A Horse Named Phil

By Driver

Chapter 01

It had been a month since I came home from spending a week at the lake with Aaron. Good things had happened. There were three weeks of school left, and after that I had my old job back with Harlan. I'd be in the shop working with Hokay again. Shane, with a succession of helpers, had done well, but he was chomping at the bit to get back in the field. Harlan said Hokay was holding what amounted to prayer rituals for my return.

I needed a place to stay again. Aaron suggested his house, but I thought I'd never sleep if I stayed there. I knew Harlan would let me stay with him and Edie, but they were going to have a new baby soon and they certainly didn't need me for that. I did the sensible thing and called Kevin McAffrey. He still didn't have a telephone, so I called Nan, his mother.


"Nan, hi. This is Evan Smiley, remember me?"

"Oh my God, let me sit down! Evan Smiley! Do I remember you? Does a girl forget her first love? Of course I remember you. Ron! It's Evan on the phone!"

I could hear his crusty voice in the distance, and he said, "Evan? The guy who can take a joke without getting fucked? Tell him I said hi!"

I laughed and said, "I heard that. Um, I'm trying to get in touch with Kevin. No phone up there yet?"

Nan chuckled, "Not a real one. Shane has a cell phone now. Do you want that number?"

"Sure," I said, picking up a pencil. I wrote the number down.

"Do you still want Kevin to call?" Nan asked.

"Yeah, you can tell him what it's about. I wonder if that room is still available."

Nan sounded totally delighted, "You're coming back? Oh, Evan! That's wonderful!"

I grinned, "Thanks. How's that little girl of yours?"

Nan's voice softened, "Oh, Evan. Joanne is going to be so thrilled that you're coming back to stay. You should see her. She's gotten so tall since you were here. She's missed her Evan as much as I have."

We talked a little longer, and she promised to have Kevin call me. That didn't happen for two nights, and when Kevin did finally call he sounded loud and a little buzzed. That shouldn't have surprised me. After about eight at night, sounding buzzed was one of his primary means of identification.

"I hear you want that old porch back," he said after we'd greeted each other.

"If it's available," I said.

"Oh, it's available," he hollered. "I'll even paint it, how's that?"

"What? And cover that lovely patina?" I joked.

"If Pat needs a place he can find his own. This porch is for Evan! So, when do you start?"

"I start at work on June second, so I'll move over on that Saturday ... that would be May thirty-first."

There was a silence, then Kevin said, "There! I just wrote myself a note. We'll be ready for you, Ev."

We talked some more before we hung up, and after we did I still liked Kevin. He had frightened me when we first met, but that was just his visage. All he needs to be the Hunchback of Notre Dame is the hunched back. Kevin's only real problem is that he has no aspirations in life other than covering the rent, eating, drinking too much, and getting sex on the side when he can stay awake for it. The sad fact is that he's not alone in this world.

When I last talked to Harlan, he was still looking for workers, so I'd offered jobs to almost everyone I knew. Chris couldn't, because he was taking a long-planned trip to Poland and the Czech Republic with his parents, and they'd be gone for a month. He was the only guy I'd asked from Mt. Harman other than my brother Alton. Al had that job in a restaurant and he wanted to stay with it.

Billy, Dean and Huck were up for jobs, though, and enthusiastic about finding work. They each knew a couple of other guys, and they went to see Harlan on their own. They all got hired, and actually started right away on a part-time basis. I couldn't do that because school was still in, and it was too far. One of Billy's friends quit after a couple of days, but the rest of them liked it, and they really liked the money they made.

The other good thing was that Lee Erasmus was still going strong. Unbelievably, there were still guys in school who assumed he was gay because he'd been raped, and they tried to redeem some kind of following when it became known that Lee was my friend now, and I was out as being gay. Despite the hassles, I liked being out. I really did. Aside from some nonsense from hard-core homophobes, I was still popular, and popular with a wide enough gamut of people that my detractors couldn't possibly gain any ground. I'd even sent a little thing to the school paper, and I'll share it here:

Queerer Than Me

Evan Smiley

I'm gay. I used to hide that fact, but I haven't since it became unimportant to me. Everybody knows I'm gay now, and I am open about it.

Someone in this school doesn't like that. I don't know if it's one or many. All I know is that sometimes I'll feel a hand on me where a hand doesn't belong, and that happens in crowds. The other things I get are notes in my locker that describe particular, and to my mind gross, sexual acts.

If I was interested, I could learn from those notes, but my question to the writer of them is HOW DO YOU KNOW SO MUCH? If that's your idea of intimacy, then go for it, but please leave me out of the picture.

I think you're queerer than me and you're still afraid of it. You're not claiming religion or anything else, just writing dirty notes. If I'm right, then come on out. You may be surprised. I breathe the same air and drink the same water as you. Anybody who matters to you won't care if you're gay or if you're a raspberry. If that makes you a gay raspberry, it will only give pause to Mets fans.

Gay doesn't equal dirty. Gay doesn't equal perverted. Gay doesn't equal pedophiles. Gay only equals people who care for members of their own sex.

Thank you for reading, and please keep your filth out of my locker.

The paper wouldn't print that, and they gave me a number of legitimate reasons why. It was still brought to the attention of the administration, who reiterated their promise to oppose harassment regardless of the cause. Yeah, ho hum.

* * * * * * * *

Our baseball season was in full swing, and we played four or five games a week. We were looking good as a team, too; our record so far was twelve wins and six losses. Before our first game, which was away, we had a big pep talk from the coach and his assistants. Coach gave us his usual 'be heroes, not just men' talk, and told us to be confident but not arrogant. He had high hopes for the season and yada, yada, yawn-a.

The other coaches talked, and when they turned to walk away our manager, Henry Lohman, stood up and said, "Hang around one more minute, guys." He picked up a small box made of flimsy cardboard and opened it. "Coach wants you each to consider wearing one of these," he said as he held up a shoulder patch of a rainbow. There was a groan, "You don't have to," Henry said quickly, "just think about it. If you want to support Evan, then have your mom sew it on the left sleeve, right at the shoulder seam. I have four of them for each of you."

He started passing them out, or I should say he tried to start passing them out. "You have to take them, guys," he insisted. "If you don't want to wear one that's up to you, but coach wants you all to take them."

Guys looked at Henry, at each other, at the sky. Except for a few friends, most of them managed to not look at me. They took the patches though, and with little comment. When I got up to Henry for mine, I looked a question at him and asked, "Coach?"

He shrugged and nodded. I looked at the patches in my hand, and they seemed like really nice ones. They were just plain rainbows, cut to a size that would fit a shoulder seam, but nicely woven. When Chris had his we headed out to the parking lot. Chris asked, "Did you know about this, Evie?"

I shook my head in wonderment, "No way! This whole season is like out of the Twilight Zone." I looked at Chris, "I'll tell you the truth, Coach is starting to scare me."

Chris gave me an odd look as he unlocked his door. "Scare you? You don't think this is like really nice of him?"

I looked at Chris while I buckled up, and he hadn't suddenly grown a second head. "Chris," I said flatly, "This is the coach we're talking about. He doesn't know nice. All he knows is baseball and win. Have you ever heard him say the word nice, even about a good play? I'll answer that for you. No! He'll say good or excellent or outrageous even, but never nice. Not once."

