I think both Keith and I were amazed when we both woke up at the crack of dawn, well, maybe even a bit before that. Mom and Dad were sleeping in, I guess, because they were not in evidence. Keith and I dressed for the outdoors and quietly went outside.
The sun was just coming up and the sky in the east was streaked with brilliant reds and oranges. The western sky was becoming brighter and blue, blue. It seemed close enough to reach out and touch. The air was cold and clear and so crisp it seemed like you could break off a piece to keep for gray days.
There was no wind so the trees were still covered with snow which sparkled in the sun, reflecting the colors of the dawn. The trees and ground looked as though they had been sprinkled with diamonds. Stepping into the magic land created by winter, Keith and I went into the morning, feeling very, very much alive.
I don't know how we had missed it last night, or maybe it had been made during the night, but when we reached the edge of the woods, we saw an animal trail leading down to the river. We walked slowly and quietly, holding hands, toward the river. I heard a sharp intake of breath and Keith squeezed my hand and pointed.
At the river's edge, a large buck was drinking. He stopped every few minutes to look around, checking for enemies. We stood as still as possible, watching the beautiful animal. He finished drinking and as he turned to leave, spied us. He froze in place for an instant, then in a burst of sheer energy, ran past us and disappeared into the underbrush.
"Wow!" Keith said under his breath, "Just wow!"
Keith and I turned around and followed the trail into the woods. The tracks revealed the passage of all kinds of animals, but we saw none except a couple rabbits.
When we got back to the house, Dad had started preparing breakfast and Keith pitched in to help. Since Dad had always said three in the kitchen is one too many, I set the table and then went upstairs to shower and shave. I had just finished when Keith called from downstairs, telling me breakfast was ready. After breakfast, Mom and I cleaned up while Dad and Keith showered and Dad shaved.
The whole family has always enjoyed uninterrupted reading time when we were at the cabin so I was not surprised when, after he had showered and Mom and I had finished cleaning up, Mom and Dad each grabbed a book and curled up in a chair before the fireplace and started reading. I told Keith we should do the same until his hair was dry. We went to the loft and picked up books to read. Half an hour later he said, "Ok, let's hit the outside."
Mom and Dad joined us outside where the four of us made a huge snowman and I showed Keith how to make snow angels. College Park had snow most years, but seldom enough to really play in.
The sun was very warm, melting the snow on the trees, often forming icicles which caught the sunlight, making the evergreens look like Christmas trees.
The temperature was rising, but it was definitely not summer. After being out an hour, we were all ready to go inside. As soon as I was out of my heavy winter outer clothes, I put on the kettle and soon had tea ready. It was really welcome!
Mom and I prepared a late lunch and all four of us decided a nap was called for. Keith and I went upstairs, took off our shirts and pants and crawled into bed. I had just gotten settled when Keith asked, "Tom, does my being in bed with you bother you? I mean...."
"I'm sure I know what you mean, Keith," I answered, "and no, it doesn't."
"Good, 'cause I like it," he said as he snuggled up to my back.
Christmas Eve afternoon, Dad said, "I suspect if we are going to have a Christmas tree, we need to get one."
"You mean we are going into town?" Keith asked.
"Don't think so," Dad said. "Come along."
As we left the house, Dad picked up the bow saw and a hatchet we used with firewood and we headed to the woods. The snow was melted in the animal trail, but we could still see animal tracks and followed the trail into the woods. There was a large clearing a good distance from the house and hemlocks had grown up around its edge.
"Here's your Christmas tree shop, Keith," Dad said. "Pick out your tree."
It took Keith and me awhile to find the perfect tree and cut it. When it was down, Keith took hold of the butt end and I reached though the branches to grasp the trunk to keep the tree off the ground.
When we got back to the house, we wedged the tree in a large bucket, using rocks to hold it in place. It was a magnificent tree even undecorated.
"Guess we'll do without decorations this year," I said.
"Not if you don't want to," Mom said. "There's popcorn and cranberries. You can even make a construction paper daisy chain if you are interested."
Keith and I decided we'd just decorate with popcorn and cranberry strings and spend the rest of the afternoon doing that. The Christmas tree wasn't as flashy as it would have been had we had bought decorations, but it was a beautiful one.
When we had finished, Mom had egg nog in cups and asked if we'd like some rum in ours. Keith laughed when she asked and said, "I'd love some so long as you don't let me have too much. I'll always remember, I'm sure, just how awful a hangover can be."
