Walking Into Clouds

by Rick Beck

Chapter 11


"You're up early," my father said, turning pages of the morning paper.

"I've got a side trip to make before the match," I said.

"Who are you playing today?" he asked.

"Scrambled or over easy?" mom asked.

"Scrambled. Do we have rye bread? Rye toast if we have it."

"How many hot cakes?" she asked.

"Half dozen should do it," I said. "I'm not that hungry this morning."

My father looked at his watch.

"You've got plenty of time before the game," he said. "You aren't feeling well?"

"No, I'm fine. I'm watching my weight," I said.

"You're kidding. He ate twice as much before last weeks match. He must have a hot date to be leaving the house on so little today."

I polished off breakfast, got into my rugby togs, and went out to start the Silverado. It was a bit cool but by the time we were on the field the sun would be high and I'd be sweating up a storm. I took my jacket but I didn't put it on.

As soon as I turned on the street that ran in front of Gene's, I saw Cody moving toward the curb.

"Good morning," he said, moving my jacket onto his lap as he sat down.

"Morning," I said. "How are you today?"

"I'm fine. That your uniform?"

"Yeah, awesome, isn't it. I love the black and red," I said.

"It's something all right," he said, looking down at my exposed legs. "Looks a little drafty. You got nice legs."

"Thank you. They come in handy in a scrum," I said.

"That's when you jam together to fight over the ball?" he asked.

"That describes it. You've seen a rugby game before?" I asked.

"On TV. I've never seen a real game. That's why I wanted to come along. I wanted to see what you do and how you do it," he said. "My friend Vanilla knows about rugby. I saw a game at her apartment on her television. I don't get to see much television."

"Vanilla? What kind of name is that?" I asked.

"It's her name. It's what she calls herself. I call her Vanilla. What's wrong with that?" he asked.

"There's nothing wrong with it. It's unusual," I said.

"Yes, than it's a good name. Vanilla is quite unusual," he said.

"You might be a little disappointed. I don't do much. I'm not one of the better players. I've only been playing since last year. I can hold my own but no one passes me the ball if it isn't absolutely necessary."

I left Cody standing on the sidelines near the Panther's bench. There weren't many people there but they straggled in as the game went on. I jogged onto the pitch with my team and the game started just after ten.

We were evenly matched and no one scored for a long time. I worried that Cody would be bored stiff. As the crowd picked up, i could tell they were restless by how many people were moving around to get soft drinks, pretzels, and hot dogs. I hadn't thought to ask Cody if he needed any money. Probably a good thing I forgot too.

I was shocked by the first score, because the teams were evenly matched. It seemed like no one would score. I did my best to be in position to get the ball, but it didn't squirt my way.

As the half was about to end, the other team got a bit careless, letting one of our forwards come out of the scrum with the ball and he was aimed at the opponents goal line. As one of the other team charged him, he passed the ball across the field to me. I'd broken free and was angling to take out a defense man. Once i had the ball, instead of blocking, I sidestepped the only opposition player in my way, and I ran straight across the goal line.

The Panthers took the lead.

Because the half was about to end, my teammates rushed me, knocking me down and piling on. It was nice to be appreciated. We moved back onto the pitch for the successful kick.

My successful try was worth 4 points, once I put the ball down inside the oppositions in-line. The successful kick delivered two more points to the Panthers.

As the half concluded, it was Panthers 6 and Cougars zero.

Staying near the bench, I listened to the coach's instructions for the second half. As the talking ended, I went to lie on the grass behind our bench a few yards away.

"That was pretty nice," Cody said. "You run fast. None of those guys could keep up with you."

"They're all big and that makes them tough to move. I'm small and fast, and once I get up a head of steam, they can't catch me."

"You telling me," Cody said. "You scored a touchdown."

"It's called a try. That's four points in league play when you complete a try. The kicker who kicked the ball through the goal scored two points. That's why it's 6 to 0," I said.

"Different than football," Cody said.

"How you score points is similar to football, but no one would confuse rugby with football.

"You told me a lie. You're better than you said you are. You shouldn't sell yourself short. It serves no purpose to be modest," Cody said. "You need to believe in yourself. You don't and no one will. You need to let them know you're out there."

"Right, coach," I said.

He smiled.

"Sorry. Do it your own way. I don't know anything," he said.

I never liked showboats. I didn't want to be one. Something about what Cody said made sense. I knew I could outrun anyone on the opposing team. They were all two hundred pounders and most of them were ten or more years older than I was. It's the one area where youth triumphs over experience and skill.

