During the summer, I had managed to get in the habit of waking up at the same time as my grandparents, but before I went to bed I had set my alarm clock. I was pretty sure that I wouldn't just "wake up" on school days. When my alarm clock went off, I wanted to pick it up and toss it across the room. "Only 179 more days of hearing that," I thought as I turned it off, climbed out of bed and headed down the hall to the bathroom.
One thing I really liked about living with my grandparents was having my own private space. I had the upstairs to myself. When I was old enough to notice such things, I was surprised to realize that while Dad was an only child, the upstairs had been finished and had three rooms and a bath. Since there were two bedrooms besides the master bedroom downstairs--one had been my dad's and the other was a guest room--I wondered why the upstairs had been finished.
When I asked Dad, he said it had been finished after he left home. A neighbor was laid off from his job when a cutback came and was in very bad shape financially. "Your granddad is a mountain man himself and knows the mountain attitude toward handouts. He knew the neighbor wouldn't accept money, but he would work for it. 'Cost me more to help him out than if I just handed him a check,' your granddad had said, 'but you have to respect a man's pride.' So, after Mom and Dad were the only two at home, they got an additional three rooms and bath."Well, they really didn't need it, but I liked having a bedroom and I especially like having my own bath.
I had thought about using one room for my computer and study desk but, when I gave it more thought, I took the largest room and put everything in it. Stuff from the den in Durham was in a second large room, but I was seldom in it. The room I chose for mine had twin beds which were moved into the third room, the smallest of the three, and I had the queen-size bed from Durham.
Grandmom had the movers bring the furniture upstairs and put it where I wanted it and when it was in place, she said, "You know we brought the draperies from the den in Durham. Of course, the windows up here are smaller, so I'll have to remake them one of these days, but there's no rush." I don't know how quickly she would have had the draperies altered if there had been a rush, but they were up a few days later when I came in from working with Granddad.
So I had a great space of my own--a bedroom, a den and a bath.
I plodded to the bathroom and after I had taken care of the demands of nature, I brushed my teeth, showered and decided to shave even though I really didn't need to. Back in my room, I got dressed and went downstairs. Granddad was sitting at the kitchen table, reading the paper and drinking coffee.
He looked up when I walked in and said, "Douglas, you won't need the tie or blazer at Coldsprings. I guess all of your school clothes are like those, right?"
"Sure. We had uniforms at St. Stephen's--gray slacks, white shirt, blue and red tie and blue blazer. I thought they would be ok for Coldsprings. I took the St. Stephen's shield off the blazer pocket."
"Coldsprings is not St. Stephen's. Coldsprings kids don't wear blazers and they don't wear ties."
I dashed back upstairs, took off the blazer and tie and put them in my closet, but the button-down shirt and slacks would have to do. I had little else good enough for school. When I came back downstairs, Granddad said, "Let's have breakfast."
After breakfast I said, "School's only half-day today. Ok if I drive my Jeep? I need to go into Clarksville to see Mrs. Roberston and the Y swim coach."
"Douglas, you can drive every day if you choose. It's up to you," Granddad said.
"There'll be no lunch at school today, so I packed you one," Grandmom said as she handed me a very large bag."This feels like enough for two or three," I said.
"I thought you might need more before you got back since you're going on to Clarksville," Grandmom said.
"Thanks. Well, I'm off," I said as I kissed my grandmom on the cheek.
Granddad stood, put his arm on my shoulder and said, "Be careful."
I drove into the school parking lot and saw students all over the place, gathered in small groups, talking and laughing. Suddenly I felt very alone. I got out of the Jeep and started walking toward the entrance. As I approached, a group of guys standing near the front door started whistling. I wondered what was going on and then one who looked practically old enough to be a parent, said in a very loud voice, "Well, look what we have here, a fancy pants. Hey, Fancy Pants, where you think you are? Some uppity private school? Man, you are one more sissy. You wear lace panties, Sissy?" the knothead said, trying, no doubt, to sound like a tough street punk.
