Plan D:Lake Effect
I walked inside and called out that I was home, and before I took two steps my father was there in front of me. He had a neutral expression on his face, and beckoned me to follow him into his office. He sat down and I followed suit, and he asked, "What did you do today?"
I was certain that he was asking why I wasn't in school, so I mumbled, "I guess I kinda played hookey." I looked at him and added, a little breathlessly, "I can explain, though. After I talked to the coach I was in this real funk, and I just couldn't be there any more."
Dad's eyes narrowed, "You skipped school?'
Oh, Cardinal Sin! I'd just confessed to something he didn't even know about! I could feel the exclamation point falling off the end of my name and shattering like a glass on a stone floor. How embarrassing!
That was all he said about it, though. "Evan, I don't think you should quit your baseball team." He gave me a half smile, "I don't think you can quit! Paul Dawson was here today with about half the players, and they want to have something to say about it."
I stared at Dad, his words banging around in my head senselessly. "Huh? What?"
Dad smiled, and said gently, "They want you on the team, Ev. They were pretty loud about it, too."
"Really?" I was stunned. "Who was here?"
"I don't know all the names, but the upperclassmen, the varsity players. Oh, and Chris, of course."
"Of course," I mumbled, feeling overwhelmed. "Paul?"
Dad nodded, "He knows where we live." He tapped his desk a few times, then leveled his gaze on me, "I won't tell you what to do Evan. I don't know enough in this case. What I do know is that it's important to know who your real friends are. You owe it to them and yourself to talk about things that might have a wider effect, because you risk letting them down."
I hung my head, "I know, I've been thinking about it all day. I did something I never wanted to do." I didn't look up, "I thought it was the right thing, though, until after when I knew what it felt like."
I peeked back at my father's face, and he grimaced, "Listen, Ev. I know that you were sincere, so that's not in question. Actually, nothing is in question if you think you did right. It sounds to me like you've already decided you weren't doing the ... how do I say this?" He looked at me, his expression a calm curiosity. "It's touchy business, Evan ... right and wrong. I see you trying to balance it, and I understand why this is difficult." He put his hands out on top of his desk. "I don't want to sound corny, Evan, but be true to yourself first."
I started to smile, and he did too. "You're a good person, son. I know ... I know you don't like to fight, but always stand up for yourself."
I said, "I know, Dad. I've changed my mind, and I'm not quitting the team!" I smirked, "Did I mention that Coach needs a note from you before I even can?"
Dad looked at me, and there was a look on his face that I wasn't familiar with; one that seemed to say he wanted to play. "A note? I can write a note. Why don't you go see Paul and find out what's going on? I'll write your note in the meantime."
I looked at my father and said, "Oooookay," while I wondered if I should ask him just what that note would say. I didn't want to put him on the spot, though. I left his office and stopped to say hi to my mother and find out how much time I had before dinner. She gave me a two minute pep talk about staying on the team, and said dinner was a casserole that would keep if I was late. Then I walked up to Paul's, automatically going down and around back to the basement door.
Sure enough, it was open. I stopped just when I got to the opening, because it looked like Paul was in there with all of the seniors from the ball team. When they saw me there, someone said, "Get your ass in here, Smiley!"
It didn't sound like a friendly invitation, so my first steps were very hesitant and I stopped just inside the door. I looked around quickly, and all seven Seniors from the team were there, and Chris and Jerome Brin were with them. I was pretty nervous, but managed to say, "Hi."
Derek Simons stood up and said, "Hi, Evan." He seemed nervous himself. "Come on in, we're not gonna bite you. We just want to know what's going down. Goodwin called a team meeting and said you quit today. He didn't say why."
I looked down and swallowed, "It's true." I toed the carpet trying to think of what to say. "After yesterday, I thought it was the best thing for the team." I looked up, "Now I think I fucked up." I looked at Jerome, and he was studying me. "I was trying to make it easy for everyone else." I shrugged my shoulders, "Now I think I was wrong, so I changed my mind."
Jerome looked incredibly sad, and I didn't know why. He cracked a nervous smile and started to stand up. "Talk to me, Evan. Let's go outside, just you and me."
I nodded, and followed him out into the yard when he walked past me. He headed straight out back, and stopped under a tree that was about twenty feet from the house. We stood there face to face, and he asked, "Did you quit because of me, Evan? I never said I wanted that to happen. I thought we were pretty cool after last night."
I breathed in deeply, "It was only partly you, Jerry. I heard that some other guys weren't happy about me being on the team, and I know that Coach isn't. I didn't want anybody to get hurt, and it seemed like the best thing to do."
Jerome curled and uncurled his lip, screwed up his face, tugged at his ear, and finally said, "I don't think anybody's unhappy that you're on the team. By the same token, we're not all exactly thrilled that you're gay."
He reached out and landed a big, strong hand on my shoulder, "Listen closely, Smiley. We've been talking to everybody on the team, and you being gay is an issue for some of us, but it's not a real problem. I admit, I was ready to be mad about it, maybe even want you off the team. Then I went to your house last night, and you were just like you always are. I go to a church that preaches gay is bad. Then you turn out to know the Bible as well as I do." He smiled, "Maybe we just start on different pages, but I know there's hypocrisy in the way things get interpreted. I was thinking about it after I left, and I can see where the Church has picked and chosen things to believe in and things to ignore."
He smiled more brightly, "I mean, I'm black, yet the same book that says gay is bad also says slavery is fine. The church ignores what it says about slavery, but it remembers about homosexuality. I should resent the slavery parts, but I never did. It also says you should die if you work on the Sabbath. I don't think so. My grandmother works on the Sabbath!" He chuckled, "Not to mention every preacher on Earth."
