Chapter 7 - Richie
Some things are fun and some aren't.
I was fifteen years old; almost sixteen. I had my mother, stepfather Bud, and sister who all loved me. They practically doted on me, and I could usually get my way if I tried hard enough. My natural father did his best for me, and we stayed close, too.
I was okay looking ... not bad, anyhow. I'd spent the past summer in Australia looking at stars. I was in driver's ed, and it was a private one my father was paying for. I knew that as soon as I got my license, Bud, my stepfather, would get me my own car. People used to make fun of the way I said words, but that didn't happen anymore due to speech therapy. I had to wear glasses, but Bud had sprung for aviator's and they looked pretty cool.
I had even made a few adult type decisions lately. I'd always liked the stars, but a summer in Australia looking through telescopes made me re-think about becoming an astronomer. It was a great hobby, but a tough way to make a living. I had managed to learn some things about electronics along the way, and that interested me more.
Those are a few of the things about being fifteen that were good. There were more, but they probably didn't apply to everybody. I was healthy and in good shape. I wasn't bashful, so I made friends pretty easily. I had two fathers and a mother who would apparently go to the ends of the world to see that I got what I needed and that I was happy. My little sister was old enough to be interested in boys and she was pretty cute, but she was friendly to me so there was no problem on her end.
There was nothing wrong in my life except one little thing, just one teeny, tiny little thing. A whole bunch of my friends were queers. I was, pretty emphatically, not gay like them. I'd endured watching them kiss each other, but tried to avoid thinking about what they did with each other in private.
They were my friends nonetheless, and despite their gayness they were fun people to hang around with. Actually, them being gay really didn't bother me anymore. I'd gotten used to it, but it seemed like a disproportionate number of my friends were gay, and the number was growing all the time! It was explainable, because two of my oldest friends turned out to be gay, and my new gay friends were their friends first. Well, most of them were. One was my friend first, now he's their friend. His former best friend, who was his enemy for a while, is now back in the friend column, and it turns out that he's gay too.
To my mind it was a strange picture, but maybe I'm not bright enough to see the reasoning behind it. I liked those guys ... I really did, but I had needs of my own, and the guys were taking up all my time. I'd met a girl from New Mexico when I was in Australia, and we really clicked. We never even kissed except goodbye, but she'd given me feelings that I never had before. I knew that it was impossible to have any real relationship with her, but I wanted those feelings back. I wanted them all the time, but I spent all my time trying to sort out a soap opera involving my gay friends.
I wanted a girlfriend for myself in the worst way, but I hadn't even had time to look around. Gay intrigue had invaded my life on the first day of school and, since it involved people I liked, I felt compelled to stay involved. I suppose it would have been easy enough to just tell everybody to fend for themselves, but I wouldn't do that. I did say intrigue didn't I? Yeah, it's right back there in this same paragraph.
I didn't want to be intrigued, but I was. I'd gotten to know Eddie Andrews just in time to keep him from killing himself. That made it my responsibility to keep him alive, and I ended up liking him. We didn't have a lot in common ... he was a baseball jock and I wasn't any kind of jock at all, but he had this appealing side to him when he was happy. Before that, I'd only seen him miserable. I was part of the cause of that misery, because I'd made fag jokes about him for a solid year. I thought I was being hilarious, and a lot of other kids did too, but my friend Dave made me promise to cut the crap and try to make friends with Eddie.
I'd been friends with Dave for a long time. When I got back from Australia and looked him, up he told me that he was gay. When I heard that, anything that resembled judgment departed my mind. I went ballistic and called him every name in the book. Dave was the toughest, funniest kid I'd ever known. Hearing him tell me that he was queer sent me off the deep end and the shallow end at the same time. That's what it felt like, anyhow, like hitting my head on a rock and drowning in deep water all at once.
Our friendship would have ended right then if another guy, Jerry, wasn't there to stand up to me in defense of Davy. He got me away from Dave's face, then reminded me how often Dave had stuck up for me in the past.
Okay, I had a speech defect when I was younger. Things I said didn't sound right to other people, and I got pushed around a lot because of it. That stopped when I met Dave. If somebody made fun of me or started mimicking the way I talked, Dave would pound their heads until they thought better of it.
Jerry's screaming rage at me made me start to re-think things. He was a kid that I'd respected even when we were little, and now he was three inches taller than me. I wasn't afraid of him as a physical threat, I'd just never seen him so angry and disgusted before. His words pushed some buttons, though. So Davy was queer. It didn't affect me one way or the other, because I wasn't. We'd been having a great talk just before he told me, and Jerry made me realize I'd miss talks like that. I'd miss them for the rest of my life, and probably with other people too, if I didn't wise up and look at it for what it was, which was nothing important.
Jerry left me alone for a while, and I needed that. I took a long walk and thought things over, realizing that Jerry was exactly right. Dave was Dave, and if he was queer then ... well, then I had a queer for a friend. It started to make sense, but I'd said some awful things. By the time I found Dave again I was afraid that he'd hate me for the things I'd said. I still remembered what he could do with his fists, especially when he was actually angry about something.
Dave had changed, though. He was more interested in staying friends with me than worrying about what I'd said earlier. We apologized to each other, me for my words and him for not preparing me for his.
It's strange, but right then I liked him better than I ever had. He was different. Happier, more secure, more interested in maintaining a friendship. I liked the vibes I was getting from him. I guess it helped that he wasn't swishing his wrist and starting his sentences with 'Ooooh'. In most ways he was the same old Dave ... friendly and funny and eager to please.
He was more intense, too, but I thought that was a good thing. He was thinking about the future, and it surprised me. He had developed a serious side that didn't come from anger, and it suited him well. He was still quick to grasp a thought, still flip about things, but when that thought had a chance to work its way through his head he'd be right back with it, and it would be better ... more refined than the original.
That same night I met some other gay kids. I started to excuse myself from their company, then decided I'd try to get to know them after all. The thing that struck me first was their utter normalcy. They had some different views than I did, but they mostly joked about them. Their individual situations were different, but they all seemed to have similar concerns. It was pretty obvious that, despite their jokes, they had worries about what their lives would be like.
