Lee's Writing Journey

June 13, 2011

Klan Country, A Novel in Progress

Filed under: literary fiction — Lee Titus Elliott @ 11:52 am
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Klan Country

A Novel in Progress

 

“Ah, the family,” she said, releasing her breath and sitting back quietly, “the whole hideous institution should be wiped from the face of the earth. It is the root of all human wrongs,” she ended and relaxed, and her face became calm. She was trembling.
                              —Katherine Anne Porter, “Old Mortality”

I

Once more it was five before nine on a Saturday morning (this one in May, five days after Kent State) and once more, as punctual as the sun, my Grandfather Woodall stood white-haired and erect on the brick pavement beside the Old Well, his blue gaze fixed across Cameron Avenue and down the wide brick walkway that ran between South Building and the Playmakers Theater. From my window high in Old East (a window shut still, out of shame shut still, though it was warm outside, warm as July), I could look down and see him from the rear: tall and elegant in his tailored and pressed salt-and-pepper suit, his black dress shoes polished as mirrors, his neat, gray Homburg held out with both veined hands in front of him, close over his waist.

Standing so, arrayed so, his stage set that little, round Vesta-temple with the Doric columns and copper dome and wrought-iron drinking fountain in the center, he reminded me of a Confederate general in retirement, posing for a photograph—an Early or an Anderson or a Longstreet in one of his Freeman books back in Raleigh. I squinted hard from my shut window and for a sudden, aching wave in my chest, could see—believe!—I wasn’t up here, in this closed, overwarm room, tie wretchedly askew, dress shoes scuffed, shirt and trousers rumpled like a street drunk’s, every pore of me sweating and stinking, shit smell and semen smell welling up out of my crotch like a grim mist, some strange college boy’s semen sticky as rotten glue on the roof of my mouth. No, I was down there, once more crossing Cameron and striding straight to him over the antique brick, dressed neat in the dark, pressed trousers, the white, starched long-sleeved shirt and dark tie, the dress shoes as black and mirror-polished as his own, in my left hand gripped the big, black brief case he’d presented me for my high school graduation in June ’66. And all through my striding to him (so I heard—believed!) ran in my mind the verses from the Fourth Georgic I’d just translated (and memorized) in Dr. Applewhite’s Virgil class—verses poised to spring from my lips, in not quite theatrical orotundity, the moment I stopped before him and reached out to grip his proffered hand.

I shut my eyes and could see—believe!—how it would go between us in the four hours following: how, hard upon our ritual grip and my verses from Virgil, he’d intone his own mock-solemn, “Si vales, valeo; bonum est,” and then, clearing his throat, as if about to give a speech, ask once more: Would I accompany him “this fine morning” (even if it were raining or overcast, it would ever be fine—“a fine morning”) down to “Klan Country” (“Heh, heh, heh,” he’d be sure to utter) and the old Woodall homeplace, “seat” of his father’s father and my “distaff side”? As I was “well cognizant,” his brother, my great-uncle Merrick, had put it up for sale at last, and he, “this old Dee-di” of mine, eighty-one and retired for good, away at last from “the consumptives” and the X-rays and all the weekly traveling—he, “an old widower of leisure now,” with no salaried employment or “future prospects thereof,” had “purposed” to purchase “said seat” and in his “hiemal years” restore it to its “antebellum state.” He’d perform “the light labor” himself, whatever little painting and repair “this old carcass” could accomplish. The remainder he’d commission to contractors: the new foundation and new roof and the filling of the columns eaten hollow and much more than he could name just now, my “old forgetful Dee-di.” Would I “therefore”—I, his only grandson and “sole male sustainer” of the Woodall line (my uncle had two daughters “merely” and, at 33, mumps had “rendered him sterile”)—would I go down with him “this fine Saturday” and meet my great-uncle Merrick there? (Grandfather had telephoned him we’d meet him at one, “on the lower veranda.”) If we left now, we’d have the leisure to stop by Rosewood and see Mrs. Loreena Wooten, a widow herself and his “future helpmeet.” And we’d have time to walk the Bentonville battleground and tour Ava Gardner’s schoolhouse and teacherage—and even visit the old clapboard church my great-great-grandfather (“Union Man that he was, yessir,”) had built “for the colored people.” Of course, he’d drive me himself, “with all due pleasure, Dr. Lockhart.”

I opened my eyes and looked down at him, and from his steady head, his stance so willfully still he seemed nearly to tremble, I knew he was playing it all through to the end, in a mind’s eye keen and fatalistic: how it had gone between us every Saturday since the twenty-eighth of March (he’d first arrived at my dorm room on the twenty-first, with no warning, not even a phone call) and how surely it would go between us again today, “this fine morning”: how the word “pleasure” would have barely come out of his mouth when I’d have said, in that aloof, resonant professor’s voice (which already infected me then and often infects me still—even on stage—twenty-six years later): I “deeply” apologized, but I could not accompany him “just yet”—not today at least. I had another examination for which to study—my Latin comprehensives—and a “lengthy paper”—this one on the Georgics. And that night (and I’d have been sure to say this with a wink, sly and conspiratorial), I’d made “a prior engagement”—with a “Linda Maupin” or a Teresa Cheshire” or an “Elaine Trentman”—whatever old-Raleigh, blue-blood name would have emerged in my mind just then. (Of course, I was lying about the “prior engagement,” as I’d been lying about it the six Saturdays previous.) But—I’d have gone on—“my schedule” would permit an hour for “light luncheon,” perhaps at Harry’s downtown.

And then he, his voice going tight and clipped, like that of the Army Medical Corps colonel he’d been for thirty years—his first career, long ago—this narrowed voice the only sign of his (I knew) deep disappointment: “That will be satisfactory, sir. We shall drive to the homeplace on a Saturday forthcoming. I shall telephone your great-uncle Merrick not to expect us today. He has long advertised for the sale but has assured me by certified letter, in accordance with my request, that he shall not first negotiate with another party other than myself.” Here he would have raised a hand from the brim of the Homburg he held, touched forefinger to thumb, and gone on, “Of course, I know—and you, likely, as well, Dr. Lockhart—how large a salis granum his word’s been worth. But after all these years—Lord, I haven’t seen him in twenty!—he may have changed. People do change, you know. Just give ’em time, yessir, and they change—most people, anyway.”

Then, setting the Homburg on his head, straightening it just so, he’d have bowed slightly and said, with no trace of irony, his voice broadening back, “So I shall lunch with you at noon, Dr. Lockhart—at your Harry’s downtown. Meanwhile, to pass the morning profitably, I shall visit the North Carolina Collection and there peruse, with interest, your great-great-grandfather’s letters to Governor Zebulon Baird Vance and President Ulysses Simpson Grant.”

In the three hours following, while he’d have “perused” among the faded and brittle sheets of foolscap, I’d have returned with the briefcase to my overwarm room, ,taken the Oxford Vergili Opera and the Cassell’s New Latin Dictionary out of the briefcase and set them side by side on my desk. I’d have then opened the Vergili Opera to the Fourth Georgic and bookmarked it with a cheap Bic. Then, setting the briefcase by the bureau dresser, I’d have desultorily swept and dusted, changed my soiled and wrinkled bedsheets, and taken a brief nap on the coolness of the freshly laundered ones.

At noon precisely we, the two of us, would’ve been seated across from each other in a cramped, stuffing-sprouted booth in smoky Harry’s, and over the hour there—not a second longer or less—Grandfather would have slapped down onto the stained Formica the enlarged, cracked, yellowed black-and-white photograph of an antebellum façade, the old Woodall homeplace, to be sure: the window shutters missing, the panes cracked and broken, the now-wooden porch steps black-weathered and sagging, and the far-right column gone from the lower portico, replaced by an old creosote pole twice as thick as the remaining columns—which were white still, though chipped and splintered in places. Over the whole façade, the paint was peeling everywhere, like the truck of an old sycamore.

Without touching the steak sandwich Grandfather had ordered, he’d have regaled me once more with the statistics and facts of the old house and the Civil War anecdotes of events rumored to have taken place there: how the “Federals” had dumped dead chickens onto Mrs. Woodall’s grand piano and how the fellow-Mason Federal officer, ordered to “fire” the house, had refused to do so when he saw the Masonic emblem hanging above the parlor mantelpiece, and on and on ad nauseam: tales I’d heard from him since I was five or six—“history,” Grandfather called them. And all the while his face would have been flushed deeply, his voice oddly breathless and manic, now and then breaking high and hoarse, like an excited boy’s.

Then, the anecdotes finished, Grandfather would have slapped down another photo, also black-and-white but smaller and much more recent. It showed the face and neck of a handsome woman—in her midfifties, maybe—her (no doubt, dyed) dark hair styled in the high, Jackie Kennedy bouffant hairdo so popular in the sixties. Even in middle age, she had the bright eyes, the fine, straight noise, the full lips, and the high cheekbones of the beauty queen she had been—“crowned Miss Goldsboro back in 1931.” “And this feminam pulcherrimam, Dr. Lockhart—Mrs. Loreena Wooten,” he’d have said, “it is my intention to wed, once the homeplace is mine and its interior has grown fit for her presence. When we drive down to the homeplace on a future Saturday, I’ll take you to meet her, just outside Rosewood. Oh, you wouldn’t believe all her talents—photography, painting, sculpture, gardening—and more—Lord, I can’t keep count of ’em! And she’s always been so nice to me—so eager to see me. She’s out the X-ray trailer door before I can even get out of the car!” And on and on the old man would have rambled, rolling out nearly the same words I’d heard from him in Harry’s the six Saturdays previous.

Of course, all the while I’d have been spooning up my watery chowder in quick slurps, wolfing the underdone Reuben sandwich, gulping down the Mason jar of oversweetened iced tea, glancing covertly at my wristwatch, in torment for us to quit that smoke-hazed place and walk back across campus—him to his old white Chrysler, me to the clear still of my room, the Fourth Georgic open on my desk, the cheap Bic gripped in my right hand and poised above a sheet of legal pad. Grandfather would have taken a sip from his own Mason jar of oversweetened iced tea and then a bite out of his steak sandwich, chewing it slowly. Then he would have covered his mouth with his hand, cleared his throat long and loud, as if he were about to give a speech, and said—words I remembered verbatim from the letter he’d sent me seven Saturdays ago:

 

I recognize that some of the family will object loudly to my enterprises—your mother and your uncle Claude, especially. In fact, I can already hear them: “What? An eighty-year-old man living out there—in the country? And living there all by himself? And in that house in its condition? And with no central heat? Why, he’ll catch double pneumonia, just like his own mother in that drafty old house in Goldsboro. And remarrying at his age—and this common Loreena person at that?” And on and on and on, the same sort of shrill complaints which I heard your grandmother whine for over forty years—and which now, in my old age, I no longer wish to endure. Hence, I ask you, Dr. Lockhart, that you keep my two new enterprises confidential, at least until the sale of that grandeur is accomplished, at which time I shall write your mother and uncle and shall all reveal and at length.

 

Just so I yearned for it all—oddly, even the parts I resented—to come round again as I stood that Saturday morning in May behind my shut window high in Old East, gazing down at him so grand and erect beside the Old Well, the nine-o’clock sun just now brimming over the Playmakers pediment and glowing him full—from his silver crown to the shining black tips of his shoes.

In fact, a little over an hour ago, just as I stepped outside the dormitory, lugging the briefcase into the cool shadow of the quadrangle, I foresaw clear as a movie the whole Saturday ritual. And I intended to play it through once more. I saw no reason on earth to do any different.

But a few yards down the brick walkway, I noticed the quadrangle all silent but for sparrows chirping under eaves, and I raised my head from its accustomed stoop and saw not one of the dozens of students morose, disheveled, sullen-eyed—sauntering resentfully to their Saturday classes in Saunders or Bingham or Murphy or Dey. Only I was in this place, hearing my long, pounding strides.

I crossed Cameron, strode between the Playmakers and South Building, and came out into the larger, sun-splashed quadrangle, the great, white portico of Wilson Library shining far ahead of me. This place, too, was all empty. Just squirrels were there, scurrying up thick oak trunks, and robins pecked in the grass and among the thick claws of the oak roots.

I hurried past a sign—it caught my eye: a large square of white-painted plywood nailed to a stake driven into the ground. I stopped and swung around and strode back to it and stopped and stooped and, gripping the briefcase still, read the black-painted capitals, printed slightly askew. I pored slowly, slowly over them, and I read them slowly once more, as if they held me under a spell:

 

RALLY FOR PEACE!!!!

MCCORKLE PLACE AND FRANKLIN STREET

SHARP NOON SATURDAY MAY 9

SPEAKERS: ROBBIE BELLO STUDENT BODY PRESIDENT

AND MAYBE ABBIE HOFFMAN!!!!

COME HONOR OUR FALLEN COMRADES

KENT STATE MAY 4, 1970

A DAY THAT SHALL “LIVE IN INFAMY”!!!!

LONG LIVE THE REVOLUTION!!!!

 

Under the skewed capitals was tacked a dim, grainy photograph torn raggedly out of a newspaper. It showed a girl, seventeen or eighteen, dressed in dark pants, a dark blouse with sleeves to the elbows, a light-colored kerchief tied loosely around her neck. Her long dark hair was swept back to show a high clear forehead. She was kneeling on a street pavement, her slender white arms stretched out in front of her. Her mouth was open wide, as if she were yelling, shrieking, weeping—I couldn’t tell. She faced the body of a young man stretched out limp on his stomach, an arm stiff-straight down his side, his face twisted away from the camera, cheek firm on the pavement. He was dressed in dark jeans and a light-colored windbreaker, and his thick dark hair, mashed by the pavement, was bunched high around his head. From the other side of him—some torn place I couldn’t see—a thin dark stream—blood, I knew—ran twisting over the pavement and between the girl’s bent knees and on behind her, gathering in a ragged puddle at the curbside. To the right of the two of them stood a neatly long-haired young man in a worn, light-colored blazer, an open-collared shirt, and bell-bottom jeans and boots. His face was twisted away from them, staring bewildered into the distance. Beyond the three stretched flat ground and a high chain-link fence and then the flat ground again. Students were milling about, as bewildered as the one in the blazer and bell-bottoms. Some were gazing beyond the fence—at the retreating soldiers of the National Guard (I later learned). But most were gazing numbly at the dead boy, the grieving girl.

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That clipped photograph I’d already seen but taken spare notice of. Just Wednesday afternoon, my roommate Victor Katz had slapped it hard on my desk, covering my open Fourth Georgic over which I’d been dutifully bent. Then he’d fairly screamed at me, in that self-righteous, “activist” shrill I found so irritating, “And here you can read Vir-gil [he’d spat out the g as if it were something rotten] when they’re murdering kids! Shame on you, Lockhart Titus! Shame! Shame! Shame! But at least you can redeem your prissy self, ’cause we’re rallying on Franklin tonight—and marching—permit or no permit. Let ’em cram us all in the paddy wagon—who gives a flying fuck? Anyway, you be down there, hear? Franklin and McCorkle. Eight sharp!” And before I could finish my usual, “I’m so sorry, but I’m due for a major exam tomorrow,” he’d spat, “Due—I know—like having a goddamn baby—and a re-tard at that! Fuck it!” And he’d whipped around and burst out of our room, slamming the door so hard behind him his framed Easy Rider poster (Dennis Hopper glaring from a Harley) dropped to the floor, splintering glass all the way out from under his bed. (I knew he’d just yell, “Fuck it!” when he got back and then sweep up the glass and roll up the poster and cardboard backing and dump it all into the trash barrel in the hallway and forget about it. “It’s just a thing!” he’d mutter: “Un-im-por-tant.”) But then, after the door slammed, the glass splinters inches from my feet, I could hear his big boots pounding down the hall, then fading as the stairwell door slammed shut. When there was quiet again, I merely glanced at the clipped photo, without seeing it, and whisper-sighed wearily, like a resigned old man, “It’s just not you, Lock—not your way, your life.” Then I tossed the photo flat into the waste basket beside my desk and hunched once more, dutifully—yet, deep inside, ruefully—over the Fourth Georgic.

About “that war” I had no opinion one way or the other. It was some far-away “foreign matter” that had no connection to me at all—other than the bothersome steps (I knew not what) I’d have to take to extend my draft deferment in June, or somehow get classified 4-F. In those tunnel-mirrored days, I was just a classics scholar, my mind set on summa cum laude and then graduate school at Princeton, where I’d already been accepted. Besides, I loathed—and shunned—loud, cursing “demonstrators,” especially the scruffy, long-haired “revolutionaries” with their self-righteous slogans and abrasive voices and megaphones and crudely hand-lettered posters and chanting rallies along Franklin Street.

But why hadn’t I asked Victor to move out long ago? Or why hadn’t I moved out myself and rented a cheap room in an old widow’s bungalow? For ever since we’d begun to room together, the first day of our freshman year (we’d been thrown together by lottery), I’d found him that loud, scruffy, self-righteous type I couldn’t bear. And day after day I’d had to hear him scold me in that shrill, quarrelsome way of his—for my “aloof prissiness.” Hearing him, how I’d winced with irritation inside!

But—oddly for an “activist” sort (who’d usually major in Political Science or Sociology or even Religion)—he held a very different ambition, a passion that had fiercely attracted me, in grade school and high school, and that attracted me now, a vocation for theater—for six years now my secret love, my mere fantasy-calling. A drama major, he played the leads, always the leads, in student productions—Dionysus, Orestes, Hamlet, Stanley in Streetcar, and more—all those roles so much like him: radiant with a dark and angry vitality.

And yes (and of this I was only vaguely, shamefully aware), he held other charms englowed with the first: the full sensuous lips, the straight white teeth revealed in a startling grin (rare) or a taut grimace (more often), the handsome, east-Mediterranean molding of his face, the high, thick, black curly hair, the wide, lake-brown eyes ever staring, ever piercing me, and, above all, the defined chest muscles under his T-shirts. (After rising, he did push-ups every morning, without fail.) So whenever we’d finished a falling out over my “aloof prissiness,” I’d squirm with resentment the whole night afterward and decide “with finality” to say to him next day (I’d even memorized the lines): “I’m terribly sorry, Victor, but this isn’t working out—our rooming together. Would you find another place to stay? I’ll help you search—help you move, even.” But next morning, in early dark, in the dim light of the desk lamp, I’d be bent wide-eyed and dry-mouthed over him as he slept on his back in his rumpled bed, that high shock of curly black hair spread over his coffee-stained pillow, that chest naked, hairy, defined and, when the heat was too high, coiled with the threads and tiny beads of his sweat, and I’d feel myself harden—fiercely, painfully—and so relent and “forget” to bring up “the subject” in the few minutes we gulped coffee together before rushing off to classes.

So, yes, I’d seen that photo Wednesday afternoon, and three days later, on that Saturday morning in May, a little past eight o’clock, I saw it again, tacked to the plywood sign, under the rally announcement. I was about to stride on—I was late for class—but found I couldn’t take my eyes off the kneeling girl, the shocked grief in her open mouth and outstretched arms. It came to me suddenly she was weeping in that deep, wrenched, down-in-the-lungs way I’d only—so far—heard once in my life, dredged up painfully out of myself, years ago, in circumstances that, at twenty-two, I’d long damped from memory. I gazed at her a while longer, shuddered violently, then shook my head to steady myself and swung around and strode on, faster now, over the antique brick and then, taking two at a time, up the broad stair steps of Murphy Hall and through the double swinging doors and into the small, bare vestibule. I glanced at the restroom’s double doors to my left, shook my head sharply, then lunged through a second pair of swinging doors and into the corridor and stopped, the gripped black briefcase a great weight by my side. This place, too, was empty, like the campus, and I slowed, as if entering a church, and heard my footsteps echoing. When I entered Room 204, my vast, high-ceilinged Virgil room (much too large for a class of twelve students), I saw empty school desks in neat rows and, on the blackboard, a note in Dr. Applewhite’s neat cursive, “Out of respect for the Kent State fallen, once again no class shall be conducted today. For Tuesday, May 12 (we shall meet then), translate the next fifty lines of the Fourth Georgic.”

I scanned the rows of empty desks, heard a sharp clank from a cooling radiator, then saw in my mind the grieving girl from the photograph. My stomach fell as I felt for the first time in five years (an eternity when you are twenty-two) how lonely my life was and how utterly deep a lonesomeness it had been. I remembered how, for four years nearly, I’d lived only for my cramped routine: the striding to classes, the hunched studying over the scratched, wobbly table I called “the desk,” the occasional yet ever formal, cerebral conversations with Victor over our gulps of morning coffee, the rushed, solitary meals at Lenoir Hall and the Carolina Inn, and, in the summers, (yes, summers even—what might have been bright, carefree, Frisbee-flinging Junes, Julys, Augusts, or, better, enlivening work outdoors, as a camp counselor, perhaps) my lonely job at Wilson Library: shelving books, filing cards in narrow drawers, steering by their cool, bony wrists bespectacled, owl-eyed old ladies into the stacks—to their adored books they could barely read, much less see to find. As I stood in that vast, silent classroom, I saw the past four years (except for rare, strange fits of mine this past April—and rare, strange fits of Grandfather, too—this strange, maddening April wholly uncharacteristic of both of us)—saw those four years as a life without energy or heart or connection or desire. A life without soul. Dead as that clank of the old Murphy radiator.

Lugging the heavy briefcase still, I squeezed between the empty desks to a high window flung wide open, the blinds raised as high as they could go. I stared down upon the quadrangle and saw, just by chance—a blessing? a curse?—I’ll never know for sure, even now, twenty-six years later—saw a young man, maybe eighteen, walking close beside his girlfriend, their arms curved tightly around each other’s waists. They were dressed in faded blue jeans and tie-dyed T-shirts and floppy leather sandals. They stopped midstride a moment by a great white oak and, embracing softly, tenderly, kissed each other on the mouth—a long, deep, tongue-swirling kiss, the girl sweetly groaning. Then they drew apart, slowly, and the boy reached up to brush a fly from her long dark hair. Then they walked on, slowly, hand in hand, their sandals slapping the brick pavement.

Again, I saw in my mind the grieving girl in the photograph, her mouth wrenched open, crying out the anguish in her young heart, and I felt deep down this Saturday would go different from the others—would have to go different—or I’d take a knife and rip myself open.

Knowing now—but without the words—what it was I first must do, I swung around and strode out of the classroom, kicking aside the close-spaced desks and lugging the black briefcase like a heavy wooden leg I longed to be rid of. I strode down the corridor and through the paired swinging doors and into the vestibule and stopped.

To my right was that other pair of swinging doors—metal gray, scratched everywhere with graffiti, and, as always, unlatched. Taped on the wall to the right of them was a page torn from The Daily Tar Heel, showing Victor’s photograph. I recognized the large head, the high shock of curly hair, the staring eyes and creased forehead, the thick lips—now shut tightly. The headline read, “Student Activists Arrested for Trespassing,” and the article below told how Victor and “a few activist cohorts” had broken into South Building late Wednesday night and “barricaded” themselves inside, “vowing” by megaphone they’d never come out until Chancellor Sitterson had “publicly condemned the Kent State murderers.” But the Chancellor—the article ran on—“refused to accede to the demands of criminals,” and three hours later, the State Patrol was “summoned,” the building “stormed,” and the activists “forcibly evicted.” Going limp, they were “physically carried” to Highway Patrol cars, driven to the Hillsboro jail, and released “on unsecured bond.”

I leaned close to Victor’s photograph and stared at the bulged, bloodshot eyes that, in my bewilderment of the morning, seemed to yell at me: “So you wouldn’t come to our Wednesday rally, prissy, shirking son of a bitch! I know you! Well, girl, since you’re so close now—inches away—maybe you can dredge up the Lockhart guts to enter this thy portal and stride down these thy stair steps and into the shrine you’ve been longing for years to enter and there do the other act that makes you you—what you refuse to admit is in you, a part of you, like your arm, your leg, your ‘unmentionables’ (as you’d prissy-say)—ha!—won’t even admit it to yourself. Yeah, baby, I’ve seen those Blue Boys and muscle mags of yours, sticking out from under your mattress when you hadn’t shoved them in enough. So I know what you want—what you’ve been wanting for fucking years! Besides, I’ve seen the way you stare at me early mornings—yeah, I’m awake as an owl, eyes squinted and just a-suckin’ it all in—pardon the pun, baby. So since you wouldn’t join us Wednesday night and won’t today either—noon to fuckin’ midnight if we have to!—at least long live this revolution—down there—in thy basement shrine of cum and stalls and piss and men. There’s one guy waiting at least—and about your age, too, and just as lonely and hungry as you are—waiting for a suck or a fuck or just a kiss—one deep, deep tounging kiss—so he may as well be yours, baby! And when you’re oh, yeah! satisfied—maybe even cornhole satisfied—then you can dredge up those Lockhart guts to long-leg it down to McCorkle and Franklin and join us and yell!”

Of course, his eyes—his words—were my words speaking to me in my mind, in hushed and frantic whispering: words luring me, hardening me, until I felt a wetness, a slow and sweet-painful ooze. In a clench of fear, I was about to swing around, as I’d swung around many times before, in the late nights I’d finished studying in a Murphy classroom and then left it, breathlessly, and stridden down to the vestibule and caught sight of those swinging, unlatched doors and even pushed through them and stepped—softly, slowly—down the four stair steps, lugging my briefcase, then leaned an ear against another pair of doors, likewise unlatched, gateway to the shrine of my deep heart’s need, and, leaning so, ears as alert and keen as the throbbing in my groin, heard the soft groans and moans, the moist, rhythmic slaps of balls against buttocks, then the louder groans and shrieks of orgasm. How I’d swung around, terror-clenched, and stridden back up the steps and out into the cool, clear night and yelled, “Thank God! Thank God! Thank God!”

So on that Saturday morning, I was just about to swing around again and stride back to the safe serene of my room, gripped in the years-long terror of being myself truly. (Yes, there is ever a terror, a danger, in that—blooming into the man, or woman, wholly different from the person your parents expected, knew, you would turn out to be: the terror because of your new, dizzying freedom and your whole, shuddering openness to the deep, past, scarring wounds in your own—owned—soul.) But then I caught Victor’s eyes again, the bulged, bloodshot eyes in the photograph: saw the rage and passion in them—for acting, living, loving—and I saw once more, in contrast, like a movie in fast forward, my years of stooped head and shirt collars buttoned to the neck and tightly knotted ties and the heavy, black brief briefcase and the solitary studying and all its imprisoning ennui—the isolation, the shame, the death-in-life. And, as if some strange new flame had surged up in me—a flame stranger than all my odd behaviors since this strange, maddening April—a sudden, fierce flame that seemed to pierce from Victor’s eyes, I dropped that grim briefcase like a rock, feeling the floor shudder, and heaved myself through the swinging doors and strode (no stepping “softly, slowly” now) down the four, broad stair steps and shoved through the second pair of swinging doors and into the large, echoing restroom with the six stalls along the left side and the six urinals along the right, the six stained sinks side by side at the far end of the room before me.

The only light filtered in from the four, wide, green-frosted windows above the sinks, windows without latches, not meant to be opened. The light—a dingy, washed-out green—reminded me of the light I had seen in a gas chamber once, when I was ten, and a playmate and I had decided one summer day, on a lark, to dress in suits and ties and catch the bus to south Raleigh and tour Central Prison. The light in the restroom was that same light—sick-green yet oddly alluring.

So quiet it was in that place I felt it was only I there, and I breathed disappointment and relief at the same time. Then I felt so sudden a wave of exhaustion my head swam a little. To steady it, I entered a stall at the far end of the dim room, by one of the stained sinks, quietly lowered the toilet seat and, seeing it was dry, sat on it with my pants still on. I leaned over and cupped my chin in my hand, Thinker-like. For a time I could hear only the sound of my slow breathing—sigh-like, despairing.

Then, in the stall beside me, I heard a footstep, a rustle of cloth, the long, slow rattle of a tissue holder being turned, then the faint rip of the tissue. I stared down to my right just as a thick finger protruded under the stall edge, wrapped thickly in the tissue. As if it were some strange snake charming me, luring me, I rose slowly from my toilet seat and stepped quietly out of the stall and faced the scratched metal door next to mine. I knocked once, gently, shyly, my heart pounding. There was silence a moment inside the stall, then a catch of breath and a belt buckle clinking. Then: the soft, slow sliding down of pants over thighs (jeans, surely—tight ones!), then the elastic band of briefs, the same slow sliding down, paused to be raised over knees, then the continued sliding down—over smooth calves? or hairy ones? I could only wonder. I heard then the quick, rhythmic flicks of a shirt being unbuttoned, then the shirt sliding back over shoulders, down arms, then the soft plop when it hit the tile floor. Then I heard the same smooth sliding of an undershirt being removed and the same little plop.

I squatted and, peering under the door rim, saw thick, black, scuffed hiking boots with thick, white socks mud-stained and folded tightly over the rims of the boots. These would stay on him—how I knew, I didn’t know—I just knew. (Perhaps I knew—I see now—from the Blue Boys from that “bookstore” in east Durham—the slick, musty magazines of grainy photos of “macho” exhibitionists. Yes, long before that Saturday May morning, I’d learned effeminate men weren’t the only ones “that way.” Quite the contrary!)

I stood up, and a latch slid back, sharply, echoing in the large room, and the stall door swung sharply inward, gripped all the way to metal-slap by a meaty, veined hand with thick, flat-tipped fingers and nails trimmed to the quick. The hand was all smooth on the back, not a hair anywhere. It was the huge hand of a wrestler on the team, so it seemed to me then, in my welling fantasy. Through the open door propped by a boot, I saw, even in the dim green of the stall, a crew-cut, heavily muscled guy, about my age, sitting naked on the toilet seat, his thick, shaved thighs spread wide, his thick member erect to his belly button and curving back slightly over the fringe of black hair that ran down, like some dark-alive wire, to his shaved crotch. His arms were raised, spread, elbows bent, into a biceps pose, the defined peaks raised sharp, the inner arms mapped with twisted veins. His chest, all smooth (and, oddly, pale as a sheet) was flexed into twin, slightly quivering mounds with a deep rift down the center of them. The nipples were dark pink and the size of quarters, the center tips raised into hard little cones. His neck was wrestler-thick, and, over his broad, slightly puffy, pimple-cluttered face spread a wide, gap-toothed grin with thick, salmon-colored lips. His eyes—their color invisible—were deep-set under ridged brows, their thick hair meeting above a flat, squashed-in nose. He was a guy right out of the pages of Honcho or Torso or the photo spreads in Blue Boy devoted to wrestling and S & M. For a moment, my head swam, and I thought I was back in my dorm room, alone, the door latched from inside, my eyes peering hungrily at one of those photos. But then the smell—of sharp urine mixed with Clorox—brought me back to the dim green, and I knew this guy was no grainy, fantasy-photo, but sat on that toilet realsolid—absolutely here.

I waited for him to speak, but he kept that wide, gap-toothed smile, that stare under hooded eyes, the thick arms and thick chest flexed and quivering, the member wholly erect and just beginning to ooze from the tip—a tiny, clear bubble that swelled, burst, then slid slowly, in twin curving threads, down the circumcised head.

When the silence and his grinning and the oozing and the flexing became too much to bear—from either of us—I knew (or thought I knew) what it was he wanted me to do—wanted us to do. And so with no words between us, he slid his boot from against the door, and, stepping inside the stall, I turned and closed the door all the way and latched it behind me. Then, facing him, I stepped to him as close as I could and bent my puckered lips to his.

“Naw. No girl stuff!” he yelled, his words like a slap.

I would have swung around and left right then, but I was too “hard” for that—too painful—too welling for him.

Knowing now what he really wanted, I knelt on the cool tile floor and, in surprise to myself (since I’d only read of this “act” before, in those Blue Boys bought, eyes lowered, from that “bookstore” in east Durham), I bent over his erect member and, as if I had done it all my life, gripped its base with my right fist, feeling the rock tautness, the thick, rubbery vein, the sparse stubble of shaved hair. Then I opened my mouth as wide is it could go and, cupping my lips gently around the whole head, tasted the thick rim, the rubbery firmness—smelled the heavy, male-crotch smell. And I began the slow rhythmic sliding I could only imagine, hungrily, for so many years, as I’d waited to burst into white bloom in my bed: my gripping mouth plunging down to shaft-base where my fingers were gently clamped, then sliding back up to the head and coming off it with a loud slurp! Then plunging down again, sucking up again—down and up, down and up, moistening with my spit the whole, hard, curved-back shaft, all the while hearing his low, prolonged groan and then a hoarse, deep “Yeah, oh, yeeeeeee-ah!

I must have pumped a minute before he came, groaning, in a thick, warm jet on my tongue—a taste sweet, yet slightly astringent, like the smell of a gym or an indoor pool. Suddenly, silent now, he came twice more in my mouth, and I swallowed, savoring each warm, bittersweet burst, while under my fly my own member stood, arcing back—pained, taut, oozing.

“Taste good, yeah!” he whispered, and he reached out a meaty hand and felt my crouch, the bulge and the tautness. “Feels like you’re ready for me, baby!”

I slid my mouth off him and wiped away the single strand of mixed saliva and semen. Then, as if in a dance, we rose at the same time, slowly, gracefully—I from my knees, he from his toilet seat, and he turned around and knelt and pressed the palms of his huge hands tight to the sides of the toilet tank and thrust his rear hard upward. I saw two round, taut glutes, as smooth and pale as the rest of him, and, between the glutes, the darker, hairless cleft of his anus. (Yes, he’d shaved that, too.)

“Don’t worry, baby, I’ve douched,” he said aloud, his voice lilting suddenly, girl-like, on the “douched.”

I saw that dark crevice of his anus inviting me, and, from my years of Blue Boys, from my recent weeks of intent listening outside the restroom doors—to the breathy groans, the rhythmic slapping of balls against buttocks—I knew, once more, exactly what to do: how to perform the whole lust-crazed, and, at that time in my life, shamefully relished ritual.

Quickly, breathlessly, I unbuckled my belt and shoved down pants and underwear to my shoes. Three or four times I fingered saliva off my tongue and onto my cock, spreading it thick around the taut head and down the shaft, and then, kneeling again and gripping it, I began to slide it slowly into him. I heard his breath catch, and I whispered, “Slower? Am I hurting you?” And he cried out, in pain, “No! Fuck me hard, baby! Make me bleed!”

I pushed all the way in, felt the soft-hard doughnut in him that kept me from going deeper, heard him shriek, “Aw yeeeeeee-ah!”—and cried out myself, “Oh, God, Jesus!” all the while wondering in my mind, Is this Ihere, now, doing this, yelling this?

I could not recognize myself. This couldn’t be I. And for a moment I felt as if I, the real I, were standing back against the stall door, watching the whole scene, dispassionately, my elbows folded: two young men—one tall and lanky, the other his thick and muscular opposite—fucking like dogs, or, to put it literarily, performing the sodomy to which Dante assigned a whole circle of Hell, a whole ring of Purgatory.

And then I—this not-I, this not-Lockhart Elledge—must have shed, slid off, shook loose—I don’t know how to say it—all those celibate, armored, held-in years like layer upon layer of old numbed and leathered skin. For, like a seasoned yet still hungry lover, I leaned upon his broad back ridged with muscle, clamped my skinny arms around his thick shoulders, felt in my elbows’ hollows the hard, bunched curves of his deltoids: yes, I clamped—hugged—him so hard I trembled, and began to pump into him as hard as I could, in and back, in and back, in and back, taking care to stay in him, never slide out of him. (“Seasoned yet hungry”—there were no other words.)

I bent my head down and around him, saw his meaty grip pumping his own member, grown stiff again, and after I’d pumped a minute maybe, I came in a huge relieving burst, filling him full (or so it seemed, in my wild fantasy), and right after, thick jets of white flew out of him, splattering the toilet bowl.

While he groaned loudly, echoing in the vast room, I kept silent, thinking—no, longing—it would happen: Yes, he—the old fart—he’s come to the swinging doors now, seeking me here, knowing, somehow, exactly where he’ll find me and what I’ll be doing, and now he’s pushing himself slowly, weakly through the swinging doors and entering the vast, urine-smelling room, stopping a moment to adjust old eyes to the dim green. He steps forward now, slowly, in his old man’s listing gait. He steps, knowing, to the next-to-last stall from the row of sinks. Now, with a veined hand, he pushes the stall door, but it won’t open, so he leans his spider-veined face to a slit between the door hinges, and, yes, even with his old eyes, squinting till they tear, he sees me inside—me, his only grandson, the Professor Classicus Futurus, the family scion of “highest hopes” and “limitless expectations” (as he wrote me on a postcard once—years ago). Yes, the stuck-up old fart, he sees me, this “scion,” now kneeling on dirty semen-stained tile, locked inside the bowels of some “common,” pea-brained athlete, my arms tight as a lover’s—a pervert’s, rather—around the crudely overpumped shoulders—me, the sole, fertile male “sustainer” of the Woodall line, pumping his last, thick, white burst as crudely as one dog into another, while the crude, “common,” pea-brained athlete cries out, “Fuck me hard, baby! Make me bleed!”

(But, of course, the old man never enters this dim green and never will. He now stands erect and elegant beside the Old Well, old, watery blue eyes fixed across Cameron and down the wide, brick walkway, waiting . . . )

When I filled the wrestler all I could, I felt at once the old emptiness and melancholy after orgasm, then the old, filling shame, and I thought, angrily, No, Lock, you’re not that. You should know better! You’re better than that! How I hate that! It’s not your direction! Can’t you realize? Can’t you learn? Just like your whoring father—never could learn!—and shot dead in a Phenix City whorehouse before you were born or when I was just a baby two years old, I can’t remember! (And I couldn’t remember, not then.)

I slid out of him, quickly, and without even wiping the shit off me, I stood and jerked up my underwear and dress pants and buckled my belt and swung around and unlatched the door and rushed out of the stall. As I strode to the swinging doors, I heard him shout, “Hey, what’s the rush, darlin’? You’re good, baby! Nice big dick! But you got to learn to hold it longer—fuck me till I bleed! So how ’bout tonight? Say nine? Same place? Same stall? I’ll be waitin’ on yuh, pumpin’ for yuh. And maybe we’ll do the girl-stuff. Your lips—they pretty sexy, too!”

He went on longer—hoarsely, longingly, desperately (or so it seemed to me then)—but I could no longer hear him, since I’d left that dirty, urine-stinking room, that dim, nauseous green which—especially now, fiercely—called to mind the gas chamber I had seen when I was ten and dressed in a suit, in the summertime.

Beyond the second pair of doors I gripped up the heavy, black briefcase and strode out of the vestibule and into the sunny air, shoving all that pervert- stuff—that not-Lockhart Elledge—behind me.

But when I came within sight of the Playmakers and saw, in the oak-shaded distance, my Grandfather Woodall standing beside the Old Well, peering just now at his big pocket watch, I tasted the sticky semen on the roof of my mouth, smelled the vile shit welling up out of my crotch and the sharp sweat from my perverted exertions, saw the new ragged wrinkles and creases in my newly pressed pants and starched shirt, and I knew I could not go meet him now and grip his proffered hand—not in this dishevelment—this not-me.

So I sneaked—there’s no other word—around the other end of the Playmakers, the portico end, and entered Old East by a side door and strode up the three flights of stairway and into my room and shut the door behind me. I dropped the briefcase on the bed and went to the shut window before my desk and looked down at the Old Well and saw him standing beside it, gray Homburg held out with both veined hands in front of him, his blue gaze fixed across Cameron at the brick walkway between South Building and the Playmakers Theater. Seeing him so erect and elegant there, the sun just now glowing him full, from his silver crown to the shining black tips of his shoes—and remembering, too, how it had gone between us every Saturday morning since the twenty-eighth of March—the whole blessed, because expected, ritual!—and wanting—longing—that it should come round so again, I saw it was five before nine by the clock on my desk, and I thought, Yes, if I hurried, I’d have time to shower and change clothes and rinse my mouth and go out the side door and come around the Playmakers and stride to him, carrying the heavy briefcase—I, the Lockhart-TitusElledge-Classics-Man he’s always known me to be (for four years anyway)—my right hand, as I’ll approach him, stretched out to grip his proffered one. So—yes—I can still make it all come round again, and it’ll be as if all that—in that sick-green restroom—never happened—all that “pervert stuff.” (So I called it then, twenty-six years ago, in my innocence, my ignorance).

But, again, I tasted the semen, felt it sticky and sordid on my palate, like rotten glue, and, again, I smelled the shit welling in sharp waves from out of my crotch, and I remembered that girl in the photograph, her mouth wrenched wide in grief, remembered the empty campus and the canceled class and Dr. Applewhite’s neat cursive on the blackboard, remembered the big peace rally planned for tonight: knew McCorkle Place was already being filled with herds of long-haired, patches-jeaned “peaceniks” and leather-goods hawkers and ponytailed technicians setting up podiums and speakers and amplifiers and microphones and the white, portable toilets that, even empty, always seemed to spread their stink of urine. And I knew at noon Grandfather and I, in our dress clothes and ties, would have to cross that noisy, smelly quadrangle on our way to Harry’s and then cross it again on our way back, Grandfather to his old Chrysler, I to my dorm room in Old East. And I knew that night even my shut windows could not muffle the vulgar rock music from even as far away as McCorkle—could not muffle the harsh ranting of the speakers and the ugly cheers and the insipid slogan so popular since a recent speech of Nixon’s—that vulgar chant and response: “What do we want? [Pause.] PEACE!” [Pause.] “When do we want it?” [Pause.] NOW!”

And I knew, my mind still cluttered by the daylong distraction—and, yes, my shame still lingering from the morning hour in the Murphy Hall restroom—I’d rise irritably from the Fourth Georgic now and again all through the noisy evening and sweating miserably in the overwarm room, pace about, fingers in ears, and shout, “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up, faggots!” And then, oddly, to calm myself, I knew I’d step, ears still plugged, to the window above my bed, shut tight, like the other, and leaning sideways, stare down on the pinewood of the sill and read once more the mysterious graffiti—the “inscription,” rather—carved carefully, it seemed, by a small pocket knife: that “CARPE DIEM, QUAM MINIMUM CREDULA POSTERO. BUT NOT FOR ME. NOT ANY MORE. NEVER. NEVER. NEVER. NEVER. I THINK IT’S FIVE. I’LL ADD ANOTHER. NEVER. 8 MAY 19—” For four years nearly, I’d often wondered about it: Who’d carved it? And why so carefully? It must have taken him hours. And what was he thinking—feeling? In what year was it carved? It looked old, was all I could surmise from the faded and shallow cuts of the high, neat, perfectly aligned all-capitals, polished over by the years—decades!—of janitors. (Victor never noticed it, and I never brought it to his attention. It was my odd, private prayer, meant for my eyes only—and for some deep, unknown place in my soul.)