I laughed with him, and said, "I know. That Old Testament is like two views of God all woven together. God loves and God creates, yet God is jealous and God destroys. If you believe it all, then you'd be believing that God is bi-polar!" I saw Jerome narrow his eyes, and I winced. "I'm not making fun! That's just an observation."
Jerome nodded his head slowly, a frown on his face, and he said carefully. "An observation, okay. Let me make an observation, Ev, and pass on some things I heard about you today."
I gulped, and he smiled. "I observe that you have a lot of talent for the game. You're always in there, always alert. You can hit, you can field, you have a great arm, and you can drive a pitcher crazy when you're on base. I also observe, and every man on the team agrees with me, that you have more fun playing than anybody. We all need that, Evan. We need to be reminded that we're there because we love the game, and we play better when we don't let the game play us. You're infectious! You make us all into a better team."
I smiled in surprise, then thought about it. Jerome was a naturally gifted player, probably the best I'd ever know personally, and he already had the interest of the Major Leagues. I knew what he was talking about when it applied to me, because whenever I got too serious about a game I screwed up. I didn't really do anything well under pressure, but if I could loosen up and have fun, I did just fine.
That was true with anything, but it was especially true in competitive sports. Baseball was fun anyhow. It was too complicated to take seriously, that part was for managers and coaches.
Jerome had skills that I never would have, and I compensated somewhat by having 'moves', and where I lacked moves, I relied on sheer energy and a sense of fun. I couldn't help smiling at Jerome, because he said people recognized that, and I'd never heard it before. My eyebrows went up, and I said, "Thanks, Jerry. Can I make an observation of my own?"
He nodded, a little grin forming on his face.
"Well, I observe that you, Jerome Brin, are the best ball player I've ever known." I held up my hand when he went to say something, "I also observe that you're a real scholar, and you're civic minded." I smiled, "I think you're a fine person, and I truly admire you."
He twisted up his face one more time, "What about my feelings about gays?"
"What about them?" I asked. "You're entitled, just like Coach Goodwin is."
His face went flat. "I'm not a problem for you?".
I snickered, "No, just an issue! Goodwin's my problem right now." Jerry laughed, but nervously, so I added, "Look. You can dislike that I'm gay, and I can dislike that you dislike it. You can't change me, and it's not my job to change you. The only difference is that I can't change who I am. Whether you change your thinking about gay people or not, as long as you respect me for what I contribute, as long as you don't go around bopping me on the head, then you can think what you like. If your religion says something different, then you can do like most Catholics in the country does. Pick the parts that you like, the ones that fit you, and go with them. I won't tell anybody."
We had started walking back to the house, and were at the door by then. Jerry went in ahead of me and announced merrily, "Evan's back!"
That got smiles, and I said, "Not so fast. I want to be back. There's still Coach Goodwin."
Derek stood up, the biggest guy on the team. He looked serious, "Any suggestions, anyone?"
I spoke first, "Listen for a second. I don't want anything to happen to Coach! He's a hardass, but he's a great coach, too. He's really why I thought quitting was easier, because you need him more than you need me. Whatever happens, you don't want to lose Coach."
Chris said, "If you go, then I go, Evan."
I shook my head, "Don't say that, Chris, please? I quit all by myself. If I can get out of it, I will, but I quit so as not to wreck the team. If I can't get back on, I still don't want to hurt the team. If you quit, then you're turning my feelings back against me."
The next thing I knew, Paul was beside me, and he said, "Let's drop it for now, okay? Let Evan deal with the coach, and," he nudged me, "If the coach doesn't see reality, then it's time to make noise."
I said humbly, "Thanks, guys. I mean it."
Things were silent for awhile, and I found a seat, thinking I was hungry. Chris spoke up, "You mean it, Ev? That's a first!"
I laughed, "Screw you! I'm hungry."
"What's the verdict, Evan?" someone asked.
I said, "Coach said I need a note to quit. My father's writing a note right now, but I don't think he wants me to quit the team." I suddenly felt overwhelmed, and my voice got shaky. "I appreciate you guys, I really do. Thanks for doing this."
* * * * * * * *
I felt better after eating, and my father handed me his note to the coach, all sealed up in an envelope. I looked at it, then at him, and asked, "This isn't fair! What's it say?"
Dad looked at me, a wistful smile on his face. "It says a lot of things, Evan. Good luck, okay?"
I slumped, exasperated, and then stood up with the envelope in my hand. "Thanks," I said, sincerely enough. The note was to the coach and not me, and I could understand privileged communication.
I could also understand the power of steam to open that envelope, but it turned out that I didn't need it. When I got to my room and looked at the computer, I had an email from my father, and it was a copy of the note.
Dear Coach Goodwin,
My son, Evan Smiley, informed me today that he decided to quit your baseball team, and that he needed a note signed by a parent to finalize his departure.
This is your note. I do know what Evan was thinking and why he was thinking it, and I do NOT agree with him. With this letter, I am informing you that Evan does NOT have my permission to leave your team.
I won't claim to enjoy, or even understand, the game of baseball. My son, Evan, has a love for the game that borders on passion. His admiration for you as a coach seems limitless, and I know he thinks the world of his teammates as well.
I also know that you'll agree with me about Evan's talent for the game, and that he's an asset to your team. Many of your varsity players turned up at our house today to protest Evan's intended departure. I'm confident that you will agree with them, and with me, that Evan should not be allowed to leave the team.
