Castle Roland

Mountain Magic

by Sequoyah


Chapter 18

Posted: N/A

When we got downstairs, Grandmom and Granddad were seated at the kitchen table. "Have a seat, fellows," Granddad said. "Wesley, I have told Mrs. McElrath the highlights of your situation. Neither of us want to be vindictive or nasty, but we do want you to understand how we feel about you and your family's treatment of our son and his family and especially your treatment of Douglas after his entire family was killed."

I glanced at Wesley and saw him turn white--fearing, I'm sure, rejection. I didn't blame him. As a matter of fact, I wasn't sure myself that wasn't what was coming. I mean he was guilty as charged and should have to face the fact that I had lost my entire family and his only concern had been about who got buried where.

Suddenly I felt a wave of hot anger flood over me, surprising me since I thought I had dealt with that. When I glanced at Jason I could tell from his narrowed eyes and the icy stare he was directing at Wesley that he, too, was very angry.

Wesley, of course, didn't know Granddad and couldn't know that Granddad wasn't really angry, just saddened, hurt, by how I had been treated. If he had really been angry, everyone in the room would have known it from his reaction...

I had seen Granddad really angry only once, but that was enough. When I was ten or eleven, the family had driven up from Durham to spend Labor Day weekend with my grandparents. Granddad was driving to the feed store for some feed and asked if I'd like to ride along. I hopped into the truck as my answer.

On our way we happened upon a farmer and his wagon. The old horse hitched to the wagon was so poor his ribs were sticking out. I don't know what the pitiful creature had done, but the farmer had left the wagon and was beating the horse with a bull whip. Granddad slammed on the brakes, stopped the truck and was out of it in a flash.

He grabbed the whip from the farmer and raised it, ready to whip the farmer before I knew what had happened. When the farmer threw up his arm to fend off the blow, Granddad slowly lowered the whip.

Still trembling from anger, Granddad spoke through clinched teeth. "Henry, you better be glad I got control of my temper before I gave you a horsewhipping. I'm not sure but that I might not still do it. There's nothing your poor old horse could have done to deserve the whipping you were giving him. From the looks of his back, this is not the first time. You unhitch him, take him down to that branch," Granddad pointed to the small stream near the road, "and let him drink. When he finishes, you let him graze along the branch. There's some good grass there."

"I'll be back in an hour or so and you better still be here. When I get back, if you have let that poor horse eat and drink, you can go on into Coldsprings. On your way back, you stop by my barn and get some oats for your horse. I'll not see a dumb animal abused."

By the time he had finished, Granddad was pretty calm but when he got back in the truck, he said, "Henry Conner is a lazy good-for-nothing. He has a decent meadow but he's too stingy to let someone cut and bale the hay off of it. He's afraid they'll get a straw or two more than their share. He also has a good pasture but he's too lazy to keep the fence in repair, so he can't let his stock in it since they'll leave. I can't understand people like Henry who abuse their animals."

No, you didn't want to be the object of Gerald McElrath's anger...

When I snapped out of my daydream, I heard Granddad say, "Mrs. McElrath feels, as I do, that what your family has done to our son and his children over the years is inexcusable. And you, yourself, said you are not innocent in that regard. I know that to be true, as I recall how upset Douglas was when he realized that, with the exception of your father who showed some common decency, the entire Wilson clan dismissed him as unworthy of its concern and care when his family was killed. That would be hard, very hard, to forgive, but forgiveness hasn't been asked by your family so that's not a question."

"To be honest, Wesley, I find it hard to forgive you for the emotional pain you have caused my son and his family. But, unlike your family, you have asked not only for forgiveness but also for our care and concern. I suspect it sounds strange, but I find it much harder to turn down cries for help than I do pleas for forgiveness. Forgiveness is often needed and necessary, but it cannot alleviate past pain. Present pain can be addressed and, possibly, the sufferer given some comfort. In any case, after hearing what has been done -to you--and with both the approval and support of your family--I cannot turn down your request for help."

I looked up at Wesley when I heard him exhale, releasing the breath which he had obviously been holding for some time. Can't say I blamed him. I think I might have been doing the same.

I felt the anger in me recede as I exhaled, and saw the same was true of Jason.

Granddad continued, "That being said, I would be dishonest if I didn't say I do have a problem with your being gay. It is not an issue I have ever had to deal with, so a part of my problem is simply ignorance and confrontation with something new. Oh I knew there were gay men out there somewhere, but that's not like having one under your roof, someone you know personally--and especially someone you are expected to care for and protect."