I could feel my face getting red. I guess I should have expected a bit of kidding--the new boy always gets it--but the tone of voice the guy used made it clear this wasn't innocent kidding. But even realizing it was more than just teasing the new boy, I did not and could not realize how serious the hazing would become and how miserable he and his crowd was going to make my life. This time they just kept talking and I just kept walking as the other jerks took up their leader's taunting.
There were signs posted all over the school telling students where to report for homeroom. I was to report to Ms. Cleon's room, Room 121. I finally puzzled out the numbering system and got to Room 121. As I walked in, a lady with Ms. Cleon on her name tag said, "Good morning, I am Ms. Cleon."
"Glad to meet you, Ms. Cleon, I am Douglas McElrath, a new student."
"Welcome to Coldsprings, Douglas, and to Homeroom 11-3. The eleven means a junior homeroom and the three means this one, the one in room 121", she said. "Just don't ask me how students are assigned to homerooms or why this is junior homeroom 3 because it is a complete mystery to me too," she laughed.
"I bet he don't feel too welcome," a girl sitting about half way back said. "Jerry Arington has already started a bunch of stupid nonsense."
"Then I guess it is up to those of you who have some manners to make Douglas feel welcome," Ms. Cleon said.
A good-looking girl said in a very sultry voice, "Come sit by me, Douglas. I'll make you feel welcome."
"I saw him first, Jennifer! Come sit by me, Douglas. I'm Kathy.
"Girls, I doubt that Douglas likes being fought over," Ms. Cleon said, with a smile.
I could feel my face burning and knew I was blushing, but decided not to let it get away with me, "Oh, I'm not sure about that, especially if they are as good looking as. . .sorry, I don't know your name," I said to the girl I was standing beside and who had not spoken.
"Alexandria, but you can call me Alex."
"Or you can call her Xander, doesn't matter. She'll come," the girl behind her said.
"My, my. Something wrong with your Meow Mix this morning, Anita, or has your mom changed to a cat food you don't like?" Kathy purred.
"Douglas, I suggest you avoid the cat litter box and come back here with us nice girls," a girl sitting near the back of the room said.
"Janie, what makes you think he is interested in a nice girl?" a girl near the front said. With all this going on, I failed to notice there were only girls in the room. It was now obvious there were two groups of girls taking pot shots at each other.
During the last exchange, a group of boys came in, the loudmouth from the front entrance and some of his henchmen. Loudmouth said, "What makes you think Mr. Sissy Fancy Pants is interested in girls at all? Are you interested in girls, Sissy, or are you more interested in a hot man like me?" Jerry asked as he wiggled his butt.
I knew my face was bright red and I didn't know how to cope with this kind of raw put-down.
"Jerry, that is more than enough. You know that kind of talk is not allowed in my room. I would like to get through the first homeroom of the year without having to deal with you and your mouth," Ms. Cleon said in a very cold voice.
She then passed out folders with all sorts of stuff inside--bus route sheets, forms for school activity insurance, forms for free or reduced-price lunches, all sorts of things. Some had to be signed by a parent or guardian, some had to be filled out during the homeroom and some, she said, were for our information and "Please deposit those in the wastebasket as you leave and not on the floor as I know you will discard them as soon as you can."
I was busy filling out a form when I heard Ms. Cleon say, "Good morning, welcome to Homeroom 11-3."
"Hank Dennison at your service, ma'am. At your service."
"Well, Mr. Hank Dennison, good to see you again," Ms. Cleon laughed.
I looked up to see a very blond guy, bowing to Ms. Cleon. He was looking all around the room. There were plenty of empty desks, so I thought he was looking for someone or to see who was present. After his glance had swept the room, he headed directly toward me. When he reached my desk, he looked at me, smiled, and slid into the desk beside mine. As I said, he was very blond, as blond I was dark and had the bluest eyes. As soon as he was in his desk, he extended his hand and said, "Hi, I'm Hank."
I took his hand and just sat there looking into his blue, blue eyes until he smiled and said, "You do have a name don't you?"
While I was stammering, Jerry said, "Yeah, he's Sissy."
With a huge smile, Hank shook my hand and said, "I'm very pleased to meet you, Mr. Sissy, but don't you think we should be on a first name basis?"
"Yeah, Hank. I'm Douglas, Douglas Sissy," I smiled and the whole classroom roared except for Jerry and his fellow knotheads.
