After our time at the river, Keith seemed more and more like the Keith I had known before LaTasha's tragic death. I realized one afternoon as he headed up the walk to his house that I had relaxed. I was suddenly aware of having been—figuratively--holding my breath since the day I found the gun. I felt really good that Keith — and I — had survived.
The official conditioning for baseball started the second week in February and the last week of the month we were on the field and the selection of the team started. After I saw Derrick pitch ten minutes there was no doubt he would make the team. Keith and I had to hustle a bit, but we made it as well.
The last Friday in February we were on the field practicing, our last full week's practice since our opening game was the following Friday. I was sitting in the dugout, waiting my turn at bat when Derrick did what pitchers seldom do; he took a swing at the ball, connected and it was bye, bye ball. He had hit a home run, the first in the season. As he took his leisurely stroll around the bases, I looked at him and knew something for a fact. While I wasn't looking, I had fallen in love--head over heels, ass over teakettle — in love with Derrick Murphy.
When I told my parents about being in love with Keith, I had said I was as in love with him as a person my age could be. It was not puppy love, but real love, but the love of a middle schooler. But now, NOW I was older and my love for Derrick was deeper, more intense, a wildfire love. And with the love came the agony and as the love was deeper, so was the agony. The agony was deeper not only because my love was deeper, but also because my fear was stronger, paralyzing.
When I had finally told Keith I was in love with him, I had several things going for me which I did not have with Derrick. Then I had known Keith practically from birth; now I had known Derrick less than a month. Then I had been naive about how a straight person might react to being told a gay man was in love with him; now I knew how violent that reaction could be. Then Keith and I had such deep affection for each other for years it was unlikely anything could have split us apart for very long; now Derrick and I were friends, but thereit definitely wasn't the kind of friendship Keith and I had. That kind of friendship takes time.
I guess there may be love at first sight, but I suspect there is not friendship at first sight. But maybe I was wrong. Maybe it wasn't love I felt for Derrick, but lust. “It's just lust?” I asked myself. I don't think so, no, it was love all right and I was playing the same ball game I had before, yet a very different one! This was definitely major league!
The first Sunday in March was perfect. There was March wind, but it was a very gentle, a very warm breeze. I put the top down on the convertible — actually I hadn't put on a new top and up or down made little different the top was in such poor shape. Derrick and I and the other guys helping were making real progress. We had all the dents and dings out of the body — what was left of it — and had found the body parts we needed after searching through several junk yards — I beg you pardon — automobile salvage establishments. Well, we could use a left front fender--if we could find one, otherwise our talents and abilities would be sorely tested in beating the one on the car back into shape.
Keith and his crew were way ahead of the game so far as getting the car in good mechanical shape was concerned. In fact, he and I had a talk with Dad last week about souping up the car. We finally compromised, but still it would be souped up a lot more than I had expected we would be allowed to do.
While the car was a “work-in-progress” it was still something to show off so when I picked up Keith and Derrick, Keith suggested we go “circle the mountain.” Every pretty Sunday you can find a flock of teenagers in Stone Mountain Park doing what teenagers do best, showing off. They circle the mountain a few times, then park and watch other teenagers circle the mountain. Of course all the cars and trucks have their stereos cranked up.
After circling the mountain a few times, we parked, sat on the trunk of the car and watched the cars, trucks and kids go by. “Damn,” Keith exclaimed as an especially well-done car went by, “that is some set of wheels, but, Baby, oh Baby” he said, grabbing me around the neck, “what's to come will be better yet. When are we going to get THIS baby ready for the show?"
“Soon, I hope, soon,” I replied.
Monday, after we finished tutoring, Keith suggested we go to Cool Place on Main, a new ice cream shop in East Point. Derrick had said we could drop him off at his place before we went and Keith kept at him until he finally confessed he didn't have the money to spend on ice cream. When Keith said he was buying, Derrick was still refusing to go, but finally Keith more or less forced him to go with us.
When we got our ice cream, we sat outside to eat it and Derrick said, “Look, I appreciate your buying me the sundae, Keith, I really do. And to be honest, I absolutely could die for a good hot fudge sundae, but this has to be the last one you buy for me.”