I glanced at Jason, who had also heard Granddad's comment. We both knew we'd not be outting ourselves any time soon!

"But your being gay is not enough to make me turn away from helping you all I can. We'll both just have to work on that and I think we'll have both time and opportunity to do so. Unless you have questions for me..." Wesley shook his head no. "Then I guess that's about it for me," Granddad said and turned to Grandmom.

"Wesley, I am the mother of one man and the grandmother of another your family has hurt deeply over the years. And you, as Mr. McElrath has said, are certainly not innocent of inflicting your share of pain."

"I hope you can appreciate the fact that being a mother and grandmother puts me in a real bind. On the one hand, I feel like a mother bear who is called upon to protect her cubs, and even though my son is dead and no longer needs my protection, Douglas does. Since you have hurt him in the past, I feel the need to protect him from you now. I hope you understand that." Grandmom paused and looked at Wesley who nodded slowly. "On the other hand, I listened with utter horror to the account of what has been done to you in the name of religion and with the support of your parents."

"I am absolutely disgusted with your parents for not only allowing you to be treated in a grossly cruel and inhuman manner, but also for approving and paying for it. If they didn't know what went on in that so-called clinic, they should have. They were beyond negligent in not demanding to know all about the so-called treatment. They should have had a clear understanding of what went on there. If they did and knew what would be done to you they should be horsewhipped! In either case, knowing or not knowing, spending a month 'in treatment' at that crazy place would be too little punishment for them."

It was clear to me the scrappy, little mountain woman was ready to fight the whole St. Paul's bunch and dismantle the clinic with her bare hands, and there was no doubt in my mind that she could do it!

"So, in spite of what you and your family have done to mine in the past, I feel, as a mother, a need to protect you. Your being gay is no never mind to me so long as you know to keep it in your pants until you meet someone you intend to 'love, honor and cherish' the rest of your natural-born life. I expect you to behave yourself just as I would expect you to if you were straight--treating people with respect and not as sex objects. That includes hitting on... that is what it's called isn't it?" Grandmom looked at Wesley, her eyes leaving no doubt she knew exactly what she was saying and that she meant it, "...hitting on the young men in this house and their friends."

My grandparents still surprised me at times with how "up-to-date" they were. I guess because of the way mountain people, including my grandparents, sound when they speak, it's too easy to think they are so "backwoodsy" they are uninformed about the "real world". Then they surprise you, like Grandmom's acceptance of Wesley's being gay and knowing what "hitting on" someone meant. Way to go Grandmom!

"In another vein, as a mother, I do think that you should and you will let your family know you are safe." It was clear Grandmom was not presenting an option Wesley could take or leave. It was equally clear that Wesley was about to balk when Grandmom held up her hand, "No-one, Wesley, would ask that you reveal your whereabouts. I am as concerned as you are that your parents would come and haul you back to St. Paul's madhouse if they knew you were here. No, I am not demanding that you reveal your location, but that you let your parents know you are safe. How that is done, we'll decide later. After all, a couple days' or a week's worry probably won't do them a great deal of harm and may do some good."

"Any questions?" Granddad asked.

Wesley and Grandmom turned and looked at Jason and me.

"Only some about how we are going to get some things done, such as getting Wesley registered at school, getting him some clothes, that sort of thing," Jason said. "That's not going to be as simple as it was for Douglas and me."

"Well, we have almost two weeks before school starts again," Granddad said. "I guess you guys can haul Wesley into Asheville Monday and hit your fashion shops," he said with a grin.

Sunday, after church, Granddad asked us to take Grandmom with us as he had some business to talk over with Fr. Hanson. Grandmom suggested we go into Clarksville for Sunday dinner which we did. "Your granddad will join us unless he talks too long with Fr. Hanson--which he is prone to do."

Granddad didn't make it to Clarksville and when we got back to the farm, he was in the den. "Come on in," he said. "I have some news. I talked to Fr. Hanson about our situation here and he was able to give me some help and guidance. Wesley, he gave me a check from his discretionary fund to be used in getting you some clothes. He called Fr. Mason, a priest friend of his, and made arrangements for a telegram to be sent to your parents stating that you are safe and asking that they not try to contact you. It will be sent from Phoenix with no real return address."

"That makes me feel a lot better because, regardless of how mistaken your parents have been, they are your parents and need to know you are safe. We did agree to wait a few days before the telegram is sent, to give you time to get to Phoenix and, as Mrs. McElrath said, a little worry won't hurt your parents. Fr. Hanson also made arrangements for you to send letters to Fr. Mason to be sent to your parents with a Phoenix postmark if and when you wish to do so. No rush."