Chris rolled his eyes before starting the car, "Evie, I'm talking about nice as in deed, not as in vocabulary. I just think that asking everyone to wear a patch that supports you is really decent of him."

I stared at Chris for a moment, then looked out the front window. I knew way down deep inside me that the coach wasn't trying to be nice to me or to anyone else. He had something up his sleeve, and probably thought it was an ace that he could palm off on me. On the other hand, I didn't want to argue with Chris. On the far off chance that he was right, he wouldn't have my argument to rub in my face when things finally came to light.

I had enough to worry about. I was still going strong with Aaron, but we wouldn't see much of each other in the immediate future. He had a rehearsal for his play that night and another one on Saturday afternoon. He was now taking voice training, and the only lessons he could get were on Sunday afternoons. I'd still go over to spend the night on Saturday, but for several weeks we wouldn't actually see each other any other time. I had my games, he had his rehearsals, and he still practiced with Dean and John. He'd do that while I was playing my game, but I didn't have to hurry. He'd get home from his play rehearsal at about six thirty, so from then until noon the next day would be our time together for the whole week. Grr.

Well, we'd known it was coming. Even during the summer, I'd have a day job while Aaron performed nights and weekends, so there was a chance I'd see him even less when I was staying right around the corner.

I stopped with Chris at his house before I went home, and helped him sew rainbow badges onto his uniform sleeves. He didn't think his mother knew how to sew. Neither did we, but Chris took his home jerseys and I took the away ones, and other than a few pricked fingers we did a pretty good job.

I was going bowling that night with Lee and his uncle Herb, and Bruce was the one who asked me. I'd gone with Herb and Lee once before and we were pretty much equally matched, so it was fun. It would be Bruce's first time bowling, and Lee had talked him into trying it. I certainly didn't mind. I'd been having fun again with Bruce since the lake. It was him who changed, too, not me. He was taking another look at the world ... the world that existed outside of science and math and education, and he was definitely liking what he saw there.

Everybody was learning new things about Bruce. He turned out to have an abundance of physical energy that matched his mental abilities. He was game, too; ready to try anything once, and he liked most of what he tried. He was agile and quick, if a bit awkward sometimes, and every time he pushed himself he came up smiling.

He was opening up in other ways too. He could still be cynical, but now it was about things, promises, revelations. His cynicism for people seemed to have evaporated, and he was the happier for it. For years, when he talked about someone else he always included some kind of assessment of their mental capacity, and he'd simply stopped doing it. Now he was talking people up for whatever their good points were, and he was becoming popular with a nice bunch of kids.

And girls. I've mentioned before how good looking Bruce is, and since he'd flipped on his 'nice guy' switch, all the Freshman girl geniuses in his school had set their sights on him.

When I came in from Chris' house Bruce said, "Lee called. He said for us to meet them at the lanes because his uncle's going to be late."

"Okay," I said. I got my uniform shirts out and asked Bruce, "Do you know how to sew?"

He screwed up his face and asked, "Like sew cloth?" I nodded, and he said, "I guess I could."

I tossed him the shirts and went looking for needles and thread, which I found in my parents' bedroom. I came back down and we set to it. Threading needles is tricky, but the rest went fine, and we made small talk while we sewed.

"Why are you putting rainbows on your baseball uniforms?" Bruce asked.

"I don't know why, Bruce, I honestly don't. It's a symbol that some gay groups have taken up, but the rainbow can mean other things in the civil rights area. These are supposedly for me, so if another team thinks they can come down on me for being gay, they'll already know my team will back me up."

Bruce looked up in surprise, "Hey, that's pretty nice!"

I looked at him, then back at my sewing. I wanted to argue about the patches, and I had arguments to make about coach and his motives. Once again I kept my mouth shut. After a few minutes Bruce said, "Ev, there's this girl Allison, and she'll be there bowling with her family."

I glanced at him, "And?"

"Well, after you teach me to bowl, can I go bowl with her for awhile?"

I thought it was funny that he thought I'd teach him enough about bowling in one session to make that possible, but there was another problem. "I don't think so, Bruce. We'll be bowling partners, like two against two? We can't do that with three people."

"I wasn't born yesterday," Bruce said. "I'll trade places with her brother."

"Great," I mumbled, "How old's her brother?" expecting to hear he was eleven or twelve.

"He's seventeen," Bruce said, "And Allison says he's gay too, but I think she means his clothes and things."

I asked kind of coyly, "So, is Allison cute?"

Bruce nodded without hesitation, "Yeah, kinda. She's not into fooling around, and that's what I like."

"Fooling around?" I asked.

"Yeah," Bruce said matter-of-factly. "You know ... like doing blow jobs."

"Ow!" I cried when I punctured my thumb with the needle. I sucked on the tip of it for the second it took to stop bleeding. "Blow jobs?" I asked weakly.

"Yes," Bruce said seriously. "They call it fooling around, and the girls do it so they don't have to really go out with anybody. You never heard of it?"

"God, Bruce! Let me think." The truth is, I hadn't heard about it, at least not in Bruce's context. I knew about blow jobs, but I'm gay and that's part of my job. I knew about fooling around, too, and I think that was a universal term. What I didn't know was that pubescent girls called giving blow jobs fooling around. I was a Freshman just the year before, and if it was a general practice then I'm sure I would have known it, and I would have had a lot more happy friends than I did. I didn't know how to talk to Bruce about it, though. I kept my mouth shut and sewed patches until I was done.

"I guess," I said, "you can bowl with Allison if you want."

Bruce nodded, and in a moment bit off the thread and gave me my other shirts. "Thanks, Bruce." I looked around, "Are we supposed to be cooking for ourselves? Where's Mom and Dad?"

"Oh yeah, I forgot. Somebody they know died and they're going to a wake."

I didn't feel like cooking, so I asked, "Feel like eating out?"

"Chinese?" Bruce asked hopefully, and I made a face. He noticed and asked, "Pizza maybe?"

I said, "Arturo's?" and Bruce nodded happily. There were a lot of places for pizza, but Arturo's is the one my family usually went to. It wasn't that their pizza was so much better than anyone else's, though it was fine. It was more a thing of familiarity, where we knew exactly what we'd get, and that we were known there so we wouldn't have to wait forever if it was busy.

We got cleaned up and changed, left a note, then headed out on the town. I was actually happy to be going somewhere with Bruce to have a good time. I know, I know, bowling is boring, except it's not. It's a fun game that you can play with just a modicum of skill. You don't have to make a big investment because you can rent everything for cheap, and the people who bowl are generally a nice bunch.

The Arturo's crowd was nice, too. We went to the counter to order and there was a short line ahead of us. As soon as we got to the front, a guy elbowed me aside and said, "Excuse me, I was here first." I didn't know differently, so I took a step back, and the guy leaned close to Arturo and said, "I want twenty-five large pizzas for here. You figure out what to put on them, just make them all different."

My heart sunk, and the guy suddenly leaned against the wall and burst out laughing, pointing at me. "Look at him! Look at that face, Art! Jeez!" He roared with laughter, then leaned close to me and said, "Go ahead, I'm just kidding. You were here first."

