Book 3: The Centre

by Rick Beck

Chapter 28

Great Escape

By the end of the week Carl's mom and dad were gone and Carl was loading the van with supplies for our trip. I had some exercises for my legs, a pair of crutches, and the wheelchair for those times when I needed to get somewhere without people needing to wait for me. I fussed about it just before Carl ended up putting me in the chair. I objected to being helpless even after accepting I was.

The day I left the hospital a few nurses and interns walked me out. Carl pushed the chair. The van was pulled right up to the front door and he hoisted me up into the passenger seat. I waved goodbye.

My new found freedom exhilarated me. I set aside my other concerns for the moment, smiling at Carl. I wanted to be with my lover and I wanted to get as far away from San Francisco as I could get. Alabama sounded like just the place for me to heal. I didn't understand why Argyll hadn't brought the boys to see me off. That thought unsettled me. Had they decided they were pissed off at me?

I didn't remember the trip to the hospital and I wasn't sure of where I was when we drove away. I was happy to be moving and getting out of there. After getting some flashes of buildings I recognized, I felt like we weren't heading in Alabama's direction.

"Where are we going?" I asked.

"Alabama," Carl said, as we pulled up in front of a building that had people coming out of it. It was the residential facility for the street kids. The big banner in front said:

"Billie Joe Center"

"Carl!" I complained.

"Sorry, babe. No way to avoid it. There are people who need to say goodbye. I couldn't tell them no."

"Oh, Carl!" I complained, fearing what would happen.

Adam was the first one to the door of the van. I had to reach down so we could hug. By the time the hug was done Carl was ready with my wheelchair. He rolled me into the building as people yelled and shouted at me. I forced a smile on my face and felt trapped.

Who were all these people?

Ben-Al was all smiles and he was the first to greet me inside. He handed me the biggest reddest roses I'd ever seen. He leaned to hug me delicately, like I was a rose.

"I'm so happy you are finally out of there, but sorry we are losing you, Billie."

"Thank you, Ben-Al. I've never seen more beautiful flowers. You are such a nice man."

"Nothing is too good for you, Billie," he said, backing up before smiling at Carl. "I owe you everything. This only happened because you made us pay attention. I'm only sorry we couldn't protect you. This is your moment. It's our thank you for your persistence."

I was delighted to see Argyll and the boys appear from the kitchen and even Matilda came to see me off. The people were all very nice to me. I only remembered the ones who came to the hospital to see me, although I knew I knew some from before. There were simply too many faces and distractions for me to process it all.

They served ice cream and cake and we all sat around chatting. Mostly I listened and kept that smile pasted on my face. Father Flannery appeared to wish me well and gray haired ladies I should have recognized smiled and nodded my way.

Carl stood beside the chair, moved it when necessary, and ate three bowls of Rocky Road ice cream. While I felt awkward, it was obvious that Carl knew how close we were to starting the rest of our lives.

Argyll stood beside us talking to Carl and they were like old friends, smiling and laughing. The boys ate ice cream and came to talk to me one at a time. They were uncomfortable competing with a crowd, but they knew they were coming to stay with me in Alabama for the summer and that helped them accept my going and the chaos surrounding my departure.

"Speech, speech," was a chant started by people around me.

Carl leaned to ask if I was able. I'd given a lot of thought to my departure. Being in bed for week after week left plenty of time for thinking. I wanted to try to express what was on my mind.

Carl moved my chair into a spot where everyone could see me. He stood with his hand on my shoulder to reassure me as the crowd slowly went silent.

"I remember things I never knew but I don't remember things I know I know. The doctors say I'm blunt because of the trauma to my brain and I'll relearn subtlety in time. That's funny, I don't remember being subtle. Maybe they were giving me a hint, because I cussed them out so often."

The words jumped into my mind. People laughed, but I knew they expected more than a joke.

"I'm not very smart. I haven't been to college yet. The street is no place for a kid. I'm smart enough to know that. Maybe not the first time I was here, but I was smart enough to go home when I could. I don't know if it was smart coming back to do something about gay street kids.

"I almost died, you know, and I don't know why. What did I do to make someone hate me that much?

