Chapter 16
Karen was disappointed when Lane and I didn’t eat much of the meat loaf she had
prepared for dinner. However, she found it amusing when Lane told her about the
apple pie and ice cream he had devoured at the diner.

“Mrs. Shade sounds like a wonderful mother,” she said after Lane finished telling
her how good the pie was.

“She’s not as good as you, Mommy,” replied Lane. He then gave her an impish grin
and added, “But she may be if you don’t give me apple pie and ice cream.”

Karen laughed and said, “Then I guess I better go to the grocery tomorrow. I don’t
want to lose my little boy.”

It surprised me when Lane responded rudely, “I’m not a little boy anymore.”

My father admonished him, “Lane, remember your manners.”

Karen smiled at my father, and then said, “Of course, Dear. You’re not a little boy
anymore.” She held out her arms, and Lane stood and walked over to her. She
hugged him tightly and said softly, “No matter how big you get, you’ll always be
my little boy.”

Lane kissed her on his cheek and replied, “Okay, Mommy.” I looked over at my
father. He smiled at me and slightly nodded his head.

Rodney and Curtis arrived about a half hour after Lane and I had finished doing the
dishes. They sat at the counter and hungrily devoured what remained of the meat
loaf.

Rodney asked me, “How’s school going?”

I briefly told him I was doing all right in my classes. He wanted to know a little
more about the drama class. I told him I liked it; and then Lane began to excitedly
tell him about singing with Lorenzo. He occasionally laughed at Lane’s enthusiasm.
Curtis, however, not once seemed to pay any attention to what was being said.

Rodney then asked, “Do you know anything about physics?”

“A little,” I responded. It wasn’t my favorite subject, but I did manage to make
average grades.

“It’s busting my ass,” replied Rodney. “Do you think you could maybe tutor me?”

I asked, “Don’t they have an after-school tutor program for athletes?”

Rodney glanced over at Curtis. “Yeah, they do,” he responded, “but Coach teaches
it.” He laughed slightly, “You sat in on his English class. We don’t get much done.” I
looked over at Curtis when he grunted.

“I really need the help, Casey,” pleaded Rodney. “If I fail the class, I won’t be
eligible to play baseball.”

I replied, “I guess I can help you. I have Snowden first period.”

“Great,” said Rodney. “I have him third.” He looked over at Curtis. “Maybe Casey
can help you.”

Curtis gave him an angry look. “Why?”

Rodney replied, “You’re failing three classes right now. About the only ones you’re
passing is Coach’s.”

Curtis pushed himself away from the counter and stood. “I don’t need any help,” he
insisted as he glanced angrily at me. He then stormed out of the kitchen.

Lane giggled when Rodney muttered, “What a douche. He’ll be singing the blues in
a few weeks when he’s not eligible to take the field.”

“Yeah,” giggled Lane. “What a douche.” When Rodney left the kitchen, Lane asked
me, “What’s a douche?”

I tousled his hair and replied, “You don’t want to know.”

School the next day was routine until third period. Students began to gather in
small groups, and I could tell they were gossiping about something. I also felt that I
might be involved because they would look at me and point.

I found out when I went to lunch, and Rodney was waiting for me outside the
cafeteria doors. Without saying anything, he grabbed my arm and pulled me down
the hall to an empty stairwell.

He asked angrily, “Why didn’t you tell me someone trashed your locker?”

“What?” Since my books had been replaced, I had almost forgotten about it. “Why?”

He looked around to make sure no one was nearby. “They busted Mike this
morning. He’s been suspended ten days.”

“What?”

“That’s the rumor,” continued Rodney. “The guys on the team are really upset.”

“How do they know it was him?”

“So it’s true?” asked Rodney. “He did trash your locker?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “My locker got trashed last week, but I didn’t tell them who
did it.” I looked Rodney in the eyes and answered truthfully, “I really don’t know
who did it. I told Snyder that.”

Rodney looked around again. He then said, “What I’ve heard is they caught him on
a surveillance camera doing it. Snyder called his parents. They had a disciplinary
hearing, and Mike’s been suspended for ten days.”

“I know he’s your friend,” I said, “but don’t you think he kind of deserves it?”

I was surprised when Rodney said angrily, “He’s an asshole. They should have
expelled him.” He looked around again. “I just wanted you to know. If anyone
gives you any shit or anything, you come get me. Okay?”

I nodded and replied, “Okay. But I don’t see why anyone would get mad at me.”

“Some of the guys on the team may think you ratted him out,” warned Rodney.
   
“I’ll let them know you had nothing to do with it.” He looked at me again and said,
“I mean it, Casey. If anyone fucks with you, let me know.”