"As to the gay thing, he gave me a couple books to read. Shocked me when he said he had once been very anti-gay until he found himself having to accept a couple of gay young men or tell them what St. Paul's told you, 'God hates fags.' 'Gerald,' he said, 'I had preached and believed God hates no-one. When I started the "God hates sin but loves the sinner," bit to justify my position, I had to realize the only "sin" the two guys had committed was loving each other and I had to change my tune.'"

"Your grandmother--doggone it Wesley, I am so used to just referring to Jason and Douglas as grandsons, and ourselves as their grandparents, that I feel awkward here...."

"Mr. McElrath, I'd be honored to be a grandson," Wesley responded.

Granddad didn't pick up on that and said instead, "Well, anyway, Mrs. McElrath has no problem with your being gay and since I do, I will be sitting down with Fr. Hanson and working through my feelings about the situation--which I confess is very confused at the moment."

"If it helps any, I was pretty confused myself until I admitted who I was," Wesley said. "No reason anyone else shouldn't be."

"I guess I can understand that," Granddad said. "Anyway, Fr. Hanson also suggested we might all sit down with him after the holidays when we've had time to get to know each other better, and I told him we would."

Since there was no school until after New Year's, we had no homework to do. But I was going into Asheville to meet with Professor Jamison Monday, so I needed to practice. When I started, Wesley came into the living room and said, "Ah, the old grand. I wasted a lot of time sitting on that bench doing nothing."

"Then you didn't learn to play?" I asked.

"Not the piano. I did take up guitar and got pretty good with it. Actually, very good but, of course, guitar is not something you play for Mother's snooty friends. Mother and Father thought I should not waste my time and money on a guitar, but Mary Capers thought otherwise and gave me a beautiful Martin twelve-string for Christmas several years ago. My sister likes to stick it to Mother every chance she gets, and Mother was not only put out because Mary Capers had given me the guitar but also because of what it cost. I wanted to take it with me when I was shipped off to St. Paul's but it wasn't allowed. Good thing, because it would have been taken from me and, I suspect, never returned. Of course, I can't get it now."

"Grandma told me she had played the guitar and sang all her life," Jason said. "I loved to listen to her, but had never given any thought to playing or singing. But last summer I was working in the corn field and singing my heart out," Jason smiled at his recollection of a good time, "and Grandma was working in the garden further up the hill and heard me. When we went to the house for dinner, she said, 'Heard you singing down in the corn field this morning. You've got a good voice, Jason.'"

"I said, 'I don't know about that. But I do like to sing, especially when I'm working.'"

"'I always thought it made the work go easier, but then I like to sing when I'm not working as well,' Grandma said. That evening, after supper, Grandma took down her old, battered guitar and said, 'Let's sing some.' We sang several songs and Grandma began to talk about harmony and chords and those sorts of things. Before we went off to bed, I had had my first guitar lesson. All summer long, the two of us would sit on the cabin's porch after supper and play and sing. I was playing guitar pretty well by the time the cabin burned. Of course the guitar was burned in the fire."

"You never told me you played guitar," I chided Jason.

"Wouldn't have done any good since the guitar was gone."

"Hank plays fiddle and banjo, but I have seldom heard him since he pretty much plays for himself," I said, then returned to the problem at hand: Wesley's things.

"Back up a minute," I said. "I had no problem getting my things. Even got the piano. Jason didn't have anything to worry about since 'most everything he owned burned. Maybe you can go back and get your stuff. Maybe we can figure out a way to do that. Everybody needs their own stuff."

"You said you weren't eighteen," Jason said. "When is your birthday?"

Wesley laughed and said, "St. Elvis and St. Wesley Day, January eight. Why?"

"After you're eighteen, you're an adult in most ways, can't buy beer but otherwise you're an adult. You could go back home then and get your stuff. I don't think your parents could drag you off to St. Paul's."

"Maybe not, but they don't have to let me in either," Wesley said.

"I can't believe they would do that, do you?" Jason asked.

"Yes, I do. I don't think they would let me in or let me take my things. But then I really don't know because, to tell you the truth, I know very little about my parents. I know that sounds strange, but my life was a series of arranged events. And when I got old enough to do things on my own, I certainly didn't hang around my parents."

"I know something about that, " I said. "Dance lessons, music lessons, martial arts lessons...."

"You'll have to admit at least martial arts lessons served you well," Jason said. I held my breath for fear he would add, "and the dance lessons too." When he didn't, I gave a sigh of relief.