And I knew that at nine that night the wrestler would be awaiting me, tempting me, naked on his toilet seat, in that dim-green death chamber in the basement of Murphy Hall.

Remembering—and foreseeing—all this prickly and black disorder distorting my for so long serene and bright and studious Saturdays, I realized, with a breath-clench of fear, that I could not stay in this room today and sit all daylight and into the night (perhaps grabbing a bite at Lenoir) before my open Fourth Georgic and translate those suddenly tiresome lines, all the while tasting the residue of that common hunk’s semen in my mouth which I knew would take hours to clear, no matter how often I’d rise to go out to the restroom and rinse and gargle. No, in fact, I wouldn’t—couldn’t—stay anywhere else on campus or even in town.

But where would I go—escape? I dreaded a bus ride or a hitchhike home (where, since my last visit on March 21, a Saturday, I had decided never to visit again, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter and birthdays—and only then to satisfy my mother’s constant pleading—“for my sake,” she had whined, “and for the family.”) In fact, ever since that Saturday, just the thought of home—the being there—depressed me: my always slightly chill upstairs bedroom, my Georgics open on the rickety, fake-pine, little-boy’s desk by the red-curtained window—desk and curtains I had known, in the despair of familiarity, since I was five or six.

So—Where? Where? I flailed inwardly.

My eyes on Grandfather glowing in full sun now, like a classic statue, I saw in my mind, at first in far, aching distance, at the beginning of a long, straight, dirt drive flanked by tall pines, the sunlit, white façade of an antebellum house, the middle third of it a double portico of balustrades and four Ionic columns. Under a green, low-pitched roof shone a triangular pediment with a little arched window in the center—a third eye, if you will, winking back the sun. As I came closer, I saw, near the left end of the portico, a huge, old oak in full leaf, its thick branches arcing over the drive. A white-brick chimney stood high at each corner of the great house. Closer still, I saw the large upper and lower double windows on each side of the porticos, their green shutters now attached, but closed. And I saw, in the center of the lower portico, the broad, white, intricately molded double door, just now opening inward, inviting me . . .

I saw a great serenity in that place I had nearly forgotten ever was, and, with its white-glowing image in my mind, its façade nearly like that of a temple at Paestum or Delphi, I saw a refuge—a soul restorative—where just by breathing of the pine-winey floorboards and the remnant leaves of tobacco hung every September in one of the upper rooms, I could cleanse away all my sick-green shame and black distraction of the morning. And I decided that this Saturday I’d at last, like some long-withholding lover, surrender myself and, hard upon our ritual grip, say—cry out even, like a breathless boy: “Yes, Grandfather, I’ll drive down with you today. We can stop by Bentonville and tour the battlefield and then visit Mrs. Wooten in Rosewood and then meet Uncle Merrick on the lower portico, and when the papers are signed and you own your dream (or nearly own it) [I knew the closing might take weeks to complete], we can stop by Ava Gardner’s school—I’ve never seen it—the inside of it—and, if we have the time, that old church your grandfather Blow-Your-Horn-Billy built for the colored people—I’ve never seen it either—the inside.” (I had seen the interior—but just once—and the ten years since had damped the episode from memory—to which I’ll come in due time.)

So I had planned to say to him, in a relieving, longing burst. But first I had to clean myself—shower and scrub—then change into clean, pressed dress slacks and starched white shirt and tie, had to rinse and gargle as hard as I could.

I hurried through all of it—so fast I forgot to pack laundry and clean clothes, forgot even my books and briefcase. In ten minutes, I was down the stairs and out the front door, walking slowly and quietly toward him, arms swinging loosely. I came up behind him, not quite on tiptoe, and said right out not the long, boyishly breathless speech I’d planned—wanted—but the simple, almost perfunctory, “Dee-di, does Uncle Merrick know we’re on our way?” (“Dee-di”—this was the first time I’d called him that since I was twelve. For years—the few times I’d seen him—I’d addressed him as “Grandfather,” even to his face, or, jocularly, as “Dr. Claude Alexander Woodall, Medical Man.”)

He gave a little jerk of surprise and turned around, listing slightly, and faced me and, holding his Homburg in his left hand, stretched out his right. I gripped it, dutifully, and then, as he set the Homburg on his head, straightening it just so, his face began to flush with pleasure, and his eyes brightened behind the thick glasses, and he said, in his old voice laced with catarrh, “So you’ve at last received a break in your hard studying, Dr. Lockhart—but—why—you’re supposed to—” He waved a veined hand back toward South Building and the Playmakers, my usual route to him.

“My class was canceled,” I said. “You know—all the peace people and that sort of thing.”

He nodded, chuckling, “Yessir,” and, tapping his foot in rhythm, softly chanted, “‘All we want is peace, peace, peace.’” Then he laughed, “Heh heh, all that carrying on.” I laughed with him, conspiratorially: all that common, herd behavior was beneath us.

Then he cleared his throat and said, “My car’s in the Playmakers lot. We can be down in Klan Country in an hour and a half.” Here he laughed at some private joke and whispered, just loud enough for me to hear, “Yessir, your old Uncle Merrick, he was one of ’em, maybe still is.”

II

My grandfather and I entered the Chrysler and shut our doors, and I felt at once the close, stale heat of the old car (a ’62), and, with the heat, as if woven into it, the warm, thick odor—partly of sweat, partly of mothballs and dry cleaning fluid, partly the indefinable smell of old male bodies: a smell I remembered from years ago—from his paired bedroom closets back in Raleigh.

With a hoarse “Whew!” he rolled his window down, and I rolled down mine, and as we swung out of the parking lot and drove up past Forest Theater toward Raleigh Road, a rushing breeze took all that heat away.

But the smell lingered—that multitudinous smell, holding in my mind some cramped and cramping memory. I strained to name it—to picture it—but before it could come clear in my mind, we had already left town—had, in fact, come off the long, downhill divided highway and onto the narrow, flat two-laner. And he, my Grandfather Woodall, his face flushed with a sudden, manic nostalgia, had begun to speak, a veined hand gesturing now and again at the roadsides flanked by thick pines and scrub oaks stringed lush with kudzu. He was speaking of May 1909:

“Yessir, exactly May, maybe this very date, and a Saturday, too, like now, about nine—clear and sunny, cool-warm as June. The night before, my two Kappa Sigma buddies and I had just taken a notion, ‘Hey, let’s walk to Nelson tomorrow and catch the noon train to Goldsboro. We can be home by nightfall.’ (We didn’t even think to hitchhike—we wanted the walk, young folks we were back then.) So with knapsacks of books and clothes strapped to our shoulders, we started out next day, Saturday, just now, striding fast along the roadside to get to Nelson by noon. ’Course, the nine miles was dirt then, and single-lane, the pines and scrub oaks thick up to the road edge—no grassy shoulders in those days, nosir. Every so often a Model T’d chug by, coating us in dust. Lord, we patted and brushed until our shoulders hurt! We walked fast, like I said—long-striding—’cause we knew the train left Nelson at noon. We’d found out that much ahead of time, anyway. All we could hear—’cept for the T’s passing about every half hour—were our own pounding strides and now and then a jay-squawk and the mourning doves woo-woo-wu-wooing, you know how they do—“tua cura, palumbes,” as old Maro coos it. But that was all: it was that quiet, 1909-quiet. And the more we strode and the faster we strode, the more we felt like striding—Lord, we could stride on forever in those years! Don’t ever get old, Dr. Lockhart. Don’t ever get old.”

He went silent a moment, and the smell struck me again, the shrouding old-man part of it that I remembered from his double closets years ago.

He cleared his throat long and deep and rasped on: “So sure enough, a minute before noon, we arrived at Nelson—just a little, tin-roofed platform by the single track, and beside it a sign, “Nelson,” on a stake stuck in the ground. Lord, we were just in time, hearing the old steam engine whistling a half mile away, and in a minute its squeal and clatter and long shrill of steam as it pulled up by the platform and stopped.”

He went silent again as we passed under the railroad bridge and stopped at an intersection. A few yards to our left stood a small, “official,” rectangular sign on a creosote post driven into bare clay: NELSON—black capitals on white, rust-edged metal. Beyond the sign I saw no covered platform where a train might stop—just the glittering metal of a single railroad track high on a clay embankment covered with weeds and crabgrass. Across the highway stood four, identical Carolina-T farmhouses spaced far apart, weather-blackened, their front windows broken out, beer cans and cellophane wrappers scattered over the sagging and stepless front porches. I squinted at the glittering rails and pictured that little, tin-roofed platform and the three knapsacked young men leaping onto it in their loose-fitting, long-sleeved, coarse, cotton shirts and their berets and tan breeches and brown knee socks and black brogans, their young faces flushed to beet-color from the nine-mile hike. And in my grandfather’s silence, I caught that smell again—now the astringent, mixed sweat and dry cleaning fluid and then, suddenly, a new smell: the harsh soap, nearly like lye, that he must have used as a boy and a young man and all through his middle age—soap he was showering with even now, at eighty-one.

He jerked his head to the left, then swung right, and we were driving the two-lane road that continued 54. We rode in silence awhile, following the railroad atop the high, weedy, clay-patched embankment.

“What’re you thinking of, Dr. Lockhart?” Grandfather broke suddenly, clearing his throat.

I tasted the wrestler-hunk’s semen still sticking to the roof of my mouth and so thought of him and the dim-green restroom and tonight and nine o’clock.

But I said, to damp the taste, the sudden shame (and unaware of my pun), “Oh, just Nelson. It isn’t much, is it?”

He whispered a hoarse “heh heh” and said, “Nosir, wasn’t much in ought nine, either. Just those same old Carolina T’s, but newer, painted, and with folks living in them. Those and the tin-roofed platform by the tracks. Up till ’45 even, you could see young men in threes or fours striding out the nine miles from the Hill to catch the train headed east. (Now the Greensboro and Winston and Asheville boys had it easy—just a miler into Carrboro— University Station.) The shed here’s gone now, of course—dismantled in ’46 when 54 was paved at last and the boys could catch rides in a minute, or the post-War boom gave their fathers money to buy ’em cars. The Southern Railway people didn’t see any use in keeping it.”

He went silent again and after a mile maybe, began whispering to himself, his thin, pale-pruned lips faintly twitching. Every so often I’d hear, “Yessir, I should’ve told that fellah where to head in,” punctuated, oddly, with a faint “heh heh.” He was far away from me now—only his smell lingering: those complications of smells.

Suddenly the smells brought back, clear as on a movie screen, that cramped and cramping memory. It was a day in mid-May 1966, a Saturday, to be sure—the day I last rode with him into “Klan Country” and the old Woodall homeplace. I recall it so vividly because it was the day—on our way back to Raleigh in late afternoon, just as we left Smithfield and crossed the Neuse River Bridge, passed the huge billboard that faced drivers entering town, the billboard of crudely painted men shrouded in white gowns and hoods and holding aloft fiery torches, and, beneath the ugly figures, the hand-printed WELCOME TO JOHNSTON COUNTY! THIS IS KLAN COUNTRY!—that I announced to him I was “cured at last” of my “inversion”—my “mental illness,” at least as far as Dr. Aldred “was concerned.” And to prove I was “cured,” I told him I was “escorting” a “Linda Fuller” to the Senior Prom on the last Saturday in May. She was “a respectable girl” (so I assured him)—a girl of “good family.” In fact, she lived on White Oak Road, his street, though “residing” on the block near Five Points, which, as he knew, was a “more modest” section than his, with its nearly identical ’40s bungalows all crowded together on narrow lots. Still, it was White Oak Road, and he knew what that meant: junior college at St. Mary’s, the last two years at Hollins or Sweet Briar, a trip to Europe after graduation, and her “debut” at Memorial Auditorium in June of her twenty-third year.

 

*  *  *  *  *  *

 

At noon that last Saturday (I remembered), Grandfather had showed up at our house and invited me “for a short drive, Mr. Lockhart Titus—to give you a break from your hard studying.” I did need the break, and I was curious about Grandfather’s sudden, and unexpected, invitation. (He usually telephoned ahead if he was to drive me anywhere.) So I climbed into the old Chrysler, and we headed downtown.

On the way, he rasped, “Since tonight, Mr. Lockhart Titus, you shall be escorting that respectable girl, Miss Linda Fuller, to the site of your Senior Promenade and since it is an old custom that in such circumstances, the male do the driving, it is my intention to present you with an afternoon’s worth of lessons.”

Before the Prom, I had not considered that “old custom”—and I shuddered inwardly at the prospect of “an afternoon’s worth of lessons.” For a complication of reasons I could not then account for, driving had long terrified me, and I had wanted to postpone learning it as long as I could. So in the hope (in vain, as it turned out) that Grandfather would take me back home, I blurted out, “But I don’t have a license! Or even a learner’s permit!”

“A license or permit shall not be necessary for this occasion, Mr. Lockhart Titus,” he rasped. “You shall be driving but a short distance and with barely an ounce of champagne in your system, if that, and I am sure that after my lessons today, you shall drive with such exceeding care that no police officer shall even think of pulling you over. And besides, do you intend for Miss Fuller to drive you? Or myself? Or even your mother?”

The mere thought of any of them in the driver’s seat on the way to this prom—the proof that I “was cured at last” of my “inversion,” my “mental illness”—chilled me more than the prospect of driving. So seeing no way out of my dilemma, I faked a smile, slapped the dashboard, and joked loudly (remembering a race car magazine I had seen on our coffee table, left behind by one of Mother’s old boyfriends), “Let’s floor this old rod, Cale Yarborough!”

We both laughed, and in a minute we arrived at a large, vacant parking lot beside the State Board of Health, changed seats, and began the lesson. The rest of the afternoon, to Grandfather’s patient advice, I practiced punching those old ’62 Chrysler buttons for Forward and Park and Reverse, accelerating smoothly, backing up (my head twisted around, my right arm stretched out over the top of the front seat, my eyes remaining steady on the asphalt behind me until the old car stopped completely), using the parking brake, making the “quick stop” for emergencies—and more. Grandfather even had me drive around the block (the streets mostly empty on Saturday, when few State employees came to work) so that I could practice the hand signals, turning right and left, and, at stop signs, coming to a “complete stop, Mr. Lockhart Titus.”

 

*  *  *  *  *  *

 

These Klan Country “excursions into history,” as Grandfather called them, were taken every Saturday—including the summer ones—from May ’65 to May ’66, and were an unspoken corequisite of my “therapy” with Dr. Aldred: these afternoon ritual journeys down to the Bentonville Battleground, the old Woodall homeplace, the now-abandoned red-brick schoolhouse where Ava Gardner had been taught, the white clapboard teacherage beside it (where Ava and her family had served the Brogden teachers in the twenties and thirties), and, finally, the old white clapboard church, never locked, ever shuttered, that my great-great-grandfather, Unionist Blow-Your-Horn Billy Woodall, had built “for the colored people,” just a year past “the Surrender.”

My grandfather and I would stop before these “shrines” (as he’d call them, laughing softly)—and without ever walking the battleground (we’d just park before the Harper House and watch it for a time), and without ever setting foot in the schoolhouse or the teacherage or even in the homeplace or the old colored church, just standing outside of them in raw cold in January or sweating heat in July—he’d recount some long, digressive anecdote linked to the “shrine,” a tale ending always with some homily about my Southern “roots” nourished by “tragic devotion to a lost cause,” about the “people” I “came from” and their “integrity” and “honor” and, in my great-great-grandfather’s case, their “unsparing generosity to those less fortunate.” In front of Ava Gardner’s school, he’d speak, his face as flushed as a teenager’s in love, about “the lady”—“the beauty”—who had sprung from the Woodall “homeland” and who graced it even now—in the memory of her teacher, my great-aunt Venice, in one of the classrooms in the old Brogden schoolhouse, and in that abandoned teacherage beside it.

Just as we started the drive back to Raleigh, he would clear his throat and speak, as if in peroration, of my ancestors’ “fulfilled and fulfilling roles as dutiful parents of upright and virtuous children.” These “visitations,” if you will, along with my thrice-a-week “talk-and-aversion” sessions with Dr. Aldred, were intended to return me to “normalcy”: the “condition” of a red-blooded but “intellectual” Southern young man of the higher class, who, in his late twenties or early thirties, after he’d received his doctorate, summa cum laude, in Latin and Greek, would “settle down” in Chapel Hill or at Duke and marry a “goodly lady of like background” who would bear him two or three children (preferably male) to carry on the Woodall line for yet another generation—“at least on the distaff side.”

(Of course, Grandfather would vocally underscore distaff since he knew as well as I that I was named in toto after my father, Lockhart Titus Elledge, Sr.—my dead, “deadbeat,” “no ’count” father who, under mysterious circumstances, had been stabbed to death—so it was rumored—in a sleazy whorehouse in Phenix City, Alabama, three months before I and my twin Lucinda were born. To Mother, the word distaff never entered her head—not because she didn’t know what it meant, but because, to her, I was a Woodall now, through and through, and would remain a Woodall forevermore—despite the obvious high cheekbones and prominent jawline and dimpled chin my father’s “fatal” sperm had bequeathed me. In fact, Mother—so she claimed, again and again—would have changed her last name back to her maiden one, except that for a decade, she had written news articles and a daily column as “Joan Elledge” for a local newspaper and for three years now, had hosted a morning cooking-and-interview show, Femme Fare with Joan Elledge, on local television.)

As for this “inversion” of mine (what Dr. Aldred termed it), Grandfather and I had recognized it much earlier, when I was twelve—but we kept it a secret, not even mentioning between us. In fact, it was never revealed in the clear light of family until an “incident” (all Mother and Grandfather ever called it—the “unsavory” details they never uttered aloud) that happened when I was seventeen and nearing the end of my junior year at Broughton High.

I was an actor in the Golden Masquers, and, because I was tall and my voice deep, I had been assigned the role of Cothurnus in a Millay one-act, Aria da Capo. Oddly—given my twenty-six years in theater at forty-eight—I recall little of the part and even less of the play, but I do remember—even now, nearly three decades later—the piercing mildew of the thin mattress (discarded from who knew where!) that lay folded in a corner of the narrow backstage. And I remember how the whole of that April, Monday through Friday, he and I would spread that mattress onto the splintered and pitted stage floor, moving in slow and, oh, so acheful silence, though it was 4:30 in the afternoon and rehearsals were done and for a half hour (until the janitors would arrive), we had the whole echoing auditorium to ourselves.

Did I say “he and I” and not “she and I”?

His name was Kenny Vaughn. He was sixteen, an October boy and so a few months younger than I. Since September, the Masquers had performed Anastasia, Dust of the Road, You Can’t Take It With You, and now, in April, had begun rehearsals for Aria. I first saw him when he showed up at the tryouts for Anastasia and spoke the lines for Prince Paul in a delivery so monotonous, so halting and stumbling—like a child learning aloud The Pledge of Allegiance—that Mrs. Peacock, after allowing him to finish, smiled Southern-lady-gracious and said, “Thank you so much, Kenny. We’ll be in touch. Next, please. Yes—Jean Watson—Anna-Anastasia herself!”

But because Kenny was broad-shouldered and tall for his age (taller than I even), and took “shop,” Mrs. Peacock sent him a note the next day, to his homeroom, asking him to “TAKE COMPLETE CHARGE OF THE STAGE CREW—FOR ALL OUR PRODUCTIONS.” (Yes, she capped the whole request, knowing it would make Kenny proud—especially since he’d know he’d be ALL the crew in our smaller productions and in charge of two or three crew members in our larger ones.)

And just as she must have expected, the very same day, Kenny rushed into her classroom at half past three and, even when some students were present, blurted out breathlessly, “Wow, like thanks, Mizz Peacock! Like—you can’t imagine! Oh, wow, I’ll be there every day—come in Saturdays, too—for the props and everything!”

(Yes, he was that open, that innocent—the naïf among us Masquers “sophisticates.”) And every Monday-through-Friday for the several weeks of rehearsals following, at precisely 3:30 in the afternoon, he’d jog, arms pumping, down the middle aisle of the auditorium and, ignoring the stage steps, slap, palm-down, broad, thick-fingered hands onto the stage floor and push himself up onto it, as gracefully as a gymnast, and then turn and face us in our seats, and, grinning broadly, his freckled face flushed with pleasure, bow low before us, forearm tight over his waist, as he’d hear our delighted applause. (We Broughton “sophisticates” all loved Kenny, in that slightly patronizing way we “loved” someone physically crippled or mentally “deficient.”) He’d be changed from his J. C. Penney’s button-down shirt and polished-cotton slacks and black loafers into ragged, dirt-stained sneakers, faded blue jeans, and a torn, white T-shirt with the tail out and worn thin from repeated washing. I’d be sitting in the front row (of course!), and glancing up from my lines—of the raging Count in Anastasia and, later, of the mournful tramp in Dust, of the stuffed-shirt Mr. Kirby in the Hart-Kaufman play, and now, in April, of somber Cothurnus in Aria—I’d notice, right away, as he scrambled onto the stage and turned and bowed and rose again, the startling blue eyes and the light brown hair tousled over his forehead, the sinewy forearms with the veins showing, the jeans tight as skin against his crotch and round firm butt, the T-shirt tears that showed the sinewy ridges of his freckled shoulders.

And when his blue eyes would meet mine (and, yes, they always would, every time I’d glance up at him), I’d quick-bend down at my angry or mourning or stuffed-shirt or somber lines and, tingling red with shame, feel myself harden under my fly—a sudden, startling rock-hardening, like a fist striking me pleasurably, down there.

It began, this “incident” between us, on an April Fool’s afternoon, when, on a sudden whim strange to me—a not-me—I waited until the other actors and Mrs. Peacock and few spectators (mostly parents) had left the auditorium, and I stepped up to the stage and without a word to him, just started lifting one prop after another and lugging it backstage. He did the same, without a word to me either, and helped me move the larger props and the big flats, glancing at me now and again, a blue eye of his winking at me, sly and conspiratorial (or so I saw it then—my not-Lockhart Elledge). After we swept the stage floor, our chores were done, and in the echoing auditorium, we sat close beside each other, stage-edge, our legs dangling down. We’re just resting, part of me thought—the real me—but that other I—the not-I—felt dry in my mouth and shivered pleasurably and wondered, Will he kiss me? Or should I start it? I remember his sudden turning, as if he were reading my mind, and then his leaning over and his sudden, startling kiss on my mouth, and then, without thinking, my kiss in return, my tongue relishing his thick lips, parting them, relishing his warm tongue, and then his tongue swirling, relishing mine.

The Thursday following, we discovered the mattress, and to our deep delight, no longer having to sit, we rolled it out to mid-stage. After Kenny, grinning, focused a deep red spotlight on it, we fairly plunged upon its cool mustiness and began, wildly, passionately, the embracing, the caressing, the rubbing of our shoulders, arms, calves, thighs, the thick, hard bulges in our pants (his tight blue jeans, my loose khakis.) Then we kissed and kissed and kissed each other until our upper lips were bruised—purple-red as raspberries in the long, cracked mirror backstage.

By mid-April, we had shoved off our clothes (having latched the doors to the wings and backstage and fastened together the closed stage curtains with three, large safety pins) and had begun the bare-skin fondling, the cuddling, and that other kind of rubbing—the frottage, if you will. For one shining hour of a Friday, we tasted each other, simultaneously: his cock long and thin, sweetly bitter with his smegma (he wasn’t circumcised), mine short, fat, bald—and smelling (so he moaned) “like sweet chlorine.” By the last Thursday of April, after so many awkward—and painful—failures, we at last entered each other and bloomed inside—me into him, then him into me.

It was during our final “cornhole” (so he crudely called it—I preferred “Uranian bliss,” poetaster that I was in those days) when we were caught. A janitor—a tiny, shriveled, old white man, the only white among the rest of them—and a zealous Southern Baptist to boot—happened to arrive around fifteen minutes early that afternoon—the last day of April, a Friday, I remember the day exactly. He must have seen the stage curtains awry and stepped closer, on tiptoe likely—he was that quiet. Then, seeing the three large safety pins and knowing “somethin’ won’t quite right” (as he must have told Mr. Holliday Monday morning), he quietly unfastened them, one by one, set them quietly on the stage rim, and gimped through the parted curtains. Before Kenny and I could uncouple, he saw, center stage, on the mattress lit by the red spotlight, my legs thrown back over my shoulders and then our two naked butts, Kenny’s above mine and so tightly joined they looked like one taut moon of flesh. As Kenny groaned with his orgasm inside me, I remember shouting—even as I saw Mr. Whipple standing over us, jowls red and quivering, “God, Kenny, I love you so! Fill me full!” and then, my right hand pumping furiously, I streamed out my own white bloom into the cleft of Kenny’s molded chest.

I don’t remember the details of what happened next—just a shameful parting: Kenny dressing quickly and, nearly tearing the lever off it, rushing out the exit door—my last sight of him, ever—and I, suffused with shame, guilt, and sweet recollection, all at the same time, stretched naked on my back, on the thin smelly mattress, sweating in the red spotlight, hearing old Mr. Whipple gimp down the stage steps and up the auditorium aisle, all the while muttering to himself—curses? prayers?—I could not hear to tell.

Monday afternoon, I arrived promptly at 3:30 in the cramped, overwarm principal’s office while Mother and Mr. Holliday were already “conferring.” The office reeked of pipe tobacco, and Mr. Holliday had his pipe’s stem-end clenched in the corner of his mouth. After asking me to “sit, please, Lockhart,” in a wooden school desk across from the two of them, he told me Mr. Whipple had come to his office “first thing” in the morning and reported my “sordid and indecent act” and knowing “Kenny’s daddy” (from Hayes-Barton Baptist), had already phoned him and told him about it. “Of course,” Kenny had “confessed on the spot,” and Mr. Vaughn had “removed” him from Broughton for the rest of the school year—“for reasons of ill health.” And he had “made arrangements” for Kenny to attend a military academy in South Carolina, starting in the summer. The school had a reputation for “straightening out troubled youngsters.”

I remember how my stomach fell, how my heart tightened, but before I could think, “I’ll never see him again,” Mr. Holliday went on: that, “to be brief and to the point” (since he had a faculty meeting to attend), I had been “dropped indefinitely” from the Golden Masquers, that, “of course, there’d be no Honor Society, and no Princeton either,” he was “afraid”—that I’d have to “settle for UNC” with the Latin scholarship I had already won.  But I could avoid “suspension for the rest of the year” and a “messy” trial in District Court—I was seventeen and so considered “an adult offender” (“for after all, Mrs. Elledge, sodomy is a felony in the state of North Carolina, punishable by up to ten years in prison”)—if Mother and Grandfather would arrange “visits” with a psychiatrist (he pronounced it “sy-ky-a-trist”) at least three afternoons a week—for “oh, maybe a year”—and have “the doctor” report to him “on a weekly basis.” “Dix Hill” (as nearly everyone in the state called Dorothea Dix Hospital) had residents that didn’t charge much, so there’d be no “unnecessary financial burden” on my family. And, “more important,” if I saw a resident—who’d likely be from “up north somewhere or even a foreigner”—I could prevent all the “talk” that would surely tarnish the Woodall family’s “reputation.” Mr. Holliday knew of a “youngster” in his neighborhood who’d had a “condition” like mine, and, after just a year of therapy (he pronounced it “thurpy”), he began dating girls—even took one to the Senior Prom. “And she was a stunner, too, Mrs. Elledge, let me tell you,” he laughed aloud. “So, you see, Mrs. Elledge, anything’s possible with all the new tricks these sy-ky-a-trists have up their sleeves nowadays.”

The whole time of Mr. Holliday’s speech, I noticed Mother had turned her head from him and was gazing out the window into the white-brick courtyard with the single, small dogwood—in green leaf now—planted in the center of it, and, on the edge of Mr. Holliday’s desk, her right-hand fingers drummed softly, fitfully—impatiently. I couldn’t see the expression on her face, just the dyed-blonde hair styled in the high, Jackie Kennedy bouffant still popular in ’65. When Mr. Holliday finished speaking, she said, flatly but with a tinge of complaint, still gazing out the window, “I’m just not handling it, Mr. Holliday. All this sick business—all this therapy. It’s all just so embarrassing. His grandfather can take care of it.”

 

“So we got to Goldsboro in two hours and a half. They were slow trains back then, yessir. Still slow, too, heh heh.”

My grandfather was speaking aloud again, abrupting me out of that cramped, overwarm office reeking of pipe tobacco and back into the old Chrysler with the wind rushing on my face through the open window, the old-man-sweat-smell lingering still, mixed with the harsh soap and dry cleaning fluid.

We had long passed Cary and come into Raleigh and were now driving by the Fairgrounds and Dorton Arena, its ugly, pale green panels and black-glittering windows shivering me then and shivering me now, over half my life later.

Grandfather rasped: “My schoolmates—they were Burton Evans and Marshall Bell—Burton was killed in the trenches, November ’18, and the ’18 flu took Marshall about the same time.”

He went silent a moment, then swallowed. I saw his lips quiver, and then he shook his head, once, sharply, as if to clear himself, and rasped on: “So we arrived at the station about half past two and walked to our separate homes, Burt and Marshall to Edgerton where they lived a block apart, and I to Elm and that old, cob-webby Victorian cave I grew up in—you know, the house Mother (your great-grandmother) caught double pneumonia in back in ’33 when I was stationed in Panama. After Mother died in that automobile accident in ’42, the family made it a rooming house, where your great-aunt Rosalie lived until she died, all by herself, in that drafty turret room she’d chosen to rent—who knows why. Yessir, that poor woman just got old and cold and worn out and starved herself. Dead a week before anyone knew. I’ll never forget those puckered, black lips. Was I that found her, you know. Starvation lips, yessir. Lord, was I glad when ’60 came along and Merrick and I sold that drafty thing to the town and they demolished it for a parking lot.

“So I strode inside the cave that Saturday, 1909, worn out from the walk and the train ride, and spent the rest of the day and half of Sunday just lying out on the parlor sofa, looking at my Georgics now and then, just flickering through it, you know—to say I studied some. And next day, noon, Burton, Marshall, and I caught the train back to Nelson and strode our nine miles back to campus. We arrived just at twilight—Lord, a beautiful twilight if there ever was, those cirrus clouds—you know, those change-of-weather clouds, like huge plumes—all streaked in red and purple and orange, even a tinge of green here and there—and those starlings whippering over us in huge black flocks and then roosting and whistling in the oak crowns and the elms. Yessir, we still had elms back then, a few of ’em, anyway. Lord, we all three felt so giddy we ran like colts the last half mile to our dormitories. It was that gorgeous.”

“Gorgeous.” I’d never heard him use that word before. It was a woman’s word—or a queer’s.

I turned and saw his face deep red—maroon nearly—and his cheeks and turkey neck quivering, like a calm lake touched by sudden wind. Fearing for his blood pressure, I flailed to find words that would soothe him. But he must have found those soothing words in his mind, as his face at once lightened, stilled, and he settled back into the faint self-whispering, the soft laugh breaking out of it now and then, “Yessir, I should’ve told that fellah where to head in.”

As we came onto Hillsboro Street and drove down it, fitfully, every stoplight going red, it seemed, I remembered the last time I had seen that deep, deep red, that strange quivering of cheek and jowl. Then it had come not from the delight of reminiscence but from anger—rage, rather—like a match thrown into a pool of gasoline.

I was twelve years old, and my grandfather had driven me out to his farm in Johnston County, as he had done every Saturday since I was five. These trips weren’t the partly forced “therapeutic” ones of my mid-adolescence, but excursions I gladly undertook with him, sometimes bringing along a school buddy, and often Lucinda. The trips—I see now, over four decades later—were a sort of fathering ritual he may have felt obliged—but gratefully so—to grant me and Lucinda: a ritual to replace, as much as he could in his old age—the father we never had.

On the Saturday of his rage (and this, too, happened in May, oddly, but the latter part of it, when white-blooming honeysuckle filled the roadside ditches), just he and I had driven to the farm, around eight in the morning, as we always had. Since mid-April of that year, 1960, I and the tenant’s son—fourteen, crew-cut, big-boned, tall as a man—had “lain together” in one of the pair of tobacco barns linked by a long, open, tin-roofed shed. It was the old-fashioned kind of barn one seldom sees anymore: axe-skinned logs chinked with cement, the roof just tar paper tacked to the rafters, a small, square opening on the end that faced the shade of the open shed. It stood—along with the shed and the opposite barn—just across the dirt drive from the clapboard tenant house where he lived with his parents and younger brother. (Oh, yes, his name was Elton—Elton Whitaker.

It began, this “lying together,” quite by accident. On a Saturday in that mid-April, while Grandfather and Mr. Whitaker were inspecting the tobacco beds a half mile away, in a small cleared space well beyond the tree line, I was dawdling about the Whitakers’ backyard, a little bored, kicking desultorily at the white dirt, watching little puffs of it rise which the faint breeze caught and spiraled and thinned. I was hearing Mrs. Whitaker pounding rhythmically on some spread dough from the open kitchen window, all the while humming to herself some twangy country song. It must have been noon, or nearly so, and the day was overcast, yet warm, for April—warm enough for my khaki shorts with my new white T-shirt tucked in.

As I kicked my way slowly toward one of the tobacco barns—it was the barn nearer the open fields and the tree line, the barn with its cement chinking eaten away here and there, leaving long ragged holes—I heard, coming faint from inside, breathy grunts, two in succession, then two more, then a silence, then two more, the first pair high-pitched, the second low and groaning. And, now and then, in and out of the paired grunts, came a thump!—muffled and flat, as if against packed dirt. Then, the low voice—low as a grown man’s: “Pinned yuh, now—a gen-u-ine Elton Whitaker death-clamp.” Then, after a silence, came “Unh, unh, UNH,” harsh and loud, from the same low voice, tinged with the Johnston County twang I’d heard so often from Mr. Whitaker. Then I heard the higher, almost girlish voice: “Ow, you’re hurtin’ me, Elton! Lemme up, hear? I’ll tell Pop!” And right after: the lower voice, groaning loud and long, “Oooooooooh yeeeeeee-ah! Did me a gob! You get your’n, Elway?”

“Get off me! I’ll tell Pop! Nasty, Elton! Just plain nasty!”

I came to a high crack in the chinking, and raising myself on tiptoe, my hand shading my eyes, I peered inside. Both brothers were crew-cut and bare to the waist, and they wore tight, pale blue jeans. Elton—tall, big-boned, and carrying the muscles of a twenty-year-old (or so it seemed to me then)—was lying prone on small, thin-boned Elway, covering his chest, stomach, legs, feet, and Elton’s hips were pumping hard and rhythmic as he groaned on: “Oh, yeah, there’s another one, and another! I’m fillin’ yer jeans crotch, Elway!” I noticed right away Elton’s big biceps and forearms, the veins ridging out as he gripped Elway’s squirming shoulders.

Suddenly Elway went still, and he grinned broadly and in his high-pitched voice shrieked, “Awwwwww, yeeeeeee-ah! Me, too now. Nasty feels so good, Elton!”

I felt the sudden, painful hardening in my shorts, that abrupt, brutal thickening, and without thought, as if I were possessed by some strange demon I could not name, let alone understand, I ran around into the shade of the tin-roofed shed and, ducking my head (I was nearly six feet tall, even then), stepped through the barn’s small opening.

“Shit fire!” Elton yelled, and in a second, the two of them had scrambled up and grabbed their T-shirts from the dirt floor and slipped them on, and Elway rushed past me and out of the opening, nearly tripping, and yelling shrilly, “Nasty! Nasty! We did nasty, Elton! I’m tellin’ Pop! I am! I am!”

But Elton stayed, and with his T-shirt on, tucked in so tight it clung to his thick, mounded chest (from all those push-ups, the thought flew to me), he just stared at me quietly for a long time, his dark, deep-set eyes flickering from my face to my feet, from my feet to my face, and back down again.

When he spoke, he sounded like gravel rattling in a jar.

“So yer—”

“Lock,” I said. “For Lockhart. What Grandfather calls me.”

“So yer grandpa who we work fer? The owner?”

I nodded.

He spat a thick, white wad into the packed dirt—abrupt, hard, echoing.

Then he went on, “Yer voice like mine, yuh know that? And yer how old?”

“Twelve. Thirteen next March—March twentieth.”

“And I reckoned I was a young ’un fer it to be deep like that. And yuh got a apple, like me, big pointy one. Fourteen now. Fifteen August.”

He turned and, facing me all the while, began walking a slow, tight, meandering circle around me.

“And yer tall, too. Tall as me. Nigh six foot, hey?”

I nodded, throat dry as the packed dirt.

“But, Lord,”—and here he scrunched his squashed nose—“yer skinny—skinny as Elway. Skinnier.”

He flung out a hand, thick-fingered, grimy, and, touching my T-shirt, gently, just above my belt, pinched a little wad of it and, ever gently, as if it were fragile, drew the whole shirt-front up out of my shorts and all the way to my neck.

“Shit fire! I can see yer fuckin’ ribs! Just like Elway yonder. He ain’t gone tell Pop. He always says that. He knows what I’ll do to him.”

He looked down at my shorts.

“Hey hey! Yuh got a boner, too! Looks like a nine-incher to me. A gagger, sure enough.”

Then he let the shirt-front drop and stepped past me toward the barn opening, his tobacco-and-dirt smell lingering after him, like some odd, exotic perfume.

Before ducking through the aperture, he turned back to me and said, “Meet yuh next week? Same time, same place, hey? I’ll tell Elton get lost.”

 

In that space, shuddering alone now, I smelled at once the heady odor of the tobacco bits strewn here and there over the packed, white dirt, and, in an odd frenzy, I dropped to the my belly and, sliding a hand under my belt, made a fist and pumped on the rock-hard “gagger.” In less than a minute, I burst into bloom—a low, white groan rising and petaling from crotch to belly to heart to throat, throbbing. (Even now, on my occasional visits to Durham to give master classes in acting, I need only sniff the heady odor of cured tobacco pervading all of downtown, and I can recall, with deep pleasure, that April Saturday decades ago—when tobacco smell and orgasm became forever mingled in my soul.)

 

So as the leaves unfurled and greened through the rest of April and most of May, they all began, like sweet, exotic flowers opening: those Saturday “matches” when, as soon as Grandfather and Mr. Whitaker set out to inspect the tobacco beds, as soon as Elton yelled at Elway ever poking his tow crew cut through the barn opening, “Get lost, bitch!” we, Elton and I, lay side by side in the tobacco barn, in the center of the white-dirt floor, where the tobacco bits and slivers lay thickest. We lay on our backs, his beefy, tight-jeaned thigh pressed hard against my skinny one, bare and hairless below the cuffs of my shorts.

We lay still, a minute maybe, and then Elton twisted over on his side and slid a huge, rough hand under my thigh and lifted it up and back as high as it could go. He curved his other arm, like a muscled snake, behind my neck and all the way around to my throat, as if embracing it, and then, bringing his thick, slightly parted lips so close to mine I could nearly have kissed them, he yelled in my face, his breath tinged with mint candy and old chewing tobacco, “Cradle, yeah man!” This the one ain’t nobody slips, baby! Yer bam! bam! bam! pinned to the mat! Helpless, baby!”

I didn’t struggle at all. In fact, I relished this rough, ritual play—like a strange flesh-ceremony: his tight holding and squeezing, the thick, rock-hard arm muscles around my neck, the thick, parted lips an inch from mine. And I relished the other “holds” he showed me, in slow and patient succession: “the figure four,” the “full nelson,” “the sleeper” (though I didn’t go to sleep), “Ric Flair’s death grip,” and many others. His “demonstrations” must have lasted an hour—“holds” and “moves” he would have learned from the wrestling magazines in a Smithfield drugstore (the Whitakers couldn’t afford television).

After an hour of demonstrating the “holds,” he was breathing hard, thick chest heaving, breath smelling of that mint candy and old chewing tobacco. Then he released me from the final hold, and we lay back, side by side, going still for a minute, his tight-jeaned thigh brushing mine. Suddenly he reached over and grabbed at my crotch and, feeling my “boner,” started to rub on it through the khaki.

“Turned yuh rock-hard, yeah!” he broke. Let’s spurt yuh on out now—hit yer face smack center!”

After twisting onto his side, slowly and tenderly he unbuckled my belt and eased down my shorts and underwear, his eyes going wide at my “boner” arcing back, its oozing tip nearly touching my belly button. “Lord, a big ’un—and only twelve year old!” he whispered hoarsely, like a prayer. Then he spat twice into his right palm and, making a fist, grasped my shaft with it and began a slow rubbing—down and up, down and up, down and up. In less than a minute, I groaned loudly and spurted a thick, white jet that smacked me squarely in the forehead, then dribbled down over my eyebrows. Then he released my shaft and brought his lips to my forehead and eyebrows and started slowly licking the semen, every so often shutting his mouth to swallow it.

“Hmmmmm, not bad,” he whispered, hoarse from the semen. “Like Clorox and sweet gum all mixed up.”

Then he wiped his lips with the back of his hand and broke, “But yer too fuckin’ fast, baby. You need to learn control. Keep it slow, hold it, savor it—all the way down yer insides. Five minutes, leastways—then comes yer spurt and me tastin’ yuh, swallowin’ yuh. Yuh got nice, thick cream, baby—nearabout sweet as molasses.”

We lay back still for a time, and then he grabbed an old, ragged tobacco leaf off the packed dirt and, gently, thoroughly, wiped the remaining semen off my forehead and eyebrows. He brought the leaf to his mouth and tongued the semen off it, gently, like kissing it, then tossed it into a dark corner. Then he reached forward and, just as gently, pulled my underwear to my waist and pulled up my shorts and buckled my belt. He rose then and stepped softly, as if in a church, toward the barn opening. Before stooping and stepping outside into the shadow of the shed, he turned and winked, “Next week, same time, same place, hey?”

