It took less than ten minutes for us to reach the courthouse and when we did, Justin found a parking place -- lucky him -- around back. He parked and we walked in the back way again. Mr. Oxford was still in his cell, looking pretty depressed. I guessed there hadn't been a bond hearing yet. Strange.
When we arrived at the sheriff's office Ellen Mae greeted us with, "Guess you're glad school's out."
"Indeed," Justin said. "Now we just have to go though that terrible ceremony unless Miss Bartlett and Mr. Akins kill each other first."
"Must be getting a bit long in the tooth to do any real damage, but I remember one year when she blooded his nose over the ceremony. Damn fools, it's always exactly the same as the year before; exactly the same as it has been for the past thirty-one years. They took over graduation the year they started teaching and the only thing which has changed are the kids in the gowns."
"May change next year," I said, "both have announced their retirement. They are a pair of pretty weird ducks, but the school's losing two good teachers. Students carry on about both of them, but really respect them and their teaching ability. Directing graduation is just a kind of fun time for them and the students, but it does get old the second day. See Mr. Oxford is still a guest in your fine bed and breakfast," I added, my curiosity getting the better of me.
"Had the bond hearing this morning and he should be out, but he and Mrs. Oxford got into it over Johnny. She's letting him cool his heels while she takes her own sweet time about getting the deed up here to secure his bond. Judge hasn't ruled on what's to happen to Johnny yet. He hasn't been released from the hospital. I think Dr. Macon's engaged in a delaying action, hoping something can be worked out so the boy stays out of the clutches of DSS*. Fr. DeBruhl was in earlier, I think talking to Jakie about that, but I wasn't let in on it." Ellen Mae was obviously peeved, feeling she was denied her just due.
"Talked with his mom last night before bridge -- we met at my house last night. Had the best luck I've had in years. Wish we'd been playing for serious money. Anyway, Jack's got a bit of a rough time ahead, I guess, but his mom said she suspected he was gay since he was twelve or thirteen. He and Johnny have been like bonded at the hip since kindergarten and I've seen how they look at each other. Not like a couple of just best friends, even best friends who are very, very close,' she said. Said his dad is at the 'I don't approve and I hope he grows out of it, but he's still our son and we love him' stage."
When we walked into Sheriff Anderson's office, Justin said, "Marc, you are some gossip," smiling and shaking his head.
"Well, at least he knows where the gossip fountainhead is located," the sheriff laughed. "Good to see you guys. Close the door if you will and have a seat." He looked like he had just won first prize at the county fair.
As soon as we were settled, he said, "You guys deserve part of the credit for solving the undelivered merchandise case, but afraid you'll just have to forgo the accolades since some of the things we did -- such as your watching the video -- weren't exactly kosher, so I wanted to thank you personally and tell you the latest which will be all over the news, if not tonight, certainly by morning. OK, we laid in wait for the stars and as soon as those at graduation rehearsal got out, we picked them up and picked up those who weren't in their classes. Got all except K.J. who was with his mother in the principal's office where she was trying to bully him into allowing K.J. to walk. I guess she snuck herself and K.J. in since no-one seemed to know where he was. Anyway, we nabbed him at home when Skinny spilled the beans and told us what was going on.
"We also pulled in Ledbetter and asked him who monitored the surveillance cameras at night. He said they were only checked when the alarm went off, 'and that ain't happened'. Asked how they were controlled, he told us the only controlling they needed was to change the tapes and that was done at the office where the monitors and recorders were. When asked if they could be turned off, he didn't think so. Finally he said, 'Look, you want to know anything about that damn expensive system, you talk to Officer Jenkins. I pay him to take care of all that stuff. I know nothing about it.'
"To make a long story short, since Jenkins is a sworn law officer and it looked like he might be involved in setting you guys up, I called in the state boys. They picked him up for questioning and I haven't heard anything yet, but I am betting he was in on this mess. Lucky for us, Skinny was smart enough to see the writing on the wall and started talking before we could get him in a cell. He spilled the whole story. Seems the Grandview Jenkins -- including your part in changing Deputy Jenkins to Officer Jenkins," -- he laughed, "are still steaming over the run-in they had with you guys earlier and the Mud Creek crowd was mad about the prom and K.J. and crew being suspended, so they hatched up the scheme to implicate you in theft and drug dealing. Chief does have pull, so he got a hearing this afternoon and all are out on bond -- five hundred dollars if you can believe it, less than most get when charged with littering. Suspect the SBI will be looking into more than just Officer Jenkin's involvement. Think it may be a long hot summer."