I guess it was Wesley telling the grandparents he was gay and all about it that made me hypersensitive to any remark that might out both Jason and me. The fact that we knew Granddad had a problem with Wesley being gay meant he would have an even larger one with Jason and me being gay. I guess I had gone drifting off to another planet thinking about that, and when I came back to earth, Jason was telling Wesley about the fight at school.

"Yeah, I sure was glad I had some martial arts training and I am glad for the music lessons," I said. "And yeah, Wesley, I know what you mean. I did spend very little time with the family after I was twelve or so. About the time..." I caught myself before I said "About the time I started worrying about being gay." "...I started playing baseball." I could see Jason relax. He knew what I had almost said and he was as uptight right now as I was.

"So you understand," Wesley said. "I really don't know how my family would react if I showed up on the doorstep a month from now."

"How well do you get along with your sister?" I asked, remembering her defense of me at the funeral and hoping there might be a way of finding out what was going on with his parents.

"Fine. As a matter of fact, she knew about me and Dwight and warned me about him. Once she asked me about my feelings for Dwight and I told her I was in love with him. She said I better watch it, warning me that Dwight was only interested in two things, 'sex and the family money. Well maybe three, he's also interested in the Edwards money. Any threat to the money and he'd dump his mother. Sex? You fell for him so you know that'll be no problem. He can find all the sex he wants. BUT if his sister finds out he's fucking you, you'll be dead meat.' Fool-like, I didn't listen."

Monday, both Hank and Jonathan were working at the music store because of the pre-Christmas rush, so only the three "McElrath" boys went into Asheville. Granddad had cashed the discretionary fund check for us so we had thirty-five dollars to spend. Since Wesley had decent shoes, the money would go a long way toward getting him clothes. I left him and Jason shopping while I went to UNC-Asheville to meet with Professor Jamison.

Professor Jamison had hinted he had something up his sleeve earlier, and I expected him to say something about it as soon as I arrived but he didn't. Instead, he had me play the piece I had been working on, and then gave me an etude I had not seen before and asked me to play it. It was so short that after I had played it through a couple or three times I had it memorized. After a few more exercises, he asked me to play the etude again and I did, from memory. "Excellent!" he exclaimed, which shocked me as he was never overly critical but didn't go overboard on praise either.

"Douglas, I have been working with Maestro Alexas,conductor of the Asheville Symphony. He wants to do a spring series in which local performers are featured, and asked me to pick a piano student to play with the orchestra. I would like for you to do it. Are you interested?"

"I... I don't know. That's pretty big--and frightening. Do you honestly think I could do it? Really?"

"Douglas, I wouldn't risk my reputation by suggesting a student I didn't have confidence in. Sure, you can do it. It'll require a lot of hard work on your part, but I haven't found you unwilling to do that. Think about it. I don't have all the details yet but I do want you to be thinking about it."

"And the piece?"

"Oh, I guess you would like to know that. Why not the piece every young pianist takes a crack at and which put Van Cliburn on the road to fame: the Tchaikovsky Concerto Number One? Actually, I think you might handle that. At this stage in your career--Professor Jamison actually said 'your career'--you are no Van Cliburn but you're good. By the time you are twenty, you might be able to win both the Tchaikovsky competition AND the Van Cliburn Foundation award. Who knows? But, as things stand, the Tchaikovsky may be too much. That is, not for you or the orchestra, but for the program. I don't know what all Maestro is planning, Let's both be thinking about what you might choose. Ok?"

Well, I guess Professor Jamison can go overboard with praise. "You really think I can handle something like a movement from the Tchaikovsky or something that long and difficult?" I asked.

"Do you doubt you can?"

I guess I should have played the humble bit, but I knew I could handle a piece like that and would bust ass to prove it. I looked at Professor Jamison, grinned and said, "Not a doubt in the world! Thanks!"

"You're welcome--to a lot of hard work, Douglas. Can you come back tomorrow? Maestro Alexas will be here to meet you and we'll set out a schedule for practice then, if you can be here."

"I'll be here," I responded.

Jason and I had agreed to meet at 12:00 since Professor Jamison had said I'd need longer for my lesson. It took even longer than I had planned and it was nearly 12:30 before I reached Pack Square. The day was bright, but hardly warm. I parked around the corner from the square, got out of the Jeep and started walking around the square looking for the guys. After I had walked around it once, I stood beneath the Vance monument, looking around. As I was about to walk the square again, I saw the two guys walking out of an art gallery down the street.

I waved at them and they came running up the sidewalk. As they reached me, Jason asked, "Where have you been? We were freezing!"

