Walking Into Clouds

by Rick Beck

Chapter 14

A Wider World

We walked away from Topsy's and Jerome Bing in silence, but I couldn't keep my mouth shut for long.

"Wow! You know Jerome Bing," I said. "My father will not believe I spent an evening with Jerome Bing," I said. "Wow. That's all I can say. If I'm dreaming, please don't wake me up. How do I explain how I met him? He'll ask too many questions I'm not ready to answer."

"He's one of those people who helped keep me alive. Vanilla came first and you know how I met Mr. Bing. I have a lot of people in my life, Clete. Good people," Cody said. "I'm not out of the woods yet, but if I do survive until I'm 18, you've met some of the people responsible."

"I thought that I was prepared for what I might find down here, but since I met you, it's different than anything I imagined," I said. "Jerome Bing! You know Jerome Bing. How do you like that?"

"Most people can't comprehend or relate to the people I know, and that goes for some of the proper men who pick me up in cars for a date. I'm living life on the edge of society. People like Vanilla shoot for the moon, because she ain't got nothing to lose. No one expects her to accomplish anything, but she's been one hell of a friend to me," Cody said. "Most people see us as lower than dirt, but there is way more to a story than the title. If you're too hung up on appearances and what's at the surface, you miss the richness that's at the heart of the story. Everyone has something to offer no matter what proper folks think. You throw away and turn your back on enough people and you're wasting a lot of potential."

"You can't judge a book by its cover," I said. "Going after someone who looks good, never bothering with what's inside that person, you'll get burnt every time. Looks are only skin deep."

"That too," Cody said. "Because of what I do, no matter what I do. If I find a cure for AIDS the story would read, 'Former male prostitute, Cody Cozy, discovered a cure for AIDS, the CDC announced today.' I understand that's how it is. It won't stop me from trying to make a difference, but I know anything I accomplish will be prefaced with, 'The former male prostitute, Cody Cozy.' The laws keep me from doing anything else. The first time I interview for a job, the cops would be waiting for me by the time the interview ended. I'm a delinquent child until I'm 18. It ain't my doing but the laws keep me in the shadows. I don't get an even shot to make it without the law coming to pick me up as delinquent. That is how it is. I live with that knowledge and I will keep on doing what I do until I'm grown."

"It doesn't have to be like that," I said. "You can do what you want. I'll say you're pretty amazing if anyone asks me."

Cody laughed.

"I don't think you need to worry about that," he said. "I had an aunt who once told me, 'There are two kinds of people in the world, Cody. There are people who claim to be good and there are people who get caught. The people who claim to be good do their best to punish those who get caught, and all the time they fear being caught too. We all have secrets we keep.'"

I laughed.

"How true. I certainly wouldn't want to be judged by what I did to survive as a gay teen athlete. I lived a lie and I wouldn't want anyone to spread that around. If I were a better athlete, I'd be afraid someone would out me, but I'm just a slug who plays pickup games."

"You looked pretty good to me. You scored twice in the game I saw you play," Cody said.

"I had a good day. I don't get the ball that much," I said.

"What does a professional athlete do? He has a lot of good days before someone notices he is good," Cody said.

"I played the banjo in high school. I quit. I wasn't as good as other high school musicians. It took time to learn but I left it behind."

"I never thought I could make music. When I was in school, piano was an academic exercise. I wasn't making music so much as I was staying out of the house. Now I do make music. I don't know what I will do with it but music makes me feel good. Playing music makes me feel better. Entertainers are expected to be flawed."

"I don't know," I said. "You did what you had to do, Cody. I couldn't have done what you did. You said that you'd lived way more than I have lived. You're right. You've made it on your own."

"Made what. I've got a long way to go. They can sweep me up and lock me up any time they like. Anyone I'm with is in danger of being caught up in my mess," Cody said.

"I won't let that happen," I said.

"Says the pretty boy who sneaks into the red light district to look for sex and love," Cody said. "We make quite a pair."