"Guess there's nothing we need do but watch how it plays out," Justin said.
"Suppose so, expect watching your backside. Keep your eyes open. Remember, they are all out on bond."
"Which reminds me. What about Skinny? They are all out on bond and I'll bet they know he talked. They'll kill him," I said, really concerned even though he had been an asshole.
"He's on his way to Raleigh as we speak. The SBI is protecting him. I suspect Elizabethton has seen the last of Skinny for a long time unless he's needed to testify at any trials coming out of this. He'll likely be set up somewhere and since he has no family around here, no good reason for him to come back and plenty reasons at Mud Creek and Grandview to keep him away."
"Good. What about Johnny and Jack? We saw Mr. Oxford when we came in," I asked.
Sheriff Anderson sighed and said, "Hope you guys never want to hang my ass out to dry. I've already let you in on enough to really get in trouble, but without your help, things might have gone very different. Fr. DeBruhl was in earlier to talk about what's in store for the boys. Seems Rev. Smidley had talked to the two fathers about a camp a group associated with his denomination -- well, he says they're not one, but simply a part of the church Jesus started and from which others have gone astray, but that aside -- which turns men and boys from the path of the damnation resulting from the homosexual lifestyle and back to the saving arms of Jesus. I got the whole pitch from Mr. Carnes, and he is determined to send Jack -- and the Oxfords Johnny -- to be turned from the gay lifestyle. So it's off to camp."
"But..." I tried to interrupt.
"But Grandmom Oxford heard about it and just about leveled the town she was so angry. Of course, she was royally pissed at her son when she found out what he had done. Came to see him and I couldn't let her get to him or she would have strangled him. She slapped him a few good ones before he could get away from the bars and back further in his cell," the sheriff laughed. "She may be small, but she's one hellcat when she's pissed."
Grandmom Oxford -- half the town called her that -- might claim to top out at five feet, but I suspect she'd have to stretch hard to make four ten -- was well known for fearing nothing including the devil himself. Mr. Oxford, her husband, died when the youngest of her five sons, Phillip, was a baby and the oldest, John, Johnny's dad, wasn't yet ten, so she had practice keeping things under control. Jeremy, the third oldest, had left town and came to visit his mom recently for the first time since he was in college. With him was his partner, whom he had met in college and with whom he lived in Asheville. While Jeremy only came back recently, Grandmom Oxford and Phillip had, over the years, been frequent visitors to the two lovers.
It all started when Jeremy came home from college one summer and announced to one and all he was gay. His mom took it in stride but his brothers, except Phillip, made life hell for him as did the townspeople, and especially his former associates at the Church of Christ. He stuck out the summer, but when it was about half over, he and Grandmom Oxford became regular communicates of St. Paul's. Only recently had I learned he had been subjected to weekly haranges from the pulpit about the evils of homosexuality and the certain damnation of those who chose to live the homosexual lifestyle. In the middle of one, apparently, he stood up, shouted he was leaving the Church of Christ and shaking the dust from his sandals as he did so. I guess he stood on the church steps with Phillip and Grandmom Oxford and all three of them did just that.
After that, Phillip and Grandmom Oxford became pillars at St. Paul's. Phillip is now a vestryman in Wilmington where he is also a nautical engineer. Jeremy? Jeremy and his partner operate a B & B in Asheville and a photographic studio and gallery. Their photos of people and mountains of western North Carolina are known worldwide and shown in some of the world's finest galleries. A major aside, but a bit of explanation as to why Grandmom Oxford wasn't about to have Johnny -- or Jack, for that matter -- shipped off to some "re-education" camp to become, at best, neurotic pseudo-straights or guilt-ridden gays.
"Father DeBruhl was in to make arrangements for both the boys to go to live with Jeremy and Charles, his partner, at least until things change around here. Both mothers reluctantly agreed -- well, Mrs. Carnes was more reluctant than Mrs. Oxford -- but the fathers have remained adamant. Of course, neither family realize that until some agreement is reached, the boys are prime targets for DSS*. Anyway, not your problem, but I would like to ask you guys something if I can be personal."
"You are free to ask," Justin said, "and we are free to answer or not."
"Fair enough. I'm pretty sure I know the answer, but do guys choose to be gay?"
"Did you? Choose to be straight, I mean -- assuming you are," Justin asked with a grin.
"Well, when you put it that way, no. Guess I just knew I was straight or never thought I was gay. Well, I guess most, maybe all, males have the thought cross their minds when they are teens but, no, it was never a real question."
"Same with us. I mean, it took me a while to admit I was gay, but I knew it from the time I was twelve or thirteen. When the other boys were getting a crush on girls, I was in love with Marc," Justin said.