 

All through the intervening days—that painfully slow Sunday-through-Friday—I could not keep my mind off him. At school, in the pages of my math book or speller, the numbers and words would dissolve into his leer, his thick lips, the slightly squashed nose with the pimple at the tip of it, his heavy-ridged brows and eyes set so deep I could never tell their color. At night, in my bed, I’d see him whirling and dancing naked on the pale ceiling: the hard, defined arm muscles, the naked, thick, mounded chest with the deep cleft down the center of it, the ridged shoulders, the thick thighs. (I learned later that he “worked out” after school with rusty dumbbells and barbells in the other tobacco barn—partner to the one we lay in.) After watching him awhile—whirling and dancing and leering above me, in the faint light of a street lamp diffusing into my room—I’d roll over in my bed and shutting my eyes to keep that vision fixed, like a photograph, I’d slide a fist under the elastic waist of my pajama bottoms and pump on the rock-hard “gagger” until I burst, feeling the thick wetness soak in warm, thick jets through the crotch cloth. I suppose a psychiatrist would have called Elton the object of my “preadolescent homoeroticism”—a brief “phase” quite “natural” for boys of twelve. But for me he was much more than that dry diagnosis: he was a genius in the flesh—of the flesh—ever filling me, ever hardening me, ever oozing me, ever bursting me—like a star—with sweetest pain: a dark yet lovely angel. He was gorgeous. There was no other word.

And so it happened that, Saturday after Saturday, the light green of April merging into the darker green of May, we’d meet in that tobacco-redolent shrine and “wrestle” awhile and then end our “matches” with his rhythmic rubbing and my sweet pain and the nacreous stream striking my forehead, leaving a mark of strange inverted holiness, like Father Moody’s ash-thumbprint on Ash Wednesday.

For a time Elton’s shout—“Get lost, bitch!”—was enough to keep Elway from the barn. As soon as we heard the rapid footsteps approaching, Elton would raise his head and yell, and the steps would retreat and fade. But on the second May Saturday, when he had me curled in his “cradle,” his thick lips leering so near mine I ached to kiss them, we heard the rapid steps once again, and once again Elton raised his head and shouted, “Get lost, bitch!” But the steps kept nearing us, and soon we heard scrapes just outside the barn—shoes climbing the logs. Mid-cradle we craned our necks and saw a pair of wide, deep-blue eyes staring down on us through a ragged slit in the chinking. At once Elton released me and abrupted to his feet and strode to the slit and the eyes and yelled, “Elway! You hear me? I’ll—” The eyes darted away, and after a long, fitful scraping down and thud, footsteps scuttered and faded.

Yet on the Saturday following, now in the middle of the “figure four,” the eyes returned to the ragged slit—deep-blue and staring, whether in horror or voyeuristic wonder, I couldn’t tell—and Elton again abrupted to his feet and yelled and the eyes flickered away.

On the fourth May Saturday (I’ll remember that day forever: the bright sunshine and shimmery heat—like mid-July—and the new green oats waving in the rough breeze in the fields nearby), Elton and I lay down once more, at noon, side by side in the redolent barn. Once more I was expecting him to cradle me, and I’d even planned, in an aching fit of fancy, a quick kiss on his lips. But he just lay still for a time, and then he broke, “That bitch Elway—he’ll see yuh spurtin’ soon and my hand on yer dick, and you and me, we’ll both get whupped—leastways I will. You—yer grandpa’ll just send yuh to one of them head doctors don’t do yuh no good noway.”

He rubbed at his tight jeans crotch—at the sudden tubular bulge there—then broke again, “We need us another place, baby. Where Elway can’t see nothin’, don’t know nothin’. And we need it now—today. And it come to me just now what it is and where it’s at. Let’s git gone.”

 

In a half hour we were crossing Brogden Road and then clambering through a weedy ditch and up a low slope of early day lilies planted in neat double rows. Straight ahead of us, maybe twenty yards distant, sat the old clapboard church I’d seen for years but never entered.

Grandfather and I would pass it on the way to his farm, and he would fling a hand at it and clear his throat, “That’s the church your great-great-grandfather built for the colored people in 1868. He was Republican, you know—Lincoln Republican. He paid colored servants, and even field workers—not much, but enough so you couldn’t call ’em slaves. Yessir, a real Union man, Blow-Your-Horn-Billy was.” In that brief glimpse as we’d pass it, I’d see how lonely—how melancholy—it all looked: the boxy shape; the rusty, high-pitched tin roof splotched with tar patches; the stub of old-brick chimney poking up from left-center; the narrow door ever shut, a square, clapboard-shuttered window on each side of it; and, along the sides of the church, three other windows—squared, shuttered, spaced equally apart. The whole was painted white, with here and there black-weathered strips where the paint had flaked off.

As Elton and I approached it that fourth May Saturday, the church looked the same—but gone was the loneness, the melancholy I had seen in those earlier brief glimpses. With Elton close beside me, tight-jeaned and muscled and reeking of sweat, his thin T-shirt stretched taut over his chest, his whole body emanating heat, the church seemed some exotic pleasure palace, the tin roof shimmering like mirage water on a distant stretch of highway July and August noons.

Slope-rim, we broke into a stride, and when we reached the narrow door, we stopped and Elton broke, “Ain’t no one gone see us here—not Saturdays leastways. Old nigger church—and I mean old nigger. Just ten or ’leben of ’em left now, and not a one under seb’nty.”

He reached for the porcelain knob and twisted it, and the door swung open, slowly, squeaking faintly on its hinges.

“Them old niggers trust ever-body. Never got used to lockin’. And lucky for us, baby—oh, yeah!” He drew it out loud and deep: “oh, yeeeeeeeh-ah.” But then his voice suddenly dropped, and he whispered, as if in awe of something he could not name, “Be sure and shut the door when you step on in.”

Throat dry now, my “thing” hardening, I could only nod and follow him inside, shutting the door quietly behind me, the hinge-squeak drawing itself out, plaintively, like an ancient spirit wailing.

At first, there was absolute dark all around us—just the thick smell of wildflowers in an enclosed space, and, here and there, scents of furniture polish and Lysol.

Soon the dark paled from the strips of light streaming through cracks in the window shutters, and I could make out a dozen or so rough-hewn benches in close rows, a pine-floor aisle dividing them down the center. A little way ahead of us sat the “altar”—just a sheet of plywood set on sawhorses and covered with a white bedsheet. Day lilies in Coke bottles lined the rear of the “altar,” and in the center of it stood a figurine of Jesus with his halo—made of plastic or papier-mâché, I wasn’t sure. It was the sort of figurine you’d buy in a five-and-ten at Easter time. Before the statue sat a small tin cup from the last century and, beside the cup, a small tin plate, likewise old—yet, as I saw in the dim light, both of them clean and polished to gleaming. Gradually, I made out bits of white bread on the plate and in the cup some dark liquid filling it to the brim: grape juice, not wine, I was certain, since Grandfather had said the old church was colored Freewill, where they didn’t drink—“or weren’t supposed to, anyway, heh heh.”

“Come on,” Elton whispered. “There’s a wrestle-and-jerk-off space  just a-waiting on us, hungry-like—under that there plywood.”

We moved slowly up the narrow aisle and through the redolent dimness, our footsteps faint and rhythmic. Just beyond the first row of benches, we lay down side by side, I in the dimness beside the benches, Elton in the darker space below the plywood. So intent we were—so full—we barely felt the flat nails and sharp, protruding knots of the pine floor beneath us.

“This even better ’n that old barn, hey, baby?” Elton broke. “That Jesus up there watchin’ us. Bet him getting’ a boner, too. Let’s skip the wrestle stuff and pump yer cream.”

Being a Catholic—and an altar boy, too—I felt a sharp clench of shame at Elton’s “That Jesus up there watchin’ us,” but his heat and sweat and tobacco smell overwhelmed my shame, and I let him perform his role in our barn ritual: unzipping my fly, then slipping down my shorts and underpants—all slowly, gently. Then his fist clenching my “boner” and the slow intent pumping until I groaned and bloomed, the semen striking my forehead in warm splotches. Then Elton groaning, “Yeah, oh, yeeeeeeeh-ah! Milk fer me, baby! Give me yer cream!” And last, something new from him—delectable: cupping his thick lips around my whole taut head and sucking out the warm, white life that was left.

“Like honey from a comb, yeah man!”

Just then, like a snake striking, the front door flew open—kicked hard by some thick boot—and door and frame crashed to the floor in a great splintering. The May light threw a bright stream straight toward us, just as Elton was coming off my “boner” with a loud slurp! and then wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

I craned up and saw Mr. Whitaker in the doorway, dressed in overalls—and dark-faced in the blaring light behind him. Beside him and a little to the rear stood Grandfather holding his Homburg out in front of him. A little way beyond them stood Elway, also in overalls, tow head hung low. In a swift pounding of boots, Mr. Whitaker strode up the aisle and, reaching down, gripped Elton by the shoulder, pinched flesh till Elton yelled, and then dragged him to standing and, without a breath, slapped his cheeks over and over, rhythmically, Whap! Whap! Whap! Whap!

“You git on home now, boy! Yuh ain’t no per-vert queer. That faggot yonder’s teachin’ yuh!

He dragged Elton by the shoulder down the aisle and out of the church, kicking aside the splintered door. Hat held before him, my grandfather stood aside to let them pass, and Elway spun around and rushed off, his tow head winking in the sunlight. Mr. Whitaker stopped midstride a moment and glaring at Grandfather, yelled, “I don’t give a rabbit-shit if you’re my boss or not. You can evict me if you damn well want to. But you keep that queer boy of your’n ’way from mine! He never in his life— And in a holy place, too! God-a-mighty! Even if it’s just a nigger one! Lucky Elway had the sense to follow them two. Like stalkin’ deer he’d be readyin’ to shoot.”

The boots pounded again and then faded, and there was just I, naked still and lying on my back on the gouging, pinching floor between the altar and the front benches, while outside the church, in the blaring sunlight, Grandfather stood silent and expressionless, waiting for me, his Homburg still held out in front of him.

In a half hour we were on our way back to Raleigh, Grandfather staring straight ahead as he drove, teeth clenched, jaws quivering. His face was so red I remembered the Sunday evenings when Grandmother would hold the stethoscope over his wrist while he’d squeeze the little rubber bulb, and I feared the pressure was over two hundred by now and he’d have a stroke for sure. He whispered over and over, “I could kill that fellah! Damn lyin’ common son of a bitch!” I slid over and hunched tightly against my door, fearing any minute he’d explode in one of the outbursts of temper my mother had often told me about but so far I had never witnessed. But he kept his rage inside all the way home, the only outward sign of it those red, quivering jaws and the barely audible, “I could kill that damn lyin’ common son of a bitch!”—repeated over and over, like a strange litany.

In an hour we reached my house and he let me out into the carport. His face, I noticed, had lost that scary red and turned flesh-clear and relaxed again.

Usually, on our Saturday parting, he’d clear his throat and say, “Well, Mr. Lockhart—until next Saturn’s day, si vales, valeo; bonum est.” But this last May Saturday he said no word at all, just stared straight and expressionless at the windshield and waited until I opened my door and stepped out. My chest clenched with shame, I knew what his silence meant and said no word to him.

From the carport, not even looking back, in my shame, in my hurt nearly to tears, I heard the old car—this one a Cadillac, a ’52—back slowly over the loose gravel of the drive and into the turnaround. The gearshift clicked faintly, the engine raced a little as the clutch engaged, and the old car crunched its slow, shaming way up the gravel drive and into the street.

The next Saturday—the first June Saturday—I woke at six, as usual, and dressed in T-shirt and sneakers and clean khaki shorts and, skipping home breakfast (Mother and Lucinda slept late weekends), stepped out to the carport to wait for the old Cadillac to crunch once more down the drive and stop at the edge of the carport, a silver-haired crown leaning out the driver’s open window and intoning, “Si vales, valeo, Mr. Lockhart.” In my denial of last Saturday—of what had happened—I pictured in my mind—exquisitely, nostalgically, as if it had been already lost to me—the overwarm, bacon-smelling Broiler on Hillsboro Street where we’d stop for breakfast (Grandfather for his coffee and ice water and two sunny-side eggs and sausage, I for the blueberry pancakes and orange juice) and then the even deeper June green blurring by us as we’d roll down U.S. 70 East at Grandfather’s steady 55, the wind rushing in pine smells through our open windows and Grandfather, as always, whispering to himself, a light laugh erupting now and then, “Yessir, I should’ve told that fellah where to head in.” And I pictured myself content as a baby beside him—while deep down in my mind playing through those exquisite “games” with Elton that, in my denial, my naïveté, I knew would surely come round again in spite of Mr. Whitaker’s outburst. (Surely he’d forgotten it—all of it—by now.) And it all would happen not in the old colored church, to be sure, but in the same barn again, on the tobacco-littered, packed-dirt floor, or perhaps in the barn opposite, or in another place Elton knew we could lie beside each other, unwatched by anyone.

I must have waited in the carport for an hour, then two, then three, as the sun brimmed from behind our house and yellowed the front lawn, bitten here and there with pine-trunk shadows. Around nine, Mother called sleepily, from her bedroom window facing the carport, “Dee-di’s not here yet? Oh, God, I hope it’s not his blood—. I’d better phone him.”

“No, Mother, let me call,” I said, stomach clenching. I didn’t want her to hear what I feared he might tell her.

I hurried into the kitchen and on the wall phone dialed the familiar number. Of course, it had to be Grandmother who answered.

“Ma-ma,” I spoke slowly, loudly, “is Dee-di in?”

“Is this Joan? Venice? Lucinda?” (I could picture her twisting the volume dial on her telephone.) “Oh, Lock, it’s you. Yes, he’s right here, reading the paper.”

“Is he going out to the farm today?”

“Alarm clock? Goodness gracious—I should hope not. He’s never needed one in his life. No—he’s been up since five, as always. Claude, it’s for you. Lock.”

There was a breath of newspaper rattling, and then a long clearing of a throat, and then an orotund voice, but flat, inflectionless, as if speaking lines memorized for a play: “There’s a new man handling the farm business. He’s working with Mr. Whitaker, so there’s no need to travel there in future.” I couldn’t help noticing he didn’t say, “We won’t be traveling,” just the impersonal “there’s no need”—as if he were locking what had happened into one of the dozens of old tin boxes in his bedroom closets.

“You be good now, Lock,” came the flat, inflectionless voice again. Here’s Ma-ma. She wants to say goodbye.”

So that was the end of it—the Saturday ritual I’d known and loved since I was five—and exquisitely relished since early April of my thirteenth year on this Earth.

And I never saw Elton or Elway or Mr. Whitaker again.

And for over thirty years, I didn’t set foot on Grandfather’s farm—later Uncle Claude’s after Grandfather died.

 

On my trip down to Durham just a month ago—mid-April—I drove out to Brogden one free morning, and from the rented car stopped on a shoulder, I gazed on the old “colored” church, a ruin now: the shutters gone, the window panes broken out, great ragged breaches in the rotting clapboards, the yard grown up in weeds, the timber all around cut (and sold, apparently)—the tall, thick pines, the sweet gums, the three or four huge white oaks. And later, a mile east, and again from the shoulder-parked rented car, I gazed on the few brick walls left standing of Ava Gardner’s school (“Brogden School,” officially) and then on the clapboard teacherage beside it, painted newly white. Ava Gardner Museum was printed in large, black, cursive letters above the white door frame, and a new Honda Civic was parked in the semicircular driveway. The lawn was carefully mowed and planted here and there with neat rows and circles of daffodils and brightly colored tulips. Through a front window, I saw pictures and mannequins of the actress in various poses and in brightly colored dresses from the forties and fifties. I was tempted to go in and visit, but for a reason I couldn’t account for, I shuddered at the thought of it and turned the rented car around and headed to Grandfather’s farm (now Uncle Claude’s). I stood for an hour in the sunny, white-dirt backyard of the tenant house. The place was empty now, its back stoop sagging, rotting. I looked out at the paired tobacco barns linked by the tin shed. Bits of brown tobacco leaf littered the packed dirt under it, so I knew the barns were used still—not yet replaced by those characterless tobacco-curing prefabs that had begun to sprout all over as the old log-and-cement-chinked barns fell to rust and termites and weather and neglect. I learned later that the farmer across the road was renting Uncle Claude’s farm and hiring Hispanic migrants to live in the tenant house in July, August, September, and spray the leathery leaves and strip them from the stalks and hang them from the long poles in the barns.

 

So beginning on that first June Saturday, 1960, without Grandfather’s farm and the green, pine-scented journeys there and, especially, without Elton and his tight jeans and heat and muscle, I began the lonely Saturday ritual that would last until I met Kenny Vaughn in my junior year at Broughton. The ritual was hours spent alone in my upstairs bedroom, door latched from inside, my eyes fixed on cut-out Boy’s Life “Toughen Up” photos as I’d lie on the braided rug, my pants-fly rubbing against a towel wadded and fisted under it. The photos were of boys of fourteen and fifteen and sixteen, when their muscles started showing, hardening, even veining a little: boys bare to the waste, in chest poses their pectorals mounding slightly, a shallow cleft down the center of them, and while lifting barbells or chinning themselves, their biceps filling the rolled hems of their T-shirts, and in wrestling drills, arching themselves into “bridges” so high and peaked their “things” would tube through the tight training pants. What ecstatic relief I’d feel when I’d burst and the thick wetness would rill through my underpants like a sweetly painful spring! And all through that all-too-brief burst, I’d groan, “Oh, yeeeeeeeh-ah!” into a washcloth held over my mouth—so Lucinda couldn’t hear me in her room next to mine.

 

“Heh heh, old Venice McGee Woodall. Always did like those cacti—ever since the family threw her out in ’36.”

Clearing his throat, Grandfather was speaking aloud again.  I looked up from the ragged floor mat and saw we had turned off Hillsboro Street and come onto West Park Drive in Cameron Park and were now crunching up the steep gravel driveway I remembered from so many Christmas breakfasts. Ahead of us loomed the paint-peeling, slightly sagging Victorian house where my great-aunt Venice had been residing for three decades, renting upstairs rooms to State College students. Along the long, curving porch railing were perched great clay pots of ferrocactus, their broad barrels clustered thick with sharp, yellow spines and projecting high above the railing. The spines looked like the nails and jagged shards of glass along the rim of a prison wall. “My mean cactus,” she called them. “To keep out the nigger thieves.”

For a moment, I saw her in my mind: a short woman, not quite as heavyset as Grandmother, her hair tied back into a bun and still, at 75, jet-black from dyeing. Her face was smile-lined yet youthfully kept, careful discs of rouge smoothed over the cheekbones. In memory, I could hear her ask us, one at time, just as we entered her front door Christmas mornings, “How’s your love life?”

From the Chrysler, I looked for her old, gray, humpbacked Plymouth, but her parking space was just white gravel, and Grandfather said, “She’s out shopping for her ‘college boys’—her Saturday chores. Poor old forgetful Dee-di. Haven’t seen her since Christmas—just thought we’d pay her a visit. Maybe we’ll drop by on our way back. You know about your great-aunt Venice, don’t you, Dr. Lockhart?”

I knew it was useless to nod, or even mutter, “Yes,” so I just let him roll out the story I’d heard so many times I’d lost count: from him, from Mother, and from Grandmother when she was alive.

“You know,” he began, “she taught Ava Gardner at the old Brogden School—back in ’27 or ’28—six-seven years after she met your great uncle Merrick and married him. Thought he was ‘cute.’ Heh heh. That’s what she said—‘cute.’ Well, it turned out he wasn’t so ‘cute’ when he caught the consumption in ’34.  His case—what Papa told me—was about the worst he’d ever seen. Lord, Merrick coughed up blood ten-eleven times a day and leaned down to a hundred pounds from his normal one seventy. Why, Venice said she could even see his heart beating through his shirt! And he grew pale as milk and shaky as a man twice his forty-one years. He was a goner, no question about it, as antibiotics didn’t exist back then. But Papa must’ve had hope for him, ’cause he sent him to the sanatorium down in Raeford, where he stayed just half a year and, yessir, got well—was pronounced ‘totally cured,’ nigh a miracle in those days for a man in such poor shape.

“But your great-aunt Venice, heh heh, old careful Aunt Venice—no, finicky Aunt Venice—no, smart Aunt Venice (or thought she was)—she was certain Merrick ‘still had a germ or two’—the way she put it. So to keep him from infecting her and their two boys—you know your second cousins Merrick and Claude, don’t you, Dr. Lockhart? Turned out well—those boys did. Merrick III a brain surgeon out in California, Claude W. a lawyer back in Goldsboro. Anyway, to keep Merrick Junior’s supposed “germ or two” off ’em, Venice had a little ‘guest house’ built for Merrick behind their big, white-brick Colonial in Smithfield. She cozied it up with a heat stove and a cook stove and an ice box and a few sticks of furniture—bed, dresser, two-three hard chairs, a sofa—all any man (she said) could possibly need. And the surprising thing was, he agreed to it—old money-grubbing Merrick—yessir, he agreed to take up actual residence in that unpainted shack of clapboards and tin roof. And what was more surprising, at her request, he even agreed to sign over everything to her—the big house, the two tobacco farms, the hotel and restaurant in Goldsboro, and every cent he had in the bank. And he gave her complete custody of their two boys—even surrendered visitation rights—yessir, his own sons! He gave it all to her with a single stroke of the pen, Judge Rainey and his two secretaries witnessing.

“I’ve never understood it. Maybe the sickness had just worn him out—clouded his brain somehow. TB will do that sometimes. Even the getting over it.

“So there she was, your great-aunt Venice McGee Woodall—a wealthy woman of leisure for the rest of her life (or so she opined—heh heh), and the boys all set for the University without having to work their way through—and not even needing the University unless they desired it. Yessir, all three of ’em members of the ‘moneyed class’—of which there were mighty few in Johnston County back in ’35.

“But, Lord, wouldn’t you know it? All of a sudden, along about March ’36, old Merrick’s ‘cloud’ must have lifted, broken up—something—and one morning, ’round ten o’clock (fifteen March, I believe it was), he stomped out of that shack and around the big house and through the front door and into the parlor where Venice was lounging in a silk robe on the sofa. And he fairly shouted at her, ‘Mrs. Venice McGee Woodall, your lawfully wedded husband is alive and well again and has been so alive and well for a long time now. And he would appreciate it that those signed sheets of paper be returned to his possession for permanent shredding and destruction. And he would appreciate his own room back—the upstairs room in this house—the home rightfully his—and his soft double bed and you, his rightful wife, beside him on the mattress. He would appreciate it, in brief, that he be restored his rightful position as head of the Merrick Alexander Woodall household.’ Heh heh, old Merrick never did have much vocabulary.

“But Venice said, sharp as those cactus spines yonder, ‘Mr. Merrick Alexander Woodall, those papers have been notarized and filed in the Johnston County Courthouse—they’re finalized.  What the Honorable Judge Rainey has done, I can not undo, even if I desired it. And besides, you know about—what do they call them?—yes, “remissions.” You’ve just been remission-ing, Mr. Merrick Woodall, and you know as well as I do you’ll be coughing up blood again, sooner or later, and must be sent back to Raeford. And, besides, even if you’re not re-missioning, the consumption never does go away altogether—you’ve got a germ or two inside you and always shall. And I’m not about to endanger either myself or those children! Why, right now, in your presence, I may be so endangered! So you must return to the guest house, Mr. Woodall—this minute!’

“And you know what, Dr. Lockhart? He didn’t say a word to her—fact, never spoke to her for the rest of his life. Nosir, he just spun around and walked out of the house and down the five long blocks to the post office and a telephone—about the longest walk he ever took in his life—heh heh—and phoned up Father and Mother in Goldsboro. I don’t know who answered, but inside an hour, three-four hours before the boys came home from school, Aunt Venice received a phone call from the Honorable Judge Rainey, asking if she’d please meet him at the courthouse, in his office; he wanted to ‘straighten out’ her will—some items ‘looked peculiar’ about it. So gullible old Venice (Lord, it’s a mystery she still didn’t know the Woodalls through and through—so much meaner than her even—meaner than her cacti!)—she drove to the courthouse and sat in Judge Rainey’s waiting room—and waited, and waited, and waited—three or four hours—just enough time for it all to have happened. Then, when she knocked on his office door and heard not a word, not a sound, and then twisted the knob and found it stiff—locked—it all suddenly came to her—maybe just a hint, like a brush of cold air in mid-July—that Woodall meanness nigh everybody in the county had known about for years, but her. And in five minutes, driving fifty down Market Street, she was back at her home—if you could call it a home now. Nosir, ’twas just a house, just four walls of a two-story, white-brick Colonial, ’cause inside there wasn’t a thing—nosir, nothin’—not a rug or a mirror or a lamp, not a stick of furniture or a curtain or a blind in a window, not even a bar of used soap or a towel or a face cloth—and, of course not a plate or a pot to cook in. They’d even screwed out the light bulbs—and here it was nigh three-four hours to dark and the boys coming home from school and hungry as bears, as boys are. And knowing this—their hunger—I suspect the first thing she did was stride in the kitchen to look in the ice box—but, Lord, they’d taken that, too—and the stove and even the cupboards (they’d crow-barred them out). And where the sink used to be were bent pipes and torn plaster. Lord, they must’ve hired a mighty big colored man to yank it out so thoroughly! Next, she must’ve stridden out back to ‘the guest house’ and gone inside and seen that whole shack empty, too—yessir, its ice box and sink and stove ripped out, too. Then she must’ve gone back into the big Colonial and stridden upstairs and, opening the closets, hers and the boys’, saw just bare cedar and empty shelves and hanging dowels—no clothes hangers, not even a stray one!

“So there she was—not Mrs. Merrick Woodall much longer (and she knew it), but just plain Venice Whitfield McGee from Mount Olive. Yessir, there she was, sitting maybe in the middle of that bare, living room floor, legs bent, arms crossed over shins, a cheek resting on her knees, her only clothes that silk gown on her back and the bedroom slippers on her feet. She must have reached out and clutched at her pocketbook beside her and even shaken it to hear her car keys and house keys and a few quarters and dimes and nickels. And she must have glanced out the front door, still open, and seen her own bright red Fordor Model A parked in the semicircular driveway. So at least she had something they hadn’t taken away from her. And she remembered the savings account she’d started years ago, secretly, in a Princeton bank—just for her—about four or five thousand dollars in it now—a lot of money in 1936. But knowing all that mustn’t have assuaged her much at the moment, with just the dark, bare pine paneling around her and the empty light sockets on the ceiling and shadow filling that empty house as the afternoon deepened toward dusk.

“Then her heart must have rolled when she thought of the door lock. I’m sure she stood and strode to the front door and tried the key she’d jerked out of her purse. And when it wouldn’t turn, she must have whispered—finally!—what everybody else in the county had known for years, ‘Mean, mean, mean!’ Lord, they’d even had time to change the locks! (She knew her keys wouldn’t turn the back lock either, or even the locks to the ‘guest house.’) And then I’m sure it came to her, like a snake striking, why they’d not locked her out: they’d wanted her to see what they’d done to her—to see their punishment for her stubbornness, her refusal to bend to Merrick’s will. And once again, ‘Mean, mean, mean!’ must have come out of her mouth, loud now, shrill and echoing in that barren room.

“Her heart must have rolled again when she knew from the light outside it was a little past four and the boys still hadn’t shown. ‘My boys,’ she must have thought, teeth gritting. ‘They can’t take them away! I was a good mother! Am now!’ She must have pictured them now in the big Goldsboro Victorian of her father-in-law, Merrick explaining to their wide-green and bewildered eyes, in that droning, patient way of his, ‘this new turn of events between your mother and myself.’

“But then, from outside, she must have heard footsteps on the brick walkway and then, through the open door, the two boys crying out together, ‘Ma! Everything’s gone!’ And she must have looked up and seen the two of them with their book satchels—same height nearly and same wide, green eyes and tow heads—like twins except Merrick was thirteen, Claude ten. When she set eyes on them—saw even their grimy faces and rumpled hair and shirttails out and the smudges on their shirts and shorts and knee socks—that question must have come to her for the first time in her life. You know it, don’t you, Dr. Lockhart? What she’s ever asking you and me and your mother and sister and your grandmother when she was alive, asking each of us singly as we’d enter that old Victorian for Christmas day breakfast—you know—”

“‘How’s your love life?’” I muttered in monotone, having grown depressed—and, oddly, irritated—by the old story. Really, the old man was drawing it out way too long—longer than I’d ever heard it before—even from him.

Then, thank goodness, he stopped it sudden, and, twisting his head around, backed the Chrysler slowly, swerving right and left a little, down the steep drive. We made our slow way back to Hillsboro Street and turned in the direction of downtown. As I kept my eyes on the ragged floor mat,  he resumed the old whispering, an abrupt laugh erupting out of it now and then, “Yessir, I should’ve told that fellah where to head in.”

I remembered the rest of Aunt Venice’s story—how it went through this Saturday, five days after Kent State: how, within a week after that March 15, papers for separation were filed in the courthouse and how, for reasons unknown to anyone, she signed away all rights to Uncle Merrick’s property—on the condition she have sole custody of the boys and Merrick be never permitted to visit them as long as he lived. And, again for reasons unknown to anyone, he agreed to that: gave up all rights to his own sons—and has never seen them to this day. A month later, she and the boys moved to Raleigh and the big Victorian house in Cameron Park. (She rented it first, then years later bought it.) She found a teaching job in some elementary school downtown and began renting the three upstairs bedrooms to State students. With her teacher’s salary—bare bones in the thirties (and for decades after that)—and the students’ twenty dollars a month for room and board, she managed to support her and her boys until first Merrick and then Claude went to Chapel Hill, Merrick in ’41, Claude in ’44. They bused tables to pay for most of their four years, and, once in a while, Aunt Venice mailed them a check for five or ten dollars. When they graduated, they stayed on the Hill—Merrick on scholarship for medical school, Claude on scholarship for law. Then Claude moved to Goldsboro, married, joined a law firm and started a family, built a big house in the suburbs where he lives still. Merrick moved to Los Angeles for a residency at USC and, falling in love with the mountains and the desert, settled in San Bernardino. He’s there today—married, a prominent neurosurgeon, his three children teenagers. Meanwhile, Aunt Venice taught—and taught and taught—for thirty years taught, and invited us Woodalls for Christmas breakfast, greeting each of us, individually, with her hushed, faintly seductive “How’s your love life?”—not expecting an answer and never receiving one, except for brief blushes from Grandfather and Grandmother and Mother, a wide-eyed wonder from Lucinda (until she was twenty-one, she’d never had a “love life”), and a shrug and “Okay, I guess” from me. In ’66 she retired from the school system. And through this May Saturday, she’s taught as a substitute now and then and continued renting rooms to new State students and attending First Presbyterian downtown Sundays. Her boys visit her three or four times a year—oddly, Merrick more often than Claude.

And never once during her time in Raleigh did she speak of her years with Uncle Merrick. It’s as if she were truly born not on April 16, 1895, but on that waning afternoon in mid-March 1936, when, seated on the pine floor of that empty house in Smithfield, she looked up from her knees and saw her two grimy, wide-eyed, bewildered boys, and that question first came to her—her own private question she expected no one to answer—a question meant merely for herself: “How’s your love life?” Whether she ever gave herself an answer, I’ll never know. Likely she just kept asking it, over and over, like a comforting mantra.

 

“Esso coming up. Here’s where the old New Yorker gets her high-octane liquor. And your old Dee-di relieves his bladder—full of just low-octane coffee, but high enough to hurt like the devil. Don’t ever get old, Dr. Lockhart. Don’t ever get old.”

I looked up just as we came beside the high test pump. A uniformed attendant, maybe seventy, came hobbling out of the old stucco station and up to Grandfather’s window.

“Fill ’er  up, Dr. Woodall, sir?

“Yessir, Mr. Lee. This old jalopy needs a double on the rocks, heh heh.”

“Yes sir, Doctor. Right away, Doctor.”

While the attendant shoved the gasoline nozzle into the rear of the car and pressed the lever, Grandfather opened the car door and, slowly, painfully, twisted himself out of the front seat and walked slowly, slightly bent forward, toward the men’s rest room on the right side of the station.

All the long while he was there—and I knew he’d be there a long time, for even starting his flow was surely an agony—I heard the attendant snap the nozzle onto the gas pump and watched him hobble back to the station; saw ahead of me sudden patches of flat, gray clouds; felt breeze gust through the open windows, bearing smells of oil and gasoline; heard the traffic roar by on Hillsboro Street.

For a reason I couldn’t account for, I squinted to my right, through my open window, and saw in my mind, maybe a quarter mile distant—beyond the service station and the State College campus and Western Boulevard—the great three-story building of brick and mortar and hundreds of metal-barred windows, squatting on a hill of great white oaks and manicured lawn and brick walkways and concrete benches. It was Dorothea Dix Hospital, a state mental institution known among the locals as “Dix Hill.” To my mother (and, no doubt, many others as well), it was called “the booby hatch” or the “snake pit.”

Then I squinted to my left, through Grandfather’s open window, and saw, again in my mind, and again a quarter mile distant, beyond Hillsboro Street and Cameron Park and Cameron Village Shopping Center, the two-story, high-windowed, brownstone Broughton High School, from which I was graduated in June ’66.

Suddenly flickered into my mind, like the stopped frame of an old home movie, my tall, bony body five years before—aged seventeen, encased (as it were) in the dark, nondescript slacks, the dark, nondescript long-sleeved shirt buttoned to the neck, the black, nondescript dress shoes tightly laced and polished as mirrors. My hair was cut in the “Oxford” fashion so popular among “intellectual” youth in the ’50s and ’60s: short all around except for the neatly trimmed bangs combed to the side with water and showing a high, flat forehead marked with bits of acne. My face—very pale, sharp-boned, gaunt—had thin, tight lips like an old scar.

At the start of my “therapy,” on that first May Wednesday five years ago, a little before three thirty in the afternoon, I stood in the cool shadow of Broughton’s east wing, on the tulip-lined edge of the teacher’s parking lot, clutching to my chest a fat, tabbed ring binder and four or five thick textbooks. A yard behind me was the shut metal-gray door that led to the auditorium, the backstage part of it, which held the props and the flats and the masks and the tubes of the heady makeup. With a deep gut-hurt—but just a breath of it—I yearned—longed—to turn around and stride to that door and open and enter it and then stride down to a front seat in the auditorium and sit and wait my turn to rehearse Cothurnus’s lines. And knowing that was not possible—ever again—I yearned—longed—to gaze back upon that door and—at least!—see it swing open and watch Kenny, his full heat-self, stride out in his torn T-shirt and pale blue jeans and wide, slightly gap-toothed grin, a stubby-fingered, callus-palmed hand raised to greet me, a “Hi, Lock!” lilting from his thick lips.

But knowing that, too, was not possible—ever again—I held my dull stare on the loose gravel of an empty parking space before me, waiting for the car—not the usual old, white Chrysler but the much newer Chevrolet, the gray, nondescript “state car”—that would, any second now, crunch forward to fill it.

And “sure enough” (as Kenny would have said—should have said), I saw the 3:30 on my wrist watch and staring upward, outward, saw that gray, characterless car, like a steel uniform, swing slowly from St. Mary’s Street and into the lot, glide gravel-crunching toward me, swing into the vacant space, and stop, the smooth engine rising in pitch as the transmission clicked into Park.

I stepped forward and pulled open the passenger door, but Grandfather, without looking at me, just staring straight ahead, cleared his throat and said, “The rear seat, Dr. Lockhart. This old Dee-di’s your chauffeur today—and each Monday and Wednesday and Friday hereafter—for the space of a year. And it is my wish that you lie down upon said seat so that you are not visible from the outside. This automobile is state-owned, so only your old Dee-di is permitted inside. Heh heh. You know how these state bureaucrats are.”

So I shut the front door and pulled open the rear one and ducked inside. I set my ring binder and pile of textbooks carefully on the vinyl-matted floor and lay prone on the cool vinyl seat, legs scrunched up, shoe soles pressed hard against the opposite door panel. (I was six feet two—tall in those days, even for seventeen.)

Then the smell hit me—that astringent, chemical scent of a new car. I’ll smell it forever,  in mind’s nose, when I remember those Mondays-Wednesdays-Fridays, that time of afternoon (bright green in April and May, melancholy and yearning brown and red and orange in October and November, cold and barren-branched in December, January, February), and those twisting, stomach-clenching journeys from Broughton to Dix Hill and back.

I caught sight of my old Virgil text on the car floor, covered in a tight, dark brown book jacket with the words SELECTIONS FROM VIRGIL neatly printed on it in my own hand, and I felt a great gut-clench of shame as the car backed left, then lurched forward, swinging right, then straightening, slowed in a gentle crunching over the gravel and then bumped out, swinging right, into the smooth asphalt of the street.

I felt the car accelerate smoothly, then slow, stop-and-idle, then, swinging right, accelerate again, then slow and stop, swing left, accelerate—a half hour maybe of rights and lefts, slows and stops, smooth accelerations through the midafternoon traffic of St. Mary’s Street and Hillsboro Street and Pullen Drive and Western Boulevard and Boylan Avenue.

The whole drive Grandfather stayed silent. There was none of his self-whispering, the soft laugh erupting out of it now and again, “Yessir, I should’ve told that fellah where to head in.” It was as if he, too, must have been feeling that same, great gut-clench of shame.

And the whole drive, to keep from thinking about it, I shut my eyes and in my mind saw myself back at Broughton, seated down front in the auditorium, waiting for “my” lines in the Millay one-act—“my” Cothurnus. (Of course, in the state car I knew some other actor, as tall and deep-voiced as I, had taken it over—but I didn’t know who and didn’t care.) In my mind, as the car moved, I was hearing Pierrot and Columbine chatter away, but, again in my mind, I wasn’t listening to them, as my eyes kept darting from the script on my lap to the right side of the stage—to catch a glimpse of tight-jeaned him winking blue-eyed out at me. In the car, I strained to play it all the way through, to that shining hour before we were caught, like a film relished longingly in slow motion. But then the film started flickering in scraps and shards, then whited away altogether, and I whispered to myself, “You’ll never see that place again, or anything like it. That’s all away from you—forever, Lock. Like him—away forever.”

I opened my eyes and saw once more the brown-sheathed Virgil text on the car floor. After staring on it for a time, I whispered to myself those lines I’d already memorized, “Arma virumque cano. . . . ”—all the way down to “Romanam condere gentem”—long past the part Mrs. Fisher had required of us. And as I whispered those lines, the virumque kept echoing above them, now like a resonant and comforting litany. When I finished the whispering—soft enough so Grandfather couldn’t hear it—I  thought, each word like a funeral’s drumbeat, Lock, your new life is this: these lines, and Latin (and Greek as well), and the major in both at UNC, and in a few years, Dr. Lockhart Titus Elledge, Jr., Ph.D. No, Dr. Lockhart Titus Woodall, Ph.D. I may as well visit a courtroom and have it changed to that. So you may as well get used to it—“bite this bullet” (as Grandfather would say to me in November ’69—referring to himself).

Soon I felt the car swerve gently to the right off a street—it must have been Boylan Avenue—and then up and around a long, curving drive. It braked and stopped—by the entrance, I was sure, where patients are let out and walk—or are taken—into the building. Grandfather cleared his throat and rasped, “Well, here you are, Dr. Lockhart.” Then, rapidly, anxiously: “Don’t get up yet. Lie still. Let me see.” I heard a sheet of paper rattling and then Grandfather: “It’s on the third floor, Room 312, a Dr. Aldred. I’m certain there’s a name plate. It should be easy to find. If you have difficulty, I am certain a receptionist can help—on the ground floor, I believe. When I give the signal, rise quickly and leave the car as rapidly as you can, through the door by your head. You’ll have no need for your books. When your hour is done, I’ll be waiting in the car, parked in the lot on your left, by the bronze statue—frowning Miss Dix herself, heh heh. All clear now. You can leave—but hurry.”

As quickly as I could, I gripped the door handle and scrambled out of the car and onto the paved drive, my eyes wincing in the sudden sunlight. I strode up a wide brick walkway, flanked by a neatly trimmed hedge. From the columned brick porch, I pushed my way through heavy doors and came into a vast, high-ceilinged lobby and stopped. The room was lit dimly with fluorescent panels that blinked on and off now and then. Brown vinyl easy chairs and sofas were arranged in neat squares, all of them empty. The floor was cream-colored linoleum with scuff marks and various stains of one kind or another, and on the white cracked-plaster walls were hung, here and there, large idealized portraits of three or four “donors,” of the state governor when the hospital was opened in 1856, and, of course, of Dorothea Dix herself, a somber, tight-lipped, spinster-appearing woman dressed in the ruffles of the last century. I looked for a receptionist but saw none, not even a counter or a cubicle where one might be sitting.

Straight ahead, an aisle led between the sofa backs and the chair backs into a wide corridor. I resumed my stride, hearing my steps echoing in the lonely space, and came into the corridor, found a stairway on my right, and strode up it to the second floor and came out into another corridor, as wide and silent as the first. Dozens of gray-metal doors, spaced equally apart, lined both sides of the hallway. The doors had been raised high enough for large spaces underneath them, and I sensed that trays of food were slid through the spaces by attendants—promptly at six in the morning, at noon, and at six in the evening. I imagined the furniture in the rooms: an army-style folding cot, a mattress with stained and soiled bedcovers, a chair, a small table (cot, chair, and table bolted to the floor, and no pillow on the cot—to lessen the chances of suicide), a sink with “edible” soap in gray dispensers, even a toilet, but without a lid. I shuddered violently, shook my head to clear it, and for the first time, I caught the smell of the hallway: Lysol mixed with the odor of cooked cabbage: very like the smell of the Central Prison cellblocks I had visited when I was ten and dressed in a suit in the summertime.

Remembering the offices were on the next floor, I turned to the left and, finding the stairwell, long-legged it up the flights and came out into another quiet, high-ceilinged corridor—this one smelling of nothing at all. Identical, gray-metal doors with numbers on white rectangles (no name plates) were ranked along both sides of it. I stepped slowly past Room 300 and 302, and so on, until I came, a long way later, to Room 312. The door was shut, so I sat in the metal folding chair beside it.

In five minutes or so, the door swung outward, I glanced up, and a young man in a clean, starched white coat stepped out, holding a clipboard with papers clamped to an end of it. A brown metal name plate with “Dr. Roger Aldred” etched on it in white hung by a thin leather strap around his neck.