“Money very tight?” Keith asked.
“Grams managed very well on her small pension and social security when she was living alone, but now that she has another mouth to feed....”
“And a teenage male mouth which can't be filled,” Keith laughed.
Derrick grinned — every time the boy laughed, grinned, or smiled I almost achieved orgasm. “Yeah,” Derrick agreed. “Things are pretty tight most of the time. Someone at the senior center told her there was a program which could help with her drug bill — it's well over $400 a month — so I told her I'd go with her to check on it. We have an appointment with a social worker Wednesday so I won't be at school.”
“I suggested I get a job, and should, but Grams won't hear of it. She says school is more important and she insists I play baseball now that I know I have made the team. The friend from the senior center thinks there might be other programs which can help. Anyway, we're going to find out. I'm like Grams in that I don't like to take charity, but I also know we are in need and won't waste any help we get.”
“You do get free lunch, don't you?” Keith asked.
“What do you mean free lunch?” Derrick laughed. “I've been told there is no such thing as free lunch.”
“Hey, half the kids at East River get a free or reduced- price lunch. Some who have their own cars included. You should. That'd give you a meal you wouldn't have to pay for,” Keith said.
“We can do better than that,” I added. “If you are on free or reduced lunch, you can also get free or reduced breakfast. We'd just have to get our lazy asses out of bed and get to school fifteen or twenty minutes early. Half the zero period kids come walking in carrying their breakfast.”
“So I have noticed,” Derrick said. “But I don't want to be a problem to you two.”
“No problem,” I said.
“Yeah, no problem,” Keith added.
Wednesday, when I picked up Keith, I asked him if he'd like to go to the river after baseball practice. “I really need to talk,” I said. Keith said fine, but asked if I didn't want to wait until Derrick could go as well. “No, I need to talk now.”
The temperature was still in the upper seventies when we reached the river. We spread a blanket on the sand and as soon as we had, Keith started taking off clothes and when he was down to his birthday suit, lay on the blanket. The sun was shining through the bamboo, casting a dappled pattern on the blanket so I decided to join Keith. Had the blanket been in the full sun I would have not have dared because even the March sun was enough to burn my fair skin. The only thing being in the sun did for me was increase the number of freckles across my nose or, if I was in it long enough, cook my hide.
The two of us lay there, listening to the river and the sounds around us for several minutes before either of us spoke.
Finally Keith turned on his side and said, “Thought you wanted to talk.”
I didn't answer immediately. I was suddenly afraid of how Keith might respond. Finally I guess I got up my courage and said, “Keith, I have a real problem, one that's driving me nuts. I'm in love with Derrick.”
“So tell me another surprise,” Keith responded. “I have known that practically from the time you first laid eyes on him. You told him?”
“Of course not! I sure don't want a repeat of what happened when I told you I was in love with you.”
“Yeah, well, seems reasonable. But what can I do? I don't think I can pull the trick you pulled with me and LaTasha.” At the mention of her name, I could see Keith get a far away look in his eyes. He sighed and said, “So what do we do?”
We talked for over an hour, solving nothing, but Keith did suggest that we both try to be observant. “I mean, maybe he's gay and maybe he's not,” Keith said, “and I can understand how you'd like to know, but I guess you'll just have to be patient.”
I couldn't think of anything better, but by nature, patient I'm not.
Friday after the ball game — we won by one point — a pickup--well, it was what remained of a pickup--drove into the parking area at the ball field and Keith's dad got out. He walked toward us and when he got to where we were waiting for him, said, “Guys, I'm really sorry I didn't make it to the game. I certainly planned to but I was thirty seconds too late getting out the door and had to handle a problem at work before I could leave.”
"So what's with the truck?” I asked.
“Oh, I forgot. Think you and Derrick might be able to do anything with that wreck?” he asked and when we both nodded, he tossed the keys to Keith.
Keith had talked a lot about wanting a pickup, “I wanna be a black, African-American redneck,” he had answered when Derrick asked him what he wanted with a pickup.
