Book 3: The Centre

by Rick Beck

Chapter 27

Blinders Come Off

My recollection about my beating marked the end of my mental mystery. Oh, life wasn't a barrel of monkeys, except I could process information and recognize some things, even though the vivid memory of the assault on me was the scariest. The white hot jolts that shocked my brain with facts I now remembered, didn't return.

I didn't want to know any more and Page Cross' name was never mentioned again. I didn't want to know if he'd met a bad end, but I remembered what Argyll did to him after he threatened me. As mild mannered as Argyll was, he could seriously hurt someone who represented a threat to me.

My reason for being in San Francisco in the first place was a constant theme running through my mind. While everything seemed like it was moving in the right direction, each consideration ran over and over through my head. There had to be a resolution before I could rest easy in Alabama. When you are in bed 24/7, you can't help but think, sometimes obsessively.

Carl came in shortly after Argyll went out with the belated information on my attackers. He'd changed clothes, looked squeaky clean, and best of all, he'd shaved. When he bent to kiss my cheek, I moved my face so our lips touched.

He wrapped his arms around me and kissed me gently. I wanted more. I loved him more than ever. The kisses were passionate but he was holding out on me. I knew why and I giggled because I was able to smell him and touch him. I was completely alive. Carl's being there made my life perfect. My place was with him.

After a few minutes, he sat down and held my hand.

"Why aren't you in the army?" I asked, having tried to remember to ask that particular question for what seemed like forever.

"I'm on emergency leave."

I looked him over carefully and didn't think this sounded like the army that sent him to Japan and out of my reach, when I most needed him.

"Wasn't that nice of the army," I said dubiously.

"I had a discussion with my captain about some of his more questionable habits, concerning 'his boys' and his photographs of them. He insisted on granting me all the emergency leave I needed. My Captain is a cautious man."

"I don't want you to get in trouble on my account," I said.

"I love you, babe," he told me, kissing my fingers.

"I love you. I want to go home, Carl. I don't want to be here. I want you to take me home," I said, putting words to some of my lingering thoughts.

"You want to go to Minnesota?" Carl asked.

"I don't live in Minnesota. I live with you. Remember? Which one of us got hit in the head anyway?"

"Yeah, babe, I remember. I don't know when you'll be well enough to travel. They haven't said anything about that."

"It won't be long. You know me when I make up my mind to do something."

"Maybe we should let the doctors have a say before we go racing off to Alabama."

"Go home, Carl. Get the van. You can take me back in the van. I'd like that. Seeing the country together, before we settle down, would be special. I'm alive and I want to be with you on top of the world again. I want to go to our Jurassic valley, where ever that was," I explained as it came to me. "I want to bathe in our river. I want you to make love to me, Carl. I want you to hold me and never let me go."

"Okay, babe, I'll get the van out here, but I'm not leaving you. The last time I left you, you got yourself into a pickle. I'll get Daddy to give it a good going over first. Then, once the doctors give us a green light, we'll do anything you want."

"Make love to me?"

"As often as you want me to, Billie Joe. I can't wait, but I will wait for you."

"All right," Argyll said, standing just inside the door. "Can we go?"

"No," Carl and I said at the same time.

"I'm going to be okay," I guaranteed them.

"I know, babe, and I'm going to be right here to make sure of it."

"That's why I fell in love with you," I said, and we kissed again.

After that day, my life became more cogent each day, and they began reducing the drugs they'd filled me up with. Pain ensued, but I wanted to feel my body again. I wanted my brain to work at my command instead of flash on, flash off. I was not pleased with my progress or lack of same.

The nurse brought in a large flower arrangement. She set it in the window and brought me the card.

'Get well. Your servant, Ben-Al.'

The flowers were blue and white. It almost filled the lower portion of the window. The man had style. I always doubted people's sincerity but he'd proved he was a man of honor and true to his word. I was a peon in his world of giant proportions but he took time out to think about me.

"Your room was filled with flowers when I got here," Carl told me. "I saved all the cards. A lot of people care about you. although I don't think you know most of them. Argyll said he recognized a few of the names."