“Mr. Lockhart Titus Elledge, Jr.,” he said, glancing down at me, his young, British-accented voice rising in inflection. He must have been barely twenty-five, and his accent was a mild one, as if he had come from English-speaking Canada, or South Africa, or the British upper classes. (I learned later that he was the son of some Count in Cornwall and had received his M.D. at the Royal College of Physicians in London.) From my metal chair, he looked a tad under six feet tall, and he had a head of black curly hair neatly trimmed and, except for a tinge of British pink on his cheeks, a face out of GQ magazine. (Yes, I had already, for years now, lingered over issues of GQ when Mother took me and Lucinda to the drugstore—lingered over the slick-paged male beauties as I stood in a dark corner or behind a rack of comic books.)

Soon we were seated in his cramped, windowless office, the walls white plaster with brown water stains trailing here and there, the floor a cream-colored tile with scuff marks on it. He sat in a metal folding chair beside his bare metal desk, I in a similar chair across from him. For a long, itching time, we sat in silence, he with one leg folded on top of the other, his veined and slender-fingered hand scribbling notes with a Bic on the top page clamped to his clipboard. Now and then, he paused to glance up at me for a few seconds, as if he were sketching me.

When he finished the scribbling, I expected him to say something, but he just laid the Bic and the clipboard quietly—fastidiously—on his desk and rose and turned around and reached up to a metal tube near the ceiling and gripping a small metal hook, pulled down, with a loud squeak, a white screen yellowed and cracked here and there—the kind used for showing slides or home movies. Then he turned again and stepped slowly and quietly past me. (I caught a whiff of aftershave or cologne, I wasn’t sure.) I craned around and watched him switch on a slide projector set on a metal shelf protruding from the wall. He pinched a slide out of a rack beside the projector and tapped it into the projector tray, then stepped back, past me, again slowly and quietly, to his desk and the screen beside it.

I craned back to the screen and saw projected on it, in grotesquely vivid color, a blonde girl, maybe eighteen, lying on a pink towel on some sunny beach, a vast body of blue, still water behind her. She was slender, tanned all over—and naked but for a flowered bikini bottom. Her breasts were large, full, firm, and had nipples the size of quarters. She sat in a pose one might call “languorous”—leaning backward, her palms placed flat behind her on the towel, her head hung to one side, blonde hair in her eyes, her lips pouty and slightly parted. After a minute or so, Dr. Aldred said, flatly, in a voice-in-training, as it were, “So, Mr. Elledge, in your own words, tell me what you think about that.” (Not “her,” but “that.”)

This Playboy centerfold female (of which I had seen plenty in my ninth grade friend’s collection) repelled me, but I said, nearly whispering, “Oh, she’s okay, I guess.”

“Okay, you guess,” Dr. Aldred said, again in the flat, resident-in-training’s voice, and he leaned to his desk and with the Bic scribbled something on his clipboard. Then he stood and said, “Well, we have ways of measuring that response. Next session, we’ll find out what you mean by ‘okay’ and ‘I guess.’ Now for the opposite, Mr. Elledge.”

He stepped past me to the slide projector. Staring straight ahead still, I heard a faint click, and on the screen the woman flipped away and in her place appeared a young man, likewise sitting on a beach, on a towel, this one jet black, and as in the other slide, a vast body of blue, still water lay behind him. Like the girl, he leaned backward, his palms pressed flat behind him on the towel, but unlike her, he stared straight at the camera, his deep blue eyes in stark contrast to his tanned face. He wore red, tight bikini briefs, out of which his long, thick “thing” and testicles bulged. Like the girl, he was tanned everywhere, but he was deep-chested in the way of a male and muscular in his shoulders and arms—a model’s build, not a muscle man’s. He looked older than the young woman—maybe twenty-five, Dr. Aldred’s age—and oddly, there wasn’t a hair anywhere on him except the hair on his head—black and thick and tousled, a GQ-beach-wind-blown look—and a thick, black mustache above his full, red upper lip. I swallowed and felt my “thing” harden fiercely, and in guilt and shame, I clamped both palms over my fly. But I wasn’t so naïve that I didn’t notice Dr. Aldred had noticed—the sudden hard swallow, the quick covering of my crotch—but I tried to conceal my fierce attraction as best as I could and so, to please him, I mumbled, without his even asking, “Oh, he’s okay, I guess. But, I guess, she’s maybe, oh, better.”

Dr. Aldred stepped past me to his desk and turned and faced me. “‘He’s okay,’ you guess, but, you guess, ‘maybe she’s, oh, better,’” he said flatly and leaned down to his clipboard and scribbled something on it. He stood straight then and said, eyes cast down, “We have ways, Mr. Elledge, of measuring the truth of your responses. Next session, we’ll find out what ‘okay’ means, and ‘I guess,’ and ‘maybe she’s, oh, better.’”

He stepped past me, switched off the projector, then stepped back to the screen and with a faint tug on its hook, let it slap up sharply into the metal tube. Then he sat in his metal chair and took Bic and clipboard from the bare desk and folding his knees and setting the clipboard on them, just let the Bic rest on the paper clipped to it.

Then he said, “Well, Lockhart, I’m listening,” his face suddenly relaxed now, nearly smiling, his voice lilting.

It was the first time he had called me “Lockhart,” and I felt a warm shiver all through me, and, for a reason I could not account for, I wanted—yearned—to tell him about Elton and our barn and church and about the Boy’s Life pictures and about Kenny and all the delectable and wondrous acts we had performed together—everything. My mind flooded and flamed with images: Elton slurping off my cock, Jeff Thornton’s mounded pectorals in that picture cut from Boy’s Life, Kenny’s deep-swirling kisses—and I opened my mouth to pour out the flood and flame of words.

But then I stared at Dr. Aldred’s curly hair and handsome face, going rigid and tight-lipped now, and at the white coat and the brown metal plate with his name white-etched on it and then at the clipboard and his fingers tapping the cap of the Bic against the metal clamp—tapping quickly, impatiently—and I shut my mouth tightly, stared down at the backs of my hands that now covered a limpness, and stayed silent.

After what must have been twenty minutes or so—which seemed to creep forever, tingling down my back—Dr. Aldred said, flat, expressionless, the affectionate lilt damped from his voice, “Well, Mr. Elledge, our time is up today. We’ll perform the tests next time—and discover what you mean by ‘He’s okay, I guess, but maybe she’s, oh, better.’”

He put the clipboard and the Bic on the desk and rose and walked to the door and opened it and, with a slight bow and sweep forward of his right arm, showed me out of the office. As I left past him, I caught again that sweet whiff on him—it was cologne, I was sure now—and then stepped quickly down the corridor and down the flights of stairs to the Lysol-and-cabbage-smelling “inmate” corridor and then down other flights of stairs to the ground corridor and into the great lobby, empty still. I pushed myself through the heavy front doors and came out into the wincing sunlight.

Soon, lying once more belly-down on the rear seat of the state car, legs scrunched up, feet pressed solid against the opposite door, my face—and nose—flat on the new vinyl, smelling the sharpness of it, the depressing astringency, I felt the Chevrolet back, then slowly swerve right and straighten, dip down the long, curving drive, and bump back onto Boylan Avenue. Then I felt the long, slow ride back, fitful with rush-hour stops and starts.

I heard the car crunch over gravel and then Grandfather clear his throat and rasp, “Well, Dr. Lockhart, here you are. You may rise and leave at your leisure.” I was certain (though the journey did seem short—and in rush hour, too) that we were parked on the lip of the carport, behind Mother’s Falcon. But when I rose, unfurling, and looked out, I saw we were parked once more in the Broughton faculty lot—empty now except for five o’clock shadow.

“I need to drive this limousine back to work,” Grandfather chuckled. You know where the bus stop is—Peace and Glenwood, over by Whack-Whack’s, heh heh. Fine exercise, walking is—and all those books, they’ll help, too.”

My chest clenched with hurt as it came to me the true reason he hadn’t driven me home. Mother would have arrived back from the station, and Grandfather must have remembered she’d said, many times over Monday and Tuesday, to him and to me, that she’d “have nothing to do” with my therapy—my “shrink,” as she’d referred to Dr. Aldred. “It’s all so embarrassing,” she’d said. “All such craziness. My son a homosexual—and a practicing one at that. You two deal with it and don’t say a word to me about it.”

 

And she never mentioned “the incident” again. In our infrequent letters—she’s seventy-four now—she never mentions my life in New York—not even my career in theater. She writes of Raleigh weather (“so hot today,” or “freezing cold today, like that room Aunt Rosalie died in”), complains of her tinnitus and “increasing deafness,” complains that Lucinda “never” visits her though she lives a half hour away, and ends in wishing for my “happiness” in whatever I “decide to do” with my life.

 

So I opened the car door and slid slowly out of the back seat and stood on the gravel lot, then leant down to gather my ring binder and the four or five textbooks, and rising again, held them in an awkward, skewed stack to my chest. (“Just like a girl,” I remembered a grade school bully taunting me once.)

From the row of tulips near the stage door, I watched the gray, characterless Chevrolet, like a uniform, crunch slowly out of the lot and onto St. Mary’s, steer right, and head toward Peace and then—I knew—back downtown to the State Board of Health.

When the car vanished from my sight, I walked, books and ring binder sliding awkwardly against my chest, the several circuitous blocks through a shabby neighborhood of bungalows and rooming houses, crossed Glenwood Avenue, and came to the corner of St. Mary’s and Peace and stood by the creosote pole with the yellow band painted around it. Behind me, I knew, stood the red-and-white-swirling cone that marked the barbershop where Grandfather would take me when I was seven, eight, nine—“Old Whack-Whack’s,” as he’d call it, chuckling. But before I could think more on it, that innocent time, the 5:30 bus, labeled “Glenwood Avenue Anderson Heights,” approached, roaring and clattering, then slowed and stopped with a whoosh of air brakes, and the side front door folded open. I stepped up inside, a bit wobbly with the books and binder held on my chest.

“Got you some homework, bo’,” the driver said good-naturedly—a balding, paunchy, tobacco-chewing, middle-aged white man in a gray uniform, his “D. R. Manning” name plate slid in a slot up to his right. Except for me and him, the bus was empty. It growled and lurched forward, and I swayed down the narrow aisle to the wide rear seat and sat on it and stacked my books and ring binder neatly beside me and set a firm hand on them to keep them from sliding.

Suddenly my stomach fell—not because Kenny wasn’t sitting beside me in the rear, as he always did on the 5:30 bus that April, an hour after rehearsals were over (I had already squeezed him from memory altogether—yes, that quickly: since Dr. Aldred and his slides and my sudden, fierce determination to become a “normal” woman-loving man—to please Mother and Grandfather)—no, not because Kenny wasn’t sitting where my books were stacked, but because it came to me that this bus held none of the five-o’clock crowd of male-muscled athletes fresh out of sports practices, their faces still red, still sweating, in April and May their veined, pumped biceps arching out from T-shirt sleeves rolled to the armpits, a soggy hair peeping out here and there. And on that five-o’clock bus before April Fool’s, from the rear seat where I’d sit alone (Kenny’d still be at school, still working on “his” props and flats), I’d watch the athletes all knocking each other with their elbows, laughing loudly (for no reason at all but after-school ebullience—jubilation!), and flirting with the girls—either cheerleaders, who’d flirt back, or the female Golden Masquers, who’d twist their faces away, ignoring them.

Shutting my eyes as the old bus clattered and labored along, I pictured in my mind those dozen or so male-muscled athletes—one of whom was named Ted, a tall, crew-cut, broad-shouldered cutup, always flirting with the cheerleaders. He had huge, high pectorals twin-mounding in April, May, June, from under a T-shirt a size too small for him, and a pair of peaked, vein-coiled biceps arching up (again in spring) from under shirt sleeves rolled to his ridged shoulders. As I pictured him, clear as a color slide on a screen, I felt my “thing” harden—sudden, fast, painful—like that fist striking me pleasurably, down there. By the time the bus reached Five Points (and stopped for the endless-seeming light), I felt the ache wave upward along the slender ridge of hair strung from cock root to belly button. Then I felt the delicious slow-welling ooze, and my heart raced and my mouth turned dry as old sunned wood. I steadied my books with my left hand while with my right I began to rub at my fly—so taut now the zipper showed in a brass gleam. To cover it—and my hand—from the driver’s rearview mirror, I twisted my legs to the side as far as I could. And I rubbed and rubbed—faster, faster—felt the delicious ache wave up past my belly, shivering, nearly unbearable, all the way up to my throat, forming moans, groans—words, even, which I dared not speak aloud: “Oh, yeeeeeee-ah, Ted, fuck me hard, muscleman!” It was all I could do to keep from bursting right there.

But I managed—somehow—to keep the ooze to ooze alone as the bus whooshed and swayed down Anderson, shook and clattered past Grandfather’s red-brick Colonial on the corner with White Oak, then cut right onto Kenmore, then left onto Kittrell, sped at least fifty down the long straight hill I’d bike down as a child, as fast as I could, arms spread wide, and then up the short incline. As it approached the creosote pole with the yellow band around it, I stood, swaying, and pulled the cord above a window, heard the sharp beep, and then the bus slowed, and the rear door unfolded. Quickly, clumsily, I gathered my books and ring binder to my chest and, feeling face flushed at my hard-on, at the zipper gleam still showing, I hurried out the door before the bus could stop all the way.

The driver yelled, “Hey, bo’, wait till I stop! You know better!” And then, laughing, “Got you a gal waitin’ on you. Lord, Lord! Biggest wad I ever seen on a young ’un! You have a good time, now—but, Lord, be careful! Don’t want no babies at sixteen!”

He went on longer, but I was no longer hearing him, and fairly flew toward our house, the binder and books sliding and bouncing on my chest, two or three of them dropping on the lawn (I didn’t care—I’d fetch them later).

All the afternoons of that April, it would be, like now, six o’clock when I got off the bus, so Mother and Lucinda would be home, Mother napping the thirty minutes before fixing supper, in her room beside the kitchen, and Lucinda studying in her room upstairs, door shut tight. And before that April, it would be 5:30 when I arrived home (Kenny still back stage, still working on “his” props and flats), and Mother would be in her room, maybe reading before her nap, and Lucinda in hers (again, door shut tight), perhaps sketching a little before starting her homework. In the afternoons between rehearsals, I’d arrive home at four (Kenny having left the bus at Five Points and walked to his bungalow on Bickett St., down near the railroad tracks—I’d never seen it), and Mother would still be at the TV station and Lucinda still at school, painting in Mrs. Allison’s studio.

So at six o’clock, five thirty, and four o’clock, I could enter the front door unnoticed and step softly into the living room and up the stairs and quietly passing Lucinda’s shut door, enter my bedroom and close and latch the door behind me. I’d toss my books on my bed, then reach under the mattress for the “Toughen Up” photos I’d cut meticulously out of the my Boy’s Life magazines (yes, I still subscribed, though I hadn’t attended an Explorer meeting in over a year).

Today, however, that first Wednesday in May, through the flung open windows, I could hear Mother and Lucinda clattering pots and plates and utensils in the kitchen, fixing dinner a half hour early. And just why so early on that May Wednesday, I wasn’t sure—perhaps out of some morbid curiosity (so I presumed, in my depression): what did a seventeen-year-old “crazy pervert” look like—the person I had surely become to them, nearly overnight? And what would that “crazy pervert” say or do after seeing his first “shrink” ever? Or perhaps they felt only pity (a feeling I loathed then and loathe even now, thirty years later)—that I, the now “mentally ill” son, needed his supper early so he could study and get to bed by nine, an hour sooner than usual: he, the poor boy, needed his rest, like a patient just come home from surgery at a hospital.

Anyway, for whatever reason they were cooking so early, and since, while this or that was baking or stewing or boiling, Mother would likely be sitting on the living room sofa, just smoking, and Lucinda would likely be watching The Three Stooges reruns on the television in the small adjoining den, I knew I couldn’t go in the front door and into the living room and up the stairs, especially with that bulge still in my pants.

So I strode to the right, along the brilliant row of tulips Lucinda had planted, and around to the back of the house and down the cinderblock steps and through the plywood door and into the dim, cramped, musty basement and heaved my ring binder and books into a corner, not caring if they’d be torn or scarred or the bindings broken.

So full I was, so aching, so oozing, I squeezed eyes shut, Ted now full naked in my mind. I dropped fully clothed to the floor and despite the rough, dusty concrete, wedged a hand under my fly and keeping eyes shut, began to rub at the taut member—slowly at first, to savor as long as I could Ted in my mind now flexing chest and arms before me, on his face that wide, white-toothed grin when he’d flirt with the girls on the bus.

“Oh, Ted, oh, Ted, flex that bicep,” I yelled—no need now for a cloth over my mouth, as in the den above me the television was loud with The Three Stooges wisecracks and smacks on the face and blows in the ribs and the sharp groans following, and Lucinda was shrieking with laughter or stepping into the kitchen to stir the mixed vegetables and the spaghetti or the frozen green beans and the “poor man’s chop suey”—whatever we were having for supper.

I began to rub faster—and faster still—and, oddly, Ted’s muscle and grin vanished at once, like a slide clicked away, and in Ted’s place, like a new slide clicked into view, appeared Dr. Aldred—just his handsome face and thick lips and black curly hair neatly trimmed, and I remembered the sudden lilt in his voice when he had called me “Lockhart” for the first time. And suddenly I came in a rich, lush burst, feeling the thick wetness jet into my briefs and then pulse thick under my shirt—all the way to the belly button.

Then, as usual, I felt the old, vast, deep emptiness—the postorgasmic melancholy, as it were. But this time, with Dr. Aldred’s handsome face and voice-lilt still lingering in memory, I felt, too, a wincing guilt and shame: not only had I broken some unspoken prohibition of his (and so had disappointed him); I had also, with Ted so brightly in my mind just seconds beforehand, somehow betrayed him—Roger.

I turned over on that cold, rough concrete and opened my eyes and just stared for a time at the bare, cobwebbed rafters. I soon squeezed the “betrayal” out of my mind. But though I strained to do so, I couldn’t squeeze out the shame and guilt that here, now, barely an hour after my first visit to Dix—for my “cure”—I had once again, in Mother’s words, behaved “that way.”

Then I knew, without the words, that I would never change, no matter how often I’d see Dr. Aldred, no matter how many treatments I’d receive from him—the “talk” therapy and even the dreaded “aversion” therapies I was so desiring to undergo (yes, I was that willing to be “cured” and “normal” again—to please Grandfather and Mother and even Lucinda, though she never mentioned my homosexuality as anything “abnormal” and never has, to this day). (Yes the “aversion” therapies were still practiced in the ’60s and even through the early ’70’s—until the APA declared “homosexuality” no longer a disorder.)

No, I thought with deep chest-clench, staring at the cobwebs on the rafters, I’d never never never never never change. I’d never become that red-blooded, heterosexual adult male with wife and children and house and white picket fence and heterosexual golf-playing and basketball-watching buddies on the weekends. I’d forever be “queer,” a “faggot”—one of those lone and lonely men seeking “gratification” (Father Moody’s word after he’d hear my confession) in dark, solitary “tearooms” and night-shrouded public parks and certain “clubs” (read “bathhouses”) with dim, semen-smelling rooms and old, semen-rank mattresses established in big cities for such “perverts” like me. I’d be Geoffrey in The Taste of Honey, walking out into the darkness, into a self-loathing, likely suicidal future.

 

“Creech house coming up, about a mile. You remember that old Creech house, don’t you, Dr. Lockhart?”

Grandfather was speaking aloud again. So absorbed had I been in my remembered first journey to Dix and the first therapy and the trip back to Broughton and all the rest of it—that first May Wednesday afternoon—I had not noticed what must have been Grandfather’s slow listing return to the old Chrysler, the long whir and catch of the engine and its rough idling, then what must have been the fitful, stop-lit drive through downtown and then the smoother one out of the city and, on our left, past the smoke-billowing refineries and the red-brick “colored” motel (Johnson’s) squatting in front of them, maybe a single car in the lot, a new Cadillac or Oldsmobile—and then, on our right, past the tall brick tower with the dozens of square gaps where glittering windows should have been, this tower the interior of which apprentice firemen would set ablaze piled bales of hay and then practice leaning long ladders against the brick walls and jetting water onto the flames through thick “power” hoses.

No, I noticed none of these long-ago yet so familiar landmarks, and when Grandfather spoke aloud, I was startled suddenly, as from a dream, and saw we had long passed the short four-lane section of U. S. 70 and were now driving the seamed and bumpy two-lane part of it that would take us around Clayton. Some twenty minutes later, the highway would widen to four lanes again and bear us past the Smithfield town cemetery, past the Klan Country billboard, over the Neuse River Bridge, and into Smithfield itself—its downtown Market Street.

Out of my open window, fields of new oats rushed by in a blur of light green, then thick stands of tall pines, their bracing fragrance brushing against my face, and last, high clay banks stringed with kudzu and along the ridge of the banks, the twin rails of a railroad running alongside the highway awhile and then curving into distance, beyond the tree line of a plowed, bare-dirt field or one grown up in weeds and May wildflowers. I noticed the overcast (just patches at the service station) had grown whole—thick, matted, metal-colored, not a sun ray anywhere. As if reading my mind, Grandfather rasped, “Looks like a storm coming up—but it’s supposed to clear up midafternoon or thereabouts.”

I stared straight ahead through the windshield and saw, come rushing toward us on our right, sitting not ten yards from the highway, that old Creech house, an abandoned, weather-blackened Carolina T surrounded by great oaks in full leaf.

“The Creech house,” I muttered. Where all those murders—”

“No, just one murder,” Grandfather rasped, and cleared his throat. “But it was such an awful thing it seemed like a dozen of ’em, yessir.  That boy they killed was queer, you know. Just sixteen, seventeen, and murdered by his own brothers. Story was the family got so exasperated they sent him to—you know—”

“Dix Hill,” I muttered. “For ‘the therapies.’” (Grandfather knew, so I didn’t have to tell him what kinds.)

The old house rushed by so quickly I caught just a glimpse of it—the sagging, wide-open front door and the dark beyond it—but in that glimpse, from the bits and pieces of the news article I’d read two or three years before, I could imagine the whole, wincing, shuddering scene: the small, slender boy in overalls, tiny and slight of build for sixteen—“barely five feet tall,” the article said—squatting, leaning over the bare-wood floor until his forehead touched it, his stick-like arms and fine-fingered hands covering his thin neck and small head, desperate to protect them, and squalling tearfully, panic-stricken, and the four older brothers, likewise in overalls, maybe eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, and all wielding baseball bats and, teeth gritted, red-faced, eyes bulging with hatred, raising the bats simultaneously above their shoulders and hurling them as hard as they could on the curled, curved boy—so hard-hurled their bare arms were red and popped with sweat—and with each thud thud thud bits of blood and flesh flying out of the boy’s forearms and head and neck. And all the while the terrified boy was crying out in a squealing voice, “Jamie [or Johnny, or Robbie—whatever his name might have been], don’t leave me! Help me! Help me!” But Jamie (or Johnny or Robbie—the boy’s twin—he must have had a twin!) had long fled out the back door and, eyes bulged in terror and disbelief, was far from the murdering house by now—much too far to hear not only the boy’s high squeals but the four older brothers’ repeated, nearly simultaneous, gravel-voiced yells, “Faggot! Fuckin’ queer! We’ll slam the per-vert out of yuh!”

I shook my head sharply, and the stomach-clenching sight cleared from my mind, and I saw were passing new green oats again and the thick stands of fragrant pine.

“Lucky for them the jury ‘understood’,” Grandfather rasped. “Just gave ’em second-degree murder.” A murder ‘in the heat of anger,’ you might say. Lord, those brothers just couldn’t help themselves. I guess the family was so darned frustrated—tried nearabout everything and seemed like nothing helped a-tall. Even that new-fangled therapy where they make you vomit and such. And the judge—Judge Rainey, Jr., wouldn’t you know?—he ‘understood,’ too. Just sentenced ’em six years, with a chance for parole in six months.”

Grandfather went silent for a swallow and then cleared his throat and rasped on, “You can’t imagine, Dr. Lockhart, how relieved we all were, especially your mother and I, on the day you told me you were ‘cured.’ Yessir, we were driving in this same old car in the spring of your senior year at Broughton. We’d just left Smithfield, headed back to Raleigh, and it was a May Saturday like this one, but all sunny, not a cloud anywhere. I know you’re also mighty pleased that old trouble’s over and done. Who’re you dating now? Linda? Elaine? Teresa? All those girls from fine people!”

When I didn’t answer, so absorbed I was watching the calming new oats blur green past my window, he must have turned and winked at me, then rasped, “So?”

“Linda Fuller,” I lied, turning to face him, and then I muttered, lamely, in my voice a tiny anger-edge Grandfather seemed not to notice, “She’s quite bright. Majoring in premed. Wants to be a psychiatrist.”

“Lord, a female—and a doctor—and a psychiatrist! These modern women! Heh heh. Your mother was one of em’—had to be when you and Lucinda were little. Still is. And she’ll go on working long past the time you both graduate—until they force her out, from the television station or something after that. She’s gotten so used to it. Just like your old Dee-di.”

Over the following fifteen minutes into Smithfield, I bent my head over the ragged floor mat and squeezed eyes shut. As the wind rushed in brisk, pine scents by my ear, I remembered what happened later that summer and into early autumn—between the Senior Prom, the second Saturday after I’d announced to Grandfather I was “cured,” and the beginning of my first semester in Chapel Hill.

I remembered, first, Prom Night, when I took this “Linda Fuller” (whose face I’d forgotten by Sunday morning) to the formal dance held, as always, at the Carolina Country Club. There we nibbled on the hors d’oeuvres, sipped champagne (to the envy of those who hadn’t turned eighteen), and danced, formally, fake-smiling, our crotches and chests so far apart I could barely smell the cologne she’d sprayed all over herself. (She tried, subtly, to edge closer to me, but I kept her away with elbows held so rigidly they ached.) We left, mutually-abruptly, a little before ten, and, on our way back to Grandfather’s in his Chrysler (which, of course, he had insisted that I borrow for the night), she first stared silently through her window, just watching aimlessly, I supposed, the yard lights and house lights on Glenwood Avenue flickering by. Then, maybe a couple of blocks from her house, she turned to me abruptly and blurted out, her voice edged with anger, “Lockhart, are you still a homosexual?” (My “condition” and “therapy” and eventual “cure” had pretty much spread all over Broughton.)

Startled, I stammered, “Of course, in the technical—I mean—medical sense—”

“Skip it,” she bit. “Just take me home.”

I’d barely stopped the car by her walkway before she snatched up her purse from between us, unlatched and threw open her door, burst out of the car, and fairly flew toward the lighted porch, her high heels clicking—desperately, it seemed—like those of a woman being chased. When the clicking stopped and her white formal gown flickered away and her front door slammed shut, I shoved out of my mind all the “careful driving” I’d been taught just a few hours ago: I swung a squealing U-turn in the street, barely missing a parked car and bumping over the sidewalk, and raced down White Oak to Grandfather’s, whispering—relieved, madly joyful, “That’s over, Lock, thanks be to God!” (Of course, I never saw her again.)

He—Grandfather—was standing, hand on hip, in his dimly lit garage, waiting for me as I edged the Chrysler inside it. He was still dressed in his suit trousers and white shirt and tie, but no suit coat was on him now, and no gray Homburg. Just as I switched off the engine, he dropped his hip-hand into a trousers pocket and took out his big watch and glanced at it, his head startling back a little. Then, slipping the watch back, he walked to my window, listing slightly, and cranked midair that I roll it down. When I did so, he leaned inside the car a little and peered at me through his thick glasses and watery blue eyes and sniffed two or three times.

“Heh heh,” he rasped, then cleared his throat, “Smells like you did all right, Mr. Lockhart. And mighty quick, too. Lord, I bet she was—” Here he just winked at me, thinking I’d know what he meant. (I did, of course: even being “homo,” I wasn’t that naïve about the lovemaking ways of heterosexual couples.) Then he drew his silver crown from the car and turned and walked, again slowly, listing a little, around the front of the car and up the steep wooden steps to the main floor of the big Colonial. All the while I was hearing him laugh, softly, over and over, like a mantra, as if he wanted—needed—to believe it (or wanted—needed—not to deny it—the truth of it): “Heh heh. You did all right, Mr. Lockhart Titus. Did all right, quick though it was, yessir. I bet she was—you know—. Heh heh. All right. Mr. Lockhart Titus did all right.”

And I remembered the weekend following—the June Sunday Graduation when, just after the whole 600-odd of us flowed out of that sweaty and stuffy Memorial Auditorium and stepped out into the cool June night air, Grandfather walked up to me, all by himself (Mother and Laura were waiting for me in Mother’s Falcon in the parking lot), and, dutifully, I reached out to grip his proffered hand. I saw his other hand gripping a large, black briefcase, nearly like a small suitcase, with sides that would expand to hold as many books as one could cram into it. When we released our handshake, he held it out in front of him with both hands, arms trembling. I noticed right away the gold-colored handle with the name “Dr. Lockhart Titus Elledge, Ph.D.” etched onto it. After slowly, gently lowering the briefcase to the concrete, placing it in front of my polished dress shoes, he cleared his throat and rasped, “Here I bequeath unto you a gift of congratulations, Mr. Lockhart Titus Elledge—four years hence, Mr. Lockhart Elledge, Artium Baccalaureus in linguis Latina et Graeco. And then the Ivy League and, four years thence, Dr. Lockhart Titus Elledge, Ph.D. and Classics Man.” How I shivered, inwardly, at that bestowed epithet!

And I remembered the Sunday after that—yes, so keenly remembered—when Grandfather stopped by our house at noon, entering the carport door into the kitchen without knocking, as he always did in his proprietary way (he had given Mother the down payment for the house). Dressed, as always, in his pressed salt-and-pepper suit, white starched shirt, thin blue tie, and Homburg, he saw me in the kitchen by the ironing board, dressed still in my church clothes, pressing my Explorer shirt.

He took off his Homburg and sat at the dining table and rasped, “I’ll be taking you out to the camp today, Mr. Lockhart. Your mother doesn’t feel well and asked me to drive you.”

Over the past four summers, Mother had driven me to Camp Durant, beginning on the Sunday of “work week,” when the staff set up the camp for the season, and then on every Sunday thereafter, through the middle of August. And I’d assumed she’d drive me out today: she was in the living room, reading the Sunday paper, and she’d be ready to go—so I’d assumed—when I finished ironing and changing and packing and said I was ready. She hadn’t seemed ill at all to me; in fact, she’d gone outside at seven in the morning, two hours before Mass, and mowed the whole quarter-acre lawn—a chore that had been mine since I was twelve. So Grandfather was lying, I knew (he’d say, euphemistically, he was “prevaricating”), and I shivered as gut-deep as I had on that afternoon over a year ago in Mr. Holliday’s office. (At eighteen, I still hadn’t learned to drive well enough to apply for a learner’s permit. Yes, Grandfather had given me that brief lesson on that Saturday afternoon two weeks before, but he and Mother had usually been too “worn out” from work to teach me—even on the weekends—and play rehearsals had taken up the hour for Driver’s Ed. Besides, my long-held, and irrational, terror of driving had kept me from asking them for lessons.)

To calm myself, I made light of this sudden change of drivers and joked, lamely, “Well, it’s supposed to pour this afternoon, so we can break out the tin cup.” (The Chrysler had already begun to leak in the passenger’s corner of the windshield.)

“Yessir,” he rasped, “Heh heh, that old tin cup. Your great-grandfather drank his pop and beer and wine and bourbon from that cup—every day of his life—at formal meals even. Story was it came from a Federal officer—a fellow Mason of your great-great-grandfather, Blow-Your-Horn-Billy. He gave it to your great-grandfather when he was six: yessir, he bowed deeply and told him and his mother he’d spare the house—the old homeplace, you know—on account of the Masonic emblem above the parlor mantelpiece. Blow-Your-Horn-Billy was over in Smithfield with the Home Guard. He’d been elected Major of it, you know.”

He waited silently, fiddling with his tie now and then and tapping at his Homburg on the table as I finished ironing the dark green Explorer shirt, then the pleated olive shorts and the yellow neckerchief with “Camp Durant Staff 1966” stitched on it in bright red.

I walked into the living room, past Mother reading the newspaper (with no word from her), stepped, slowly and heavily, up the flight of stairs into my bedroom, changed into the pressed uniform, and then, in spite of my deep gut-shivering, held up the neckerchief and carefully, neatly folded it a few inches down from its triangular base. Before the bathroom mirror, I wrapped it, again carefully and neatly, around my neck and, picking up my hand-painted, totem pole slide from the edge of the sink, slid its loop up through the folded tails of the neckerchief—all the way to my throat. I turned around and with Lucinda’s hand mirror made sure the bright emblem on back—“Camp Durant Staff 1966”—blazed for all to see. Then I slipped on my long green knee socks and the garters with their short red sashes, and then the black Sunday shoes already carefully polished. When I finished packing, I gripped up my knapsack and suitcase and stepped down to the living room, again past Mother—and again with no word from her, no “See you next Sad-dy, Locky”—just a rattling of the News and Observer as she turned a page.

From the kitchen, Grandfather and I headed out to the Chrysler, and in all silence, he drove me the ten overcast miles out narrow U. S. 1, flanked by pine stands and clay banks and kudzu, turned left onto Neuse Road, crossed with a faint bump the Seaboard railroad tracks, passed the lopsided, paint-peeling shack with the hand-painted sign “Neuse Holiness Church,” and turned left again, into the wide, rolling gravel road that led us into the camp.

 

You see, during the summers after my freshman and sophomore years, and even (for some reason I could not—and cannot—account for) during the summer after my junior year when Grandfather would drive me just once a week, on Monday, to my therapy with Dr. Aldred, I worked as a counselor at the Scout camp. I taught Morse code and compass and mapping and various merit badges—Signaling, First Aid, and, in my third summer, Nature, Reptile Study, Soil and Water Conservation, and Wildlife Management. And in that third summer, to my deepest delight (and likely also as an antidote to the milder ammonia-and-smelling-salts “aversion therapy” with which Dr. Aldred was then treating me), I wrote and directed the Wednesday “visitor’s night” Indian pageant—or “outdoor drama” as I preferred calling it: a play about Osceola and his treacherous capture. Of course, the “drama” was marked by all the flaws of a seventeen-year-old novice: a melodramatic script with clichéd, long-winded speeches, crowd-pleasing canoes gliding over the lake with Indians in them holding flaming torches (pine poles wrapped in burlap at their tips and drenched in kerosene), a “snake dance” with the dancer gripping a six-foot black snake in his mouth (a dance found in no authentic tribal repertoire), a prolonged (and clumsily choreographed) “battle scene,” complete with a kerosene-drenched, not-quite-authentic, pine-bough-on-chicken-wire-covered “chickee” bursting into flame. I played loose with facts all script long—even invented a son for Osceola, a son handsome and muscled, who was brutally slain in the battle scene. And most spectacular (and least authentic) of all was the accompanying music—taped excerpts from Aaron Copeland, Grofé (the Grand Canyon “Sunrise” movement), and even Wagner and Gustav Mahler—blaring from loudspeakers hung in the trees that ringed the “stage” (the campfire circle with its crudely carpentered benches for seats). Yet, for all its flaws and exaggerations, I loved that pageant and all the performances—even the one when the tape got tangled on the player and the “funeral” of Osceola’s “son”—his body laid in a canoe with a single lit torch in the bow and then paddled out into the lake—had to be performed in silence, without the final ten minutes of that glory of the “immolation” scene from Die Götterdammerung. When the play’s performance shone, how I reveled in the applause and shouts of the audience! (And how deeply disappointed I was—to the point of melancholy—when a sudden thunderstorm would balloon and rain “my” pageant out!)

As for the place—this Camp Durant—I’d fallen in love with it long before, when I was a camper there at age eleven, twelve, and thirteen. I loved the large “lower” lake curving gently and gracefully beyond a peninsula of trees and all ringed with hardwoods—except for a single, tall pine at the lake-edge of the fire circle. And I loved the wide, gravel, gently curving dam lined with trumpet vines and honeysuckle and clumps of orange day lilies and, now and then, unexpectedly, a single tall mallow, its great white cup full-open to the sun. How I relished just walking over that dam in the cool sunlit early mornings, when the lake lay smooth as a mirror! And I loved the “upper” lake as well—much smaller than the lower: an oval pond ringed with scrub oaks and redolent pine saplings. And when I taught Nature merit badge, I loved showing the kids the trees along the nature trail, touching the leaves and naming each tree aloud—the “tulip poplar,” “the mimosa,” “the black cherry,” the “yellow” pine (two needles) and the “loblolly” pine (three needles), the beech (with its trunk one could initial with a pocket knife), the eastern hornbeam (“muscle wood”)—and all the varieties of oaks and how to tell the difference between them: northern red oak, southern red oak, black oak, white oak, blackjack oak, turkey oak, willow oak—and more. I loved, especially, that half-way “rest stop” along the mile trail—the twin mounds of rock through which a small creek flowed. The kids and I would sit on the rocks and rest a bit, not saying much. (The other staffers called it “pussy rock”—but I felt that name crude and preferred “valley rock”—and the campers, the ones I taught anyway, would ever remember it—so I hoped, believed—as “valley rock,” not that vulgar, other epithet.)

Most of all, I loved the older men there: the scoutmasters and their assistants and the camp directors and the program directors and the other adult leaders. I suppose I saw in them, in some semiconscious way, as the father I never had—the fathers!

Of course, I was struck now and again by a handsome, well-muscled sixteen-year-old, either a camper or a staffer, but I just kept their “gorgeous” images in my mind—and kept my right hand powerfully busy, late at night in the Nature Lodge, when I knew the three other counselors were sound asleep.

 

Grandfather parked the Chrysler by the gate of totem poles and rasped, “Sit here, Mr. Lockhart. I’ll be back directly.”

I watched his Homburg bob down the lawn toward the Training Lodge where “work week” began with various camp songs, the Camp Director’s welcoming speech, and everyone introducing themselves. I saw Joe White and Mike Martin sitting on top of an old picnic table, dressed in T-shirts and well-worn jeans and sneakers. They waved at me; I didn’t wave back, hands lead-heavy in my lap. Suddenly, from the driver’s open window, yelled Cotton Tyler’s voice, “Hey, Elledge, you’re in uniform! And this here work week! Better change in the car, bo’!” Then he laughed, “Come on, man, you’ll be late!” and sprinted down the lawn and sat on the table beside Joe and Mike, dressed, like them, in T-shirt and jeans.

I remember it was around noon and still overcast—cool for mid-June. Just as the clouds suddenly thickened and purpled, a small rain began to wet the windshield, and Grandfather walked, Homburg bobbing, up the lawn, slowly, listing slightly, brushing raindrops from his suit. As soon as he slid into the driver’s seat, the small rain burst into a shower, and I saw Joe and Mike and Cotton leap off the picnic table and rush, hands over head, into the Training Lodge.

The rain began to drum on the Chrysler roof, some of it dripping from the right corner of the windshield onto the dashboard. Grandfather reached into the glove compartment and took out the old tin cup, tarnished with age, and placed it under the dripping. He started the car and rasped, “Now hold the cup steady, Mr. Lockhart.” I reached out and held it, and he backed the car, swinging right, then swung left and started forward, down the wide, graveled, rolling road out of camp. In and out of the drumming rain—drumming loudly now—came the steady drip drip drip into the cup.

When we reached the stop sign at Neuse Road, the rain had slowed to a sprinkle. I already knew what Grandfather had said to Mr. Earnest, the Camp Director, and when he cleared his throat to tell me, I nearly blurted a not-Lockhart Elledge, “Damn it, garrulous old fool, I know what you said and he said, you needn’t rub it in, I don’t want to hear about it!” But I stayed silent and let him rasp on: “Mr. Earnest and I agreed that, under the present circumstances, even though you’re considered ‘cured,’ you’d be better off working elsewhere this summer. Given your interest in reading, Mr. Earnest suggested Olivia Raney Library downtown, and I wholeheartedly agreed. The salary shall be much better than he can offer, and I know Mrs. Woolrich—have known her for decades—why, she was Carmen’s bridesmaid, you know—took the train all the way up to Philadelphia back in October ’19. She’ll be glad to hire you on. And—” Here he paused, blushed deep red, and cleared his throat longer and louder than I had ever heard before: “And, of course, in the library, there’ll be no, you know—no, temptation. [How little he knew of library “tearooms”!] You’re cured, there’s no doubt. Dr. Aldred has said so. But we don’t want this ‘cure’ to be any temporary ‘remission,’ do we now, Mr. Lockhart?” He laughed softly, “Lord, Lord, old Aunt Venice. Never had the slightest thought old Merrick would remission on her—and permanently, too!”

Just before we turned onto the paved road, I looked back at the rolling, pine-flanked, gravel road and felt a sudden great hurt well up in me. I turned my face to my window so Grandfather couldn’t see the sudden burst of wetness. All the way home, I kept my eyes on the rain sliding in thin, curving rills down the window pane.

Since that June Sunday three decades ago, I have never set foot on my sacred place.

 

Mike Martin and I still keep up, and in a recent e-mail, he wrote that the camp had been bought by the City of Raleigh in 1978 and renamed “Durant Nature Park”; that it was now ringed by shopping centers and industrial warehouses and town house complexes; that Neuse Road had been four-laned and was now “Durant Road”; that “city buzz” had “pretty much killed” the night chirps of crickets and tree frogs; and that “all that concrete runoff” had washed out the campfire circle—“just a gully of clay now.”

“The area has changed so much you wouldn’t recognize it,” he wrote. “So when you drive down to N. C. again, you may as well stay in Durham—and save your gas money.”

 

“Smithfield five, Goldsboro thirty-three,” Grandfather rasped from out of the faint self-whispering. “And there’s that old picnic table. We all used to eat there on the way to Morehead, you remember, Dr. Lockhart? Lord, road sign and table been there forever, seems so.”

Opening my eyes, I glanced up to see the rust-edged mileage sign whip by, caught a glimpse of the rotting table-and-benches in front of a cattle pasture fenced with barbed wire. I swept my tongue over the roof of my mouth: the hunk’s semen-taste, its shaming stickiness, had nearly vanished, just a hint of it remaining still, like fading Novocain hours after a dentist visit.

And with my face to my open window, the pasture-green and strands of barbed wire rushing by, I wondered, in wonder, Why aren’t you back in your dorm room, Lock? Your comps, they’re Monday. And the paper on Virgil due Tuesday. Why this ridiculous, time-wasting trip with a Dr. Claude Alexander Woodall, Homo Medicus, to a place, a “Klan Country,” you’d sworn four years ago, nearly to the day, you’d never set foot in again? I’d be in my room right now, writing the paper. I could have used Victor’s ear plugs—his “studying plugs.” And that brainless hunk—that’s not your direction, Lock. Just a misdemeanor this morning—a tiny lapse, an indiscretion, no more than that. You know who you are, Lock—by now—surely!

