Mr. Latham’s secretary brought in a chair for my father. He sat slightly behind between Earl and me. The secretary sat in a chair off to our left.
Mr. Latham turned to her and asked, “Are you ready, Mrs. Davenport?” She positioned a steno pad on her lap and nodded. “All right then,” he said as he scanned the room. “Let’s get started.”
He crossed his arms on the table and leaned forward in his desk. He first looked at me, then Earl, and finally Mrs. Livingstone. He then turned his attention back to Earl and me.
“We are here for a preliminary hearing concerning a very serious incident that occurred his morning,” he stated as looked around the room. He then turned to Mrs. Livingstone. “It’s one that warrants immediate attention.” He looked at my father, Aunt Barbara, Uncle Ray and Earl’s mother. “I informed you on the phone what has been alleged.”
He rose from his desk, came around and sat down atop it. He was directly in front of me. “The first matter I’m going to address is the boys’ behavior.” My heart started pounding when he peered down at us.
“I’ve spoken to several students who witnessed the incident.” He looked over at Mrs. Livingstone and then back at us. “I’m dismissing the disruptive behavior complaint.” I let out a sigh of relief. “There doesn’t seem to have been any evidence of that by what other students have said.”
My hands started to tremble when he looked down at us again. “But, I cannot, and will not, tolerate students speaking disrespectfully to a member of my staff. If you feel that a teacher is wrong, then you can come see me. Calling a teacher out of her name will not be tolerated.”
I jumped to my feet and stood defiantly before him. “But she can call me a faggot and get away with it?” Earl stood beside me. “Yeah, Mr. Latham!” he loudly exclaimed. He looked over at Mrs. Livingstone. “We’re going to get in trouble, and she’s not?”
My father stepped forward and put his hands on our shoulders. “Sit down, Boys,” he said softly but sternly. “Let Mr. Latham finish.” Earl and I looked at each other and then sat down. My father stood between us and kept his hands on our shoulders.
The principal nodded at my father and then proceeded. “Normally, I would suspend a student for five days for such behavior.” I started to jump back up, but my father pushed me gently back into my seat. “But under the circumstances, I am going to issue a three-day in-school suspension.”
“What!” I looked over as Earl started to get to his feet, but my father pressed down on his shoulder.
Mr. Latham looked back down at us. “I know you don’t understand, but I must be sure that all the school’s policies are strictly enforced.”
“That’s not fair,” Earl muttered. Mr. Latham got up and returned to his seat. He thumbed through some papers. The room was deadly quiet. It was as if everyone were holding their breath.
Finally, he looked up. “Now as to the other matter.” He put his hands to his chin as if in prayer as he looked over at Mrs. Livingstone. “Young people are impulsive.” He looked at Earl and me. “They sometimes say what is on their minds, and then they regret it later. They also learn too late that their actions have consequences.”
He turned back to Mrs. Livingstone. “However, adults, particularly those in positions of authority, should weigh their actions carefully before acting.” My father put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed it gently.
Mr. Latham looked around the room. “I think we all know what happened in that room today.” He turned and glared at Mrs. Livingstone. “A member of my staff said something that was hateful and demeaning to a student. She called Richie a name that I can’t even bring myself to say.” I looked over, and she had her head down as he spoke.
Mr. Latham was visibly upset. He sat back and took a deep breath before continuing. He then leaned forward and looked at me. “Do you have anything you want to say, Richie?” I know the expression on my face must have looked like a deer in the headlights. My face began to redden as everyone looked at me. My father gently squeezed my shoulder.
“No..., Sir,” I managed to stammer out. He turned to Earl and asked if he would like to speak. Earl seemed as nervous as I was. He shook his head. I noticed my father squeeze his shoulder like he had mine.
“I have something to say.” Earl’s mother stood up and faced everyone. Tears were shining in her eyes.
“Mother, don’t!” Earl tried to pull her back to her seat, but she pushed his hand away.
“Let me talk, Baby,” she cried. “I think this woman,” she pointed to Mrs. Livingstone, “needs to hear this.”
