Walking Into Clouds

by Rick Beck

Chapter 12

As Time Goes By

At seven on Wednesday I parked the Silverado block behind Broadway's parking lot. Cody asked me to meet him at seven thirty and I would go into Gene's and get a root beer while I waited.

Coming out of Gene's with my soda, I met Cody and a tall thin black dude who was with him. He looked to be about thirty, and he took a place behind Cody when they stopped. The dude was wearing makeup. The eyeshadow got my attention. His subtle red lip gloss was unusual for a dude, but I remembered that Cody said one of his friends dressed up. While the dude wore a flannel shirt and a pair of jeans, the makeup made him dressed up to me.

I smiled at Cody and nodded to his friend. That when I thought he might be dressing down.

"Hi," I said.

"Hello. Clete. This is Vanilla. She came to check you out. Vanilla, I hope he meets with your approval. He's a nice guy."

"Uh huh, he sure do. I have Cody over for tea on Wednesday afternoons. His boyfriend, Jack, ...doesn't like him looking tired or damaged. I give Cody my approval before I let him go out. I told him I needed to meet this new kid on the block. You're all he talks about, and now I know why."

"Vanilla!" Cody whispered firmly.

"Tea?" was all I could think of to say, after hearing Vanilla's speech.

"You're early," I said.

"You said you'd be here by seven thirty. I didn't want you to get into trouble without me," Cody said.

"Heavens no," Vanilla said. "He be the boy I want with me in case of trouble. Are those real muscles or do you rent them somewhere?"

"He's funny," I said, sensing Vanilla was a man with a keen wit.

"Funny, ha ha, or funny queer, young man?" Vanilla sang in a pleasant voice. "I wants to be sure what he means when a man be calling me funny."

"Funny, funny. You make me smile when you talk. You're from the South. My Aunt Peg is from South Carolina. She has a drawl like yours," I said. "I love hearing her talk."

"Close enough. I'm a Georgia girl myself. I came west for my health," Vanilla said.

"You look healthy to me," I said.

"Cody, I'm taking him home with me. You go find another boy," Vanilla said, taking my arm. "No, I left Georgia so I'd stay healthy. Do you know they hate queers in Georgia? Those are some queers folks."

I laughed.

"She likes to look over my new friends," Cody said.

"I hope I look OK," I said.

"Honey, you look just fine, and my job here is done. I have delivered Cody for his appetizer. He is looking especially fine tonight and I expect him to return in the same condition. He couldn't wait to get going. Mama has to remind him that a lady never acts like she is in a hurry to meet her man," Vanilla said, turning to walk away. "Tata. You kids have fun."

Cody stood beside me as we watched Vanilla's exit. I smiled.

"He is funny," I said.

"She is funny," Cody said. "She has a well-developed sense of humor."

"The pronouns are going to throw me for a while. He looks like a he to me," I said.

"You need to look at the complete picture, Clete. She's wearing makeup. Not a little makeup but the real deal. Anyone can wear a flannel shirt and jeans. Vanilla thinks of herself as she and who am I to argue with her about who she is. If she doesn't know, who does?"

"I can't argue with that but he still looks like a he to me. I accept your explanation and I'll do my best to remember he's a she."

Cody smiled.

"He's black. You didn't say he was black. I mean she's black."

Cody frowned.

"I know she's black. She knows she's black. I was sure you'd figure it out once you met her," Cody said. "But yes, Vanilla is black."

"I don't know many black people. None live out where I live," I said. "A few come into Hitchcock's market, where I work, but the only interaction we have is for me to get an item for a black customer."

"Well then, Vanilla is your first. She has a well-developed sense of humor. She thinks everyone takes this ridiculous life too seriously. She's made it her mission to lighten things up."

"Noble undertaking," I said.

"You outgrow that shirt after you put it on?" Cody asked.

"It's my dress shirt," I said.

"Go Army!" He read. "You must not get out much."

"I have my moments and you're early. Jack isn't for over three hours," I said.

"I came to keep you out of trouble. At least until Jack comes. I remember how the game ended on Saturday. You need to have someone with a hatpin around you at all times."

"That was a first for me," I said. "Even in contentious games, the two sides always walk away without a fight. The guy who hit me was on my team."

"You remembered what happened?" he asked.

"I remember him hitting me. I'm not clear on why. He said something rude and I was going to ask him why he said it. That's where I run out of memory."

"He called me a faggot. I've been called worse. Having a fight over it wasn't my idea. People who say such things are ignorant. Fighting with them isn't going to educate them," Cody said.

