Taking Off the Mask
Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without
and know we cannot live within.  -James Baldwin
Chapter 3
I walked cautiously into my mother’s office. She pointed for me to sit at a chair next
to her. Her desk was stacked high with papers, magazines and folders. I don’t know
how she manages to keep track of things.

She rummaged around her desk for a moment, and then handed me a piece of
paper. “Here,” she said.

“What is it?” I asked. I looked down and saw an address and time.

2286 Walnut Ave. Saturday 7:00 AM

“I don’t understand. What does this mean?” I looked at her, but she was busy typing
something on her computer.

“I want you to report there Saturday morning,” she answered casually.

“Saturday morning!!” I shouted “Seven in the morning! It’s the weekend.” I was
becoming upset. She had arranged for me to be somewhere on a Saturday morning.
I usually don’t crawl out of bed until after eleven.

She turned in her chair and gave me a deadly look. “Do you have a problem with
that?”

“No, Ma’am.” I sunk down in my chair and tried to hold back tears. I was upset
because she had never treated me like this before. For just a split second, I felt she
didn’t love me any more.

“What is this place?” I squeaked. “Am I going for counseling?”

“No, Honey,” she said softly. I looked up and met her eyes. She was smiling at me.
She called me Honey. She didn’t hate me after all.

“It’s St. Andrew’s Living Center,” she informed me. “I’ve volunteered you to help out
there for the next three months.”

“You’re kidding, right?” I regretted saying it the moment the words came out of my
mouth. Her smile quickly turned to a scowl. “But why?”

“Since you’ve lost all respect for your elders,” she stated, “then I think you need to
reexamine your values. You will learn how it feels to be older.”

I just sat and stared at her. I had no idea what she wanted me to do. Why couldn’t
she just deny me television privileges for a week or take away my computer games?
Why did I have to give up three months of Saturday mornings? Twelve Saturdays!  

“Mom, I only made one mistake,” I pleaded. “Why are you being so mean?”

I wanted to get up from my seat and bolt for the door because of the look she cast
at me. What’s that saying- if looks could kill?

“What do I have to do?” I slouched down in my seat, finally resigning myself to the
fact that there was no way I was going to get out of this.

“You’ll be meeting with a Mrs. Carson. She is the head nurse there,” she informed
me. “I met her last year when I wrote a piece on nursing homes. I called her this
afternoon, and she said she’d be delighted to have you help out.  She will have you
doing odd jobs to assist the patients.”

“You mean I’ll be cleaning out bed pans!” I said a little angrier than I should have,
because it earned me another stern look.

“If that’s what she wants you to do,” she said sharply, “then yes, you’ll clean out bed
pans.”

“Mom, isn’t this a little extreme?” I whined and gave her the saddest look I could
muster. She turned back to her computer and began to type.

“This isn’t up for discussion,” she said emphatically. “Seven. Saturday morning. It’s
only six blocks away, so you can ride your bike.”

It wasn’t fair. She wasn’t even going to take me. I would have to get up and ride my
bike while she and Janet slept late. There had to be some law against it. I considered
calling children’s services, but they’d probably just side with her anyway.

I sat for a few minutes, trying to look as pathetic as I could, but it was useless. “You
can go now.” She dismissed me without even taking her eyes off the computer
monitor.

I walked dejectedly back to my room and threw myself across the bed. I still didn’t
feel like she was treating me fairly. I’d always been a reasonably good son, and I had
never gotten into serious trouble. Why did she have to treat me like I’d been a
troubled son all my life? Being good in the past should have meant something.

I fell asleep, but my dream was disturbing. I dreamt that I was cleaning out a huge
stack of bed pans. The stench was horrendous. Every time I’d almost finish cleaning
one stack, another stack would appear.

I was awakened by a light rapping on my door. Sleepily, I yelled out, “Come in.” The
door slowly opened, and Jackie peeked inside.

“You aren’t doing something I’m not supposed to see, are you?” She walked into the
room with her hands covering her eyes.

“Get in here,” I said angrily. “This is all your fault.”

“What did I do now?” she asked.

“Thanks to you I’ve got to spend Saturday mornings for the next three months
cleaning out fucking bed pans.”

“No shit?” she exclaimed.

“And probably that too.” I lay back on the bed and moaned. “Three months!”