“Body needs work, but most — well, some of it--is there. I mean what's a hood and couple fenders and a bed among friends?” I laughed.
The truck was missing several body parts--most in fact--but it was a crew cab, Ford F150, V6, four wheel drive. It had been red, but as I said, a lot of it was missing and the paint was pretty bad. It had potential, which is a neat way of saying, “You'll have to work your ass off to make something from THAT pile of junk.”
I looked it over very carefully and decided it would take awhile, but it was definitely fixable. Actually, since it was five years old, there should be plenty of wrecks available in salvage yards. We could get any body parts we needed there. “ No doubt Derrick and I can make it LOOK good but I can't do much about the way it runs. Crew cab, so all three of us can ride in it. Good deal — if Keith and the mad mechanics can get the mechanical work done.“
Keith had his head under the hood and when he pulled it out he had a huge grin on his face. “When I get through with this baby she'll run like a scalded dog—hound of course,” he laughed. Keith's dad rode home with us since he left the truck at school for Keith to begin work on it.
Keith was ready to get to work on the truck right away since the crew working on my car have just about finished. It ran like a well-oiled machine and sounded downright awesome!
Derrick had been with us when Keith and I talked to Dad about souping the car up a bit. Dad had serious misgiving about allowing Keith to install a new computer chip — expensive!--dual exhausts and all the things Dad claimed just showed I had misgivings about the size of my penis. “With all that hot-rod stuff everybody's going to know you are a needle dick,” Dad said.
Mom turned bright red and said, “Thomas!” Then without missing a beat, she added, “Besides, it doesn't look small to me, but then that could be just in comparison!”
Keith, Derrick and I just about fell over and we laughed so hard we were all crying before we got control again. And the car did get souped up and sounded like it.
Derrick and I were making good progress on the car's body. There was still work to do putting on the finishing touches, but by the time Keith's Dad arrived with the truck, finishing touches was all that was left.
My car had umpteen coats of dark, dark red metallic paint and was so shiny you could see yourself 'way down in the paint. The chrome was shining and a new white top set off a beautiful car. We had lucked up on a wreck which had a leather interior and got the junk yard owner to donate the seats and all else we could use to the school and we then bought them from the school. He got a nifty tax write off and we got the seats and all for practically nothing. I put in a nice — but not one of those window rattling ones — stereo system and I was done.
One afternoon end of March after we got to my place, the phone rang and Queen Joyce asked if Keith and I could come over. “You two have been neglecting your queen big time,” she pouted. I told her we had another student with us and when she asked if he ranked as a good friend and I said he did. “Then bring him along,” she said. “If you had been attending to your visiting with the Queen, I would have known about him.” I explained that we all had been so busy with everything the nice fun things had kinda dropped by the wayside.
Anyway, when we pulled up to the Queen's apartment, she came out to meet us. “Babee,” she exclaimed, “I see the queen's coach has arrived and the queen is ready to visit her subjects! You just wait right there!”
Queen went back into the house and came out, a very long, bright red and gold scarf about her neck and wearing one of her “church hats,” an elaborate creation in red and gold which towered above her. She immediately climbed in to the back of the convertible and took her seat.
“Baby, what's your name?” she asked Derrick.
“Derrick, Derrick Murphy.”
Queen gave a loud laugh and said, “Real African name you got there. Murphy. Don't think I know that tribe. You just come sit back here with me, Chief Derrick Murphy,” she said as she patted the seat beside her. As soon as Derrick was seated, Keith climbed in front with me and Queen said, “A slow drive around my kingdom, Lord Thomas.”
Keith dug through the collection of CDs in the car and found one of the school's band, popped it into the player and we were off, march music blaring, Queen nodding and giving the royal wave to folks out walking.
By the time we had reached Main Street, we had a couple cars ahead of us and two behind, a regular parade. When we reached the police station, Joe and his partner had obviously been warned Queen was touring her kingdom and were waiting for us. They got in front of our parade and flipped on their lights. The police station is near the south end of Main Street and when we reached the end of the street, we regrouped and drove back through town, slowly. I guess the word had spread because there were people gathered on the sidewalks all the way to East Point.
