FEBRUARY 1999 |
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PETER BOYENS, who began his writing career after suffering a stroke in 1987, is a contributing writer to Renaissance Online Magazine. He lives in Lakeland, Florida.
As was so often the case that summer of my twelfth year, the four of us were congregated on our favorite Main Street corner discussing the issues of the day, professing our manhood, and spouting forth our vast knowledge of the opposite gender. Which was indeed vast, what with our just having attended Ann Webber's birthday dance last week.
And of course our newly acquired terminology - "knockers", "jugs", "making out" and "getting to first base" (I still didn't quite understand that) - flowed as freely as the August clouds.
David, Dale and myself had grown up together, and Joey Simms had joined the pack shortly after moving to town in the fifth grade.
Free spirits all, but I guess if there was a leader, it was Davie. A full five inches taller than the rest, already possessing a deep voice - whereas we never knew from day to what has gonna come out - and having the makings of real chin whiskers, I guess David led by sheer size. Oh, Dale had whiskers too, but they'd been drawn with his older sister's eyebrow pencil. My own peach fuzz was too paltry to consider.
I had, however, recognized the change taking place within and around us and had deduced a theory as to the cause of most of it.
Weren't they the ones who suddenly developed those bumps and curves that so bedeviled our minds? Weren't they the ones that no longer found arm-pit flatulence humorous? And weren't they the ones who had turned serious, taking the fun outta life?
A good example of my suspicions was passing Hanson's Drugstore across the street at that very moment. Sandy Beckwith and I had been life long friends. She always had one of the best fastballs around and last year when she'd quit the team - calling such things frivolous - I had nearly wept.
No doubt about it. Those hazel eyes, that red hair, and those intriguing curves were what begrudgingly had pulled her towards what she called "maturity". Or so it had been until that dreaded dance when an inadvertent brush of the hand had turned those wondrous eyes into fiery lightening bolts and had sent Sandy looking at me as a "fiend'" rather than a lifelong friend.
Joey's wolf whistle knocked the paint off Hanson's and he followed up with "Man what a set!"
I didn't know whether to agree with him, speak out in defense of my lifelong friend, or react from a twinge of jealously?
David responded quickly though. "Forget it pipsqueak. Women want real men", he claimed while going into his best Charles Atlas pose.
"Bite my banana grease monkey!"
Just like that, the two of them were at each other again.
Never serious, but a continual picking on each other which I had deduced stemmed from Joey's tad bit of snobbishness and Dave's tab bit of envy. His father being manager of the J C Penny, Joey always sported in the latest whereas Dave, like as not, wore a khaki work shirt with someone else's name above the pocket.
The hair on David's neck bristled and his face reddened. At first he appeared confused, but then oddly acted as if he hadn't heard the put down and threw out "Hey guys, let's go out to Miller's creek tomorrow."
"I hear the catfish are bitin' and sides. A cool swim sounds good."
Bemoaningly, yet proudly, I declared "I'll have to pass fellas. I start work at Whitehead's grocery tomorrow. You're looking at a workin' man," I said, puffing out my chest and awaiting the "wows" and congratulatory "Way to go Al's."
I was disappointed when the comment I received was Dave's quick "Man", I wouldn't wanna be in your shoes. Having to be around that ole queer Whitehead. Probably be grabbin' at ya all the time."
Joey saw another opportunity. "It's ho...mo...sex..ual, Calder," he said. "A male who's sexual orientation is towards other males. An I never heard anything about Mr. Whitehead being one."
"No, really", Dave went on, "queer as a three dollar bill. I heard the ole man and Pat Spivey talking one day at the shop."
"Aw, You're full of shit Calder."
"Oh yeah? Well you seem to know a lot about 'em Simms...you one? Bet so - Simms is a little queer boy."
As usual, the venomous banter settled before we headed home and all was forgotten.
Except by me.
David's accusation stuck in my mind. My anxiety over starting my job coupled with a recurring nightmare, in which Howard Whitehead chased me around and around the counter of twinkies.
The following morning, I received a brief job description from the store manager Mr. Givens and was given my blue apron, which read 'Whitehead's Grocery service with a smile!', then I rushed off to aisle three to straighten the Hormel Chili display as directed.
I was as nervous as a long tailed cat at a dog fight and kept one eye on my assigned task while the other scanned the store for any sign of the boss. The balding, little man in the white shirt and red bow tie arrived shortly after nine. Remembering Davie's words, I kept close tabs on his whereabouts - I wasn't about to be pawed on, no sir!
By lunch break, he hadn't made any moves although once at mid morning, he had managed slip up behind me while I had my hands full with a basket of peaches. I tell ya my heart nearly stopped when I heard that "Keep the good work Mr. Grinstead."
But there were no moves by closing time and so it went for the ensuing days and weeks.
I came to believe that Davie had been mistaken. And quite naturally I came to give a lot of thought to homosexuality.
Why would anyone consciously choose a lifestyle of so much pain and humiliation? And if wasn't a matter of choice, how very very sad.
My father was right about time passing swiftly and before I knew it, my savings had grown before leveling off with the beginning of school and the necessary reduction of my hours. I had become of the "family" by then and Mr. Givens made the offer of some extra hours helping with the inventory that Thursday evening.
Little did I know that these seemingly innocent series of events would lead to the incident which continues to trouble my mind to this day. If only it hadn't been for that working overtime. If only I hadn't decided to take the short cut through the park. If only I hadn't noticed Mr. Whitehead's Buick parked there at the South end? If only I hadn't seen the two people embracing in the front seat? If only I hadn't let the devil himself prod me into creeping along those evergreen bushes for a better look?
The light from the nearest light pole was faint, but I could make out that it was two men. They disengaged and the one turned towards me. For one brief moment I was eyeball to eyeball with...David. The following mad dash home was chased by confusion. The question 'why?' bouncing off the walls of my mind.
I vowed to never tell a soul, but was never again able to look at David in the same light.
A year later, my father was transferred to Phoenix. I took my secret and my questions with me. For years I corresponded with Dale and Sandy somewhat regularly and on the occasion of the class's tenth reunion, Sandy sent me a lengthy letter updating me on all the old gang.
Sandy and her husband now have two children - as do my wife Ruth and I. Joey Simms still lives in town and is employed at the JC Penney. I had already known about Dale, of course. His mother having written to me when he'd been killed in 'Nam in '67. David Calder hadn't attended the reunion, but from what she understood, he lived in California and was employed by a movie studio - "something to do with making movie sets?".
I think often of the old gang. I think of that night, of all the questions. And I sometimes believe that I know and understand no more about this homosexuality than I did back in that summer of my twelfth year.
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