"Yeah, but we sure saw some beautiful works in the Blue Spiral," Wesley said.

"And some weird ones," Jason added.

"The lesson had a bit of an addition today," I answered and told them about playing with the symphony. I wasn't surprised when Jason got all excited, but Wesley seemed every bit as excited as Jason. "How did you do shopping?" I asked.

"We did fine. Since Wesley may be going to Charlotte before long to get his stuff, we just got what he had to have at the Junior League shop. Mrs. Walton said to tell you hello and that she hadn't seen you for a couple weeks."

"I'll have to go by when I come in tomorrow. I hope you found a decent coat," I said to Wesley.

"It cost ten bucks," Wesley said, "but it is really nice, don't you think?" I felt foolish when I realized he was wearing a parka and had only a light jacket of Granddad's when we drove in.

"Looks great, but I'm sorry they had to kill the sled dog," I said in a sad voice as I stroked the fur around the hood.

"He never made lead dog and was tired of the view he had pulling the sled. Also, he was old and toothless and wanted to be next to a neat guy after he finished life in this vale of tears. But, most of all, he was sick of the prejudice against polyester sled dogs," Wesley said as he stroked the faux fur. I had to hand it to my cousin, he did have a sense of humor--adolescent, I guess--but I liked it.

As we got into the Jeep, Jason said, "I think I have been careful enough with my money since I've been working, and so have you, Douglas. Let's splurge and go to a nice place for lunch and skip Sonic." We ended up at Magnolia having a really great lunch.

As we were walking back to the Jeep, Jason spied a public telephone. "Wesley! Didn't you say your sister would pull for you?" Wesley nodded. "Well then, why don't you call her, call home? If you called from a public phone there would be no way to trace it and even if someone did, it would be a dead end.

"Good idea," Wesley said, "and today is a good time to call. I know my parents are out--Father at work and Mother at her monthly book club meeting and luncheon. I just hope Mary Capers is home and I can talk to her. One of you can call because Cassandra will probably answer the phone and she would definitely recognize my voice."

Jason called and when he had Mary Capers on the phone, handed it to Wesley. He and I waited while Wesley talked. He talked for almost half an hour. All three of us were shivering by the time he hung up. As soon as he had, we ran to the Jeep and, once inside, started home.

"Well what did Mary Capers have to say?" I asked.

"A lot," Wesley replied. "First of all she asked me not to tell her where I was. 'Mother and Father think you are somewhere in Charlotte,' she said. 'Maybe you are and maybe you're not, but if I don't know where you are, I can't let it slip.' She said she thought Father was having second thoughts about me, but Mother was mostly just pissed because they had paid so much to get me cured and I escaped."

"St. Paul's is refusing to refund the money for the weeks I won't be 'in treatment'. Mother was threatening to sue until Father reminded her that even more of Charlotte society would know they had a gay son if she did. Mary Capers said it hadn't been settled yet. 'You know Mother. She is between a rock--losing some money--and a hard place--having all who count in Charlotte know she has a gay son,' Mary Capers laughed."

"Anyway, and as always when things don't go her way, Mother has decided to run away from her problems. She has decided she and Father need a trip, so they are off to Bermuda for Christmas and New Year's. Mary Capers is leaving Wednesday, going skiing in Vale. She'll be there until the day after New Year's. "

"I told her I was close enough to get my things if she thought it was safe. She said I needed to be careful and not have the neighbors call the police, but she thought it was a good idea for me to come soon. 'That way, when we get back after Christmas you could have come from and gone to just about anywhere. I've already told Father he needs to double my allowance since he's not giving you one. Of course he agreed. I planned to deposit your allowance as usual, hoping you'd have a way to get it and use it.'"

"She said St. Paul's had said they would send my things home--what I had on when I got there, my wallet, all that. So, when I get to Charlotte, I can get my things, but I can get money anytime now." Wesley suddenly stopped and said, "Shit! I can't get any money because I don't have my ATM card!"

"Oh well, anyway, I'm telling you Mary Capers is a smart girl and has had enough problems resisting attempts to force her into being an empty-headed southern lady, that she is becoming human. I told her about the telegram from Phoenix and she said she thought that was good, even though my parents didn't seem all broken up over my disappearance. 'I'll tell them nothing,' she said. 'Let them--especially Mother--worry a little bit.' She suggested the biggest worry Mother seemed to have was that I might show up in Charlotte and announce I was gay."