"We do, don't we," I said.

We both laughed.

"And how does the story read if you find the cure for AIDS?" Cody asked.

"A gay boy, Clete Thomas, reputed to have frequented the seedy side of town, and was known to keep company with a male prostitute," I said. "Discovers the cure for AIDS this week."

"These days people can find out almost everything about you. Once they dig out that little tidbit that makes them feel superior, they write you off as no good. Note one of them could have walked in my shoes and survived," Cody said.

"We all have secrets to keep," I said. "The best thing to do is let the past rest. When everybody knows everything about everyone, no one will want to be friends with anyone. If I don't trust someone I avoid them. I don't need to know anything else," I said.

"Do you trust me?" Cody asked.

"Am I seeing you?" I answered.

"If the world was just you and me, it would be easy," he said. "I'd walk a mile in your shoes any day."

"Don't be silly. My shoes are way too big for your feet," I said.

Cody laughed and then he smiled at me.

"No one knows where you've been, Cody. They don't know what your life was like," I said. "I didn't create the system that throws people away. Anyone who turns his back on you because of your past is a fool. I'll never do that and I know how you got where you are. I couldn't have survived it and I sure don't blame you for surviving it."

"It's my tough luck for picking the wrong parents," Cody said. "One day folks like you and me, flawed folks, will get to write the rules. We'll make the butt-heads dance to our tune for a change."

"That would be justice," I said.

"That'll be the day," Cody said. "It would be fun though."

"The people I go out with are seriously flawed. Some times I think they're miserable and I give them a tiny bit of pleasure, even if it is a temporary feeling. I try to imagine what it must be like looking for a boy to tide you over for a while, I wonder if they're gay or what? They've got to think about it being against the law. Do they think about what it's like to be arrested? I bet it would ruin most of them, but they keep coming down here anyway."

"I'd rather talk about something else," I said. "I'm not crazy about what you do. I know why you do it and that helps, but I don't want to talk about it. I know it can't be an easy life, Cody."

"If I don't trust someone, I don't go out with him. I don't need a peek at his pedigree to know if he gives me the creeps or not," he said. "Most guys I date know me. I know, you don't want to hear it."

"I don't mind that. I worry about you. I know there are creeps out there," I said. "Going out with guys you know is cool."

"I live in a world where people don't ask too many questions. There's a good chance you won't like the answers," Cody said.

"I met a man who told me we need to decide what we like and then we need to find it. You need to be able to tell the person you like about it. It has nothing to do with society's rules, because even the people who make the rules don't necessarily follow them."

"That's easy. I want to be held. I would like to feel safe," Cody said, as we walked back into a more populated area of the seedy side of town. I'd like to go to bed at night knowing I won't be locked up tomorrow."

It was the first time I could appreciate Cody's world. I couldn't imagine going to bed not knowing if I'd be free the next day. Why couldn't a kid who is forced to make it on his own be given a chance to do it? The system has already failed him once. How many shots do they get at screwing up a kids life?

Being punished for picking the wrong parents shouldn't be followed with being punished by a system that has already failed a kid. Why not help him to find work so he can stay in school and have an even chance to succeed?

Locking someone up to keep them out of sight isn't a solution.

"That is what you fear, Cody?" I asked, suddenly fearing it too.

"That and I fear getting people who help me locked up for contributing to my delinquency. I couldn't live with myself if I got Vanilla or Mr. Bing in trouble for helping me."

"Some people do what they need to do, Cody. It's not as much about you as it is about them. Watching you and Mr. Bing together was something special, Cody. I see the way he looks at you and the way you interact as you play. You're doing as much for him as he's doing for you, you know? That's my opinion. It's how I see it."

"You think so? I'd like to think that's true. That was a nice thing to say, whether it's true or not," Cody said.

He put his hand on my arm.

I got a jolt of pleasure from being with Cody. After one of the nicest evenings I'd ever had, I realized much of the pleasure came from being with Cody. I was drawn to him the first time we met and now we were seeing each other regularly.