“As the mother of a gay child,” she spoke as tears started to fall down her face, “I can’t begin count the heartaches I’ve endured over the years.” She turned and looked around the room. “How can you hold your son and tell him everything is all right when he comes home from school crying because the other children were teasing him because he’s different than them.” Earl buried his head in his hands and started weeping loudly. I scooted my chair over to him and put my arm around his back.
“How do you try to convince him that he’s going to lead a happy, normal life when you can’t even convince yourself that he ever will?” I could hear sniffling coming from all around the room.
“How do you hold a precious boy in your arms and tell him it’s okay to be gay, when...” she walked over and stood before Mrs. Livingstone, “when others call him a faggot!” Her words were filled with years of anger. She turned to Mr. Latham. “Maybe you can’t say it, but my son has been hearing those words all his life.” She sat down and sobbed loudly. Earl’s head dropped into her lap as she held him. By now I was crying, as was everyone else in the room- except Mrs. Livingstone. She sat with a cold expression on her face.
Mr. Latham took a box of tissue from his desk and handed it to my uncle. It was then passed around the room as people dried the tears from their eyes.
“May I say something?” I was startled when my father spoke behind me.
“Of course, Detective Ferguson,” responded Mr. Latham. My father patted my shoulder and then moved around and sat down on the edge of Latham’s desk. He looked around the room before speaking.
“I’ve been a detective for almost twenty years. In those twenty years, I’ve investigated many crime scenes.” I held my head down as he spoke. I knew if I looked up, I would burst into tears.
“I’ve investigated automobile accidents, murders, suicides and robberies,” he said. He paused for a second before continuing. “But the hardest to investigate are the hate crimes. The hateful, senseless, irrational actions that people display toward others.”
He looked at Mrs. Livingstone, but she had her head down and refused to look at him. “I’ve been called to scenes where derogatory words were spray painted on a black family’s garage. Or someone hung a black cat on their porch as a warning that they weren’t wanted in the neighborhood.”
He sighed deeply before continuing. “I’ve been to a crime scene where a young man was beaten outside a gay bar and left to die in a dark alley.” His voice trembled with emotion. “He had the word ‘fag’ etched into his chest with a switchblade.”
I looked up briefly and saw tears in his eyes. I quickly looked away. “I attended a Hate Crimes Conference in Dallas a few years ago. At the beginning of the conference they showed pictures from the crime scene of Matthew Shepard on a giant television screen. I’ve investigated hundreds of crime scenes without emotion. I, as well as others in the room that day, broke down and cried.”
He walked over and stood before Mrs. Livingstone. “It was just a word to you. However, it was filled with hate. It cut into these boys’ hearts just like that knife cut into that boy’s chest in that dark, cold alley.”
He walked slowly and stood behind me. He put his hand my shoulder and squeezed it. “Sorry, Son,” he muttered softly. I lifted my sleeve and wiped the tears from my eyes. Earl took my hand and held it.
Again, the room was deadly silent. Everyone looked at Mr. Latham while he nervously pushed some papers around on his desk. He looked up. “Does anyone else have anything they’d like to add?”
He turned to Mrs. Livingstone. “Would you like to say anything in your defense?” She shook her head and looked down. Then, suddenly, she cleared her throat and looked menacingly at me and Earl. My father stepped nearer. She finally stood and pointed her thin, narrow finger at us.
“Look at them!” she spat angrily. “You act like they are the hurt ones. But... but... they are nothing but perverts!” There was a collective gasp in the room. “Perverts!” She spat again.
“Mrs. Livingstone!” Mr. Latham shouted as he got up from his desk. The man in the business suit grabbed her arm, but she pulled away.
“My little nephew was ten when one of their kind molested him in a playground.” She started to cry as she looked down at Earl’s mother. “How do you explain that to a little boy?”
She pointed her finger at us again. “All you perverts should die and go to hell!” With a jerk, the man in the business suit pulled her screaming from the room. “Die!”
Everyone in the room was stunned. We couldn’t believe what we had just witnessed. I don’t know why, but I felt sorry for her. She must have been carrying a lot of hatred around inside her for a long time. I, if anyone, knew what that felt like.