“What are you talking about?” she asked. I explained to her the sentence that my
mother had imposed on me. Three months of hard labor with no chance for leniency.

“If you hadn’t made those stupid faces,” I said angrily, “I wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“But I didn’t tell you to tell Mrs. Horner to shut up,” she retaliated. “That was all your
wise plan.”

“God what am I going to do?” I lay back again and moaned.

“Clean pissy bed pans for the next three months,” she giggled. I moaned even louder.

I sat up and looked at her. “You can join me,” I said excitedly. “Since you’re
responsible for me being there in the first place, you can come and help.”

“No way,” she responded adamantly. “I’m not giving up my Saturday mornings.”   
I stuck my tongue out and lay back down. We sat several minutes in silence.

“How was detention?” she asked. “Did Dion talk to you today?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “He said, ‘whatever’ again. He’s such a conversationalist.”

Suddenly, I sat up and squealed, “You’ll never guess what I saw!”

“Do I get twenty guesses?” she asked sarcastically.

“No,” I said excitedly. “I saw Donovan Michaels naked!”  

“I want details!” Her eyes widened with excitement. “Inch by inch.”

“Six.” I held out my fingers exaggerating the length. “And he was soft.”

“No shit!” Jackie hissed.

“He’s also got a body to die for,” I added.

“And I told you to ask him for a date,” she replied. “Forget that, I’m asking him out.”

“Yeah, right,” I said. “Like he’d have anything to do with either of us. With a dick like
that, he can have anyone he wants.”

“Well, if you don’t go for it,” she replied, “then I will.”

“Slut,” I giggled. She flipped me off.

I wondered if I could ever get up the nerve to talk to someone like Donovan. I kept
thinking about what Jackie had said about me one of the best looking guys in our
class. I couldn’t see it when I looked in a mirror. All I saw was me, with short blond
hair, blue eyes and dimples. Dimples. How gay is that?

I wonder if Donovan likes dimples?

When I went down to breakfast the next morning, my mother was reading the
newspaper and drinking a cup of coffee. Again, she didn’t look up when I walked in.
This morning, though, she had set out a bowl of cereal for me. I went to the
refrigerator, poured myself a glass of milk and then walked back to my room. If she
was going to ignore me, then I could do the same thing.

Janet walked into my room while I was fixing my hair and sat on the side of the  bed.
“What did you do, James? I’ve never seen Mom so mad at you. I didn’t think you’d
ever do anything to upset her so much.”

“All I did was tell a teacher at school to shut up,” I replied.

“No you didn’t!” She put her hand over her mouth in astonishment. “No wonder
she’s so mad.”

“But the teacher was making fun of me,” I tried to plead my case.

“James, you shouldn’t say that to a teacher,” she said innocently. “It isn’t nice.”

“Whatever,” I sighed and walked out of the room.

Mr. Marshall stopped me in the hall after second period and told me to meet him out
front of the building after school. I immediately didn’t like the sound of that. I was
sure he’d have us doing some work outside. I’d seen students picking up litter
around the building on several occasions. I assumed that would be our punishment
for today.

When I went outdoors after school, Dion was waiting with another boy. I’d seen him
around school. He was a freshman, so he wasn’t in any of my classes. They were
talking, but Dion looked at me and suddenly became quiet.

“I’m Harry,” said the younger boy. He was very small and impish looking. You could
tell by looking at him that he probably stayed in trouble. He had an infectious smile
and a very friendly attitude.

“What did the warden get you for?” he grinned. “I’m in for talking too much in class.”
It  didn’t surprise me. I had a feeling it was hard for him to remain quiet for much
more than a minute without saying something.

“I told a teacher to shut up,” I confessed.

“No shit, Dude!” He looked at me admiringly. “That is so fucking cool. Man, I wouldn’t
have the balls to do that. Show me your balls, I bet they’re huge!”

I couldn’t believe it, but I saw Dion smile. It was the first time in three days I hadn’t
seen him without a frown on his face. His teeth were white and perfect, and he
squinted his eyes slightly when he laughed. I suddenly realized just how cute he was.

However, when he saw me looking at him, he stopped smiling, and his ever-present
frown reappeared. “What did you do?” Harry asked Dion.

“Nothing,” he replied and started to walk away.

“You don’t get sentenced for doing nothing,” remarked Harry as he ran to catch up
with Dion. “You had to have done something.”

