Walking Into Clouds

by Rick Beck

Chapter 9

Cody's World

It was early Wednesday evening on a work night, but I wasn't ready to go home.

Parking on the far side of the park, I cut through the middle not slowing down to see what was going on there. I did attract two men who fell away when I crossed out of the park on my way to the seedy side of town.

I crossed the street separating the forbidden zone from the nice part of town. The haze was back as soon as I reached the middle of the street. There were only a couple of places on the street sporting bright neon signs. I calculated that the haze wasn't so much on the street as it was inside my head.

I recognized the dizzy unsteady feeling. My stabilizers had gone haywire. It felt like I was walking into clouds before I reached the other side of the street. I recognized the feeling but I didn't know from where.

A horn blew.

Tires screeched.

Men yelled nearby. Were they yelling at me? I stepped on the curb in the forbidden zone. The haze was intense. I needed to sit down for a minute. I looked to see if there were cars on the street. I saw none. The haze had become thicker. I felt lightheaded.

I became unsure of where I was or why I was there.

I was sitting on a low brick wall in front of a shop that was closed. How did I get here? I hadn't seen the shop before.

How many beers did I drink? Did someone slip something into one of my beers?

I sensed people passing nearby. I heard voices.

The seedy side of town seemed to come with its own haze or I had drunk more beer than I thought. I studied the glare from lights down the block. The street had taken on an eerie glow. Being out of breath, and feeling dizzy, I continued to sit. I became aware of where I was.

Trying to shake off my malaise, I had difficulty remembering how I got there. I did remember Grange and that did the trick. Catching my breath, I was OK. I was sure it was a temporary state of mind, but I couldn't be sure.

A car slowed. I looked to see if it might be Teddy. It wasn't.

The car moved on.

The fog in my head made the lights and sounds seem like I was looking through the wrong end of a telescope. It was like putting my mind in a high speed blender and undoing what was real.

I felt like this before. I tried to remember when.

Then I knew.

I felt like this several times before, when I ran too high and too fast on a mountain path where I trained in higher elevations for a change of pace. Was one of those long ago runs coming back on me? I hadn't run there since high school.

I stood up to gain a different perspective. I intended to sit back down when I became dizzier. I needed to give it a few more minutes.

"You OK, son," a stocky man asked. "Here, you need to sit down. Do you want me to call someone?"

I thought I was sitting down. When I looked for the man who was talking to me, no one was there. My confusion annoyed me, and then the unsettled feeling was gone as suddenly as it came upon me. My mind cleared. I knew where I was and why I was there.

I felt fine.

I stood to walk toward streets I thought I knew. Streets I'd been on before. I looked behind me for evidence of where I'd been. Looking at my watch. I left the frat house two hours before.

Where did the time go, I could account for maybe thirty minutes.

The frat house was fifteen minutes away. I needed to be at work at seven the next morning. I liked being in bed by eleven, but not tonight. Tonight I was in the forbidden zone on the seedy side of town and I was going to make the most of it.

Tomorrow I'd be up and at work on time. Tonight I intended to find that nice boy I set out to find weeks before. I knew he was here somewhere and I kept walking.

My experiences were varied enough that I figured I'd merely scratched the surface of what was available. I'd rushed to town to find someone to love. By this point being in a hurry seemed counter productive. I needed to find out what was here and then I could pick a path that made sense.

I walked toward where I remembered Teddy leaving me off. It had been in the southwestern corner of the forbidden zone. I was able to see places inside and outside the zone where I would feel comfortable hanging out, once I established a presence.

I didn't need to go into clubs where they served alcohol. I wasn't much of a drinker and I wanted to pick the next guy up while I was sober. I was sure I'd get a better result that way. After tonight's experience, I wanted to stay alert for the next chapter of my search.

Teddy drove me from near where I was to the gay section. I remembered the turns he took. I was sure I could walk there in five or ten minutes. My memory worked fine and my mind was clear.

I had a map of the city at the house and I planned to take a closer look at it before I came back. Then I would put names to the streets and I'd look for a place to park the Silverado closer to where I wanted to go.