That bothered me in its own right. I had concerns about what I'd do for a living and things like that, but some of these guys worried about how often they'd get beat up. It wasn't right and it wasn't fair. Worry was one thing, probably a good thing if it made you make up your mind about something. It just didn't seem fair that good kids the same age as me should have to worry about being dumped by their families, worry about tomorrow at all. I started to pay closer attention to what they were saying and how they were saying it.
I found myself liking all of them, each on his own merit. I also wondered what I had been thinking about in the first place. These were boys my age who did more or less the same things I did. Their interests were different, but mine were too. Nothing we talked about had anything to do with sex, other than a coming-out story from one of them, and some fears from the other guys about doing that.
I think that's what got to me most. They were afraid of who they were. Dave had always had a natural, almost organic, relationship with his mother, but he was afraid of her then. Afraid of what she'd say or do. Fear wasn't something I was used to with Dave, but it was there and I could feel it.
I told Dave that there was one gay kid in my school named Eddie, and that he didn't seem to have any friends and was constantly being picked on. I confessed to being one of his tormentors, at least in a verbal way. Dave wanted me to try to make friends with him, thinking it was sad if being gay was the only thing people had against him.
I promised Dave that I'd try to befriend Eddie, and I ran into him in a park a few days later. That's when I learned he was planning to kill himself. He couldn't take the pain of being friendless and the target of everyone's harassment and jokes, mine included. His story upset me so much that I started crying like a baby, wondering what twist of fate had led me to that particular park at that moment in time. Eddie didn't trust me, not that I blamed him, but I stayed with him as much as I could during the next few days just to make sure he didn't try to go through with his plans. I got him to come to a picnic where he met Dave and some other gay kids.
I had to practically drag him there, but he ended up spending the night and having a great time. He fell for Adam, one of the other kids who was there. I know that they spent Labor Day together at Eddie's house, but I didn't see them that day.
I met up with my good friend Ralph and convinced him that Eddie was okay. He'd been another one of the guys who harassed Eddie. Ralph and I went to Eddie's house the day before school started. Ralph was awkward with his apology, but they had been friends once and seemed to hit it off pretty well again, at least after awhile.
I had already warned all the guys who had been bothering Eddie that the game was over. I had hoped that more of them would try to make friends, but very few agreed to that. They did agree to leave Eddie alone, and that was a relief by itself. Ralph and I decided to try to stay close to Eddie at school so nobody would have a chance at him.
On the first day of school, Eddie's former best friend, Dennis Baxter, started sticking his nose where it didn't belong. He approached Ralph and Eddie in school, then saw me after school. He's the guy who started all of Eddie's problems to begin with, so I basically told him to take a hike. Then he had what looked like a heart attack right in front of me, scaring me to death. He couldn't get a breath and he was white as a sheet. I helped him calm down to where he could breathe again, but then I had to ask him into my house because I was afraid he might die right there.
I let him speak his mind, learning that he was gay too. He had been in love with Eddie all along, but never told him. When Eddie put a little move on him at a beer party, Baxter thought somebody saw them and started hollering faggot all over the place, then he ran away. Eddie ended up in the hospital that night from the beating he took, then he was shunned by the whole town. He wasn't just shunned, he was harassed by a core group of guys. I'm ashamed to say that Ralph and I were pretty vocal in that group.
I told Baxter that I'd talk to Eddie, but to stay away from him in the meantime. He had gotten Eddie pretty upset by trying to talk to him that morning. I didn't know what it would be like with Eddie. He thought Baxter hated him, now the opposite was true.
I ended up walking Baxter home just to make sure he made it alive. I was really pretty pissed that he'd done such a cowardly thing to someone he called his best friend, but I hadn't been much nicer with Dave. It wasn't exactly my business either, but I thought Eddie should know what Baxter was thinking so he could figure things out for himself.
I called Dave to see what he thought, and he had some choice words for Baxter. After he swore for a while, he did think it was the right thing to tell Eddie and let him make up his own mind about what he wanted to do. He also thought we should tell Baxter how close Eddie had come to committing suicide because of him. Ralph and I got a ride over to Eddie's house and told him what was going, on and what had really happened that night. He shocked us both by starting to cry and saying that it was all his fault. He'd been pissed at Baxter all that time, thinking he did what he had done out of hatred, not out of fear. He seemed to totally overlook how cowardly Baxter's actions had been, and blamed himself for never saying how he felt.
Ralph and I felt out of our league. Eddie was spending the weekend at Adam's house, and Adam lived near Dave, so we left it that Eddie would talk to Dave, hoping that Dave could help him figure out his feelings and decide what to do.
The next night Ralph and I went to Baxter's to tell him what was going on. When we told him that Eddie had been all set to kill himself, I thought he was going to lose it again, but he pulled himself together this time. I didn't know what to think about Baxter. It was hard to forget that he'd been the cause of Eddie's problems, but he seemed pretty earnest about doing whatever it would take to make it up to Eddie, and every one else who'd been affected. Walking back to my house, Ralph said how he'd always gotten along with Baxter in the past. He used to be a good kid, but then he just stopped hanging around with everybody except Eddie, then after that night at the river, he'd become a total loner.
It didn't matter to me. At that point I wasn't trying to like him or dislike him. I was just trying to get Eddie situated and comfortable so I could begin questing after someone of the female persuasion.
I made a few strides that Friday. There was a teen dance at the American Legion and I went with a bunch of guys. They had a live band that basically sucked, but I danced almost every dance. It was mostly with different girls, but there was one named Joan who I danced with several times. I bought her a soda and we talked for a while. She agreed to go out sometime and I got her phone number. Joan was pretty cute and she seemed smart and personable.
I called her Saturday and talked for about three hours, then she called me later and we talked for another two. She was definitely a good conversationalist, though that wasn't a priority for me. My stepfather and sister both razzed me to no end when I wasn't on the phone, and it took my mother to finally make them shut up and leave me alone.
I had plans with Ralph for Sunday afternoon, but I kind of ditched him and went to Joan's house to eat instead. I met her parents and her older sister, then had a great time just talking on the on the front porch, while we enjoyed the balmy day and the first hints of color in the trees.