The night Keith and I both had entirely too much to drink was wrapped around a very serious and sad event and a very tender and loving one, but we had talked about being drunk though it as was a separate event, unconnected to LaTasha's death and our making love. We had some grand laughs at ourselves over that part of the night without taking away from the seriousness of Keith's hurt or tenderness of our making love. We talked about those too, not often, but sometimes.
Mid-afternoon Christmas Eve, Mom said she and Dad were going into town for the Christmas Eucharist at Grace Church and asked if Keith and I wanted to go. There was no pressure for us to go, just an offer. We hadn't made a habit of going to Grace, but we had gone a couple times. The liturgy was done well-warm, but not "folksie"
We didn't go to church in College Park. The parish there was extremely conservative in a lot of ways, but the liturgy was caught up in 60s "feel good" mode. That was a real turn off for our family, but we stuck it out for a couple years after the new rector came and really started messing up the liturgy. Dad said he wouldn't have thought liturgy could be so bad that it was "like fingernails on a chalkboard," but it could be.
But what finally corked things, so to speak, was a sermon on the evils of homosexuality and the damnation of "so-called gays." I thought I'd puke every time the rector said homosexual, making the word sound like it had come out of the sewer. Needless to say, I was very uncomfortable. Finally Dad leaned over to me and said, "I'm leaving" and the three of us got up and walked out.
Dad and Mom made an appointment to speak to the rector, but they didn't say what happened when they kept it. I do know we never went back.
Anyway, Keith said he'd like to go to the Midnight Eucharist so that settled it.
Mom called and found out there would be carol singing before, but the Eucharist would start at 11:00. Seems more and more congregations think about finishing at midnight rather than beginning then. We arrived just before 11:00 and walked into a darkened church. The organ was playing something which definitely was not a Christmas carol, then at 11:00 a brass choir joined the organ and choir in "O Come All Ye Faithful. We had all been given a candle when we came in and they were now being lit one by one. The church gradually grew brighter and brighter as candles were lit.
The procession came down the aisle led by the thurifer--yummy looking boy--swinging the thurible, raising clouds of incense.
The service was beautifully done, formal, but not stiff, with care, but not tediously so.
After the service, we spoke to the rector at the door. He asked where we were from and invited us to come back when we were at the cabin. He said he suspected we found Grace very different from a big Atlanta church and Dad said, "Yes, thank goodness."
Christmas Day Keith and I were up before Mom and Dad--again. My parents work hard, often working long days so when they get a chance to be away from the job and relax, they really do.
When we were ready for bed Christmas Eve, Keith and I put our gifts under the tree, but there were no others. When we got up, there were piles of presents waiting for us, but I knew they would stay right there until we finished breakfast. When I told Keith that, he said "Then let's make breakfast." We had just about finished when I heard Mom and Dad moving about. When the last dish was on the table, Dad walked out of their bedroom and Keith said, "Perfect timing, Mr. McCarter."
We had a very leisurely breakfast-eggs, bacon and biscuits with a couple different kinds of jam. When the only choice was making biscuits from scratch or those things in a can, biscuits were a rare treat. No one had time to make them from scratch and none of us liked the canned kind. Not long ago Mom discovered frozen biscuits and we now had them often.
Keith's parents had sent his presents with Mom and Dad so he had a pile to open as did I. Of course there was clothing. I once asked Mom why I always got clothes for Christmas since they were always things I needed. She said she supposed it was because her parents and Dad's always gave them some practical things. "They had recollections of the Great Depression when there wasn't money for anything unnecessary so clothing became gifts. Well, to tell the whole truth, your dad's family mostly didn't give anything and certainly nothing which wasn't needed. "'Damn foolishness' your grandfather called it."
There were lots of presents, but the special ones would be what we would all remember. Dad gave Mom a beautiful opal ring-both my parents loved opals-and Mom gave him a pocket watch, something he had wanted for years. It was an antique railroad watch with a wonderful engraving of a train on the cover which snapped over the face and, of course, a gold chain. I had worked very hard trying to find something for Keith and finally settled on a silver chain with a cross he had seen and liked in an antique shop in College Park. He gave me a silver ring, which I just loved, from the same shop.
After we had opened the presents and spent some time outside, Keith asked Mom and Dad if they'd like to play Monopoly. When Keith suggested it I knew what their answer would be. Mom and Dad were cutthroat Monopoly players-but they didn't win. Keith beat all three of us.
Mid-morning the day after Christmas, Trey, Joe and Queen Joyce arrived. Queen Joyce came in complaining that she was probably going to die in this wilderness and her body would not be discovered for years. She kept carrying on until Trey finally said, "Can it Queen. I saw where you were born and it was so far back in the south Georgia piney woods daylight doesn't arrive until noon and is worn out so it's only twilight."