During the second half, I stationed myself on the outside of each scrum. While matching muscle against muscle with bigger men was satisfying, it wasn't my strength. Now that my speed was a factor in matches, being where that speed could do the most damage to the opposition was the best place for me to be. It's where my teammates expected me to be in case they got possession of the ball.

In the middle of the second half, the ball squirted into the hands of one of the Panthers, and he skillfully let the ball loose for me to run under it and begin my dash down field.

Being in the open, I was reaching full speed when the ball fell into my arms. I made another try and the kick was good.

It was Panthers 12 Cougars 0 and time was running out.

When all was said and done, I felt good about my performance. With a couple of minutes left, an outside man on the Cougars got the ball on the other side of the pitch from me. I tried in vain to catch him, but he was too far ahead of me and he made his try, but the kicker missed the kick.

It was Panthers 12 and Cougars 4, and that's the way it ended when the referees ended play. Time had run out.

After celebrating our victory for a few minutes on the field, once the game ended, I walked toward the sidelines to breathe in our victory. When I saw Cody, I altered my course to walk to where he was. He was all smiles and he waved at me.

:Who's the faggot," one of my teammates asked, as he came off the field just ahead of me.

Being shocked by the crude remark, I touched his shoulder.

"What did you say?" I asked, as he turned to face me.

I'm unable to relate what followed.

The next thing I knew I was flat on my back with a wet towel over my face. I wasn't sure what took place while I was napping. I was sure the game ended but how had I gotten knocked on my ass?

"What the hell happened?" I asked, not sure of anything.

My head was in Cody's lap and he took the towel off my face.

"Don't know, Thomas. Cahill hauled off and belted you. What did you do to him? All I saw was the result of the punch," the coach said.

"Got me, coach. I just got here," I said, feeling out of sorts. "I feel like I've been run over by a Mack truck."

"Nice game, Thomas. I'm tossing Cahill off the team. He won't be back," the coach said. "I don't tolerate crap like this. He's half again your size. You going to be, OK? Do I need to call the medicos over?"

"I'm fine. A little dizzy. That's nothing new. I no longer feel like I was hit by a truck. Could have been a small car," I said.

I made an effort to sit up and I thought better of it.

"I scored two goals. A simple thank you would have been fine."

"You need to relax a few minutes, Thomas. You have any nausea at all, you call me and I'll have you checked for concussion," he said.

"Will do, coach. I'm feeling better all ready," I lied.

Using the damp towel, Cody used it to wipe my face free of sweat.

"What the hell happened?" I asked, after the teams dispersed and the fans left the scene.

"Clete, I appreciate you're gallantry. I haven't had anyone defend my honor in ages, but if you're going to take on a horse that size, be ready when the fight starts," he said.

"What did I do?" I asked. "I remember walking off the field and the next thing I know I'm lying here looking up at you.

"The big brute called me a faggot. If apparently offended you. You turned to ask what he had said, and he decked you."

"Why'd he hit me? I didn't do anything to him," I said.

"You intended to take him to task for using the word faggot, I believe. I'm sure you thought it was a referencer to me. He evidently thought you were going to hit him," Cody said. "I didn't think so."

"I'm civilized. I don't hit people when it isn't part of the game."

"If you're going to challenge someone, even if you think it is an intellectual exercise, you should put your dukes up anyway. Just in case he thinks you sound like you want to fight," Cody said.

"I guess I look like a fool," I said. "Let me sit up."

"Actually it was gallant of you to want to defend my honor, but like I told you, I can take care of myself. If that oaf came near me, I'd have put him in his place," Cody said.

"He weighs two hundred and twenty pounds," I said, rubbing my temples as the Anvil Chorus played inside my head. "How would you put him in his place?"

"I don't go anywhere without protection," he said.

"You're armed?" I asked.

"I am," he said.

"Let me see," I said.

Cody reached for his waistband and he withdrew a pin that must have been five inches long.

"What's that?" I asked, laughing. "It's a pin. Where'd you get it."

"Vanilla gave it to me. She always has one on her. When I was new here, she bought me a cup of coffee and she gave me her hatpin.

'Hon, anyone gives you trouble, you prick them in their privates with this. It don't take much, just a little prick to let them know they don't want to be fucking with you. They persist, you give them the entire pin right in the balls. They'll lose interest fast,' she told me. "You ain't never seen no one move like they do when they get a poke from Vanilla's pin. You keep this on you now."

"I carry it all the time and I've used it twice. I'd have been more than happy to have let that brute have as much of it as he wanted."