I looked at the guy, my heart in my throat. He was older, gray haired and red-faced, and he'd played a happy little joke on me. I had to cool it, and I did. I laughed, "That's a good one! You got me going there."

Arturo leaned out over the counter and grinned, "Order up, Smiley. There's folks behind you."

I knew that, and I ordered a pizza with no mozzarella, lots of sauce, and with onions, peppers and mushrooms for toppings. We went up front with drinks to wait for it, and to my dismay some of my detractors from school were sitting there. Six of them, starting with the loudest one, who called himself Slade.

They saw us, and nobody said anything. I was ready to change our order to take-out. This woman at the table opposite ours said, "Harold, be a dear and run down back and tell them your mummy needs another beer."

That meant nothing to me until 'Slade' said, "Yes, mum," and stood up. He gave me the dirtiest of dirty looks, but now I knew. Maybe Slade was his last name, but I seriously doubted it.

Bruce noticed me looking and asked, "What? Who's that?"

I looked at Bruce and smiled, whispering, "He's the biggest jerk in our school, Bruce. He runs around calling himself Slade, like he's some big movie star or something. He says he hates me for being gay. Now I have it on him. He's a mommy's boy!" I smiled.

Bruce grinned, "You mean mummy, right?"


"Got a pencil or pen?" Bruce asked.

I produced a pen and Bruce started writing on a napkin, and it looked like a chemistry formula. He filled one napkin and was finishing on another one just when Slade brought Mummy her beer. Bruce was positioned with his back to Slade, and mumbled the word 'Slade' while he wrote, then handed me the result. "Sorry, Ev, there are more ways to do this," he said in a loud whisper, "but this one will work. You mix up this mess, and wherever that Slade dude is, the next time he has a bad thought he'll just disintegrate. Like poof. There won't even be any ashes!"

"I don't have to pour it on him or anything?" I asked.

Bruce said calmly, "No, not at all. You put these things in a jar, and he'll be history no matter if he's here, if he's there, or if he's in East Jebrew!" Bruce gave me a quick grin and pointed at one of the napkins, "See right here where it says Slade. This is for him. It'll find him and turn him to nothing at all." Bruce smiled brightly at me.

I looked at the formula on the napkin and didn't recognize it. Even so I knew Bruce was full of shit, but Slade was just dumb enough to fall for it, and I could see that his ears were unnaturally red, so I just followed Bruce's lead. "Let me get this straight," I said. "I can do this dude in from anywhere on the planet? All I need is this list of chemicals."

Bruce leaned in and said conspiratorially, "Ever hear of Judge Crater, Evan?"

"I think so," I said. "Remind me."

Bruce said, "He was this famous judge, rich and famous, then poof! He was gone, and no more trials, no more Judge Crater, no more nothing."

I smiled, "Same stuff?" I asked.

"Same formula," Bruce said. "It doesn't even leave a DNA stain."

I knew he was lying, but it was the first really creative thing I'd ever seen Bruce do, and I loved it. I knew that 'Harold' had heard every word, too. I'm not sure if he was bright enough to look up Judge Crater, but one of his friends would if he couldn't.

When our pizza came, I grinned at Bruce with a new found respect. He might grow up to be a great Dan Rather, and baffle the world with a mix of a little science, a little truth, and a whole lot of bullshit. Looking at Slade's ears from behind, I doubted that I'd ever hear from him again! They were as red as fire engines!

The bowling alley wasn't far from Arturo's, and Lee and his uncle were waiting when we got there.

Lee's uncle Herb had turned out to be a good friend himself. His connection to Lee was through marriage only, and he had his own children, but he'd stepped in as the father figure, and I could tell that Lee adored the guy. I did too. Herb was educated, talented and successful, and still as down to earth as anyone could be. Bruce had seen Herb before, but never really met him.

When we approached them at the bowling alley Herb stepped right up to Bruce, extending his hand and saying, "You're Bruce! I finally get to meet the young genius!"

Bruce shook his hand, but seemed to be put off. Herb said genially, "Don't take that wrong, Bruce. If Evan and Lee both tell me you're a genius, then it's up to you to prove you're not!"

Bruce smiled shyly and said, "I've heard about you, too. You're the artist, right?"

I could see that those words pleased Herb, and he blushed a little. "I guess, Bruce, that sometimes it's better to meet on your own. We both have these pre-conceptions in our minds, and we don't really need them." He smiled merrily and held out his hand again, "Hi, I'm Herb Sutton."

Bruce smiled back as they shook again, and it turned into a smirk. "I'm Bruce Smiley, nice to meet you. Evan's my brother."

I caught the subtlety of Bruce's remark and smiled. Lee did, too, and he snickered. Bruce said I was his brother, not that he was my brother, and I thought it was funny. I did the same thing, starting my first day at High School. Teachers often asked, "Oh, are you Alton's brother?" like that would give them something to compare me to, or for me to measure up to.

"No," I'd say, "Alton is my brother." Semantics, but it was fun.

We rented shoes and got a lane, then we all took some practice shots, and I took that time to coach Bruce, and Lee and Herb pitched in. None of us were natural born bowling stars, and Bruce was no different. He avoided the gutter ball after the first few, and he caught right on to the scoring, so we started to play, me and Herb against Lee and Bruce. Each of us caught a lucky strike in the first game, and Bruce and Lee ended up winning by a few points. Then Herb and I got serious, so we lost the next game by a lot of points.

It was fun. We were bad enough that we could laugh at ourselves, and laughing actually helped our scores.

After three games, Bruce went to join Allison, and before that he hadn't even pointed her out. I looked over there and I immediately thought she was attractive. She looked young, more like twelve than fourteen. She was tall though, and blonde and athletic looking. She had a nice face, and surprising brown eyes given her hair color.

She waved, and her parents waved, and we all waved back. Then her brother came over and Oh, Lord! I knew him! From the halls anyhow, but I'd seen him. I wouldn't forget, either. He introduced himself as Dan Crumb, and I honestly thanked Heaven for small mercies. Anyone who looked like he did needed an unfortunate last name to keep him human.

Tall. Sandy blond hair that was wavy in the way you just knew it came naturally. Lots of guys around like that so far, right? Try this: dark skin, like Mediterranean maybe, and the same brown eyes as his sister. His lips were red and on the thick side, and his damn eyebrows were light like a Norwegian's. Damn, he was good looking! Not classically handsome, more like terminally cute. Whatever you called it, it worked.

I was glad that Lee said hi first, followed by Herb, because I was stunned by this guy close up. When it was my turn to shake, I got my hand back as fast as I could, afraid of myself. I had been certain that when I saw Bruce up close again I was going to knock him on his ass for even connecting Dan to the word gay. Not had been screaming in the back of my mind, but just feeling that hand in mine made me believe Dan's sister knew what she was talking about. Gay. For sure gay. I don't know how or why I knew it, but I did. Even if I was wrong, I was sure of it. Dan had to know I was gay, going to the same school, but he didn't say anything or do anything.

We bowled. Dan was better than us, but not by a lot. Lee racked up most of the points, and Herb and I lost again and again. I didn't care, because I was lost watching Dan. He was wearing tan Dockers, and they only showed something when he stretched to bowl, but that something was pretty awesome. He was watching me, and I could tell even though I didn't look around. Gay. Gay like me.