"People from The Center, The Board, and the church, and from people I've never heard of," Argyll said.

Carl removed a stack of cards from the hospital stand, handing them to me. I clumsily removed the cards from the envelopes. My hands were more useful but they still didn't respond the way I wanted. There were cards from The Center, the church, and individuals known and unknown to me. I came to the last card in the stack and read aloud, 'Get well soon. Gene & Paul.' It's from Gene. He's alive."


"I told you. He helped me get away from the cops, over the roof tops. Sorry about that Argyll. I cut my foot and he took me to a guy who fixed it."

"Hey, when I had the chance to arrest you, I took you home instead," Argyll advised.

"When did this come?" I asked, handing Carl the card.

"First week. An old dude and a kid came up. The kid knew you. They came here from LA, I think. They'd read about you and saw a picture and the kid knew who you were. I think he said his name was Gene. He was quite sad. He sat with you for a long time that day."

"Gene's alive. How cool is that?" I beamed and a dark shadow in my brain became bathed in light.

"They said they'd be back, once you came out of the coma. I have the dude's number somewhere. Check the back of the card. I think I wrote it there," Carl said.

"Here it is. I thought he was dead, Carl. Gene's alive. You call. Tell Gene I want to see him. Tell him I'm okay."

"Okay, babe. I probably should have called before this, but I forgot about them coming up. A lot of people came up the first week. That Ben-Al guy was here a couple of times. He was quite upset when he saw you. It wasn't a pretty picture those first few days. The doctors didn't know how it would go."

"I wasn't ready before this. I'm ready now. I'll call Ben-Al but I want to see Gene. I want to know it's him."

"Ben-Al bugged the hell out of the doctor about your prospects for survival. He was quite angry and concerned."

"He's the one opening the residential center," I said.

"I think he told them not to bother me. Argyll said he's a big donor to the hospital. They had been bugging me to leave, but I ignored them. I wasn't leaving you. Argyll told them to back off the first few days. He wore his uniform to make sure they knew he meant what he said. Then, Ben-Al came up and that was that. Adam was with him the first time he came."

"Adam's his aide," I said.

"Adam's nice," Carl observed.

"You've got to say that," Argyll said.

"It's easier to say when it's true," Carl answered.

"He's the sweetest. He goes with Argyll like a bee goes with honey," I said. "I'm sorry I missed all the people."

"Argyll was pretty shook up when we talked," Carl said. "He found you, you know? That was hard on him, waiting for the help to come."

"No. No one told me. I don't remember any of that part."

"Cops instincts," Argyll said. "Luckily I backtracked from our building. If I'd started at where they'd held the dinner…."

"He saved your life, kiddo. He went to look for you when Adam called him to make sure you got home okay. He backtracked the way he thought you'd go. Once you weren't on the street, he thought the worst, knowing you. He called for reinforcements and they sent ten cop cars to search. Argyll went back to looking for you and began searching every nook and cranny. There you were, maybe two blocks from home."

"I ran into an alley. It was a dead end. I can't believe I didn't know it was a dead end. I shouldn't have known that. I lived right around the corner."

Argyll didn't add anything to the story. It was easy to see it upset him to think about finding me that way. I must have been a real mess. I felt bad for him.

"He'd taken his police radio, called with your location, and you were at the hospital ten minutes later."

"He's something, isn't he?"

"Yes, he is. A hard guy not to like, Billie Joe. You do have a knack for picking out winners, me for instance."

Carl smiled.

"He picked me out," I said of Argyll. "I was too busy being stupid to notice him."

"Yeah, he told me. He was a basket case when I got here. It was still touch and go. All he wanted to do was talk about you. He said you picked out Adam for him."

"No, I didn't. That was all Argyll and Adam. I knew him first but they did the rest."

Argyll had gone out while Carl finished giving me the gory details I needed to have. Being honest about it helped me to understand my limitations. While I could remember some things at some times, at other times I drew a blank, even when I knew I knew what I couldn't remember. This was more frustrating than words can tell.