At East Point's city limits, we turned into a side street and our parade disbanded. As soon as he had traffic moving again, Joe pulled up beside us. “Queen Joyce, I ought to throw your royal ass in the dungeon for blocking traffic.”
“Baby, how these poor subjects of mine be knowing they's queen cares about them unless they sees her royal face?”
“We're talking about your royal ass, Queen Joyce,” Joe chuckled.
Queen got a horrified look on her face, and said, “Shut yo' mouf! Queens do not moon they subjects! Come on to the palace for tea and bring that good looking white boy in yo car wif you,” Queen said, posing herself in the back seat again, “To the palace, Sir Thomas.”
There were people on the sidewalk all through the neighborhood and all waved and cheered as we drove by.
We were soon in the royal apartments, where Joe and his partner joined us. “I put no sugar in my lemonade, just sugar substitute, so I can join you in that, but you can't make decent sugarless cookies. I dearly love to bake cookies, but then I can't eat 'em, but the head of the royal guard and the minister of transportation can and now I guess you three be showing up as well. I bake, you eat,” she laughed, as she passed around a huge plate of cookies, all of which disappeared in short order.
“Queen, we've got to get back to protecting your subjects,” Joe said. “Derrick, nice to have met you. Tom, Keith, I haven't seen you around lately. Drop by, You too, Derrick. By the way, be-u-tea-ful car there, Tom. You have done yourself proud.”
“Thanks. Derrick deserves a lot of credit for its looks and Old Keith has her purring.”
“Just be careful and don't let her purr too fast and hurt yourself or someone else. Well, we gotta run.“
“Baby, I did forget. That ugly lover of yours called and said for you to plan on a long weekend. He has plans,” Queen said.
“Yes!” Joe said and pumped his fist in to the air.
I got a quick glance at Derrick and could see the light dawn slowly.
After the two police officers had gone, Queen dropped most of her act — or maybe being counselor was the act — anyway, she turned to Derrick and asked how he came to be in College Park, how he was adjusting, half a dozen questions, then stopped and said, “I guess if I want answers, I need to stop talking.”
Derrick had never talked about his family, his former life. All he had ever told Keith and me was that he had lived in Baltimore. Queen asked how school was going, talked with Derrick about how he was adjusting, that sort of thing. Queen Joyce was really good at her job and it showed. She soon she had Derrick talking like mad, telling her things he had never told us.
He started talking about how worried he was about the money situation, but they had been able to get Grams signed up for the drug program which would cut her drug bill to less than $90 a month, a big help.
“Aren't your parents helping pay your and the added household expenses?” Queen asked and then asked, “Can't they help out?”
“Not a matter of can't, but won't,” he said.
As I said, Derrick had never said anything about why he was in College Park or about any family he had other than his grandmother. But Queen Joyce was about to change that.
“Oh, your family's not supporting you? How'd that come about? Parents divorced or something?”
“Or something,” Derrick smiled. “My dad was killed in a trucking accident just after I started school,” he said. “I guess there was insurance money because while we lived in a nice neighborhood in a very nice house, shortly after he was killed, Mom moved us into a nicer house in the suburbs. I always had everything I wanted — not spoiled, but I never really lacked for anything.”
“Mom dated off and on and a couple times I thought I was getting a dad, but plans would go right down to the wire, then I wouldn't see the man around again. I guess it was a little over three years ago, I heard Mom on the phone talking to one of her girlfriends. 'Brandy, I'm almost afraid to keep going out with the Major. I know I'll get all involved and then he'll realize I come complete with a middle school boy and hit the road. It's happened too many times. I love the kid, but when am I ever going to get a life again?' Sure made me feel good - NOT!”
“The Major was a retired Marine major, Major Harvey Culpepper, and “a real catch” according to Mother and her friends. He had his military retirement and was now working as a military consultant for small defense contractors.”
