I said.

"You did?" Argyll said, stopping at the foot of my bed.

"I remembered that karate trick you used, making noise and acting like a fool. I knew it wasn't going to stop them, but I thought, what the hell, they're going to hurt me, I may as well get one of them. I locked my hands together and brought them down with all my strength against his nose. I made so much noise they were caught off guard. I hurt him bad."

"Did it make noise?"

"The cracking sound from me crushing his nose. That's when Page hit me and the next thing I knew I was here."

"I'll take care of it, Joe. Carl will be back in a minute. I'm going now. I won't be long."

"Don't tell Carl. No trial. I'm not coming back here. Once I leave with Carl, I won't ever be back. No trial," I said.

"I'll take care of it. No trial," Argyll said after thinking it over for a minute.

His voice reassured me and I knew whatever he did was fine with me.

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