The constants were Carl, Argyll, and my boys. I'd drawn a blank on Adam a couple of times, but he'd only been in the picture a short time. If he appeared with Argyll I knew him immediately. I didn't speak to any one of my frustrations but that didn't mean they weren't hard on me.

The following week they put me in a wheelchair. This I did not like. My legs showed no sign of supporting me, but I wasn't ready for a wheelchair. I was in a sour mood all day and Carl took the brunt of my wrath without a flinch.

My frame of reference covered a narrow range. Small things triggered memories and expanded perspective, but mostly I lived in the moment, feeling pain, frustration, and boredom that came with being flat on my back twenty-three hours a day.

I didn't see a wheelchair in my future and to allow myself to be transported in one made it less acceptable. I knew once you accepted such disability the journey back became longer and more difficult. I wanted to get up and out of my bed and walk to where I needed to be. My immaturity was even harder to defeat than my infirmity. Luckily Carl didn't hold it against me. His constant presence soothed my discouraged spirit.

There was talk of rehabilitation and more hospitals. I wasn't ready for that either. Doctors probed, prodded, and poked at me, swishing in through my door, doing their bit, and swishing out without comment.

When I asked them about their prognosis, they looked at me thoughtfully and said, "It's hard to say at this point."

After well over a month, I thought they should have some idea of how long it was going to be before I was back to normal. Either they didn't know or they weren't talking. I went with didn't know, because if they knew and weren't saying, it wasn't good.

"Help me sit in the chair," I said, indicating the most comfortable looking chair in my room.

"You feel up to it?" Carl asked.

"Did you call about the van? I'm about ready to get out of here, Carl," I said firmly. "We'll wait until everyone's asleep and make a break for it, Rocko."

"You've been watching too much television, kiddo. It's ready to go whenever you're ready. My father had it in his garage and gave it a once over."

Carl pulled back my covers and swept me out of my bed, sitting me near the window and Ben-Al's flowers. The arm of the chair was wood, and I used it to prevent myself from rolling onto the floor. I didn't feel well balanced or comfortable but I didn't say anything. I sat there like a normal human being.

"Are you going to get the van out here?" I asked a few minutes later.

"I'll do that but you've got to do what the doctors tell you. Once they agree you're well enough to travel, we're out of here, babe, but not until."

"I can live with that. I get stronger each day, you know. It won't be long. I want to walk. I'll forget how to walk by the time these yahoos think of it."

"They're trying to help you, babe."

"They can help me get out of here. I'm sick of this place."

"I can tell you're feeling better," he said, sitting in the chair Argyll usually sat in at the foot of my bed.

"I was going to sit there," a voice in the doorway said. "You look a hell of a lot better than the last time I saw you."

"Gene! Gene! I thought you were dead. No one's here from when I was here," I said.

"I live in LA. I met Paul and I'm living with him in Bel Air."

"You look good," I said.

"You look like shit, but better than when I was here last. What did you do to get someone to fuck you up like that?"

"Gene," his companion scolded.

"Paul, this is Billie Joe. Billie Joe, this is Paul. He's trying to make a human out of me. Not an easy job, huh, Paul?"

"A labor of love, Gene," Paul said. "Good to see you up and around the gray haired man said.

"Nice to meet you. You take care of Gene?"

"I try. I don't know who is taking care of whom," he said.

"He took care of me once," I said. "He kept me alive."

"We kept each other alive. Remember Jesús?"

"Do I. Probably the most unforgettable character I've ever met. How is he?"

"I don't know. I've looked for him every time we come up here. I want to give him some money. Thank him for all the times he gave me his food and protected me," Gene said. "The last time I saw him he was out of his mind. I was afraid that one time he wouldn't come back."

"Remember the night he was screaming in that storm. I think he was talking to God," I said.

"Yeah, he did that. He could go off in a minute. I just wanted to do something for him. I see you've tried to do something for us," Gene said. "Never figured you as the political type."