“Okay, thanks,” I replied as he hurried off down the hallway to the cafeteria.

During fifth period, I was summoned to the office. Another student entered the
room and handed my Spanish teacher, Mr. Vega, a note. He called me to his desk,
and informed me to report to Mr. Snyder’s office.

When I entered, Snyder was sitting at his desk, and the female officer who had
taken my report was standing at the door waiting for me. “Have a seat,” ordered
Snyder as he pointed to a chair in front of his desk.

I nodded my head when he asked, “I guess by now you’ve heard most of the
rumors? Do you know why Mike McConnell would do something like this?”

Even though Rodney had told me why they knew Mike did it, I still asked, “How do
you know it was Mike?”

Snyder nodded to the officer, and she placed a laptop computer on the desk. She
hit a button, and I watched a grainy video of a school hallway. Seconds later, a
student entered from the right and approached a locker. Even though the quality of
the video was poor, it was obvious the person was Mike. I watched as he took what
looked like a large screwdriver and pried my locker open. For the next minute, he
proceeded to reach into my locker and shred my books and papers. When he
finished, he slammed my locker and hurried away.

“I’m going to ask you again,” said Mr. Snyder. “Do you have any idea why he
would do this?”

I asked challengingly, “What did he say?”

“He’s not speaking,” replied the principal. “Right now he’s been suspended for ten
days.”

I responded, “I don’t know.”

He looked me in the face. “Why didn’t you tell me he’s the one who you fought
with?”

I shrugged my shoulder. “What good would it have done? It would have been his
word against mine. And since I’m the new guy around here, you would have
believed him.”

Snyder shook his head sadly and looked up at the officer. “I don’t run that kind of
school,” he stated. “If you had told me, then I would have done a fair
investigation.” He looked at the frozen image on the laptop screen. “Maybe this
could have been prevented.”

I asked, “So what happens now?”

“Mike is suspended for ten days,” he informed me. “I would like to go for an
expulsion, but I need you to testify against him. I need to know why you got into a
fight with him. I can expel him if this is a malicious and intentional act. Right now,
all I can do is suspend him for vandalism.”

I sat back and said defiantly, “I don’t know nothing.”

Snyder shook his head and said, “I knew you wouldn’t cooperate. I can’t help you if
you won’t let me.”

“The damage is done,” I said. “Mike obviously had some problems with me.”

“Obviously,” replied the principal. He took out a piece of paper and wrote me a
pass to class. “We’re here to protect you, Casey,” he said as he looked up at the
officer. “My door is always open if you need me.”

I stood, took the paper and said, “Thank you.” I then walked back to my fifth
period class.

By the time I got to seventh period, Shade and Megan had already heard the
rumors. “I had a feeling he did it,” said Shade.

Megan asked, “Why did he do it? I’ve known Mike for years, and he doesn’t seem
like the kind of boy who would do something like that.”

“I dunno,” I replied. I didn’t want to tell them about Mike’s advances. I hadn’t come
out to them yet, and I felt that talking about Mike’s sexuality might make them
suspect that I was gay, too.”

Even though I was beginning to believe that Shade was gay, I didn’t want to
endanger the friendship we were building. I knew that Megan wouldn’t care. She
seemed like the kind of person who would accept anyone. I was also afraid that if
Shade wasn’t gay, then he would begin to feel uncomfortable around me. However,
I was developing strong feelings for him, and I wasn’t sure I would be able to
suppress them much longer.

I asked, “Don’t we have a play to perform in a few weeks?” I was attempting to
divert their attention. Megan said she had things to do, and she hurried away.

“I have a few ideas,” remarked Shade. “I want to run them by you.”

I followed him backstage, and he went over to his makeshift desk and opened his
folder. “See,” he said as he pointed to some elaborate drawings of a mountain
scene. “What do you think of these?”

I studied them for a minute. “Wow,” I replied. “These are fantastic.” After closer
examination, I pointed to a chalet situated on a distant mountain. “What date does
the play take place?”

“In the 1930’s,” he replied with a puzzled look on his face.

“This looks too modern,” I replied. “Shouldn’t it look a little more...um... rustic?”

He looked at the chalet more closely. “I think you’re right,” he replied. “I need to
go to the library and do a little more research.” He smiled and said appreciatively,
“Thanks, Casey. You’re going to be a good assistant.”

I responded, “Thanks.” My face began to redden as I stared into his eyes a little
longer than I probably should have.

We spent the rest of the period walking around onstage. Shade held up the drawing
and explained how the set should look after we finished. I was impressed by his
enthusiasm and confidence.