"I suppose. I think for it to be a fight, I had to know about it," I said. "I've never had a fight. I see no point in fighting some jerk you'll never see again and if it's someone I'll be seeing again, like a teammate, I sure don't want to fight with him. We need to be defending each other during a match but fighting isn't allowed."

"You mind if I get one of those," Cody asked.

"You want a root beer?"


We went into Gene's. I ordered a large Coke and he let me pay for it. I thought that was progress.

"So has Jack met Vanilla?" I asked.

"Yes, he has. Vanilla insists on meeting everyone I go out with regularly," Cody said.

"Jack sat still for that?" I asked.

"Jack's a pussy cat. He didn't mind meeting her when I told him she wanted to meet him. I think he liked her. He asks about her."

"I can understand that and you go to his place for tea on Wednesdays?" I asked.

"It's a joke. The proper English have tea in the afternoon. Vanilla thinks it sounds proper. She isn't given to being a conformist in any way. People who dress up are pretty sure of themselves," Cody said.

Cody didn't want to go to the arcade and watch me play games. So we walked and talked. He showed me the gay places. He showed me places that were owned by LGBTQ people. He showed me the dress making shop where Vanilla worked and where she designed her clothes. It was owned by a straight woman who had a gay son.

Cody had more to say this time. He wasn't as distant as before.

"So you going to come to town every Wednesday from now on?" He asked.

"Probably. I need to get out more," I said.

"What is it you see in me that has you coming back?" He asked.

"Maybe I'm like Vanilla. He wants to make sure you stay safe and so do I," I said.

"She wants to make sure I'm safe," he said.

"I'm sorry. I'll get used to the she he thing soon," I said. "It's my first time dealing with it. You are educating me."

"You're in real trouble if you need me to educate you," he said.

"It's new to me," I said.

"You're in town now and things aren't as predictable as folks like. A lot of people come to town because it isn't predictable. They aren't predictable. You'll see almost everything if you come here often enough," he said.

"What do you plan to do, Cody. You can't hustle for a living all your life," I said.

"In a manner of speaking, it's what most people do. They may not hustle their bodies to eat but they hustle none-the-less. Only a few people have so much they never need to hustle. It's how it is."

"I suppose," I said.

"You're different. I've never met anyone like you before," I said.

"I've never met anyone like you. I look at you and I can't see anything about you. You are built like someone who is athletic but that doesn't reveal much. You're nice to me. You think you like me, but we don't know anything about each other," he said.

"That's why I come here on Wednesday. So we can get to know something about each other. It's different here from anywhere I've been. You're different from anyone I know. I want to know more. I like being around you."

"When I grow up, and that's in legal terms, I'll see where I am and decide what I want to do. Clete, I've done more living in my years than you have in yours. I know people and I know how to get along without getting into trouble. I've got friends who help me, because they are older and more experienced and they know these streets, even if they aren't living on them. I have a life. It's not a great life but it could be way worse. I don't know if you can understand how I've made a life on the street for so long," he said.

"You can show and tell me what you want me to know, Cody. I'm down here because it is where I belong. I'm going to live my life with this part of town being part of it. I want you to be part of that and I know you can teach me things. It's why I'm here. I want to learn."

"Oh, you don't come down to see me and play arcade games?" Cody asked.

"Of course I do, but I'm learning as I go. Like you're educating me about Vanilla and how she cares for you. It makes me feel better about leaving you. I can see where she'd be a good friend to have."

"When I told Vanilla about the rugby match, I told her what a fine athlete you are. Vanilla knew about rugby and how it's played. She thought scoring twice in a game was pretty good."

"That's two times more than I've scored in most games. The ball was just there Saturday. There wasn't anything to do but run with it. The other team was so old and overweight that none of them were going to catch me and dodging the players down field wasn't hard."

"She said that rugby is a lot like ice hockey, hit now and ask questions later. It's a rough sport but I could see that for myself. I didn't tell you how good you were because of the incident. I didn't tell Vanilla about the big creep blindsiding you. She'd have gone after the jerk with her hat pin if she'd of been there," Cody said.

"It wasn't a big deal, Cody. I didn't expect it and now I know better than to ask someone what they said unless I'm ready. I've never had to fight anyone. My friends are all civilized and my coaches threw anyone off the team who threw a punch in a game in school. I've been in plenty of shoving matches but you didn't make a fist if you wanted to stay on the team. So, I guess I need to learn how to fight if I want to stand for something."

"There's no future in fist fighting. Men are too prone to violent solutions for a nonviolent situation. Instead of deescalating the tension, they ramp it up. I don't recall any talk about that in school, but boys need to be taught violence isn't the first response to every slight or perceived disrespect," Cody said. "Only idiots think fighting is the solution to anything outside a boxing match."