I would find a direct route to the gay section of town, locating a safe place to park nearby. Then I could avoid crossing into the forbidden zone from the park. Something about that park was odd.

Whatever working brain cells I had said, 'Go slow. Be careful. Don't do anything stupid.'

It sounded like good advice.

The first two I covered with ease. Granger taught me not to rush into a spot where I developed feelings for someone who couldn't allow himself to feel the same way about me. I wouldn't pick up with anyone else who had a girlfriend. I decided it wasn't enough for him to be handy, hot, and handsome.

I passed the shop window on the street where I bought a root beer before. I recognized where I was. I bought another root beer.

I was around the corner from where Teddy picked me up and near the street where he parked so we could fool around.

I took a right turn at the next corner and I wandered down two or three less lively streets. The neon signs and flashy clubs with bouncers and cover charges were replaced by smaller bars with lighted signs with the establishment's name in the window.

The clubs, book stores, massage parlors, and the personal service shops gave way to more modest shops in between the bars. I wanted to identify the streets where the gay places were. If I kept going into each place, it would take forever, but if I watched the people on the street. I'd figure out which bars were gay and which weren't.

I turned onto the street where Teddy let me out. I recognized Terry's, the bar on the corner. I looked farther down the block, directly across the next street, a major thoroughfare, in a well lit neat row were a burger joint, a toy and train store, a coffee shop, and an arcade. I was in the gay section.

As I got closer to the main street that bordered the forbidden zone, I saw the Broadway. It was an upscale restaurant with parking in the rear. When I got back to my truck, I'd drive back here and check the streets behind Broadway to see if there were safe places to park.

The arcade was the last place on the block. Young men stood beside the entrance chatting. I could see the tips of their cigarets glow red as they puffed away. Smoke hung in the air in front of the Dragon's Lair Arcade.

We'd passed that arcade when it was new. I was sixteen. Barney just had to see what games they had. It was the usual group and we'd been across the street from the gay zone and I didn't know it. Life is weird.

I sat on a railing across from a closed shop. It had a big neon hand lit over the entrance. A sign in the window said, 'Palms Read.' I looked at my palm and I saw nothing I could read.

I sipped my soda and I watched people coming and going from across the main street that bordered the forbidden zone. I could see inside of Gene's Burgers. They weren't busy.

I finished my root beer and. I watched two men, walking shoulder to shoulder, come out of the Broadway across the main street and to the right of Gene's. A side street separated them.

The two men walked up the other side of the street I was on and they turned into Terry's. No one else passed while I sat there.

I looked over Terry's when I walked past. It was a small bar. There was a lighted sign in the window: Terry's.

I stood, depositing my empty soda cup into a trash can on the corner. I crossed the street and went into the arcade. I liked arcade games and my buds and I went to the biggest game room in Aurora. I was better than all my buds, except for Sqeak, who knew every trick you needed to know to triumph over an electronic device.

It wasn't easy to beat one of the technological marvels, so they built in ways for the player to advance. A good player could learn the tricks that allowed him to advance to the next level. On games I knew, I was good, but I needed to play a new game over and over again to find the weak spots I could later exploit.

Gamers, the ones who created games, knew what to do to keep a player playing. You tempt them, let them get close, and then you let them fall through a carefully placed trap door; game over.

You had to get around that impediment and you kept playing until you did, spending a lot of money while you did it. You knew you could figure it out and in time you did, until you knew its tricks and checked it off as one more game you'd conquered, but by that time there were five new games you hadn't played yet. Arcades couldn't keep up with every new game, so they went with the most popular games and someone was almost always playing one of those..

If you couldn't beat the machines, no one would play. Machines were developed to be played and played and played. It was difficult to make the upper level transitions, but it wasn't impossible, and so you played until you could advance to the upper levels and feel victorious.

A rotund man in a white shirt stood behind a counter in the middle of the front section of the arcade. I put five dollars on the counter and he clicked out five dollars worth of tokens.

"There are token machines placed on the rear wall. So no need to walk all the way back up here," he said.

"Cool," I said, not minding the walk.

I didn't intend to stay long enough to use the tokens I bought but it was a place I'd return to when I was on this side of town.