"She reminded me Cassandra, the maid, would be coming to the house even though everyone was gone. She will come later as she won't have to prepare breakfast. 'Come early,' she said, 'so no-one will call the police. Come, get your things and get out before Cassandra arrives. If you get here and are gone by 11:00 you'll probably be safe,' she added."

"Mary Capers will leave the keys and codes for the alarm so I can get my things. Then when my parents get back and discover I have been in the house, it will be too late to do anything about it. Surely by the time they can trace me--if they try--I will be eighteen. And, as I said, Mary Capers will not tell the rents I called, so they won't hear from me until they get back and see the telegram from Phoenix."

We got home at 3:30. Grandmom said Granddad had gone into Coldsprings to the seed and feed store to pick up a load of feed. We changed into work clothes and went to the barn, ready to help unload the feed and get it into the feed room. When Granddad got back and we started unloading the feed, Wesley commented on how easily Jason and I moved the bags of feed while he had to struggle with them. "I guess you need to do a little hard work," Jason said.

It took an hour to get the feed put away, and when we got back to the house Grandmom had coffee waiting. "Got some news," I announced as I sat down. "I have been asked to play with the Asheville symphony this spring." I told my grandparents about my conversation with Professor Jamison and both were very pleased and proud, which made me feel very good.

"I have some news as well. At least I think I do. I called my sister today," Wesley said. I guess he saw the look on Granddad's face for he quickly added, "I used a public phone and didn't tell her where I was." Wesley then told the grandparents about his conversation with Mary Capers. He then asked Granddad what he thought about his making a trip to Charlotte.

"I guess the question is how much trust you can put in your sister. Do you think she can keep a secret? Do you think she will make sure the alarms can be turned off?

"I would trust her with my life,' Wesley responded.

"You will. She will have your life in her hands," Granddad answered.

It was after 5:00 when Jason, Wesley and I went by the music store and picked up Hank and Jonathan to do our office cleaning. The four of us roped Wesley into helping, and all had a good laugh at him since he had to be shown how to do everything.

Jonathan took great delight in seeing that Wesley got stuck with cleaning the toilets. We were so busy there wasn't time to talk about my news or Wesley's. When we had finished with the offices, all five of us piled in the Jeep and headed home. While Jonathan was very excited about my news, Hank was more interested in Wesley's.

Tuesday I was back in Asheville to spend time with Professor Jamison and meet Maestro Alexas. After we talked for a short time, Maestro said, "Well I have always wished talking would get a job done, but it doesn't seem to work that way. Douglas, Professor Jamison tells me you are good, very good. I assume he has told you all about my little plan."

"Just that you might want me to play with the symphony."

"Right. The first time would be an open concert in February. I'm thinking about a concert called something like "A Western North Carolina Sampler", with a dozen short pieces featuring talent from western North Carolina. I think the pieces should be light, and real show-off pieces. It's to be open to the public, free, on a 'first come, first served' basis, so the pieces really do need to be in the line of pops concerts."

"After the free concert, I plan two concerts a month in March, April and May, where one or two of the artists from the sampler will play longer pieces with the symphony. Then, if you're as good as Jamison says you are, I'd like for you to tour with the symphony during the summer. Nothing really big, just a European tour during July."

"Tour Europe?" I'm sure my jaw was on the floor.

"It's in the planning stage, but now I'd like to hear you play." Professor Jamison picked out some music and I played several pieces. When I finished we talked about practice, the summer and, finally, about my working with the symphony.

I was more than a little elated--and overwhelmed--as I did some Christmas shopping and then drove back to Coldsprings.

When I got back, Granddad and Grandmom had finished lunch and were both sitting in the den reading. I fixed myself a plate and sat down at the kitchen table to eat. I had just started eating when the grandparents came into the kitchen. "How was practice?" Granddad asked.

"I guess it went well," I answered. "Where are the boys?"

"They went off with Hank and Jonathan rabbit hunting."

"Wesley rabbit hunting?" I laughed. "That I would like to see! But back to my lesson today." I told my grandparents about the tour. "I guess I can hold off any decision about that until we can figure out how things will get done around here next summer." I had thought about that shortly after I drove into the shed and parked the Jeep.

"I don't think that needs any consideration," Grandmom said. "After all, your grandfather and I did not know we would have any help on the farm. Now there's you, Jason, and Wesley here. Unless some great offer comes Jason's way, I'm sure he'll be here this summer and it could well be that Wesley will be here also. As I see it, you have no decision to make. If you are asked, you go. Just because you have been asked to attempt to play with the symphony doesn't mean you will end up playing with it, does it?"

"Good way to boost the kid's self-esteem, Old Woman," Granddad laughed.