"Hank, Douglas is new student and I hope you will make him feel welcome at Coldsprings without getting him into too much trouble. Now," Ms. Cleon said, "if you will take out your schedules, we will check them. Make sure you are in the right classes because schedule changes will be made only if you are improperly placed."
"What if we have a teacher we don't like," Jerry demanded.
"No doubt in your case the feeling would be mutual and the teacher would welcome a change, but you both will just have to deal with the schedule as is."
Hank put his schedule on the desk beside mine and as he looked them over said, "Damn, you must be smart." I looked at his schedule and saw that he was in AP lit/comp and AP chem, but the rest of his classes were regular ones. "We'll be in the same classes first and fifth period and I see you are excused from seventh," he said.
"Yeah, I'm probably taking piano two days a week and hope to be swimming on the Y team so I'll swim three days. See you are also free."
"Yeah, I'll be joining you at the Y. I swam for the team last year. I usually try to help at the store the other two days. My dad owns the music store in town."
As we were talking, I heard a deep, resonant voice say, "Sorry I'm late. I got lost. I'm Jason Talltree."
When I looked up I felt my heart skip a beat, my face turned red and I gulped. It was the guy from the park!
As he spoke, the bell announcing first period rang. "Jason, if you'll remain behind, I'll help you get straightened away," Ms. Cleon said.
As I started walking out of the room, I passed Jason, who looked at me and quickly looked down. I wondered if he had any classes with me. I sure hoped so, but at least he did have a name now. The guy from the park, the mountain spirit, was Jason.
Hank and I had AP lit/comp first period with Mr. Greene. As soon as class started, I learned I was behind. Students had been assigned three novels as summer reading: "Catcher in the Rye", "The Scarlet Letter" and "The Wizard of Earthsea". Fortunately, I had read one of the three, LeGuin's "The Wizard of Earthsea". I was surprised that it was on the reading list, but delighted as well. I LOVED that book.
Mr. Greene asked who had completed their reading and had their journals with them. About half had. He then asked who had read LeGuin. Most had, so he said, "We'll start with it. The rest of you better get to reading if you expect to pass."
We had just started talking about the book when Jason walked into the room and handed Mr. Greene his schedule. "Jason, just find a place to sit. I figure if students can handle a college level course, they can handle finding a place to sit."
Jason looked around and took a seat on my right. Hank was sitting to my left. As Jason sat down, he smiled at Hank, then me.
"Jason," Mr. Greene said, "We are talking about "The Wizard of Earthsea". I know you are new and didn't get the reading list, but have you by any chance read it?"
"At least a dozen times, Mr. er..."
"Sorry, Greene, Jason. I'm Mr. Greene. Would you like to tell us how you came to read it so many times?"
Jason looked down, like he regretted speaking up. "Well, I spent some time in foster care when I was ten, eleven, and my foster mother read us foster kids a chapter a night and I just loved it. I saved my little allowance until I could buy a used copy which I still have and still read. I know Ged is only twelve or so, but I think he's really older--now I mean. It's like he is always my age when I'm reading. For some reason or other, I find the conflict in his life helps me think about my own life. I really identify with Ged." Jason spoke in a very tentative voice as if he was waiting for someone to pounce on him. I don't know why he was so hesitant because I felt exactly the same way about the novel.
Several other students spoke about how they reacted to the book and just before the class ended, Mr. Greene said, "Start work on your first paper tonight. It is to be a persuasive paper, not more than two pages long. Your objective is to convince the English department to make 'The Wizard Of Earthsea' required reading. And get to work completing the reading on your list. Jason and Douglas, here are the three novels. Maybe you can get caught up quickly. And welcome to Coldsprings."
"Thank you," we both said.
As we were walking out the door, Hank asked, "Where to next, Jason? Boy genius here is off to AP calculus."
"Hardly that smart," he smiled. "I have algebra, room 230 with Mr. Valentine."
"Lucky us, I'm in that class and Mr. Valentine is a great teacher. So you're doing AP math too?"
"Yeah, but certainly not calculus," Jason said.