"No one taught us that but the first kid to take a swing at another kid was thrown off the team. That started when I was 12 or 13, and by the time I got to high school, I learned to keep my arms down to my side and my hands open. No one ever hit me before."

"I hope no one ever hits you again, Clete. I learned everything I needed to know about getting hit from dear old dad. He was a great teacher. I carry a hatpin in case I run into him again or anyone else who talks with his fists," he said. "Anyway, I didn't expect you to be that good. You don't act like you're hot stuff, even though you are."

"Well thank you. I'm flattered. They don't usually pass me the ball. I haven't been playing rugby that long. I didn't know the rules when I started but I'm learning," I said.

"If you're just learning, you might end up being a great rugby player. Maybe they haven't thrown you the ball because you weren't ready to carry the ball before. You ever think of that?" Cody asked.

"No," I said. "I'm just trying not to embarrass myself. I'm the youngest guy on the team and probably the fastest, but my teammates are mostly in their twenties. We don't have that many players in their thirties, but the other teams are all in their thirties. I rarely see a player my age unless we play one of the college teams. Those are non-league games and don't count toward league play."

"Sounds like you're coming into your own, Clete," Cody said.

We'd walked beyond the arcade and two more blocks before I realized I had no idea where I was but Cody knew, and he steered us back in the right direction and we had plenty of time for the arcade, but we needed to stop for more soda first.

My lost and confused look was long gone and town was no longer scary, though the mystery remained. I expected to find something, not knowing any specifics about what I was looking for. Whatever it was, I was close. I felt it in my groin, but as of yet it wasn't clear, and I kept my eyes wide open.

Cody knew the area and he knew people who were apparently his friends. I didn't know what to make of Vanilla. This was new and part of what I needed to know about. The people lived here and I may have been visiting but I wanted to fit in and not look out of place.

The arcade seemed like my safest bet, once the same cop passed me the third time. I picked up a soda at Gene's on Saturday afternoon and I walked to the arcade. I stood behind some boys who were playing a new machine.

I'd play it when the arcade was less crowded but I had a good view of the screen from where I stood. By paying attention I could see where the transitions were and how the player worked around the obstructions.

By the time I played, I'd know enough about the machine to get pretty far along without hitting game over too early, the first time I played. I always like to watch someone else play a new game and I'd learn from their mistakes. My buddies never caught on to how I managed to pick up on how to play a new game so fast.

The other boys standing around the new machine seemed to be doing the same thing I was doing. They watched until they could get the machine and give it a whirl. There were three watching when I got there, so I wouldn't get to play it this time. Everyone knew who got the machine next.

Cody was busy today and I decided to drive in town to see and be seen. While Cody was full of information and surprises, he also had a lot of dates. I wasn't begrudging him that but I wanted to see him. I'd walk and go into shops and see the day people.

I would meet Cody on Tuesday at six. He had something he wanted to show me. He didn't say what and I didn't ask. I'd been pleasantly surprised by everything he'd showed me so far.

He was intelligent and he knew his way around. While taking life one day at a time was how he said he lived, I had to plan my life around work and rugby. Cody thought it sounded cool.

I couldn't imagine life without my parents. Until now I didn't realize how important they were to the life I was living. If I was on my own and working at Hitchcock's, I couldn't afford a place of my own. While I knew how to do my laundry and my mother taught me some basics about cooking, she did most of it for me. If I ran into trouble, something I didn't understand, my father sat down and listened to my problem and he would give me advice. I couldn't imagine how Cody could seem so normal at his age without the help of his parents.

I wondered about why he left home and how he had survived.

It was cool on Tuesday after work. I rushed home to eat, shower, and to meet Cody in town. I was singing in the shower. I put on a pair of my best dress jeans. I passed inspection when I looked in the mirror. I was happy to be going to see Cody.

We once more met in front of Gene's and we went in to get sodas. As we walked farther than I'd been before on the street where the arcade was, I saw a distinctive change in the quality of the building and the surrounding area.

We crossed into the eastern side of town. It was cool if you stood still but while we walked, it was a nice evening.

When we reached Topsy's, which looked like a moderate size bar sitting off by itself, we stopped in a small alley beside it.

"This where we're going? It isn't open and you can't get into a saloon," I said, remembering that I wasn't old enough.

"Clete, you need to suspend everything you know about the life you live. You'll learn faster that way. You asked me what I want to do and I'm about to show you part of what I have to offer," Cody said. "That's all this is about. I can't do much without a little help from my friends."

"Don't tell me. You make a wicked martini, shaken not stirred."

"I hate alcohol," Cody said.