“He stole food from the cafeteria,” I said quickly. When I saw the hurt look on Dion’s
face, I immediately regretted saying it. He looked sadly at me and then walked away.
We watched as he walked down the sidewalk and headed away from the school.

“What’s his problem?” Harry asked. “Marshall’s going to be pissed when he isn’t here
for detention.” I walked over to the curb, sat down and buried my head in my hands.
I had no right to have said what I did. He had avoided the issue for two days, so I
should have kept my mouth shut. I remembered how hurt Jackie said he was when
they joked about it in class. Now, I had hurt him again.

Mr. Marshall walked out of the building carrying several trash bags. He handed me
and Harry one. “Where’s Dion?” he asked.

“He booked,” offered Harry. “James said something and he just left.”

Mr. Marshall looked at me and frowned. “Alright, Harry. Take your bag and go down
to the football field. Pick up as much trash as you can find. I’ll come get you when
your time is up.”

“Cool!” shouted Harry excitedly. He was probably the only student in school who
would think it was fun to pick up trash. We watched as he tore off, running as fast
as he could towards the stadium.

Mr. Marshall put his arm around my shoulder and asked, “What did you say to Dion?”
I explained how I had told Harry about him stealing food.

“You know that was wrong?” I nodded my head.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Marshall,” I said sadly. “Please don’t suspend Dion. It was my fault
because he didn’t stay around. Suspend me instead.”

“I don’t think we have to suspend anyone,” he assured me. “You take your bag and
walk around the grounds and clean it up a little bit. Let me see what I can do.”

It’s amazing what students toss out onto the school lawn. You’d think they’d have
some respect for the place they spend a third of their lives. I picked up soda cans,
milk cartoons, McDonald’s hamburger wrappers, discarded test papers, usually torn
and tossed because they contained a failing grade. I even found an empty condom
wrapper. I wondered if someone had used it for a water balloon, or if they had
actually used it? My dick started to harden thinking of the second possibility.

About twenty minutes later, Mr. Marshall pulled up in his car. He and Dion got out. He
spoke to him a few minutes, and then handed him a trash bag, got back in his car
and pulled away. I watched as Dion started walking around picking up litter.

It took me about ten minutes to finally maneuver my way over to him. I was trying to
do it subtlety so he wouldn’t notice. Finally, I passed in front of him and stopped.

“Sorry,” I apologized. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you.” He looked into my eyes, but
his face was expressionless. He turned and walked away. I ran up beside him.

“I said I was sorry!” I shouted. “Why won’t you say anything to me? You haven’t
said more than a dozen words in the past three days.”

“Just leave me alone,” he replied. “I never asked anything from you.”

“Why do you hate me so much?” It was my turn to be hurt. “I’m just trying to be
nice.”

He looked at me and our eyes met. “Who said I hate you?” He turned and hurried
away.

I watched as he walked down to the football field and joined Harry in picking up litter.
It hurt me when I saw him walk over and start talking to him. At one point, they even
started hitting each other with their trash bags. I watched as Harry dropped his bag,
jumped on Dion’s back and tried to pull him to the ground. Dion managed toss him
off as they continued to have fun. When he looked over and saw me staring at them,
he stopped laughing.

I didn’t get a chance to work with Dion the rest of the week. I think he had said
something to Mr. Marshall, because we were assigned separate tasks. Harry had only
the one day of detention. He didn’t return; although, I’m sure Mr. Marshall would be
seeing him again many times before the year was out.


The buzzing alarm clock woke me up on Saturday morning. I hadn’t set it, hoping
that I could use the excuse of oversleeping. However, my mother must have crept in
during the middle of the night and turned it on.

My eyes finally focused on the red digits. It was 5:45! 5:45! I don’t get up until
seven on school days. It was over an hour earlier. I got out of bed and walked across
the hallway in my underwear to the restroom. I looked down the hall and noticed that
my mother had opened her door and peeked out to make sure I was getting up. She
closed it, and I assumed she was going back to bed for another three or four hours
sleep. I considered going back to bed also, but I didn’t even want to imagine what
the punishment would be if I did. She would probably exile me to the South Pole.

I left the house at 6:40. I figured I could make it to the nursing home by 7:00. It just
had to start raining when I was only two blocks from the house. I didn’t bring a rain
coat because it wasn’t raining when I left. It was still dark out, so I couldn’t see any
clouds in the sky. Just great. My first day, and I was going to look like a drowned rat.