My feeling was back! I wasn't in love yet by any stretch, but I was definitely attracted, and I sensed that she was too. I kissed her before I left, and it took way longer than just a smooch. Joan looked as dizzy as I felt, and we repeated the kiss one more time before I left.
I didn't walk home, I wafted, propelled by the same breeze that made the first fallen leaves dance along the road. I don't know what I looked like when I got home, but even my mother teased me. Then she said Eddie had called and wanted me to call back.
I didn't for a while, just laid on my bed smiling at the ceiling, thinking that all was right with the world. I felt energized and empowered. This was something I started all by myself, and it felt good to know that we hadn't been thrown together by some external force. I wasn't expecting to get laid, but I was hoping to someday in the future. Joanie obviously wasn't a slut, but Bud had told me that women had needs and desires too. I was wondering how one went about turning desires into imperatives when I remembered to call Eddie.
"Eddie! My man! How's everything?"
"Great! You sound happy. Good weekend?"
"Fantastic weekend! Do you know Joanie Phillips?"
"Yeah, she's cute. What's up with her?"
"Ahhhh ... not much. We're kinda goin' out."
"Really? Good for youl! How'd ya hook up with her?"
"She was at the dance Friday, and we just kinda hit it off."
"That's really neat. You, uh, get anythin' off her yet?"
"Eddie Andrews! How you talk! Did you get anything off Adam yet?"
"Ah ... um ... okay. Draw! I'll never ask again."
"Good! How'd your weekend go?"
"Oh man! I am sooooo in love. I can't stand it! I was just now tryin' to talk Dad into quittin' his job and movin' over there."
"I bet that's goin' over big. Did you see Dave?"
"Yeah. He says to say hi."
"So, what happened?"
"We talked about Bax ... I mean Dave and me. I still wanna be his friend."
"After all that?"
"Yeah, I guess. He's still important to me, Rich. We always had fun together, and I want that back if I can get it."
I didn't answer.
"Is it okay with you? Dave thinks I should beat the crap out of him, then make up."
I snickered, "Are you gonna? How come?"
"Just to let him know I can. You think I should?"
"I ... I don't know about that. It's your call."
"I guess I have to think about that part. I have to see how it goes, but I'm gonna talk to him tomorrow."
I smiled to myself, "That's cool. Your house at seven?"
Eddie said, "See ya then. Bye, Richie. Thanks for everything, okay?"
"No problem. Don't do anything I wouldn't do."
I hung up, wondering what kind of guy Eddie really was. I wasn't sure I could ever forgive what Baxter had done to him if it had happened to me, and that made me wonder what kind of person I was. My thoughts kept me pretty distracted during dinner, then I went to my room and thought some more. I ended up thinking that even if Eddie forgave Baxter, I didn't have to. He had never done anything to me in the first place, but the pain he'd put Eddie through hurt me after the fact. I went to sleep thinking that whatever Eddie wanted to do was fine with me, but kind of hoping he'd slaughter the bastard, then make friends if he really thought he should.
The next morning I learned of the fire at the Baxter's house from the paper. It scared me, making me wonder if Eddie had anything to do with it. Was he all bullshit after all? No, he'd been out of town. After feasting on Cheerios and OJ, I hurried over to Eddie's house. He'd read about the fire too, but didn't seem to know any more than I did. He asked me a lot of questions like he thought I might have been involved. We met Ralph at the end of his street, and his consciousness was also consumed by the fire at Baxter's house. Eventually, Eddie told Ralph that he planned on trying to be friends with Baxter again. To my surprise, Ralph seemed to think that was great, but my opinion of him returned to normal when I figured out that he just wanted them both on the school baseball team, so maybe they could actually win a game once in a while.
When we were getting near the school, Eddie saw Baxter getting dropped of at the end of the road. He called out to him, but we were a good football field away and he didn't hear. When we turned onto the school grounds we could see a fight, but it took until we were closer before we realized that it was three guys kicking the shit out of Baxter, who was on the ground curled up in a ball. Eddie started screaming at the attackers and they turned their attention to him. Eddie walked right up to Tyrone Potter and started hitting him. It happened fast, but Al Jenkins started moving towards Eddie's back. I ran up and punched him as hard as I could in the side of his head, knocking him down and, apparently, out cold. Eddie had Tyrone down too, but Pete Fuller took a run at him, and Eddie took Pete out with a few good hits.
I was silently blessing Dave for the lessons he'd given us. Al got up and threatened Eddie again, but Eddie overpowered him and smashed his face in.
When it was all over, I was shaking from adrenaline and Eddie was too. Ralph had knelt down to help Baxter, so Eddie and I just sat down to get our breath back. When we could talk again, Eddie told me he wanted to talk to Baxter. I went over to get Ralph and saw that Baxter was a mess. He looked awful, but he said he was okay. I got Ralph to go into the school with me to call a cab from the pay phone. I'd already decided that we'd spend the day at my house instead of school.
After we made the call, we walked back out toward Eddie and Baxter. Ralph stopped dead in his tracks.
"They're kissing!" He looked at me with eyes the size of the moon. "Did you see that? They kissed each other!"
I had seen it. I was still seeing it, though we were pretty far away. It looked like a lip-lock for sure. I turned to Ralph. "You wanna make some noise or somethin'?"
"I was just thinkin' I wanna be somewhere else. You don't need me anymore, do you?"
"Not really, but stick around. This I gotta hear about."
I started walking towards Eddie and Baxter. I turned around to look and Ralph was about ten steps behind me, walking very hesitantly. I grinned at him, then he shook his head as if clearing it and ran up to me. As we got closer we could see that they weren't kissing, just leaning together with their chins on each other's shoulders.
I cleared my throat as we approached. Eddie had his back to us, but Baxter was facing our way and crying freely. His face was all black and blue, and I felt bad. Ralph knelt by the two of them. "The cab's on its way. Can you get up okay?" Bax nodded, but it took Eddie and Ralph to get him on his feet.
He was really a mess. His clothes were dirty, he had dirt in his hair, his whole face was puffed out and his lips were bleeding. Even his hands were covered in bruises. I found myself wishing I'd hit Al a few more times for good measure.
