“Is this Joey Carpenter?”
I sleepily looked over at the alarm clock on the nightstand. It was a little after four in the morning. Since Nicky had arrived home late from his trip with Xavier, I had only been asleep about three hours.
“Yeah,” I muttered angrily. “This better be good. Do you have any idea what time it is?”
“Listen, Joey,” the voice on the other end sounded apologetic, “This is Billy Joe Wagner. Do you remember me?”
“Are you the father of Stephan Wagner?” I asked as I sat up in bed.
“No, Man,” he replied. “Billy Joe Wagner, from high school.” My mind was still fussy as I tried to place a face to the name. Suddenly, it dawned on me.
“Billy Joe Wagner?” I asked. “Are you the guy who owned the farm out on Shakertown Lane?”
“Yeah,” he sounded relieved. “That’s me.”
“Why are you calling me at four in the morning?” I looked at the clock again, hoping it wasn’t so early.
“I got a problem out here,” he said urgently.
“You still live out there?”
“Yeah, Joey,” he replied. “Listen. Me and my old lady were sleeping, and we heard some noise out by the barn. I went out there with my gun, and a silver Mercedes was parked inside. I was going to shoot the son of a bitch, but then he looked familiar. I think it was that one guy.”
“What one guy?”
“The one who took a lot of shit for kissing you that night of the party.”
“Was that his name? It’s been so long ago I’ve forgotten most people. The only reason I remember you is because I see your name in the paper every once in a while. I can’t believe you’re the principal of our old school. That must suck, right?”
“Billy Joe!” I shouted into the phone. “You still haven’t said why you’re calling me. Why don’t you call the sheriff?”
“I don’t know,” he responded. “The guy looked so damn fucked up. I figured you helped him out once, you might want to help him out again.”
“Damn,” I hissed. I was torn. I really didn’t want to go out to the farmhouse so early in the morning; but I knew that if something happened to Gene, it would devastate his mother. She’d just lost her husband, and she didn’t need to deal with Gene’s problems.
“What’s he doing?” I asked. I needed to determine if it were really an emergency or a situation that could wait until later.
“He’s just sitting there,” he explained. “I think he’s been drinking. He’s crying like some drunk, you know what I mean? I think you should get out here. If you can’t, I’ll call the sheriff.”
“I’ll be there,” I said reluctantly. “Give me about forty-five minutes.”
“Okay, Joey,” he said. “Thanks. You’d better hurry, though. I don’t know what that crazy son of a bitch is going to do.” I hung up the phone and then called Star.
“Unless this is Publisher’s Clearinghouse telling me I’ve won ten million dollars,” answered a drowsy Ticker, “then for your health, you’d be wise to call back in about five hours.”
“Ticker!” I shouted into the receiver. “Wake up! Put Star on the phone.”
“Joey?” He asked a little more lucid.
“Yeah,” I said. “Let me talk to Star.”
“Is Nicky okay?” he asked worriedly. I don’t know why everyone always assumes something has happened to Nicky. I guess it shows how much everyone really loves him. There was a brief pause before a weary Star answered the phone.
“Wash you want, Joey,” she muttered sleepily.
“I know it’s late, and I wouldn’t be calling if it wasn’t important,” I said quickly, “but do you remember Billy Joe Wagner?”
“The goth in high school who dated that weird girl, Camille?”
“You know she always wanted to have sex with you,” she giggled.
“Dammit, Star!” I shouted. “This is important. I think Gene is in trouble.”
“Is everything okay?” I could hear Ticker in the background.
“What’s happened?” She was trying to talk to me and calm Ticker down.
“He’s out at Billy Joe’s farm,” I informed her. “He pulled his car into his barn.”
“Again!” Star screamed.
“What’s wrong?” This time it was Ticker on the phone. Star was in the background crying.
“Listen, Ticker,” I said. “Get dressed and I’ll pick you guys up in about fifteen minutes. Gene’s out at Billy Joe’s farm. I think he may need our help.”
“Okay,” he responded before the phone went dead.
As I was getting dressed, Nicky sleepily walked into my room and crawled into my bed.
“What’s going on?” He mumbled as he curled up tightly under the covers.
“I have to leave for a little while,” I said. “Go get dressed. I’m taking you to Aunt Star and Uncle Ticker’s.”
“Aw, Dad,” he moaned. I looked over as he pulled the covers tighter around him and fell back asleep. I thought it best to let him sleep. Besides, I’d probably be back before he awakened.
Ticker and Star were waiting on the porch when I pulled into the driveway. They got in the car and we headed out of town towards Billy Joe’s farm.
After leaving Tina, I drove around most of the night. I stopped by a liquor store and bought a bottle of Jim Beam. I don’t normally like to drink whisky, but when I really want to push Pandora’s Box out of my mind, I find it will usually do the trick.