Queen Joyce started laughing like mad and said, "You know that's the truth, Honey, but damn, it was at least level. I may fall off the side of one of these mountains."
"If you do, the river'll stop you," Joe said.
The rest of the week was really great. The three late arrivals were sorry they didn't get to see the snow, but enjoyed the very warm weather which followed. Even Queen Joyce went for a couple of long walks and took a lot of short walks. Joe said she really needed some activity because of her diabetes. "Trey and I are really putting the pressure on to get her to retire after this year. She'll have thirty plus years in. My understanding is that will give her over sixty percent of her present salary. Right?" he asked Dad. Dad nodded.
"She has put the max in her tax sheltered annuity for the past ten years so she could live well even if she had rent or a house payment, which she does not. She's resisting saying she'd have nothing to do. Trey and I have said we'd see she has things to do. She loves to cook and we love to eat, so that's definitely something she can do."
We debated going back to College Park for New Year's and decided not to, but we did head back New Year's Day since schools started back January second as did Joe's and Trey's jobs.
New Years was bright and sunny, but it was the last bright day for what seemed like forever. The days were dull and gray, the mood depressed. The first semester had ended before Christmas and the second seemed to be stuck in neutral. Keith and I lamented not having a car to work on, but saw no way to change that. We even talked about not going out for baseball and getting jobs, but both sets of parents advised us that that was not a good idea.
We were sitting on the wall, waiting for Mom near the last of January, talking about getting a car. "Maybe we'll get one for one of our birthdays," I said.
"Hope you're not holding your breath,"Keith responded.
Well, I did get one for my birthday, a real fixer-upper, but perfect for what Keith and I had in mind. He even had hopes he might get one as well.
I got a car, but it would not change my life nearly as much as what happened the next day.
I was sitting in homeroom, trying to ignore all the noise and commotion around me as I completed the last of my trig homework. It was very unlike me to arrive at school with my homework assignments incomplete, but last night had been a very special one.
My parents surprised me for my birthday by taking me out to dinner and a concert and giving me a four year old Chrysler LeBaron convertible. It definitely needed body work, but the engine sounded pretty good to me. When Keith heard it the next day he said the engine wasn't bad, but could use some serious work.
Actually, Dad had called him and asked if he'd like to help pick out a car for my birthday--"One that'll keep you two busy and out of trouble," Keith told me Dad had said. It had been a super special evening, but I didn't do my homework.
When we got to school Keith had to check on something and said he'd see me later. I walked to homeroom, took out my trig book and started trying to do my homework. When I was on the last problem, someone bumped my arm walking past. Without looking up I said, "It just might be you could look where you are going," as I erased a long black pencil mark from my paper.
"I'm really sorry. Not a good way to start off at a new school."
I wanted to say, "With that voice it doesn't matter, just say anything," but when I looked up to speak, I was struck dumb by the magnificent creature looking down at me. I could hardly see anything beyond his eyes. They were very large and a sparkling brown with gold flecks. His lashes were the longest I think I had ever seen. When I finally was able to tear my eyes from his, I saw a handsome face with a warm chocolate complexion and, even in over-sized shirt and pants, a body to die for.
When I finally recovered a bit, I said, "I'm really sorry for being an ass. Name's Tom, Tom McCarter," as I extended my hand.
"Derrick, Derrick Murphy."
"Ah, Tom, if you'll release Derrick, I'd like to welcome him to East River, too," Keith, who had just walked in, said.
I turned bright red when I realized I was still holding Derrick's hand, gazing into his eyes and definitely lost in space.
I dropped his hand and Keith shook hands with Derrick and said, "Keith Anderson, Derrick. Don't mind my buddy, he's often lost in space. Welcome to East River."
"Thanks," he replied. "Maybe you two can help me out. I got lost getting from the counseling center to here and it's just down the hall. I haven't the foggiest where I go next."
"Sure, glad to help," I said. "Got your schedule?"
"Of course he has his schedule, Dumbass," Keith said.
Here was the most beautiful human being I had ever seen and I was making a fool of myself.
Derrick smiled and handed me his schedule. I spread it out on the desk and Keith and I took a look at it. I couldn't believe my eyes. We had four of our seven classes together. "You may be in luck," Keith said, "Tom has four classes with you-and I'm in two of those-and I have one other with you. That only leaves two classes where you're on your own.
"That's the good news," I said.