We got out to the road and the cab was waiting for us. Eddie helped Bax into the back seat. Ralph got in the back from the other side and I climbed into the passenger seat in front.
The cab driver was a pretty big guy, but when he looked at Bax he winced. "Man, I took a beatin' like that once. Hospital?"
I looked at the driver, then cranked around to see Baxter. "You sure you don't need a doctor?"
"I'm okay, just need to lie down." His voice was nothing more than a wheeze, but it was his body and his decision.
I looked at the driver and said, "Rockland Road, number 14. We'll take care of him."
I really thought we should be bringing Baxter to the hospital myself, but I didn't want to second guess him. We rode in silence for the few minutes that it took to get to my house, then Baxter tried to reach back for his wallet to pay the driver. He winced in pain and it brought tears to his eyes, and I wanted to change my mind about the hospital. Eddie dug in his own pocket and handed me a five, then opened the back door.
Bax wasn't doing well, and I told the driver to wait until we got inside. He didn't have much choice since I hadn't given him the money yet, but once Bax was on his feet he seemed to do better, so I opened the door to let the guys in, then went back and paid the driver. They had all gone inside by the time I got back. Ralph was waiting for me, and he said Eddie had taken Bax into the bathroom to get him cleaned up. They wanted something for him to change into, so I went to my room and got a pair of sweat pants and a t-shirt. I brought them to the downstairs bathroom, and when I saw Bax standing there in his underpants I almost threw up. I tossed Eddie the clothes and ran to the kitchen gagging.
Nobody deserved what those guys had done to Baxter. They hadn't missed an inch of him, and it was so ugly it hurt to even think about it. When my gag reaction passed, I looked up to see Ralph staring at me with what seemed like fear on his face. I got tears in my eyes.
"Did you see him, Ralph? Can you check him out? I think we should call an ambulance."
"I'll go look. Get the phone number."
It was on the cover of the phone book, so I didn't bother writing it down. When Ralph came back, he looked a little ill, too. "I think he's alright. It just looks bad. Eddie's gettin' him into the tub. Anybody got a pool around here?"
"Yeah. If he could just float around for a while he'd probably feel better. Is there one?"
I had to think, but nobody I knew had a pool. "No, not that I know of."
Ralph looked resigned to helping. "Well, I guess the tub's the next best thing. I'm gonna help Eddie. You okay out here?"
"I'm fine. Get Baxter's phone number, and I'll see if anybody's there."
"Okay, be right back." Ralph turned and left, but I started wondering about him too. How the hell did everybody except me know what to do all the time? I thought he was going to freak when he thought those guys were kissing, but seeing the same damaged body that had almost made me sick didn't seem to phase him a bit. He was back in a second looking for something to write with and on. When he came back he handed me Baxter's number, then left again.
I dialed, but there was no answer. I looked at the clock and it was just after nine. I sat at the table for a minute, then walked down to the bathroom and stood at the door looking in. Eddie was washing little bits of Bax's face with his fingers, then Ralph would pat the soapy area with a washcloth. Both Eddie and Ralph were saying soothing things as they worked on him.
I was touched by the sight, but angered at the same time. When Eddie got the shit kicked out of him nobody cared, but here he was washing Baxter's bruises with the gentlest touch of his fingers, and Ralph looked like he was being just as gentle. I wondered where it came from, and again wondered about myself. I wasn't helping, just looking. I felt that I was missing something, some level of concern that I didn't seem to have.
I was concerned, I just didn't have a role there in the bathroom. Ralph was a pretty rough kid in a lot of ways, but right then he was acting like a father with a sick child, just like Eddie was. I watched them for a few more minutes, then went back to the kitchen. I tried Bax's house again, but there was still no answer.
I got some sodas from the back hall, then put ice in glasses and brought them to the bathroom. I could at least be a host.
"I got Cokes!"
Eddie and Ralph turned around and looked, then took sodas. I picked one up and held it out to Baxter, but he just looked confused. I realized that he didn't want to move, so I just held the glass to his mouth. I was trying to be kind and gentle, but I was in an awkward position and managed to drop an ice cube on his chest. He bounced and squealed, and in a second we were all laughing.
"You feelin' better, Baxter?" I asked.
"The water feels great, but I don't think they missed too many spots. There ain't anythin' that don't hurt, but I think I'll live."
"How long did they have you down before we got there? Who started it, anyhow?"
"They started it. They started hittin' me last week when I told them about ... about the lie. I'm pretty sure they're the ones that lit the house on fire, too."
"You didn't say you told anybody else. Why them?"
Bax hesitated and looked at Eddie, then back towards me. "They were at the beer party that night. I ... I just wanted 'em to know they were wrong about Eddie."
"So they just jumped you this morning?"
"Pretty much. Somebody shoved me, then they were all over me." He sobbed a little. "They said I was gonna die right there."
Eddie had stopped washing Bax and he started stroking his hair. He whispered, "It's all over, Bax. You wanna just soak for a while? I'll sit here with you." He turned to Ralph, then me. "You guys don't hafta stay if you don't want. I'll holler when he wants to get up."
I looked at Ralph and he just shrugged, so we stood up and headed for the living room with our drinks. We took seats and looked at each other for a minute, then the whole thing suddenly seemed funny. Ralph said that Eddie told him he did kiss Bax, but it was because their first kiss got interrupted by a fight. Now that the fight was over they wanted to finish it. Maybe it was the come down from the excitement, maybe it was drinking Cokes on empty stomachs, but that set us off on a laughing binge for about five minutes.
When we calmed down a little, Ralph asked, "So where'd you learn to fight like that? You put Alan down with one punch!"
"Yeah, well ... you know. Been practicin'."
"Yeah, right! What about Eddie? I mean, he hurt those guys!"
I smiled a little. "He did that, didn't he? Lucky, I guess."
Ralph stared, his eyes amused, "Lucky punch my ass! He messed up three guys and he didn't even breathe hard. What'm I missin' here?
"Okay, you heard me talk about my friend Dave, right?"
"Well, he really knows how to fight. He gave us lessons just in case somethin' like this happened. I mean, we didn't start the fight. We just finished it."
"I guess the hell you finished it! Those are three tough dudes!"
"You think they'll come back?"