"Old Douglas here is not only in AP calculus, but has Mrs. Fox as well. She is a real hard-ass. Likes to keep students guessing. Just watch her, Douglas, and don't let her put anything over on you."
The two started down the hall and, as I started walking with them, Hank said, "Whoa, hold up. Douglas, you go in the other direction."
Since school was on a half-day schedule for opening day, periods were very short. Fortunately, the time between classes wasn't shortened or I would never have made it to a class. Even with a map, I was usually lost.
After calc, Jason and Hank showed up outside my door. "You and Jason are together next period and I am just down the hall, so follow me. No-one dropped bread crumbs to guide you newcomers to classes," Hank laughed.
It didn't take me long to realize that the AP American history teacher was going to be boring. I enjoy learning, but it was clear Mr. Sawyer wasn't interested in his subject and was lecturing from notes yellow with age.
After class, Hank came bounding down the hall and said, "I'm off to Spanish and you guys are headed to where?"
"Third year French," I answered.
"Honors again, I see. Jason where are you this period?"
"First year Spanish. I haven't had any foreign language."
"I'm in second year Spanish. After our language classes will be lunch, but since we are on a half day schedule, there's no lunch today. We're all in the same area next period, so I'll get up with you there."
When we got together after our language classes, we found out Jason was in advanced computer applications with Hank and me. "You'll love it," Hank said. "Ms. Wheeler is a great teacher and you'll get to do all sorts of cool stuff. Actually anything you can come up with. I'm running to the restroom, but just go down this hall, take the first right and walk to the end of the hall to the computer lab. See you there."
Hank disappeared down the hall and as Jason and I reached the computer lab, Jerry was coming out. "Sissy Fancy Pants in computer class? What you be doin' Sissy?" He stopped cold and turned and walked away. It only occurred to me later that he stopped what he started to say when he saw Jason.
Ms. Wheeler was excited about her class and it definitely made a difference. "You will be introduced to a number of programs, major programs, as quickly as possible. And I do mean introduced. As soon as everyone has been exposed to the programs we will be using, you are to select one and get to know it backwards and forwards. Then you will develop a project using the program you have chosen. You can do a set of books using bookkeeping software, you can do a presentation using presentation software, whatever you are interested in doing, you may do. BUT your final project must be top notch since 75% of your final grade will be for your project. All our lab work will be in pairs or teams of three and you may do your project with a your partner or team if you like." She then made a list of the available programs and started by introducing some image editing software. Needless to say, Jason, Hank and I immediately teamed up.
When class was over, I asked Hank how to find the chem lab and Jason asked about the AP biology one. "I'm in between your two classes again," he said, "in regular chem."
"Hank and I are finished for the day after next period. What do you have sixth?" I asked Jason.
"I'm finished as well. I have permission to leave to go to work--provided I can find a job. I really need one to help out at home, but I have a real problem since I don't have transportation."
"Hank and I are going into town after next period. Want to join us? Maybe we can help you out."
"Sure, I guess."
"Meet us in the parking lot."
The bell rang ending sixth period at 12:30. As I walked out of the classroom, I met Hank who said, "Man, I feel really sorry for those who still have a period to go. They won't get out until 1:10 and I am starved already. MickeyD's here I come."
"You don't have a lunch?"
"Nope. Thought I'd grab something at MickeyD's."
"I have enough for an army and would be delighted to share."
"Sounds good to me. Here comes Jason. Jason, over here," Hank shouted.
Hank reminded me of a cocker spaniel pup--full of energy, dashing ahead without thinking, happy. I laughed and said, "Think I'll have to call you pup, Hank. You are a lot like a Cocker pup, bouncing around. You even look like one with all that blond curly hair."
"Yeah, well watch it or I'm jump up on you and then pee on your leg. Get a move on, Jason, we're going to help Douglas dispose of his lunch. He says he has enough for all of us and I know just the place for eating it. Move along, I'm hungry."
When Jason caught up with us, he smiled and asked, "Don't you think Douglas might have something to say about the disposal of his lunch?" Man, that kid has a smile that would melt an iceberg. The corners of his mouth turn up just a little bit and his eyes sparkle.
"Nah, he's a push over."