"I did my best," I said. "I had to do something."

"I saw the articles in the Chronicle. You did good, Billie Joe. I'm proud of you," Gene said, hugging me close enough for me to smell him the way I once smelled him when we were holding each other at night.

We were both crying, when he backed away.

"Life's good for me. I'm going to school where Paul teaches. It's a fine school. I'm smart, you know," he said.

"Yeah, I knew."

"He's going to UCLA. I went to UCLA," Paul bragged.

"Thank you," I said to Paul. "Thanks for getting him off the street."

"I couldn't help myself, Billie Joe. Gene is the apple of my eye. It took me awhile to convince him to come live with me. He's something special."

"I know," I said, feeling delighted for Gene.

It was the one question that haunted me most. What happened to Gene? No matter how much I did to help street kids, it was never enough to repay Gene for what he did for me.

"This is my lover, Carl," I announced, as Carl stood silently off to the side.

"I remember," Gene said. "You only talked about him all the time."

"No more than you talked about Billie Joe," Paul said. "I knew all about you before he found the first article in the Chronicle. I always read it. I used to teach here," Paul said.

"You remembered me?" I asked Gene.

"I'll never forget you, Billie Joe. You were my first love. Paul's my true love. He's the sweetest man in the world."

"Gene!" Paul blushed.

"You are, and I'm proud of it. I'm proud of you, Paul. I'm going to amount to something because you cared about me."

"The easiest thing I've ever done, Gene."

"He is a sweetheart," I said.

Carl talked me into going into the wheelchair to walk Gene and Paul to the entrance. They promised they'd return to visit, but they didn't. It wasn't necessary. Seeing Gene was the answer to a prayer and knowing he was okay meant a lot to me.

I wasn't planning on being there long enough for another visit.

The following day a walker showed up in my room. Carl held me while I tried to force my legs to work. They weren't having anything to do with it. After a lot of sweating and swearing, Carl put me back into bed. I was exhausted mentally as well as physically.

"I'm sorry," I said, after being thoroughly disagreeable, while he did his best to help me.

"You have nothing to be sorry about, Billie Joe. You're fighting and I'm proud of you. Get mad all you want."

"You deserve better," I told him.

"Probably, but I want you."

"Even if I can't walk?"

"You'll walk, babe. I thought maybe you might not walk again, but after today, I know you will."

"I didn't walk a step," I complained.

"No, but you never stopped trying."

He kissed me before pulling his chair back beside my bed. He sat beside me. With his hand wrapped around mine, I fell asleep that quickly. When the doctor came into the room, he woke me up, which never pleased me, but the doctors pleased me even less.

"When are my legs going to start working? You said there was nothing wrong with them."

My tone was disrespectful and blunt, but he'd heard it all before.

"Your legs are fine. Your brain has undergone serious trauma. Your arms came back first and in time, we think your legs should follow. As the damage heals, it's likely most of the nerve response will improve. There is no damage that would prevent you from walking, but it will happen in its own time. Who brought that walker in here?"

"I did," Carl confessed.

"Do any good?" the doctor asked.

"A lot of sweat but not much progress," Carl told him.

"No progress. No progress at all. I can't feel my damn legs. I want out of here. I'm tired of this place and I'm tired of you and your long faces telling me nothing. What's the point in keeping me in here?"

"It's day-to-day, Mr. Walker. You might feel them tomorrow, the day after, or the day after that. Trying to make them work will encourage them to work. Your feeling will return in increments. It will require rehabilitation."

"Why am I still here? If that's the case I can do that at home. If lying here is futile I want out of here."

"We need to keep an eye on you for a little while longer. You had a serious head injury and we don't want to let you go until we've made sure you're well enough not to need monitoring. Let's give it another week. Let's make sure before you go home."

"Rehab?" I asked.

"It's a good idea. You can take a few days off before you go into rehab. Each day gives you more time to heal at this point."

"Who the hell is paying for all this. Hospitals don't come cheap. I don't have any money."