I looked at the faces, glancing up. People were standing at the railing on the second floor. They were waiting for me.

"When I eat someone has to show me my mouth. I forget what I'm doing while I'm doing it, but I remember what brought me here. I never forgot that.

"I told Mr. Carroll my story. He couldn't write what I said. I wasn't subtle and he told me readers wouldn't approve of the sex and stuff. He called it obscene. No one tell my lover.

"Isn't the obscenity kids living in doorways, eating out of dumpsters. What he meant was people don't want to know. I must admit it isn't a nice story.

"Maybe the story about parents throwing away their gay kids would make a nicer story. Maybe that's the story George, Mr. Carroll should write? Anyone else in any other culture, doing what they do, would go to jail.

"They created the problem. You intend to fix it. Would they rather their children live and die on the street? Why wouldn't they want the community most resembling them to take them in for their sake? I know they hate us, but can they possibly hate their own children enough to want them eating out of dumpsters? No one hates that much.

"We all remember our search for acceptance. You can offer them understanding and acceptance. With us they have a chance at a future they wouldn't have otherwise.

"There were 1.3 million children on the streets of America last night. Twenty to forty percent were LGBT children. Thirteen died yesterday. Thirteen will die today, and tomorrow, and everyday.

"If they say I have a gay agenda, I'll say I sure as hell do. I don't want a single gay kid brutalized at school or at home. I don't want hatred to force another gay child to commit suicide. I don't want them homeless, hungry, or threatened. That's my gay agenda.

"Their's is a culture of life if life ends at birth. It's a culture of hypocrisy, when it comes to their LGBT children. When words are obscene but hungry children aren't, something needs fixing.

"You are a people of action for those who can't provide for themselves. You've been there for people suffering from AIDS and you know what to do and how to do it. You aren't afraid to stand up for ourselves any more. They can't make you afraid to do the right thing.

"I'm leaving it in your hands. I'm getting out of your way so you can get the job done. I'll leave you with this knowledge: your hearts are about to be filled with more love and joy than you can possibly imagine. How do I know this? I'll tell you how.

"The first meal I handed out went to a boy sitting in a doorway. He eyed me suspiciously when I handed him the hot food. He waited to find out what I wanted off him. Once he realized there were no strings attached, the warmest smile came onto his face. 'Thanks!' he said happily, digging into the fresh food with gusto.

"I always wanted to help give out the food, because it made me feel so good to be doing something so important. I knew it was important by how much they appreciated it.

"It changed me. It made me realize what the food meant to a kid that might not have gotten any otherwise. Helping the LGBT kids can't help but change you. It's what we need to do.

"At The Center someone suggested giving up one evening out a month and donating the money to the kids; one night a month, 12 nights a year, ten or fifteen dollars, or whatever you'd spend. What an absolutely wonderful suggestion to fund the program. Everyone can be part of it."

"At great risk men have stepped forward to feed and house these kids. Their personal fortunes and reputations will be threatened by a society that refuses to do the right thing but stands in the way of those who can. I want to thank them. They've made a believer out of me.

"I know many of you see me as a kid, but I feel very old. I feel very sad. I'm going to leave you…."

"No," was the scattered answer.

"I look at your faces. I see black, white, yellow, red, and all the shades in-between. We are a living rainbow. We are from here, there, and everywhere. We are the true children of God, or whatever universal force you believe in, which means together we can accomplish almost anything we decide to do.

"I'm going home with Carl to heal and to wait for my boys to come for the summer.

"Thank you for coming to hear me jabber. I won't forget that you made my dream come true. I won't forget that a boy just like me will come here looking for community, because he can no longer live at home, and he'll find it.

"Thank you and goodbye."

There was applause and hoots and people talking to each other as Donnie pushed my chair out to the van. The boys crawled all over the van, looking for a way to stowaway, but it was time to say goodbye. Argyll hugged me and kissed my cheek, not wanting to let go.

Adam took his turn, standing on the running board Carl's father had added to facilitate my entry and exit. He hugged me tight and I whispered in his ear.

"Adam, I need a favor," I said, as everyone was distracted, mulling around the sidewalk.

"Anything, Billie, what is it?"