As we got in the Jeep, I noticed Jerry and his half-wit buddies coming toward the parking lot from the stadium.When Hank saw them, he said, "You can bet your last dollar that bunch have been down in the woods behind the stadium smoking--maybe something as innocent as tobacco. That jerk and his asshole buddies are trouble waiting to happen. I wouldn't put anything past them."
I didn't say anything about my encounters with them. It was only the first day of school and I suspected they would move on to something else and leave me alone shortly.
As soon as we were settled in the Jeep, Hank asked, "Where do you guys live?"
"I live with my grandparents in Deep Cove," I answered.
"Who are your grandparents?"
"He's Douglas McElrath. That give you a hint?" Jason asked.
McElraths. In Deep Cove."
"Yeah, you know them?" I asked.
"Sure do. Next door neighbors. Our place is just beyond yours. Our house is on the opposite side of the road about a mile after your place. How about you, Jason?"
I noticed Jason seemed reluctant to answer, but finally said, "I live in the cove too. With my grandmother. About three quarters of a mile before Douglas' place."
"Hey, that's great. We are neighbors. Have to get together some time."
"Like now?" I asked.
"Yeah," Hank replied and, as we would discover, in his usual manner of carrying on a conversation changed the subject or picked up on something most people would have forgotten. "You said you needed a job, Jason?"
"I sure do, but I have no way to get to one except walk. I don't even have a bicycle."
"Won't be much help if you did," Hank answered. "There's nothing to do in Coldsprings and it's four miles from the cove. Douglas, you'll be driving into town every day, won't you?"
"We'll have to find you a job in Clarksville then. One problem solved," Hank said. And to Hank's mind, that was true. Problems were solved by agreeing that they were solved and moving on to something else.
I guess I need to explain something about the area in which we all lived. Deep Cove, where Jason, Hank and I live, is about four miles north of Coldsprings where the high school is located. Coldsprings itself was little more than a crossroads until a few years ago. In fact, a feed and seed store was all there was to it. Well, that and half a dozen or so houses.
Several years ago, the school board recognized the need for a new high school. In fact, they had had little choice since the old one in Clarksville was too small, too run-down and too expensive to keep up. The decision was made to raze it and build a new school in Coldsprings, I suspect, because Coldsprings is near the center of the county.
Soon after the new high school was built in Coldsprings, a dentist and doctor opened offices in the village. Later a branch bank and a country store opened.
When we talk about going to town--as we were--we mean Clarksville which is about ten miles east of Coldsprings. It's a small town of about ten or eleven thousand people and many of the people who work in Clarksville live in the surrounding area as does Hank's family . They drive through Coldsprings to get to the music store they own in Clarkesville. Confusing enough? There's more.
We also talk about going to town when we mean Asheville which is about twenty-five miles from Coldsprings. You have to listen to what's being said to know what we mean when we say we're going to town.So we were driving to town--Clarksville--after school when Hank decided we would eat my lunch and then take Jason to town to look for a job. "I don't know that Douglas likes you volunteering him--or his lunch," Jason said with a faint smile. "I haven't heard from him yet."
"Sure he does. We're the three musketeers--one for all and all for one. We've got to stick together. Friends for ever."
"Hope you mean that, Hank. You may change your mind later," Jason said. I wondered what he meant, but didn't feel comfortable asking him.
"Hey, I almost let it slip up on us. Take the next right," Hank said.I turned down a narrow gravel road which ran along a pasture fence. In the distance I could see a line of trees and, further on, a mountain. About half a mile after I turned off the highway, I approached the trees and saw they were lining a river bank. "Turn left and follow the river," Hank said.The road became nothing more than a barely visible path through the grass. There was barely room for the Jeep between the fence and the river. The path ended at a pasture gate. The fence went down to the river giving the cattle access to the river. "We're here," Hank said as he grabbed the lunch before the Jeep stopped.
We all climbed out and followed Hank. "There's a place we can cross the river right here."
I could see where the river widened and was shallow enough to wade across, but I knew we'd get wet."Hank, maybe you don't mind going into town soaked, but I have to see a music teacher. I know we can probably wade across here, but I'm sure I'll get my pants wet."
"Not if you are carrying them," he said and as if to make the point, started taking off his shoes and pants.