When I arrived, I was faced with the dilemma of where to put my bike. I figured it
would be safe outside a nursing home. What old person was going to ride it away? I
put down the kick stand and hid it behind a bush where someone walking down the
street could not see it.

The front door was locked, so I had to walk around in the rain until I found an open
door at the back of the building. My clothes were soaked, and I left a rather large
puddle of water when I entered.

“Who are you?” asked an elderly woman in a wheelchair. “If you’re here to steal, I’ll
tell you now, there isn’t anything worth taking.”

“I’m not here to do that,” I explained. “I’m looking for Mrs. Carson.”

“You mean Nurse Dorothy?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I responded. “I suppose so. Where can I find here?”

“Push me down this hall, and I’ll take you to her.” She directed me down the long
corridor until we came to an elevator.

“Well, don’t just stand there,” she snipped. “Push the up button.” I pushed the
button and waited impatiently for the elevator to arrive. After several minutes, I could
hear it grinding its way to a stop. I pushed the elderly woman inside.

“What floor?” I asked.

“Look at the buttons,” she said sarcastically. “How many do you see?”

“Two,” I responded.

“Then it shouldn’t take you too long to figure out what floor.” My face burned with
embarrassment, but I was also becoming angry. If all the residents were like this old
woman, then the next three months were going to be very difficult.

When we arrived on the second floor, she had me push her down another long
hallway until we came to a nurse’s station. I saw a black woman who I assumed was
Mrs. Carson. She appeared to be about fifty years old. She was rather short and
heavy set. She had on a white nurse’s uniform with a blue sweater over it. She
looked up and smiled when I approached. She seemed like a very nice woman.

“Lillian,” she said in a comforting voice. “There you are. I went to your room and you
had disappeared on me. Did you find a friend?” She looked at me and smiled again.

“Damn fool couldn’t even figure out what button to push on the elevator,” she
huffed. My cheeks began to blush with embarrassment. “Two buttons, and he asks
which floor.”

“Now, now, Lillian,” the nurse admonished, “Be respectful to our visitor.” The old
woman made a grunting noise and then pushed herself slowly down the hall.

“And you are?” She reached into a bin and pulled out a clean towel and handed it to
me.

“James Hoskins, Ma’am.”

“You don’t have to call me Ma’am. Nurse Dorothy will do.”

“Are you Mrs. Carson?”

“Yes,” she smiled. “One and the same. I talked to your mother just a few minutes
ago. She called to see if you arrived. I’ll have to call her back and tell her you’re safe.”

She probably wasn’t checking to see if I was safe, she just wanted to make sure I
didn’t ride my bike to the mall or some place else. If she cared about my safety, then
she would have gotten out of bed and brought me.

“Thank you, Ma’am,” I said. She gave me a frown. “I mean Nurse Dorothy.”

“Have you ever worked in a nursing home before?”

“No,” I replied. “This is my first job.”

“Well, it isn’t quite a job,” she laughed. “If it was, you’d be getting underpaid just like
me. Come with me and I’ll give you the grand tour of the floor. You’ll be working up
here with me.”

She led me down the narrow hallway. I could see inside many of the rooms and
noticed old people lying asleep on their beds. I was concerned because several of
them looked very weak and appeared to be dead.

“You’ll get used to it, Dear,” she said in a comforting voice after noticing me staring
around. “It’s a little disturbing the first time you come in a place like this. Just
remember that these are all God’s children, and they need a lot of love and attention-
just like you.”

“How long do I have to stay here?” I asked. I know it was rude to be bringing it up,
but I wanted to leave as quickly as I could.

“Your mother didn’t tell you?” I shook my head.

“All she said was for me to be here at seven.”

“I’m on duty until two,” she stated. “You can leave when I do.” I counted quickly on
my fingers. Seven hours!  I had to be in this depressing place for seven hours!

She noticed the look on my face and started smiling. “It’s not the end of the world.
Who knows, you might even enjoy it. My son has been coming in on the weekends
and helping me out for the past few years.”

“Is he a nurse like you?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” she replied. “He’s around your age. What school do you go to?”

“Anderson High.”

“Then you may know him. His name is Dion Washington.”


Chapter 4                                      Return to TMJ