"Self-esteem" is a running joke in the house after one of Jason's teachers asked for a conference with the grandparents. Granddad asked, "What's the problem? The boy is making all As and Bs--and mostly As." The teacher had responded that grades weren't important, to which Grandmom replied, "You are right if we are talking about a grade as a grade, but the learning represented by a grade is very important."

"They are also important if the boy wants to keep eating and sleeping with a roof over his head," Granddad said. The teacher was horrified that Granddad would even say such a thing. Of course, in one sense Granddad was pulling her leg, but in another he meant what he said. If our grades fell because we were not putting enough effort into school, we'd probably be lucky to get to sleep in the barn!

The conference turned out to be very long and concerned Jason's self-esteem or rather the lack thereof. The gist of the teacher's remarks were that academics were not nearly as important as building self-esteem. Before Granddad could say anything, Jason said, "I'll be so glad that I can hold my head high when I graduate with a diploma I can't read." That ended the conference.

The teacher put a note in Jason's file saying his foster parents were unconcerned about his high school progress and he was disrespectful when she had tried to discuss the situation with him.

When Ms. Kennedy saw the note, she checked his last progress report and was even more puzzled. It was not like she didn't know Jason very well. When she asked the teacher about Jason, she got a run-around and called the grandparents in.

When she heard about the conference, she was as incensed as my grandparents had been, and had Mr. Duncan call the teacher in for a conference with Ms. Kennedy, Jason and two very put-out grandparents. The note was taken out of the file and Jason transferred to a class with a different teacher.

After that conference, a day seldom passed without some joke about self-esteem. When someone messed up, the comment generally was "I'm (ignorant, clumsy, inattentive, etc.), but I've got great self-esteem."

"You're right, of course," I said, "but I do have the confidence and self-esteem to believe I can do well, but in case confidence and self-esteem aren't all that's needed, Professor Jamison wants to see me two more days--Tuesday and Thursday--each week. No increase in cost of lessons, but there will be the expense of getting into Asheville three times a week and it will mean I will have to quit work on those days."

"Douglas, you don't have to work, you know," Granddad said. "I suspect the days you don't see Professor Jamison you will need to practice, and you were planning on playing baseball. Is that still on?"

"I hope so. I'll have to see if I can work in baseball and lessons. Professor Jamison did say he could see me for the Tuesday and Thursday lessons late. I'd leave Coldsprings after baseball practice and be pretty late getting home and there's still work."

"If Jason thinks they can handle it, why not let Jonathan and Wesley take over your job? Wesley may not need the money, but work won't hurt him. Jonathan needs the money, but is a little young...."

I laughed and said, "You know, Granddad, I realized this week that he is less than two years younger than I am.

"That doesn't seem possible," Grandmom said, "but at your ages a few months can make a lot of difference and there is a wide spread in maturation rates as well. But he can handle working can't he?"

"He does very well. He is very meticulous--but tentative--so he doesn't get as much done as he might, but what he does is done right and in time, I suspect, he will lose his tentativeness. Jason is very supportive and sooner or later Jonathan will realize he doesn't have to prove something to Jason or anyone else. There's no question but that he can handle a job. Wesley is something else again. Until he learns how to do things he is not much help. He is spoiled beyond belief. He knows nothing about cleaning."

"He'll learn," Grandmom said. "You did."

"Since we're the only ones here, Douglas, maybe we can talk a little about Wesley. Is it ok for him to be here?" Granddad asked. "I don't mean we would toss him out into the cold, but if his being here is a problem, he will have to find another solution."

"I guess I knew that," I answered, "and if I had seen anything out of him which got my dander up, he would know it. Strange as it may seem, I think his being here may prove to be something we all appreciate. At the same time, I hope he might come to appreciate us, and I mean more than as a source of a roof over his head and food in his belly. I think we have a lot we can teach him if he's willing to learn. He has had a good taste of his parents' prejudice and I think is learning a very painful lesson about treating people poorly because of some sense of being superior. So I have no problem with his being here."

"And his being gay?" Grandmom asked.

"No problem at all, none at all for me--or Jason," I answered. "'Course if he decides to hit on one of us there could be a problem, but I don't think that will happen and, if it does, I assure you Jason and I or either one of us is capable of handling it."

"What do you think, Douglas? Do you think he was born gay, chose the gay lifestyle or somebody turned him gay?" Granddad asked.

I suddenly realized there was a way to talk to Granddad about being gay without telling him I was. Yeah, I think we all might very well appreciate Wesley living with us!