“I’m very sorry,” apologized Mr. Latham. “I didn’t know she would react like that.” He looked worriedly at Earl and me. “Are you boys all right?” We looked at each other and then nodded.
He sat back and looked at the people in the room. “I’m very sorry this incident occurred. Believe me when I tell you it is not the typical behavior of the staff here.” I looked at Earl when he made a clearing sound with his throat. Mr. Latham glanced at him quickly before continuing.
“This matter will be handled in a professional manner. However, I can assure you that as long as I am principal, Mrs. Livingstone will not teach here or at any other school.” He stood, walked over and shook Earl and my hands. “Sorry, Boys.” He then went around the room and shook hands with the others present. Earl and I slowly made our way out the door.
“Wow!” Earl exclaimed as we stepped into the hall. “That was something. Mrs. Livingstone went crazy in there.”
“Yeah,” I responded.
“Your Dad said some cool things, though,” he remarked. “You’re pretty lucky. My old man split a long time ago.”
I started to say, “So did mine,” but I didn’t. I simply nodded my head.
Our eyes met and he grinned mischievously. “So,” he smiled, “since we’ve been through so much, maybe we should go out sometime and talk about it.”
“Nice try,” I smiled. “But, um… I may be seeing someone.” I wasn’t sure if Freddy and my friendship would deepen, but I didn’t want to take any chances.
Earl’s shoulders drooped, and I thought he was going to cry. “Again? Well, I thought you were single.”
“I am,” but quickly added, “I might be. I’m not sure yet.”
“Who is it?”
“I don’t want to say,” I replied. “At least until I’m sure.”
He moved forward and gave me a hug. “Well, if it doesn’t work out, I’m always here for you, Richie.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I replied. He looked at me mischievously again.
“Can I at least kiss you?” My eyes widened. He started giggling. “I’ve always wanted to know what it was like to kiss Richie Ferguson.”
I looked nervously around. “You mean here?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Sure, why not. No one’s around.” Just then, the office door opened, and my aunt and uncle came out. “Damn!” he hissed. “So, can I? Please.”
I looked over and saw people were coming out of Mr. Latham’s office. My father had just exited the room. “Okay,” I said hurriedly. “But not here.”
Earl’s eyes lit up. “Really?” I nodded my head. “When?”
“I don’t know, but sometime soon,” I replied. “Just don’t expect it to be too much.”
“I don’t care,” he said dreamily. “Promise?”
I crossed my heart. “Yeah,” I said as others approached. “Promise.” He gave me a quick kiss on the cheek before joining his mother as she talked to Mr. Latham.
My father was the first to approach me. “Are you all right, Son?” He leaned forward to hug me, hesitated, and then took a step back.
“I’m fine,” I replied. I thought about reaching out for him, but I didn’t.
Aunt Barbara walked up and said, “Let’s go home.” At first, I started to follow Dad, but then I realized that she was heading in the opposite direction. I turned and followed her and Uncle Ray out of the building.
“No shit!” Gabe was sitting cross-legged on my bed. I had been telling him about the meeting in Mr. Latham’s office. “She really called you guys perverts?”
“Yeah,” I said.
A grin appeared on his face. “I’ve known it for years. How did she find out?”
I tried not to laugh, but Gabe was making a stupid face at me. “It’s not funny.”
He stopped laughing. “I know, Richie,” he replied, “but this shit is too unbelievable. I can’t believe a teacher feels like that.”
“I know,” I said. “She must have been going around for years giving any student she thought was gay a hard time.”
“I had her last year for lit,” he replied. “I always thought she was cool.”
“You’re straight,” I reminded him.
“Yeah.” He started to say something but my cell phone rang. I got off the bed and picked it up off the desk. When I saw who it was, I threw it on the bed without answering it and then sat back down. Gabe looked at the name on my caller ID and laughed.
“You’re not going to answer it?” I shook my head. He picked it up and opened it before I could stop him. “Hey, Fucker!” he giggled into the phone.
I watched as his face began to turn red. “No, Sir,” he replied nervously. “This isn’t Richie.” He looked at me and grimaced. “Gabe, Sir.” He paused again. “Yes, Sir.” He then handed me the phone. I refused to take it, but he thrust it in my hand.