Comparing this Cody with the mouthy kid I knocked down in the arcade was impossible. This wasn't the same kid. He wasn't a kid at all. He ran deeper and he experienced more in his life than I did in mine, and yet he was the kid and I was an adult. I could see that he was young, but looks can deceive.

He had a wise spirit and he was more like an adult than I was. In many ways I was still a kid and in some ways Cody was very mature. He considered how his actions impacted others and I rarely did. I didn't consider the consequences for my actions and Cody was very aware of consequences if he stepped out of line even a little.

"You still have time, Clete. You can leave tonight and never return to this side of town and no one will ever know you came down here, except the guys you've given your favors to," Cody said.

"You heard what he told us. Find your dream and follow it. There's no future in doing something you hate doing and to do it for money is prostituting your labor? Besides, no matter what I decide to do, where ever I go, I'm gay and I'll always be gay. That will be the first thing that is said concerning anything I do," I said.

"Why aren't you in college? Don't tell me your parents can't afford to send their little boy to college," he said.

"Long story," I said.

"Let's stop at Gene's," Cody said. "I'm hungry. You can tell me the story over burgers and fries. I'm buying tonight."

If I said that, Cody would have objected. I wouldn't argue.

At the counter in Gene's Cody ordered and paid for the meal without objections from me. I'd go along with him this time.

"Why aren't you in college?" Cody asked. "You're plenty smart and you're an athlete. Colleges love athletes, don't they?" he asked.

"I don't know what I want to do yet. I'm not sticking my parents with a $100,000 of debt on the hopes I'll find something I like. I don't have any idea what I want to do with my life. I'm nineteen. When I figure it out, I'll pay for it if it includes college. I don't know if sitting in a classroom is what I want to do for four years, and if I don't want to do that, it lets college out anyway. I like working with my hands. I like being outside. I want to travel," I said. "While I travel, I'll stop at places where people work with their hands," I said. "One day I'll see something I want to try and I'll do that for as long as I like or until I become so good at it I can't stand it and then I'll do something else."

"Sounds like you might be an artist to me," Cody said.

"I've never been artistic but I've never tried to make art. I've been doing what I had to do to get through school for most of my life. I've been doing athletics since forever. I've never been one of the best athletes. It's fun and I like what it takes to participate on a team," I said. "I don't know what else I might like as much as that. But I don't want to get fat and old and still be trying to compete. I see guys playing rugby who can't keep up. I don't want to hang on to a team because they're too nice to tell me I'm over the hill."

"Mr. Bing said, 'Find your dream.' You'd need to be looking for it if you hope to find it," Cody said. "You have the right idea. You want to go out there and see what it is other people do."

"I like animals. I like being outdoors. I've thought of being a park ranger. I'd love to interact with nature and wildlife. Once I start traveling, I'll look into that. I'll talk to park rangers," I said.

"I've never done much camping out. My father's idea of camping out was getting a cold six pack on ice and sit in front of the television and watch one football game after another. Not my idea of fun, but my idea of fun was playing with the boy next door."

"Some weekends I get my sleeping bag and I head for the mountains. I get as far from the beaten paths as I can go," I said.

"That sounds like fun. Get away from everyone and feel the environment like it was a hundred years ago," Cody said. I've never been anywhere. I flew with Jack to Seattle. I saw the city and I liked it, but I didn't see what was between this city and that one."

"I can't figure out how all my friends knew what they wanted to study in college, except one, and he joined the marines. Mr. Bing was inspired by Louis Armstrong. He found his dream as a boy. I wish it was that easy for me. I want to get out in the country and see what's out there. Once I save enough money, I'll follow the sun for a few years," I said. "That's the only plan I have. I don't feel like I need to hurry. Whatever I do I'll be doing for fifty years. I can take a little time deciding what that is."

"Excuse me," a tall skinny fellow with serious acne said. "We can clean up once you're done with this table."