We bowled the games that we paid for, then brought our rented shoes back. When I was on the bench taking mine off, and when Herb and Lee were already at the counter returning theirs, Dan said, "Is it true what I hear, Evan? That you're gay?"

I looked him in the eye and asked, "Does it matter?"

He looked away and mumbled, "No, not really."

"I am," I said softly. His eyes jumped to find mine. I wanted to say, "You are, too," but I didn't. Instead I lamely mumbled, "I'm taken, Dan. Otherwise ..." Jesus Christ, what am I thinking here?

Dan seemed surprised, then his look softened. "I ... well, what?" His blonde eyebrows disappeared into his hair.

"Nothing," I mumbled, hoping he'd change the subject. The last thing I wanted to do was tell him I thought he was gay. I had no way of knowing that; it was just a feeling. A very strong feeling. I shook my head and tied my shoe. I wanted to say a lot of things, but I held my words back. I didn't need temptation to start with, and I didn't have any words that would make sense anyhow.

"You're doing okay, right?" Dan asked quietly.

"Meaning?" I asked.

"Oh. Well, I mean you're okay being out, right? It's not so bad as I might imagine?"

I heard what he said and I let it go through my head about five times, then I sat back and laughed out loud "Not ... not," I cried. I had to wait, and I finally managed to gasp out, "I'm sorry ... it's not you, it's your words! Ahhhhh!" I choked, "Sorry. Not so bad as you might imagine? Ahhhh ha ha ha ha." I gulped in some air, "It's not you Dan, that's just so funny!"

He was on the opposite bench looking at me in horror. He said, "Why is it funny? I don't get you, Evan. I wasn't making fun of you."

I looked up quickly. I was used to people I knew, people who knew my humor. I could see that it only served to upset Dan somehow. I moved to touch his arm, but didn't. "Dan," I said softly. "Don't take me the wrong way. I don't mean anything. Sometimes I'm just a nut, and people who know me understand that. Ask me how I am. I want you to hear what this sounds like." He stared and I said, "Go ahead, ask me how I'm doing."

He exhaled and said, "Okay. How are you, Evan?"

I grinned, "Not so bad as you might imagine!" and I laughed some more Dan caught on and snickered, then chuckled. "That does sound pretty funny."

God, I was tempted to just ask him if he was gay. I didn't have the nerve, so we just joked around some more, then brought our shoes back to the counter.

We all watched the end of the string Bruce was shooting with Dan's family. Bruce was having a good time with Allison, that was clear. He was having a good time just being Bruce, too, and he was fun to watch. In the months since I'd come home Bruce had become more and more expressive, and he was positively exuberant bowling with Allison. He jumped and cheered if either of them rolled a good ball, hid his face in his hands when one of his went awry, then peeked out between spread fingers anyhow. He was having a better time than anyone there, and it made him fun to watch.

Afterwards, Herb went home and Lee came with us, because he was spending the night with Bruce. They'd become fast friends over the past month or so, maybe even best friends. They were less alike than me and Chris, but they sure knew how to get into it just the same. They talked like magpies most of the time and laughed the rest of the time. Real friends they were, and doing the things friends do.

* * * * * * * *

Throughout this period, there was a dark cloud hanging over Mt. Harman, and it seemed to be spreading across the state. What had begun as an investigation into the school shooting had turned into a major-league look at gambling and other corruption in the school system, and it had spread far and wide, both within the schools and on the outside. It was a complicated web, too. Parts of the story were out, and to call it confusing is an understatement.

Mr. Throckmorton, according to Ron Mastracchio, didn't mean to shoot Ron. He'd somehow acquired the pistol to give to Ron because of other things going on, and when he tried to demonstrate the safety mechanism the gun went off, and Ron was struck. It's theory after that because Ron didn't actually remember being shot, since he was knocked out when he was hit. The speculation was that Throckmorton thought he'd killed Ron and turned the gun on himself. It was awful.

What was more awful was that Ron Mastracchio had been arrested and had over a hundred charges against him. Most were gambling related, but he was also being charged with thefts, with various allegations about drugs, and with both prostitution and pimping. At seventeen he was still a minor, but he'd face his charges in adult court if the D.A. had his way. One article said that if he got the maximum as an adult on all charges, he faced a potential two hundred years in jail.

The news is one source of information, but for something like this there was no substitute for being in the same school. Different kids knew different things, and when you figured out who really knew what, you could paint yourself a reasonably clear picture. Here's the one I came up with:

Ron Mastracchio loved to gamble, and he had from an early age. Guys who knew him from Cub Scouts said he liked to bet on things then. As he grew, so did his passion for wagering. As a young kid, of course, he could only bet his allowance or his birthday presents, but he always bet whatever he had.

I had no way to verify everything I heard, but I gleaned some of the truth from his brother Michael's sad eyes. Ron had never come back to Mt. Harman High, but had transferred to an unnamed somewhere else. Mike was still with us, and he vacillated between seeming fairly normal, then distancing himself from people.

At around the age of thirteen, Ron had found people who extended credit to him for his wagers. Sometimes he won enough to pay them back, but over time he found himself owing serious money to some very serious characters. That's when he stole, and often from the very people he owed money to, robbing Peter to pay Paul. At times things became desperate, and Ron took desperate measures; sometimes prostituting his body to pay debts. He somehow got involved in pimping other kids; girls and a few boys, and continued to do things himself. One of the charges against him was for promoting child prostitution, and the word was that one girl was only twelve years old.

A lot of time had passed since the shooting in school. We'd waited and waited for news, and not much had been forthcoming. Now that it was happening, it wasn't the news anyone wanted to hear. I felt that myself; like don't tell me anymore! God, it was dismal, and it was depressing. I knew I hadn't been wrong. Ron Mastracchio had once been a nice kid, but an obsession had led him down a path that might end up dooming him at seventeen. If it did, a whole lot of other 'nice' people might be sucked in right along with Ron.

Still, Ron had done measurable bad, and when the D.A. wanted to charge him as an adult the judge allowed it, at least for the initial arraignment. Even after all the indignation I'd felt when the same guy tried that with Lee, I didn't scream this time. Ron was seventeen, and his acts were overt.

They were his own acts, too. Lee had been a kid under duress from his father. Ron was doing a lot of things to use and abuse other people, and he did it despite the fact that he came from an honest, upright family.

I had spent too much time thinking about it. I think I was angry below the surface with just the idea of charging kids as adults. They were or they weren't adults, legally or otherwise. Just the term 'as an adult' showed that even the state knew they weren't. There was a hypocrisy there and it burned me. They let adults off sometimes for mental deficiencies, for reasons of insanity or for 'extenuating circumstances', but never once have I seen an adult charged 'as a child' even when it might have made sense. Still, one prosecutor after another, probably trying to earn points with the loonies at one far end or the other of the spectrum, went after ever younger children as 'adults', just to make easy notches in their gunbelts.