We stood leaning on the side of a closed bar in the black section of town. There wasn't much foot traffic or car traffic for that matter. I would have felt if better if the Silverado was parked closer. I didn't know what to expect, but I knew better than to get too relaxed in places I didn't know.

A large man, coming from the same direction we came from, walked toward us. He wore a hat that made him look like he came right out of a 40s gangster movie. He was carrying a case of some kind in one of his hands. I wondered if the case was big enough to house a Thompson sub machine gun.

"Mr. Bing," Cody said as the man turned away from the street to walk down the side of Topsy's..

"Just Jerome, Cody. This your young man, Mr. C?"

The man's voice sounded as though his words were dragged across gravel before they emerged. He was bigger than big. He was twice my size. He had to be six three or four and close to three hundred pounds.

"Clete, this is Jerome Bing. This is his honky-tonk," Cody said.

"And that's a trumpet," I said, forgetting the machine gun idea.

I knew who Jerome Bing was.

"It be one," the man said without hesitation.

He walked deeper into the alley that ran beside the bar, reaching in his pocket and taking out a ring full of keys.

"You are really Jerome Bing?" I asked, wanting to make sure there weren't two, but the trumpet case gave his true identity away.

"That was a long time ago, son. I'm just Jerome now," he said.

He put his shoulder to the door after turning the key in the lock. Twisting the handle at the same time and the door popped opened.

He stepped inside holding the door wide open for Cody and me. He closed and locked the door behind us as we moved down a small hallway. It opened up into the business part of Topsy's.

There was a stage with a piano and four wicker chairs for the other musicians. In front of the stage was an open area where people could dance. Off to my right was the bar and the booze.

Since I knew who Jerome Bing was, I was immediately at ease, even excited to be in his presence. Cody knew Jerome Bing.

I followed Cody up three steps and onto the stage. He acted like he knew where he was going. There were fifteen or twenty tables in front of the stage and chairs neatly lined the walls except where the front door was and they ran over to, but not in front of, the bar.

Every available space along the walls was filled with chairs. It was bigger than it looked from outside but every inch of space was used. I imagined the place rocking when it was filled and the band was playing.

Jerome followed us up the three steps, putting his hat on top of the upright piano, he indicated for me to take a seat closer to the piano. He sat in a wicker chair off to the side of the piano and against the back wall a few feet away. I took a seat but I didn't take my eyes off Jerome Bing.

Opening the case on his lap, he placed the trumpet on the table beside the chair. He put the case on the floor, sliding it under the table. I was going to hear the great man play. My father would be speechless.

I asked myself, 'What did a sixty-year-old black musician have to do with Cody? It made no sense as I turned my attention to Cody.

He sat in front of the piano on a bench big enough for two. Cody opened the lid to expose the keys. He slid his legs under the keyboard and looked down at the keys. His fingers played a quick melody. It was a short riff I didn't recognize.

Cody sat straight and he looked toward Mr. Bing. I looked at him and I waited for what I thought I might hear.

It was still, Cody's and Jerome's eyes were locked on each other.

"You know what I want to hear," Bing said in his distinctive voice.

"I don't know what you mean, boss," Cody said in someone else's voice.

They had my attention. I knew they would both play but I had little comprehension for what was happening in front of me.

"You played it for her. You can play it for me."

Cody reached for the hat and pulled it low on his head, not looking up from the keys. He began to play and then he sang.

You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss
A sigh is just a sigh
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by

And when two lovers woo
They still say "I love you"
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by

As Cody began to sing the second stanza started, a soft mellow trumpet picked up the melody and Mr. Bing was careful not to step on the sound the piano was making. I watched Cody's fingers and listened to his voice. It was no trick. It was all Cody and I was amazed by him all over again.

Moonlight and love songs
Never out of date
Hearts full of passion
Jealousy and hate
Woman needs man, and man must have his mate
That no one can deny

It's still the same old story
A fight for love and glor
yA case of do or die
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by

Even when the music and singing stopped, I couldn't be sure what I was hearing. As out of place as it seemed, it was familiar. I'd heard the song, probably from my father's recordings. The idea that Cody had a voice and could play the piano amazed me in a way that changed everything and nothing at the same time.

It was the mellow sound made by a music man who had seen it all. He was a veteran of years of trumpet playing and travel. Cody, a youngster, playing and singing. They complimented one another in a surprising way.

I knew enough about music to know I was hearing something special. I hadn't known Cody for long but he'd rocked my world in a way it had never been rocked before.

Each time I thought I had an idea of who Cody was, he shape shifted and became something else.

I couldn't be absolutely sure who he was.

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