"One, take care of Argyll. He's too precious for words. And take my name off this place."

"What?" he blurted, surprised by my request. "Ben-Al was adamant. The residence was to be known as the Billie Joe House. He really thinks you're something special, Billie."

"It isn't about me. It was never about me. I came here with the hope of doing something. I don't want anyone to look back and think I wanted to get something out of it. Naming the residence after me makes it about me. Wait a few weeks and tell Ben-Al my feelings. He'll understand."

"Anything you say, Billie. If that's what you want I'll do it. You give me the name you want. He'll insist you name it. I know him."

"I knew you'd understand. Nobody will know who Billie Joe is after a few months. It needs to be something the kids would like. How about Home?" I said.

"I'll know you, Billie. It's been my privilege to know you. You're a real piece of work."

"Home," I insisted.

"Home," he repeated for me.

We hugged and cried and I felt close to Adam. I was so happy Argyll found a keeper. I couldn't imagine either of them with anyone else. They fit together in a wonderful way.

"Billie Joe, can you give me a minute?"

I looked out of the van at George Carroll. He was carrying his camera. I decided to make a deal with the devil."

"You have any pictures of me in the chair?"

"I'm a journalist. Of course I do."

"Destroy them and I'll talk to you," I said sternly.

"Done. I wasn't going to publish any that showed the chair anyway," he bragged.

"I would have talked to you even if you hadn't agreed to it," I bragged back at him. "You created me, Mr. Carroll. I suppose my departure from your beat deserves an honorable mention."

"More than a mention, Billie Joe. People call the paper every day about you. I get a dozen email a day on you myself. I didn't believe in you when we first met, you know. You were simply good copy, giving our Supervisors hell. Something all the readers would like to don't have the time."

"And now, Mr. Carroll?"

"You're a hard one, Mr. Walker. You made a believer out of me. You're for real. Coming from a cynical old reporter like me, …I hardly ever believe in anything any more. I thought I'd forgotten how."

"So you'll write nice things?" I asked as he stood with one foot on the running board as people waited on the sidewalk.

"I've always written nice things," he complained.

"You were there, weren't you?" I asked, suddenly seeing a flash inside my head. "You took pictures of me."

"Yes, I did. To be honest I didn't think you would make it, Mr. Walker. I've seen a lot of people after they'd been beaten, but…." He hesitated and rethought his words. "…but you did."

"You publish any of those pictures?"

"Of course, "Boy Crusader Badly Beaten. I was leaving the dinner and talking to my editor. He got the message. It went out over the police radio. Argyll found you, you know?"

"He told me. Your readers weren't too sensitive to see those pictures?"

"It wasn't a close up. I thought you'd seen it. How else would you know I was in that alley?"

"I know things, Mr. Carroll and I always remember that damn flash. You were in that alley."

"That's impossible," he said. "You couldn't know I was there. You were unconscious."

"Maybe not," I said, knowing I knew he was there. "I want a favor, Mr. Carroll."

"Anything, Mr. Walker."

"People are sending money…, checks, cash. I don't know how much but it comes every day. I think it's for the medical bills. There's usually just a name on the check and something like, get well Billie Joe, I'm praying for you. Things like that, you know."

"What do you want me to do?"

"My medical bills are taken care of according to the doctors. Argyll, Ben-Al, I don't know who is paying them and they aren't going to say.

"Write something in your paper. If people want to send money tell them they can send it to 'Standup For Kids' or to The Center. If they want to say Billie Joe told them to send it for the homeless kids, that's cool."

"It's as good as done. I'll put it in the story I'll write about you leaving us. You are the real deal. Can I take one last picture on the record?"

"Sure," I agreed, giving him the best smile I could muster.

"Good luck, Billie Joe," he said, backing away.

The van started as quick as I closed the door. People positioned themselves to wave goodbye. Carl steered us into traffic as I waved back.

I was tempted to ask Carl to drive out across the Golden Gate Bridge, because I knew I'd never see it again. It was about my favorite thing about the city, but I didn't ask. It was time to go.

We turned east, heading for the Oakland Bay Bridge, and I knew in my heart that I wouldn't miss San Francisco. The people were a different story.

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