I sometimes wonder what would have happened if Keith had gone back to College Park with Joe and Trey late Sunday night. What would have happened to our friendship in that case? I'll never know because Keith stayed in North Carolina.
At breakfast Sunday Joe said he and Trey had to be back at work Monday and probably should leave shortly after breakfast. When we had finished breakfast and gone out to the front porch with our coffee and tea, Joe said, “It is so peaceful here, I'd like to stay.”
“You are welcome to stay as long as you like, you know that,” Dad said.
“I know, but we both have to be at work tomorrow.”
“How long was the drive up?” Trey asked.
“Just under three and a half hours,” Joe said.
“Then we don't have to be in a rush to get back, so let's not worry about it.”
The two did a very good job of not worrying about the trip back and rationalizing. Trey had said, “I can sleep on the way home and you can sleep while I am on the way to meet my crew at Juliette so there's no rush. When they finally left at 10:30 Sunday night Mom made them promise they would call as soon as they reached College Park. They called just after 1:00, Joe having exercised some professional privilege, according to Trey, by driving like a bat out of hell.
Joe said he'd check out things so far as LaTasha and the gang situation were concerned and call sometime Monday.
I wondered how Keith and I would handle the events of the weekend, if we'd just pretend they didn't happen or what. Eventually those events would just become one among many treasured memories, but for the days immediately following that night on the hill top, we sorta felt our way along. For example, I had always skinny dipped in the river and thought nothing of doing it. Monday was very hot for the mountains and I suggested Keith and I go swimming mid-afternoon. When we reached the pool in the river, I immediately started stripping off my clothes. Keith looked at me kinda funny, then grinned and said, “Yeah, ok.” I knew what he meant and was not concerned about it.
As we left the pool, we were walking side by side when Keith put his arm about my shoulders. Taking that as permission, I put an arm around his waist and we walked back to the house, arm in arm. Such touching and holding became a real part of our life and, later I thought, was an extension of that night on the hilltop. It was as though only the slightest touch, embrace, whatever, was a reaffirmation of our friendship.
When we reached the house, we went to the fridge and poured large glasses of lemonade and took them to the porch where we collapsed in two rocking chairs. We had only been there a few minutes when Mom came outside and said, “Guys, I have just got off the phone from talking with Joe. There have been some developments over the weekend, but he also had news of LaTasha from earlier.”
“After the required wait following the official determination that LaTasha was brain dead, her mother gave permission for the machines to turned off and any usable organs donated. There was no service or anything held in College Park. LaTasha's body was shipped to Mississippi where her mother had grown up and where she will be buried.”
“Before LaTasha's mother left for the funeral, she helped the police get the goods on her two stepsons. Before they were picked up, she apparently shared some of her stash with them. I guess they ended up so stoned they didn't know what was going on and she bobbitted them. Well, I guess it was a variation on cutting off a penis. She castrated both. Put a rubber band around their scrotum and cut it off. Called 911 and reported someone had mutilated her stepsons.
“Ouch and double ouch,” Keith said. I just grabbed the family jewels, protecting them.
'Well, I guess I should say that at least everyone believes she did the job on the two. The two stepsons are not talking, Joe suspects all LaTasha's mom would have to do was let the word get out that the information about the gang leaders came from the boys and they would be pushing up daisies.”
“Anyway, Joe is convinced with the information the police have now, they would soon break the back of the gangs in East Point and College Park. Keith, I know you didn't want the gangs to know where you were, but I think you should let your parents know. You know they are worried sick.”
It took a bit, but Mom finally convinced Keith he should call his parents. He felt they had deserted him by just having him shipped off to Detroit, but Mom reminded him the decision might not have been the best, but they were trying to protect him from obvious danger.
When Keith called, his mom and dad told him about the same thing we had learned from Joe. In fact, Keith knew more about the situation than they did. In spite of the fact the danger gangs posed for Keith was likely minimal, they agreed that it was probably best that he not go back to College Park and spend the rest of the summer with us in North Carolina.
Mom invited them up for a weekend and they came the weekend after Joe and Trey had been up to our place in the mountains.