"Pretty much the same here," I said, "except I really never thought about being gay or straight until fairly recently. I was just in love with Justin since forever and that was the end of it. Gay or straight didn't play into my world," I said with a grin.
"So there's no choice?"
"Not in my book," I replied.
"I think gay-straight are black-and-white labels and do most people an injustice in that I suspect a very few of us are one hundred percent gay or straight, but somewhere on a continuum. Maybe those leaning one way or the other might have a choice, but I don't know. I know I don't," Justin said.
"Well, let's get back to business. You two on your way to work?"
"Indeed. Which reminds me, we'll have more to deliver to the suddenly rich in Mud Creek, I suspect," I said. "Tons of stuff being bought by people -- with cash -- who didnt have a pot to piss in last month. Don't think it's falling from the sky."
"I'll keep my eyes open and I'd remind you again, watch your back."
Ten minutes later, Justin kissed me and let me off at the Sanford Furniture section of the warehouse. As I walked in, I was suddenly struck with the fact that while K.J. and his gang had transported the stolen merchandise, they had to have some way to get it out of the warehouse which had surveillance cameras and a roving night watchman. I'm sure Sheriff Anderson had thought of that but maybe not, given all that was going on, and a phone call wouldn't hurt. I punched in his number as I walked into the warehouse -- no need to go by the store next door since Adam would have the delivery orders. The sheriff assured me he was looking into the warehouse question, but thanked me for calling.
Inside, Adam was waiting with a shit-load of deliveries. "Man, I am glad to see you," he said. "I'm for prosperity, but spread around would be good. There's still a ton of stuff to go to Mud Creek and Grandview. Dad said we could hold off a bit after that attack on us. He's arranging some protection before we do any more out that way. We've got a bunch of stuff going to Planters' Landing, then a refrigerator and range going to that artist out in the swamp, Alvin Nixson. You know him? Understand he's pretty much a recluse."
"Yeah, actually I spent an afternoon at his place when Mrs. Crandall was here. She wanted to see his work and since has arranged showings for him in several important galleries. Guess he's made a lot of money, but I'd be surprised if he had decided to live high on the hog. He impressed me as someone who lived a very simple life, keeping to himself out in the swamp."
"You know how to get there? Dad's given me directions, but I'd feel a lot better if you knew where we were going."
"I do," I replied as we started loading the range and refrigerator on the truck.
Half an hour later, we turned down a path -- it could hardly be called a road -- headed into the swamp. The path was barely as wide as the truck and had swamp on each side. "Sure hope we don't meet anyone," I said. "There's no place to turn around until we get further in. I remember thinking we'd be shit out of luck if we met someone when I came out here with Mrs. Crandall." We, of course, didn't meet anyone and twenty minutes later, pulled up in front of the neat cabin where Mr. Nixson lived. It was made of cypress which had weathered a beautiful silvery gray. Across the front was a full screened porch. It really was an attractive place, but I wondered if the screen would be enough to keep out the bugs. The swamp and anywhere around it could be pretty miserable if the bugs took a liking to you -- as they definitely did to me.
I hopped out of the truck and reached to knock on the porch screen door, when Mr. Nixson stepped out of it. "Marc Porcher, Mr. Nixson," I said extending my hand.
"Yes, good to see you again, Marc."
"My partner in crime is Adam Sanford," I pointed toward Adam.
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Nixson," Adam said, extending his hand.
As he shook Adam's hand, Mr. Nixson said, "Glad you guys could get out here today. I needed to get everything set up as I'm having someone arrive tomorrow and I want him to be impressed." I was surprised when Mr. Nixson blushed.
We moved the range into the neat kitchen and got it into place, connected the gas and checked it all out. As we were finishing, Adam asked, "Think we can get the fridge connected? I've never done a gas fridge before."
"Nothing to it," Mr. Nixson said. "I'll help out if you need me. It's either gas or nothing out here," he added. "Well, I could have a generator, but they make so much noise, I just go all gas. Only problem is if the propane truck can't get out. That has only happened once."
We got the fridge hooked up and everything was running smoothly. As we prepared to leave, Mr. Nixson said, "You fellows like something cold to drink?"
"Would be most welcome," Adam said.
"Iced tea? Have ice left over from what I picked up earlier."
"Great," I agreed. He brought three tall glasses and as we sat on his porch, my curiosity raised its ugly head. "None of my business but, from your blush, I gather this is a very special friend who's arriving tomorrow."