As I followed Hank's example, I saw Jason was not moving. "Jason, are you with us?" I asked.
"Yeah," Hank said, "Off with the shoes and pants."
"I...I...I'm... well, I'm not dressed for polite company," he finally got out."
Ah ha! Now you know why yo' mama told you to put on clean underwear. It was not because you might have an accident, but because you would be caught with dirty underwear when your friends decide to strip," Hank laughed as he pointed to Jason.
I wouldn't have thought someone as dark as Jason could blush, but he did.
"Hank, I'll not be caught with dirty underwear, but bare-assed."
"You got nothing we don't have and, anyway, I'm not into guys. Off with the pants, I'm ready to collapse from hunger," Hank urged as he clutched his pants to his chest with one hand, held the lunch bag with the other and headed for the river. "Leave your shoes and socks here, you won't need them," he said as he stepped into the river.
Jason took off his shoes and socks and placed them beside mine and Hanks. He then removed his pants and, sure enough, he was bare-assed. I tried not to look, but had to take a glance and a glance was enough to let me know he was well endowed. Hank, who had reached the other side, yelled, "Get your bare-ass and needle dick over here, Jason. I'm famished!" I guess he hadn't looked.
The bank on the other side of the river was grassy and as soon as Jason and I reached it, we put our pants back on. Hank had dressed already. We sat down and Hank opened my lunch. "I see three sandwiches, two apples, some chips and what looks like, and are, fried apple pies. Man, your granny must think you eat like a horse. There's even a water bottle in here which still has ice in it," Hank said as he tore the lunch bag open and put the food out on it. "Well, help yourselves, Men."
Jason was just shaking his head, laughing. Before we started eating, Hank opened the water bottle and asked, "You don't have some kind of deadly disease you picked up from some loose woman do you, Douglas?"
"Not possible. I am as pure as the driven snow," I laughed in reply, whereupon, Hank took a slug of water and passed the bottle to Jason. We ate the lunch and while I suspect we all could have eaten more, we really had plenty. When we had finished the lunch and gathered up the trash, we lay back on the grass, hands behind our heads.
"All right, if I am to be the leader of this band of scholars and vagabonds, I need to know the facts. Just how did you get sent to spy on Coldsprings High School, Douglas?"
Before I could say anything, huge tears welled up in my eyes and I sat up to keep them from running into my ears. As soon as I sat up, Jason got up, moved to my side and put his arm around me. Hank started getting teary eyed as he, too, moved to my side and said, "Damn, Douglas, I didn't mean to hurt you. Man, I'm sorry. Damn, I'm sorry."
Jason's arm around me was so comforting--Hank's too--that I was soon able to get control of myself and when I did, I said, "No need to apologize, Hank. You couldn't know." I then told the two what had happened to my family.
"Shit, Man, I don't know how you'd keep going. I think I'd just curl up into a ball if something like that happened to my family. I'm sorry--both for what happened to your family and for making you think about it."
"That's ok. I think being able to talk about it helps. You don't get over it in a hurry and you really need to face it. I can usually handle remembering, but sometimes when I feel safe, I bawl."
"I'm glad you feel safe with us," Jason said softly and when I looked into his eyes, I saw real concern there and a surprising tenderness.
"Damn square," Hank said, then fell silent.
Jason was looking down at the ground, obviously struggling with himself. Finally he said, "I'm afraid as soon as you know about me, you'll want to put a lot of distance between us, but it's not fair to you for me to hide. I live with my grandma up in the cove. She lives in a shack half-way up the side of the mountain. It belongs to old man Richfield. It is the old mountain cabin where she and my grandpa lived when they worked for Richfield for years. When my grandpa died ten years ago, Richfield was going to throw her out, but she reminded him he had never paid social security on grandpa and could be jailed for that. He agreed to let her keep living there, but that's all. There have been no repairs on the house. Of course, it has no running water and only a fireplace for heat. Well, there is an old wood stove for cooking which she says she uses for heat as well. She's is too old to go out and cut wood so she says she seldom has enough for more than one day. You could throw a cat through the cracks in the wall so I can just imagine what it'll like this winter. I dread the thoughts of cold weather coming."