"Good luck," he said as I walked deeper into the arcade.

"Thanks," I said, and I sensed his eyes were on me.

I'd only play for a little while tonight. I wanted to see what games they had.

I wondered if gay guys played arcade games. I was gay and I played arcade games. That seemed to answer the question. I didn't know how I'd know if a guy was gay. I'd keep my eyes open.

The back of the arcade was where the best machines were. You could tell because the people were in the back half of the arcade. The front half was empty, except for the man behind the counter.

I found a game I liked to play. I dropped in two tokens and I was ready. I liked the graphics and the colors. It was a fast moving game that required dexterity and maximum focus. If you missed a level transition, it was game over. Then you started over and you needed to work you way back through the easier levels to advance back to where you were when you hit a snag the last time.

I was immediately drawn into the game. Other players and watchers faded as my focus sharpened. I knew this game well.

Focus was my forte on the athletic field.

I played through the lower levels with ease, working my way into tougher terrain in a matter of minutes. As I reached a transition on one of the upper levels, someone came too close to my arm, brushing against me.

In an instant it was game over.

"What?" I yelped in disbelief.

Throwing my arms up in disgust, I backed up a single step to look for the culprit who cost me the game.

"You big bozo," a curt voice said from the floor behind me.

"What?" I said, turning to see who distracted me.

No one was standing there because I'd knocked him down when I took the quick step back away from the machine.

I looked down into the most vivid blue eyes I'd ever seen as the boy connected to them grumbled something I didn't hear.

"What you doing down there, squirt?" I asked, amused by what a single step accomplish while I wasn't paying attention.

"You overgrown bozo. Why don't you watch what you're doing?"

"Me! You're the one who cost me the game, squirt. You don't know better than to crowd a guy who is focused on his game?"

"Excuse me for entering your kingdom, oh focused one. I was looking to see the screen. You bumped me, bozo. I didn't touch you."

He was too cute to argue with. Maybe I did overreact.

He stood, brushing off his black pants. No wonder he thought I was big. He was maybe five six and a hundred twenty pounds. He sure wouldn't make it on a rugby pitch.

"You knocked my soda out of my hand. When you play a game, you get the space around that game. You don't get the entire arcade. Who are you, asshole? I've never seen you around here before."

"Oh, you the guy I was supposed to report to when I came in. I'm Clete," I said, smiling at his anger. "I'll buy you another soda. That make us even, squirt?"

"No, it don't. I've got a bruise on my backside. I can't afford to bruise the merchandise. I've got to look good for my dates."

"Dates? You a busy boy, squirt," I asked. "A date ain't enough."

"I can't help I'm popular," he said. " You like knocking people down? Just because you're a horse, you don't get to throw your weight around."

"Hey, I'll throw in a burger, OK? And yeah, I do like knocking guys down on a rugby field. I'm small, squirt. In case you're interested, I'm sorry, OK. Now shut up, OK?"

"Rugby?" he said. "Rough game. Glad I didn't have the ball. Throw in fries and I won't call my attorney."

And he didn't say anything else.

He knew when he had the best offer he was going to get. For him it was a happy meal. For me, well, I lost interest in the arcade games. Having someone to talk to would be nice and I was starved.

"I got a date at ten thirty. So you need to buy it for me now if you're serious," he said.

"You hungry, kid?"

"Look at me. You think I'm this size because I overeat?"

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to knock you down..., but."

"No buts, dude. Gene closes at ten on Wednesday night. We've got to get over there before he shuts down the fryers."

We walked to the burger joint. It was a short walk and Gene hadn't shut down the fryers yet. A sign over the door read: 'Gene's.'

"Two doubles, you want cheese?" I asked the kid.

"Sure. Onions, lettuce, tomato, with mayo."

"What he said," I said to the girl behind the counter. "Mine with pickles and onions, cheese, mustard, a dollop of ketchup. Two large Fries. Root beer for me."

"Coke," the kid said, turning to look at an empty restaurant..

He leaned on the counter with both elbows so he could rest his chin in his hands. He watched the exchange of money.

"It'll be a minute. We cook each burger to order at Gene's. You're number 73. I'll call your number when your food is up," the girl said.