"Vanilla?" I said.

"She dresses up but she knows how to take care of herself," Cody said.

"Dresses up?"

"Vanilla's a dude who dresses up like a girl," he said.

"Vanilla is trans?" I asked.

"Yes, but she calls it dressing up. The least I can do is call it what she calls it. She dresses up. She sings like Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday. She sings their songs at the Review three night a week. It's kind of a bar and kind of a place people go for entertainment. Everyone knows Vanilla."

"Everyone but me," I said. "I'm going to stand up. Thanks for the use of your lap," i said.

"Anytime," he said.

A couple of my teammates came over. They wanted to know what happened. I told them I wasn't sure. I didn't remember what Cahill said and I sure didn't remember being punched in the face but I didn't doubt it. I felt like I'd been hit hard.

I remembered my head being in Cody's lap and the coach talking about concussion. I wasn't wanting anything to do with that.

"Let's go," I said. "Time for us to go get something to eat."

"If you're hungry, you'll be fine," Cody said.

"Yeah, if I wasn't hungry I'd be worried," I said.

Cody laughed and shook his head.

As we drove away, I looked toward the empty field.

"I never scored twice in a match before," I said.

"You looked like you knew what you were doing. Once you got the ball, no one got close enough to slow you down," he said.

"It's not usually that easy. There are speedsters on most teams who are there to run down someone in the open field. If they had such a guy, I didn't run into him."

I was heading back to town but I didn't want to let Cody out. We hadn't spent any time together. As my head cleared, I figured we'd do the obvious thing.

"Where do you want to eat?" I asked.

"The way you're dressed limits us," he said.

"I got jeans in my boxes behind the cab," I said. "That won't help the smell though. I have deodorant but indoors I'm going to reek after a while."

"Won't bother me," Cody said. "The other folks will just need to hold their breath if it offends them."

I laughed.

My stomach growled.

I looked for a place where I could pull over and change clothes. I wanted to take Cody some place nice.

I could see the mountains from the driveway of my house. They were covered in snow as far down as I could see but I was in my shirtsleeves and I felt comfortable.

Those mountains gave me wanderlust.

Few people in the country lived within sight of one of the most striking landscapes imaginable. I thought about the pioneers who came this way going west. This was the doorway to where they imagined they wanted to go. I imagined those mountains convinced some of those pioneers to stay on this side of the doorway to the heavens.

I got up each morning and before I left the house, I looked at the mountains before getting into the Silverado to go to work at Hitchcock's market ten minutes from my house. Standing there, viewing the beauty, was when I doubted I wanted to go to work.

I wanted to get into my truck and drive toward the mountains, and I'd keep right on driving. I'd drive to the Pacific. I'd see California first, and then I'd drive up the coast to Oregon, Washington, and then, I'd drive east, until I reached the Atlantic.

When my friends began applying to colleges all over the country, I thought about continuing school. It's what my parents wanted me to do. I saw the books, the classrooms, the teachers, the same routine I'd been tied to for so long, and I didn't see it. It's not what I wanted.

I worked at Hitchcock's market because Mr. Hitchcock treated me well and it wasn't like work to me. It was like I was getting exercise, and I got plenty of fresh air and work offered me a variety of options.

It wasn't Hitchcock's that kept me from enrolling in college and furthering my education. It was those mountains. I wanted to see the country and meet people and experience what other people did. I wanted to see what else there was that I knew nothing about.

I went with other boys the first few times I ran in the mountains. They knew trails that they used for running. I learned where they were from the other boys. They learned where the trails were from their brothers and fathers.

The first time I ran on a mountain trail, I made it for a half mile before I was bent over gasping for air. I didn't know and no one told me that the air was thinner the higher you went. It's the kind of lesson you need to learn for yourself, and no one said, you'll crap out after a half mile. I just did and I didn't get a second wind. I was wasted by the lack of oxygen at ten thousand feet up. You didn't get your second wind up where the air was thin.

All my friends knew the secret. We all ran in the mountains from time to time during the school year. Working out each day and running around the school's track was boring. Running was the biggest part of lacrosse and soccer. You needed an immense amount of stamina to play on the first squad of either team.

There came a time in each season when we looked at the mountains and we told the coach, 'We're going there to run today.' The coach knew there was more to be gained from running an hour or two at those heights than all the drills he could put us through and he nodded his approval.

Those mountains I could see outside my house were symbolic of what the country had to offer. I'd been watching those mountains for my entire life. Desire had me wanting to see what was beyond them.