To show my confidence in you, I am copying this letter to the Principal at Mt. Harman High School, the head of the Mt. Harman Scholastic Athletics Department, the Superintendent of Schools, the School Board, the Mayor's Office, and our personal friends on the Mt. Harman Police Department, who are most likely great fans of baseball as well.
I do thank you for the lessons you have taught Evan about tenacity, about hard work, and especially about FAIR PLAY. I have every confidence that you will do whatever it takes to convince Evan that he should hang in there, and continue to contribute to your baseball team. He needs the ongoing enthusiastic support of good men like yourself while he deals with minor issues, like the one that made him mistakenly think he should leave the team.
My wife and I, and our whole family, are very proud of the young man that Evan is becoming. We thank you sincerely for all that you've done to contribute to his well-being.
I thank you in advance for your anticipated positive reaction,
I stared at that letter. I had tears in my eyes, and then I laughed! God, I was more my father's son than I ever imagined! With a few words, he had put Coach in what seemed like an impossible position, and one he wouldn't like one bit.
He also said that he was proud of me, and that's what really made the tears come. Dad didn't say things like that. Not to anybody, and there it was in writing!
Oh, Lord! I hoped and prayed that I could slip Coach Dad's note, then see him afterwards, like maybe in five or six years. Meanwhile, I had to look at my schoolwork to try and divine what my homework might be. People who cut all the time had developed strategies for keeping up, but I didn't have those. It wasn't easy, either. I could predict mathematics and history, because it was a matter of turning the page and seeing what was next.
English and French, though, there might be any kind of assignment for either reading or writing, and there was no real trend to go by.
I did a fast buzz through everything, and it was pretty much a shot in the dark.
I wasn't that worried about it, because I'd catch back up the next day. I got along with my teachers, and I didn't expect any big hassle about missing one day.
I did what I could, then I called Aaron to tell him what had gone on.
"You must be happy, Ev," he said enthusiastically. What do you think your coach will do?"
I snickered, "I don't know, but don't expect anything pretty. Hold on."
I forwarded Dad's note to the coach to Aaron, "Check your mail. That's what my Dad wrote to Goodwin. I don't think it gives him an easy way out."
Aaron was quiet while he read it, then he burst out laughing. "Oh God! That's funny, Evan. And he copies the whole world! I ... um, I only had what you told me to go on about your father, and I ... well ... um, never mind."
I felt chastised, but I knew I deserved it. "You can say it, Aar. I spent five or six years being afraid of my father, and what I was really afraid of was me .. how I measured up ... or didn't, more specifically. Yes, he's opinionated, and yes he barks when he's mad, but you know what?"
"What?" Aaron asked softly.
I got tears in my eyes, "He loves me, Aaron. Not just now and then, but all the time. When he pushes us, it's not so he'll get his way, but so we take max advantage of our own opportunities. I'm the odd man out here, because I like things besides science and engineering. I always felt left out because of that, and maybe I made too much of it. My whole family thought I was leaving them out of my life by doing all these things they didn't know or care about. There was this big gap, and it's not here anymore. I should have said something before."
"Hindsight," Aaron said.
"For sure. Are you coming over in your RAV4 tomorrow?"
Aaron sighed, "Day after. I have to be here for dinner because Lilac's coming over with Rakeed. I think they're going to say they're getting married or something."
"You shit me, right?"
Aaron laughed, "I wish you wouldn't put it that way, but I'm serious. I think it's pretty neat myself. I like Rakeed a lot."
"I like Rakeed, Aaron. I guess I like Lilac, too now. Except for that Mercury car."
Aaron giggled, "You're hopeless."
"I know, and I'm going to bed. I love you, Aaron. Don't forget your kiss."
"Sorry. Don't forget your kiss, Dearie!" I grinned at the thought of him.
"I won't. You enjoy yours, too. I love you, Ev. You're really special."
* * * * * * * *
I dreamed that night, and it was a nightmare right out of a Stephen King story. Chris woke me up and said in my ear, "There's a guy, Evan, and he says all you do is lie."
"A guy? What guy?"
"It's a nobody, Evie. Nobody ever heard of him, and I think he runs around saying horrible things about good people all the time."
"Me?" I asked. "I don't lie, at least not as a matter of course."
"He says you do, and it looks like everyone agrees. You're a liar, Ev! You mislead, and this guy says you do it with a mantra."
"Mantra," I repeated in my sleep. "Om! No, that's not right, it's hymn! Him ... Him ... fuck him!"
Chris was there, and I said, "I don't lie, Chris."
He said, "There's another one, and he says you're stupid, that he can teach you things."
"Me," I cried. "I'm stupid?"
"I'm just repeating, Ev. Don't get mad at me. Yeah, he says you can learn things from him if you'd only listen. Then he'll make his mark and you'll know. Get it, Ev? If you get the symbols and the marks, then you're okay. If you resist it then you're the asshole they say you are, and everything you do is second rate."
I was thoroughly confused, "I don't get it, Chris! Did I do something wrong?"
Suddenly Paul was behind Chris, a gun in his hand. "Ssh," he hissed at me, and pointed the gun at the back of Chris' head. "I'll shut this guy up, Evan, then you'll know where the truth comes from." He leered at me, "It's not you, Evan. You're nothing. It's us who are important," and he pulled the trigger. I watched as my best friend's face disappeared in an explosion of blood, and Paul said, "Take it somewhere else, Christian Humphrey."
I cried, "Don't!" but it was too late. Paul blew the smoke from the barrel of the gun and I asked in horror, "Why? Why did you do that? Chris is my friend!"
Paul looked at me forlornly, "So what? Nobody cares about you, so why should we care about your friends? You're pitiful, Evan. I read it myself. All you do is lie, and you're terribly stupid. There's a good chance you're losing your mind, too. Nobody would write that if it wasn't true, and nobody argued with it, so it must be."