I thought that was a really fucked up thing about American society. Laws contradicted themselves all over the place, putting blame here, then there, and there was no rhyme or reason. If you had a daughter, no matter how young, and she got knocked up, she could have major surgery in the form of an abortion and the parent's wouldn't even have to be told. If that same young girl went home and killed a parent for letting it happen, she could be charged with a capital crime and face execution by the State. The same state that provided the secret abortion.

I struggled with it night after night. I talked to my folks, my counselors at school, with my police friends. I talked to Chris and his parents, Aaron and his parents, and to everyone I knew.

After that, I didn't know if I was right, but I came up with the idea of joining the people who were rallying behind Ron Mastracchio. He'd done wrong for sure, and he should face punishment for his acts. By then I was familiar to an extent with the juvenile system, and they were equipped to deal with Ron. I thought the prosecutor might have a hard ride anyhow, because of the way Ron came across. He wasn't a punk, not a gansta, but rather a preppy kid gone wrong. If he helped to prostitute young girls, then that was an evil act, and one he should pay for. If he prostituted himself to pay off adult gangsters, then that was a crying shame, not something he should be charged with as a criminal. He'd already paid that particular price.

I made up my mind. I didn't especially like Ron, and I didn't like the way he treated people, particularly Lee. The D.A. made me angrier than Ron, though, and this was my second go-round with that. I honestly believed that he thought kids were easy game. The adults who had been so far caught up in the scandal had relatively minor charges against them. Those were the exact same crimes Ron was charged with, but Ron faced life in prison while these other people faced fines and thirty day sentences. Do you see the wrong here? The older people were career criminals, small time hoods, and maybe even some ringleaders. Ron was a high school kid who got caught up in bad business that was there long before he came on the scene. It would still be there long after Ron was gone too, if they kept going after the bit players instead of the career hoods.

I knew some of the people who were organizing behind Ron, and I intended to see what I could do myself. I felt compelled to do something, otherwise I'd stew about it all summer.

* * * * * * * *

Our season opener was an away game, and we weren't allowed to drive ourselves. Baseball is supposedly the National game, but that doesn't extend to high school. At home we'd get a small audience of girlfriends and relatives, but most away games were played with no audience at all on our side. I was therefore surprised to see about a dozen cars full of kids waiting in the lot to follow the team bus. The bus was there and looking good. It was a regular yellow school bus in most respects, but the bus company kept a few that they only used for team transportation and for things like field trips. They had chrome rims, strobe lights on top for some unknown reason, a stereo inside, and a few back seats were removed. Where those seats would have been there were two fair sized chests where we carried our equipment. For field trips, other things could go in them.

I had put my uniform on at home, but some guys changed out in the locker room, and I helped to lug equipment onto the bus while they changed. I found a seat near the front and waited for Chris, who hadn't shown up yet at all. Until then, I'd glimpsed a few of the rainbow symbols on uniforms, but as guys started getting on the bus, it looked like they were all wearing them. When I looked out and saw Chris running for the bus, I saw him looking at other guys' sleeves, and he was grinning like a Doberman who'd had the seat of someone's pants for breakfast.

By the nature I was born with, I'm not a cynical person. Something was wrong with that picture, though, and I didn't know whether to not like it or to laugh instead. I had never doubted that some of the guys would support me, but something stunk when they all did, because I knew they didn't.

Chris was full of exuberance, though, and when he crashed down into the seat beside me it was catching. "Did they say the lineup yet?" he asked breathlessly. I grinned and shook my head. Chris would play. Chris would always play. He'd start, too. I wasn't sure about me. I'd played in every scrimmage, even started a few, but it was for real this time. I was drawing blanks, with no clue at all what Coach would do.

The coaches never rode the bus with us, but rather went in one or two cars.

When everyone was there loudly proclaiming the inevitability of our win, the coaching team showed up in the front of the bus. Coach said loudly, "We're leaving now, people. Hush up." Then he gave the starting field positions. That always went, first, second, third, catcher, shortstop, then left, center and right fielders, then the pitcher. This one time, he failed to mention third base, and had already named the starting pitcher when he glared at me and said, "Smiley, you start on third." Then he did his usual song and dance about peak performance and winning, and he disappeared, leaving the assistants to get us fired up with their pep talks.

All through it, Chris had been telegraphing his glee so much with his elbow that I thought I might be black and blue. I was as charged as he was, though. If there was something sinister behind it all or not, we were two Sophomores and we had starting positions on the varsity team. A lot of guys waited until they were Seniors for that honor, and some never started. It wasn't lost on us.

The team was charged up when the bus finally started moving, and amid much loud bravado Gerry Brin asked Chris if he'd mind moving so he could talk to me. Chris stopped in mid-holler and just stood aside, heading back until he found another seat. Gerry sat beside me and said, "We never did get to talk about religion and gays. This should be a good time, it's a half-hour ride at least."

I gulped, "I wasn't really expecting this. What should I say?"

Gerry grinned, "That's okay, just listen. I've talked to my mom, to my pastor, and to some friends at church. We looked in the Bible and saw what you said about getting killed for working on the Sabbath, and there's other nonsense in that Old Testament, lots of it. In the New Testament, there isn't a lot said about homosexuality, and it's not clearly in the name of Jesus, and could be about something else altogether. I know my own father would condemn you, but listen carefully: Where is he? Oh, he hangs around the fringes hoping I go Major League, then he'll swoop in for some piece of change. He's nobody to talk about what's right and what's wrong. The man doesn't have the first clue about right. He has wrong down pretty good, and I don't see any gays inhabiting where he hangs."

I looked hopefully at Gerry, "You're saying?"

He grinned, "Speak up, man!" He patted his rainbow patch and said, "Pretty nice, huh? I helped Coach pick them out!"

Well, my jaw dropped so fast and so far I'm lucky it didn't hit me where it hurts. When I could finally form words I said, "You ... y-y-y-you? You and Coach? What's going on?"

Gerry chuckled from deep in his throat. "Oh, it's sinister, Evan. Coach means to exploit you every inch of the way. I intend to support you, not that you need support."

I smiled at Gerry and said, "I don't get it. Coach tried to boot me off the team."

Gerry nodded, "Then he learned he'd lose his players if he did. Evan, this is a team. If we don't stick with each other, we should just give it up. You being gay is an issue, but at the same time you're a damn fine player. You don't act gay, anyhow, and you don't give anyone problems." He shrugged, "So it's not a problem."

"As long as I play well?" I asked.

Gerry shook his head and said, "Not really, but as long as you try hard. We all have bad days, and as long as we still have good ones, the bad days don't count against us. God, where would any sport be if the opposite was true?"

"I don't know," I said, then changed the subject. "What about Coach?"

Gerry smiled, "What about him? He has a gay player and now he knows it. He may not like it, but he's stuck with you. I won't lie, he's gonna use it. He already does. He tells the other coach that he's stuck with a gay kid, but he won't say who it is. That gets around the other team and they play less because they're looking for the gay guy. You play, and you're a killer-diller on third anyhow. Now you can hit long and also bunt, so you're a threat all around." He patted his rainbow patch again and grinned, "Now we all have these things. Nobody's gonna say it's you, so nobody's gonna know. It's all part of the strategy now, Evan. Mr. Smiley. Anything for an advantage, right?"