I visited all the places I had frequented eighteen years ago. I went to Southwestern and sat outside trying to remember the good times I’d experienced. The only problem, in retrospect, there weren’t that many. I had been popular and had a lot of friends in high school; but looking back, they really weren’t friends. Friends know all about you and accept you for what you are. Right?
But no one knew about me. And when I fucked up that one time, I really found out who my friends were. Most of them turned their backs on me; that is, until Joey saved my ass. He told everyone that he had initiated the kiss, not me. At the time everyone already knew he was gay, so no harm was done. However, he’ll never know how much I admired him for doing that. He stood up to them while I put my tail between my legs and ran away.
Next I drove to Allen’s old apartment. It was difficult to find because the dry cleaner wasn’t there anymore. Instead, it had been turned into an upholstery shop. The apartment appeared to still be there because lights were on upstairs. It became too depressing to think about Allen and Joey making love in the small apartment, so I drove away.
I always wondered what he saw in Allen. When they met, Allen was really down on his luck. He was really sick and was only a shadow of the person he was before. He was gaunt and thin. Besides, if someone told me they had AIDS, I would have run to the nearest exit. But not Joey, though. He stayed with Allen until the very end.
I think in the back of my mind I resented him for that. He stayed by Allen’s side while I turned my back on him. He was my brother, but I treated him worse than some mongrel on the street. Even as the years passed, we never were able to recapture the closeness we’d shared as boys. By then it was too late, though. His love was reserved for Joey.
I finally ended up at the cemetery on the west side of town. I got out of my car where I thought he was buried, but it took me about a half hour to find his gravesite. Fortunately, there was a full moon overhead, so I was able to read the names on most of the tombstones. Again, I felt guilty because I should have known where he was buried; but I’d only been there once, and that was the day they laid him to rest.
While I held tightly to the bottle of whiskey, I cried uncontrollably as I sat on his cold tombstone. At one point I even knelt before it and sobbed while reading his name imprinted on it.
“Damn you, Allen!” I wailed. “I cared for you, but I couldn’t tell you. Then you fell in love with Joey, and it was too late.” I couldn’t stop the tears. They rolled down my cheeks and wetted the top of the tombstone.
“Damn it, Allen.” I paced around the grave and stumbled several times. “I loved Joey. Why did you have to take him from me?” Again, I fell to the ground and screamed out in pain.
“It should have been me, Allen!” I screamed. “You were sick and I wasn’t.”
“Oh, God,” I wailed. “I didn’t mean that.” I reached out and hugged the marble tombstone, attempting to hold Allen again as I had when we were younger.
“I loved you, Allen,” I cried. “I couldn’t tell you I was gay. Dad would have killed me.” I wiped the tears from my eyes. “You understand, don’t you?”
I turned and leaned back against the tombstone. I soon feel asleep. When I awoke, two hours had passed. After drinking the remaining whiskey in the bottle, I got up and stumbled to my car. I drove absentmindedly around before heading out of town on Shakertown Lane. Before I realized it, I was pulling into a familiar farmyard.
It was worn and weathered, much worse than I remembered it. My eyes immediately looked to the side porch. The roof had collapsed and was lying in a heap below. I felt a surge of remorse. Seeing it was like looking at hallowed ground that had been desecrated. That was after all, the spot were I shared my first- and last- kiss with Joey.
I was going to turn around, but at the last minute I drove forward. When I reached the barn, I pulled aside the rickety door and drove my car inside. The loft was the only place where I felt that Joey had cared about me. He risked his life by coming to my rescue. He knew I had a loaded gun, but he still approached me. He took it from me and kicked it through a crack so I wouldn’t get it and shoot myself.
Couldn’t he have just let me die? I came to the loft to do just that, but his heroic act saved me. But did he go to school and brag about it? No. He never mentioned it to anyone. Why does he have to be so damn perfect?
I’m a miserable failure, but nothing seems to affect him. His own fucking father put him out of the house, but did he give up? No. He went on to become valedictorian of our class. No one noticed, but I cried when he gave his speech.
Then he went on to be in a relationship with Allen for fifteen years. Fifteen years! The odds were against them, but they made the most of every moment they shared. When Tina and I visited them at Christmas, they were the perfect couple. I couldn’t stand it, so I usually left and headed for a bar.
And now. I came back expecting him to be depressed and lonely. I thought that maybe I could provide some comfort since we both had shared a part of Allen’s life. But no. He had that kid in his life. He seemed completely happy. Star and Ticker were still friends with him, and my own mother treated him like a son. Some depressed and lonely person he was.
“Hey, Buddy?” I was jolted back to reality when someone started pounding on my windshield. It had been years, but it looked like the creep who had lived here back in high school. I looked sleepily out the door window at him, and then lay my head back and started to fall asleep. That is, until he started pounding on the window again.