I felt a chest-clench, the kind you feel after a nightmare, and then in the wind rushing by, I shook my head to clear its memory—that sick-green restroom and all the rest. Then I felt a huge relief, and thought, It’s just a tiny diversion, this little trip—to get the old man off your back. And you need a break anyway. Away from the Hill for a while. We’ll see his damn homeplace and be back on campus before four. You’ll just pull an all-nighter or two.

I bent back down to the ragged floor mat, squeezed eyes shut again, and to the sounds of the wind rushing past (now scented with cow manure) and of my grandfather once more whispering to himself, that faint laugh erupting out of it, “I should’ve told that fellah where to head in,” I remembered how rarely I saw him after that aborted camp Sunday—that huge loss in my heart, my soul—that deep, deep hurt.

Of course, there was no further need for the “therapeutic” journeys to the “shrines” of “Klan Country.” And after that Sunday, for reasons unknown to us, Grandfather never set foot in our house again. For the rest of June and most of July, Mother would now and then wonder aloud, “Why’s our Dee-di never here anymore?” And from Lucinda: “Mom, why doesn’t Dee-di visit us like he used to?” And from me (faintly sarcastic): “Guess he’s still reading the N & O—the paper he ‘never finishes.’?”

Of course, our questions were only rhetorical, and I suppose were meant to be, since for a long time we had resented the old man’s unannounced visits, which could occur at almost any moment throughout the year—a Tuesday night, say, around eight, or, more often, a Sunday noon or midafternoon. When we’d hear the slow, familiar scraping of shoes on the carport doormat, Mother would whisper, “Oh, God, can’t he at least phone?” and then retreat to the old brown couch in the den, shut the sliding door, and switch on the television. And Lucinda would rush up the stairs to her room and shut and lock the door behind her.

That would leave me alone to greet the old man, since I’d often be sitting on the couch in the living room, before the coffee table, or at the table in the kitchen, immersed in studying or reading. (My room, unlike Lucinda’s, had no heat vents and so was always slightly chill, even in spring and fall. And in summer, not a breath of breeze fluttered the curtains of the two open windows: the prevailing wind, north in summer, blew from Lucinda’s side of the house.) So before I could rise and make my escape—to somewhere besides my room, Grandfather would have already, without knocking, opened the unlocked or locked carport door (he had his own key) and stepped inside, “Si vales, valeo; bonum est, Mr. Lockhart,” rasping out of his mouth—softly if he saw me in the kitchen, louder if, peering up the small hallway, he saw me on the living room sofa. Dutifully (yet resentfully), I’d rise from wherever I was and welcome the old man inside. I’d ask him to sit at the kitchen table and pour him some coffee and ice water. Then he’d make idle chatter: about Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and “what a mess it all was;” or the recent “ill fortunes” of the Carolina football team; or the local politician Kidd Brewer’s conviction for bid-rigging and that “scandalous going-in party” at his fancy house on top of a hill by the Durham highway—and so on, ad nauseam. After a half hour or so, I’d rise and show him out, bidding him an orotund (and faintly sarcastic) farewell, “Ave atque vale, Dr. Claudius.” But by July’s end of that library summer, not one of us ever mentioned his odd and mysterious absence—such relief we, especially I, must have felt!

I wondered then—but without the words—and I wonder now, three decades later, whether it was some shaming and tense conflict that kept Grandfather away that summer.

As my “Dee-di”—that warm, familiar name—he must have known the sheer shimmering pleasure Camp Durant granted me in the summer: the teaching (especially the nature merit badges), and the Osceola “outdoor drama,” and the neat staff uniforms with their bright neckerchiefs, and the camp ritual of flag-raising-and-lowering, and at ten at night Perry Como’s Lord’s Prayer followed by the bugled “Taps” played on scratchy 78s through old horn-shaped speakers atop Campbell Lodge—and, more than anything, just the place—the pine-smells and the clay-smells and the skies ever-seeming blue—and that gracefully angular lake from which a breeze never seemed to cease! And yes, it was a pleasure I’m sure he shared with me every Wednesday night when he’d drive Grandmother and Mother and Lucinda to the performances of “my” Vision of the Sun. (Indeed, he never missed a show, except for the single rainout we had that summer of ’65.)

But as Claude Alexander Woodall, M.D., Colonel, United States Army, Retired, and in ’66, Chief of the Tuberculosis Control Division of the North Carolina State Board of Health (his second career, since ’48), he must have been so glued to a “conscience”—social? Southern? medical?  moral? who knows?—that he found it “necessary” that I not even be tempted into a “regression” from my “cure” by the young males that swarmed the camp mid-June to mid-August.

That tense and shaming conflict must have led to such twisting agony in him he had to ignore it—or explode in one of the outbursts of temper Mother had so often told me about.  So to keep his mind off it, he decided to stay away from our house for good—not even stepping on our property or driving down our street. No, on those weeknights and Sundays when he felt restless and homebound, once more wearied by Grandmother’s ceaseless complaints, all he’d rather do was either stay homebound—and read the newspaper over and over and watch a Yankees game on television (and, later, the Redskins and ACC basketball) and read extra rolls of lung X-rays—or on Saturdays and Sundays, go out to breakfast and lunch at the Broiler, then take the Hillsboro Street eight-block walk to the Capitol and back.

To make sure I wouldn’t see him any more than I had to, beginning the Monday after that aborted camp Sunday, the Monday I was “officially” hired at Olivia Raney as a “circulation assistant,” and ending September 10, the day before I moved to Chapel to begin my freshman year (so I could avoid, for the first time ever, the family’s annual Labor Day week’s vacation in Morehead City), I volunteered (and was permitted) to work all the additional shifts. So besides the eight-to-five schedule Monday through Friday, I worked six to nine at night, having wolfed a hamburger and fries from the old Capitol vendor in his kiosk—whirled ever about by pigeons, his “friends,” as he’d call them. And I worked one to five Saturdays and Sundays. To avoid our ten o’clock mass at Our Lady of Lourdes (and the certainty I’d see Grandfather when Mother would pick up Grandmother), I lied the library had begun to “experiment” with “extended hours” on Sundays, staying open nine to one, and I simply had to be there—there was no one else.

Mother raised an eyebrow, but she apparently believed me, and because so few buses ran on Sundays, she even drove me before church to the nondescript concrete building at the end of Hillsboro Street, within sight of the Capitol. She let me out, sighing, “Oh, Locky, I hope you don’t lapse.” (From being a practicing Catholic, she meant.) And then she drove home.

I had been entrusted with the key, and not five minutes after entering (and locking) the door behind me, hoping in terror no other employee would come in Sunday mornings, I found, under the 700s, a book on college wrestling, flipped to a photo of two young men demonstrating the “figure-four,” dropped my body to the old, stained, musty carpet and fist under my fly, stared at the taut, tubular bulge in the crotch of the pinned wrestler’s tight training pants. I rubbed away until in a minute (likely less), I groaned, then felt the warm jets filling my briefs.

Then, until one in the afternoon, I went out and wandered the nearly empty downtown streets, my whole body radiant with pleasure, even when it showered and I had to carry an umbrella. (Of course, I stayed away from Hillsboro Street, where I might chance meeting Grandfather on his after-lunch walk from the Broiler to the Capitol and back.)

One Sunday near the end of July, I wandered as far as the warehouse district near West Street, and much to my surprise (and conspiratorial delight), I passed, strolling toward me on the other side of West, Dr. Aldred in a tight T-shirt and tight, faded Levis and hiking boots. He walked beside a man about his age—similarly dressed but long-haired and mustachioed: a faint resemblance of the Marlboro Man in the magazines and on highway billboards. Without stopping, Dr. Aldred waved at me and lilted, “Hi, Lock! Happy Sun-day!” His companion, even handsomer than he, and more “butch,” waved as well but said nothing. After they passed me, I heard Dr. Aldred mumble something and then the two laugh, good-naturedly. I felt certain he was telling his friend about my “case” and all similar “cases”, “incurable absolutely, if there’s really any ‘illness’ to be cured,” having said the same to me on our last day of therapy—and having said besides, “Let’s just record you’re cured. I’ll  note that now, in writing.” And I was certain he was also telling his friend what I had heard him say so often in the year of my Dix visits, “As you and I and all of us know, who know Dorothy!”

 

On a  late-August Saturday morning my mother read in the newspaper—“God, on the front page!” she said, fretfully—that Dr. Aldred had been arrested by an undercover policeman for a “crime against nature” in one of the decrepit, empty warehouses along West Street. There was a sheepish photo of him beside the article, his wrists in handcuffs, an expressionless policeman leading him away from the “scene of the crime.” That twilight, after a tense and silent supper, Mother asked me into her room, shut and locked the door behind her, and burst out in her angry-hysterical way, “That lying son-of a-bitch per-vert! Hardly a ‘cure,’ as you put it! And straight to your grandfather’s face, who’s never told a lie in his life! And that lying note to Mr. Holliday! I’m glad Dee-di had the sense to take you out of that camp! That per-vert didn’t molest you, did he?” And on and on—eventually comparing me and Dr. Aldred and even all “homosexuals” to my “lying son-of-a-bitch psychopathic father!” When I heard this last, I lost all control and shouted, “Goddamn bitch,” and started beating on her shoulders, and she beat back on mine, then cried, “You hurt me, you per-vert crazy! You’ve always belonged in Dix! I wish I’d had you committed years ago! God!”

Shouting, “Bitch! Bitch! Bitch!” and weeping uncontrollably—in that deep, wrenched, down-in-the-lungs way of the girl in the Kent State photograph—I ran out of her room and out of the house and down Kittrell to Fallon Park. By the trickling creek there, in the dimming twilight, I sat on a stone and wept on, thinking once more of the solitary “lying-son-of-a-bitch-psychopathic-father” fate that now seemed more than ever to lie ahead of me. Suddenly I remembered I’d heard—perhaps from Kenny?—that Fallon Park was called “Fellatio Park” by the Raleigh homosexuals, and I went silent, felt a surge below my belt, and glanced carefully around the circular lawn fringed with pines, a single, large weeping willow in the center of it. In my wild-desperate imagination (out of a longing for some warmth, some loving), I thought I saw a guy my age standing by the willow, staring at me—but it was only a pine sapling shaped curiously like a person, and I realized I was alone in “Fellatio Park” and took the slow walk back to my house. After that night, Mother never mentioned Dr. Aldred or my therapy again. As for Dr. Aldred, I read a brief notice in the obituaries of his suicide a week later. He had obviously been fired from Dix and his license to practice had been taken away. So drained I was, I couldn’t even weep, just crumpled the newspaper page and threw it in the trash.

 

Of course, I digress—but out of necessity here.

 

Returning to my library Sundays: I couldn’t very well lie that Olivia Raney stayed open Sunday nights (though how wished it were so!): no one, not even Lucinda and Grandmother, would believe that. So I was forced to endure the Sunday suppers in my grandparents’ ornate dining room. During that two-hour torture, and especially during the few minutes Grandfather and I sat alone at the table (while Grandmother and the maid Miss Mary and Lucinda and Mother cleared away the dishes and prepared dessert), we never said a word to each other. He’d flip his dessert spoon over and over or slip his pocket watch out of his suit trousers and glance at it and slip it back in again. And I’d just stare silently at the wide mirror above the sideboard, seeing the long, gaunt, expressionless face with the high forehead and the short, bangs-combed-to-the-side “Oxford” haircut, the chin and cheekbones prominent, a deep dimple chin-center—except for the haircut, the “spitting” image of my dead, “deadbeat,” “whoring,” “lying,” “psychopathic” father.

 

These Sunday tortures ended—thankfully!—on the mid-September Sunday I was driven to Chapel Hill for my freshman year. That afternoon, I was driven not by Grandfather in his Chrysler but by Mother in her Falcon. I had asked Mother to drive me on the specious grounds that her car—a compact station wagon nearly half the size of the Chrysler—had more space for my “belongings.” The entire thirty miles along curving Highway 54 was filled with her chatter about my taking “nice” girls to dinner and the movies and the theater, and “rushing” for Kappa Sigma, my grandfather’s fraternity. “He’d be so happy!” she lilted. “You can see his picture on the living room wall—oh, so young! He took me there when I was twenty and we visited Aunt Peggy. She was housemother for a girl’s dorm—oh, God—what—? Yes, Cobb Hall, that was it. You remember Aunt Peggy, don’t you, Locky? I took you to see her when you were twelve. That old colored woman shouted, ‘Man on the hall!’ And all those doors slammed shut. God, you were just twelve and ‘Man on the Hall!’ Tickles me to death . . . . ” And on she went, in her socialite’s wandering way. For a time, I would look at her and nod politely or say, “Yes, that’s true,” or, “Yes, I remember”—but without enthusiasm. Then, as we started that long, curving climb to The Hill, I went silent and just stared out the window—at the old stucco Brady’s Restaurant and then at the oak trees and the old elegant houses rushing by. Without seeming to notice, she chattered on.

 

Just before dark, I was alone, sitting at a scratched, wobbly table—my “desk”—in my third-floor room of Old East Dormitory. I was writing my obligatory letter to Mother: that I thanked her “immensely” for driving me over; that I was “looking forward” to seeing her and Lucinda “Saturday morning, around eleven”; but that, “to my great regret and with my deepest apologies to Grandfather and Grandmother,” I’d have to miss their “Sunday supper for this weekend and for many weekends in the foreseeable future”; that I had “no choice otherwise,” since, from my “recent inquiries” at the Chapel Hill bus station, I had learned no buses left from Raleigh to The Hill Sunday evening and “I must, therefore, return at four in the afternoon.”

Of course, in my resolve to avoid those Sunday suppers, I was lying, and I knew Mother would write back in complaint, trying to twinge me with guilt:

 

Dear Locky,

Your Grandfather will miss you so! And all your life, practically, you and he were so close! And you know good and well you’d have no daddy at all if it weren’t for him [and so on and so forth].

 

But I also knew she’d not bother to check the bus schedules—so I’d be free at last from those Sunday horrors—no, those prickling, eye-averting shames—at least until Thanksgiving, Christmas, the semester break in January, and the Easter holidays in spring. I was certain I could endure those few Sunday shames—or even find a way to escape them altogether.

 

You may be wondering why I did not—would not—choose to stay on campus most of weekend (Saturday afternoons and, as it turned out, Sunday mornings and afternoons)—why, in fact, I had decided on that course of action as far back as high school graduation. From the stories I’d heard from Broughton classmates with older siblings at Chapel Hill, I’d learned the dormitories on weekends were loud with blaring stereos and drunken partying, despite the “official” prohibition of alcoholic beverages. (The residence hall “advisors,” themselves college boys, just “looked the other way” and joined in the partying and drinking.)  I’d heard, too, of the horrid sounds and smells of twenty or thirty boys vomiting at once in the dormitory lavatories Sunday mornings, each of them “hugging his own toilet.” Ugh! There was no way I’d stay on campus—even in the library or classroom buildings, which, nearly empty on weekends, I feared would so depress me I couldn’t concentrate or I’d drowse into long naps and jerk awake again.

 

Losing my resolve for a moment, I shuddered with guilt and was about to toss the letter to Mother into the waste basket and compose another: that “I would indeed be present for Sunday supper, as the last bus left for Chapel Hill at nine.” But then, remembering those awkward, shame-prickling August silences between Grandfather and me, I quickly, with a barely legible scrawl, finished the letter, “Your loving son, Lock,” then folded it and slid it into one of the envelopes Mother had packed for me, sealed it with a sour tongue, licked one of the FDR stamps from a book of them she’d handed me when we’d arrived, fingered it skewed and upside down onto the left corner of the envelope, then strode downstairs and much relieved, my guilt vanished like a lake mist at dawn, slid the envelope into the mail chute.

 

From Sunday until Wednesday, when classes would start, I had the room to myself, and I thought—with relief—I’d have no roommate, I’d been overlooked somehow. But Wednesday, around eight in the morning, just after I’d packed the big briefcase with my texts for Latin 21, Botany 101, and Modern Civilization, came a hard, quick rapping at the latched door, and then a sharp kick on the wood and a nasal voice, “Hey, I’m your roommate, man, whoever thou art!”

I strode to the latch and slid it back and opened the door, and with a sharp catch of breath that no one could fail to notice, I saw this handsome, thick-lipped, black-curly-haired hippie around my age, in tight, patched, pale-blue Levis, wide leather belt, and black, faded T-shirt with the peace symbol pressed on it—you, know, the ☮—but this one a brilliant sun yellow. And under the symbol, two bright red masks were pressed side by side on the shirt—the Thespian faces, smiling and grieving, of comedy and tragedy. An old, patched, olive-drab knapsack hung down his back, strapped tightly to his broad shoulders. What made him look even handsomer—“more gorgeous” are the words—was what seemed a three-day growth of black along his jaw line and over his cheeks and upper lip and dimpled chin. A wide, white-toothed grin spread over his face as he reached out his hand to shake mine. I gripped it at first dutifully, weakly, as I’d grip Grandfather’s, but when he tightened his own grip and I saw the veins in his hairy forearm stand out, I tightened mine and felt myself harden pleasurably—down there. (And I felt at once shame and fear he had noticed it and would snatch his hand away and yell, spit flying, “Get the fuck away from me, faggot!”) But he said, his voice deep, clear, warm, “Hey, man, I’m Victor—Victor Katz—Jew-boy from Charleston.”

“Lockhart—Lockhart Elledge, I said hoarsely, nearly whispering, still gripping tightly the warm, powerful hand. “But people call me Lock—which is fine.”

“Hey—looks like I woke you up. Sorry, man,” and his grin rounded into an o of concern.

“Oh, no, I said,” putting on my mother’s social cheeriness as we released our grip. “Since no one showed up by Monday, I just didn’t expect anyone—certainly not—”

“Well,” he interrupted, with a grin and a wink, “you got him now—a good ole Charleston Jew-boy hippie!”—and then, laughing, “God, this room hasn’t changed since eighteen sixty five!”

I felt so relieved he’d interrupted me before I could finish—could say what I so longed to say but hadn’t yet had the courage—or maybe downright audacity—to do so: “I just didn’t expect anyone as absolutely gorgeous as you!”

He was just now slinging his old knapsack onto the floor at the foot of his bed. Then he just flopped on the bare, striped mattress, and laying his curly hair on the bare, striped pillow, he closed his thick-lidded eyes. In a minute I could hear his slow, even breaths of sleep.

As if in a waking dream, I sat before my desk, and for the five minutes or so before Latin class, I just stared out the high, open window, my eyes fixed on the round, copper-crowned Venus temple of the Old Well, its old, wrought-iron water fountain in the center, its base fringed with bunches of yellow and pink and white chrysanthemums. Every so often, a boy in shorts and T-shirt, shouldering a knapsack, or a sorority-looking girl in a “stylish” dress and blouse, holding her books to her chest, would step into the temple and drink from the fountain. A strange, warm wave of delight spread through me, foot to crown, and I whispered, in wonder, “Lock, you’re free. Free as Victor. Free as those students drinking from Venus herself.”

Before I could stay longer in this new delight, I saw it was three of nine on the desk clock, and rising and gripping up the big briefcase, I rushed out of the room and down the flights of stairs and into the cool shade of the quadrangle. And I joined the hundreds of students—some sauntering sleepy eyed, some, like me, striding fast—to their nine-clock classes in Murphy or Saunders or Bingham or Dey.

After supper, alone in my room (Victor had gone out to do laundry), I sat again before my desk and once more gazed with tingling joy at the quadrangle and Old Well—soft and silent now in the Chapel Hill twilight. I suddenly smelled the slightly bitter scent of chrysanthemums closer by. I glanced to my left and saw a large pot of yellow ones on Victor’s desk. They seemed to glow in the darkening room.

 

“Lord, Lord, it’s still there, that old billboard, ‘Welcome to Johnston County! This is Klan Country!’” Grandfather laughed, abrupting me out of the soft, still, twilit room scented with that pot of chrysanthemums and back into the wind-rushing, pine-and-old-man-smelling Chrysler. As we whipped past the billboard, I could just glimpse a white hood on someone’s head and a cartoonish torch held above it. In a few seconds, we crossed the Neuse River bridge and entered Smithfield, that town so full of Aunt Venice and Uncle Merrick and the origin of Venice’s mantra, “How’s your love life?” that I began to tremble inwardly as we started down Market Street, flanked by the old courthouse (with the Confederate monument in front of it) and then by the various stores—Barefoot’s Hardware, Woolworth’s, Rose’s, Ruth’s Café, and more: the usual sorts of shops along string-straight, coastal plain main streets.

May 26, 2011

Klan Country, A Novel in Progress, Part II

Filed under: literary fiction — Lee Titus Elliott @ 3:11 pm
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II

My grandfather and I entered the Chrysler and shut our doors, and I felt at once the close, stale heat of the old car (a ’62), and, with the heat, as if woven into it, the warm, thick odor—partly of sweat, partly of mothballs and dry cleaning fluid, partly the indefinable smell of old male bodies: a smell I remembered from years ago—from his paired bedroom closets back in Raleigh.

With a hoarse “Whew!” he rolled his window down, and I rolled down mine, and as we swung out of the parking lot and drove up past Forest Theater toward Raleigh Road, a rushing breeze took all that heat away.

But the smell lingered—that multitudinous smell, holding in my mind some cramped and cramping memory. I strained to name it—to picture it—but before it could come clear in my mind, we had already left town—had, in fact, come off the long, downhill divided highway and onto the narrow, flat two-laner. And he, my Grandfather Woodall, his face flushed with a sudden, manic nostalgia, had begun to speak, a veined hand gesturing now and again at the roadsides flanked by thick pines and scrub oaks stringed lush with kudzu. He was speaking of May 1909:

“Yessir, exactly May, maybe this very date, and a Saturday, too, like now, about nine—clear and sunny, cool-warm as June. The night before, my two Kappa Sigma buddies and I had just taken a notion, ‘Hey, let’s walk to Nelson tomorrow and catch the noon train to Goldsboro. We can be home by nightfall.’ (We didn’t even think to hitchhike—we wanted the walk, young folks we were back then.) So with knapsacks of books and clothes strapped to our shoulders, we started out next day, Saturday, just now, striding fast along the roadside to get to Nelson by noon. ’Course, the nine miles was dirt then, and single-lane, the pines and scrub oaks thick up to the road edge—no grassy shoulders in those days, nosir. Every so often a Model T’d chug by, coating us in dust. Lord, we patted and brushed until our shoulders hurt! We walked fast, like I said—long-striding—’cause we knew the train left Nelson at noon. We’d found out that much ahead of time, anyway. All we could hear—’cept for the T’s passing about every half hour—were our own pounding strides and now and then a jay-squawk and the mourning doves woo-woo-wu-wooing, you know how they do—“tua cura, palumbes,” as old Maro coos it. But that was all: it was that quiet, 1909-quiet. And the more we strode and the faster we strode, the more we felt like striding—Lord, we could stride on forever in those years! Don’t ever get old, Dr. Lockhart. Don’t ever get old.”

He went silent a moment, and the smell struck me again, the shrouding old-man part of it that I remembered from his double closets years ago.

He cleared his throat long and deep and rasped on: “So sure enough, a minute before noon, we arrived at Nelson—just a little, tin-roofed platform by the single track, and beside it a sign, “Nelson,” on a stake stuck in the ground. Lord, we were just in time, hearing the old steam engine whistling a half mile away, and in a minute its squeal and clatter and long shrill of steam as it pulled up by the platform and stopped.”

He went silent again as we passed under the railroad bridge and stopped at an intersection. A few yards to our left stood a small, “official,” rectangular sign on a creosote post driven into bare clay: NELSON—black capitals on white, rust-edged metal. Beyond the sign I saw no covered platform where a train might stop—just the glittering metal of a single railroad track high on a clay embankment covered with weeds and crabgrass. Across the highway stood four, identical Carolina-T farmhouses spaced far apart, weather-blackened, their front windows broken out, beer cans and cellophane wrappers scattered over the sagging and stepless front porches. I squinted at the glittering rails and pictured that little, tin-roofed platform and the three knapsacked young men leaping onto it in their loose-fitting, long-sleeved, coarse, cotton shirts and their berets and tan breeches and brown knee socks and black brogans, their young faces flushed to beet-color from the nine-mile hike. And in my grandfather’s silence, I caught that smell again—now the astringent, mixed sweat and dry cleaning fluid and then, suddenly, a new smell: the harsh soap, nearly like lye, that he must have used as a boy and a young man and all through his middle age—soap he was showering with even now, at eighty-one.

He jerked his head to the left, then swung right, and we were driving the two-lane road that continued 54. We rode in silence awhile, following the railroad atop the high, weedy, clay-patched embankment.

“What’re you thinking of, Dr. Lockhart?” Grandfather broke suddenly, clearing his throat.

I tasted the wrestler-hunk’s semen still sticking to the roof of my mouth and so thought of him and the dim-green restroom and tonight and nine o’clock.

But I said, to damp the taste, the sudden shame (and unaware of my pun), “Oh, just Nelson. It isn’t much, is it?”

He whispered a hoarse “heh heh” and said, “Nosir, wasn’t much in ought nine, either. Just those same old Carolina T’s, but newer, painted, and with folks living in them. Those and the tin-roofed platform by the tracks. Up till ’45 even, you could see young men in threes or fours striding out the nine miles from the Hill to catch the train headed east. (Now the Greensboro and Winston and Asheville boys had it easy—just a miler into Carrboro— University Station.) The shed here’s gone now, of course—dismantled in ’46 when 54 was paved at last and the boys could catch rides in a minute, or the post-War boom gave their fathers money to buy ’em cars. The Southern Railway people didn’t see any use in keeping it.”

He went silent again and after a mile maybe, began whispering to himself, his thin, pale-pruned lips faintly twitching. Every so often I’d hear, “Yessir, I should’ve told that fellah where to head in,” punctuated, oddly, with a faint “heh heh.” He was far away from me now—only his smell lingering: those complications of smells.

Suddenly the smells brought back, clear as on a movie screen, that cramped and cramping memory. It was a day in mid-May 1966, a Saturday, to be sure—the day I last rode with him into “Klan Country” and the old Woodall homeplace. I recall it so vividly because it was the day—on our way back to Raleigh in late afternoon, just as we left Smithfield and crossed the Neuse River Bridge, passed the huge billboard that faced drivers entering town, the billboard of crudely painted men shrouded in white gowns and hoods and holding aloft fiery torches, and, beneath the ugly figures, the hand-printed WELCOME TO JOHNSTON COUNTY! THIS IS KLAN COUNTRY!—that I announced to him I was “cured at last” of my “inversion”—my “mental illness,” at least as far as Dr. Aldred “was concerned.” And to prove I was “cured,” I told him I was “escorting” a “Linda Fuller” to the Senior Prom on the last Saturday in May. She was “a respectable girl” (so I assured him)—a girl of “good family.” In fact, she lived on White Oak Road, his street, though “residing” on the block near Five Points, which, as he knew, was a “more modest” section than his, with its nearly identical ’40s bungalows all crowded together on narrow lots. Still, it was White Oak Road, and he knew what that meant: junior college at St. Mary’s, the last two years at Hollins or Sweet Briar, a trip to Europe after graduation, and her “debut” at Memorial Auditorium in June of her twenty-third year.

 

*  *  *  *  *  *

 

At noon that last Saturday (I remembered), Grandfather had showed up at our house and invited me “for a short drive, Mr. Lockhart Titus—to give you a break from your hard studying.” I did need the break, and I was curious about Grandfather’s sudden, and unexpected, invitation. (He usually telephoned ahead if he was to drive me anywhere.) So I climbed into the old Chrysler, and we headed downtown.

On the way, he rasped, “Since tonight, Mr. Lockhart Titus, you shall be escorting that respectable girl, Miss Linda Fuller, to the site of your Senior Promenade and since it is an old custom that in such circumstances, the male do the driving, it is my intention to present you with an afternoon’s worth of lessons.”

Before the Prom, I had not considered that “old custom”—and I shuddered inwardly at the prospect of “an afternoon’s worth of lessons.” For a complication of reasons I could not then account for, driving had long terrified me, and I had wanted to postpone learning it as long as I could. So in the hope (in vain, as it turned out) that Grandfather would take me back home, I blurted out, “But I don’t have a license! Or even a learner’s permit!”

“A license or permit shall not be necessary for this occasion, Mr. Lockhart Titus,” he rasped. “You shall be driving but a short distance and with barely an ounce of champagne in your system, if that, and I am sure that after my lessons today, you shall drive with such exceeding care that no police officer shall even think of pulling you over. And besides, do you intend for Miss Fuller to drive you? Or myself? Or even your mother?”

The mere thought of any of them in the driver’s seat on the way to this prom—the proof that I “was cured at last” of my “inversion,” my “mental illness”—chilled me more than the prospect of driving. So seeing no way out of my dilemma, I faked a smile, slapped the dashboard, and joked loudly (remembering a race car magazine I had seen on our coffee table, left behind by one of Mother’s old boyfriends), “Let’s floor this old rod, Cale Yarborough!”

We both laughed, and in a minute we arrived at a large, vacant parking lot beside the State Board of Health, changed seats, and began the lesson. The rest of the afternoon, to Grandfather’s patient advice, I practiced punching those old ’62 Chrysler buttons for Forward and Park and Reverse, accelerating smoothly, backing up (my head twisted around, my right arm stretched out over the top of the front seat, my eyes remaining steady on the asphalt behind me until the old car stopped completely), using the parking brake, making the “quick stop” for emergencies—and more. Grandfather even had me drive around the block (the streets mostly empty on Saturday, when few State employees came to work) so that I could practice the hand signals, turning right and left, and, at stop signs, coming to a “complete stop, Mr. Lockhart Titus.”

 

*  *  *  *  *  *

 

These Klan Country “excursions into history,” as Grandfather called them, were taken every Saturday—including the summer ones—from May ’65 to May ’66, and were an unspoken corequisite of my “therapy” with Dr. Aldred: these afternoon ritual journeys down to the Bentonville Battleground, the old Woodall homeplace, the now-abandoned red-brick schoolhouse where Ava Gardner had been taught, the white clapboard teacherage beside it (where Ava and her family had served the Brogden teachers in the twenties and thirties), and, finally, the old white clapboard church, never locked, ever shuttered, that my great-great-grandfather, Unionist Blow-Your-Horn Billy Woodall, had built “for the colored people,” just a year past “the Surrender.”

My grandfather and I would stop before these “shrines” (as he’d call them, laughing softly)—and without ever walking the battleground (we’d just park before the Harper House and watch it for a time), and without ever setting foot in the schoolhouse or the teacherage or even in the homeplace or the old colored church, just standing outside of them in raw cold in January or sweating heat in July—he’d recount some long, digressive anecdote linked to the “shrine,” a tale ending always with some homily about my Southern “roots” nourished by “tragic devotion to a lost cause,” about the “people” I “came from” and their “integrity” and “honor” and, in my great-great-grandfather’s case, their “unsparing generosity to those less fortunate.” In front of Ava Gardner’s school, he’d speak, his face as flushed as a teenager’s in love, about “the lady”—“the beauty”—who had sprung from the Woodall “homeland” and who graced it even now—in the memory of her teacher, my great-aunt Venice, in one of the classrooms in the old Brogden schoolhouse, and in that abandoned teacherage beside it.

Just as we started the drive back to Raleigh, he would clear his throat and speak, as if in peroration, of my ancestors’ “fulfilled and fulfilling roles as dutiful parents of upright and virtuous children.” These “visitations,” if you will, along with my thrice-a-week “talk-and-aversion” sessions with Dr. Aldred, were intended to return me to “normalcy”: the “condition” of a red-blooded but “intellectual” Southern young man of the higher class, who, in his late twenties or early thirties, after he’d received his doctorate, summa cum laude, in Latin and Greek, would “settle down” in Chapel Hill or at Duke and marry a “goodly lady of like background” who would bear him two or three children (preferably male) to carry on the Woodall line for yet another generation—“at least on the distaff side.”

(Of course, Grandfather would vocally underscore distaff since he knew as well as I that I was named in toto after my father, Lockhart Titus Elledge, Sr.—my dead, “deadbeat,” “no ’count” father who, under mysterious circumstances, had been stabbed to death—so it was rumored—in a sleazy whorehouse in Phenix City, Alabama, three months before I and my twin Lucinda were born. To Mother, the word distaff never entered her head—not because she didn’t know what it meant, but because, to her, I was a Woodall now, through and through, and would remain a Woodall forevermore—despite the obvious high cheekbones and prominent jawline and dimpled chin my father’s “fatal” sperm had bequeathed me. In fact, Mother—so she claimed, again and again—would have changed her last name back to her maiden one, except that for a decade, she had written news articles and a daily column as “Joan Elledge” for a local newspaper and for three years now, had hosted a morning cooking-and-interview show, Femme Fare with Joan Elledge, on local television.)

As for this “inversion” of mine (what Dr. Aldred termed it), Grandfather and I had recognized it much earlier, when I was twelve—but we kept it a secret, not even mentioning between us. In fact, it was never revealed in the clear light of family until an “incident” (all Mother and Grandfather ever called it—the “unsavory” details they never uttered aloud) that happened when I was seventeen and nearing the end of my junior year at Broughton High.

I was an actor in the Golden Masquers, and, because I was tall and my voice deep, I had been assigned the role of Cothurnus in a Millay one-act, Aria da Capo. Oddly—given my twenty-six years in theater at forty-eight—I recall little of the part and even less of the play, but I do remember—even now, nearly three decades later—the piercing mildew of the thin mattress (discarded from who knew where!) that lay folded in a corner of the narrow backstage. And I remember how the whole of that April, Monday through Friday, he and I would spread that mattress onto the splintered and pitted stage floor, moving in slow and, oh, so acheful silence, though it was 4:30 in the afternoon and rehearsals were done and for a half hour (until the janitors would arrive), we had the whole echoing auditorium to ourselves.

Did I say “he and I” and not “she and I”?

His name was Kenny Vaughn. He was sixteen, an October boy and so a few months younger than I. Since September, the Masquers had performed Anastasia, Dust of the Road, You Can’t Take It With You, and now, in April, had begun rehearsals for Aria. I first saw him when he showed up at the tryouts for Anastasia and spoke the lines for Prince Paul in a delivery so monotonous, so halting and stumbling—like a child learning aloud The Pledge of Allegiance—that Mrs. Peacock, after allowing him to finish, smiled Southern-lady-gracious and said, “Thank you so much, Kenny. We’ll be in touch. Next, please. Yes—Jean Watson—Anna-Anastasia herself!”

But because Kenny was broad-shouldered and tall for his age (taller than I even), and took “shop,” Mrs. Peacock sent him a note the next day, to his homeroom, asking him to “TAKE COMPLETE CHARGE OF THE STAGE CREW—FOR ALL OUR PRODUCTIONS.” (Yes, she capped the whole request, knowing it would make Kenny proud—especially since he’d know he’d be ALL the crew in our smaller productions and in charge of two or three crew members in our larger ones.)

And just as she must have expected, the very same day, Kenny rushed into her classroom at half past three and, even when some students were present, blurted out breathlessly, “Wow, like thanks, Mizz Peacock! Like—you can’t imagine! Oh, wow, I’ll be there every day—come in Saturdays, too—for the props and everything!”

(Yes, he was that open, that innocent—the naïf among us Masquers “sophisticates.”) And every Monday-through-Friday for the several weeks of rehearsals following, at precisely 3:30 in the afternoon, he’d jog, arms pumping, down the middle aisle of the auditorium and, ignoring the stage steps, slap, palm-down, broad, thick-fingered hands onto the stage floor and push himself up onto it, as gracefully as a gymnast, and then turn and face us in our seats, and, grinning broadly, his freckled face flushed with pleasure, bow low before us, forearm tight over his waist, as he’d hear our delighted applause. (We Broughton “sophisticates” all loved Kenny, in that slightly patronizing way we “loved” someone physically crippled or mentally “deficient.”) He’d be changed from his J. C. Penney’s button-down shirt and polished-cotton slacks and black loafers into ragged, dirt-stained sneakers, faded blue jeans, and a torn, white T-shirt with the tail out and worn thin from repeated washing. I’d be sitting in the front row (of course!), and glancing up from my lines—of the raging Count in Anastasia and, later, of the mournful tramp in Dust, of the stuffed-shirt Mr. Kirby in the Hart-Kaufman play, and now, in April, of somber Cothurnus in Aria—I’d notice, right away, as he scrambled onto the stage and turned and bowed and rose again, the startling blue eyes and the light brown hair tousled over his forehead, the sinewy forearms with the veins showing, the jeans tight as skin against his crotch and round firm butt, the T-shirt tears that showed the sinewy ridges of his freckled shoulders.

And when his blue eyes would meet mine (and, yes, they always would, every time I’d glance up at him), I’d quick-bend down at my angry or mourning or stuffed-shirt or somber lines and, tingling red with shame, feel myself harden under my fly—a sudden, startling rock-hardening, like a fist striking me pleasurably, down there.

It began, this “incident” between us, on an April Fool’s afternoon, when, on a sudden whim strange to me—a not-me—I waited until the other actors and Mrs. Peacock and few spectators (mostly parents) had left the auditorium, and I stepped up to the stage and without a word to him, just started lifting one prop after another and lugging it backstage. He did the same, without a word to me either, and helped me move the larger props and the big flats, glancing at me now and again, a blue eye of his winking at me, sly and conspiratorial (or so I saw it then—my not-Lockhart Elledge). After we swept the stage floor, our chores were done, and in the echoing auditorium, we sat close beside each other, stage-edge, our legs dangling down. We’re just resting, part of me thought—the real me—but that other I—the not-I—felt dry in my mouth and shivered pleasurably and wondered, Will he kiss me? Or should I start it? I remember his sudden turning, as if he were reading my mind, and then his leaning over and his sudden, startling kiss on my mouth, and then, without thinking, my kiss in return, my tongue relishing his thick lips, parting them, relishing his warm tongue, and then his tongue swirling, relishing mine.

The Thursday following, we discovered the mattress, and to our deep delight, no longer having to sit, we rolled it out to mid-stage. After Kenny, grinning, focused a deep red spotlight on it, we fairly plunged upon its cool mustiness and began, wildly, passionately, the embracing, the caressing, the rubbing of our shoulders, arms, calves, thighs, the thick, hard bulges in our pants (his tight blue jeans, my loose khakis.) Then we kissed and kissed and kissed each other until our upper lips were bruised—purple-red as raspberries in the long, cracked mirror backstage.

By mid-April, we had shoved off our clothes (having latched the doors to the wings and backstage and fastened together the closed stage curtains with three, large safety pins) and had begun the bare-skin fondling, the cuddling, and that other kind of rubbing—the frottage, if you will. For one shining hour of a Friday, we tasted each other, simultaneously: his cock long and thin, sweetly bitter with his smegma (he wasn’t circumcised), mine short, fat, bald—and smelling (so he moaned) “like sweet chlorine.” By the last Thursday of April, after so many awkward—and painful—failures, we at last entered each other and bloomed inside—me into him, then him into me.

It was during our final “cornhole” (so he crudely called it—I preferred “Uranian bliss,” poetaster that I was in those days) when we were caught. A janitor—a tiny, shriveled, old white man, the only white among the rest of them—and a zealous Southern Baptist to boot—happened to arrive around fifteen minutes early that afternoon—the last day of April, a Friday, I remember the day exactly. He must have seen the stage curtains awry and stepped closer, on tiptoe likely—he was that quiet. Then, seeing the three large safety pins and knowing “somethin’ won’t quite right” (as he must have told Mr. Holliday Monday morning), he quietly unfastened them, one by one, set them quietly on the stage rim, and gimped through the parted curtains. Before Kenny and I could uncouple, he saw, center stage, on the mattress lit by the red spotlight, my legs thrown back over my shoulders and then our two naked butts, Kenny’s above mine and so tightly joined they looked like one taut moon of flesh. As Kenny groaned with his orgasm inside me, I remember shouting—even as I saw Mr. Whipple standing over us, jowls red and quivering, “God, Kenny, I love you so! Fill me full!” and then, my right hand pumping furiously, I streamed out my own white bloom into the cleft of Kenny’s molded chest.

I don’t remember the details of what happened next—just a shameful parting: Kenny dressing quickly and, nearly tearing the lever off it, rushing out the exit door—my last sight of him, ever—and I, suffused with shame, guilt, and sweet recollection, all at the same time, stretched naked on my back, on the thin smelly mattress, sweating in the red spotlight, hearing old Mr. Whipple gimp down the stage steps and up the auditorium aisle, all the while muttering to himself—curses? prayers?—I could not hear to tell.

Monday afternoon, I arrived promptly at 3:30 in the cramped, overwarm principal’s office while Mother and Mr. Holliday were already “conferring.” The office reeked of pipe tobacco, and Mr. Holliday had his pipe’s stem-end clenched in the corner of his mouth. After asking me to “sit, please, Lockhart,” in a wooden school desk across from the two of them, he told me Mr. Whipple had come to his office “first thing” in the morning and reported my “sordid and indecent act” and knowing “Kenny’s daddy” (from Hayes-Barton Baptist), had already phoned him and told him about it. “Of course,” Kenny had “confessed on the spot,” and Mr. Vaughn had “removed” him from Broughton for the rest of the school year—“for reasons of ill health.” And he had “made arrangements” for Kenny to attend a military academy in South Carolina, starting in the summer. The school had a reputation for “straightening out troubled youngsters.”