Gerry grinned, and that reminded me to close my mouth. I was stunned ... amazed! I finally thought to ask, "Who knows this? Everybody except me?"

Gerry's eyes widened and he took a quick look around, "No, no," he said, patting my arm. "Only the coaches and the captains. Otherwise, nobody knows anything."

"The patches?" I asked, and mirth showed in Gerry's eyes.

"Oh, the patches. All anybody knows is that without the patch they might as well not even suit up."

I grinned, "You're bad."

Gerry nodded knowingly, "Yeah, yeah, I know that." He smiled again and gave my wrist a slap as he stood. "You be good, Evan. We're cool. We're all cool. We read Dave Pallone's book, and now Coach is reading it. We're very cool!"

I smiled up at him, wondering who Dave Pallone was and what his book might be about, and Chris was suddenly back. He looked at me and said, "You're smiling! Good news?"

I nodded dreamily and didn't answer. I had thoughts coming at a mile a minute. I knew what was going on, but I didn't really know how to react because it was so strange. I understood Gerry's change of heart about gays, even though he hadn't actually said he had a change of heart. I sensed that from his other words. I was more bothered by the idea that my baseball coach was using my gayness to gain some tiny advantage over other teams. Only it wasn't my gayness, it was somebody's gayness. He'd been giving me special lessons all Spring, and he was starting me in the season opener. That was wonderful for me, almost intoxicating! Yet, he'd get where we were going and say something to the opposing coach about being stuck with a gay player, and that would gain us the kind of little edge that any distraction would. I didn't know what to think. At least I was in on it after talking to Gerry, and it didn't seem like anything I should fear. I guess I felt used, but on such a small scale it was hard to worry about.

If I ever meet the person who can sit next to Chris Humphrey and still hold a worry for a minute, then I will have met the famous 'worried man' of song. Chris was all over me, "What'd he say? What'd he say? You talked a long time and now you're all happy, so tell me what he said!"

I put my hands behind my head and relaxed back into the seat, such as you can on a school bus seat. I turned my face to Chris and said, "I'm not sure. We talked about Jesus and Coach and me. Your name didn't come up."

Chris laughed so hard and suddenly that he got spit on my face, and I started laughing too. Chris and I did a lot together. We played together, worked together, but the best part was that laughing. It was laughing that made us helpless, and we suffered a bout that lasted halfway to the ball field.

We had a good place to play, too. I'd been jealous of the ball field in Riverton where Justin played, but North Herford had even that field beat. It had to be brand new, and they had the best of everything. Well, it was a rich town, but even so, I'd been to AAA minor league fields that weren't as nice.

There were other surprises, not the least of which was the size of the crowd on the visitor's side. We had more than the home team by far, maybe fifty people there to watch us. When I looked more closely, I saw that one of those people was my father. Through little league, Junior league and high school, he'd come to maybe a dozen of my games, rarely more than once a year. When I ran to the fence to see him, Bruce and Lee were sitting right there, too. I had no idea anybody was coming, and I was thrilled. Then I took a look around and most of the people there were people I called friends.

There was like a double fence; the one I was at, which I could put my arms on when I leaned, and a big fence meant to protect people off the field from errant balls. Dad, Bruce and Lee came up to the big fence, and I put my elbows on the one I was at. We were four feet away from each other. I grinned, "Damn. Damn! I never expected you guys to be here!"

My father said, "Well, you know. It's opening day and all."

Lee knew something about sports and asked, "Are you playing today?"

"Starting!" I announced, and I had this sudden and fleeting feeling of pride. I was starting at third base and I was batting cleanup. I didn't have time to lean on fences and socialize, so I waved and ran to the dugout.

We had the lineup, too. Gerry Brin, Chris Humprey, John Berman, then me. Those guys all knew how to get on base, and if even one of them did I had the chance to keep it going.

Coach came by wearing mirrored shades, and he looked at us in turn, not saying a word. Then he took up his position and Gerry went out to bat. Gerry was the man to watch, too, because he could be an explosive player. We all tensed up.

Gerry was also a first pitch guy, and he tapped that first pitch out for a nice, standup single. Chris was next, and he played the pitcher. He hit foul after foul, seven different ones, then he looped one to center for another single, and Gerry went to second.

Then John Berman stepped up, and when I saw his face he had sunglasses on; sunglasses with heart-shaped little lenses and pink flamingoes rising from the sides. He swung at the first pitch, then walked on the next four.

Bases loaded. Me up. I'd played a lot of games, and I'd been there before. It's the beginning of the game, no score yet, and with no outs other guys could still bat behind me.

It was a matter of want, and I wanted. I wanted to knock the skin of that ball and bounce it off a 747 way up in the sky. If I hit at all, a single would score two runs, and a double would clear the bases. That would be good.

For some people.

I always want to hit when I get in the batter's box. With three on and no outs, this pitcher had to try for strikes. I set up and watched him, then I had to let the first one go by. It got away from the catcher it was so low, so I stepped out of the box in case they sent the runner.

The pitcher took a long time setting up for the next pitch, so I stepped back to look at him. I think he just knew he was in trouble, so I stepped back up to the plate. The next pitch looked like mine, and I took a mighty swing at it, but it tailed off and went foul. One and one.

There was noise from the guys on base, noise from our dugout, and more noise from the stands. I set up once again, and I couldn't believe the pitch I got: a straight-down-the-middle fastball, and I cranked around on it with all my might. I was screwed halfway into the ground when I connected, and I knew it was gone from the get-go. I hopped, more than ran, around the bases because I never really took the time to find my balance. If the sound of seventy people can be called a thunderous roar ... well, it can't, but they sure tried.

Grand slam! When I rounded third the team was there to escort me to the plate, and they were all over me after I tagged in. I was ecstatic! This was the fourth grand slam home run of my life, and the sheer thrill of hitting it had intensified rather than lessened. It's kind of equal measures of shock, surprise, holy cow, and Oh man! I was exulting, and I don't really know why I checked out Coach, but he was leaning against the wall looking at all of us, his hand busy on his chin. No smile, no nothing, but he was looking.

We won by a lot, 14-4, but the other team kept up a threat that the final score didn't reflect. I was busy at third, and that made the game fun to play. Hitting is where the excitement is, but fielding is more satisfying. When you pull a ball out of play with your hands, then stop the play by throwing the ball where it has to go, that 'thwack' of it being caught is the most pleasing sound you can hear.

At the end of the game, I got the game ball. I had two hits and a walk, five RBIs and two runs scored. I'd also had a massive time at third, and with no errors. Coach always gave out the game ball, sometimes with an explanation, but not always, because everyone knew anyhow. This was an 'everyone knew' day, and he just said, "The game ball goes to Smiley," and tossed it to me. I tried to believe that there was at least a wink behind those mirrored shades, but I knew there wasn't. I caught the ball one-handed and stared right back at his mirrors, then pulled my dolphin shades out of my pocket and put them on. Just when I turned away, I thought something changed in his face, like the beginning twitch of a smile, but I didn't turn back.

No. I had admirers now, and it was everyone else. Coach had shown me how to get into the ball like that, but then he turned his back on the result. That was good, because it made it all mine. I was probably already black and blue on my back from having it slapped, and I got hit again, and I loved it. Then I ran out to show my dad the game ball. I'm not sure he got the idea behind it, but he was happy that it was me with that ball in my hand.