"There's only one room and a half loft where I sleep. The place is hardly fit for a dog, but it's all she has and all I have is her. She gets a little welfare check which barely keeps us in food and then only if I get it before she spends it on white liquor. She's an alcoholic, but I can hardly blame her. Our situation is the reason I really need a job. It's the reason I am bare-assed--not because I like it or think it's sexy or anything, but underwear is something I can do without."
I remember noticing Jason's clothing when I first saw him in the park. What he was wearing wasn't as small or as worn as those had been, but his clothes were, nonetheless, too small and well-worn, but clean.
"Where are your parents?" Hank asked.
Jason kept looking down at the ground and when he spoke, I could barely hear him. "You heard me say I was in foster care for a while? Well, both my old lady and old man got picked up for pot and, because they gave the police some trouble, spent some time in jail. I was in foster care for a couple years when I was ten-eleven. After that, one or the other of them were usually in jail or something and I was pretty much on my own. Well, I did at least have a bed to go to."
"Then last year my old man knifed a fellow in a drunken brawl. He's serving ten to twenty years in Central Prison in Raleigh for manslaughter. Because of him, I missed most of school last year. Even though I took hard courses, I missed so many days I'm repeating my junior year."
"My old lady is a lot like her mother, my grandma. She'll drink anything she can get her hands on. After my old man was gone and money was even shorter, she discovered she had something to trade for alcohol so she spent a lot of time on her back. Three, four months after my old man got sent to Raleigh she brought another drunk home. He swung both ways so I had to swing at him. They put me on the street and when I went back to try to get the few things I had, they had gone. I was in Wilmington with no place to stay and after a couple months on the streets, hitchhiked to here. So you have just had lunch with the son of a jailbird and a whore who now lives with an old drunk. Fine company you two keep."
Jason never looked up while he was talking and when he did, he had to see the tears in my eyes and in Hank's. "Jason, this is hard to say, but I think there are things worse than having your family killed," I said and wrapped an arm around him.
Hank was silent for the longest time and then said, "I want both of you to know that I think you are real men. I don't think I could handle either situation and I promise to try to remember what you have been through and are going through the next time I get pissed at my parents. But, Jason, you sure don't sound like a street punk, if I may say so," Hank said, sounding puzzled."
"Thanks, and I mean that," Jason said. "I've always had a teacher--sometimes two--who was interested in me and who insisted that I not talk street talk. They made sure I understood what was tough on the street would get you nowhere once you got off the street and they knew I wanted off."
"Now we know your situation, you two. Mine? I am the middle kid in a three-kid family--I have a brother in college and a sister in middle school. We live in the same house in Deep Cove where I have always lived. We are upper middle class so far as money is concerned and I have everything I need and most of what I want--I am, to be blunt--a spoiled brat, but I intend to change to be worthy of hanging around with you two. So, how can I help?" Hank asked, looking at Jason and then me.
"Just be our friend," Jason said.
"Yeah, just be our friend."
Hank was silent again for a long time and then said, "You know something? I thought I had friends before, but the slightest thing and we were mad at each other. But somehow, what you two have told me, trusted me with, makes me think there're more to friendship than I have known before. Yeah, and I like it--I mean being friends, not what you two have been through."
I thought Hank had to be pretty shallow to decide we were life-long buddies after having known us for less than a day, but the time ahead proved he absolutely meant what he said. He made decisions the way he solved problems. He just decided and that was it.
We sat silent for a long time, lying back on the grass, hands behind our heads, watching the play of sun and clouds through the trees. I think we were getting ourselves together and allowing what we had revealed to each other to find a place inside. I know that was what was going on with me. Almost at the same time, we turned over on our stomachs, heads to the center, our bodies like three spokes on a wheel.
"Yeah, being friends--one for all and all for one--I like it too," Jason said and I nodded.
After that we just talked about nothing in particular for half an hour until I finally said, "Well, I have an appointment with a piano teacher." I was really enjoying my time with Hank and Jason and really didn't want to get on with seeing Mrs. Roberts or the Y swim coach, but the time had come. The three of us picked up our trash, walked back to the Jeep and went on into Clarksville.