Ralph just stared at me. "You can bet on it. Those guys'll get you if they can. You better grow eyes in the back of your head."
I just groaned. After that morning, I felt that I could probably take any one of those guys, but two or three at a time had me scared. I was sure that if they lost a second time they wouldn't be empty handed for their third try. I decided to call Dave later to see what he thought about it. In the meantime I went and dialed Baxter's number again.
This time it was answered by his mother. She was already frantic because the school had called to report him absent. They hadn't called my house yet, so I guess they weren't up to the L's.
I explained what had happened briefly, then told her where we were. I warned her that her son wasn't too easy to look at right now, but she hung up the phone before I finished. I told Ralph to call his house because school was checking up, then ran to the bathroom to help get Baxter out of the tub. It wasn't easy because he was all slippery, but we finally got him on his feet and just lifted him over the side. Eddie started patting him dry and I handed him the sweats. He couldn't lift his leg to get them on, so we had him sit on the toilet to get his feet in, then pulled them up when he stood. He didn't even want to think about trying to put a shirt on, so we walked him into the living room in just the sweatpants and a towel around his shoulders.
The doorbell rang before we even got him seated. Baxter's father was standing there. "Where is he? Where's my son?" He was yelling. I stood aside and he barged in, followed by his wife. She made a choking sound and ran to Baxter, but his father took a look at him and turned around in a rage.
"What the hell's he doing here? He belongs in a hospital! Where the fuck are your brains?"
I cowered and said, "Honest! I wanted to take him, but he wouldn't go. He said he's okay."
He stopped yelling, but he grabbed my shoulder and turned me to look at Eddie. "Look at him! Does he look okay to you? I swear, if anything happens to him because of your stupidity, I'm coming after you myself."
I was shocked. "Me? What'd I do?"
He started yelling again. "You didn't do anything!"
He was cut short by Bax yelling. "Stop it, Dad!" He was crying, but he got some words out. "The guys that did this were gonna kill me, and these guys stopped 'em. Why're you yellin' at them? It ain't right!"
Eddie's mother stopped her ministrations and looked at her husband. "Dennis is right, Roland. This looks much worse than it is. Why don't you go outside and calm down, then come back here and apologize." She looked at Eddie, Ralph and me in turn. "Thank you, boys. My husband's upset and I'm sure he didn't mean those things. Whose house is this?"
I stepped forward. "It's mine. My parents, I mean."
"Can we just stay here for awhile? Our house is a mess, and there are contractors all over the place. Dennis won't get any rest there."
"Um, sure. He can go to my room, if that's okay. It's kind of a mess, but ..."
She smiled. "I'm sure it's a mess. Dennis should feel right at home." She turned and put a finger on the tip of his nose. "Won't you? Come on, baby. Let's get you to bed."
Eddie and Ralph moved to help Baxter up. I ran down the hall to my room to at least get my underwear off the floor and straighten out the bed a little. When they got Baxter on the bed I pulled the shade down to darken the room, then left Baxter with his mother and Eddie.
I had just plopped down in a chair in the living room when the phone rang. I asked Ralph to answer it thinking it was school. His voice was deeper than mine and he could probably get away with saying he was my father.
It was my mother wondering why I wasn't at school, and why they had to call her at work, and why the hell Ralph answered our phone. It took a while to get her to understand everything, but when she did she didn't seem angry.
She offered to come home, but I told her there wasn't much point as everything was under control. She made me promise to tell her every little detail when she got home, then went back to working. When I went back into the living room, Bax's father was kneeling on the floor talking to Ralph. When Ralph looked my way, Mr. Baxter did too, and he immediately jumped to his feet and came to face me.
He put his hands on my shoulders. "I am so sorry, Richard. I don't know what got into me, but you didn't deserve that at all. Just looking at Dennis got me mad, but I had no right to take it out on you. I promise I'll make it up to you someday, but just know that I really appreciate you helping him when he needed it." He swung his head in despair, like he was trying to get rid of a bad thought. "God, I feel like such a fool. I'll do something to make up for it, but please don't think I meant anything about you when I was yelling."
I just shrugged. "It's no big deal. Dennis is in my bedroom if you wanna see him."
I pointed down the hall. "Last door on the left. Eddie's with him ... and your wife."
He looked where I pointed and started walking that way, then he stopped and turned around, looking a little sheepish. "Thanks, guys. Thanks for everything. If you get in trouble for missing school or anything, I'll talk to your parents, okay?"
I just nodded to him. I guess Ralph did too, because I didn't hear anything. Mr. Baxter walked down the hall and I looked at Ralph. He looked like he'd had enough, though I didn't understand the expression on his face until he spoke up. "You gonna at least feed me? I'm fuckin' starving here!"
I was too! We went to the kitchen and started banging through cabinets. I didn't know how to cook anything, but Ralph finally settled on tuna fish sandwiches, probably because there were a lot of cans of tuna looking at him. There was bread too, and when I looked in the refrigerator I found mayonnaise and celery. My job was to open the cans, Ralph would put it together.
"How many should I open?" I asked as he found a knife to chop the celery.
"How many are there?"
I had to count. "Eight."
"That's enough. You got milk? Tuna sucks with soda."
I put the can opener down and looked back in the refrigerator. "There's almost a full gallon."
"Well, I guess some people like soda. Hand me those after you drain them out. There's a certain amount of hurry-up involved here."
I opened cans as fast as I could, then dumped the contents into a strainer that Ralph had put in the sink. It started to look like a lot of fish after six cans, so I stopped and handed the strainer to Ralph. He proceeded to stir in mayonnaise and celery, then put some sandwiches together. They were about four inches thick.
"Man, Ralph. I can't open my mouth that wide! What's Bax supposed to do?"
He had his mouth open as wide as it would go and had his sandwich aimed at it. He stopped and gave me a look. "They're all eatin' too?"
I just stared at him. He started laughing. "I'm just kidding. Get him a spoon or somehing."
I laughed back, but then thought forks might help everybody. Ralph stayed in the kitchen looking like Orca the whale with his mouth open. I put the rest of the sandwiches on paper plates and started ferrying them to my room. When I walked in with the first two everyone looked startled, but I think that was my sudden presence. When I handed plates to Baxter's parents their eyes went wide, then everybody laughed when I produced forks from my back pocket.