I called to my dad, "Follow the bus! They'll stop at the first fast food for lunch."

He nodded, then smiled like I'd never once seen that man smile. I didn't know what it meant, but it was meant for me, and it was a very pleased looking smile.

Lunch was a euphemism, too. I was famished, ready to eat my glove. I had to eat, otherwise I'd keel over dead and ruin the whole day. I wasn't keen on McDonald's food, but any port in a storm. When we pulled in I raced to be first in line I ordered a Big Mac to fill me up, a Chicken Caesar salad and a regular Caesar salad, plus a lemonade.

It wasn't lunch time. It was two o'clock, and it had been hours since I had food.

We took up a whole section of the restaurant, which was otherwise not busy owing to the time of day. I was really lucky to have gotten in line up front, because the service really slowed down after awhile. They had to actually cook things instead of just microwaving them. I felt terrible for the people who were far back in line, but I had my food. I sat at a table alone, and it was soon full while the tables around us filled up gradually. I inhaled my Big Mac in about four bites, then sipped lemonade while it settled. When I started on my salads, it was at a more leisurely pace.

We were a happy bunch, and it would get loud in that place when we had some food in us. My father stopped at the table with his tray and nodded toward the direction he was going, and I stood up. "Hey, everyone. This is my dad!"

That turned a lot of heads, and the guys cheered him like he'd hit the grand slam himself. Dad blushed and hurried over to sit with Bruce and Lee. I sat back down and finished my food. I thought about going back to the counter for an apple pie, but I decided not to. I'd had the Big Mac already, and remembered that two wrongs don't make a right. I felt just right anyhow, full but not stuffed. As people finished eating they started talking, and we were a happy group. I looked over to smile at my father, and he wasn't where I expected him to be, which was sitting with Bruce and Lee. Instead, he was leaning against a wall and talking with the coaches. They seemed to be having a nice time, too, and even Coach Goodwin appeared to be enjoying himself. Oh, I wished I could hear them right then, but the place had become loud and there was no chance of me listening in. I normally frowned on eavesdropping anyhow, but Coach so rarely laughed that I was intrigued, and it was my own father that he was joking with. It was the Twilight Zone for sure.

* * * * * * * *

By the time I left for Aaron's, I was down off my high. I couldn't wait to tell Billy, Justin and Huck about my homer, but Aaron was the one who would have the best reaction. The other guys would hoot and pat me on the back or shake my hand, but Aaron would kiss me, and I licked my lips in anticipation. The plan was for a bunch of us to go out for pizza early, then do our own things for the rest of the evening. We knew what most people had planned for later because we'd been asked to various things.

I had my own plans, and they only included Aaron. Life had conspired to keep us substantially apart for a month, so we owed it to each other to make the time we did spend together memorable. The next time we'd have our food delivered.

Aaron's car wasn't in the driveway when I got there, so I drove a few more houses up to Billy's. His father had lent him money against his job to buy a truck, and I hadn't seen it yet. Billy said it was old but in nice shape. Aaron called it the 'Grand Junk Roadrail'. That was funny, but it turned out to not be accurate. Bill and his dad were in the driveway with the truck, and I liked the look of it. It was a 1981 Ford F150, dark red with creamy white on the sides. I pulled in and sat in my car looking for a second, then I got out.

I grinned at Billy and said, "Nice!"

He beamed at me, "Thanks. I love it! I suppose I have to take you for a ride now!"

I grinned again, "I suppose you do!"

His father said, "Bill, you know the new law."

Bill frowned momentarily, then looked hopefully at his father, "Well, you'll come with us, of course. Won't you?"

His father snickered and said, "Move your car, Evan." He looked at Billy, "This isn't going to become a habit. I hope you know that."

"I understand, Father," Billy said, and his fingers were crossed behind his back.

I pulled my car out into the street, then slid into the middle between Bill and his father. The seat was pulled forward so Billy could reach the pedals, so I felt a little cramped. Even so, I could admire the truck. The seat where Billy sat showed some wear on the tan fabric, and there were other worn spots, but whoever owned the truck before obviously took good care of it. It rode well too, more like a car than the company trucks I was used to. Those were sprung for hard work. They rode okay when they were loaded for bear, but when an empty one hit a bump you'd hit the roof with your head every time. Yes, with belts on.

Billy drove us around for awhile, and he was good behind the wheel. It was a huge vehicle compared with my little Acura, but he managed it easily. We didn't drive long or far, and I said, "Nice," again when we pulled into his driveway.

Mr. O'Shea went inside when we got back, and Billy told me of his plans for the truck.

Those plans centered mostly around a radio and speakers that Dean and John Balls were picking up as we spoke. They were going to put it in for Bill, too. That old radio was the one real weakness in the truck. It was the original and probably high-tech when the vehicle was built, but now hopelessly out of date.

Aaron saw us in the driveway and stopped in the street. Oh, man, was he ever a sight, too. He looked a little tired, but happy nonetheless. He had on a pale yellow tee shirt that almost matched his truck, black jeans, and plain little, black sneakers. Aaron could dress like Nanook of the North and still light my fires, but with the warmer weather he was back to looking his best with the least possible. My afterburners were already fired up!

We hugged before we spoke, and if Billy hadn't been there we might have hugged all day and all night. Billy was there, though, so we broke apart and spent some more time with him until Dean and John Balls came back. That was our cue, because they were ready to go to town on that sound system. They were more rude than we were in their own enthusiasm, so Aaron and I slipped away. I left my car in front of Billy's and rode the two hundred feet to Aaron's with him.

We had an hour almost to the minute to ourselves, and after the briefest possible hellos to his parents, we were all over each other in Aaron's room. I was breathing hard when we started. In five minutes I was speechless; stupefied five minutes after that. After that I was just spent ... still out of breath but recovering nicely. "Aaron," I groaned, "we have to keep meeting like this."

Aaron giggled and said, "Okay."

I smiled and rolled onto my side so we could talk. I pushed up on my elbow and looked at Aaron, then reached over with my free hand and toyed a bit with his fuzzy hair. God, I loved him. He was just so perfect, and positively radiant in the afterglow. He giggled at my touch and I whispered, "I love you Aaron. I have a brand new reason right now, too."

He blinked, "Really?"

"Yeh," I whispered. "This was like a really wild day on my end, and it took about a nanosecond with you for me to forget all about it."

Aaron purred, "At your service. What was so wild about your day?"

"Aaron," I said, "we need to talk. Let's make an appointment to talk, because I don't wanna talk now."

Aaron looked a little confused, but still happy, so I kissed his mouth and mumbled, "Just kiss me. The world can wait."

* * * * * * * *

We were an exuberant bunch at the pizza restaurant later. I didn't have to bring up my home run because both Billy's father and Justin had both heard about it on the news. I found a particular point of pride in the thought that my name made the television sports. I'd been in the news before, but not for any good reason. Now people were saying my name because, as Justin recalled it, I'd hit 'a towering, first-inning grand slam.' And I had. I did. That was me, folks: Evan! I had the snide thought that they should put that on a milk carton, but it passed quickly, like most gas.