"That's not something you need to worry about. It's being taken care of. If we don't give you the best care possible, we'll hear about it, Mr. Walker. That means letting you leave while there are still questions about your condition isn't a good idea if we don't want to get our asses chewed off," he said, seeming amused by his frankness.

"I know you have your job to do. I know I don't act very sympathetic to what you've done for me. I'm not patient."

"Head trauma often makes politeness difficult. You'll learn to be more subtle as you get better."

"I feel fine. I just can't walk," I complained.


"Some. Not as bad. Always after you've been here," I blurted, and he laughed.

"I can help with that. I'll check in on you tomorrow," he said, swishing away with his white coat trailing behind him.

"I hate this place," I complained loudly.

"It's not my favorite place either," Carl said, still holding my hand.

"Oh, Carl, I'm sorry. I'm so fucking selfish. I think of no one but myself. I know it can't be easy for you."

"You're hurt, babe. I'll cut you some slack this time."

"You've been there by my side from the beginning."

"Close to it. I couldn't leave you. My place was beside you and nothing else matters."

"I love you so much, Carl."

"I know, babe."

"You don't love me any more?" I teased, when he didn't say the words back to me.

"I'm here, aren't I?"

"Yes, you are and it makes me love you even more."

He kissed my hand and smiled at me. I was the luckiest guy ever, because I had Carl.

"The van?"

"On the way, babe. Argyll will let me keep it at his building until you're ready to go. Don't you want to spend a few days with the boys before we leave?"

"No. They're used to me being gone. No point in having them get more attached to me and then I leave them again. We'll start making plans for their visit right away and they'll be with us all summer and at Christmas. It'll give them two homes to choose from. They didn't have one when I found them."

"You're okay with that?"

"No, I'm not okay with it. I want to be with them. I want to help them grow up. I can't. I don't want to stay here. They're better off with Argyll. He can provide them with the best of everything. Now that he has Adam, it's perfect for the boys. Otherwise I couldn't leave them."

"Mama will love having them back home."

"That would be perfect. They'll like Alabama. They'll like getting out of the city."

"Why do you think that?" he asked.

"They're boys."

"Yeah, they are. We'll get some horses and bicycles. I'll take them fishing up at Muscle Shoals," Carl said. "The old man will teach them about cars and mechanics."

"You can take us fishing," I said.

"You fish?"

"Yeah, when I was a kid I fished. My father and I once did things together. We fished a few times. It was fun."

"There's a river at Decatur by our property, but I also like going north to fish. More rivers and fewer fisherman."

"I guess I could qualify as bait," I said.

"You caught me, didn't you? Good bait," Carl said, smiling widely as he gazed into my face.

It was a few days later when I was coming back from another exam that I found Carl's mom and dad in my room. They'd driven the van cross-country and were staying two days before flying home, although Carl's dad said he'd put her on the plane and hitchhike home.

The reaction of his parents told me what no one else did. The initial look on his mother's face told of her shock before she immediately regained control and put on her happy face. His dad looked at me with tears in his eyes as he assessed the damage done. It was easy to see who was toughest in Carl's family, but my suspicion that men were more fragile than women was confirmed.

Carl's mom brought me cookies and some spicy pickles she'd 'put up' the previous summer. I was amazed that they'd driven all that way for their son. I had the impression they rarely left Alabama, but I didn't detect any unhappiness about their needing to make the trip.

Carl helped the intern get me back into bed and we exchanged salutations. They were excited about getting me back to home. I'd really liked it there but it was another spot in my memory where details were scarce.

"We need to get you out of that bed and onto your feet, Billie Joe," his mom said. "Once we have you home, you'll be able to exercise, get fresh air, and I'll fatten you up. The hospital is no place to get well."

"You can say that again," I said.

"Spring has sprung back east. The weather's perfect for being outside," his dad said.

"Did you enjoy the trip?" I asked.

"Motel prices are ridiculous. I didn't want to buy one, only stay a few hours," his dad said. "Nice country this. Nothing like it in the world. It's a keeper all right."