I asked who wanted what to drink and, fortunately for Ralph, I heard three waters and a Root Beer. I went back for the rest of the food and had Ralph carry the drinks in. My room wasn't very big to start with and I had a lot of stuff in it, so it was crowded. I told people they could eat in another room, but they were all reluctant to leave Baxter there alone.
I started to walk back to the kitchen to eat, and Eddie followed me carrying his sandwich and soda. I sat at one side of the table and Eddie sat at an end. He looked at his sandwich, then pulled the fork from his pocket and hacked off a chunk and put it in his mouth. He was staring at me.
"Rich, I don't know where to start." He swallowed, then looked at me earnestly. "You're the best friend I ever had. I don't mean I'm your best friend or anything, but when you came along everything changed." He looked at his food. "'Scuse me, but I'm starved."
He forked off another piece of his sandwich, so I did the same thing. When we were about three-quarters of the way through, he burped and started talking again. "I owe you, Rich. I know you're gonna say I don't, but I do. You changed my life, and I ain't ever gonna forget it!"
I didn't know what to say. I lifted my eyes to look at him, but couldn't read his face. He was looking at me like he was trying to find something. "Don't be modest, Rich. You give Davy all the credit, but he didn't come lookin' for me when I was at the end. It was you!" He sort of sneered. "Do you know how close I was? It would'a happened that day if you didn't come along. You ... you're ... you're my ... SHIT! I can't say it!" He looked away and his voice got quiet. "You're my angel, Richie. You really are."
I didn't say anything, then he looked back at me. "You really are, Rich." Then he grinned. "You changed me from a dead man into an ass-kicker in two weeks! I love you, man, and I ain't gettin' queer!"
Stupid me. When I had nothing to say, I said something retarded. "You're already queer."
That did it. We looked at each other for a few seconds, then busted out laughing.
I moved over to Eddie and we gave each other a tight hug.
That one little moment in our lives was important to me. Eddie knew he was gay and I knew I wasn't, but right then it didn't matter in the least. I'd been through it with Dave, but making friends with Eddie had made me re-think everything. I was okay with Dave because he'd been a friend for a long time and I didn't want to lose that.
Eddie was different. I'd sought him out because he was gay, mostly as a favor to Dave. Eddie was a tough kid, he'd proven that earlier. More than that, he was a good kid, a nice kid. I knew that Ralph liked him, too. He went through Little League with Eddie and Baxter and he'd always liked both of them.
I was getting used to the idea of having gay friends, but I wasn't happy with the idea that three very angry guys were likely to make all of our lives miserable.
"Those guys aren't just gonna forget this, you know. We're gonna hafta do something."
Eddie looked at me as he chewed his last piece of sandwich. "You really think so? I thought we did 'em in pretty good."
"We did, but that didn't exactly make us any friends. A whole bunch of kids saw them go down, too. They must be hating us right now."
"Let 'em! Who cares about those guys, anyhow?"
"Come on, Eddie. I care about them. I don't mean I like them, but they'll get guns or knives the next time. I don't need that kinda shit."
Eddie appeared to be thinking. "You're right, Rich. None of us needs any more trouble. What're we gonna do, though? They started it. Do we just wait on their next move? We gotta all stick together!"
"You don't get it. They had to be the ones that set Baxter's house on fire. What if nobody got up in time? They could all be dead."
Eddie looked resigned. "I know. I just .."
Ralph walked into the kitchen carrying empty plates and glasses. "What's up, guys? Where's this stuff go?"
"Just put it on the counter," I said. "We're just talkin' about what to do with Pete, Al and Tyrone."
Ralph sighed. "I don't know what to say. Use some cool evasive tactics for the rest of your life, maybe. Or just go talk to them. They're kinda assholes, but they aren't really stupid."
Eddie yawned and said, "Yeah. Right."
I thought about it for a second. "Wait! Ralph's right." I looked at Ralph. "You're exactly right. We need 'em on our side."
Eddie was indignant. "Yeah, like that's gonna happen."
"No, no. Listen! See if this makes sense. We talk to them, say we're sorry for messin' 'em up but tell 'em why we did. Then we just try to talk smart. Like they could gang up on one of us and clean our clocks, but we could do the same to them. What's gonna make more sense? Endin' up in the hospital once a week or just bein' friends?" I looked at Ralph. "You know those guys. Think they'll listen to somethin' like that?"
Ralph rubbed his chin. "I don't know. Tyrone might. Pete might. Al's a real hothead, though. You probably gotta kick his ass a few more times to get him to think straight."
Eddie said, "That won't be too hard. Ralph's right, though. It's better if we can get along with them. We could maybe get them to lay off other kids, too. We should call Dave. He'll know what to do."
I said, "I thought about callin' him. He won't be home yet, and I think if we're gonna do somethin' we should do it while their heads still hurt. You know where they live, Ralph?"
"I know the streets. You have a phone book?"
I got up and handed it to him. "You think we should just call them?"
He shrugged. "Why not? You want me to call?"
"What're you gonna say?"
"I don't have any idea. They'll be pissed at me too, 'cause I was with you guys."
I looked at Ralph, then at Eddie. "You sure we should try this? Maybe we should talk it out first."
We all looked at each other. "Nah!"
Ralph opened the phone book. "I'll call Tyrone first. We're kinda friends." He found the number, then picked up the phone and dialed. "Hi, is Tyrone there?"
"Oh. Well, thanks. I'll call back later."
He hung up. "Shit. They said he's at school."
I said, "You know that's not true. Try Pete's house."
He looked in the book again, then dialed. He waited a while, but finally got an answer.
"Pete? It's Ralph. Are you okay, man?"
He listened. "Hey! I didn't do anything. I was just walkin' to school." Pause. "Yeah, I know! I just wanted to make sure you're okay. You went down pretty hard."
He listened some more. "Well, that's good. Listen, I'm with Rich and Eddie and they wanna make sure you're not hurt." Pause. "Yeah they give a shit. They said they're sorry. They wanna be friends."