"Born gay," I answered without hesitating. "I think that all gay men--and boys--are born gay if straight men are born straight. Don't think that is a question until sometime after we get born, but I think before someone asks the question or is asked, a person is straight or gay. I mean, look at what Wesley has gone through. You think anyone would choose that? Why would anyone choose something which caused them the problems being openly gay causes?"

"Made gay? I can't imagine how you'd even go about that. I don't know, but I have read that men in prison who engage in man-to-man sex, but who are not gay, have straight sex when it is possible, when they get out. Lot I don't know about being gay, but I'm convinced it's not a matter of choice or upbringing."

"Pretty long speech there, Grandson," Grandmom said with a question in her voice.

"Well, I had a gay friend and I wanted to know why he was that way, so I've looked up quite a few references about it." I answered quickly, and truthfully.

I had finished eating and was taking my dishes to the sink when I heard a lot of stomping on the back porch. When it stopped, the four guys came into the kitchen, Jason and Wesley each carrying two rabbits. "I guess you want Wesley to dress the rabbits," Jason laughed as he put his two rabbits on newspapers Grandmom had quickly spread on the kitchen table.

"Whose are those?" Granddad asked, pointing to the two rabbits Wesley put on the newspapers.

"All four belong here," Hank said. "We left mine--and one Jonathan got--at our place." As Hank spoke, he reached out and gave Jonathan a noogie. "Old Jonathan took aim down that rife and showed that bunny who was boss."`

"I was afwaid that man-eating wascally wabbit would launch a vicious attack on my fwiends," Jonathan laughed as he reminded us of a hundred Bugs Bunny cartoons which were old to us but new to him.

"Actually, those two are Jason's and these are mine," Wesley said with more than a little pride as he lifted two rabbits by their ears.

"He's right," Jason said. "Wesley is some shot. Don't think he has ever killed anything other than a clay pigeon before," he laughed, "but rabbits better keep moving when he has a rifle in his hands. Grandmom, we'll clean the bunnies," Jason said, "as soon as we get warmed a bit."

Cleaning rabbits was new to me as it was to all of the guys except Hank and Jason. Hank showed us how to clean them and I was surprised that I not only cleaned one, but enjoyed the treat when Grandmom prepared rabbit for supper.

After supper, the three of us cleaned up the kitchen, watched a TV program with the grandparents, then went upstairs. We brushed our teeth, got dressed--PJs and robes--and sat in the den talking about the rabbit hunting trip, my news about the possibility of a European tour next summer and Wesley's trip to Charlotte.

We had decided earlier we would go to Charlotte the day after Christmas, getting there about 9:00, plenty time before Cassandra showed up. Wesley said he had very little beyond clothes he needed or wanted to get. "My guitar, some books, CDs and stereo is about it," he said. "Well, and my computer and stuff. I have a new machine, great printer and all that. Anyway, we should have no problem getting in, getting my stuff and getting out within an hour or less."

"I guess we need to decide what to drive," I said. "I had thought about the Jeep, but I suspect there's more stuff than it will hold. I don't think I'd trust the farm truck on that trip. It's fine for around here where you can be rescued quickly if it quits, but Charlotte is a bit of a trip for it."

"How about the Dennisons' van?" Jason asked. "Think they'd let us borrow it? I'm sure it would hold everything."

"I'm sure they would, especially if Hank can go with us and drive," I answered.

"Something else I need to think about. When are you going back to Asheville? Before Christmas I mean," Wesley asked.

"I need to go back tomorrow," I replied. "What do you have in mind?"

"I need to do some Christmas shopping if one of you guys will loan me a few dollars.

"Typical male," I laughed, "putting off shopping until the last minute."

"Guess we could loan you a few bucks," Jason answered. "I need to do some shopping as well. I guess we all go to Asheville."

"You guys got the grandparents' gifts?" Wesley asked.

"As Doug said, typical male," Jason laughed. "I haven't."

"Neither have I," I added.

"Give me some time on the phone and I think I might have something all of us can give them," Wesley said.

"Call when you like. Use the phone up here," I answered.

Wesley looked at the clock and said, "I'll call later tonight."

A few minutes later, Jason and I were in our bed, snuggled together, exchanging wilder and wilder kisses. I guess things got hotter than expected because Jason exploded all over me without my touching him--well, without touching his manhood. I was all over him otherwise. His eruption sent me over the edge as well. We made such a mess we had to get up, clean ourselves up and change the sheets on the bed. "We be horny puppies," Jason said as we slid back into bed where, wrapped in each other's arms, we were soon asleep.

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