I asked in incredulity, "You believe it, too? I don't understand, Paul. You're my friend!"
"Uh-uh," Paul said. "You don't have friends, Evan, just people who want what you can give them." He disappeared.
I woke with a jump, and my scream was silent. Oh my God! What was that?
Chris stuck his bloody, faceless head right in front of me and said, "Sorry, copain! We got outsmarted by two absolutely brilliant guys, who are really one, only I don't know how that works. I'm dead anyhow, so you figure it out."
Just a dream, right? I was unsettled and didn't get back to sleep for a long time. I wanted to call Chris to verify that he was alive, but it was almost four in the morning. Instead, I tossed and turned and shed sweat, and finally fell back to sleep.
* * * * * * * *
I drove my own car to school the next day, my dream a dim recollection. Driving to school was a statement of contempt more than anything, but it also felt wonderful to pull into that parking lot with my own car. There was no official policy about Sophomores, or even Freshmen, parking on school property, but you could only get a parking pass as a Junior or Senior. That left a lot to be said for getting there first, which I was.
I had my father's note to Goodwin in hand, but it was too early to deal with that. The building was open, and I went and did what I had to at my locker, then paid good money for a cup of vending machine coffee. It turned out to be better than I expected, and I tried to position myself publicly so anyone who came by would see me.
Interestingly, when the place started to fill up people did acknowledge me, but just with casual hellos. I think I was expecting more of a challenge, but at the same time I was relieved that one didn't arise. I was just about to get up when Chris came by, so his timing was perfect. I fell in step beside him, dropped my cup into the first receptacle we passed, and talked seriously about the general lack of fallout, or even interest, in the news of my gayness. Good timing.
"Faggot!" I heard, and got shoved hard at the same time. I got my balance and turned to see this guy, Richard Brown, who everyone joked was even flunking his Morons in Modern Society class.
Before I could say anything, Chris was right in his face, calmly asking, "What's your problem, Burns?"
Brown gave Chris a hard shove that made him stumble backwards, and he said, "I don't like maggot faggots, and it's Brown, not Burns, spelled B.R.O.W.N! I hate faggots, 'specially wormy ones like fuckin' Smiley here!"
Chris was right back in front of him, and he pushed Brown noisily into the lockers behind him. "You know something? I don't like shit, and that's brown, too, and it's spelled B.R.O.W.N! just like you." He leaned in close and put a finger so close to Brown's face that it made his eyes cross. "You know what? I think we should both walk away right now. I'll have some of Evan's other friends introduce themselves to you today. Then you can decide if you want the whole school to know that your shit does stink. Because if you ever touch Evan again, you'll spend the rest of high school shitting your pants every time you have to turn a blind corner."
Brown sneered and backed Chris away with a big shrug of his shoulder, and he growled, "Yeah, you say, big man! We'll see." With that, he shoved his way into the gathering crowd and disappeared.
I looked around, and it didn't appear that any teachers had seen anything, but they wouldn't miss the crowd, so I gave Chris a tug and we headed in the general direction Brown had gone.
I was pumped up on adrenaline, and Chris was worse than me, so it would take some time before we both stopped shaking, but people were laughing behind us. I knew in my heart and in my head that what Chris said was really funny, but we were both too cranked up to laugh. Later. We'd laugh later, and probably lots of times.
I looked at Chris as we walked, and managed to say, "My hero!"
"Yeh, right. You know, if I made an Evan-like list of people to watch out for, Shit Brown would be at the top of it. Have you made a list yet?"
I said, "No. I probably should though, huh?"
Chris nodded, "Today, man. Catch you later!"
The warning bell had just sounded, so Chris headed off to his home room, and I went to mine. When I walked in I was still a little shaky from the encounter with Brown.
People still looked at me, but the ones who usually greeted me did, then went back to what they were doing. A few others kept looking at me, like maybe if they watched closely enough they'd see the gay in me. They may have been right, too, but they weren't going to see it in that room. They were seeing the same me they always saw. They didn't see me being gay, though. To do that, they'd have to expand their own horizons a little, and put themselves someplace where they could see me with Aaron. Maybe then they'd get an inkling, or even an outright demonstration, of the special friendship I shared with Aaron. Otherwise, they'd see me as they knew me already: Evan the student, maybe even Evan the cut-up.
To my knowledge, and that of everyone who knew anything, I was the only student in history to ever crack Coach Goodwin up. It was in Freshman 'Health' class the year before, which we had right after lunch, and it was as boring as ever. I had to go to the bathroom when I got there, and after about ten minutes I really had to go, so I put up my hand.
"Can I go to the boy's room?"
He just shook his head and went back to the lesson, and in another five minutes my hand was up again. He said, "Cut it out, Smiley! Tie it in a knot!"
I said earnestly, "I already did. I have to go! I really have to go!"
He shook his head, "You can go when you start to turn colors."
I wasn't trying to be funny, I honestly wasn't. "My face or my pants?" I asked, and it brought the roof down.
"Go!" he ordered, and I was out of there like a shot. He was all red-faced when I got back, and I learned later that he kept cracking up about it until just before I came back into the room.
That's when I knew that Coach had a soul, even though he managed to hide up until that day, and ever since.
I felt bad about Brown, but I should have expected it. He was a bully, and I doubt that he knew much about gays other than gay kids would be someone he shouldn't like. He picked on little guys, fat kids, kids with glasses, bad hair, acne, or dumb clothes, He was big and chunky, but I thought I could take him if it came to a fight. He was slow and lumbering, and not very bright. Still, I hoped that he'd take Chris' words to heart and just stay away from me. I didn't think Richard Brown had a lot of personal friends, but he wasn't the only thug in the school, either.