He listened for a long time. "Pete, they can do the same thing ya know ... take you guys out one at a time. They did you a favor, I think. If you killed Bax you'd be in jail forever." Pause. "Yeah, yeah. I know he's queer, but he's a good kid. Everybody likes him." Pause. "Pete, it's a war you can't win. Why not just talk about it and forget about anybody else gettin' hurt. You didn't even stand a chance today, you know. I've seen these guys fight, and those were just love taps." Pause. "I ain't shittin'!" Pause. "Okay."
He put his hand over the mouthpiece and said, "Tyrone's there. They're thinking about it."
Eddie and I were grinning at Ralph. I was pretty impressed with the way he was handling it, and he was usually pretty quiet.
He still had the phone to his ear, waiting. Suddenly you could tell he was listening again, then he jabbed his free hand towards the sky. "YES! Now? Hold on." He looked towards us. "They want you to come over right now. Is that okay?"
I looked at Eddie and he nodded, but he didn't look very happy about it. Ralph said, "They're on their way." He winked at Eddie and me. "They're in a bad mood, though. No dessert." Pause. "Okay. Thanks, Pete. You'll be able to talk better in a couple of days. Bye, now."
Ralph held the receiver about five inches over the phone and dropped it triumphantly into the cradle. He had a wide smile. "They bought it! They want to bury the axe!"
That didn't sound quite right. I said, "You mean tomahawk?"
Eddie laughed. "I think it's hatchet. What'd he say?"
"He couldn't believe it when I said you guys were sorry. Just remember to apologize when you get there."
I asked, "What about Alan?"
"Man, I wouldn't worry. He'll follow Tyrone's groove, you'll see. He can't even talk now. Pete said all Alan's teeth are loose and he has to keep his mouth shut, plus they all have broken noses."
I looked at Eddie's face, and his expression of awe was priceless as he examined his fists. Ralph and I both started laughing. Eddie looked up, surprised. "What?"
I said, "Nothing, Superman. I gotta take a leak, then let's go."
Ralph had written down Pete's address and I knew where the street was. I went to the bathroom, then checked on the Baxters, who were still in my bedroom. Dennis was sleeping, as was his father. I told the mother where we were going and why. She offered to drive us, but it wasn't that far. She didn't think our going there was the best idea she'd ever heard, but she left it to our own judgment.
It only took the three of us about ten minutes to walk over to Pete's house. The door opened as we were coming up the walk. Pete's head didn't look a whole lot better than Baxter's. His left cheek was all black and blue, one eye was swollen shut, and his lips were all puffy and purple. He didn't say anything, just swept his arm to indicate that we should come inside. We followed him into the kitchen where Tyrone was sitting at the table, a dripping baggie of ice cubes pressed to the front of his face. There was another ice bag in front of a different chair.
I started. "Look, you guys. I'm really sorry you got hurt, but you were beatin' on our friend. We couldn't just let that happen. You know?"
Eddie piped in. "I'm sorry too. I didn't want to hurt you guys, but you had your shot at me last summer. Now you got Bax all messed up. Ain't that enough?" He broke out into a smile. "If we're together we'll be the toughest bunch in school! We can keep the whole place in line!"
Tyrone pulled the ice away from his face and looked at us. "You mean you wan' us to be frains"
I had to gulp hard to keep from laughing. His lips were so swollen that he had to just about hiss out the words.
Eddie said, "I'd like to be friends. You guys heard Ralph, and he's right. We can kick the shit outta each other from now 'til Doomsday and it ain't gonna prove anything. We have fun, and you guys must have fun. Why not have fun together?"
Pete looked bewildered. "But ... you guys are queers, aren't ya?"
I leaned right into his face. "Don't go callin' me a queer, Peeteeee baby! I'm goin' out with Joanie Phillips! Where's your girl?"
Eddie spoke up. "Cut it out, Rich. He ain't talkin' about you." He looked at Pete. "Get over it, Pete. So the fuck what? I ain't queer for you, that's for sure!" He softened his tone. "Look, I know it bothers you, but I'm just a regular guy. I like to play baseball and ski, and I can kick ass with the best of them. My love life is my own business, and you'll never know anything except what you know. You're never gonna see me do anything you don't do. How's that?"
Tyrone's hissing voice from behind me made me jump. "Tell us, man. Why you wanna be queer? Ain't that sick or somethin'?"
I looked at him and raised my voice. "It's not sick! It's just the way it is with some people. Think for a second, Tyrone. Did Eddie or Baxter ever once do anything to you? It's not a disease or somethin' you decide on. It's no different than bein' black or white, short or tall, smart or dumb, good lookin' or ugly." I looked up to see Ralph blow on his fingernails and polish them on his shirt, smiling when I wondered which thing he thought he was. I looked back at Tyrone. "You're a black kid in a white town. It's gotta be just like that, only it's a different thing. How special does that make you feel?"
"I don't feel special." Hi open eye clouded. "I ain't special. You don't know shit. You don't know what it's like when everybody crosses the street or goes in a store just to not walk past you. What the fuck are my chances?"
"So you don't feel special? Do you feel different?"
"Damn right I's different. You didn't notice?"
"Okay. Put it this way. Eddie kicked the snot out of you today. Do you know why that was?"
"I was beatin' on his frain."
"Were you still black when you were kicking Baxter?"
This kid had one expressive face, even when he couldn't move most of it. His look went from dumb confusion to a question to realization in about ten seconds. "You sayin' I'm just like him?"
"Not just like him, but you get the same shit in life. You guys should stick together." I looked around. "Am I makin' any sense here?"
Tyrone looked like he intended a smile. "Yeah. You makin' a lotta sense. I'm black, but I'm a black person! I'm just like everybody except the way I look. I see what you're sayin'. Eddie's just like everybody 'cept for that one thing."
"Thank you, Doctor Potter." I was playing Perry Mason here. "I rest my case." I turned to Pete, who had his ice bag pressed to his face. "You?"
"Yeah, whatever." He looked at Eddie. "You ain't gonna like mess with me, are ya?"
Eddie grinned. "Nobody's gonna mess with you 'til your face grows back. I'll let you know then, okay? Um, about the fire at Bax's house ..."