"Yeah, and the bad news is bad. You have signed up for a double period vocational class in family management. Wouldn't be a bad course, but the feeling among the faculty about that class is pretty well-known. They scrape the bottom of the barrel and dump what they get into that class since there are two teachers assigned to it, enough to prevent the apes from creating total chaos, but nothing else gets done."
"Same period I have auto body repair," I said. "Could use you on Keith's and my project."
We talked about the car and the fact that Keith and I would be putting two class periods a day into it. Since Derrick was taking hard courses, I knew he'd go nuts in home management. "Let's get something done about this right now," I said.
Keith and I told the home room teacher we needed to take Derrick to the counselor's office and left. It took a lot of arguing and refusing to budge, but we finally got Derrick's classes changed and he'd be in auto body repair with me. "Six periods a day with this gorgeous hunk of male flesh," I thought to myself as the bell rang, ending home room.
When school was out, I asked Derrick where he lived and he said he lived with his grandmother. She lived in an apartment in one of the oldest apartment buildings in the area, but one which had been kept in excellent shape. It was also in one of the nicer sections of the town.
There were four apartments in the building and I had been been in one several years ago when Mom and I took something to one of her teachers who lived there. I didn't say anything, but I knew there was only one bedroom, a small kitchen-dining area and living room. Plenty of room for one person, but I was sure it was cramped with Derrick and his grandmother living there.
While the apartment was several blocks from either Keith's place or mine, it really wasn't out of the way if we changed our usual route. The weeks my parents drove, we'd drop Keith off first and the weeks Keith's parents drove, we'd drop Derrick off first.
Dad had promised me he would take me to get my graduated driver's license as soon as he could so I wasn't surprised when he showed up at school Friday after my birthday and we went to the license bureau. I had taken and passed my written test the day after I turned fifteen and gotten my instructional permit then.
I had gotten a lot of driving experience both on the open road and around College Park and East Point. I was confident I could pass the driving test and get my graduated license. That would let me drive with Keith and Derrick in the car so the parents would be, as Keith's mom said, "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, free at last." Keith, having been born a week after I was, didn't get his graduated license until near the end of the month.
I guess you'd say Keith, Derrick and I quickly bonded or whatever you call becoming really tight friends. It reached the point where Mom said, "You see one of you guys, you see all three." Before the first week was over, we had learned Derrick played baseball-he was a pitcher-was good at science and math, but really loved literature and composition, took to auto body repair like a duck to water and was one of the most upbeat and open people I ever met.
The second day Derrick was at East River, Keith and I were tutoring and he, of course, came with us since we were his ride to and from school. There was a whole room full of students showing up for tutoring now and Keith and I were very busy. We had some people who came for tutoring who were in junior or senior math classes who helped out with the freshmen and sophomores, otherwise we'd be unable to help more than five or six students.
Derrick came in with us, sat down and started working on his homework. About five minutes after we started, a student asked a question out loud and Derrick got up and went to help him. He was soon as involved in tutoring as Keith and I. On the way home he said, "I guess you know there's not a better way of learning than teaching." Keith and I agreed.
The day after Derrick helped tutor, we made a second trip to the counselor's office and got Derrick signed up so he could get credit for tutoring.
February is a really rotten month, but there are occasional days which remind you spring is just around the corner. Wednesday of the week after Derrick came to East River was one of those rare February days. It was warm-the temperature reached seventy and the sky was perfectly clear. When we got to the parking lot, Keith said, "Guys, I think I'd like to share a place with you. Call and let people know you two'll be home in a couple hours."
There had been a long family discussion about cell phones before I was given one. The school system provided Mom and Dad with one. For personal use, they upped their plan and paid the difference. Both parents thought it was a good idea for me to have a phone, but school rules prohibited it; "drug dealers use them," was the reason. Of course the fact that 99.99% of the students had one as well was never mentioned. Anyway, it was finally decided I would be given a prepaid phone and the basic amount of time for emergencies and keeping parents aware of where I was. I was to keep the phone locked in the glove compartment and never, ever, to take it inside the school building.
The three of us got into the Gray Goose, the name Keith had given my car as it became more and more gray from the primer Derrick and I applied as we got a section ready for paint. And as soon as we did, Keith unlocked-he had keys to my car since he needed to take it into the mechanical shop-the glove compartment and took out the phone. He called my mom and his mom and told them we were headed for the river and would be a couple hours late getting home. He then gave th ephone to Derrick who called his grandmother.
Keith had given the Gray Goose's engine a basic tune up so the car sounded and ran better than when I first got it, but still needed mechanical work. But that was getting done. Since there were few cars available for the class, four guys were working on mine with Keith.