“This is private property,” he shouted. He then pulled out a gun and pointed it at me. “Get the fuck out of here or I’m calling the sheriff.” He bent down to get a better look at me. He then turned and left the barn.
I got out of the car and staggered to the stairs that led to the loft. I lost my balance twice, but I managed to crawl to the top and sprawled out on the wet straw. After several minutes, I crawled to the corner where I had been years earlier.
Tears flowed down my face when I remembered the look on his face when the bullet penetrated his leg as he grabbed for my gun. I couldn’t believe I’d shot Joey. I came to kill myself, but I almost ended up killing him. The thing that has bothered me all these years is I never apologized to him. He took a bullet to save my life, and I never acknowledged it. Over the years, sitting on lonely bar stools, I’ve thought of a million things I should have said back then. Now it is too late.
“What’s so bad about being gay?” He had asked me.
“I can’t be gay,” I had replied. And now, for twenty years, I’ve denied it.
“It’s who you are,” he had said. “It’s a part of you. You don’t have cancer or something. It’s not a disease.” Yeah, right. Try telling that to my old man back then. He would have killed me for sure. When he found out Allen was gay, I was his only hope for grandchildren. He had reminded me for years that I hadn’t given him any.
Then he reached for the gun and it discharged. I think my heart stopped beating at that moment. When I saw him fall to the ground, I wanted to get the gun and end my life. I had shot my Joey, and I didn’t deserve to live anymore. However, in his pain he still was able to get the gun and toss it away. It took me years to get over it. After countless hours of therapy, it was one thing I refused to discuss. I had shot my Joey.
“Gene?” I thought I was dreaming when I heard Joey calling my name. How many times had I relived his coming up the stairs to rescue me?
“Gene?” I heard it again. This time I looked up and Joey was standing on the steps peering into the darkness. The sun was beginning to rise, so enough light was coming through the old barn walls to see me.
“Go away, Joey!” I screamed. “Get the fuck away from me.” I had anticipated this moment for so long, but now that it was actually occurring, I felt embarrassed. I was a drunken wreck with a tear-stained face, and I didn’t want him to see me this way.
He disappeared, and the next voice I heard was Star’s. “Gene?” She said gently as she pulled herself up into the loft.
“Leave me alone, Star,” I cried. “Everyone just leave me the fuck alone.” I pulled my legs against my chest, buried my head into them and cried uncontrollably.
Star sat down beside me and pulled me into her bosom. We must have sat for fifteen minutes like that with her rocking me while I cried.
“Why, Star?” I looked into her face. Her tears were flowing as rapidly as mine. “Why is my life so fucked up?” She hushed me and continued to rock me.
After several minutes, she spoke. “Sometimes Gene, we make mistakes and take the wrong road in life. You just have to get your life back on track.”
I couldn’t control myself, and I started to laugh. “Get it back on track? I don’t think it has ever been on track.” She took a tissue out of her pocket and wiped my eyes dry.
“It’s too late,” I replied sorrowfully. “A wise man once told me that you can’t build a bridge to yesterday.” She smiled as if she understood what I was talking about.
“You can if you have other people willing to help you build it,” she said. “Let us help you.” She pulled me into her once again and cradled me in her arms as if I were a small child.
It felt good.
It scared me when Gene yelled at me to leave him alone. Through the early morning light, I could see him curled up in the corner of the loft holding his legs tightly to his chest. In a way I was relieved. Just hearing his voice indicated he was alive.
When we got to the farm and entered the barn, we were surprised that he wasn’t in the car. Billy Joe had given us the impression that he had passed out in the driver’s seat.
“That’s one crazy mother fucker,” Billy Joe had exclaimed as he greeted us when we pulled up. He hadn’t changed much. He was fatter and his hair was streaked with gray, but he still appeared to be the same spaced out freak we knew in high school. I was even more surprised when Camille walked out of the weathered farmhouse to meet us.
“Hey, Honey,” she said as she walked up and put her hand on my arm. “Age has certainly done wonders for you.” I heard Star giggle as she nudged me in the side.
I broke away and headed for the barn. I slowly climbed the rickety ladder. It startled me when Gene screamed at me, so I descended. Star decided she’d go up next. The four of us remained below. We tried to make idle talk, but what do you say to someone whom you haven’t seen in twenty years, and you really were never good friends to begin with? Billy Joe seemed fascinated by the fact that Ticker and I had both returned to Southwestern High School.
“Man,” he said. “I thought after all the shit you took back then, it would be the last place you’d want to return to.” I started to reply when suddenly a pair of legs appeared on the stairs. Soon Gene emerged, followed closely by Star. Ticker immediately walked over and held her in a protective embrace.