One thing I did not want was a bunch of guys following me around to see how many fights I could get into.
I was pretty tense when I got my gym things from my locker and walked to class, my father's note firmly in my hand. I was positively thankful to the people who scheduled things, that the only class I had with Chris was gym. That came out wrong. What I was thankful for was that at least Chris was in my gym class. I wished he was in all of them.
I was lucky that day, because Goodwin's door was open and he wasn't in his office when I went by. I dropped the note on his desk and hurried to the locker room. Coach was in there, and he saw me come in, a stony look on his face. I said nervously, "The note is on your desk," and kept walking.
I dressed out, and for the first time since the fall we were going outside to the field. It was an open class, too, so after I ran down the hill with Chris, we started around the track. We'd do our usual, which was four laps for a mile, then find some activity to get into.
As we were coming up on our third lap, coach walked onto the track and stood in my lane, his arms crossed in front of him, and he had my father's note in his hand. Chris started to pull up just when I did, and Coach barked, "Keep going, Humphrey. Pick up the pace!"
I stood there in front of coach, not too close, and after he watched Chris run off he turned back to me, wiggling the paper. "What the hell is this? I thought we had a deal, Evan."
God, I was scared, but there was nothing left to do but face him. I said, quietly, "I didn't like the deal, coach. I don't think anybody likes the deal except you."
I wasn't looking him in the eye, and I really had to force myself consciously to do that. It wasn't too bad because he had dark glasses on, but I still didn't like it. He stared and stared, like a big statue in front of me, and he finally growled, "Be here at three. Make no mistakes, Smiley. Don't swear, don't spit, don't strike out looking, and most of all don't complain. Else you'll be in knitting class before you get your cleats off. Understand?"
I nodded, and he barked, "What?"
"Yes, sir," I said.
He looked at me, then walked away, and it was only five seconds before he started yelling at some other kids for making a mess of the La Crosse equipment.
Chris must have been running in place. He came up to me as soon as Coach had both feet off the track, and pulled me so I trotted beside him again.
"Well?" he asked.
"I think it worked," I said. "He's got it in for me, though."
"Really? You're on the team?"
I sighed, "Yeah. Until I spit or swear, anyhow."
"That's not too bad."
"Or strike out looking," I added. "Let me finish."
Chris said, You don't strike out looking anyhow. That's stupid. What are you supposed to do, just swing when you're behind by two?"
I said, "Guess so," then I picked up the pace until we finished our laps.
After that, we got a couple of school gloves and started tossing balls around with some other guys, eventually making a game of it. It felt good to warm up my arm, because except for snowballs there's not a lot to throw during the winter. In fifteen minutes, Chris and I were throwing real pick-off balls to each other, and it felt right. We were already throwing heat, and fairly accurately, and we'd only improve over the next few weeks.
I didn't see Coach again, and I felt better after the class. I showered with the rest of the guys, kind of purposely keeping up a babble with Chris, but I didn't sense a problem there even in the locker room.
I had French, then it was lunch time. I could see that there were going to be problems with a few people, and even from some that I didn't know. A guy behind me said, as if to someone else, "Oh, that's Evan Smiley and he's queer."
I spun around and confronted him. "Do I know you?"
Give him credit for having nerve. It was a toothpick of a guy. I'd seen him around, but I didn't even know what grade he was in. He got nervous fast and said, "I wasn't talking to you."
I took a step toward him, crowding him against the counter, "You used my name. I think that makes it my business."
He looked at me quickly, then spun around and hurried away. I no sooner turned back to what I was doing, when another voice asked, "Are you?"
I turned around to see another geeky kid, and I asked in exasperation, "Am I what? Queer? What I am right now is hungry, and I get cranky when I'm hungry, so would you please bring your pointless questions to someone who knows you!"
Just then a body pushed up behind me, and hands blindfolded me. "Be nice, Evan."
I smiled. I knew the twin torpedoes that were poking me in the back, and I just let it happen for a few seconds before saying, "Hi, doll. Does this mean you're treating?"
I turned around to face Nancy, and she smirked, "You just said you were hungry ... " her eyes went wide, "Oh! You mean lunch!" She glanced at the geek and took my hand, "C'mon lover. I'll buy yours if you buy mine."
I smiled at Mr. tall, dark and skinny and picked up a tray. He seemed both confused and a little jealous, and quickly looked away.
I was hungry, and I got soup, salad, garlic bread and a yogurt, then looked for a place to sit. I'd wasted enough time with those guys that my usual booths were full up, so Nancy and I sat at the end of a longer table to eat.
Other people sat with us while we ate, and our conversation was mostly Nancy asking about the reactions I was getting from people. It was fun in a way, because while I might not have chosen a public place for that discussion, Nancy seemed to delight in it. There was this blond Freshman kid beside her, and he started blushing as soon as he figured out what we were talking about, so Nancy naturally included him.
"Do you know Shit Brown?" she asked him. "He tried to start something with Evan right in the hallway today. Can you believe that in this day and age, there are still idiots ... and I mean around here, not some God-forsaken Ozarks place ... " She looked at the kid, "What was I saying? Oh yeah. Can you even imagine that Brown would start something because Evan's gay? Look at Evan!" She took the kid's head and pointed his horrified face to me. "Isn't he handsome? He could squish your little head between two fingers like a grape!" She twisted the kid's head to her, "What's your name, anyhow?"