“Hi, Dad.” Gabe was looking at me excitedly.
“What’s he want?” he mouthed. I shrugged my shoulders.
I listened for a minute. “Yes, Sir.” I looked over at Gabe and frowned. “But, Dad,” I started to protest but he had hung up.
“Why didn’t you warn me, Richie?” He covered his hands with his face. “I called your Dad a fucker!”
I started laughing. “It’s not like I haven’t called him that before. Why do you think he’s in my contacts with that name?”
“He’s going to hate me!” he moaned. “I’ll never be able to face him again.” Again, I tried to assure him that it was probably all right. Dad had actually been laughing when I answered the phone, but I didn’t tell Gabe that. I thought it would be fun to watch him worry about it.
Gabe scooted nearer to me. “What did he want?”
“He’s taking me to dinner.”
“He says he wants to take me to dinner,” I informed him. “I have to be ready in a half hour.”
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t know,” I said as I got off the bed and walked over to the closet. I pulled back some clothes and took out a grey suit.
“What are you doing?” Gabe had a puzzled look on his face. “I thought you were going to dinner.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “We are. He told me to dress up.”
“Damn,” Gabe replied as I ushered him from the room so I could get ready. All my father had said was that he wanted to take me to dinner. I was to be ready in a half hour and to wear a suit. He hung up before I had a chance to protest.
A half hour later, I heard the doorbell ring. I took a final look at myself in the mirror and nervously made my way downstairs.
I looked around his black sedan when I got in. I had never ridden in it before. When he left home, he was driving a Dodge van. I was fascinated by his built in GPS system. It was the first time I had ever seen one.
We rode in silence. Occasionally, he would look over at me and smile, but he didn’t say anything. I was relieved when we pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant. It was a big white building with a canopy over the front door. A valet ran out and took the keys from my father. He put his hand on my back as we walked up the stairs.
“Good evening, Detective Ferguson,” the lady standing behind a podium sang out. “We have a table for two reserved for you. Follow me.” Again, my father put his hand on my back as we followed her to a table toward the back. She turned and said, “Is this all right, Sir?” My father nodded, and she walked away.
I sat down and looked around. The place was elegant. There were chandeliers hanging from the ceilings. The tables were ornate with red tablecloths and a large floral centerpiece. I thought that it must be costing my father a fortune for us to eat here.
A young waiter walked up and stood over the table. He was attractive. He looked Hispanic and spoke with a heavy Spanish accent. “May I get you something to drink?” he asked politely.
“I’ll have a bourbon and water,” my father replied. The waiter then looked at me.
I grinned and said, “I’ll have the same.”
He looked down and smiled. “A bourbon and water and a Coke. I’ll be right back.” I heard my father snicker as he walked away. My eyes widened as I read the menu. I couldn’t believe the prices. A steak cost over $40, and lobster was $60.
The waiter returned with our drinks and asked my father if we were ready to order. “I’ll have the porter house steak, medium.” The waiter nodded and turned to me.
“And you, Sir?” I looked questioningly at my father. I was used to ordering a Big Mac at McDonald’s. I wasn’t sure what I should have.
“How does a steak sound, Son?” I shrugged my shoulders. My father quickly scanned the menu and then looked up at the waiter. “Let’s try the rib eye, medium.” He looked over at me. I again shrugged my shoulders.
“Very good, Sir.” The waiter sang out. “Would you like an appetizer while you are waiting?” My father scanned the menu.
“Excellent choice, Sir.” The waiter closed his pad and scurried off. My father sat back and smiled.
“Well,” he said. “What do you think?”
“It’s... it’s...” I looked around the room. “It’s not McDonald’s.” He started laughing. His mood quickly changed.
“You look nice tonight, Richard.” He cleared his throat. “I mean, Richie. You’re growing up so fast. It seems like yesterday you were a little boy sitting in my lap.”
I looked down and started playing with my napkin. I was beginning to understand why he brought me here.
“Richie?” I looked up and met his eyes. “I’m sorry, Son.” Tears were starting to form in his eyes. I looked down and continued to twist my napkin.