“He might have been a real catch for Mother, but I sure didn't consider him one as a father. He was constantly on my butt about the way I was dressed, how I spoke or something or other. Anyway, after they had been dating for about a year, they broke up. When I asked why, Mother was very blunt, 'He has real difficulty with your shitty attitude. It wouldn't hurt you to make a little effort to behave around him and keep yourself and your room neat.' A couple months later the two were back together. The Major moved in and pushed me aside. That wouldn't have been so bad, but he was always ragging me out. Not infrequently he'd grab me, tell me to shape up and give me a good shaking. His idea of child raising and of producing good marines were the same and wrong on both counts, at least I hope so.”
“Just after last Christmas, they got married. One afternoon, before Mother got home, I came in and he was home, working in his office. 'I'm home, Harvey,' I called out as I headed for my room. 'Get your black Watusi ass in here right now, Young Man!'“
“' Watusi ass?’ I thought to myself as I headed toward his office, he kept on. 'I am a Marine officer and you will treat me as such.' Why I was suddenly a Marine escaped me. 'You will remember to call me Sir and Major or Father. You will not call me by my first name. Do you understand?'”
“'Sure, I do, MAJOR,' I said as sarcastically as I could. 'I'll call you Major Asshole, because you sure as fuck are not my father.' I turned to leave the room and before I was turned around, the Major slapped me across the face, hard. 'To your room and you'll not come out until tomorrow morning,' he ordered me.
“After that, things got worse, not better. He kicked me several times, I got the open hand in the face more than that first time and shaking became routine. He never did it in front of Mother and when I tried to talk to her about it she said, 'Derrick, I have given up my happiness time and time again for you. I am now happily married and you'll not mess it up. You'll just have to be more disciplined. It'll not hurt you. You either do that or you'll have to find another place to live. I will not have you come between the Major and me.'”
“Things finally came to a head the first week in February. My friend, Andre and I were at home — teacher workday — and Mom and that man were gone. He came in without our knowing it. Kinda stupid of us, I guess, but we were in my room with the door ajar. When he walked by he didn't like what he saw. He told Andre to leave and not come back, then he gave me a good beating and tossed me out. I called Andre to tell him what happened after he left and to see about staying with him. His mother answered the phone and when I told her who I was, she said Andre didn't want to talk to me and I certainly was not welcome in their house. I have no idea what Andre had told her or maybe the Major had called her. I don't know.”
“I went to Sherlean's house. She was a girl I knew from school who was a friend and her parents said I could spend the night. I called Mom and she said, 'There is nothing I can do or will do. You know you can't come back here. And that's my decision as well as the Major's.'”
“The next day Mother came by with my clothes and told me I was on my own. 'I have tried to tell you the Major is just being a stern father and you needed that, but apparently you see it another way. You're eighteen soon, old enough to choose to live at home under the house rules or make it on your own. The choice was yours, but you blew it. Neither of us want you back in our house.'”
“When I tried to tell her, again, how the Major had abused me, she would not listen, saying that one day I would appreciate what the Major had tried to do for me. 'Here's fifty dollars, Derrick, that'll help get you to your Grandmother Murphy's if you can't find a place here. I'm sure she'll take you in regardless of what your are or have done. After all, you're all she had left of a family. Good luck,' Mother said, turned and walked off.”
“I couldn't stay with my friend any longer so the next morning I made it to downtown, found the Greyhound station and headed for College Park, leaving Baltimore behind. End of my sad story.”
“And I certainly hope the beginning of a happy one,” Queen Joyce said.
We talked awhile longer then left. When we were in the car, Derrick asked, “Did I hear right? Did I hear Joe call his lover he?”
Keith laughed and said, “Yeah, you did. Joe and Trey are such good friends, I guess Tom and I just forget they are anything other than just two normal lovers. Yeah, they're gay.”
We drove to the park, got out and started swinging in the kiddie swings while we told Derrick about Joe and Trey. “And they allow him on the police force?” he asked.
“Better believe it,” Keith said. “In fact, they gave him a bonus to keep him here. Little town of Thomasville tried to hire him as chief, but he's not leaving his house and all. And you'll love Trey. He's even a better comic than Queen Joyce.