I remember how my stomach fell, how my heart tightened, but before I could think, “I’ll never see him again,” Mr. Holliday went on: that, “to be brief and to the point” (since he had a faculty meeting to attend), I had been “dropped indefinitely” from the Golden Masquers, that, “of course, there’d be no Honor Society, and no Princeton either,” he was “afraid”—that I’d have to “settle for UNC” with the Latin scholarship I had already won.  But I could avoid “suspension for the rest of the year” and a “messy” trial in District Court—I was seventeen and so considered “an adult offender” (“for after all, Mrs. Elledge, sodomy is a felony in the state of North Carolina, punishable by up to ten years in prison”)—if Mother and Grandfather would arrange “visits” with a psychiatrist (he pronounced it “sy-ky-a-trist”) at least three afternoons a week—for “oh, maybe a year”—and have “the doctor” report to him “on a weekly basis.” “Dix Hill” (as nearly everyone in the state called Dorothea Dix Hospital) had residents that didn’t charge much, so there’d be no “unnecessary financial burden” on my family. And, “more important,” if I saw a resident—who’d likely be from “up north somewhere or even a foreigner”—I could prevent all the “talk” that would surely tarnish the Woodall family’s “reputation.” Mr. Holliday knew of a “youngster” in his neighborhood who’d had a “condition” like mine, and, after just a year of therapy (he pronounced it “thurpy”), he began dating girls—even took one to the Senior Prom. “And she was a stunner, too, Mrs. Elledge, let me tell you,” he laughed aloud. “So, you see, Mrs. Elledge, anything’s possible with all the new tricks these sy-ky-a-trists have up their sleeves nowadays.”

The whole time of Mr. Holliday’s speech, I noticed Mother had turned her head from him and was gazing out the window into the white-brick courtyard with the single, small dogwood—in green leaf now—planted in the center of it, and, on the edge of Mr. Holliday’s desk, her right-hand fingers drummed softly, fitfully—impatiently. I couldn’t see the expression on her face, just the dyed-blonde hair styled in the high, Jackie Kennedy bouffant still popular in ’65. When Mr. Holliday finished speaking, she said, flatly but with a tinge of complaint, still gazing out the window, “I’m just not handling it, Mr. Holliday. All this sick business—all this therapy. It’s all just so embarrassing. His grandfather can take care of it.”

 

“So we got to Goldsboro in two hours and a half. They were slow trains back then, yessir. Still slow, too, heh heh.”

My grandfather was speaking aloud again, abrupting me out of that cramped, overwarm office reeking of pipe tobacco and back into the old Chrysler with the wind rushing on my face through the open window, the old-man-sweat-smell lingering still, mixed with the harsh soap and dry cleaning fluid.

We had long passed Cary and come into Raleigh and were now driving by the Fairgrounds and Dorton Arena, its ugly, pale green panels and black-glittering windows shivering me then and shivering me now, over half my life later.

Grandfather rasped: “My schoolmates—they were Burton Evans and Marshall Bell—Burton was killed in the trenches, November ’18, and the ’18 flu took Marshall about the same time.”

He went silent a moment, then swallowed. I saw his lips quiver, and then he shook his head, once, sharply, as if to clear himself, and rasped on: “So we arrived at the station about half past two and walked to our separate homes, Burt and Marshall to Edgerton where they lived a block apart, and I to Elm and that old, cob-webby Victorian cave I grew up in—you know, the house Mother (your great-grandmother) caught double pneumonia in back in ’33 when I was stationed in Panama. After Mother died in that automobile accident in ’42, the family made it a rooming house, where your great-aunt Rosalie lived until she died, all by herself, in that drafty turret room she’d chosen to rent—who knows why. Yessir, that poor woman just got old and cold and worn out and starved herself. Dead a week before anyone knew. I’ll never forget those puckered, black lips. Was I that found her, you know. Starvation lips, yessir. Lord, was I glad when ’60 came along and Merrick and I sold that drafty thing to the town and they demolished it for a parking lot.

“So I strode inside the cave that Saturday, 1909, worn out from the walk and the train ride, and spent the rest of the day and half of Sunday just lying out on the parlor sofa, looking at my Georgics now and then, just flickering through it, you know—to say I studied some. And next day, noon, Burton, Marshall, and I caught the train back to Nelson and strode our nine miles back to campus. We arrived just at twilight—Lord, a beautiful twilight if there ever was, those cirrus clouds—you know, those change-of-weather clouds, like huge plumes—all streaked in red and purple and orange, even a tinge of green here and there—and those starlings whippering over us in huge black flocks and then roosting and whistling in the oak crowns and the elms. Yessir, we still had elms back then, a few of ’em, anyway. Lord, we all three felt so giddy we ran like colts the last half mile to our dormitories. It was that gorgeous.”

“Gorgeous.” I’d never heard him use that word before. It was a woman’s word—or a queer’s.

I turned and saw his face deep red—maroon nearly—and his cheeks and turkey neck quivering, like a calm lake touched by sudden wind. Fearing for his blood pressure, I flailed to find words that would soothe him. But he must have found those soothing words in his mind, as his face at once lightened, stilled, and he settled back into the faint self-whispering, the soft laugh breaking out of it now and then, “Yessir, I should’ve told that fellah where to head in.”

As we came onto Hillsboro Street and drove down it, fitfully, every stoplight going red, it seemed, I remembered the last time I had seen that deep, deep red, that strange quivering of cheek and jowl. Then it had come not from the delight of reminiscence but from anger—rage, rather—like a match thrown into a pool of gasoline.

I was twelve years old, and my grandfather had driven me out to his farm in Johnston County, as he had done every Saturday since I was five. These trips weren’t the partly forced “therapeutic” ones of my mid-adolescence, but excursions I gladly undertook with him, sometimes bringing along a school buddy, and often Lucinda. The trips—I see now, over four decades later—were a sort of fathering ritual he may have felt obliged—but gratefully so—to grant me and Lucinda: a ritual to replace, as much as he could in his old age—the father we never had.

On the Saturday of his rage (and this, too, happened in May, oddly, but the latter part of it, when white-blooming honeysuckle filled the roadside ditches), just he and I had driven to the farm, around eight in the morning, as we always had. Since mid-April of that year, 1960, I and the tenant’s son—fourteen, crew-cut, big-boned, tall as a man—had “lain together” in one of the pair of tobacco barns linked by a long, open, tin-roofed shed. It was the old-fashioned kind of barn one seldom sees anymore: axe-skinned logs chinked with cement, the roof just tar paper tacked to the rafters, a small, square opening on the end that faced the shade of the open shed. It stood—along with the shed and the opposite barn—just across the dirt drive from the clapboard tenant house where he lived with his parents and younger brother. (Oh, yes, his name was Elton—Elton Whitaker.

It began, this “lying together,” quite by accident. On a Saturday in that mid-April, while Grandfather and Mr. Whitaker were inspecting the tobacco beds a half mile away, in a small cleared space well beyond the tree line, I was dawdling about the Whitakers’ backyard, a little bored, kicking desultorily at the white dirt, watching little puffs of it rise which the faint breeze caught and spiraled and thinned. I was hearing Mrs. Whitaker pounding rhythmically on some spread dough from the open kitchen window, all the while humming to herself some twangy country song. It must have been noon, or nearly so, and the day was overcast, yet warm, for April—warm enough for my khaki shorts with my new white T-shirt tucked in.

As I kicked my way slowly toward one of the tobacco barns—it was the barn nearer the open fields and the tree line, the barn with its cement chinking eaten away here and there, leaving long ragged holes—I heard, coming faint from inside, breathy grunts, two in succession, then two more, then a silence, then two more, the first pair high-pitched, the second low and groaning. And, now and then, in and out of the paired grunts, came a thump!—muffled and flat, as if against packed dirt. Then, the low voice—low as a grown man’s: “Pinned yuh, now—a gen-u-ine Elton Whitaker death-clamp.” Then, after a silence, came “Unh, unh, UNH,” harsh and loud, from the same low voice, tinged with the Johnston County twang I’d heard so often from Mr. Whitaker. Then I heard the higher, almost girlish voice: “Ow, you’re hurtin’ me, Elton! Lemme up, hear? I’ll tell Pop!” And right after: the lower voice, groaning loud and long, “Oooooooooh yeeeeeee-ah! Did me a gob! You get your’n, Elway?”

“Get off me! I’ll tell Pop! Nasty, Elton! Just plain nasty!”

I came to a high crack in the chinking, and raising myself on tiptoe, my hand shading my eyes, I peered inside. Both brothers were crew-cut and bare to the waist, and they wore tight, pale blue jeans. Elton—tall, big-boned, and carrying the muscles of a twenty-year-old (or so it seemed to me then)—was lying prone on small, thin-boned Elway, covering his chest, stomach, legs, feet, and Elton’s hips were pumping hard and rhythmic as he groaned on: “Oh, yeah, there’s another one, and another! I’m fillin’ yer jeans crotch, Elway!” I noticed right away Elton’s big biceps and forearms, the veins ridging out as he gripped Elway’s squirming shoulders.

Suddenly Elway went still, and he grinned broadly and in his high-pitched voice shrieked, “Awwwwww, yeeeeeee-ah! Me, too now. Nasty feels so good, Elton!”

I felt the sudden, painful hardening in my shorts, that abrupt, brutal thickening, and without thought, as if I were possessed by some strange demon I could not name, let alone understand, I ran around into the shade of the tin-roofed shed and, ducking my head (I was nearly six feet tall, even then), stepped through the barn’s small opening.

“Shit fire!” Elton yelled, and in a second, the two of them had scrambled up and grabbed their T-shirts from the dirt floor and slipped them on, and Elway rushed past me and out of the opening, nearly tripping, and yelling shrilly, “Nasty! Nasty! We did nasty, Elton! I’m tellin’ Pop! I am! I am!”

But Elton stayed, and with his T-shirt on, tucked in so tight it clung to his thick, mounded chest (from all those push-ups, the thought flew to me), he just stared at me quietly for a long time, his dark, deep-set eyes flickering from my face to my feet, from my feet to my face, and back down again.

When he spoke, he sounded like gravel rattling in a jar.

“So yer—”

“Lock,” I said. “For Lockhart. What Grandfather calls me.”

“So yer grandpa who we work fer? The owner?”

I nodded.

He spat a thick, white wad into the packed dirt—abrupt, hard, echoing.

Then he went on, “Yer voice like mine, yuh know that? And yer how old?”

“Twelve. Thirteen next March—March twentieth.”

“And I reckoned I was a young ’un fer it to be deep like that. And yuh got a apple, like me, big pointy one. Fourteen now. Fifteen August.”

He turned and, facing me all the while, began walking a slow, tight, meandering circle around me.

“And yer tall, too. Tall as me. Nigh six foot, hey?”

I nodded, throat dry as the packed dirt.

“But, Lord,”—and here he scrunched his squashed nose—“yer skinny—skinny as Elway. Skinnier.”

He flung out a hand, thick-fingered, grimy, and, touching my T-shirt, gently, just above my belt, pinched a little wad of it and, ever gently, as if it were fragile, drew the whole shirt-front up out of my shorts and all the way to my neck.

“Shit fire! I can see yer fuckin’ ribs! Just like Elway yonder. He ain’t gone tell Pop. He always says that. He knows what I’ll do to him.”

He looked down at my shorts.

“Hey hey! Yuh got a boner, too! Looks like a nine-incher to me. A gagger, sure enough.”

Then he let the shirt-front drop and stepped past me toward the barn opening, his tobacco-and-dirt smell lingering after him, like some odd, exotic perfume.

Before ducking through the aperture, he turned back to me and said, “Meet yuh next week? Same time, same place, hey? I’ll tell Elton get lost.”

 

In that space, shuddering alone now, I smelled at once the heady odor of the tobacco bits strewn here and there over the packed, white dirt, and, in an odd frenzy, I dropped to the my belly and, sliding a hand under my belt, made a fist and pumped on the rock-hard “gagger.” In less than a minute, I burst into bloom—a low, white groan rising and petaling from crotch to belly to heart to throat, throbbing. (Even now, on my occasional visits to Durham to give master classes in acting, I need only sniff the heady odor of cured tobacco pervading all of downtown, and I can recall, with deep pleasure, that April Saturday decades ago—when tobacco smell and orgasm became forever mingled in my soul.)

 

So as the leaves unfurled and greened through the rest of April and most of May, they all began, like sweet, exotic flowers opening: those Saturday “matches” when, as soon as Grandfather and Mr. Whitaker set out to inspect the tobacco beds, as soon as Elton yelled at Elway ever poking his tow crew cut through the barn opening, “Get lost, bitch!” we, Elton and I, lay side by side in the tobacco barn, in the center of the white-dirt floor, where the tobacco bits and slivers lay thickest. We lay on our backs, his beefy, tight-jeaned thigh pressed hard against my skinny one, bare and hairless below the cuffs of my shorts.

We lay still, a minute maybe, and then Elton twisted over on his side and slid a huge, rough hand under my thigh and lifted it up and back as high as it could go. He curved his other arm, like a muscled snake, behind my neck and all the way around to my throat, as if embracing it, and then, bringing his thick, slightly parted lips so close to mine I could nearly have kissed them, he yelled in my face, his breath tinged with mint candy and old chewing tobacco, “Cradle, yeah man!” This the one ain’t nobody slips, baby! Yer bam! bam! bam! pinned to the mat! Helpless, baby!”

I didn’t struggle at all. In fact, I relished this rough, ritual play—like a strange flesh-ceremony: his tight holding and squeezing, the thick, rock-hard arm muscles around my neck, the thick, parted lips an inch from mine. And I relished the other “holds” he showed me, in slow and patient succession: “the figure four,” the “full nelson,” “the sleeper” (though I didn’t go to sleep), “Ric Flair’s death grip,” and many others. His “demonstrations” must have lasted an hour—“holds” and “moves” he would have learned from the wrestling magazines in a Smithfield drugstore (the Whitakers couldn’t afford television).

After an hour of demonstrating the “holds,” he was breathing hard, thick chest heaving, breath smelling of that mint candy and old chewing tobacco. Then he released me from the final hold, and we lay back, side by side, going still for a minute, his tight-jeaned thigh brushing mine. Suddenly he reached over and grabbed at my crotch and, feeling my “boner,” started to rub on it through the khaki.

“Turned yuh rock-hard, yeah!” he broke. Let’s spurt yuh on out now—hit yer face smack center!”

After twisting onto his side, slowly and tenderly he unbuckled my belt and eased down my shorts and underwear, his eyes going wide at my “boner” arcing back, its oozing tip nearly touching my belly button. “Lord, a big ’un—and only twelve year old!” he whispered hoarsely, like a prayer. Then he spat twice into his right palm and, making a fist, grasped my shaft with it and began a slow rubbing—down and up, down and up, down and up. In less than a minute, I groaned loudly and spurted a thick, white jet that smacked me squarely in the forehead, then dribbled down over my eyebrows. Then he released my shaft and brought his lips to my forehead and eyebrows and started slowly licking the semen, every so often shutting his mouth to swallow it.

“Hmmmmm, not bad,” he whispered, hoarse from the semen. “Like Clorox and sweet gum all mixed up.”

Then he wiped his lips with the back of his hand and broke, “But yer too fuckin’ fast, baby. You need to learn control. Keep it slow, hold it, savor it—all the way down yer insides. Five minutes, leastways—then comes yer spurt and me tastin’ yuh, swallowin’ yuh. Yuh got nice, thick cream, baby—nearabout sweet as molasses.”

We lay back still for a time, and then he grabbed an old, ragged tobacco leaf off the packed dirt and, gently, thoroughly, wiped the remaining semen off my forehead and eyebrows. He brought the leaf to his mouth and tongued the semen off it, gently, like kissing it, then tossed it into a dark corner. Then he reached forward and, just as gently, pulled my underwear to my waist and pulled up my shorts and buckled my belt. He rose then and stepped softly, as if in a church, toward the barn opening. Before stooping and stepping outside into the shadow of the shed, he turned and winked, “Next week, same time, same place, hey?”

 

All through the intervening days—that painfully slow Sunday-through-Friday—I could not keep my mind off him. At school, in the pages of my math book or speller, the numbers and words would dissolve into his leer, his thick lips, the slightly squashed nose with the pimple at the tip of it, his heavy-ridged brows and eyes set so deep I could never tell their color. At night, in my bed, I’d see him whirling and dancing naked on the pale ceiling: the hard, defined arm muscles, the naked, thick, mounded chest with the deep cleft down the center of it, the ridged shoulders, the thick thighs. (I learned later that he “worked out” after school with rusty dumbbells and barbells in the other tobacco barn—partner to the one we lay in.) After watching him awhile—whirling and dancing and leering above me, in the faint light of a street lamp diffusing into my room—I’d roll over in my bed and shutting my eyes to keep that vision fixed, like a photograph, I’d slide a fist under the elastic waist of my pajama bottoms and pump on the rock-hard “gagger” until I burst, feeling the thick wetness soak in warm, thick jets through the crotch cloth. I suppose a psychiatrist would have called Elton the object of my “preadolescent homoeroticism”—a brief “phase” quite “natural” for boys of twelve. But for me he was much more than that dry diagnosis: he was a genius in the flesh—of the flesh—ever filling me, ever hardening me, ever oozing me, ever bursting me—like a star—with sweetest pain: a dark yet lovely angel. He was gorgeous. There was no other word.

And so it happened that, Saturday after Saturday, the light green of April merging into the darker green of May, we’d meet in that tobacco-redolent shrine and “wrestle” awhile and then end our “matches” with his rhythmic rubbing and my sweet pain and the nacreous stream striking my forehead, leaving a mark of strange inverted holiness, like Father Moody’s ash-thumbprint on Ash Wednesday.

For a time Elton’s shout—“Get lost, bitch!”—was enough to keep Elway from the barn. As soon as we heard the rapid footsteps approaching, Elton would raise his head and yell, and the steps would retreat and fade. But on the second May Saturday, when he had me curled in his “cradle,” his thick lips leering so near mine I ached to kiss them, we heard the rapid steps once again, and once again Elton raised his head and shouted, “Get lost, bitch!” But the steps kept nearing us, and soon we heard scrapes just outside the barn—shoes climbing the logs. Mid-cradle we craned our necks and saw a pair of wide, deep-blue eyes staring down on us through a ragged slit in the chinking. At once Elton released me and abrupted to his feet and strode to the slit and the eyes and yelled, “Elway! You hear me? I’ll—” The eyes darted away, and after a long, fitful scraping down and thud, footsteps scuttered and faded.

Yet on the Saturday following, now in the middle of the “figure four,” the eyes returned to the ragged slit—deep-blue and staring, whether in horror or voyeuristic wonder, I couldn’t tell—and Elton again abrupted to his feet and yelled and the eyes flickered away.

On the fourth May Saturday (I’ll remember that day forever: the bright sunshine and shimmery heat—like mid-July—and the new green oats waving in the rough breeze in the fields nearby), Elton and I lay down once more, at noon, side by side in the redolent barn. Once more I was expecting him to cradle me, and I’d even planned, in an aching fit of fancy, a quick kiss on his lips. But he just lay still for a time, and then he broke, “That bitch Elway—he’ll see yuh spurtin’ soon and my hand on yer dick, and you and me, we’ll both get whupped—leastways I will. You—yer grandpa’ll just send yuh to one of them head doctors don’t do yuh no good noway.”

He rubbed at his tight jeans crotch—at the sudden tubular bulge there—then broke again, “We need us another place, baby. Where Elway can’t see nothin’, don’t know nothin’. And we need it now—today. And it come to me just now what it is and where it’s at. Let’s git gone.”

 

In a half hour we were crossing Brogden Road and then clambering through a weedy ditch and up a low slope of early day lilies planted in neat double rows. Straight ahead of us, maybe twenty yards distant, sat the old clapboard church I’d seen for years but never entered.

Grandfather and I would pass it on the way to his farm, and he would fling a hand at it and clear his throat, “That’s the church your great-great-grandfather built for the colored people in 1868. He was Republican, you know—Lincoln Republican. He paid colored servants, and even field workers—not much, but enough so you couldn’t call ’em slaves. Yessir, a real Union man, Blow-Your-Horn-Billy was.” In that brief glimpse as we’d pass it, I’d see how lonely—how melancholy—it all looked: the boxy shape; the rusty, high-pitched tin roof splotched with tar patches; the stub of old-brick chimney poking up from left-center; the narrow door ever shut, a square, clapboard-shuttered window on each side of it; and, along the sides of the church, three other windows—squared, shuttered, spaced equally apart. The whole was painted white, with here and there black-weathered strips where the paint had flaked off.

As Elton and I approached it that fourth May Saturday, the church looked the same—but gone was the loneness, the melancholy I had seen in those earlier brief glimpses. With Elton close beside me, tight-jeaned and muscled and reeking of sweat, his thin T-shirt stretched taut over his chest, his whole body emanating heat, the church seemed some exotic pleasure palace, the tin roof shimmering like mirage water on a distant stretch of highway July and August noons.

Slope-rim, we broke into a stride, and when we reached the narrow door, we stopped and Elton broke, “Ain’t no one gone see us here—not Saturdays leastways. Old nigger church—and I mean old nigger. Just ten or ’leben of ’em left now, and not a one under seb’nty.”

He reached for the porcelain knob and twisted it, and the door swung open, slowly, squeaking faintly on its hinges.

“Them old niggers trust ever-body. Never got used to lockin’. And lucky for us, baby—oh, yeah!” He drew it out loud and deep: “oh, yeeeeeeeh-ah.” But then his voice suddenly dropped, and he whispered, as if in awe of something he could not name, “Be sure and shut the door when you step on in.”

Throat dry now, my “thing” hardening, I could only nod and follow him inside, shutting the door quietly behind me, the hinge-squeak drawing itself out, plaintively, like an ancient spirit wailing.

At first, there was absolute dark all around us—just the thick smell of wildflowers in an enclosed space, and, here and there, scents of furniture polish and Lysol.

Soon the dark paled from the strips of light streaming through cracks in the window shutters, and I could make out a dozen or so rough-hewn benches in close rows, a pine-floor aisle dividing them down the center. A little way ahead of us sat the “altar”—just a sheet of plywood set on sawhorses and covered with a white bedsheet. Day lilies in Coke bottles lined the rear of the “altar,” and in the center of it stood a figurine of Jesus with his halo—made of plastic or papier-mâché, I wasn’t sure. It was the sort of figurine you’d buy in a five-and-ten at Easter time. Before the statue sat a small tin cup from the last century and, beside the cup, a small tin plate, likewise old—yet, as I saw in the dim light, both of them clean and polished to gleaming. Gradually, I made out bits of white bread on the plate and in the cup some dark liquid filling it to the brim: grape juice, not wine, I was certain, since Grandfather had said the old church was colored Freewill, where they didn’t drink—“or weren’t supposed to, anyway, heh heh.”

“Come on,” Elton whispered. “There’s a wrestle-and-jerk-off space  just a-waiting on us, hungry-like—under that there plywood.”

We moved slowly up the narrow aisle and through the redolent dimness, our footsteps faint and rhythmic. Just beyond the first row of benches, we lay down side by side, I in the dimness beside the benches, Elton in the darker space below the plywood. So intent we were—so full—we barely felt the flat nails and sharp, protruding knots of the pine floor beneath us.

“This even better ’n that old barn, hey, baby?” Elton broke. “That Jesus up there watchin’ us. Bet him getting’ a boner, too. Let’s skip the wrestle stuff and pump yer cream.”

Being a Catholic—and an altar boy, too—I felt a sharp clench of shame at Elton’s “That Jesus up there watchin’ us,” but his heat and sweat and tobacco smell overwhelmed my shame, and I let him perform his role in our barn ritual: unzipping my fly, then slipping down my shorts and underpants—all slowly, gently. Then his fist clenching my “boner” and the slow intent pumping until I groaned and bloomed, the semen striking my forehead in warm splotches. Then Elton groaning, “Yeah, oh, yeeeeeeeh-ah! Milk fer me, baby! Give me yer cream!” And last, something new from him—delectable: cupping his thick lips around my whole taut head and sucking out the warm, white life that was left.

“Like honey from a comb, yeah man!”

Just then, like a snake striking, the front door flew open—kicked hard by some thick boot—and door and frame crashed to the floor in a great splintering. The May light threw a bright stream straight toward us, just as Elton was coming off my “boner” with a loud slurp! and then wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

I craned up and saw Mr. Whitaker in the doorway, dressed in overalls—and dark-faced in the blaring light behind him. Beside him and a little to the rear stood Grandfather holding his Homburg out in front of him. A little way beyond them stood Elway, also in overalls, tow head hung low. In a swift pounding of boots, Mr. Whitaker strode up the aisle and, reaching down, gripped Elton by the shoulder, pinched flesh till Elton yelled, and then dragged him to standing and, without a breath, slapped his cheeks over and over, rhythmically, Whap! Whap! Whap! Whap!

“You git on home now, boy! Yuh ain’t no per-vert queer. That faggot yonder’s teachin’ yuh!

He dragged Elton by the shoulder down the aisle and out of the church, kicking aside the splintered door. Hat held before him, my grandfather stood aside to let them pass, and Elway spun around and rushed off, his tow head winking in the sunlight. Mr. Whitaker stopped midstride a moment and glaring at Grandfather, yelled, “I don’t give a rabbit-shit if you’re my boss or not. You can evict me if you damn well want to. But you keep that queer boy of your’n ’way from mine! He never in his life— And in a holy place, too! God-a-mighty! Even if it’s just a nigger one! Lucky Elway had the sense to follow them two. Like stalkin’ deer he’d be readyin’ to shoot.”

The boots pounded again and then faded, and there was just I, naked still and lying on my back on the gouging, pinching floor between the altar and the front benches, while outside the church, in the blaring sunlight, Grandfather stood silent and expressionless, waiting for me, his Homburg still held out in front of him.

In a half hour we were on our way back to Raleigh, Grandfather staring straight ahead as he drove, teeth clenched, jaws quivering. His face was so red I remembered the Sunday evenings when Grandmother would hold the stethoscope over his wrist while he’d squeeze the little rubber bulb, and I feared the pressure was over two hundred by now and he’d have a stroke for sure. He whispered over and over, “I could kill that fellah! Damn lyin’ common son of a bitch!” I slid over and hunched tightly against my door, fearing any minute he’d explode in one of the outbursts of temper my mother had often told me about but so far I had never witnessed. But he kept his rage inside all the way home, the only outward sign of it those red, quivering jaws and the barely audible, “I could kill that damn lyin’ common son of a bitch!”—repeated over and over, like a strange litany.

In an hour we reached my house and he let me out into the carport. His face, I noticed, had lost that scary red and turned flesh-clear and relaxed again.

Usually, on our Saturday parting, he’d clear his throat and say, “Well, Mr. Lockhart—until next Saturn’s day, si vales, valeo; bonum est.” But this last May Saturday he said no word at all, just stared straight and expressionless at the windshield and waited until I opened my door and stepped out. My chest clenched with shame, I knew what his silence meant and said no word to him.

From the carport, not even looking back, in my shame, in my hurt nearly to tears, I heard the old car—this one a Cadillac, a ’52—back slowly over the loose gravel of the drive and into the turnaround. The gearshift clicked faintly, the engine raced a little as the clutch engaged, and the old car crunched its slow, shaming way up the gravel drive and into the street.

The next Saturday—the first June Saturday—I woke at six, as usual, and dressed in T-shirt and sneakers and clean khaki shorts and, skipping home breakfast (Mother and Lucinda slept late weekends), stepped out to the carport to wait for the old Cadillac to crunch once more down the drive and stop at the edge of the carport, a silver-haired crown leaning out the driver’s open window and intoning, “Si vales, valeo, Mr. Lockhart.” In my denial of last Saturday—of what had happened—I pictured in my mind—exquisitely, nostalgically, as if it had been already lost to me—the overwarm, bacon-smelling Broiler on Hillsboro Street where we’d stop for breakfast (Grandfather for his coffee and ice water and two sunny-side eggs and sausage, I for the blueberry pancakes and orange juice) and then the even deeper June green blurring by us as we’d roll down U.S. 70 East at Grandfather’s steady 55, the wind rushing in pine smells through our open windows and Grandfather, as always, whispering to himself, a light laugh erupting now and then, “Yessir, I should’ve told that fellah where to head in.” And I pictured myself content as a baby beside him—while deep down in my mind playing through those exquisite “games” with Elton that, in my denial, my naïveté, I knew would surely come round again in spite of Mr. Whitaker’s outburst. (Surely he’d forgotten it—all of it—by now.) And it all would happen not in the old colored church, to be sure, but in the same barn again, on the tobacco-littered, packed-dirt floor, or perhaps in the barn opposite, or in another place Elton knew we could lie beside each other, unwatched by anyone.

I must have waited in the carport for an hour, then two, then three, as the sun brimmed from behind our house and yellowed the front lawn, bitten here and there with pine-trunk shadows. Around nine, Mother called sleepily, from her bedroom window facing the carport, “Dee-di’s not here yet? Oh, God, I hope it’s not his blood—. I’d better phone him.”

“No, Mother, let me call,” I said, stomach clenching. I didn’t want her to hear what I feared he might tell her.

I hurried into the kitchen and on the wall phone dialed the familiar number. Of course, it had to be Grandmother who answered.

“Ma-ma,” I spoke slowly, loudly, “is Dee-di in?”

“Is this Joan? Venice? Lucinda?” (I could picture her twisting the volume dial on her telephone.) “Oh, Lock, it’s you. Yes, he’s right here, reading the paper.”

“Is he going out to the farm today?”

“Alarm clock? Goodness gracious—I should hope not. He’s never needed one in his life. No—he’s been up since five, as always. Claude, it’s for you. Lock.”

There was a breath of newspaper rattling, and then a long clearing of a throat, and then an orotund voice, but flat, inflectionless, as if speaking lines memorized for a play: “There’s a new man handling the farm business. He’s working with Mr. Whitaker, so there’s no need to travel there in future.” I couldn’t help noticing he didn’t say, “We won’t be traveling,” just the impersonal “there’s no need”—as if he were locking what had happened into one of the dozens of old tin boxes in his bedroom closets.

“You be good now, Lock,” came the flat, inflectionless voice again. Here’s Ma-ma. She wants to say goodbye.”

So that was the end of it—the Saturday ritual I’d known and loved since I was five—and exquisitely relished since early April of my thirteenth year on this Earth.

And I never saw Elton or Elway or Mr. Whitaker again.

And for over thirty years, I didn’t set foot on Grandfather’s farm—later Uncle Claude’s after Grandfather died.

 

On my trip down to Durham just a month ago—mid-April—I drove out to Brogden one free morning, and from the rented car stopped on a shoulder, I gazed on the old “colored” church, a ruin now: the shutters gone, the window panes broken out, great ragged breaches in the rotting clapboards, the yard grown up in weeds, the timber all around cut (and sold, apparently)—the tall, thick pines, the sweet gums, the three or four huge white oaks. And later, a mile east, and again from the shoulder-parked rented car, I gazed on the few brick walls left standing of Ava Gardner’s school (“Brogden School,” officially) and then on the clapboard teacherage beside it, painted newly white. Ava Gardner Museum was printed in large, black, cursive letters above the white door frame, and a new Honda Civic was parked in the semicircular driveway. The lawn was carefully mowed and planted here and there with neat rows and circles of daffodils and brightly colored tulips. Through a front window, I saw pictures and mannequins of the actress in various poses and in brightly colored dresses from the forties and fifties. I was tempted to go in and visit, but for a reason I couldn’t account for, I shuddered at the thought of it and turned the rented car around and headed to Grandfather’s farm (now Uncle Claude’s). I stood for an hour in the sunny, white-dirt backyard of the tenant house. The place was empty now, its back stoop sagging, rotting. I looked out at the paired tobacco barns linked by the tin shed. Bits of brown tobacco leaf littered the packed dirt under it, so I knew the barns were used still—not yet replaced by those characterless tobacco-curing prefabs that had begun to sprout all over as the old log-and-cement-chinked barns fell to rust and termites and weather and neglect. I learned later that the farmer across the road was renting Uncle Claude’s farm and hiring Hispanic migrants to live in the tenant house in July, August, September, and spray the leathery leaves and strip them from the stalks and hang them from the long poles in the barns.

 

So beginning on that first June Saturday, 1960, without Grandfather’s farm and the green, pine-scented journeys there and, especially, without Elton and his tight jeans and heat and muscle, I began the lonely Saturday ritual that would last until I met Kenny Vaughn in my junior year at Broughton. The ritual was hours spent alone in my upstairs bedroom, door latched from inside, my eyes fixed on cut-out Boy’s Life “Toughen Up” photos as I’d lie on the braided rug, my pants-fly rubbing against a towel wadded and fisted under it. The photos were of boys of fourteen and fifteen and sixteen, when their muscles started showing, hardening, even veining a little: boys bare to the waste, in chest poses their pectorals mounding slightly, a shallow cleft down the center of them, and while lifting barbells or chinning themselves, their biceps filling the rolled hems of their T-shirts, and in wrestling drills, arching themselves into “bridges” so high and peaked their “things” would tube through the tight training pants. What ecstatic relief I’d feel when I’d burst and the thick wetness would rill through my underpants like a sweetly painful spring! And all through that all-too-brief burst, I’d groan, “Oh, yeeeeeeeh-ah!” into a washcloth held over my mouth—so Lucinda couldn’t hear me in her room next to mine.

 

“Heh heh, old Venice McGee Woodall. Always did like those cacti—ever since the family threw her out in ’36.”

Clearing his throat, Grandfather was speaking aloud again.  I looked up from the ragged floor mat and saw we had turned off Hillsboro Street and come onto West Park Drive in Cameron Park and were now crunching up the steep gravel driveway I remembered from so many Christmas breakfasts. Ahead of us loomed the paint-peeling, slightly sagging Victorian house where my great-aunt Venice had been residing for three decades, renting upstairs rooms to State College students. Along the long, curving porch railing were perched great clay pots of ferrocactus, their broad barrels clustered thick with sharp, yellow spines and projecting high above the railing. The spines looked like the nails and jagged shards of glass along the rim of a prison wall. “My mean cactus,” she called them. “To keep out the nigger thieves.”

For a moment, I saw her in my mind: a short woman, not quite as heavyset as Grandmother, her hair tied back into a bun and still, at 75, jet-black from dyeing. Her face was smile-lined yet youthfully kept, careful discs of rouge smoothed over the cheekbones. In memory, I could hear her ask us, one at time, just as we entered her front door Christmas mornings, “How’s your love life?”

From the Chrysler, I looked for her old, gray, humpbacked Plymouth, but her parking space was just white gravel, and Grandfather said, “She’s out shopping for her ‘college boys’—her Saturday chores. Poor old forgetful Dee-di. Haven’t seen her since Christmas—just thought we’d pay her a visit. Maybe we’ll drop by on our way back. You know about your great-aunt Venice, don’t you, Dr. Lockhart?”

I knew it was useless to nod, or even mutter, “Yes,” so I just let him roll out the story I’d heard so many times I’d lost count: from him, from Mother, and from Grandmother when she was alive.

“You know,” he began, “she taught Ava Gardner at the old Brogden School—back in ’27 or ’28—six-seven years after she met your great uncle Merrick and married him. Thought he was ‘cute.’ Heh heh. That’s what she said—‘cute.’ Well, it turned out he wasn’t so ‘cute’ when he caught the consumption in ’34.  His case—what Papa told me—was about the worst he’d ever seen. Lord, Merrick coughed up blood ten-eleven times a day and leaned down to a hundred pounds from his normal one seventy. Why, Venice said she could even see his heart beating through his shirt! And he grew pale as milk and shaky as a man twice his forty-one years. He was a goner, no question about it, as antibiotics didn’t exist back then. But Papa must’ve had hope for him, ’cause he sent him to the sanatorium down in Raeford, where he stayed just half a year and, yessir, got well—was pronounced ‘totally cured,’ nigh a miracle in those days for a man in such poor shape.

“But your great-aunt Venice, heh heh, old careful Aunt Venice—no, finicky Aunt Venice—no, smart Aunt Venice (or thought she was)—she was certain Merrick ‘still had a germ or two’—the way she put it. So to keep him from infecting her and their two boys—you know your second cousins Merrick and Claude, don’t you, Dr. Lockhart? Turned out well—those boys did. Merrick III a brain surgeon out in California, Claude W. a lawyer back in Goldsboro. Anyway, to keep Merrick Junior’s supposed “germ or two” off ’em, Venice had a little ‘guest house’ built for Merrick behind their big, white-brick Colonial in Smithfield. She cozied it up with a heat stove and a cook stove and an ice box and a few sticks of furniture—bed, dresser, two-three hard chairs, a sofa—all any man (she said) could possibly need. And the surprising thing was, he agreed to it—old money-grubbing Merrick—yessir, he agreed to take up actual residence in that unpainted shack of clapboards and tin roof. And what was more surprising, at her request, he even agreed to sign over everything to her—the big house, the two tobacco farms, the hotel and restaurant in Goldsboro, and every cent he had in the bank. And he gave her complete custody of their two boys—even surrendered visitation rights—yessir, his own sons! He gave it all to her with a single stroke of the pen, Judge Rainey and his two secretaries witnessing.

“I’ve never understood it. Maybe the sickness had just worn him out—clouded his brain somehow. TB will do that sometimes. Even the getting over it.

“So there she was, your great-aunt Venice McGee Woodall—a wealthy woman of leisure for the rest of her life (or so she opined—heh heh), and the boys all set for the University without having to work their way through—and not even needing the University unless they desired it. Yessir, all three of ’em members of the ‘moneyed class’—of which there were mighty few in Johnston County back in ’35.

“But, Lord, wouldn’t you know it? All of a sudden, along about March ’36, old Merrick’s ‘cloud’ must have lifted, broken up—something—and one morning, ’round ten o’clock (fifteen March, I believe it was), he stomped out of that shack and around the big house and through the front door and into the parlor where Venice was lounging in a silk robe on the sofa. And he fairly shouted at her, ‘Mrs. Venice McGee Woodall, your lawfully wedded husband is alive and well again and has been so alive and well for a long time now. And he would appreciate it that those signed sheets of paper be returned to his possession for permanent shredding and destruction. And he would appreciate his own room back—the upstairs room in this house—the home rightfully his—and his soft double bed and you, his rightful wife, beside him on the mattress. He would appreciate it, in brief, that he be restored his rightful position as head of the Merrick Alexander Woodall household.’ Heh heh, old Merrick never did have much vocabulary.

“But Venice said, sharp as those cactus spines yonder, ‘Mr. Merrick Alexander Woodall, those papers have been notarized and filed in the Johnston County Courthouse—they’re finalized.  What the Honorable Judge Rainey has done, I can not undo, even if I desired it. And besides, you know about—what do they call them?—yes, “remissions.” You’ve just been remission-ing, Mr. Merrick Woodall, and you know as well as I do you’ll be coughing up blood again, sooner or later, and must be sent back to Raeford. And, besides, even if you’re not re-missioning, the consumption never does go away altogether—you’ve got a germ or two inside you and always shall. And I’m not about to endanger either myself or those children! Why, right now, in your presence, I may be so endangered! So you must return to the guest house, Mr. Woodall—this minute!’

“And you know what, Dr. Lockhart? He didn’t say a word to her—fact, never spoke to her for the rest of his life. Nosir, he just spun around and walked out of the house and down the five long blocks to the post office and a telephone—about the longest walk he ever took in his life—heh heh—and phoned up Father and Mother in Goldsboro. I don’t know who answered, but inside an hour, three-four hours before the boys came home from school, Aunt Venice received a phone call from the Honorable Judge Rainey, asking if she’d please meet him at the courthouse, in his office; he wanted to ‘straighten out’ her will—some items ‘looked peculiar’ about it. So gullible old Venice (Lord, it’s a mystery she still didn’t know the Woodalls through and through—so much meaner than her even—meaner than her cacti!)—she drove to the courthouse and sat in Judge Rainey’s waiting room—and waited, and waited, and waited—three or four hours—just enough time for it all to have happened. Then, when she knocked on his office door and heard not a word, not a sound, and then twisted the knob and found it stiff—locked—it all suddenly came to her—maybe just a hint, like a brush of cold air in mid-July—that Woodall meanness nigh everybody in the county had known about for years, but her. And in five minutes, driving fifty down Market Street, she was back at her home—if you could call it a home now. Nosir, ’twas just a house, just four walls of a two-story, white-brick Colonial, ’cause inside there wasn’t a thing—nosir, nothin’—not a rug or a mirror or a lamp, not a stick of furniture or a curtain or a blind in a window, not even a bar of used soap or a towel or a face cloth—and, of course not a plate or a pot to cook in. They’d even screwed out the light bulbs—and here it was nigh three-four hours to dark and the boys coming home from school and hungry as bears, as boys are. And knowing this—their hunger—I suspect the first thing she did was stride in the kitchen to look in the ice box—but, Lord, they’d taken that, too—and the stove and even the cupboards (they’d crow-barred them out). And where the sink used to be were bent pipes and torn plaster. Lord, they must’ve hired a mighty big colored man to yank it out so thoroughly! Next, she must’ve stridden out back to ‘the guest house’ and gone inside and seen that whole shack empty, too—yessir, its ice box and sink and stove ripped out, too. Then she must’ve gone back into the big Colonial and stridden upstairs and, opening the closets, hers and the boys’, saw just bare cedar and empty shelves and hanging dowels—no clothes hangers, not even a stray one!

“So there she was—not Mrs. Merrick Woodall much longer (and she knew it), but just plain Venice Whitfield McGee from Mount Olive. Yessir, there she was, sitting maybe in the middle of that bare, living room floor, legs bent, arms crossed over shins, a cheek resting on her knees, her only clothes that silk gown on her back and the bedroom slippers on her feet. She must have reached out and clutched at her pocketbook beside her and even shaken it to hear her car keys and house keys and a few quarters and dimes and nickels. And she must have glanced out the front door, still open, and seen her own bright red Fordor Model A parked in the semicircular driveway. So at least she had something they hadn’t taken away from her. And she remembered the savings account she’d started years ago, secretly, in a Princeton bank—just for her—about four or five thousand dollars in it now—a lot of money in 1936. But knowing all that mustn’t have assuaged her much at the moment, with just the dark, bare pine paneling around her and the empty light sockets on the ceiling and shadow filling that empty house as the afternoon deepened toward dusk.

“Then her heart must have rolled when she thought of the door lock. I’m sure she stood and strode to the front door and tried the key she’d jerked out of her purse. And when it wouldn’t turn, she must have whispered—finally!—what everybody else in the county had known for years, ‘Mean, mean, mean!’ Lord, they’d even had time to change the locks! (She knew her keys wouldn’t turn the back lock either, or even the locks to the ‘guest house.’) And then I’m sure it came to her, like a snake striking, why they’d not locked her out: they’d wanted her to see what they’d done to her—to see their punishment for her stubbornness, her refusal to bend to Merrick’s will. And once again, ‘Mean, mean, mean!’ must have come out of her mouth, loud now, shrill and echoing in that barren room.