I wanted to see the West Coast. I wanted to see the East Coast. I wanted to cross the Mexican border and see Baja. I wanted to drive the length of California, Oregon, and visit Seattle and Vancouver, and maybe the Yukon. I wanted to drive and keep on driving.

I wanted to travel through the Great Plains and go east. I wanted to see Texas, the Gulf Coast, and I'd go to Key West traveling down the west coast of Florida. I'd travel up the east coast of Florida and see the space center where the original astronauts were launched. I wanted to go to Disney World and see the orange groves and then I'd travel to Maine, Newfoundland, and Canada.

I wanted to see the country. I wanted to learn about the people and the places. I wouldn't be in a hurry. I was willing to spend years in this endeavor. Only after I finished seeing everything I could see, then, I'd decide what to do with the rest of my life.

I was in no hurry. My grandfather was eighty-seven. That gives me sixty-eight years to work with if I live as long as he did, and why wouldn't I? I was a Thomas.

Barney, Freddie, and Jordy were all racing off to continue what they'd been doing for the last twelve years of their life. I'd been in school as far back as my memory went. I'd learned from a thousand books and a hundred different teachers, but what I really wanted to know, they couldn't teach me. I could only learn it by experiencing it.

I wanted to have that experience.

I didn't want to spend my life in an office building, imagining being elsewhere. I didn't want to get up every morning to go to work and come home every night to drop into bed, because the boredom was killing me. I wanted to move around. I wanted to see the country, and once I saw it, I might decide to see Asia, Europe, and Africa. I didn't know what I might want to do after I finished seeing America.

On Wednesday the following week I went back to town.

I told Cody that's what I was going to do. He looked at me for a while after I said it. He didn't say anything. I thought he should say something, and then he did.

"You do what you need to do and I'll do the same," he said.

"Maybe we'll get a burger at Gene's," I said.

"Maybe but we just ate. I don't think that far ahead."

"How will I know you're OK if you don't let me take you to Gene's for burgers?" I asked.

"You won't, Clete. You just bought me lunch. I let you buy me lunch. Don't get any ideas about that. You might see me Wednesday," he said. "You might not. It's the best I can do."

"You've got Jack," I said. "On Wednesday."

His eyes were on me again. I couldn't read his expression. I wouldn't worry about him if I didn't know he was OK. I only knew he was OK when I saw him. He needed someone to look after him. I could hardly look after myself.

I cared about Cody. I worried about him. He'd done fine without me for a long time. He could take care of himself. Everybody needs someone to care about them. I was sure.

"We'll see, Clete. We'll see," he said, standing next to the Silverado after he opened the passenger door to get out.

Cody was smart for a kid. He wasn't a guy I would ordinarily pick up with. I mean he was cute and that kind of thing, but where I lived and where I was raised, everyone was a certain way. We were regular. We went to school, went to work, ...came home at night.

Perhaps it was the strangeness of Cody's life. He wasn't like anyone I'd known. I'd gone to where I met him looking for guys who were different from what I'd known for nineteen years. I was living a certain life and while it was OK, it wasn't my life. I was living the life I was expected to live so I looked normal to everyone else.

I didn't need to do that anymore. I went to town to find a different way to be. I had desires and feelings that couldn't be denied. My nice middle class life didn't take care of those desires.

I was old enough to find out who I was and what I wanted from life. I knew I would find out what I wanted to know from going to a place only mentioned in bad jokes or in tales of wasted lives. It was how the holier-than-thou viewed people like me.

I escaped their wrath by pretending I was something I wasn't. No one looked at me like I might be flawed. I'd always been a good boy. I had good parents. I got good grades. I was clean cut athlete after all, and I was tired of pretending to be someone I wasn't.

I never heard a positive story about life on the seedy side of town. I never knew anyone from the seedy side of town until I met Cody, and that was so accidental, it was easy to forget where the arcade was when I knocked him down and then I picked him up.

The unknown was far more powerful than my routine. What I saw in Cody had nothing to do with the life he lived or where he lived it. I could have met him in an arcade in Aurora, but I didn't.

Cody wasn't able to live at home. I didn't know why yet. I intended to find out but the subject hadn't come up. I figured that Cody had no options when it came to how he survived. I didn't care about that. I cared about him. Cody was a nice kid and I liked him.

Why did he scare the hell out of me?

Was this how the tale about wasted lives started? Was I doomed before I started? Did being gay mean no matter what I did or how hard I tried, I'd always be flawed, according to the powers that be, because I'm gay?

The deck was still stacked against people like me. I could be the salt of the earth and there would be people who hated me anyway.

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