“It’s okay,” I mumbled. I now understood his plan. He got me dressed up in a public place so that I couldn’t yell and scream at him. I was trapped. I couldn’t get up and walk out. I had to listen to him.
“No, it isn’t, Richie.” His voice was filled with emotion. “I should have been there for you, Andrew and Melinda. Believe me when I tell you I wanted to.” I looked up at him.
“Then why didn’t you?” I was trying hard not to cry. Several people around us were beginning to notice the emotional state we were in.
Just then the waiter walked up with a large glass containing jumbo shrimp hanging from the side. The glass contained some red sauce. “Your shrimp cocktail.” He gave us a puzzled look and then walked away. My father took a shrimp, dipped it in the sauce and took a bite.
He held it up to me. “This is good, Richie. Try one.”
I shook my head. “I’d rather not.”
He leaned toward me and spoke softly. “Your mother was a wonderful woman.” His voice was quivering and emotional. “There was a time we were deeply in love. But as often happens in a marriage, we started to drift apart. We tried to make it work for you, Andrew and Melinda, but we couldn’t. When I left, there were a lot of hard feelings.”
“But she was sick,” I said as tears welled up in my eyes.
“She wasn’t when I left,” he replied. “And when she became sick with cancer, I asked her if I could return to help. She refused.”
I looked into his eyes. “What about Linda?”
“I wasn’t with her when I left your mother,” he explained. “She wasn’t the reason I left home.” He sat back and sighed. “If I had to do it over again, I would have been more forceful with your mother. I should have been there.”
I wiped tears from my eyes with the napkin. If we had been at home I probably would have been standing and yelling at him. I would have unleashed the years of hurt that was trapped inside me. Instead, I let silent tears flow.
I looked at him through tearful eyes. “But you hit me.” He cupped his hand over his mouth as more tears appeared in his eyes.
“You have no idea how bad I feel about that.” He reached for my hand, but I pulled it away. “You hated me, and I knew it. I couldn’t deal with it, so I acted defensively.”
“But...’ He raised his hand to stop me.
“I know,” he said tearfully. “For a while, I forgot you were my son.” He reached for my hand and this time I let him touch it. “I’m sorry, Son.”
I finally asked him the question that had been plaguing me for weeks. “Why did you put me out of the house?”
“I didn’t,” he responded. “I set you free.” I gave him a puzzled look.
“Set me free?”
“Yes, Son,” he replied. “There’s a saying that if you love something, you set it free.” He lifted his napkin and wiped tears from his eyes. He then looked sadly over at me. “I just hoped that you would return home someday.”
A man in a tuxedo walked up to our table. “Is everything all right, Sir?” My father nodded and waved him off.
“Richie?” I looked up. “I know I’ll never have your love again. I doubt if I deserve it.” He wiped tears again with his napkin. “I just don’t want you to spend the rest of your life hating me. Perhaps someday, we can find a middle ground.”
I nodded and stared down at the red tablecloth. I pushed myself away from the table. “Excuse me,” I said as I rose to my feet. “I have to go to the bathroom.” Several people gave me puzzled looks when I walked down the aisle. I know they wondered why I was crying.
I went into the restroom and leaned against the wall. I could see myself in the mirror. I looked remarkably like my father. Even though my hair was still short, my facial features resembled his. I was his son. I couldn’t deny that.
I walked over and splashed water on my face. I took some paper towels and dried myself. When I looked back in the mirror, again I saw him. I began to wonder if I was more like him than just looks alone.
A man entered and looked over at me before stepping up to the urinal. I turned and left. As I headed out, I passed the entrance. The woman who had taken us to our seats smiled at me as I stopped and stared out the door. I wanted to leave, but I couldn’t. As hard as it must have been for him to do it, he took the first step in trying to rebuild our relationship. I just wasn’t sure if it was in my heart to forgive him, though.
People stared at me as I walked toward the back of the restaurant where he was sitting. He smiled at me as I sat down. “I thought you might leave,” he said.
I looked at him and forced a smile. “I considered it.”
“I wouldn’t have blamed you if you did,” he replied, “but I’m glad you came back.”
Just then the waiter came up to our table carrying a tray with our steaks. We ate in a comfortable silence.