"It was difficult finding good food, but the drive was fine," his mom said.

I had a few cookies and handed the can to Carl. He started in on them and couldn't stop. They went out to eat late in the afternoon and came back with three big bags from Burger King and a big bottle of Coke. Carl went for ice and we sat around eating burgers and fries. I even tasted some of it. I'd had little but hospital food and the occasional snack Carl or Argyll would bring me. All that fat and fizzle hit the spot after hospital food.

Later Argyll came up with the boys. They were immediately crawling all over Carl, while eyeing suspiciously the new arrivals. Donnie kept his distance from them. I asked him about how his school work was going and how he liked the latest video game Argyll had bought for him.

"Such handsome boys," Carl's mom said. "You'll be staying with us come summer."

"You Carl's mommy?" Denny asked, one arm around Carl's neck as he sat on a knee, leaning back against him awkwardly, knowing it was safe.

"That's me, and when I get done with you, you'll all be big as Carl and just as strong. I'll feed you up and there are wide open spaces where you can roam all day. I aim on working on Billie Joe as quick as we can get him home. We'll have him back to normal in no time."

"Really?" Donnie asked with his interest peaked.

"Really," she said with confidence.

"And I've got a garage where I'll put you all to work," his dad said.

"A car garage?" Donnie asked, moving closer. "I want to race cars. I like cars."

"Yep, but we work on small trucks too. I like working on the older cars. Too much computer in these new foreign jobs for my taste. I can't figure them darn things out. What I can see, touch, and hear, I can fix. I don't know nothing about no computers."

"I can figure out computers. If you want some help with that," Donnie bragged, sitting on the foot of my bed facing Carl's dad as they discussed a future they could see.

"He's good with computers," Argyll said. "I didn't know he liked cars."

"Tell you what. You come down and help me figure out that computer stuff. I do work for two race car drivers. I'll fix it so you can go to the races and sit in their cars. Carl and I go up to Nashville to watch the NASCAR race there."

"Really! Cool!" Donnie said thoughtfully. "I'd like that."

"You got yourself a deal, son. Which one are you?"

"I'm Donnie. Are these the people who we're going to spend the summer with?" Donnie asked Argyll.

"Yeah, you'll be at Carl's place, champ. Once Father Flannery says school's out, I'll fly you back east to stay with Carl and Billie Joe. That won't be but a few more weeks."

"And you get to be alone with Adam," Danny said, and the boys laughed happily.

Denny worked his way over to sit on Carl's mom's lap as she opened the cookie can for him. He chattered to her as Danny wrestled one of Carl's arms. Donnie talked shop with Carl's dad and it felt like a family to me.

We'd crossed the biggest obstacle and the boys became anxious to see Alabama. Carl's family was as natural as he was. I had the feeling they didn't know any strangers, which made them appealing.

From that day forward they were Gram and Pop to the boys. They'd skillfully closed the distance between them and the kids by letting them make the first move. Once they interacted the deal was sealed. I did wonder about Gram's claim that she'd get me back to normal. It's not something I wanted to talk about but it was a powerful force in my mind.

A serenity came with the knowledge the van was waiting. It was nice to see Carl's parents but knowing the van was there ready to whisk me away was better. While Carl's parents were there, all the pieces fell into place and there was no time like the present for an exit.

Word got around I had expected a few visitors, bidding me farewell, but my hospital room was relatively quiet except for Carl's family, Argyll, Adam, and the boys. It couldn't be too soon for me and I tried to get through each day with as little disagreeableness as possible.

My final days were disappointingly quiet. I don't know what I expected. I'd come to San Francisco to sound the alert and I had. Why should they notice me leaving?

They were getting it done without me and that should have satisfied me, even if a little attention wouldn't hurt my feelings. The last time I'd left town my departure was a lot less auspicious with my father coming to fetch me home. This time I was leaving with a clear conscience and a pleasant future with the man I loved.

I told myself that should be enough. It wasn't. I expected some kind of goodbye and maybe a thank you from all the people I'd worked with.

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