“Ticker,” she asked. “Drive Joey home, and then come pick me up at the Albright’s. I’m driving Gene home.”
I looked over at Gene and our eyes met. He held the gaze for a minute before tears started to well up in his eyes. I started to say something to him, but Star pulled him away and headed for his Mercedes.
As Ticker and I started to walk away, Camille grabbed my arm. “If you ever want to visit us, Joey, you’re always welcome to stop by.” I stepped back before she could rub my chest. Even after twenty years, some things still never change.
Ticker was silent all the way to the house. I tried to get him to discuss what had happened, but he would try and change the subject. “Not you too?” I asked. He looked over and gave me a quizzical look.
“Every time I try to talk about Gene to Star,” I said, “she tells me she can’t talk about it. What is going on?”
“I really can’t say,” he muttered. I let out a moan.
“Urgghh!” I shouted. “What is going on with Gene, and why won’t anyone talk about it to me? It’s like everyone knows a secret but me.”
“Look, Joey,” Ticker spoke softly. “Sometimes it’s best not to know something. Gene is carrying a lot of baggage right now, and we’re just trying to protect you.”
“Protect me?” I asked. “Protect me from Gene?”
“Just drop it, Joey.” He looked over and gave me a worried look. I lay my head back on the head rest and closed my eyes. Since Gene had arrived, nothing had made any sense. It seemed futile to try and get anything from Star or Ticker.
Nicky was still asleep in my bed when I arrived. I looked over at the alarm clock. It was almost seven. School doesn’t start until eight, but I like to arrive around 6:30. It was usually the only time of the day I could get anything done. Once the first bell rang, I’d usually be busy dealing with disruptive students, agitated parents or disappointed faculty members.
I picked up the phone and dialed my assistant principal, Jeralyn Meadows. She is a wonderful administrator. She is in her late twenties, and she can easily identify with the students. I knew we would hit it off the first day she reported for work the first week of July. As a joke, I had given her a plaque for her desk. She roared with laughter when she unwrapped it. It read: Ms. Meadows, Ass. Principal. With tears running down her face, she said, “I think I’m going to like you.” We make a great team. She is someone I know I can trust and depend on.
I told her that an emergency had come up over night, and that I hadn’t gotten much sleep. I asked her if she’d ‘hold down the fort.’
Her reply was, “Yes, Kimosabe.” I was still laughing as I undressed and crawled into bed beside Nicky.
“Dad,” he mumbled.
“Can I play hooky with you today?”
“Did you do your homework?”
“All right then,” I muttered as we both fell back to sleep.
“But I’m telling you, Doc,” exclaimed an excited Douglas. “Coach Arnold is crazy. He’s got the football team on us. We can’t walk down the hall without getting pushed against a locker.”
I had been hearing rumors all day about the football team intimidating students who were interested in joining the Gay-Straight Alliance. Somehow, a list of the students had been leaked.
Dr. Garvin called me earlier in the morning and informed me that the coach had been placed on disciplinary leave pending a hearing with the school board. They were waiting to see how his case was resolved in criminal court.
“He’s really made it hard on William,” said Travis. “He kicked him off the football team when he found out he was involved in the group.” Jason grabbed his left hand and squeezed it.
“I talked to Superintendent Garvin this morning,” I informed them, “and we’re making arrangements to provide for your safety.”
“I’m scared,” cried Travis. “He’s gone crazy since this whole thing came up.” He looked over at Jason. “I wish he had never seen us kissing.” Jason pulled him into his chest as he cried softly.
“We’re working on it,” I tried to reassure them. “Dr. Garvin has promised to hire extra security guards until things settle down.”
Suddenly, I heard commotion coming from the outer office. “You can’t go in there!” Delores shouted. “I’m calling security.”
The door burst open, and Coach Arnold was standing angrily before us.
“So this is where all the fags hang out, huh Doc?” I was frightened by the shear evil emanating from his eyes. “Are you pansies in here giving each other blow jobs?”
I stood up and approached him. “I think you’d better leave, Coach.” I stood before him, refusing to be intimidated by him.
“You think you’re so god damned almighty!” he shouted, “Don’t you, you fucking faggot? You’re just like them. I’ve heard the rumors.”
“Get out of my office!”
“Fuck you!” He suddenly pulled a small revolver from his jacket pocket and pushed me away.
“Here’s how we deal with fags around here.” He pointed the gun at Douglas. “You’re first, Cocksucker!”
I leapt for the gun and tried to prevent him from shooting. Douglas reeled back and fell to the floor.
“You’re next, Faggot!” He pointed the gun at Travis. I moved around and positioned myself between the coach and Travis.
I heard the gun fire, and the searing pain in my chest made it difficult to breath.