“Do you have the help to do this?” I asked. “It sounds like it’s going to take a lot of
work to put this together.”

He asked with a smile, “Can you hammer a nail?”

“Of course,” I replied.

“Then we’re set,” he laughed as he walked away. “And don’t plan to do anything
after school for the next month.”

“Why”

“You’ll be spending it with me,” he laughed and added, “Mr. Assistant Stage
Manager.”

Shade accompanied me to my locker after school. Once again, he had volunteered
to drive Lane and me home. I wasn’t sure if he was going to take us by his mother’
s diner again. I knew if he didn’t, Lane would be disappointed.

On the way to meet Lane, someone approached from behind and grabbed my arm.
When I turned, it was Coach Wentworth. He asked nervously, “Can I see you for a
minute?” He glanced quickly over at Shade.

“I gotta pick up Lane,” I insisted as I pulled away from his grip.

“Please Casey?” he asked pleadingly. “I need to talk to you.”

Shade said, “Casey, I can go get Lane.”

Coach smiled at him and responded, “Thanks.” He looked back at me. “I really
need to talk to you, Casey.”

After our confrontation in my room, I didn’t want to talk to him. I just assumed he
was going to make more excuses for Mike. He was probably going to try to talk me
into asking Snyder not to suspend him. “I don’t think there’s anything to talk about.”

He pleaded, “Please, Casey? This is important to me.”

I looked over at Shade to see what he thought I should do. He nodded and said,
“Maybe you should.”

I sighed and asked, “Can you take Lane home?”

“Sure,” he nodded. “You want me to come back and get you?”

“No,” interrupted Coach. “I’ll see that he gets home safely.”

Shade waited for me to respond. He was being protective, and he didn’t want to
leave me without knowing that I was safe. I glanced at Coach and replied, “I’ll be
okay. Just don’t let Lane con you into more pie and ice cream.” He smiled, nodded
his head and walked away.

I turned to Coach and asked rudely, “What do you want? Are you going to try to
talk me into not having Mike suspended? If you are, I don’t have anything to do
with that.”

He shook his head and replied, “Trust me, Casey, that is not my intention.” He
looked down the hall before continuing, “Let’s go to my office. We can talk more
privately there.”

I wasn’t sure I wanted to go with him. In a way, I felt I might be getting set up.
Perhaps, he was taking me to the gym to abandon me, and then let the members
of the baseball team seek revenge for Mike’s suspension.

“I don’t want to go to the gym,” I insisted emphatically. “Anywhere but the gym.”

He nodded as if he understood my fears. “Okay,” he said. “How about we go to Bob
Evan’s for a bite to eat?” He smiled slightly, “I missed lunch, and I’m starving.” I
nodded and followed him outside to his car.

He didn’t say anything on the way to the restaurant. Occasionally, he would look
over at me, but I would turn and stare out the window. I still wasn’t sure what his
motive was for getting me alone. I felt better knowing we would be in a public
place.

There were few people inside the restaurant when we arrived. Coach scanned it
carefully. I think he was afraid that other students might be there to congregate
after school. He pointed to a booth in the back that seemed like we would be out of
view if others did come in.

An elderly waitress approached the table to take our order. Coach said, “Have
anything you want, Casey. My treat.” He ordered a hamburger platter and an iced
tea. He seemed disappointed when all I asked for was a glass of water.

He briefly stared across the table at me. “I know what you think of me,” Casey,” he
began, “but you couldn’t be any further from the truth.” I took a sip of water and
grunted slightly.

“To begin with,” he said, “I’m not here to try and talk you into saving Mike’s ass.”
His tone became angrier. “He got exactly what he deserves.”

His frank remark surprised me. I asked, “Then why are we here?”

He stated, “You’ve got this whole situation wrong.”

“What do you mean?”

“That little argument we had in your room the other night,” he said. I nodded my
head, but said nothing.

“Okay,” he sighed as he realized he was getting nowhere with me. I continued to
glare at him. I still wasn’t sure what his motive was for wanting to talk to me.

“I’m a baseball coach,” he continued, “but I’m also a surrogate father, big brother,
nurse, nanny, psychologist and more often than not, just a shoulder to cry on for
my team.”

I stared at him and replied, “Okay.”

He sighed again and shook his head. “When I began coaching, I wanted to be just
more than a coach. I’ve played a lot of sports growing up, and I had some really
mean coaches. All they thought about was winning, and nothing more.

“I wanted to see my team as more than just winners. I wanted them to grow up to
be strong men.”

I laughed and responded, “I don’t think you’re doing a very good job. Mike and
Curtis are assholes.”