"I ... I ... I ... I'm E ... I'm Evan, t-too."
"Ooh! Evan number Two! Don't you just love it? I mean, how convenient! I'll just call you Two, okay?" The kid didn't even have a chance to nod, "Okay, Two. Tell me, You know Evan One well enough now. Wouldn't you just die for him?" She realized the bad question, "I mean, of course you wouldn't. But is there anything about him that makes you want to scream faggot?"
The other Evan started shaking his head, and I said, "Jesus, Nancy! Leave the kid alone so he can eat. I want to eat, too." I smiled at Two, confident that the name would stick. "Eat up, Two, and remember this lunch. You might want to tell your kids about it someday."
He smirked, "Probably not, but I don't think I'll forget."
Nancy cried, "Oh, he's another smart one, too." She put a hand on his shoulder and looked at me, "I always like the smart ones."
I hurried up and finished my food so Nancy wouldn't start up again, and Two seemed happy to see us go.
I laughed with Nancy while we walked away. "You were mean," I said.
"I was not! I like Two; he's a cute little boy."
"Nancy, can it," I said. "I don't think the other Evan is a little boy, and I don't think he likes us. Maybe the next time you see him, if you ever do, you can treat him as just Evan. I'm not the only Evan. That kid has his own life."
Nancy looked chastised, and she giggled, "You're right. When weren't you right? I'll buy Two a popsicle the next time I see him."
I tried to be serious, "See that you do!"
We both laughed, then it was time for class.
* * * * * * * *
"Smiley, God dammit! You pick up the pace, or you'll be back on Jayvee!"
I winced. That wasn't Goodwin yelling at me, but this George dude, who was just an assistant coach, not even a teacher. I gave him a dirty look, then ran faster, which made the whole squad follow me.
Fine, I thought. Kill us all with stupid demands. When we play our first game with worn out knees and ankles, you'll be sorry you weren't spending this time teaching us something useful!
I laughed. I could be pissed at the treatment, but running around the field was fun on a fine afternoon. It was a little bit treacherous due to uneven ground, and I was seriously envious of the athletics facilities in Riverton. The baseball field at their high school had been renovated just a few years earlier, and it was as well taken care of as Yankee Stadium. The infield grass was like a carpet, and the outfield grass was almost as nice. You could take a fall of any magnitude without worrying about a protruding rock.
Our field, by contrast, or by any standard for that matter, was shoddy. It would take a week of practices to just get all the protruding rocks pulled out, and that would leave holes. The base path was positively concave, because it had been so long since they'd worked the clay. Any game played after it rained, was played in this puddle that went right around the bases.
Nobody liked playing there, but it was what we had so we did our best. The field caused a lot of injuries to players; mostly minor like twisted ankles, but even hit balls could pose a danger. One opposing player the year before got a concussion when a ball hit the infield, then careened right into his temple. The facility made it hard to field, hard to run, hard to do anything right. Coach told the story of how a contractor, whose son was on the team, once volunteered to make the field right. Cause for celebration? Well, it was until the school board shot the idea down over insurance concerns.
We did four laps of the field, then Coach Goodwin called out positions for the fielders, omitting me. I sat on the bench and watched while they warmed up by throwing, then Goodwin and George batted balls all over the place. The guys would field them, and the other assistant coach, Andy, would yell out where to make the play.
They did that for a half hour, then Goodwin sent one of the pitchers to the mound, and he ran out and started warming up. He was a little wild on the first several throws, and he had Chris hopping, but he settled down and started to throw decent pitches. Then coach yelled, "Latteran, Jones, Smiley! Get your helmets on!"
I almost fell off the bench. I'd been resigned to sitting out practice, now I'd get to hit! I jumped up, ran to the equipment box and found a helmet, which I adjusted to my head while the other guys took their turns at bat.
I was watching, too.
Phil Kemp, a senior, was pitching. He didn't have one great pitch, but he had a lot of stuff, and he won games by faking out hitters. He twisted up like a pretzel for his windup, and he snapped out of it like a jack in the box, and the ball was already well on it's way before the batter was entirely certain that it had even been thrown. He was a hard guy to hit, and that made him fun to hit against. He tied up Jim Latteran on three pitches, the last one a change up that went high and slow. Jim had swung way out in front of a fastball, and a mile behind a slider. We all watched the change up rise and fall, and it dropped across the plate right at Jimmy's knees, and there was no way he was going to swing at it. I wouldn't have swung at it myself. Nobody would have, and we all laughed, not at Jim's expense, but because it was such a killer pitch.
Marcus, who was up next, took his time, and he caught his three-two pitch for a long single.
I walked up to the plate and looked around, particularly at where Coach and George were. They were both standing with their arms crossed and stern expressions on their faces. Coach Andy was umpiring, and he smiled when I glanced back his way. There was some encouragement coming my way from other players. I took a couple of warmup swings, then stepped into the batter's box. The chatter increased and Phil went into his crazy windup. I tried to follow him, but the pitch was on its way before I saw him release it. It was at my ankles, and I watched Marcus head back to first.
I tried to watch the ball for the next pitch, but Phil was good at hiding it with his glove. Still, I saw him release it, and I didn't swing even though I knew it was a strike. It was too high for me to do anything with except pop up. One and one.
The next pitch was mine, though. It was a fastball at the waist, and I poked it out where it dropped it ten feet in front of the center fielder. I made it to first and Marcus went on to third. Coach and George were still standing there impassively, but there was some reaction from the other players.
Otis Scott was the first baseman, and he was one of the guys that I'd heard had a problem with being on the team with me. He was a quiet guy to begin with, and we'd never been great friends. That made it hard for me to tell what he was thinking, until he said, "Good hit."