No one else was in Gene's but the kid and me.

I wondered why she didn't say we were number 1, or she could have yelled, 'hey you. Come get your grub.' We'd be able to figure out she was talking to us.

A skinny sleepy looking young man wiped down tables in the one window and he was looking at two girls walking by. He waved as if he might know them. They waved. The skinny kid's eyes followed them.

"A dollop? Who talks like that? What in the hell is a dollop anyway?" the kid asked.

"You're a little young to have a date, aren't you, kid? You should be home in bed, shouldn't you? What, you're in the 8th grade?"

"Look, bozo, I'm seventeen..., almost. I don't go on dates, I don't eat, see? The kid likes to eat, bozo."

"Seventeen," I said. "You could pass for ten," I said.

"Fuck you and the horse you rode in on," the kid said.

"You got food, so why don't we go back over to the arcade when we finish eating. We can play some games," I said.

"I got to eat tomorrow, bozo. That requires money. I work tonight. I eat tomorrow," he said.

We sat facing each other at the table in Gene's only window.

"Your dates pay you?" I asked.

"Where are you from? This is hustler's row, dude. This is where our dates pick us up. All the young guys are paid to go out on dates."

"News to me," I said.

I couldn't get over how blue his eyes were.

"The streets around the around the arcade is where our dates pick us up. We go out for a while and we eat tomorrow. When you got a date, you keep it, or you might lose a regular customer. They expect you to be there at the time you say you'll be there?"

"What does a squirt like you sell?" I asked. "You don't get into a strangers car, do you?"

The thought of me getting into Teddy's car crossed my mind.

"You writing a book or something?" the kid asked.

As small hamburger joints went, Gene's was clean and the operation was small but efficient.

"Number 73," the girl behind the counter said.

She looked around the restaurant like someone might jump up to get their order. I didn't jump up but I went to the counter and I saw it was what the kid and I ordered.

"You sure this is for me. I forgot my number," I said.

"Are you number 73?" she asked.

"I must be. Did you notice no one else is here?" I asked.

As I took possession of the plastic tray, she walked away, turning to look at me suspiciously. She didn't seem sure of what happened between us.

"What was that all about," the kid asked.

"Just making sure it was our food," I said.

"Two burgers, two fries, two sodas. What's to be sure of. We're the only people here," the kid said.

"Oh, yeah. We are, aren't we," I said as if I just noticed.

He looked at me like I had two heads.

"You don't get out much, do you?"

"Who me?" I asked, looking around.

"What's it about?" he asked, after taking a couple of bites of his burger.

"What's what about?" I asked.

"The book you're writing," he said.

"I'm too young to write a book," I said.

"Too young? What, you're about forty?" he said, shoving French fries into his mouth.

"Cute," I said, remembering what I said about his age.

"You said I look ten. If I look ten, you look forty," he said.

"Do you remember everything everyone says?" I asked.

"When they're insulting me, I remember," the kid said.

"Sorry, kid. I didn't know you were so sensitive," I said. "I'm nineteen. You look sixteen. I've been sixteen and it looks young to me now. You look young to me," I said. "Young but cute."

"You don't know much about much. You're new," he said.

"That's why I won't write a book yet. I'm new around here. I was thinking you might clue me in on the way things work. You seem to know your way around."

"You looking for a date? I don't know about your face, but with that body..., well, you might earn enough to eat," he said, looking at my arms and chest. "You want me to manage you. On the meat rack you'd make out OK with the proper management."

"What's the meat rack?" I asked.

"That's why you need management. Throw in with me and we could go places together," he said.

"Yeah, if I take up with you I could go to jail. You're a kid, kid. I know you don't know that, but I do."

"When you come down to it, we're the same age, bozo," he said. "I figured you were maybe eighteen. I'm not sure you're smart enough to be eighteen. I sell my talent, see? I'm good at what I do and I always leave the customer wanting more. Men who like me take care of me, to a point, and I say where that point is, see," he said.

"Nearly seventeen and two months since I turned nineteen aren't the same age," I said. "You're a kid."