He was leaning on a mop that was shoved into a bucket next to him as he stood next to the table where we ate.

"Give us five minutes and we'll be gone," Cody said.

"Yes, sir," the skinny kid said.

I smiled at Cody as the boy with the bucket retreated.

"Let's hang out tonight. I'm too excited to go home," I said.

"I have something I need to do. It's a work night, I didn't figure you'd want to be out much later than this. I have someone I need to see," he said. "And I'm already late. I didn't expect to have so much to talk about. Being with you makes me think about where I'm going."

"I feel the same way. When will you leave here?"

"In five minutes," Cody said.

"No. Leave downtown. Leave this part of town?" I asked.

"When I meet Prince Charming and he sweeps me off my feet, or the next time I'm arrested," Cody said.

"You've been arrested?"

"Do you really want to know? Will that make you feel better about how you feel about me? Will it change how you feel?"

"Absolutely not. I care about you. I like you," I said.

"Yes, I've been arrested. I've also escaped from custody. That was a long time ago," he said. "The local cops and I have a truce. They don't look too closely at me and I don't act too stupid."

"How come that doesn't make me feel better?" I asked.

"Time to go," Cody said, putting his hands on mine. "I had a wonderful evening. Thanks for going with me tonight. 'Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.'"

"Whose Louis?" I asked.

"As Time Goes By. That song is from Casablanca. The last line in the movie came after the prefect of police sends his men off to, "Round up the usual suspects," but Rick, Humphey Bogart's character, is the one who shot the Nazi and the prefect knows it, and Rick realizes that Claude Rains, the prefect of police, has just pulled his fat out of the fire, that's when he says that line. Think about it. I've got to go."

"Thanks for dinner," I said. "When will I see you again?"

"Jack tomorrow night," he said as though I would know what he meant.

"I'll be here at seven. In front of Gene's," I said.

"It's a date," he said. "I mean we'll meet here."

"Thanks for taking me tonight. I enjoyed it. I like that we went somewhere together," I said.

"I'm glad. I had a hunch you might appreciate Mr. Bing," he said.

As nights went, this one was one of the most consequential nights of my life. I'd learned a lot about music and people, and Cody beguiled me more than ever.

It was a few Tuesdays later.

Cody asked me to bring my banjo with me. Jerome Bing had told Cody to have me bring it. He wanted to hear me play. I didn't remember telling him I played the banjo.

Playing for a man of his caliber scared the hell out of me but I wouldn't chicken out. The banjo hadn't been played since a talent show at school in the middle of my senior year.

"You have your banjo out," Dad said, as I sat down to eat.

"Yes, sir," I said, thinking fast.

"You haven't had it out in a while," he said.

"No. I thought it was about time. A friend wants me to play it."

"This someone new? We haven't seen your school friends since... since you left school."

"They're all away, Dad. They're all in school and Sqeak joined the marines earlier this year. I've got rugby and work. I stay busy," I said, trying to steer the conversation away from the banjo.

"Who wants to hear you play?" Dad asked.

I swallowed hard. I knew better than to lie to my father. I avoided telling him I met Jerome Bing, because it sounded far fetched. Now I had to explain why I didn't tell him I met Mr. Bing. It would be something my father would want to know.

"Jerome Bing," I blurted, closing my eyes and gritting my teeth.

My father stared at me like I had slapped him across the face..

"You're telling me that Jerome Bing asked you to bring your banjo to where ever to hear you play it?"

"Yes, sir," I said. "Not exactly. He told Cody, a boy I know who introduced me to Mr. Bing, to bring along my banjo. They do a jam session of sorts on Tuesdays. He has a bar in town."

"Who is Cody?" Mom asked.

The plot thickens. Why didn't I put the banjo in the Silverado?

"He's a friend," I said, taking a deep breath.

"How old is he?" Mom asked.

"He's a kid, around my age," I said, fudging on the facts.

"How long have you known Jerome Bing and haven't bothered to tell me about it? Didn't you think I might want to know that my son has met a musician like Jerome Bing?" he asked indignant.