The lazy days of summer sped by and before we knew it or were ready for it, it was Labor Day and the beginning of school, our sophomore year.
Dad finally had to come to school to talk with my counselor and science math program director. The director simply would not sign off on my schedule with the auto body repair classes scheduled and the counselor said that without the director's approval, I could not remain in the program. Dad pointed out that I had taken two freshman classes the year before in summer school. “He is taking or has taken all the classes the science-math sophomores are taking AND the vocational course, so what's the problem?”
It all boiled down to the director feeling that vocational course were beneath her students.
“I hope you remember that the next time you need a plumber or auto mechanic and tell them you are sorry, but they are beneath you. I suspect you'll discover quickly just how valuable they are. I'd also point out that both probably make more money than you or I do.” Dad finished the conference with, “I trust there'll be no further problems arising out of Tom's schedule decisions. And while I am here,” Dad said, “I'd like to review Keith Anderson's schedule.”
Before the counselor could object, stating confidentially regulations, Dad produced a statement from the Andersons asking him to serve in loco parentis with regard to Keith's schedule. Keith also wanted to take another auto mechanics class. His parents had objected the previous year since they held some of the same attitude about vocational classes that the director held. Dad pointed out that “getting his hands dirty will help him understand the importance of everyone, not just book smart people.” And Keith's parents finally agreed.
While we waited for Mom to pick us up after school, Keith said, “Now all we need is a car to work on.” We talked about what we'd like to do and agreed we'd, somehow, get cars and I'd do the body work and Keith the mechanical work.
With a zero period before God was out of bed, a full class schedule, and baseball in the spring semester, neither Keith nor I had time to work so where the cars were coming from was a problem. Of course, the only time we could drive was in the car with a parent. We both had gotten our fifteen year old learner's permits the day following our fifteenth birthdays. We had to pass the written test to get it and could only drive with a parent or someone over twenty-one.
After the events of the summer, the fall was, thank goodness, borderline dull. We saw Joe and Trey from time to time. Trey was scheduled to start working the Jackson to McDougnal section which would put him much closer to College Park and he'd be able to stay at home. “That's the good part,” Joe had laughed. “The bad part is that he will be leaving so early and getting back so late, he'll still get out of working around the house.”
Joe and Trey had closed on their house and had the conversions needed to provide for Queen Joyce, who, by the way, objected strenuously to her place being called a “mother-in-law” suite. In her best street talk she informed all, “They's the royal apartmints.” While the apartment was completely separate from the rest of the house, the guys had put their foot down and there was a connecting door-complete with bell. The door had been kept locked until Queen's diabetics went completely crazy and the guys found her, passed out, in the middle of her living room floor. After she had collapsed, the bell was used, but the door was never locked.
What can I say about school? Very little. My classes ranged from the perfectly terrible-trig with a teacher who couldn't teach, which was matched only by his lack of knowledge-to awesome-honors sophomore composition and literature. I was really getting good at body work and could hardly wait until I could-some way-find money to buy a car to repair.
No handsome prince came riding my way, but I definitely had my eyes open. There were a couple football players I was sure were gay. They were often together and I saw them walking arm in arm at times. When I mentioned this to Keith he said, “Duh, you think they might be gay? What about us?” I had to laugh because we were walking arm in arm at the time.
We mentioned that to Joe and Trey and both said the fact that football players walked arm in arm gave some people permission to do that. “That's the reason you haven't caught flack,” Joe said. “You should thank the two.”
A couple days later as Keith and I were waiting for Mom, the two came by, arm in arm. As they did, Keith called out, “Hold up, Guys.” The two stopped, turned and walked to where Keith and I were sitting on a low wall. “Guys, I'm Keith Anderson and this is Tom McCarter.”
One of the fellows extended his hand and said, “Kent Johnson.”
“Marc Swift,” the second guy said.
“Marc, Kent, Tom and I have two gay friends, Joe and Trey. Joe's a policeman in College Park and Trey works on the railroad. Couple days ago we were at their place and mentioned that you two walking arm in arm, I guess, gave us permission to do the same. I mean nobody in their right mind is going to say anything to you two!” The two smiled as I did at the very idea anyone would take on one of the pair, much less two. “Anyway, they said we should thank you and they are right. Thanks. I'm interested. How did you two start walking arm in arm? Even holding hands?”