"I don't see the diff. We're both running out of our teen years. You'll run out a year or two before I do. We're the same age to a guy that's in his forties and looking for company."

"You're still a kid and you should be home and in bed," I said.

"I ain't been no kid since I was thirteen. That how old I was when my old man threw me out and told me not to come back if I knew what was good for me."

That was like a slap to my face. Who throws a kid away?

"Thirteen!" I said. "Your old man can't just throw you out."

"You should tell him that. How long have you been supporting yourself, bozo? Mommy and Daddy feed you and put a roof over your head. What you going to do once that gravy train derails? I take care of myself with a little help from my friends."

"Why did your old man throw you out?" I asked.

"You ain't old enough to know that. Come back when you're old enough to write a book and I might tell you about it. It's complicated."

I put the last bite of my burger in my mouth. I didn't remember eating it. I started in on my fries, wondering about the kid's words.

"Why do you say that?" I asked, finding his comments curious. "I'm like most middle class kids," I said. "Why'd you get thrown out?"

I wasn't able to get past that fact. In the world where I lived, parents took responsibility for their kids no matter how difficult it was. I knew some really sorry parents, Sqeak's for instance, as sorry as they were, they never threw him out. If he'd been thrown out of his house, and my parents found it out, they'd have called the cops.

"Your a good looking kid. Why'd he throw you out?"

"You sound like you're writing a book again. If I'm going to educate your ass, it'll take more than a burger and fries," he said. "I didn't survive for this long by giving anything away."

"I don't think about life on those terms," I said. "But if I meet another twerp like you, long on mouth and short on respect, I might write a book about it. In case I do, you got a name, kid?"

"I ain't a kid, dude," he said. "I don't' give no name to a one night stand. You want more of me, you got to make a date, and then, if I'm in the mood, maybe I'll cough up my name, see."

"Number 73," the girl said. "We got apple pie back here. Give me fifty cents and I'll give you each a piece of pie."

"Make me an offer I can't refuse," I said, reaching in my pocket for a dollar bill.

"Lighten up, dude," the kid said. "I'll get this."

I heard him slap the two quarters on the counter. He came back with the apple pie. It was still warm even if it wasn't very good. I pondered the things he said and then he buys me apple pie.

That said a lot but I wasn't sure what. I knew he couldn't have much money by the way he talked.

"At least it's warm. They must have used old apples," he said, looking at me face. "My name is Cody. Thank you for dinner."

The kid washed down the apple pie with what was left of his French fries. I could offer to buy him another burger and I might keep him talking a little longer. He was too rude for my taste but there was something about him I liked. He was rude but direct.

It made me want to know more about him. I was curious about how a kid ends up on the street fending for himself.

That made me angry.

"I'm Clete," I said, giving up on the too sweet pie.

"Don't talk with your mouth full," Cody said, using my tone.

"Thirteen?" I asked, realizing how long ago I was thirteen.

"Here we go with that book again. You want my story, you got to make a date I said. It's almost time I split this joint. I ain't never seen you before. I doubt I'll see you again, but thanks for the burger."

"I'll buy you another burger if you want," I said, after he'd eaten every bite of food and even used his finger to collect some crumbs.

"No, I've got to watch my figure. I had enough. A bump in the arcade isn't worth more than what you gave me."

"Don't want to think of you being hungry," I said. "Besides, you bought the pie. That means I owe you now."

"You don't need to think about me at all. Where you been the last five years. I was hungry a lot for some of those years," he said. "Now I do OK. I got regular customers. A places to stay out of the weather, and I manage to eat pretty regular."

"That's bogus," I said. "I'll be back. I'll keep an eye out for you."

"Why are you being nice to me now? I was sure you were a jerk. You aren't as big a jerk as you seem. What's your name again, bozo?"

"I'm Clete," I said.

"I'll be fine, Clete. Don't worry about me," he said. "I know the ropes. I know how to stay safe."

He was Jordy's size. Maybe not as tall as Jordy, but thin like him.

I put a buck in front of him.

"What's the buck for. I'm not that cheap, Clete," he said, smiling.

"The apple pie," I said. "You can't afford to be feeding me."