"Dad, I met the man one Tuesday evening. Cody and Bing jammed for an hour or so, and then we left. It had nothing to do with me. I tagged along with Cody. I wasn't invited. There wasn't anything to say and I didn't think you'd believe me."

"Except, 'Dad, guess who I met last night,' would have been in order," my father said.

"There is that. I met him and he wants to hear me play the banjo. I don't even know how he knows I play the banjo," I said. "I must have told Cody."

"Your friend Cody?" Mom asked.

"I don't know if I told him I played. I might have."

"How else would Jerome Bing know," Dad said. "You, my son, are going to play his banjo for Jerome Bing. Makes you think you should have taken it a little more seriously, doesn't it?" Dad said.

"I took it seriously, dad. Athletics take time and the banjo takes work. I just never had time to do that much work," I said.

"No. We've got no complaints, Clete. You did everything parents want a son to do. We all have priorities but I'd feel a lot better about you playing for Jerome Bing if you'd worked at it a little harder."

"You aren't the only one," I said.

"How old is Jerome Bing?" Mom asked.

"Older than dirt," Dad said. "I listened to him play on jazz records when I was a kid and he'd been around forever."

"He met Louis Armstrong. He heard Mr. Armstrong play when he was ten. That's how Jerome Bing decided to play the trumpet," I said, realizing I had said way too much.

My father looked at me like I was making stuff up.

"He told you that?" Dad asked.

"Yes, he did. He talked a lot about his past but it was meeting Satchmo that convinced him to play a horn," I said.

"What's he like?" Dad asked.

"What's he like? Different from anything I would have suspected. He's a very mellow fellow and he's taught my friend Cody a lot about being an entertainer. Cody plays the piano and he can sing. Hearing a man his age tell me how he lived was pretty neat. You'd never know he's a famous musician. He's really down to earth," I said.

"Does he play in town?" Dad asked.

"He owns Topsy's bar. He has bands in to play and he has a band that plays sometimes. He and Cody played while I listened. The man knows how to blow a horn," I said. "Soft. Mellow. Not at all loud, until they played Boogie Woogie. That's when he let her rip."

"He sure does," Dad said. "He knew Louis Armstrong. How about that. Something like Satchmo passing his love of music on to the next generation of horn players."

"You once said that Mr. Bing was one of the two best trumpet players to ever pick up a horn. Satchmo was number one?"

"He was. There will never be another Louis Armstrong," Dad said. "And if Mr. Bing asked you to bring your banjo so he can hear you play, you know Jerome Bing."

I met Cody in front of Gene's and we drove to Topsy's.

I parked across the street from the honky tonk and we walked into the alley next to the side entrance.

We stood just inside the alley to watch for Mr. Bing. He began as a large shadow in the distance. With the trumpet case in his left hand, we knew it was him five minutes before he arrived.

Mr. Bing gave us a big smile and moved to open the side door. We moved inside without speaking. We took the same seats we'd occupied the last time we met.

"Can I see your banjo, Mr. C.?" Jerome Bing asked.

I opened the case, taking my banjo the five feet to where he sat. He reached for it and he gently looked it over as I watched.

"When I worked in Nashville, I played on records for Cash, Nelson, Waylon, a whole list of country and western stars. Another session musician who was more familiar than I was with country music and he let me look his banjo over, strum it some. In those days you session man showed up at six in the morning on the day they were recording. It isn't like it is today. In those days the band and the vocalist were together in a big studio. Today, most of the time, the musicians record in different studios. You don't see the vocalist. They don't record the same day as musicians. Once they get the sounds they want, they put the album together, using the pieces provided by each individual musician.

"It's what made me rethink what I was doing. I was just making noise for some guy's album. I might have played with the other brass or I might record alone in a tiny studio. Once they thought they had what they wanted, they sent me home. 'Thanks, Bing. That's a wrap,' some disembodied voice said in my headphones."