“Her heart must have rolled again when she knew from the light outside it was a little past four and the boys still hadn’t shown. ‘My boys,’ she must have thought, teeth gritting. ‘They can’t take them away! I was a good mother! Am now!’ She must have pictured them now in the big Goldsboro Victorian of her father-in-law, Merrick explaining to their wide-green and bewildered eyes, in that droning, patient way of his, ‘this new turn of events between your mother and myself.’

“But then, from outside, she must have heard footsteps on the brick walkway and then, through the open door, the two boys crying out together, ‘Ma! Everything’s gone!’ And she must have looked up and seen the two of them with their book satchels—same height nearly and same wide, green eyes and tow heads—like twins except Merrick was thirteen, Claude ten. When she set eyes on them—saw even their grimy faces and rumpled hair and shirttails out and the smudges on their shirts and shorts and knee socks—that question must have come to her for the first time in her life. You know it, don’t you, Dr. Lockhart? What she’s ever asking you and me and your mother and sister and your grandmother when she was alive, asking each of us singly as we’d enter that old Victorian for Christmas day breakfast—you know—”

“‘How’s your love life?’” I muttered in monotone, having grown depressed—and, oddly, irritated—by the old story. Really, the old man was drawing it out way too long—longer than I’d ever heard it before—even from him.

Then, thank goodness, he stopped it sudden, and, twisting his head around, backed the Chrysler slowly, swerving right and left a little, down the steep drive. We made our slow way back to Hillsboro Street and turned in the direction of downtown. As I kept my eyes on the ragged floor mat,  he resumed the old whispering, an abrupt laugh erupting out of it now and then, “Yessir, I should’ve told that fellah where to head in.”

I remembered the rest of Aunt Venice’s story—how it went through this Saturday, five days after Kent State: how, within a week after that March 15, papers for separation were filed in the courthouse and how, for reasons unknown to anyone, she signed away all rights to Uncle Merrick’s property—on the condition she have sole custody of the boys and Merrick be never permitted to visit them as long as he lived. And, again for reasons unknown to anyone, he agreed to that: gave up all rights to his own sons—and has never seen them to this day. A month later, she and the boys moved to Raleigh and the big Victorian house in Cameron Park. (She rented it first, then years later bought it.) She found a teaching job in some elementary school downtown and began renting the three upstairs bedrooms to State students. With her teacher’s salary—bare bones in the thirties (and for decades after that)—and the students’ twenty dollars a month for room and board, she managed to support her and her boys until first Merrick and then Claude went to Chapel Hill, Merrick in ’41, Claude in ’44. They bused tables to pay for most of their four years, and, once in a while, Aunt Venice mailed them a check for five or ten dollars. When they graduated, they stayed on the Hill—Merrick on scholarship for medical school, Claude on scholarship for law. Then Claude moved to Goldsboro, married, joined a law firm and started a family, built a big house in the suburbs where he lives still. Merrick moved to Los Angeles for a residency at USC and, falling in love with the mountains and the desert, settled in San Bernardino. He’s there today—married, a prominent neurosurgeon, his three children teenagers. Meanwhile, Aunt Venice taught—and taught and taught—for thirty years taught, and invited us Woodalls for Christmas breakfast, greeting each of us, individually, with her hushed, faintly seductive “How’s your love life?”—not expecting an answer and never receiving one, except for brief blushes from Grandfather and Grandmother and Mother, a wide-eyed wonder from Lucinda (until she was twenty-one, she’d never had a “love life”), and a shrug and “Okay, I guess” from me. In ’66 she retired from the school system. And through this May Saturday, she’s taught as a substitute now and then and continued renting rooms to new State students and attending First Presbyterian downtown Sundays. Her boys visit her three or four times a year—oddly, Merrick more often than Claude.

And never once during her time in Raleigh did she speak of her years with Uncle Merrick. It’s as if she were truly born not on April 16, 1895, but on that waning afternoon in mid-March 1936, when, seated on the pine floor of that empty house in Smithfield, she looked up from her knees and saw her two grimy, wide-eyed, bewildered boys, and that question first came to her—her own private question she expected no one to answer—a question meant merely for herself: “How’s your love life?” Whether she ever gave herself an answer, I’ll never know. Likely she just kept asking it, over and over, like a comforting mantra.

 

“Esso coming up. Here’s where the old New Yorker gets her high-octane liquor. And your old Dee-di relieves his bladder—full of just low-octane coffee, but high enough to hurt like the devil. Don’t ever get old, Dr. Lockhart. Don’t ever get old.”

I looked up just as we came beside the high test pump. A uniformed attendant, maybe seventy, came hobbling out of the old stucco station and up to Grandfather’s window.

“Fill ’er  up, Dr. Woodall, sir?

“Yessir, Mr. Lee. This old jalopy needs a double on the rocks, heh heh.”

“Yes sir, Doctor. Right away, Doctor.”

While the attendant shoved the gasoline nozzle into the rear of the car and pressed the lever, Grandfather opened the car door and, slowly, painfully, twisted himself out of the front seat and walked slowly, slightly bent forward, toward the men’s rest room on the right side of the station.

All the long while he was there—and I knew he’d be there a long time, for even starting his flow was surely an agony—I heard the attendant snap the nozzle onto the gas pump and watched him hobble back to the station; saw ahead of me sudden patches of flat, gray clouds; felt breeze gust through the open windows, bearing smells of oil and gasoline; heard the traffic roar by on Hillsboro Street.

For a reason I couldn’t account for, I squinted to my right, through my open window, and saw in my mind, maybe a quarter mile distant—beyond the service station and the State College campus and Western Boulevard—the great three-story building of brick and mortar and hundreds of metal-barred windows, squatting on a hill of great white oaks and manicured lawn and brick walkways and concrete benches. It was Dorothea Dix Hospital, a state mental institution known among the locals as “Dix Hill.” To my mother (and, no doubt, many others as well), it was called “the booby hatch” or the “snake pit.”

Then I squinted to my left, through Grandfather’s open window, and saw, again in my mind, and again a quarter mile distant, beyond Hillsboro Street and Cameron Park and Cameron Village Shopping Center, the two-story, high-windowed, brownstone Broughton High School, from which I was graduated in June ’66.

Suddenly flickered into my mind, like the stopped frame of an old home movie, my tall, bony body five years before—aged seventeen, encased (as it were) in the dark, nondescript slacks, the dark, nondescript long-sleeved shirt buttoned to the neck, the black, nondescript dress shoes tightly laced and polished as mirrors. My hair was cut in the “Oxford” fashion so popular among “intellectual” youth in the ’50s and ’60s: short all around except for the neatly trimmed bangs combed to the side with water and showing a high, flat forehead marked with bits of acne. My face—very pale, sharp-boned, gaunt—had thin, tight lips like an old scar.

At the start of my “therapy,” on that first May Wednesday five years ago, a little before three thirty in the afternoon, I stood in the cool shadow of Broughton’s east wing, on the tulip-lined edge of the teacher’s parking lot, clutching to my chest a fat, tabbed ring binder and four or five thick textbooks. A yard behind me was the shut metal-gray door that led to the auditorium, the backstage part of it, which held the props and the flats and the masks and the tubes of the heady makeup. With a deep gut-hurt—but just a breath of it—I yearned—longed—to turn around and stride to that door and open and enter it and then stride down to a front seat in the auditorium and sit and wait my turn to rehearse Cothurnus’s lines. And knowing that was not possible—ever again—I yearned—longed—to gaze back upon that door and—at least!—see it swing open and watch Kenny, his full heat-self, stride out in his torn T-shirt and pale blue jeans and wide, slightly gap-toothed grin, a stubby-fingered, callus-palmed hand raised to greet me, a “Hi, Lock!” lilting from his thick lips.

But knowing that, too, was not possible—ever again—I held my dull stare on the loose gravel of an empty parking space before me, waiting for the car—not the usual old, white Chrysler but the much newer Chevrolet, the gray, nondescript “state car”—that would, any second now, crunch forward to fill it.

And “sure enough” (as Kenny would have said—should have said), I saw the 3:30 on my wrist watch and staring upward, outward, saw that gray, characterless car, like a steel uniform, swing slowly from St. Mary’s Street and into the lot, glide gravel-crunching toward me, swing into the vacant space, and stop, the smooth engine rising in pitch as the transmission clicked into Park.

I stepped forward and pulled open the passenger door, but Grandfather, without looking at me, just staring straight ahead, cleared his throat and said, “The rear seat, Dr. Lockhart. This old Dee-di’s your chauffeur today—and each Monday and Wednesday and Friday hereafter—for the space of a year. And it is my wish that you lie down upon said seat so that you are not visible from the outside. This automobile is state-owned, so only your old Dee-di is permitted inside. Heh heh. You know how these state bureaucrats are.”

So I shut the front door and pulled open the rear one and ducked inside. I set my ring binder and pile of textbooks carefully on the vinyl-matted floor and lay prone on the cool vinyl seat, legs scrunched up, shoe soles pressed hard against the opposite door panel. (I was six feet two—tall in those days, even for seventeen.)

Then the smell hit me—that astringent, chemical scent of a new car. I’ll smell it forever,  in mind’s nose, when I remember those Mondays-Wednesdays-Fridays, that time of afternoon (bright green in April and May, melancholy and yearning brown and red and orange in October and November, cold and barren-branched in December, January, February), and those twisting, stomach-clenching journeys from Broughton to Dix Hill and back.

I caught sight of my old Virgil text on the car floor, covered in a tight, dark brown book jacket with the words SELECTIONS FROM VIRGIL neatly printed on it in my own hand, and I felt a great gut-clench of shame as the car backed left, then lurched forward, swinging right, then straightening, slowed in a gentle crunching over the gravel and then bumped out, swinging right, into the smooth asphalt of the street.

I felt the car accelerate smoothly, then slow, stop-and-idle, then, swinging right, accelerate again, then slow and stop, swing left, accelerate—a half hour maybe of rights and lefts, slows and stops, smooth accelerations through the midafternoon traffic of St. Mary’s Street and Hillsboro Street and Pullen Drive and Western Boulevard and Boylan Avenue.

The whole drive Grandfather stayed silent. There was none of his self-whispering, the soft laugh erupting out of it now and again, “Yessir, I should’ve told that fellah where to head in.” It was as if he, too, must have been feeling that same, great gut-clench of shame.

And the whole drive, to keep from thinking about it, I shut my eyes and in my mind saw myself back at Broughton, seated down front in the auditorium, waiting for “my” lines in the Millay one-act—“my” Cothurnus. (Of course, in the state car I knew some other actor, as tall and deep-voiced as I, had taken it over—but I didn’t know who and didn’t care.) In my mind, as the car moved, I was hearing Pierrot and Columbine chatter away, but, again in my mind, I wasn’t listening to them, as my eyes kept darting from the script on my lap to the right side of the stage—to catch a glimpse of tight-jeaned him winking blue-eyed out at me. In the car, I strained to play it all the way through, to that shining hour before we were caught, like a film relished longingly in slow motion. But then the film started flickering in scraps and shards, then whited away altogether, and I whispered to myself, “You’ll never see that place again, or anything like it. That’s all away from you—forever, Lock. Like him—away forever.”

I opened my eyes and saw once more the brown-sheathed Virgil text on the car floor. After staring on it for a time, I whispered to myself those lines I’d already memorized, “Arma virumque cano. . . . ”—all the way down to “Romanam condere gentem”—long past the part Mrs. Fisher had required of us. And as I whispered those lines, the virumque kept echoing above them, now like a resonant and comforting litany. When I finished the whispering—soft enough so Grandfather couldn’t hear it—I  thought, each word like a funeral’s drumbeat, Lock, your new life is this: these lines, and Latin (and Greek as well), and the major in both at UNC, and in a few years, Dr. Lockhart Titus Elledge, Jr., Ph.D. No, Dr. Lockhart Titus Woodall, Ph.D. I may as well visit a courtroom and have it changed to that. So you may as well get used to it—“bite this bullet” (as Grandfather would say to me in November ’69—referring to himself).

Soon I felt the car swerve gently to the right off a street—it must have been Boylan Avenue—and then up and around a long, curving drive. It braked and stopped—by the entrance, I was sure, where patients are let out and walk—or are taken—into the building. Grandfather cleared his throat and rasped, “Well, here you are, Dr. Lockhart.” Then, rapidly, anxiously: “Don’t get up yet. Lie still. Let me see.” I heard a sheet of paper rattling and then Grandfather: “It’s on the third floor, Room 312, a Dr. Aldred. I’m certain there’s a name plate. It should be easy to find. If you have difficulty, I am certain a receptionist can help—on the ground floor, I believe. When I give the signal, rise quickly and leave the car as rapidly as you can, through the door by your head. You’ll have no need for your books. When your hour is done, I’ll be waiting in the car, parked in the lot on your left, by the bronze statue—frowning Miss Dix herself, heh heh. All clear now. You can leave—but hurry.”

As quickly as I could, I gripped the door handle and scrambled out of the car and onto the paved drive, my eyes wincing in the sudden sunlight. I strode up a wide brick walkway, flanked by a neatly trimmed hedge. From the columned brick porch, I pushed my way through heavy doors and came into a vast, high-ceilinged lobby and stopped. The room was lit dimly with fluorescent panels that blinked on and off now and then. Brown vinyl easy chairs and sofas were arranged in neat squares, all of them empty. The floor was cream-colored linoleum with scuff marks and various stains of one kind or another, and on the white cracked-plaster walls were hung, here and there, large idealized portraits of three or four “donors,” of the state governor when the hospital was opened in 1856, and, of course, of Dorothea Dix herself, a somber, tight-lipped, spinster-appearing woman dressed in the ruffles of the last century. I looked for a receptionist but saw none, not even a counter or a cubicle where one might be sitting.

Straight ahead, an aisle led between the sofa backs and the chair backs into a wide corridor. I resumed my stride, hearing my steps echoing in the lonely space, and came into the corridor, found a stairway on my right, and strode up it to the second floor and came out into another corridor, as wide and silent as the first. Dozens of gray-metal doors, spaced equally apart, lined both sides of the hallway. The doors had been raised high enough for large spaces underneath them, and I sensed that trays of food were slid through the spaces by attendants—promptly at six in the morning, at noon, and at six in the evening. I imagined the furniture in the rooms: an army-style folding cot, a mattress with stained and soiled bedcovers, a chair, a small table (cot, chair, and table bolted to the floor, and no pillow on the cot—to lessen the chances of suicide), a sink with “edible” soap in gray dispensers, even a toilet, but without a lid. I shuddered violently, shook my head to clear it, and for the first time, I caught the smell of the hallway: Lysol mixed with the odor of cooked cabbage: very like the smell of the Central Prison cellblocks I had visited when I was ten and dressed in a suit in the summertime.

Remembering the offices were on the next floor, I turned to the left and, finding the stairwell, long-legged it up the flights and came out into another quiet, high-ceilinged corridor—this one smelling of nothing at all. Identical, gray-metal doors with numbers on white rectangles (no name plates) were ranked along both sides of it. I stepped slowly past Room 300 and 302, and so on, until I came, a long way later, to Room 312. The door was shut, so I sat in the metal folding chair beside it.

In five minutes or so, the door swung outward, I glanced up, and a young man in a clean, starched white coat stepped out, holding a clipboard with papers clamped to an end of it. A brown metal name plate with “Dr. Roger Aldred” etched on it in white hung by a thin leather strap around his neck.

“Mr. Lockhart Titus Elledge, Jr.,” he said, glancing down at me, his young, British-accented voice rising in inflection. He must have been barely twenty-five, and his accent was a mild one, as if he had come from English-speaking Canada, or South Africa, or the British upper classes. (I learned later that he was the son of some Count in Cornwall and had received his M.D. at the Royal College of Physicians in London.) From my metal chair, he looked a tad under six feet tall, and he had a head of black curly hair neatly trimmed and, except for a tinge of British pink on his cheeks, a face out of GQ magazine. (Yes, I had already, for years now, lingered over issues of GQ when Mother took me and Lucinda to the drugstore—lingered over the slick-paged male beauties as I stood in a dark corner or behind a rack of comic books.)

Soon we were seated in his cramped, windowless office, the walls white plaster with brown water stains trailing here and there, the floor a cream-colored tile with scuff marks on it. He sat in a metal folding chair beside his bare metal desk, I in a similar chair across from him. For a long, itching time, we sat in silence, he with one leg folded on top of the other, his veined and slender-fingered hand scribbling notes with a Bic on the top page clamped to his clipboard. Now and then, he paused to glance up at me for a few seconds, as if he were sketching me.

When he finished the scribbling, I expected him to say something, but he just laid the Bic and the clipboard quietly—fastidiously—on his desk and rose and turned around and reached up to a metal tube near the ceiling and gripping a small metal hook, pulled down, with a loud squeak, a white screen yellowed and cracked here and there—the kind used for showing slides or home movies. Then he turned again and stepped slowly and quietly past me. (I caught a whiff of aftershave or cologne, I wasn’t sure.) I craned around and watched him switch on a slide projector set on a metal shelf protruding from the wall. He pinched a slide out of a rack beside the projector and tapped it into the projector tray, then stepped back, past me, again slowly and quietly, to his desk and the screen beside it.

I craned back to the screen and saw projected on it, in grotesquely vivid color, a blonde girl, maybe eighteen, lying on a pink towel on some sunny beach, a vast body of blue, still water behind her. She was slender, tanned all over—and naked but for a flowered bikini bottom. Her breasts were large, full, firm, and had nipples the size of quarters. She sat in a pose one might call “languorous”—leaning backward, her palms placed flat behind her on the towel, her head hung to one side, blonde hair in her eyes, her lips pouty and slightly parted. After a minute or so, Dr. Aldred said, flatly, in a voice-in-training, as it were, “So, Mr. Elledge, in your own words, tell me what you think about that.” (Not “her,” but “that.”)

This Playboy centerfold female (of which I had seen plenty in my ninth grade friend’s collection) repelled me, but I said, nearly whispering, “Oh, she’s okay, I guess.”

“Okay, you guess,” Dr. Aldred said, again in the flat, resident-in-training’s voice, and he leaned to his desk and with the Bic scribbled something on his clipboard. Then he stood and said, “Well, we have ways of measuring that response. Next session, we’ll find out what you mean by ‘okay’ and ‘I guess.’ Now for the opposite, Mr. Elledge.”

He stepped past me to the slide projector. Staring straight ahead still, I heard a faint click, and on the screen the woman flipped away and in her place appeared a young man, likewise sitting on a beach, on a towel, this one jet black, and as in the other slide, a vast body of blue, still water lay behind him. Like the girl, he leaned backward, his palms pressed flat behind him on the towel, but unlike her, he stared straight at the camera, his deep blue eyes in stark contrast to his tanned face. He wore red, tight bikini briefs, out of which his long, thick “thing” and testicles bulged. Like the girl, he was tanned everywhere, but he was deep-chested in the way of a male and muscular in his shoulders and arms—a model’s build, not a muscle man’s. He looked older than the young woman—maybe twenty-five, Dr. Aldred’s age—and oddly, there wasn’t a hair anywhere on him except the hair on his head—black and thick and tousled, a GQ-beach-wind-blown look—and a thick, black mustache above his full, red upper lip. I swallowed and felt my “thing” harden fiercely, and in guilt and shame, I clamped both palms over my fly. But I wasn’t so naïve that I didn’t notice Dr. Aldred had noticed—the sudden hard swallow, the quick covering of my crotch—but I tried to conceal my fierce attraction as best as I could and so, to please him, I mumbled, without his even asking, “Oh, he’s okay, I guess. But, I guess, she’s maybe, oh, better.”

Dr. Aldred stepped past me to his desk and turned and faced me. “‘He’s okay,’ you guess, but, you guess, ‘maybe she’s, oh, better,’” he said flatly and leaned down to his clipboard and scribbled something on it. He stood straight then and said, eyes cast down, “We have ways, Mr. Elledge, of measuring the truth of your responses. Next session, we’ll find out what ‘okay’ means, and ‘I guess,’ and ‘maybe she’s, oh, better.’”

He stepped past me, switched off the projector, then stepped back to the screen and with a faint tug on its hook, let it slap up sharply into the metal tube. Then he sat in his metal chair and took Bic and clipboard from the bare desk and folding his knees and setting the clipboard on them, just let the Bic rest on the paper clipped to it.

Then he said, “Well, Lockhart, I’m listening,” his face suddenly relaxed now, nearly smiling, his voice lilting.

It was the first time he had called me “Lockhart,” and I felt a warm shiver all through me, and, for a reason I could not account for, I wanted—yearned—to tell him about Elton and our barn and church and about the Boy’s Life pictures and about Kenny and all the delectable and wondrous acts we had performed together—everything. My mind flooded and flamed with images: Elton slurping off my cock, Jeff Thornton’s mounded pectorals in that picture cut from Boy’s Life, Kenny’s deep-swirling kisses—and I opened my mouth to pour out the flood and flame of words.

But then I stared at Dr. Aldred’s curly hair and handsome face, going rigid and tight-lipped now, and at the white coat and the brown metal plate with his name white-etched on it and then at the clipboard and his fingers tapping the cap of the Bic against the metal clamp—tapping quickly, impatiently—and I shut my mouth tightly, stared down at the backs of my hands that now covered a limpness, and stayed silent.

After what must have been twenty minutes or so—which seemed to creep forever, tingling down my back—Dr. Aldred said, flat, expressionless, the affectionate lilt damped from his voice, “Well, Mr. Elledge, our time is up today. We’ll perform the tests next time—and discover what you mean by ‘He’s okay, I guess, but maybe she’s, oh, better.’”

He put the clipboard and the Bic on the desk and rose and walked to the door and opened it and, with a slight bow and sweep forward of his right arm, showed me out of the office. As I left past him, I caught again that sweet whiff on him—it was cologne, I was sure now—and then stepped quickly down the corridor and down the flights of stairs to the Lysol-and-cabbage-smelling “inmate” corridor and then down other flights of stairs to the ground corridor and into the great lobby, empty still. I pushed myself through the heavy front doors and came out into the wincing sunlight.

Soon, lying once more belly-down on the rear seat of the state car, legs scrunched up, feet pressed solid against the opposite door, my face—and nose—flat on the new vinyl, smelling the sharpness of it, the depressing astringency, I felt the Chevrolet back, then slowly swerve right and straighten, dip down the long, curving drive, and bump back onto Boylan Avenue. Then I felt the long, slow ride back, fitful with rush-hour stops and starts.

I heard the car crunch over gravel and then Grandfather clear his throat and rasp, “Well, Dr. Lockhart, here you are. You may rise and leave at your leisure.” I was certain (though the journey did seem short—and in rush hour, too) that we were parked on the lip of the carport, behind Mother’s Falcon. But when I rose, unfurling, and looked out, I saw we were parked once more in the Broughton faculty lot—empty now except for five o’clock shadow.

“I need to drive this limousine back to work,” Grandfather chuckled. You know where the bus stop is—Peace and Glenwood, over by Whack-Whack’s, heh heh. Fine exercise, walking is—and all those books, they’ll help, too.”

My chest clenched with hurt as it came to me the true reason he hadn’t driven me home. Mother would have arrived back from the station, and Grandfather must have remembered she’d said, many times over Monday and Tuesday, to him and to me, that she’d “have nothing to do” with my therapy—my “shrink,” as she’d referred to Dr. Aldred. “It’s all so embarrassing,” she’d said. “All such craziness. My son a homosexual—and a practicing one at that. You two deal with it and don’t say a word to me about it.”

 

And she never mentioned “the incident” again. In our infrequent letters—she’s seventy-four now—she never mentions my life in New York—not even my career in theater. She writes of Raleigh weather (“so hot today,” or “freezing cold today, like that room Aunt Rosalie died in”), complains of her tinnitus and “increasing deafness,” complains that Lucinda “never” visits her though she lives a half hour away, and ends in wishing for my “happiness” in whatever I “decide to do” with my life.

 

So I opened the car door and slid slowly out of the back seat and stood on the gravel lot, then leant down to gather my ring binder and the four or five textbooks, and rising again, held them in an awkward, skewed stack to my chest. (“Just like a girl,” I remembered a grade school bully taunting me once.)

From the row of tulips near the stage door, I watched the gray, characterless Chevrolet, like a uniform, crunch slowly out of the lot and onto St. Mary’s, steer right, and head toward Peace and then—I knew—back downtown to the State Board of Health.

When the car vanished from my sight, I walked, books and ring binder sliding awkwardly against my chest, the several circuitous blocks through a shabby neighborhood of bungalows and rooming houses, crossed Glenwood Avenue, and came to the corner of St. Mary’s and Peace and stood by the creosote pole with the yellow band painted around it. Behind me, I knew, stood the red-and-white-swirling cone that marked the barbershop where Grandfather would take me when I was seven, eight, nine—“Old Whack-Whack’s,” as he’d call it, chuckling. But before I could think more on it, that innocent time, the 5:30 bus, labeled “Glenwood Avenue Anderson Heights,” approached, roaring and clattering, then slowed and stopped with a whoosh of air brakes, and the side front door folded open. I stepped up inside, a bit wobbly with the books and binder held on my chest.

“Got you some homework, bo’,” the driver said good-naturedly—a balding, paunchy, tobacco-chewing, middle-aged white man in a gray uniform, his “D. R. Manning” name plate slid in a slot up to his right. Except for me and him, the bus was empty. It growled and lurched forward, and I swayed down the narrow aisle to the wide rear seat and sat on it and stacked my books and ring binder neatly beside me and set a firm hand on them to keep them from sliding.

Suddenly my stomach fell—not because Kenny wasn’t sitting beside me in the rear, as he always did on the 5:30 bus that April, an hour after rehearsals were over (I had already squeezed him from memory altogether—yes, that quickly: since Dr. Aldred and his slides and my sudden, fierce determination to become a “normal” woman-loving man—to please Mother and Grandfather)—no, not because Kenny wasn’t sitting where my books were stacked, but because it came to me that this bus held none of the five-o’clock crowd of male-muscled athletes fresh out of sports practices, their faces still red, still sweating, in April and May their veined, pumped biceps arching out from T-shirt sleeves rolled to the armpits, a soggy hair peeping out here and there. And on that five-o’clock bus before April Fool’s, from the rear seat where I’d sit alone (Kenny’d still be at school, still working on “his” props and flats), I’d watch the athletes all knocking each other with their elbows, laughing loudly (for no reason at all but after-school ebullience—jubilation!), and flirting with the girls—either cheerleaders, who’d flirt back, or the female Golden Masquers, who’d twist their faces away, ignoring them.

Shutting my eyes as the old bus clattered and labored along, I pictured in my mind those dozen or so male-muscled athletes—one of whom was named Ted, a tall, crew-cut, broad-shouldered cutup, always flirting with the cheerleaders. He had huge, high pectorals twin-mounding in April, May, June, from under a T-shirt a size too small for him, and a pair of peaked, vein-coiled biceps arching up (again in spring) from under shirt sleeves rolled to his ridged shoulders. As I pictured him, clear as a color slide on a screen, I felt my “thing” harden—sudden, fast, painful—like that fist striking me pleasurably, down there. By the time the bus reached Five Points (and stopped for the endless-seeming light), I felt the ache wave upward along the slender ridge of hair strung from cock root to belly button. Then I felt the delicious slow-welling ooze, and my heart raced and my mouth turned dry as old sunned wood. I steadied my books with my left hand while with my right I began to rub at my fly—so taut now the zipper showed in a brass gleam. To cover it—and my hand—from the driver’s rearview mirror, I twisted my legs to the side as far as I could. And I rubbed and rubbed—faster, faster—felt the delicious ache wave up past my belly, shivering, nearly unbearable, all the way up to my throat, forming moans, groans—words, even, which I dared not speak aloud: “Oh, yeeeeeee-ah, Ted, fuck me hard, muscleman!” It was all I could do to keep from bursting right there.

But I managed—somehow—to keep the ooze to ooze alone as the bus whooshed and swayed down Anderson, shook and clattered past Grandfather’s red-brick Colonial on the corner with White Oak, then cut right onto Kenmore, then left onto Kittrell, sped at least fifty down the long straight hill I’d bike down as a child, as fast as I could, arms spread wide, and then up the short incline. As it approached the creosote pole with the yellow band around it, I stood, swaying, and pulled the cord above a window, heard the sharp beep, and then the bus slowed, and the rear door unfolded. Quickly, clumsily, I gathered my books and ring binder to my chest and, feeling face flushed at my hard-on, at the zipper gleam still showing, I hurried out the door before the bus could stop all the way.

The driver yelled, “Hey, bo’, wait till I stop! You know better!” And then, laughing, “Got you a gal waitin’ on you. Lord, Lord! Biggest wad I ever seen on a young ’un! You have a good time, now—but, Lord, be careful! Don’t want no babies at sixteen!”

He went on longer, but I was no longer hearing him, and fairly flew toward our house, the binder and books sliding and bouncing on my chest, two or three of them dropping on the lawn (I didn’t care—I’d fetch them later).

All the afternoons of that April, it would be, like now, six o’clock when I got off the bus, so Mother and Lucinda would be home, Mother napping the thirty minutes before fixing supper, in her room beside the kitchen, and Lucinda studying in her room upstairs, door shut tight. And before that April, it would be 5:30 when I arrived home (Kenny still back stage, still working on “his” props and flats), and Mother would be in her room, maybe reading before her nap, and Lucinda in hers (again, door shut tight), perhaps sketching a little before starting her homework. In the afternoons between rehearsals, I’d arrive home at four (Kenny having left the bus at Five Points and walked to his bungalow on Bickett St., down near the railroad tracks—I’d never seen it), and Mother would still be at the TV station and Lucinda still at school, painting in Mrs. Allison’s studio.

So at six o’clock, five thirty, and four o’clock, I could enter the front door unnoticed and step softly into the living room and up the stairs and quietly passing Lucinda’s shut door, enter my bedroom and close and latch the door behind me. I’d toss my books on my bed, then reach under the mattress for the “Toughen Up” photos I’d cut meticulously out of the my Boy’s Life magazines (yes, I still subscribed, though I hadn’t attended an Explorer meeting in over a year).

Today, however, that first Wednesday in May, through the flung open windows, I could hear Mother and Lucinda clattering pots and plates and utensils in the kitchen, fixing dinner a half hour early. And just why so early on that May Wednesday, I wasn’t sure—perhaps out of some morbid curiosity (so I presumed, in my depression): what did a seventeen-year-old “crazy pervert” look like—the person I had surely become to them, nearly overnight? And what would that “crazy pervert” say or do after seeing his first “shrink” ever? Or perhaps they felt only pity (a feeling I loathed then and loathe even now, thirty years later)—that I, the now “mentally ill” son, needed his supper early so he could study and get to bed by nine, an hour sooner than usual: he, the poor boy, needed his rest, like a patient just come home from surgery at a hospital.

Anyway, for whatever reason they were cooking so early, and since, while this or that was baking or stewing or boiling, Mother would likely be sitting on the living room sofa, just smoking, and Lucinda would likely be watching The Three Stooges reruns on the television in the small adjoining den, I knew I couldn’t go in the front door and into the living room and up the stairs, especially with that bulge still in my pants.

So I strode to the right, along the brilliant row of tulips Lucinda had planted, and around to the back of the house and down the cinderblock steps and through the plywood door and into the dim, cramped, musty basement and heaved my ring binder and books into a corner, not caring if they’d be torn or scarred or the bindings broken.

So full I was, so aching, so oozing, I squeezed eyes shut, Ted now full naked in my mind. I dropped fully clothed to the floor and despite the rough, dusty concrete, wedged a hand under my fly and keeping eyes shut, began to rub at the taut member—slowly at first, to savor as long as I could Ted in my mind now flexing chest and arms before me, on his face that wide, white-toothed grin when he’d flirt with the girls on the bus.

“Oh, Ted, oh, Ted, flex that bicep,” I yelled—no need now for a cloth over my mouth, as in the den above me the television was loud with The Three Stooges wisecracks and smacks on the face and blows in the ribs and the sharp groans following, and Lucinda was shrieking with laughter or stepping into the kitchen to stir the mixed vegetables and the spaghetti or the frozen green beans and the “poor man’s chop suey”—whatever we were having for supper.

I began to rub faster—and faster still—and, oddly, Ted’s muscle and grin vanished at once, like a slide clicked away, and in Ted’s place, like a new slide clicked into view, appeared Dr. Aldred—just his handsome face and thick lips and black curly hair neatly trimmed, and I remembered the sudden lilt in his voice when he had called me “Lockhart” for the first time. And suddenly I came in a rich, lush burst, feeling the thick wetness jet into my briefs and then pulse thick under my shirt—all the way to the belly button.

Then, as usual, I felt the old, vast, deep emptiness—the postorgasmic melancholy, as it were. But this time, with Dr. Aldred’s handsome face and voice-lilt still lingering in memory, I felt, too, a wincing guilt and shame: not only had I broken some unspoken prohibition of his (and so had disappointed him); I had also, with Ted so brightly in my mind just seconds beforehand, somehow betrayed him—Roger.

I turned over on that cold, rough concrete and opened my eyes and just stared for a time at the bare, cobwebbed rafters. I soon squeezed the “betrayal” out of my mind. But though I strained to do so, I couldn’t squeeze out the shame and guilt that here, now, barely an hour after my first visit to Dix—for my “cure”—I had once again, in Mother’s words, behaved “that way.”

Then I knew, without the words, that I would never change, no matter how often I’d see Dr. Aldred, no matter how many treatments I’d receive from him—the “talk” therapy and even the dreaded “aversion” therapies I was so desiring to undergo (yes, I was that willing to be “cured” and “normal” again—to please Grandfather and Mother and even Lucinda, though she never mentioned my homosexuality as anything “abnormal” and never has, to this day). (Yes the “aversion” therapies were still practiced in the ’60s and even through the early ’70’s—until the APA declared “homosexuality” no longer a disorder.)

No, I thought with deep chest-clench, staring at the cobwebs on the rafters, I’d never never never never never change. I’d never become that red-blooded, heterosexual adult male with wife and children and house and white picket fence and heterosexual golf-playing and basketball-watching buddies on the weekends. I’d forever be “queer,” a “faggot”—one of those lone and lonely men seeking “gratification” (Father Moody’s word after he’d hear my confession) in dark, solitary “tearooms” and night-shrouded public parks and certain “clubs” (read “bathhouses”) with dim, semen-smelling rooms and old, semen-rank mattresses established in big cities for such “perverts” like me. I’d be Geoffrey in The Taste of Honey, walking out into the darkness, into a self-loathing, likely suicidal future.

 

“Creech house coming up, about a mile. You remember that old Creech house, don’t you, Dr. Lockhart?”

Grandfather was speaking aloud again. So absorbed had I been in my remembered first journey to Dix and the first therapy and the trip back to Broughton and all the rest of it—that first May Wednesday afternoon—I had not noticed what must have been Grandfather’s slow listing return to the old Chrysler, the long whir and catch of the engine and its rough idling, then what must have been the fitful, stop-lit drive through downtown and then the smoother one out of the city and, on our left, past the smoke-billowing refineries and the red-brick “colored” motel (Johnson’s) squatting in front of them, maybe a single car in the lot, a new Cadillac or Oldsmobile—and then, on our right, past the tall brick tower with the dozens of square gaps where glittering windows should have been, this tower the interior of which apprentice firemen would set ablaze piled bales of hay and then practice leaning long ladders against the brick walls and jetting water onto the flames through thick “power” hoses.

No, I noticed none of these long-ago yet so familiar landmarks, and when Grandfather spoke aloud, I was startled suddenly, as from a dream, and saw we had long passed the short four-lane section of U. S. 70 and were now driving the seamed and bumpy two-lane part of it that would take us around Clayton. Some twenty minutes later, the highway would widen to four lanes again and bear us past the Smithfield town cemetery, past the Klan Country billboard, over the Neuse River Bridge, and into Smithfield itself—its downtown Market Street.

Out of my open window, fields of new oats rushed by in a blur of light green, then thick stands of tall pines, their bracing fragrance brushing against my face, and last, high clay banks stringed with kudzu and along the ridge of the banks, the twin rails of a railroad running alongside the highway awhile and then curving into distance, beyond the tree line of a plowed, bare-dirt field or one grown up in weeds and May wildflowers. I noticed the overcast (just patches at the service station) had grown whole—thick, matted, metal-colored, not a sun ray anywhere. As if reading my mind, Grandfather rasped, “Looks like a storm coming up—but it’s supposed to clear up midafternoon or thereabouts.”

I stared straight ahead through the windshield and saw, come rushing toward us on our right, sitting not ten yards from the highway, that old Creech house, an abandoned, weather-blackened Carolina T surrounded by great oaks in full leaf.

“The Creech house,” I muttered. Where all those murders—”

“No, just one murder,” Grandfather rasped, and cleared his throat. “But it was such an awful thing it seemed like a dozen of ’em, yessir.  That boy they killed was queer, you know. Just sixteen, seventeen, and murdered by his own brothers. Story was the family got so exasperated they sent him to—you know—”

“Dix Hill,” I muttered. “For ‘the therapies.’” (Grandfather knew, so I didn’t have to tell him what kinds.)

The old house rushed by so quickly I caught just a glimpse of it—the sagging, wide-open front door and the dark beyond it—but in that glimpse, from the bits and pieces of the news article I’d read two or three years before, I could imagine the whole, wincing, shuddering scene: the small, slender boy in overalls, tiny and slight of build for sixteen—“barely five feet tall,” the article said—squatting, leaning over the bare-wood floor until his forehead touched it, his stick-like arms and fine-fingered hands covering his thin neck and small head, desperate to protect them, and squalling tearfully, panic-stricken, and the four older brothers, likewise in overalls, maybe eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, and all wielding baseball bats and, teeth gritted, red-faced, eyes bulging with hatred, raising the bats simultaneously above their shoulders and hurling them as hard as they could on the curled, curved boy—so hard-hurled their bare arms were red and popped with sweat—and with each thud thud thud bits of blood and flesh flying out of the boy’s forearms and head and neck. And all the while the terrified boy was crying out in a squealing voice, “Jamie [or Johnny, or Robbie—whatever his name might have been], don’t leave me! Help me! Help me!” But Jamie (or Johnny or Robbie—the boy’s twin—he must have had a twin!) had long fled out the back door and, eyes bulged in terror and disbelief, was far from the murdering house by now—much too far to hear not only the boy’s high squeals but the four older brothers’ repeated, nearly simultaneous, gravel-voiced yells, “Faggot! Fuckin’ queer! We’ll slam the per-vert out of yuh!”

I shook my head sharply, and the stomach-clenching sight cleared from my mind, and I saw were passing new green oats again and the thick stands of fragrant pine.

“Lucky for them the jury ‘understood’,” Grandfather rasped. “Just gave ’em second-degree murder.” A murder ‘in the heat of anger,’ you might say. Lord, those brothers just couldn’t help themselves. I guess the family was so darned frustrated—tried nearabout everything and seemed like nothing helped a-tall. Even that new-fangled therapy where they make you vomit and such. And the judge—Judge Rainey, Jr., wouldn’t you know?—he ‘understood,’ too. Just sentenced ’em six years, with a chance for parole in six months.”

Grandfather went silent for a swallow and then cleared his throat and rasped on, “You can’t imagine, Dr. Lockhart, how relieved we all were, especially your mother and I, on the day you told me you were ‘cured.’ Yessir, we were driving in this same old car in the spring of your senior year at Broughton. We’d just left Smithfield, headed back to Raleigh, and it was a May Saturday like this one, but all sunny, not a cloud anywhere. I know you’re also mighty pleased that old trouble’s over and done. Who’re you dating now? Linda? Elaine? Teresa? All those girls from fine people!”

When I didn’t answer, so absorbed I was watching the calming new oats blur green past my window, he must have turned and winked at me, then rasped, “So?”

“Linda Fuller,” I lied, turning to face him, and then I muttered, lamely, in my voice a tiny anger-edge Grandfather seemed not to notice, “She’s quite bright. Majoring in premed. Wants to be a psychiatrist.”

“Lord, a female—and a doctor—and a psychiatrist! These modern women! Heh heh. Your mother was one of em’—had to be when you and Lucinda were little. Still is. And she’ll go on working long past the time you both graduate—until they force her out, from the television station or something after that. She’s gotten so used to it. Just like your old Dee-di.”

Over the following fifteen minutes into Smithfield, I bent my head over the ragged floor mat and squeezed eyes shut. As the wind rushed in brisk, pine scents by my ear, I remembered what happened later that summer and into early autumn—between the Senior Prom, the second Saturday after I’d announced to Grandfather I was “cured,” and the beginning of my first semester in Chapel Hill.

I remembered, first, Prom Night, when I took this “Linda Fuller” (whose face I’d forgotten by Sunday morning) to the formal dance held, as always, at the Carolina Country Club. There we nibbled on the hors d’oeuvres, sipped champagne (to the envy of those who hadn’t turned eighteen), and danced, formally, fake-smiling, our crotches and chests so far apart I could barely smell the cologne she’d sprayed all over herself. (She tried, subtly, to edge closer to me, but I kept her away with elbows held so rigidly they ached.) We left, mutually-abruptly, a little before ten, and, on our way back to Grandfather’s in his Chrysler (which, of course, he had insisted that I borrow for the night), she first stared silently through her window, just watching aimlessly, I supposed, the yard lights and house lights on Glenwood Avenue flickering by. Then, maybe a couple of blocks from her house, she turned to me abruptly and blurted out, her voice edged with anger, “Lockhart, are you still a homosexual?” (My “condition” and “therapy” and eventual “cure” had pretty much spread all over Broughton.)

Startled, I stammered, “Of course, in the technical—I mean—medical sense—”

“Skip it,” she bit. “Just take me home.”

I’d barely stopped the car by her walkway before she snatched up her purse from between us, unlatched and threw open her door, burst out of the car, and fairly flew toward the lighted porch, her high heels clicking—desperately, it seemed—like those of a woman being chased. When the clicking stopped and her white formal gown flickered away and her front door slammed shut, I shoved out of my mind all the “careful driving” I’d been taught just a few hours ago: I swung a squealing U-turn in the street, barely missing a parked car and bumping over the sidewalk, and raced down White Oak to Grandfather’s, whispering—relieved, madly joyful, “That’s over, Lock, thanks be to God!” (Of course, I never saw her again.)