Later, after we had taken Derrick home, Keith asked if I had seen Derrick's reaction when Queen announced that Joe had a male lover? “What do you think?” he asked.
“I did notice and I'm not sure what to think. I am sure he wasn't upset, well, you know, disgusted or horrified. Beyond that? Who knows. Could be he reacted exactly the same way you would, you know, with a 'so what' attitude.”
“Hadn't thought about that. Yeah, I guess that would be my reaction—I mean my reaction would be no reaction.”
March's weather continued to be perfect. Some March wind of course and a couple rainy days, but by our second ball game, spring had definitely sprung. The following Tuesday Keith had a dental appointment and left school at lunch. He had managed to get his truck street worthy—barely—and the emissions tested so he drove it. We were alternating driving and Derrick had offered to help pay for gas, but we told him we had it easy and he was struggling, our families had plenty and his grandmother did not, so he was not to pay anything. Besides, he was working like a Trojan on the truck.
It had started raining Sunday night and rained Monday morning, then turned very sunny and the wind was blowing pretty hard when we left school. Tuesday dawned the perfect day. After school, I called Dad and told him Derrick and I were going to the river. Derrick called his grandmother and told her.
When we reached our spot on the river, I started stripping without thinking. Keith and I often did that, but we had never done it when Derrick was with us. I dropped my pants, bent to pick them up and when I looked up, Derrick had an amazed look on his face. I felt myself blush and stammered, “I hope you don't mind. Keith and I get rid of the clothes anytime the weather is right. I just forgot. Join me or I'll redress. Our mothers said we had started getting rid of clothes as soon as we could walk.”
“No problem,” Derrick said, “well, I may pop a boner.”
“Know what you mean. A bit of a warm breeze on Mr. Tomas and he's up, waving in the wind.”
Of course, I had seen Derrick nude before — after all we were on the baseball team and had PE together — so there were no surprises when he stripped. Well, except I was always surprised at how beautiful his body was.
Again, I lay on the blanket in dappled shade and when Derrick asked why I didn't get in the sun since it felt so good, I explained that us white boys were delicate.
“Maybe so far as the sun is concerned,” he said, “but nothing delicate about you that I can see.”
We were both quiet, relaxed , listening to the river for a good spell, the Derrick said, “Tom, tell me about Joe and Trey. How'd they get together? How'd you get to know them? Are they really a couple?
I told Derrick the story of the two and how they had made a real life for themselves after being put out on the street. “Kinda like you were, but they didn't have anyone to take them in. Of course they did have Queen Joyce pulling for them.”
That meant, of course I had to tell him all about Queen Joyce. When I finished, Derrick said, “Queen Joyce seemed to adore Joe and I have never seen anyone as happy as he was when she told him Trey was planning a long weekend for them. Does he not live with Joe?”
I told him about Trey's job and how sometimes he's close enough to be home at night and at other times, he stays in a motel if the drive home is too long.
We were both silent for several minutes, then Derrick said, “You and Keith have been best friends always?”
I didn't answer right away. If I said “Yes,” that would be the end of it and not really a lie. If I said “No,” how was I going to explain years without ever having a falling out and then a major one. After several minutes I said, “Since birth practically. We are really like brothers, closer, I guess than some — most--brothers.” Having said that, I said no more.
“I have never had a friend like that. I've always had friends, don't get me wrong, but I have never had a friend who was there for me regardless of what came down the road.”
“Keith and I were always right there for each other. Well, we did have a disagreement just over a year ago. I misread him and caused a real problem, but we got it straightened out, obviously.”
“And LaTasha didn't come between you?”
“Maybe a little. Maybe I was a little jealous of her, but, well, she was so special and Keith loved her so much I couldn't stay jealous. How about Andre? Wasn't he an extra special friend?”
“I thought so and that was a big mistake. As soon as the Major landed on us, he was out the door and gone. I thought his family would take me in, but when I called him his mom told me to stay away and not call again. That's why I ended up spending that one night with Sherlean. I might have stayed there at least until the end of the school year, but Andre called her and took care of that. All he was doing was covering his ass.”
I waited for Derrick to say more, but he was silent.