"I told you, I got this. You didn't hear me say that? You insult me by trying to pay me? Maybe you are an asshole. I got my dignity and I'm going to be late if I don't get out of here."

"You are the one going on dates for money," I said. "I just thought."

"See, that's your problem. You think too much. It don't require that much thought. I go out on dates because it's my job. Does that mean I don't get to buy you a cut rate piece of apple pie? You paid up. The pie was on me," he said. "Get it?"

"OK," I said, taking the buck back.

"We're officially closed," the girl said. "But we got plenty more apple pie if you want more. Gene don't like to keep stuff overnight once it sits out. Everything is fresh each day at Gene's. Every burger is cooked to order."

"Thanks, We're forever in your debt, but we know when we've had enough. You ever eaten a piece of that pie?" Cody asked.

"Yes," she said. "All the time. We can't eat anymore tonight. One of us will take the rest home."

"You got a name, hon," Cody asked.

"I'm Joanie," she said with a smile.

"I'm Cody," he said. "You got plenty apple pie because your apple pie sucks, Joanie, but thanks anyway. You got great burgers and good fries and who cares about pie at a burger joint?"

I chuckled. He was direct.

Cody was quite a character.

"What are you smiling at?" he asked.

"you," I said. "You're hell on wheels, Cody. It's cool."

"You're laughing at me. You ain't no Brad Pitt, you know."

"I know," I said, smiling. "You're something. I mean I've never met anyone like you. You're down right offensive, but in a refreshingly honest way. You make it work, and you're cute... for a kid."

"Thanks," he said, not sounding thankful.

"You're welcome."

"When you get a little of that book written, give me a call. Let me read it. If you're smarter than you look, I might tell you my story, bozo."

"I'll do that. Do you need some money?" I asked. "I mean, like an advance for your story? I wouldn't want to insult you."

"You asking me for a date or what? Sorry, kid, I got a date, and he's regular, and he don't ask so many damn questions either."

"Let's cut the street jive," I said.

"When you live on the street, it's the facts of life, kid," he said. "Everyone needs money. I can earn mine, thank you very much. What do you have in mind? I got to meet Jack in fifteen minutes. I might be able to work you in if you don't want to go around the world."

"Around the world?" I asked.

"A little bit of everything. That cost most guys a Benjamin, but for you, I'll make you a deal because you're better looking than my regular dates. Get my drift?"

I wasn't stupid and I did get his drift. He told me what I wanted to know. I'd keep my eyes open for Cody all right.

I looked at him closely and he looked right back. He was too young. I didn't have any trouble seeing the big picture. What I didn't see was why a kid, and when I was seventeen I could barely find my ass with both hands, why was this kid going on dates? Most boys his age were home in bed with visions of first period dancing in his head.

Didn't they have places for kids like Cody?

"Where'd you go, dude?" Cody asked,

"Just thinking," I said.

"Takes that much work, does it?" he said, "I got to split, dude. What's your name again?"

"Clete. Stay with me. I like you. I'll pay you whatever Jack is paying you. We can go to the arcade and have fun. Whatever you like. You can take the night off."

His eyes stayed on my eyes.

"Look, Clete, you're a nice kid and all, and I do appreciate the burger and all but you and I live in different worlds. One bump don't add up to a long term commitment, you see, and Jack is a regular. Every Wednesday night he comes to town to see me, you see. He ain't as cute as you. He isn't a kid, but he is a reliable Andrew in my pocket. I eat for two days on twenty bucks, you see, and business is business."

"I don't like to think of what you do for the twenty," I said.

"You see, you don't got to worry about what I do. You're passing through. I'll be here long after you've gone home. Jack will be here too. On Wednesday nights. I do what I need to do," Cody said.

He stood up, and after patting my shoulder, Cody split.

"See you, kid," he said, as he reached the door.

He went out the door and he walked in front of the window where I sat.

Strange kid, I thought. Cute kid.

I stepped out into the cool night air. I watched Cody walking down the block toward Terry's.

When I reached the entrance of the arcade, I turned to look toward Terry's before I went inside.

Cody was gone.

I decided I'd return to my truck after a few more games. I still had enough tokens to play the next time I came to town.

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