He shook his head sadly and replied, “I can’t save them all.”

“So what happens to Mike now?”

“He’s been kicked off the team,” replied Wentworth as he shook. He then looked
around to make sure no one was listening and then said softly, “Mike has a lot of
issues. I’ve known his family for years. When he came out a few years ago, it was
really difficult for him.”

“It doesn’t seem to bother him,” I replied. “Everyone seems to accept it.”

“He’s an athlete, Casey,” stated Wentworth. “Team sports and being gay don’t mix.
Everyone says they are okay with it, but deep down inside, athletes still have a
hard time accepting it.”

“Yeah, I know,” I replied.

He continued, “At first Mike took a lot of heat from his teammates. Some  wouldn’t
even undress or shower in front of him. There’s a few that still don’t. I’ve tried hard
to make it easier for him, but there is still a lot that goes on behind my back.”

I sneered and said, “There’s a LOT that goes on behind your back.” I was recalling
the fight I had with Mike.

Coach shook his head. “Listen, Casey,” he said. “I know you think I was covering
for Mike, but I wasn’t. I was still in the process of trying to figure out what
happened. I was getting conflicting reports. Some of the guys said you instigated it
when you charged Mike. Since he’s been suspended from the team, some of the
guys have come forward and told me what really happened.” He reached across
the table and gripped my arm. “I’m sorry,” he said as I pulled my arm away. “And
I’m sorry for calling you a fucker the other night. I was way out of bounds.”

Just then, the waitress brought the Coach’s meal to the table. I shook my head
when he asked me if I wanted to order anything. As he ate, I finally decided to ask
him a question that had been bugging me since my first day at school.

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Yeah, sure,” he replied as he put down his fork. “What is it?”

“I really don’t understand why you wanted me on your team? I told you I had no
interest in playing baseball, but yet you insisted I play.” I laughed nervously and
added, “I thought you were stalking me.”

He smiled and said, “You should have seen you that first time you came to the
school. You looked like a wet little puppy that someone had thrown out of a car and
left on the side of the road.”

I frowned and said, “What?”

“You were coming down the hall with your head down and your shoulders drooped.
You looked like you were carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. I
thought to myself, ‘If anyone needs a friend, this guy does.’”

I asked, “Did I really look that bad?”

“Yeah, you did,” he smiled. “After talking to your father, I discovered what you
were going through. When I came into your room, I really did want to help you.”

I hung my head and replied, “Sorry.” I now realized that in my anger, I had
jumped to a lot of assumptions. At the time I felt I was right, but I guess I should
have given Coach a chance to explain things before rushing out of the room.

He said, “You have nothing to be sorry for. Things just took a turn for the worse. I
was worried something like this would happen when I saw Mike take an interest in
you. I think he thought you were gay, and he saw it as his chance to get another
gay guy on the team. I think he thought it might make it easier for him, too. I tried
to warn you, but I couldn’t just come out and say it. If you were straight, then you
would let him know. I really thought at first that was what the fight was about.”

“In a way it was,” I laughed slightly.

He gave me a puzzled look and said, “Now I’m confused. I thought the fight was
because he got a little too rough playing basketball.”

I studied Coach’s face for a few seconds. He seemed genuinely concerned about
me. I had to make a decision how much I wanted to tell him. Finally, I said, “Mike
was interested in me,” I said, “and I was interested in him.” I thought Coach would
be surprised, but he just nodded and listened.

“But you know Lane, don’t you?” He nodded his head. “Mike treated him like shit,
and I couldn’t let that happen. He became a real asshole about it.”

“So that is why you got into a fight?”

I laughed, “It wasn’t exactly a fight, but yeah. I couldn’t just let him keep treating
Lane the way he was.”

“Lane means a lot to you, doesn’t he?”

“Yeah,” I replied as tears welled up in my eyes. “I’d die for him if I had to.”

Coach smiled and said, “I still want you on my baseball team, Casey. You’re a man
of real character.”

I laughed. “Coach, I hate baseball. Besides, I’m taking drama now, and I’m
starting to enjoy it.”

“I can tell,” he said. “I’ve seen you in the halls walking with Shade. You seem a lot
happier.” He laughed and added, “You’re not walking with the world on your
shoulders anymore.”

The waitress returned and gave Coach the check. After paying for it with a credit
card, he stood and said, “Ready?”

“Yeah,” I responded as I started walking down the aisle. I didn’t move away when
Coach put his hand on my back.

He said, “I’m glad we had this little talk.”

“Me, too,” I replied.

                                                    * * * * * * *

                                        
 Chapter 17      Return to TMJ
Birds Don't Sing
   Before a Storm