He took a long drag on the cigaret and then exhaled the smoke.

"In the old days in Nashville I sat with the recording artist's band. I was there to add the instrumentation the artist. While they hashed over what they wanted it to sound like, the musicians got coffee, talked, and it was at one of those sessions that the musician showed me his banjo. I don't remember who it was, but I remember it being Christopherson's band, but he showed me some chords as I held it the way he showed me. He sat back while I played it. There was something about the sound it made that I liked. I made up my mind I'd play one again one day, but I never did. Too many sessions, too many cities, too many miles, and I forgot about it until Mr. C number one told me you played the banjo. So that's why I asked Cody to have you bring it along tonight. I don't know what kind of music a piano, trumpet, and banjo will make, but we can give it a go."

"Did you like recording in Nashville?" I asked.

"I did. I had recorded in New York and it was a rat race. Everyone is in a hurry there. I was young and entertainment was wide open for anyone with talent; no "Whites Only" signs for entertainers. I thought I might like Nashville, and I did. When you answered a call for session men at a recording studio, they said, 'Let's hear your horn.' They only wanted to know what kind of sound you made. It was either, 'Be here at six in the morning' or 'Next.'"

"So I did suffer like black session men did before entertainment started to integrate more completely," he said.

"Where else were you a session men?" I asked.

"After Nashville I went to Muscle Shoals. Small studios but I had a lady friend in southern Tennessee and I tried to stay near her until our relationship ran out of steam. New York of course, Detroit, Los Angeles. I did a stint with Mr. Ray Charles and I toured with any number of nostalgia groups from the 50s. There was a renaissance in 50s and 60s music in the 80s. I went to Europe, came back and I played on Salsa albums out of studios in Miami. It was all albums then. Of course I recorded for a lot of blues tunes and jazz kept me eating for a long time. That was when jazz had come into its own for the second or third time. Blues, well, blues is music for the soul. I feel it there anyway. I was always on call for blues and jazz sessions."

"You knew Johnny Cash?" I asked, having all his records.

Jerome Bing picked up his trumpet and he tooted out the distinctive trumpet riff from the Cash hit, Ring of Fire.

"He heard my trumpet in his head before he wrote that riff himself," Bing said.

"Your trumpet?"

"A trumpet. He heard the trumpets in his head," he said. "That's how it got that sound at the opening of the recording. I wasn't born when he wrote that. So, my history tracks back to before I was born and it'll be around long after I'm dust. My horn is on thousands of recordings and they always will be. It's kind of nice to know it will go on long after I'm gone. It isn't about a man. It's about the music."

"You've lived quite a life," I said.

"He's still living it," Cody said.

"When I was growing up, they told me I could aspire to be a janitor or maybe even a garbage man if I minded my manors and didn't bring attention to myself. After having the experience with Satchmo, I began to save up for a trumpet. Everyone told me to buy a basketball, a football, maybe a baseball glove. It's why I tell you boys, you can stand in line, become a good clerk, or a good cashier, or find a dream and follow it, no matter where it takes you. It'll never be easy. Life isn't supposed to be easy, but when it knocks you down, you'll know you've made it when you get back up and keep going. The dream will make you happier than any paycheck will," he said.

"Mr. C. number one, you're quiet this evening," Mr. Bing said.

"I'm listening. I never knew any of the things you're talking about. I don't know anything about music but what you've taught me," Cody said.

"You have talent. You have a good ear. You're mimicking what I show you and one day soon, you'll be adding your own style to what you do. You might use it to earn a little money or to create your own music. You haven't been taught music, but music is in your bones."

"He has a good voice," I said.

"He does and i get him to sing things that are fun, because they are fun for me. I look at you boys and I see myself. You're at the beginning. You can do anything you decide to do. You can be a clerk or an astronaut. You can follow or lead. You can follow what someone tells you to do, or you can follow your dreams. It's up to you, but never follow a man who says, 'You can't,' because I'm here to tell you that you can, and I know, because I did."

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