The next batter was up, so I took my lead. The first pitch got fouled off, and I tagged up, saying to Otis, "See you Sunday. I'm going to second now."
He grinned, "You shit, no you ain't!" but I took a big lead. The next pitch was a strike and I ran into second before Chris had control of the ball. I could see his grin from way out there.
Phil hunkered down after that, and I was stranded at second. I tossed the helmet when I ran in, and Coach barked at me, "Pick up that hat, Smiley!"
I did, and I looked at him wondering if this was how it would be. I got a hit, and I stole a base. He couldn't possibly claim that I wasn't trying. There was no way he could say anything about me throwing a batting helmet, because that's what you did with batting helmets.
The other guys on the team looked as cross about it as I felt, then Coach totally surprised me by yelling, "Well? Get back in there! You!" he yelled at the pitcher, "Throw Smiley that same fastball again!"
He came trotting over to me as I got to the batter's box, and he said, "Stand a few inches forward, no not that far! Good, now make up for it by leaning back just as much, yeah, yeah, like that, right from the hip." I felt his hand on my shoulder, "Lean just a hair more into it. That's it. Now hit that mo 'grinder!"
I dug in and looked at Phil, and he threw me that pitch again and smack! I hit the ball hard, and straight out to center, where Jerry Brin caught it at the fence. Coach came back up and said, "Get under it a little. Here, pull your right elbow down just a hair," he said as he tugged at it. He yelled to the pitcher, "Throw the same thing again!"
This time it went out, and I was amazed. I hadn't changed my swing, only the position I got into it from, and I just hit a long home run! Everyone was cheering, except Coach of course, and I basked in the cheers while I wondered just exactly what was up with him. He didn't want me on the team, yet he'd just given me what amounted to a private batting lesson. An effective lesson at that, and one I wouldn't likely forget. I'd remember because he'd used his hands, and that's something you always remember, or at least you can feel again when you need to get your elbow just so.
He had Phil throw me the same ball twice again, and I sent both of them sailing over the fence.
My lifetime home run total to that point had been five, and I'd just hit three in five minutes. They weren't under game conditions, and they all happened on the same pitch, but that wasn't the point. With my old stance, none would have been power hits, and Coach had just shown me that I did have the power. I was very confused by the man, and by the point of all that. I was still hugely pleased by the result. Three homers in a row was a Reggie Jackson thing, not what anyone would expect from Evan Smiley.
After that, the rest of the guys hit around, then nine of us traded with the guys on the field. I was again surprised when Andy sent me to third base. I thought for sure that if I ever played again, it would be in left field when they had a lefty pitching.
Coach watched me there, too, though I didn't get any action. Still, every time I looked his way, he seemed to be staring at me.
When practice ended, it just ended. Coach said, "That's it. Same time tomorrow and Friday, and we'll play a scrimmage on Saturday."
I started walking in, and Chris was beside me right away. He patted my shoulder and whispered, "Coach's pet? What was that all about?"
I shook my head, "I have no idea. None at all." I smirked, "Did you see those hits? Just call me Barry Junior, man!"
Another hand landed on my other shoulder, and I looked over, then up into Jerry Brin's smiling face. "You're full of surprises, huh?" he said. "You must be livin' on Wheaties!"
I looked around, and it was safe, so I asked, "Did someone say something to Coach? He was like all mad at me in gym today."
Jerry shrugged, "Not me. Nobody I know of."
I was more than a little confused, but also euphoric about my performance, so the confusion never took hold.
I was the 'woo hoo' hero in the locker room, too. If anybody was worried about me being gay, it was overshadowed by back-to-back-to-back home runs. The conditions had been set up and ideal. Even so, nobody claimed they could do better, or that I cheated or had it easy. Hits like that spoke their own language to other baseball players, and there is no such thing as an easy home run.
I was giddy enough that I forgot I'd driven my own car to school, and I was out the front door with Chris before I remembered. I laughed and smacked his elbow, "Man, I'm a dunce! My car is here, Chris!"
He looked at me, "You drove?"
I smirked, "Yeah, living dangerously. I was the first one in the lot."
"Um, the law?" Chris suggested.
"I know you think it's as dumb as I do. How else do we protest except by ignoring it?"
Chris started laughing, "Oh yeah, ignoring is good."
"I'm serious," I said. "Cops are busy people. Do you really think they'll pull me over because I might have a provisional license? I think not. Not while people are busy breaking real laws, like speeding and driving through red lights. I think I have to do something wrong anyhow, before they can pull me over. Don't you ever follow the Supreme Court?"
Chris laughed, "No, do you?"
"Only lately," I grinned. "You'd be perfect for that court, Chris. You're the most neutral person I know."
He looked at me, "That's a compliment?"
We got to the car, put our things in the back, and climbed in, "It's a fact, Chris. You're slow to judge, and you've always been like that. It's a compliment if you take it as one, but it's a trait that I admire."
Chris giggled, "You're good, you know that, Ev? You could just say that you're in awe of me and leave it at that. I don't need long, involved sentences."
I turned the key on and lowered the windows, but I didn't start the car. I pushed back into the seat and stretched my hands out over the wheel. "Do you have a clue about Coach, Chris? If he benched me, I'd be pissed, but that hitting lesson was really weird. Should I be scared?"
Chris turned his back to the door a little so he could look at me, and I could see that he didn't have any idea himself. He said, "I don't know about scared, but you're right that it was an eerie thing for him to do." He shrugged, "I don't know. I really don't know."
I started the car, then took a second to gather my wits before I pulled out. "Well, sounds like we have practice every day now. I guess I can wait to find out."