“No offense taken, but if you are suggesting we are gay, you're wrong, not that that would matter. We grew up together. We were born two days apart and our moms shared babysitting so both could work. I guess we have been holding hands and walking arm in arm ever since we could walk,” Kent said.
“And, yeah, we hold hands sometimes,” Marc answered, “but not at school. It takes too much energy to set some people straight. Wouldn't care if people thought we were gay, but they better not make shitty remarks about it. You two gay?”
I wondered how Keith would respond to that!
“No, just friends who also grew up together.”
I didn't know why I felt I had to answer as I did, but almost without thinking I said, “Well, Keith's half right. He's not gay, but I am.”
“Boyfriend?” Kent asked.
“Still looking,” I answered.
Since Kent and Marc were seniors, we had no classes together, but when our paths crossed, the two always smiled and said hello. One afternoon while we were waiting to be picked up, the two came out of the school talking, looking at a book and not watching where they were going. I was walking toward the wall where Keith was sitting and the two ran into me.
“Unless your sense of direction improves,” I laughed, “you'll end up scoring for the other team.”
“Unless I get my head around this algebra I'll be scoring for no team. Math just is not for me.”
“Mind if we look?”
“Not at all,” Kent answered.
“Double that,” Marc added and handed me the book and gave Keith the notebook where they had been trying to work a problem.
The problem was not at all complicated or difficult when I looked at it. Keith said, “Both Tom and I are in the science-math magnet program so we're doing advanced math. For us, this is not a difficult problem. That doesn't mean you are stupid, just that you don't understand. Who's your teacher?”
“Lazy Larry,” Marc answered. “Sorry, Mr. Lawrence.”
“You think he's bad in algebra, try him in trig. Ok, two ways we can go with this. Tom and I could just do the problems in a few minutes and you'd be scot free OR we can help you learn the material.”
“As much as I'd like to say, 'Just do it, it wouldn't be much help tomorrow. And you are willing to tutor us in math?”
“Sure, why not?”
Amazing how something so simple as offering to help two guys with their homework can change your life, but it can. That first day, Keith sat with Kent and I with Marc. I suspect the two of us began to wonder why we had offered to help because it was obvious to us both that the guys hadn't the foggiest idea what algebra was about.
By the time Keith's mom arrived, we were frustrated, but, I hope, had managed to hide it. As we were going home, we talked about the guys. Keith summed it up for his mom saying, “Mom, those guys have just been passed so they could play football. It didn't matter whether they know anything or not.
For the rest of the year, Keith and I tutored the two. And after a few days, they often came home with one or the other of us and the four of us worked on their assignments. Then they walked home, getting some exercise along with their grasp of math. By the end of the next six week's grading period the two had raised their grades from a “we need them playing football” D to an honest D. The next six weeks they had an honest C.
Suddenly the two had become both cheerleaders and ass kickers for the rest of the football team. It was very strange to see not only that, but also the two as tutors for their teammates. Ok, we both admitted it, it was a great ego booster.
I guess we were also surprised to see members of the football team walking arm in arm, even holding hands. It almost caused a riot when the team was the visitor at Stockbridge and a couple of the guys walked off the field hand in hand. Fortunately an official heard the home team coach make a remark about “my guys having to play queers” and he was sent out of the game.
Keith and I were at Joe and Trey's one evening and Queen Joyce was “visiting” with them. When we talked about how proud we were of the guys we were tutoring, Queen Joyce asked if we were getting credit for it.
“Credit? What do you mean?” Keith asked.
“Look, you'll have more credits than you need to graduate, but that's not the point. You want a record to present to the college YOU choose rather than having to attend a college which will accept you. Right?” Keith nodded.
“Well, there's a course number which will give you credit for teaching experience, for tutoring. Ask to be given that.”
Our counselor said she didn't know what we were talking about when we went to see her. Keith suggested she contact Queen Joyce. Mistake, I guess. Our counselor said she didn't need anyone telling her her job and made some very cutting remarks about Queen and sent us back to class. I guess she thought she better check out our request because before school was out for the day, we got a note from the counselors' office tell us we were enrolled in ED. 500: Practical Education: Math Tutoring and were earning a unit for it. “Please send me a weekly report of your activities,” the note concluded.