Mr. Nixson blushed again and said, "Yeah, very special. Might say we're like you and your special friend. We grew up together and were the closest of friends from kindergarten though high school -- well, almost through high school." Mr. Nixson dropped his head and blushed again, then continued, "To be honest, I'd been in love with Dakota as long as I could remember and one night we had gone camping and gotten pretty drunk on booze he had swiped from his parents. One thing led to another and we ended playing around way more than we ever had. The next morning, when I said something, Dakota started the I was so drunk I didn't know what I was doing and don't remember' song and dance. I didn't say anything more until later.
"To make a long story short, Dakota was pretty distant until the night of the prom. I didn't have a date and his came down with some sort of virus and couldn't go. I suggested he cancel the limo and go with me in my brand new Pontiac Trans Am, my graduation present. Dakota agreed and we had a good time at the prom, but left early. I was surprised when he suggested we take a ride in the moonlight and we did. Finally we parked and before I knew it, we were making out like everything. Then, he jumped back, slugged me and said, "You may be a queer, but I'm not. Take me home!" I did and the next day he spread the story that I had tried to seduce him. Fortunately, we only had a couple weeks of school left and when I graduated, I left town to do a summer artist camp and essentially never returned. My mom had died the middle of my junior year and my dad never got over it. He died at the end of summer -- from a broken heart, I'm sure -- and once I started at the art institute that fall, I never saw any reason to go back. Dad was the only family I had and no real friends after Dakota made his announcement.
"I never stopped loving Dakota and while I told myself I needed to move on, I never did. Well, that's not true. I did get on with my life and my art, but never with another person. Several years out of art school, I was doing OK, I thought, until one winter in Europe, I just fell apart. After I kinda got glued back together, I came back to the States and bummed around until I found this place. I have been happy here and told myself I was all the company I needed. Then I got blind-sided. Did I ever!
"Betsy Crandall took a real liking to my work and wrote and asked me if I would be willing to have a showing at her place in Florida. I figured why not? Turns out, when she throws a party, she throws a party. There were about five hundred people all in all who showed up during the three days my work was on exhibition.
"One of the works which I agreed to show, but not to sell, was called Dakota of the Swamp.' It was Dakota as I remembered him the last time I saw him, posed in a very imaginary swamp setting. Late during the last day of the exhibition, I saw a man standing in front of it. I couldn't see his face, as his head was bowed, but it was obvious he was weeping. When I approached him, he turned toward me. It was Dakota. He very tentatively stepped toward me, then embraced me and planted his lips on mine. I guess blind-sided' really is mild compared to the actuality.
"As soon as I could get away, we went into that beautiful garden there -- Betsy says it's very special to you too, Marc." I nodded. "We sat and talked for hours. Seems Dakota had tried to live a straight life, but never got very far with it. He had traveled the world for a big oil company and, as he said, every time he came home, he met someone, had a whirlwind courtship and married them before leaving again. While he was away, he would manage to go through another expensive divorce and repeat the cycle. He did that four times. He had made sure each divorce was a clean break, a big pay-off to the latest wife, soon to be ex-wife, but no alimony. His salary was astronomical, he traveled at company expense and had all sorts of stock options, so, as he said, he was a very wealthy, very lonely man who was still in love with the guy he had done so shitty years ago.
"That's the story. We've been together since that afternoon except for the past two weeks when he has been away getting his affairs in order and I have been getting this place ready. We'll live here, but he wants to show me the world. First, we're spending six months here to get to know each other again, a kind of engagement, I guess. Then we fly to Vermont to be married, after which we'll have a Round the World' honeymoon."
"Congratulations," I said, extending my hand. Adam nodded and extended his hand as well.
"Wow!" I thought. "Two guys getting married!" I knew gay marriage was a question some states were talking about, but I guess I had never given it a lot of thought. I mean, I knew, of course, Justin had asked me to marry him, but I guess it never entered my mind that it was a real possibility, but it was. Maybe not in the immediate future, but sometime, if not in North Carolina, then in Vermont or one of the other states which have approved it. With those thoughts, I was feeling very good as Adam and I headed back to town.
* Department of Social Services is supposedly responsible for the welfare of children in bad situations -- child abuse, children in danger, etc. While there are certainly some caring individuals in the bureaucracy, overall it is known to be an inefficient and bungling agency in many -- perhaps most -- situations. A therapist friend has labeled it and equivalent agencies in other states in the US, together with foster parents who take children seized by DSS, "the largest child abusers in the nation." Yet in most states and counties in the state, it continues to act as a law unto itself with little oversight and little regard to the laws which supposedly govern it.