Pete said, "Hey, that wasn't us. I swear it! You might want to talk to Al and his jerkoff brother. He didn't say anythin', but that sounds like somethin' he'd do."
"I was just askin'. The cops have it now, so I just wanted to know. That's goin' too far."
Pete looked at Tyrone for a second, then back at Eddie. "I don't lie, man. If I did it I'd say so, but me and Tyrone were home by midnight on Saturday. You can ask our folks."
I looked at them both, then said, "I believe you. Listen, do you guys need to see a doctor?"
Pete said, "I don't think a Doctor's gonna do anything. Al went to the dentist."
"Um, what about Alan? Is he gonna be a problem?"
Pete thought for a minute. "He can be a real asshole. Let me and Tyrone work on him. He's talkin' revenge now, but if he sees you guys with us I don't think he'll try anythin'." He looked over at Tyrone again. "I might be wrong, but I don't think he's got the balls to go against four of us."
Those words surprised the hell out of me. "You mean you guys'd fight on our side?"
Tyrone hissed out, "We stick with winners. Alan's a big loser."
Pete swallowed. "Look guys. We been hangin' with Al since we were in grade school. He's a good guy in some ways, but he can really be a jerk. We were talkin' when you were on the way over. Al's draggin' us down, and I guess he always has been." He held his ice bag against his cheek and winced. "You guys beat us fair and square this morning, now he want's us to carry baseball bats or knives or somethin'. I'm gettin' too old to be gangin' up on people, and I'm gettin' too far behind in school by just wising off all the time. Me'n Tyrone think it's time for Al to come up to our level. Just let us work on him for awhile. He's not stupid, and he's gotta want somethin' more outta life than just bein' a wise ass."
My surprise had turned to astonishment. "You mean that?" I looked at Ralph and Eddie, who both seemed equally surprised. I grinned. "Score one for the good guys, huh?" I looked at Tyrone. "You, too?"
He managed a fat-lipped smile. "Yeah, me too." He looked at Eddie. "I'm sorry, man. About the shit we did to you. I was all pissed at Baxter because he lied, then Al got us all hyped up about queers. I guess it didn't make any sense, but I don't know any better. I'll be a good friend, you'll see."
Pete looked up. "You think Baxter's parents are gonna call the cops?"
That's something I hadn't thought about, and I didn't want anything to change from the way it was headed. "Can I use the phone?"
"Help yourself, man."
I dialed my number and let it ring for awhile. It finally got picked up by Mrs. Baxter. "Hello?"
"Mrs. Baxter? It's Richard."
"Oh, hello Richard. Is everything alright?"
"I'm fine. How's Dennis?"
"He's sleeping like a baby."
"Okay, that's not why I called. It's a long story, but can you promise not to call the cops about this morning? Everything's gonna be fine."
"Oh, I don't know about that." I could tell she took the receiver away from her mouth, but I could still hear her. "Roland? Richard's on the phone. It's important!" She put the phone back to her mouth. "Hold on, Richard. Here's Mr. Baxter."
"Richard? What's up?"
"Um, I don't know if you were gonna or not, but could you please not call the cops about the fight 'til we can explain things better?"
"I was going to call them, but I can wait until you get back. Are you coming soon? We were just getting ready to wake Dennis up and bring him to our motel. The house won't be ready for another two days."
"Okay, we'll leave now. Just give us a half hour."
"We'll wait Richard, but this had better be good."
"Thanks. We're leavin' in a minute. Bye."
I hung up and turned around. "He didn't call them yet. We gotta talk him out of it." I looked at Pete's face. "That's gotta hurt, man. I'm really sorry."
He tried to smile. "Forget it. We started it, so it's not your fault. Thanks though. Thanks for bein' so decent about this." He looked at Ralph and Eddie. "You guys, too. Thanks. Friends?"
Pete's whole kitchen lit up with smiles as we all said, "Friends!" in unison.
We said our goodbyes, then headed back to my house. I pounded Ralph on the shoulder, leaving my hand there. "Man, you are a fuckin' genius! This is just about perfect!"
Eddie put his hand on Ralph's other shoulder, and the boy between us held his smile all the way to my house.
We all talked to the Baxters until they were convinced that the police weren't necessary about the fight. We also told them that we didn't think Pete and Tyrone had anything to do with the fire, but we did give them Alan's name so the investigators could check him out. When Baxter woke up, we told him what had gone on. He started crying, but when he could talk he said it was just from relief that it was all over.
My parents came home before the Baxters left, and they invited them to stay and eat. They accepted, as did Ralph and Eddie, so my mother had to run out to the store to get hamburger meat and rolls. Ralph reminded her that we were out of milk, then we all went out in the yard and hung around waiting for my mother to get back. Bud and Mr. Baxter had some beers, Mrs. Baxter had a glass of wine, and the four of us and my sister drank soda. Bax didn't look any better, but he was in a good mood and turned out to be kind of fun to hang around with.
Well, I guess all's well that ends well. Everybody's injuries healed up in a week or so. Alan and his brother confessed to the firebombing. Alan got probation because of his age, but his brother got six months in jail plus probation for six years.
Pete actually liked the new shape of his nose, and Tyrone's didn't look any different. They turned out to be pretty good guys to have as friends, and we had a lot of fun. Alan pretty much faded from view, hanging with a different crowd after awhile. He never gave any of us another problem.
So, what's wrong with this picture? What happened to the intrigue? Two former gay bashers, two former gay harassers, and two permanently gay boys were all good friends. We did things together and, more importantly, we did things for each other. We looked out for each other and helped each other with things like yard work and homework so we could spend more time having fun. Eddie, Bax and I made the ski team and won some events; enough that we all got trophies at the end of the year. Everybody except me made the baseball team, and they actually had a winning season for once. I didn't mind about the baseball team because I couldn't play well anyhow. Besides, I got to spend that much more time with my steady girlfriend Joanie.
Ralph and Bax were both straight-A type students, and hanging around with them seemed to make us all smarter. The rest of our grades all improved.
I ask again; what's wrong with this picture? There is nothing that can be improved on, nothing that can be done in a different way to make anything better or more worthwhile.
You tell me if there's something wrong, because as far as I'm concerned everything is perfect, and there ain't no point talking about it anymore!