When things quieted down, I talked about the shooting in Mt. Harman, and asked for opinions on whether or not it was right to try Ron Mastracchio as an adult.

I probably shouldn't have been surprised, but a lot of the people there said yes. I made a further argument. "I don't mean he should get off for what he did, but why make it an adult crime? Or if they do, they should get him on misdemeanors just like the punks who are adults. It's this D.A. trying to be some kind of hero, but look how he does it! Ron runs sports pools in school, so he has sixty-six felony charges against him for that. This guy Buzz Defour was collecting the money, and he has one misdemeanor charge for it. Look at the prostitution charges, thirty of them and counting. They're all felonies for Ron, and nobody else gets a mention." I lowered my voice, "Somebody was screwing those kids, and it wasn't Ron." I looked around, "Don't get me wrong, I don't even like Mastracchio, but I don't want to see him burn in Hell while everyone else involved just walks away. I think the D.A. is a child abuser this time. If everyone was getting the same shit I might not care, but they're not. It sucks."

I shut up and looked around. From people's faces I could tell that some didn't care one way or the other, and a couple of guys thought I was barking up the wrong tree. Others, though, had looks of real concern on their faces. Particularly Huck, who asked, "Ron's not black, is he? Not with a name like that."

"No," I said. "Italian, I think, but not even dark."

Huck glared at me for a long time, then hissed, "It's a reason to keep discriminating, and that's all it is. They got a white boy down cold for what he did, and if they fuck over his ass, then they can do it to the next thousand black boys. You know how? They'll point to this one white boy and say it can't be discrimination because he's in jail, too."

He looked at me and said, "You're right to worry about how they apply the law, Evan. Look at the bigger picture and you'll get a better idea of what's going on." I looked at Huck, at the intelligence in his eyes, and I knew that he was at least partly right. Huck was a black, middle class kid who lived in a mixed neighborhood. Even Riverton had some tough areas, but where Huck lived was hardly one of them.

I knew the problem, too. It was generally at its worst with older people who'd grown up in different times, but it didn't get a whole lot better no matter where you looked. There were people, white people, who would look at a black, middle-aged man who wore a suit and drove a new Mercedes, and they'd feel threatened. Mildly threatened for sure, but they might even think he stole the car. Take twenty years off the black man and leave everything else the same and they'd be pretty sure the car was stolen, more likely carjacked. They would not be a bit surprised if the guy was armed, any more than they'd be surprised if the trunk was full of drugs. Now take a few more years off that guy until he's just like the warm, intelligent, fun-loving person I was talking to. They would see a kid who was big enough to be threatening, and they'd mentally arm him with a pistol and an ice pick. If he was wearing any or all of the trappings that young black guys identify with, they might turn the other way and run.

That's the shame. All it would take is for these people to open their eyes, and they'd see that their own kids, or their grand kids, find real identity in black cultures, whether they're black or not themselves.

I was like that, and everyone I knew was like that. Every single thing we thought was cool on this planet had its roots with the black and Hispanic kids in big cities. It's how we dress, how we talk, the foods we eat, the things we drink, the music we listen to. It's not new, either, it's been happening since I was in diapers, and it started long before that. Teenage America reflects urban America, and in the farthest flung suburbs and farmlands, and that's a truth that has emerged since the birth of rock and roll. I no longer saw any irony in it. The whitest of white kids, whether they realized it or not, lived their lives on the pulse of the inner city, because that's where the pulse of life came up from.

What Huck was saying was more important, and I didn't doubt him. I'd not only heard it on television and read it in the paper, but I had been witness to what they called 'racial profiling' over and over. There was official denial all the time, and all over the place. It was still policy, even if it was unofficial. Let two guys, one black and one white, be seen in the vicinity of a recent crime and it would be the black guy who got stopped for questioning or worse. In a more extreme case, have both a black and a white guy run from the scene of a crime, then see which one gets shot and which one is 'apprehended'.

I wondered if Huck was right; that the D.A. might be using Ron Mastracchio as a scapegoat, an example to hold up when he was accused of being too hard on minorities. It would make sense, because there was no end of things they could charge Ron with, and convictions shouldn't be too hard. Then when someone accused the D.A. of being soft on whites he could deny any such thing, reminding them that hapless Ron Mastracchio was behind bars for ten lifetimes, and he's a white kid. Then he could go on merrily charging every black kid who was unlucky enough to get caught jacking a parking meter as an adult.

I looked at Huck and felt sadness that in this day and age there was still a segment of society who would forever see his skin color and stop right there, not looking for what was inside. His blackness, in their small minds, would forever subtract something from what he was and from his potential. "You're right, Huck," I said sadly. "I don't know what yet, but I'm going to stick up for Ron and try to keep him out of adult court."

Aaron glared at me, "I thought you didn't like him."

"I don't like him," I said, "but him being mean to a friend of mine doesn't mean he needs a thousand years in jail. All the other people are being charged with misdemeanors. I don't know any other reason to go after Ron like they are except to make him a scapegoat."

Justin said, "You know, it might be more than that even. Mastracchio is a victim, too. He's the guy who got shot. I think that they don't believe his story about the shooting; either that or something else stinks. If they're trying to lay everything on one kid when everyone knows that lots of people were involved, then maybe some of those other people have some really good connections."

He looked at me, "I read that Ron Mastracchio isn't helping with the investigation. I'll bet he's scared shitless for his safety ... maybe even his family's safety. Usually you can trade information and get them to go easier on you. One other thing stinks. There's no Grand Jury, and with all the hints at corruption you'd think that would be one of the first things the state would do. I'm surprised there's not a lot more noise about this. It's like everybody's staying away from it."

Justin was right, but Billy turned the conversation back to happier topics and we finished our food on a cheerful note.

* * * * * * * *

I left for home late the next morning when Aaron left for his voice lesson. It was one more thing to keep us apart, and if Aaron wasn't so enthusiastic about the training I might have resented it. I couldn't though, not when it made Aaron happy, and he was ecstatic. His voice coach, Lawson Connors, was supposedly well known, and had helped many professionals during his career. His studio was in his home, and Aaron already thought he was getting better. Lawson was a man who couldn't sing a note himself, but he could recognize each and every one of Aaron's problems, and they were tackling them all at once. I never thought Aaron had any problems. I loved his voice, and it wasn't so much his voice they were working on, but breathing, timing, shaping words. Aaron even gave me a little demo of improper breathing techniques vs proper ones, and five acceptable variations of a sung 'O' with a few unacceptable ones thrown in to show me the difference. They all sounded fine to me, but I told Aaron I could see what he was singing about, which got me a happy hug.

I needed that hug, too, because unless something got canceled I wouldn't see him again for a whole week. It made for long weeks.

On the way home, I stopped to have a doughnut pie and I lingered there over a second coffee. I liked to do that sometimes, just watch the comings and goings in a place like that. It was pleasant that day; a bright spring morning. It seemed that about half the customers were regulars, based on the people behind the counter knowing them, and that was encouraging. The place was a success, and it was well kept up anyhow, so I hoped it would be there for a long time. In years to come, I could sit right where I was and watch future customers enjoying what I hoped would survive to become 'ye olde doughnut pies'.


Continued ...

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