Anyway, we three headed out of the school parking lot and Keith directed us to a dirt side road a few miles from school. We followed it for a ways, then turned onto another road-actually just a trail--into the piney woods. That trail became less and less obvious and eventually petered out at the base of an old oak. Keith hopped out of the car and said, "Walking time."
There was a well-beaten path down to the river, about a hundred yards from where we parked. When we reached the river, Keith started down a path along the bank. The path became more and more faint until it simply disappeared. Walking became more and more problematic, but Keith kept on. Finally we reached a bamboo grove and I was surprised as Keith pushed his way into it.
Derrick and I, with difficulty, picked our way through the bamboo, following Keith. Thinking we might be lost forever in a bamboo thicket, I was relieved when, suddenly, we stepped into a clearing. The bamboo had grown up around the edges of a small, sandy mound, forming a dense screen on three sides. The third side was open to the river. The place was breathtaking.
We spread our jackets on the warm, dry sand and sat down. For several minutes we let the sounds and beauty of the river and our hideaway just flow over us. After a good long silence, Derrick said, "Thanks, Keith. This is a wonderful place. So calm, peaceful. I needed a place like this."
"So do I," Keith said. "We used to come here every chance we got. We made love here the last week I saw her."
I could see questions in Derrick's eyes, but I didn't think it was my place to answer them. That was up to Keith.
We were all silent again and after a few minutes, Keith said, "My brother Tom pulled a fast one on me and the most beautiful girl in the world." Keith then told Derrick about LaTasha, beginning with the two of them asking my help in getting together. When he started talking about what had happened to her, he was silent for several minutes then said, "Derrick, what happened to her should never happen to anyone." He then told Derrick all. I was surprised when he spoke in a calm voice and did not break down. When he finished, he said, "I think if it hadn't been for Tom, I would have taken LaTasha's way out. Maybe. I don't really know. I do know that the hurt and the pain are still there, but I am very glad I am still alive. Very glad."
There had been several times when I wondered if Keith would make it or take the coward's way out. There was one time I knew about when I wouldn't have given even money on his not doing it.
We had a teachers' workday in late October and Keith and I had been in the park just playing around all day. We finally ended up at his place, just bumming around. We were in his bedroom listening to CDs. We were both flopped down on his bed. We had taken our shoes off and I was using my toes to open and close the drawer of his nightstand. The CD ended and as I started to get up and put new ones in the changer, my toe caught in the nightstand and I tipped it over, spilling everything in the drawer across the floor.
Keith made a dive for a pistol which spun across the floor, but he was not fast enough. I grabbed the pistol and dropped the clip from it. "Ok, Keith, my brother, start talking." Keith looked at me, fire in his eye, and said through clinched teeth, "Give me my God damn gun and get the fuck out of my house!"
"No such luck, Dumbass," I replied. "We are going to get something settled now or when your parents get home."
Keith lunged at me, but I had the advantage; I wasn't shaking all over, Keith was. I pinned him on the floor and held him there as he melted into tears and his body shook with great wracking sobs. "You just don't understand! You just don't understand!" Keith was finally able to say through his sobs.
"I understand one thing. I understand that you do not need a gun, now or any other time, but especially now."
I was still talking with Keith when his mom and dad came home. When they called for Keith, I said, "He's here in his room and he needs you."
Keith's dad saw the gun which I had tossed on the bed and stated a tirade. "Mr. Anderson, that is not what is needed now," I said, quietly.
"Yes, Alex, just cool it," Mrs. Anderson said.
Mr. Anderson looked sheepish and later said he needed to learn not to lash out anytime he faced a situation in which he was not in control.
Keith was finally calm enough to talk and told us he had really dark moods when everything just seemed hopeless. "LaTasha's death just took away any reason I had to go on living. Why can't I just save us all a lot of trouble?" Fortunately, Keith's parents realized that being told to "stand up like a man" wasn't going to accomplish anything and that they were definitely out of their depth.
I went with them to take Keith to see their family doctor, who also realized he was out of his depth, and called a psychiatrist friend, Dr. McCann, and got Keith admitted to the hospital where he was immediately put on suicide watch.
Keith was in the hospital for a week. He was released with medicine and a schedule of sessions with Dr. McCann. He also spent a lot of time talking with me. Gradually I saw him come out of the woods, but I was concerned that he never mentioned LaTasha. Therefore, when he took Derrick and me to the spot which had been special for him and the woman he loved I knew we had passed the crisis.