Shortly after we started tutoring the guys, I realized it might help to know something about them and what they liked and suggested to Keith that we attend a football game. The guys were so pleased and proud that their tutors had attended a game that we felt obligated to attend the rest of the season's games even though neither of us were interested, or became interested, in the game itself. I guess we were like proud parents. Of course the fact that before long Keith and I each had four or five football players to tutor three afternoons a week after school meant we got to know almost all the players very well.
One afternoon, as the football season was coming to an end, Marc and Kent stayed behind after the other players had gone. Marc kept hemming and hawing for awhile until Keith finally said, “Come on guys, whatever it is, it can't be that difficult. Out with it.”
It took awhile, but finally the two got around to telling us they were afraid we'd abandon them now that the football season was over.
“Marc, Kent, football season is not very important to me,” Keith said. “To be honest, I really don't like football and the only reason Tom and I came to the games was because you guys were playing. It's something you do and do well and we wanted to support, but that not why we helped you with your school work. I doubt that either of you will ever make the NFL, but you might get to college on a football scholarship. But unless you manage to get THROUGH college, it won't mean a great deal. Sure we'll keep helping you guys as long as you want.”
“See, Kent,” Marc said, “I told you they'd not give up on us.”
The football season ended with the win-loss columns equal, but at the awards banquet-to which Keith and I received invitations-Kent proudly announced that the academic average for the football team fall semester was the highest it had ever been. “And, teachers, coaches, principals, we owe it to two guys who tutored us, Keith Anderson and Tom McCarter.”
Kent and Marc were standing together at the head table and asked us to come forward and when we did, we were presented with a trophy. We were both stunned when whole team stood and applauded and applauded.
Thanksgiving came and Mom asked about inviting the Andersons to join us for Thanksgiving dinner, but before she got around to it, Joe and Trey invited us and the Andersons to their place for dinner. “Queen Joyce will be presiding,” Trey had laughed when he called with the invitation.
I was amazed at how quickly Christmas vacation followed Thanksgiving. Some official in the school administration had definitely screwed up the calendar. Christmas was on Monday and we were in school the Wednesday before. Tuesday night at dinner Dad had asked about spending the Christmas holidays in North Carolina. Mom pointed out the house was definitely not winterized, but I reminded her that with the propane space heaters, it could be comfortable. “It'll be warm enough, I'm sure,” Dad said.
“And if it's not and is uncomfortable, we'll come back?” Mom asked, but I knew she expected the answer to be yes. Dad and I both nodded. Mom said she'd give it some thought. Clearly she wasn't convinced-yet.
Mom and I talked about it on the way to school the next day and Mom finally said she had decided it wasn't a bad idea. We had been talking as though Keith wasn't in the car and he started sniffling like he was crying. “Not subtle, Keithee Poo,” Mom said. “Check with your parents and see if they'd like to join us. Remember it likely to be cold and you know the cabin,” Mom said. When we told Dad we'd like to go, we told him Keith was checking with his parents to see if they would like to join us.
“I was holding off to make sure you two would like to go, but I thought we'd invite Joe and Trey if we were going and you wanted to do that,” Dad said. “Guess we need to hold off on that. We'll run out of space.”
Mom called Mrs. Anderson and they talked for ages. When she hung up the phone she said, “LaLisa thanked me kindly, but they cannot go to the mountains. Old Mrs. Anderson's finally reached the point where she can no longer live alone. The family is getting together in Albany to decide what to do. LaLisa is really wound up. She knows what a pain Alexander's brother and sisters can be.”
“They already know Octavia is going to raise hell about 'putting Mother in one of those places,' but that's all the contribution she will make. Either LaLisa and Alexander have to find someone to live with old Mrs. Anderson or she will have to go to an assisted living facility. They know they will not only have to make all the decisions and do all the work and pay all the bills, but also put up with the brother's and sisters' carping.”