We'd just pulled out onto the street when I saw a familiar looking figure. I pulled over and said, "That's Lee! See if he wants a ride."
Chris leaned out the window and said, "Hey, Lee! How's your rabbit?"
Lee stopped and looked, smiling, though he looked as confused by the question as I was. Odd questions from Chris were the norm, so I asked, "Want a ride?" Boy, that felt good. It was my first time asking anybody.
Chris was already out of the car, and he pulled the seat forward while Lee worked his way into the back seat. Chris pulled his seat forward a little, but there wasn't much room back there, and Lee could have easily licked his own knees if he had a mind to.
He had a nervous smile, which I turned my back to when I pulled back onto the road. "What was that about a rabbit?" he asked, and Chris told him it was a long story.
Lee said, "I heard your name all over the place yesterday and today, Evan. Is it true that you and Aaron danced together in front of your whole class?"
"No," I laughed, "Just the Props and Paints Club."
"Oh," his voice sounded smaller. "Did you get kicked off the baseball team?"
I heard Chris stifling a snicker, and I said, "No, I didn't get kicked off, I quit. That was yesterday, though. Now I'm back on, and I hit three home runs on three straight pitches today."
I saw Lee's face in the mirror, and his surprised look was funny. "Today? In one game?"
I tried to sound nonchalant, "It was just practice, no big deal."
Chris spoke up, a full dose of humor in his voice, "It's not a big deal, Lee, but it's the no-big-deal that we'll still be hearing about when we're in plaid pants at Golden Acres." He glanced at me and added, "No big deal, though."
I put the middle finger of my right hand up to his nose for a second, while we all laughed. I don't know if Chris did it on purpose, or even if Lee noticed, but he'd just included Lee in our distant future, because we'd all be wearing those plaid pants. That's the way Chris was. He'd used words to tear down Richard Brown earlier, and it was words again that he used to make Lee feel included. Both things needed doing, and Chris came through like he usually did. A winner.
When we got to where I could go either way, I asked Lee, "Want to come over for awhile?"
He nodded, and I looked at Chris, who said, "I can't, Ev. I ... ah, I told Nancy that I'd ..."
"Never mind!" I said. "Lee, how's it going with Carly?"
He said coyly, "We're friends now."
"That's it?" I asked as I stopped to let Chris out. We said our goodbyes, and Lee moved up front to turn the corner to my house.
Lee admired my car, and I couldn't remember if he'd been in it before, so I didn't say anything. Lee started getting out before I had my seatbelt off, and I wondered once again about him. Then I felt stupid, and decided not to think about it anymore. If he was ever a threat, then he was, but I didn't believe it. I didn't want to spend any more time thinking about Lee the Executioner. It was Lee the Friend who I caught up with after I got my things from the back, and I asked him in.
He didn't want anything when I offered, so I got a glass of water from the tap and we went upstairs.
"Friends with Carly now?" I asked as we went up the stairs. I didn't really know Carly that well, so I added, "She's pretty."
I turned to Lee when we got to my room, and he said, "I like her," with no inflection that would indicate how much.
I started sorting out the contents of my book bag for a minute, then I turned around and sat, looking at Lee until he looked back. "How's it going, Lee? Are things okay? I know I haven't been around much."
He said, cheerfully, "Not bad. My mom's getting it back together, and that's the big thing. She's thinking about selling the house to the people in it, and that is a big deal."
Lee smiled at me, "She hasn't made a big decision like that in a long time. I kind of thought she wouldn't want to go back there, but she was holding off for me." His smile turned to a frown, "I thought we'd go back but .. but with my Dad. Now I don't know if I want to either. I don't know if we'll stay here, or just move somewhere else." He gulped, "I guess we're free to do whatever."
I don't know why I thought it, but I did, and I asked, "There's enough money?"
Lee nodded, "I guess so. Insurance and all that, and our house is worth a lot. My mother has a good job if we stay here, and she can get one if we go somewhere else."
"Where would you go?" I asked quietly.
Lee shrugged and looked away, and when he turned back he asked, "Is there a happier place somewhere? If you know one, then sell me a ticket." He shook his head, "I don't know, Evan."
I looked at Lee, and all I could do was feel bad for him. I owned the images of my life, and they were mostly good ones. My absolute worst ones didn't include anything remotely close to murder, kidnaping, sexual abuse or suicide. I'd certainly never watched anyone descend into madness.
Lee had seen all of those. That was the experience of his young life, and I could see him trying to garner up the strength to move on to something new, something better. I admired him, and I said so. "You're something else, you know that?"
His eyebrows lifted in a question.
"I ... you ... I ... you ... sorry. You are one strong person! I'm running around worrying about how gay affects me, and you ... you ..."
Lee had a questioning expression right then, and it was his face that I noticed. The pimples on his forehead were gone, replaced by a little lineup of red dots on the left side of his chin. His eyes were bright and opened wide, his mouth in a tentative smile. Whatever had gone wrong in his life before, right then he was the absolute picture of a happy, well-adjusted kid. All I had to do was smile back at him, even a little bit, and his dimples would fill the room. I was sure of it.
When I smiled, I proved myself right. Lee was Lee, not his father, and he was in control. He was just trying to get along like the rest of us, and he was better at it than most.
When his dimples showed up, my smile turned into my best one, for I was genuinely happy. Aaron and Billy could think what they wanted to, and I'd correct them the next time it came up. Lee was my friend now, and he was the strongest person I'd ever met.
Life would always throw curves my way, and to everyone else, too. Lee would smack most of those curves right out of the park.
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