“She said, 'Rebekah, it is not going to be a very pleasant Christmas. I hope we can go down, get things settled and get back here so Alexander can have some time to recover before we go back to work.'”
“Mom, did she say Keith could come? I don't think he's interested in seeing his Auntie Octavia again soon-or later for that matter.”
“I asked about that and LaLisa said she thought it was a very good idea. She said she had hesitated earlier since it was awfully pushy, but she was giving some thought to asking if he could spend the Christmas holidays with us so he will be coming. Tom, why don't you call Trey and Joe. Tell them Queen Joyce is invited as well.”
I called Joe and he said he couldn't come until the day after Christmas. “I have six days after Christmas, but I have always worked Christmas Eve and Christmas. I'll sleep at the fire station so I will get some sleep, but officially I am pulling three twenty-four hour shifts. The other officers have family and need to spend time with them. I usually sleep eight straight hours when I get off even though I do grab some sleep if there's not a lot of activity. Then Trey and I have Christmas. But I'll have him call when he gets in. He and Queen Joyce went to some celebration tonight.” I told him to call anytime before midnight.
Trey called just at midnight and talked with Mom. When she hung up, she said Trey didn't want to leave Joe alone over Christmas. “'He works, but he can get by for dinners and we get to see a little of each other. It's a special time for us even with Joe working,' Trey said and I agreed,” Mom said. “He asked about the three coming up after Joe finished his Christmas Day shift and I told him of course.”
Mom and Dad both had to work Thursday after school was out, making sure report cards went out and doing other administrator things. Keith and I went downtown to finish our Christmas shopping. We finally split up to shop for each other and agreed to meet at 1:00.
Mom was home when we got back to the house. She and Keith went to shop for the cabin. In the meantime, Dad and I got stuff together we'd need-like extra blankets. Keith's parents brought his stuff and said they had planned to leave for Albany later, but something had come up. They got the cell phone number and said they'd call to tell him goodbye later. They both looked as if they were attending a hanging and they were the guests of honor. Keith had said both really dreaded what lay ahead, but his dad was the only one in the family who had enough sense to get something done.
The trip to North Carolina was uneventful, until about half-way between Rabun Gap and the Cashiers-Highlands area. As we drove up the mountain, a light snow started falling and was falling faster every mile we traveled. By the time we were five or six miles from the house, the road had enough snow on it to make driving treacherous. It took over half an hour to cover those last few miles and when we reached the house, Dad was a basket case. Mom ordered him to just sit in the car and relax while we got the house open and the propane heaters going. While she and Keith were starting the heaters, I built a roaring fire in the fireplace, then attended to the water system. By the time we were done, we were about frozen, but the heaters and the fireplace were warming up the house.
We had stopped in Gainsville for a late lunch and Mom had cold cuts and things for sandwiches for supper. We ate and Mom and Dad got out books they brought and started reading. Keith and I found the Yatzee game and started playing.
We played until about 9:30 when Keith said, “It seems like at least midnight.” I agreed.
I was stiff from sitting on the floor playing Yatzee and when I said so, Keith said he was too.
“Then let's see about a walk outside.”
Keith and I stepped outside and stood on the porch. The snow had stopped, but the whole world seemed blanketed in white. The snow was the kind that clings to everything. Even the tiny branches of the bare trees were covered. The sky had clear and bright moonlight revealed a dream world.
"Tom, it's so beautiful," Keith whispered as through speaking aloud would disturb the scene before us. As he spoke a rabbit came bounding around the house, saw us and stopped, standing upright as though he was frozen. I guess he decided we meant him no harm and went hopping off into the snow-covered trees. The moon was so very bright, we decided it was light enough for us to walk to the river. When we got back, we told the parents goodnight and went upstairs to my place. Fortunately, heat rises, and the propane heaters and the fireplace had the loft cozy warm.
Even so, Keith and I got undressed and quickly dressed again in warm, winter PJs. We crawled into bed and Keith soon spooned himself into my back, and put his arm over me. As he did, for some reason he was reminded of school and said, “Tom, it's been a good fall semester.” I agreed. We were both silent for a moment and the Keith said, “Goodnight, my brother.”
“Goodnight, my brother,” I replied.