He—Grandfather—was standing, hand on hip, in his dimly lit garage, waiting for me as I edged the Chrysler inside it. He was still dressed in his suit trousers and white shirt and tie, but no suit coat was on him now, and no gray Homburg. Just as I switched off the engine, he dropped his hip-hand into a trousers pocket and took out his big watch and glanced at it, his head startling back a little. Then, slipping the watch back, he walked to my window, listing slightly, and cranked midair that I roll it down. When I did so, he leaned inside the car a little and peered at me through his thick glasses and watery blue eyes and sniffed two or three times.

“Heh heh,” he rasped, then cleared his throat, “Smells like you did all right, Mr. Lockhart. And mighty quick, too. Lord, I bet she was—” Here he just winked at me, thinking I’d know what he meant. (I did, of course: even being “homo,” I wasn’t that naïve about the lovemaking ways of heterosexual couples.) Then he drew his silver crown from the car and turned and walked, again slowly, listing a little, around the front of the car and up the steep wooden steps to the main floor of the big Colonial. All the while I was hearing him laugh, softly, over and over, like a mantra, as if he wanted—needed—to believe it (or wanted—needed—not to deny it—the truth of it): “Heh heh. You did all right, Mr. Lockhart Titus. Did all right, quick though it was, yessir. I bet she was—you know—. Heh heh. All right. Mr. Lockhart Titus did all right.”

And I remembered the weekend following—the June Sunday Graduation when, just after the whole 600-odd of us flowed out of that sweaty and stuffy Memorial Auditorium and stepped out into the cool June night air, Grandfather walked up to me, all by himself (Mother and Laura were waiting for me in Mother’s Falcon in the parking lot), and, dutifully, I reached out to grip his proffered hand. I saw his other hand gripping a large, black briefcase, nearly like a small suitcase, with sides that would expand to hold as many books as one could cram into it. When we released our handshake, he held it out in front of him with both hands, arms trembling. I noticed right away the gold-colored handle with the name “Dr. Lockhart Titus Elledge, Ph.D.” etched onto it. After slowly, gently lowering the briefcase to the concrete, placing it in front of my polished dress shoes, he cleared his throat and rasped, “Here I bequeath unto you a gift of congratulations, Mr. Lockhart Titus Elledge—four years hence, Mr. Lockhart Elledge, Artium Baccalaureus in linguis Latina et Graeco. And then the Ivy League and, four years thence, Dr. Lockhart Titus Elledge, Ph.D. and Classics Man.” How I shivered, inwardly, at that bestowed epithet!

And I remembered the Sunday after that—yes, so keenly remembered—when Grandfather stopped by our house at noon, entering the carport door into the kitchen without knocking, as he always did in his proprietary way (he had given Mother the down payment for the house). Dressed, as always, in his pressed salt-and-pepper suit, white starched shirt, thin blue tie, and Homburg, he saw me in the kitchen by the ironing board, dressed still in my church clothes, pressing my Explorer shirt.

He took off his Homburg and sat at the dining table and rasped, “I’ll be taking you out to the camp today, Mr. Lockhart. Your mother doesn’t feel well and asked me to drive you.”

Over the past four summers, Mother had driven me to Camp Durant, beginning on the Sunday of “work week,” when the staff set up the camp for the season, and then on every Sunday thereafter, through the middle of August. And I’d assumed she’d drive me out today: she was in the living room, reading the Sunday paper, and she’d be ready to go—so I’d assumed—when I finished ironing and changing and packing and said I was ready. She hadn’t seemed ill at all to me; in fact, she’d gone outside at seven in the morning, two hours before Mass, and mowed the whole quarter-acre lawn—a chore that had been mine since I was twelve. So Grandfather was lying, I knew (he’d say, euphemistically, he was “prevaricating”), and I shivered as gut-deep as I had on that afternoon over a year ago in Mr. Holliday’s office. (At eighteen, I still hadn’t learned to drive well enough to apply for a learner’s permit. Yes, Grandfather had given me that brief lesson on that Saturday afternoon two weeks before, but he and Mother had usually been too “worn out” from work to teach me—even on the weekends—and play rehearsals had taken up the hour for Driver’s Ed. Besides, my long-held, and irrational, terror of driving had kept me from asking them for lessons.)

To calm myself, I made light of this sudden change of drivers and joked, lamely, “Well, it’s supposed to pour this afternoon, so we can break out the tin cup.” (The Chrysler had already begun to leak in the passenger’s corner of the windshield.)

“Yessir,” he rasped, “Heh heh, that old tin cup. Your great-grandfather drank his pop and beer and wine and bourbon from that cup—every day of his life—at formal meals even. Story was it came from a Federal officer—a fellow Mason of your great-great-grandfather, Blow-Your-Horn-Billy. He gave it to your great-grandfather when he was six: yessir, he bowed deeply and told him and his mother he’d spare the house—the old homeplace, you know—on account of the Masonic emblem above the parlor mantelpiece. Blow-Your-Horn-Billy was over in Smithfield with the Home Guard. He’d been elected Major of it, you know.”

He waited silently, fiddling with his tie now and then and tapping at his Homburg on the table as I finished ironing the dark green Explorer shirt, then the pleated olive shorts and the yellow neckerchief with “Camp Durant Staff 1966” stitched on it in bright red.

I walked into the living room, past Mother reading the newspaper (with no word from her), stepped, slowly and heavily, up the flight of stairs into my bedroom, changed into the pressed uniform, and then, in spite of my deep gut-shivering, held up the neckerchief and carefully, neatly folded it a few inches down from its triangular base. Before the bathroom mirror, I wrapped it, again carefully and neatly, around my neck and, picking up my hand-painted, totem pole slide from the edge of the sink, slid its loop up through the folded tails of the neckerchief—all the way to my throat. I turned around and with Lucinda’s hand mirror made sure the bright emblem on back—“Camp Durant Staff 1966”—blazed for all to see. Then I slipped on my long green knee socks and the garters with their short red sashes, and then the black Sunday shoes already carefully polished. When I finished packing, I gripped up my knapsack and suitcase and stepped down to the living room, again past Mother—and again with no word from her, no “See you next Sad-dy, Locky”—just a rattling of the News and Observer as she turned a page.

From the kitchen, Grandfather and I headed out to the Chrysler, and in all silence, he drove me the ten overcast miles out narrow U. S. 1, flanked by pine stands and clay banks and kudzu, turned left onto Neuse Road, crossed with a faint bump the Seaboard railroad tracks, passed the lopsided, paint-peeling shack with the hand-painted sign “Neuse Holiness Church,” and turned left again, into the wide, rolling gravel road that led us into the camp.

 

You see, during the summers after my freshman and sophomore years, and even (for some reason I could not—and cannot—account for) during the summer after my junior year when Grandfather would drive me just once a week, on Monday, to my therapy with Dr. Aldred, I worked as a counselor at the Scout camp. I taught Morse code and compass and mapping and various merit badges—Signaling, First Aid, and, in my third summer, Nature, Reptile Study, Soil and Water Conservation, and Wildlife Management. And in that third summer, to my deepest delight (and likely also as an antidote to the milder ammonia-and-smelling-salts “aversion therapy” with which Dr. Aldred was then treating me), I wrote and directed the Wednesday “visitor’s night” Indian pageant—or “outdoor drama” as I preferred calling it: a play about Osceola and his treacherous capture. Of course, the “drama” was marked by all the flaws of a seventeen-year-old novice: a melodramatic script with clichéd, long-winded speeches, crowd-pleasing canoes gliding over the lake with Indians in them holding flaming torches (pine poles wrapped in burlap at their tips and drenched in kerosene), a “snake dance” with the dancer gripping a six-foot black snake in his mouth (a dance found in no authentic tribal repertoire), a prolonged (and clumsily choreographed) “battle scene,” complete with a kerosene-drenched, not-quite-authentic, pine-bough-on-chicken-wire-covered “chickee” bursting into flame. I played loose with facts all script long—even invented a son for Osceola, a son handsome and muscled, who was brutally slain in the battle scene. And most spectacular (and least authentic) of all was the accompanying music—taped excerpts from Aaron Copeland, Grofé (the Grand Canyon “Sunrise” movement), and even Wagner and Gustav Mahler—blaring from loudspeakers hung in the trees that ringed the “stage” (the campfire circle with its crudely carpentered benches for seats). Yet, for all its flaws and exaggerations, I loved that pageant and all the performances—even the one when the tape got tangled on the player and the “funeral” of Osceola’s “son”—his body laid in a canoe with a single lit torch in the bow and then paddled out into the lake—had to be performed in silence, without the final ten minutes of that glory of the “immolation” scene from Die Götterdammerung. When the play’s performance shone, how I reveled in the applause and shouts of the audience! (And how deeply disappointed I was—to the point of melancholy—when a sudden thunderstorm would balloon and rain “my” pageant out!)

As for the place—this Camp Durant—I’d fallen in love with it long before, when I was a camper there at age eleven, twelve, and thirteen. I loved the large “lower” lake curving gently and gracefully beyond a peninsula of trees and all ringed with hardwoods—except for a single, tall pine at the lake-edge of the fire circle. And I loved the wide, gravel, gently curving dam lined with trumpet vines and honeysuckle and clumps of orange day lilies and, now and then, unexpectedly, a single tall mallow, its great white cup full-open to the sun. How I relished just walking over that dam in the cool sunlit early mornings, when the lake lay smooth as a mirror! And I loved the “upper” lake as well—much smaller than the lower: an oval pond ringed with scrub oaks and redolent pine saplings. And when I taught Nature merit badge, I loved showing the kids the trees along the nature trail, touching the leaves and naming each tree aloud—the “tulip poplar,” “the mimosa,” “the black cherry,” the “yellow” pine (two needles) and the “loblolly” pine (three needles), the beech (with its trunk one could initial with a pocket knife), the eastern hornbeam (“muscle wood”)—and all the varieties of oaks and how to tell the difference between them: northern red oak, southern red oak, black oak, white oak, blackjack oak, turkey oak, willow oak—and more. I loved, especially, that half-way “rest stop” along the mile trail—the twin mounds of rock through which a small creek flowed. The kids and I would sit on the rocks and rest a bit, not saying much. (The other staffers called it “pussy rock”—but I felt that name crude and preferred “valley rock”—and the campers, the ones I taught anyway, would ever remember it—so I hoped, believed—as “valley rock,” not that vulgar, other epithet.)

Most of all, I loved the older men there: the scoutmasters and their assistants and the camp directors and the program directors and the other adult leaders. I suppose I saw in them, in some semiconscious way, as the father I never had—the fathers!

Of course, I was struck now and again by a handsome, well-muscled sixteen-year-old, either a camper or a staffer, but I just kept their “gorgeous” images in my mind—and kept my right hand powerfully busy, late at night in the Nature Lodge, when I knew the three other counselors were sound asleep.

 

Grandfather parked the Chrysler by the gate of totem poles and rasped, “Sit here, Mr. Lockhart. I’ll be back directly.”

I watched his Homburg bob down the lawn toward the Training Lodge where “work week” began with various camp songs, the Camp Director’s welcoming speech, and everyone introducing themselves. I saw Joe White and Mike Martin sitting on top of an old picnic table, dressed in T-shirts and well-worn jeans and sneakers. They waved at me; I didn’t wave back, hands lead-heavy in my lap. Suddenly, from the driver’s open window, yelled Cotton Tyler’s voice, “Hey, Elledge, you’re in uniform! And this here work week! Better change in the car, bo’!” Then he laughed, “Come on, man, you’ll be late!” and sprinted down the lawn and sat on the table beside Joe and Mike, dressed, like them, in T-shirt and jeans.

I remember it was around noon and still overcast—cool for mid-June. Just as the clouds suddenly thickened and purpled, a small rain began to wet the windshield, and Grandfather walked, Homburg bobbing, up the lawn, slowly, listing slightly, brushing raindrops from his suit. As soon as he slid into the driver’s seat, the small rain burst into a shower, and I saw Joe and Mike and Cotton leap off the picnic table and rush, hands over head, into the Training Lodge.

The rain began to drum on the Chrysler roof, some of it dripping from the right corner of the windshield onto the dashboard. Grandfather reached into the glove compartment and took out the old tin cup, tarnished with age, and placed it under the dripping. He started the car and rasped, “Now hold the cup steady, Mr. Lockhart.” I reached out and held it, and he backed the car, swinging right, then swung left and started forward, down the wide, graveled, rolling road out of camp. In and out of the drumming rain—drumming loudly now—came the steady drip drip drip into the cup.

When we reached the stop sign at Neuse Road, the rain had slowed to a sprinkle. I already knew what Grandfather had said to Mr. Earnest, the Camp Director, and when he cleared his throat to tell me, I nearly blurted a not-Lockhart Elledge, “Damn it, garrulous old fool, I know what you said and he said, you needn’t rub it in, I don’t want to hear about it!” But I stayed silent and let him rasp on: “Mr. Earnest and I agreed that, under the present circumstances, even though you’re considered ‘cured,’ you’d be better off working elsewhere this summer. Given your interest in reading, Mr. Earnest suggested Olivia Raney Library downtown, and I wholeheartedly agreed. The salary shall be much better than he can offer, and I know Mrs. Woolrich—have known her for decades—why, she was Carmen’s bridesmaid, you know—took the train all the way up to Philadelphia back in October ’19. She’ll be glad to hire you on. And—” Here he paused, blushed deep red, and cleared his throat longer and louder than I had ever heard before: “And, of course, in the library, there’ll be no, you know—no, temptation. [How little he knew of library “tearooms”!] You’re cured, there’s no doubt. Dr. Aldred has said so. But we don’t want this ‘cure’ to be any temporary ‘remission,’ do we now, Mr. Lockhart?” He laughed softly, “Lord, Lord, old Aunt Venice. Never had the slightest thought old Merrick would remission on her—and permanently, too!”

Just before we turned onto the paved road, I looked back at the rolling, pine-flanked, gravel road and felt a sudden great hurt well up in me. I turned my face to my window so Grandfather couldn’t see the sudden burst of wetness. All the way home, I kept my eyes on the rain sliding in thin, curving rills down the window pane.

Since that June Sunday three decades ago, I have never set foot on my sacred place.

 

Mike Martin and I still keep up, and in a recent e-mail, he wrote that the camp had been bought by the City of Raleigh in 1978 and renamed “Durant Nature Park”; that it was now ringed by shopping centers and industrial warehouses and town house complexes; that Neuse Road had been four-laned and was now “Durant Road”; that “city buzz” had “pretty much killed” the night chirps of crickets and tree frogs; and that “all that concrete runoff” had washed out the campfire circle—“just a gully of clay now.”

“The area has changed so much you wouldn’t recognize it,” he wrote. “So when you drive down to N. C. again, you may as well stay in Durham—and save your gas money.”

 

“Smithfield five, Goldsboro thirty-three,” Grandfather rasped from out of the faint self-whispering. “And there’s that old picnic table. We all used to eat there on the way to Morehead, you remember, Dr. Lockhart? Lord, road sign and table been there forever, seems so.”

Opening my eyes, I glanced up to see the rust-edged mileage sign whip by, caught a glimpse of the rotting table-and-benches in front of a cattle pasture fenced with barbed wire. I swept my tongue over the roof of my mouth: the hunk’s semen-taste, its shaming stickiness, had nearly vanished, just a hint of it remaining still, like fading Novocain hours after a dentist visit.

And with my face to my open window, the pasture-green and strands of barbed wire rushing by, I wondered, in wonder, Why aren’t you back in your dorm room, Lock? Your comps, they’re Monday. And the paper on Virgil due Tuesday. Why this ridiculous, time-wasting trip with a Dr. Claude Alexander Woodall, Homo Medicus, to a place, a “Klan Country,” you’d sworn four years ago, nearly to the day, you’d never set foot in again? I’d be in my room right now, writing the paper. I could have used Victor’s ear plugs—his “studying plugs.” And that brainless hunk—that’s not your direction, Lock. Just a misdemeanor this morning—a tiny lapse, an indiscretion, no more than that. You know who you are, Lock—by now—surely!

I felt a chest-clench, the kind you feel after a nightmare, and then in the wind rushing by, I shook my head to clear its memory—that sick-green restroom and all the rest. Then I felt a huge relief, and thought, It’s just a tiny diversion, this little trip—to get the old man off your back. And you need a break anyway. Away from the Hill for a while. We’ll see his damn homeplace and be back on campus before four. You’ll just pull an all-nighter or two.

I bent back down to the ragged floor mat, squeezed eyes shut again, and to the sounds of the wind rushing past (now scented with cow manure) and of my grandfather once more whispering to himself, that faint laugh erupting out of it, “I should’ve told that fellah where to head in,” I remembered how rarely I saw him after that aborted camp Sunday—that huge loss in my heart, my soul—that deep, deep hurt.

Of course, there was no further need for the “therapeutic” journeys to the “shrines” of “Klan Country.” And after that Sunday, for reasons unknown to us, Grandfather never set foot in our house again. For the rest of June and most of July, Mother would now and then wonder aloud, “Why’s our Dee-di never here anymore?” And from Lucinda: “Mom, why doesn’t Dee-di visit us like he used to?” And from me (faintly sarcastic): “Guess he’s still reading the N & O—the paper he ‘never finishes.’?”

Of course, our questions were only rhetorical, and I suppose were meant to be, since for a long time we had resented the old man’s unannounced visits, which could occur at almost any moment throughout the year—a Tuesday night, say, around eight, or, more often, a Sunday noon or midafternoon. When we’d hear the slow, familiar scraping of shoes on the carport doormat, Mother would whisper, “Oh, God, can’t he at least phone?” and then retreat to the old brown couch in the den, shut the sliding door, and switch on the television. And Lucinda would rush up the stairs to her room and shut and lock the door behind her.

That would leave me alone to greet the old man, since I’d often be sitting on the couch in the living room, before the coffee table, or at the table in the kitchen, immersed in studying or reading. (My room, unlike Lucinda’s, had no heat vents and so was always slightly chill, even in spring and fall. And in summer, not a breath of breeze fluttered the curtains of the two open windows: the prevailing wind, north in summer, blew from Lucinda’s side of the house.) So before I could rise and make my escape—to somewhere besides my room, Grandfather would have already, without knocking, opened the unlocked or locked carport door (he had his own key) and stepped inside, “Si vales, valeo; bonum est, Mr. Lockhart,” rasping out of his mouth—softly if he saw me in the kitchen, louder if, peering up the small hallway, he saw me on the living room sofa. Dutifully (yet resentfully), I’d rise from wherever I was and welcome the old man inside. I’d ask him to sit at the kitchen table and pour him some coffee and ice water. Then he’d make idle chatter: about Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and “what a mess it all was;” or the recent “ill fortunes” of the Carolina football team; or the local politician Kidd Brewer’s conviction for bid-rigging and that “scandalous going-in party” at his fancy house on top of a hill by the Durham highway—and so on, ad nauseam. After a half hour or so, I’d rise and show him out, bidding him an orotund (and faintly sarcastic) farewell, “Ave atque vale, Dr. Claudius.” But by July’s end of that library summer, not one of us ever mentioned his odd and mysterious absence—such relief we, especially I, must have felt!

I wondered then—but without the words—and I wonder now, three decades later, whether it was some shaming and tense conflict that kept Grandfather away that summer.

As my “Dee-di”—that warm, familiar name—he must have known the sheer shimmering pleasure Camp Durant granted me in the summer: the teaching (especially the nature merit badges), and the Osceola “outdoor drama,” and the neat staff uniforms with their bright neckerchiefs, and the camp ritual of flag-raising-and-lowering, and at ten at night Perry Como’s Lord’s Prayer followed by the bugled “Taps” played on scratchy 78s through old horn-shaped speakers atop Campbell Lodge—and, more than anything, just the place—the pine-smells and the clay-smells and the skies ever-seeming blue—and that gracefully angular lake from which a breeze never seemed to cease! And yes, it was a pleasure I’m sure he shared with me every Wednesday night when he’d drive Grandmother and Mother and Lucinda to the performances of “my” Vision of the Sun. (Indeed, he never missed a show, except for the single rainout we had that summer of ’65.)

But as Claude Alexander Woodall, M.D., Colonel, United States Army, Retired, and in ’66, Chief of the Tuberculosis Control Division of the North Carolina State Board of Health (his second career, since ’48), he must have been so glued to a “conscience”—social? Southern? medical?  moral? who knows?—that he found it “necessary” that I not even be tempted into a “regression” from my “cure” by the young males that swarmed the camp mid-June to mid-August.

That tense and shaming conflict must have led to such twisting agony in him he had to ignore it—or explode in one of the outbursts of temper Mother had so often told me about.  So to keep his mind off it, he decided to stay away from our house for good—not even stepping on our property or driving down our street. No, on those weeknights and Sundays when he felt restless and homebound, once more wearied by Grandmother’s ceaseless complaints, all he’d rather do was either stay homebound—and read the newspaper over and over and watch a Yankees game on television (and, later, the Redskins and ACC basketball) and read extra rolls of lung X-rays—or on Saturdays and Sundays, go out to breakfast and lunch at the Broiler, then take the Hillsboro Street eight-block walk to the Capitol and back.

To make sure I wouldn’t see him any more than I had to, beginning the Monday after that aborted camp Sunday, the Monday I was “officially” hired at Olivia Raney as a “circulation assistant,” and ending September 10, the day before I moved to Chapel to begin my freshman year (so I could avoid, for the first time ever, the family’s annual Labor Day week’s vacation in Morehead City), I volunteered (and was permitted) to work all the additional shifts. So besides the eight-to-five schedule Monday through Friday, I worked six to nine at night, having wolfed a hamburger and fries from the old Capitol vendor in his kiosk—whirled ever about by pigeons, his “friends,” as he’d call them. And I worked one to five Saturdays and Sundays. To avoid our ten o’clock mass at Our Lady of Lourdes (and the certainty I’d see Grandfather when Mother would pick up Grandmother), I lied the library had begun to “experiment” with “extended hours” on Sundays, staying open nine to one, and I simply had to be there—there was no one else.

Mother raised an eyebrow, but she apparently believed me, and because so few buses ran on Sundays, she even drove me before church to the nondescript concrete building at the end of Hillsboro Street, within sight of the Capitol. She let me out, sighing, “Oh, Locky, I hope you don’t lapse.” (From being a practicing Catholic, she meant.) And then she drove home.

I had been entrusted with the key, and not five minutes after entering (and locking) the door behind me, hoping in terror no other employee would come in Sunday mornings, I found, under the 700s, a book on college wrestling, flipped to a photo of two young men demonstrating the “figure-four,” dropped my body to the old, stained, musty carpet and fist under my fly, stared at the taut, tubular bulge in the crotch of the pinned wrestler’s tight training pants. I rubbed away until in a minute (likely less), I groaned, then felt the warm jets filling my briefs.

Then, until one in the afternoon, I went out and wandered the nearly empty downtown streets, my whole body radiant with pleasure, even when it showered and I had to carry an umbrella. (Of course, I stayed away from Hillsboro Street, where I might chance meeting Grandfather on his after-lunch walk from the Broiler to the Capitol and back.)

One Sunday near the end of July, I wandered as far as the warehouse district near West Street, and much to my surprise (and conspiratorial delight), I passed, strolling toward me on the other side of West, Dr. Aldred in a tight T-shirt and tight, faded Levis and hiking boots. He walked beside a man about his age—similarly dressed but long-haired and mustachioed: a faint resemblance of the Marlboro Man in the magazines and on highway billboards. Without stopping, Dr. Aldred waved at me and lilted, “Hi, Lock! Happy Sun-day!” His companion, even handsomer than he, and more “butch,” waved as well but said nothing. After they passed me, I heard Dr. Aldred mumble something and then the two laugh, good-naturedly. I felt certain he was telling his friend about my “case” and all similar “cases”, “incurable absolutely, if there’s really any ‘illness’ to be cured,” having said the same to me on our last day of therapy—and having said besides, “Let’s just record you’re cured. I’ll  note that now, in writing.” And I was certain he was also telling his friend what I had heard him say so often in the year of my Dix visits, “As you and I and all of us know, who know Dorothy!”

 

On a  late-August Saturday morning my mother read in the newspaper—“God, on the front page!” she said, fretfully—that Dr. Aldred had been arrested by an undercover policeman for a “crime against nature” in one of the decrepit, empty warehouses along West Street. There was a sheepish photo of him beside the article, his wrists in handcuffs, an expressionless policeman leading him away from the “scene of the crime.” That twilight, after a tense and silent supper, Mother asked me into her room, shut and locked the door behind her, and burst out in her angry-hysterical way, “That lying son-of a-bitch per-vert! Hardly a ‘cure,’ as you put it! And straight to your grandfather’s face, who’s never told a lie in his life! And that lying note to Mr. Holliday! I’m glad Dee-di had the sense to take you out of that camp! That per-vert didn’t molest you, did he?” And on and on—eventually comparing me and Dr. Aldred and even all “homosexuals” to my “lying son-of-a-bitch psychopathic father!” When I heard this last, I lost all control and shouted, “Goddamn bitch,” and started beating on her shoulders, and she beat back on mine, then cried, “You hurt me, you per-vert crazy! You’ve always belonged in Dix! I wish I’d had you committed years ago! God!”

Shouting, “Bitch! Bitch! Bitch!” and weeping uncontrollably—in that deep, wrenched, down-in-the-lungs way of the girl in the Kent State photograph—I ran out of her room and out of the house and down Kittrell to Fallon Park. By the trickling creek there, in the dimming twilight, I sat on a stone and wept on, thinking once more of the solitary “lying-son-of-a-bitch-psychopathic-father” fate that now seemed more than ever to lie ahead of me. Suddenly I remembered I’d heard—perhaps from Kenny?—that Fallon Park was called “Fellatio Park” by the Raleigh homosexuals, and I went silent, felt a surge below my belt, and glanced carefully around the circular lawn fringed with pines, a single, large weeping willow in the center of it. In my wild-desperate imagination (out of a longing for some warmth, some loving), I thought I saw a guy my age standing by the willow, staring at me—but it was only a pine sapling shaped curiously like a person, and I realized I was alone in “Fellatio Park” and took the slow walk back to my house. After that night, Mother never mentioned Dr. Aldred or my therapy again. As for Dr. Aldred, I read a brief notice in the obituaries of his suicide a week later. He had obviously been fired from Dix and his license to practice had been taken away. So drained I was, I couldn’t even weep, just crumpled the newspaper page and threw it in the trash.

 

Of course, I digress—but out of necessity here.

 

Returning to my library Sundays: I couldn’t very well lie that Olivia Raney stayed open Sunday nights (though how wished it were so!): no one, not even Lucinda and Grandmother, would believe that. So I was forced to endure the Sunday suppers in my grandparents’ ornate dining room. During that two-hour torture, and especially during the few minutes Grandfather and I sat alone at the table (while Grandmother and the maid Miss Mary and Lucinda and Mother cleared away the dishes and prepared dessert), we never said a word to each other. He’d flip his dessert spoon over and over or slip his pocket watch out of his suit trousers and glance at it and slip it back in again. And I’d just stare silently at the wide mirror above the sideboard, seeing the long, gaunt, expressionless face with the high forehead and the short, bangs-combed-to-the-side “Oxford” haircut, the chin and cheekbones prominent, a deep dimple chin-center—except for the haircut, the “spitting” image of my dead, “deadbeat,” “whoring,” “lying,” “psychopathic” father.

 

These Sunday tortures ended—thankfully!—on the mid-September Sunday I was driven to Chapel Hill for my freshman year. That afternoon, I was driven not by Grandfather in his Chrysler but by Mother in her Falcon. I had asked Mother to drive me on the specious grounds that her car—a compact station wagon nearly half the size of the Chrysler—had more space for my “belongings.” The entire thirty miles along curving Highway 54 was filled with her chatter about my taking “nice” girls to dinner and the movies and the theater, and “rushing” for Kappa Sigma, my grandfather’s fraternity. “He’d be so happy!” she lilted. “You can see his picture on the living room wall—oh, so young! He took me there when I was twenty and we visited Aunt Peggy. She was housemother for a girl’s dorm—oh, God—what—? Yes, Cobb Hall, that was it. You remember Aunt Peggy, don’t you, Locky? I took you to see her when you were twelve. That old colored woman shouted, ‘Man on the hall!’ And all those doors slammed shut. God, you were just twelve and ‘Man on the Hall!’ Tickles me to death . . . . ” And on she went, in her socialite’s wandering way. For a time, I would look at her and nod politely or say, “Yes, that’s true,” or, “Yes, I remember”—but without enthusiasm. Then, as we started that long, curving climb to The Hill, I went silent and just stared out the window—at the old stucco Brady’s Restaurant and then at the oak trees and the old elegant houses rushing by. Without seeming to notice, she chattered on.

 

Just before dark, I was alone, sitting at a scratched, wobbly table—my “desk”—in my third-floor room of Old East Dormitory. I was writing my obligatory letter to Mother: that I thanked her “immensely” for driving me over; that I was “looking forward” to seeing her and Lucinda “Saturday morning, around eleven”; but that, “to my great regret and with my deepest apologies to Grandfather and Grandmother,” I’d have to miss their “Sunday supper for this weekend and for many weekends in the foreseeable future”; that I had “no choice otherwise,” since, from my “recent inquiries” at the Chapel Hill bus station, I had learned no buses left from Raleigh to The Hill Sunday evening and “I must, therefore, return at four in the afternoon.”

Of course, in my resolve to avoid those Sunday suppers, I was lying, and I knew Mother would write back in complaint, trying to twinge me with guilt:

 

Dear Locky,

Your Grandfather will miss you so! And all your life, practically, you and he were so close! And you know good and well you’d have no daddy at all if it weren’t for him [and so on and so forth].

 

But I also knew she’d not bother to check the bus schedules—so I’d be free at last from those Sunday horrors—no, those prickling, eye-averting shames—at least until Thanksgiving, Christmas, the semester break in January, and the Easter holidays in spring. I was certain I could endure those few Sunday shames—or even find a way to escape them altogether.

 

You may be wondering why I did not—would not—choose to stay on campus most of weekend (Saturday afternoons and, as it turned out, Sunday mornings and afternoons)—why, in fact, I had decided on that course of action as far back as high school graduation. From the stories I’d heard from Broughton classmates with older siblings at Chapel Hill, I’d learned the dormitories on weekends were loud with blaring stereos and drunken partying, despite the “official” prohibition of alcoholic beverages. (The residence hall “advisors,” themselves college boys, just “looked the other way” and joined in the partying and drinking.)  I’d heard, too, of the horrid sounds and smells of twenty or thirty boys vomiting at once in the dormitory lavatories Sunday mornings, each of them “hugging his own toilet.” Ugh! There was no way I’d stay on campus—even in the library or classroom buildings, which, nearly empty on weekends, I feared would so depress me I couldn’t concentrate or I’d drowse into long naps and jerk awake again.

 

Losing my resolve for a moment, I shuddered with guilt and was about to toss the letter to Mother into the waste basket and compose another: that “I would indeed be present for Sunday supper, as the last bus left for Chapel Hill at nine.” But then, remembering those awkward, shame-prickling August silences between Grandfather and me, I quickly, with a barely legible scrawl, finished the letter, “Your loving son, Lock,” then folded it and slid it into one of the envelopes Mother had packed for me, sealed it with a sour tongue, licked one of the FDR stamps from a book of them she’d handed me when we’d arrived, fingered it skewed and upside down onto the left corner of the envelope, then strode downstairs and much relieved, my guilt vanished like a lake mist at dawn, slid the envelope into the mail chute.

 

From Sunday until Wednesday, when classes would start, I had the room to myself, and I thought—with relief—I’d have no roommate, I’d been overlooked somehow. But Wednesday, around eight in the morning, just after I’d packed the big briefcase with my texts for Latin 21, Botany 101, and Modern Civilization, came a hard, quick rapping at the latched door, and then a sharp kick on the wood and a nasal voice, “Hey, I’m your roommate, man, whoever thou art!”

I strode to the latch and slid it back and opened the door, and with a sharp catch of breath that no one could fail to notice, I saw this handsome, thick-lipped, black-curly-haired hippie around my age, in tight, patched, pale-blue Levis, wide leather belt, and black, faded T-shirt with the peace symbol pressed on it—you, know, the ☮—but this one a brilliant sun yellow. And under the symbol, two bright red masks were pressed side by side on the shirt—the Thespian faces, smiling and grieving, of comedy and tragedy. An old, patched, olive-drab knapsack hung down his back, strapped tightly to his broad shoulders. What made him look even handsomer—“more gorgeous” are the words—was what seemed a three-day growth of black along his jaw line and over his cheeks and upper lip and dimpled chin. A wide, white-toothed grin spread over his face as he reached out his hand to shake mine. I gripped it at first dutifully, weakly, as I’d grip Grandfather’s, but when he tightened his own grip and I saw the veins in his hairy forearm stand out, I tightened mine and felt myself harden pleasurably—down there. (And I felt at once shame and fear he had noticed it and would snatch his hand away and yell, spit flying, “Get the fuck away from me, faggot!”) But he said, his voice deep, clear, warm, “Hey, man, I’m Victor—Victor Katz—Jew-boy from Charleston.”

“Lockhart—Lockhart Elledge, I said hoarsely, nearly whispering, still gripping tightly the warm, powerful hand. “But people call me Lock—which is fine.”

“Hey—looks like I woke you up. Sorry, man,” and his grin rounded into an o of concern.

“Oh, no, I said,” putting on my mother’s social cheeriness as we released our grip. “Since no one showed up by Monday, I just didn’t expect anyone—certainly not—”

“Well,” he interrupted, with a grin and a wink, “you got him now—a good ole Charleston Jew-boy hippie!”—and then, laughing, “God, this room hasn’t changed since eighteen sixty five!”

I felt so relieved he’d interrupted me before I could finish—could say what I so longed to say but hadn’t yet had the courage—or maybe downright audacity—to do so: “I just didn’t expect anyone as absolutely gorgeous as you!”

He was just now slinging his old knapsack onto the floor at the foot of his bed. Then he just flopped on the bare, striped mattress, and laying his curly hair on the bare, striped pillow, he closed his thick-lidded eyes. In a minute I could hear his slow, even breaths of sleep.

As if in a waking dream, I sat before my desk, and for the five minutes or so before Latin class, I just stared out the high, open window, my eyes fixed on the round, copper-crowned Venus temple of the Old Well, its old, wrought-iron water fountain in the center, its base fringed with bunches of yellow and pink and white chrysanthemums. Every so often, a boy in shorts and T-shirt, shouldering a knapsack, or a sorority-looking girl in a “stylish” dress and blouse, holding her books to her chest, would step into the temple and drink from the fountain. A strange, warm wave of delight spread through me, foot to crown, and I whispered, in wonder, “Lock, you’re free. Free as Victor. Free as those students drinking from Venus herself.”

Before I could stay longer in this new delight, I saw it was three of nine on the desk clock, and rising and gripping up the big briefcase, I rushed out of the room and down the flights of stairs and into the cool shade of the quadrangle. And I joined the hundreds of students—some sauntering sleepy eyed, some, like me, striding fast—to their nine-clock classes in Murphy or Saunders or Bingham or Dey.

After supper, alone in my room (Victor had gone out to do laundry), I sat again before my desk and once more gazed with tingling joy at the quadrangle and Old Well—soft and silent now in the Chapel Hill twilight. I suddenly smelled the slightly bitter scent of chrysanthemums closer by. I glanced to my left and saw a large pot of yellow ones on Victor’s desk. They seemed to glow in the darkening room.

 

“Lord, Lord, it’s still there, that old billboard, ‘Welcome to Johnston County! This is Klan Country!’” Grandfather laughed, abrupting me out of the soft, still, twilit room scented with that pot of chrysanthemums and back into the wind-rushing, pine-and-old-man-smelling Chrysler. As we whipped past the billboard, I could just glimpse a white hood on someone’s head and a cartoonish torch held above it. In a few seconds, we crossed the Neuse River bridge and entered Smithfield, that town so full of Aunt Venice and Uncle Merrick and the origin of Venice’s mantra, “How’s your love life?” that I began to tremble inwardly as we started down Market Street, flanked by the old courthouse (with the Confederate monument in front of it) and then by the various stores—Barefoot’s Hardware, Woolworth’s, Rose’s, Ruth’s Café, and more: the usual sorts of shops along string-straight, coastal plain main streets.

Klan Country, A Novel in Progress, Part I

Filed under: literary fiction — Lee Titus Elliott @ 3:01 pm
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Klan Country

A Novel

 

“Ah, the family,” she said, releasing her breath and sitting back quietly, “the whole hideous institution should be wiped from the face of the earth. It is the root of all human wrongs,” she ended and relaxed, and her face became calm. She was trembling.
                              —Katherine Anne Porter, “Old Mortality”

I

Once more it was five before nine on a Saturday morning (this one in May, five days after Kent State) and once more, as punctual as the sun, my Grandfather Woodall stood white-haired and erect on the brick pavement beside the Old Well, his blue gaze fixed across Cameron Avenue and down the wide brick walkway that ran between South Building and the Playmakers Theater. From my window high in Old East (a window shut still, out of shame shut still, though it was warm outside, warm as July), I could look down and see him from the rear: tall and elegant in his tailored and pressed salt-and-pepper suit, his black dress shoes polished as mirrors, his neat, gray Homburg held out with both veined hands in front of him, close over his waist.

Standing so, arrayed so, his stage set that little, round Vesta-temple with the Doric columns and copper dome and wrought-iron drinking fountain in the center, he reminded me of a Confederate general in retirement, posing for a photograph—an Early or an Anderson or a Longstreet in one of his Freeman books back in Raleigh. I squinted hard from my shut window and for a sudden, aching wave in my chest, could see—believe!—I wasn’t up here, in this closed, overwarm room, tie wretchedly askew, dress shoes scuffed, shirt and trousers rumpled like a street drunk’s, every pore of me sweating and stinking, shit smell and semen smell welling up out of my crotch like a grim mist, some strange college boy’s semen sticky as rotten glue on the roof of my mouth. No, I was down there, once more crossing Cameron and striding straight to him over the antique brick, dressed neat in the dark, pressed trousers, the white, starched long-sleeved shirt and dark tie, the dress shoes as black and mirror-polished as his own, in my left hand gripped the big, black brief case he’d presented me for my high school graduation in June ’66. And all through my striding to him (so I heard—believed!) ran in my mind the verses from the Fourth Georgic I’d just translated (and memorized) in Dr. Applewhite’s Virgil class—verses poised to spring from my lips, in not quite theatrical orotundity, the moment I stopped before him and reached out to grip his proffered hand.

I shut my eyes and could see—believe!—how it would go between us in the four hours following: how, hard upon our ritual grip and my verses from Virgil, he’d intone his own mock-solemn, “Si vales, valeo; bonum est,” and then, clearing his throat, as if about to give a speech, ask once more: Would I accompany him “this fine morning” (even if it were raining or overcast, it would ever be fine—“a fine morning”) down to “Klan Country” (“Heh, heh, heh,” he’d be sure to utter) and the old Woodall homeplace, “seat” of his father’s father and my “distaff side”? As I was “well cognizant,” his brother, my great-uncle Merrick, had put it up for sale at last, and he, “this old Dee-di” of mine, eighty-one and retired for good, away at last from “the consumptives” and the X-rays and all the weekly traveling—he, “an old widower of leisure now,” with no salaried employment or “future prospects thereof,” had “purposed” to purchase “said seat” and in his “hiemal years” restore it to its “antebellum state.” He’d perform “the light labor” himself, whatever little painting and repair “this old carcass” could accomplish. The remainder he’d commission to contractors: the new foundation and new roof and the filling of the columns eaten hollow and much more than he could name just now, my “old forgetful Dee-di.” Would I “therefore”—I, his only grandson and “sole male sustainer” of the Woodall line (my uncle had two daughters “merely” and, at 33, mumps had “rendered him sterile”)—would I go down with him “this fine Saturday” and meet my great-uncle Merrick there? (Grandfather had telephoned him we’d meet him at one, “on the lower veranda.”) If we left now, we’d have the leisure to stop by Rosewood and see Mrs. Loreena Wooten, a widow herself and his “future helpmeet.” And we’d have time to walk the Bentonville battleground and tour Ava Gardner’s schoolhouse and teacherage—and even visit the old clapboard church my great-great-grandfather (“Union Man that he was, yessir,”) had built “for the colored people.” Of course, he’d drive me himself, “with all due pleasure, Dr. Lockhart.”

I opened my eyes and looked down at him, and from his steady head, his stance so willfully still he seemed nearly to tremble, I knew he was playing it all through to the end, in a mind’s eye keen and fatalistic: how it had gone between us every Saturday since the twenty-eighth of March (he’d first arrived at my dorm room on the twenty-first, with no warning, not even a phone call) and how surely it would go between us again today, “this fine morning”: how the word “pleasure” would have barely come out of his mouth when I’d have said, in that aloof, resonant professor’s voice (which already infected me then and often infects me still—even on stage—twenty-six years later): I “deeply” apologized, but I could not accompany him “just yet”—not today at least. I had another examination for which to study—my Latin comprehensives—and a “lengthy paper”—this one on the Georgics. And that night (and I’d have been sure to say this with a wink, sly and conspiratorial), I’d made “a prior engagement”—with a “Linda Maupin” or a Teresa Cheshire” or an “Elaine Trentman”—whatever old-Raleigh, blue-blood name would have emerged in my mind just then. (Of course, I was lying about the “prior engagement,” as I’d been lying about it the six Saturdays previous.) But—I’d have gone on—“my schedule” would permit an hour for “light luncheon,” perhaps at Harry’s downtown.

And then he, his voice going tight and clipped, like that of the Army Medical Corps colonel he’d been for thirty years—his first career, long ago—this narrowed voice the only sign of his (I knew) deep disappointment: “That will be satisfactory, sir. We shall drive to the homeplace on a Saturday forthcoming. I shall telephone your great-uncle Merrick not to expect us today. He has long advertised for the sale but has assured me by certified letter, in accordance with my request, that he shall not first negotiate with another party other than myself.” Here he would have raised a hand from the brim of the Homburg he held, touched forefinger to thumb, and gone on, “Of course, I know—and you, likely, as well, Dr. Lockhart—how large a salis granum his word’s been worth. But after all these years—Lord, I haven’t seen him in twenty!—he may have changed. People do change, you know. Just give ’em time, yessir, and they change—most people, anyway.”

Then, setting the Homburg on his head, straightening it just so, he’d have bowed slightly and said, with no trace of irony, his voice broadening back, “So I shall lunch with you at noon, Dr. Lockhart—at your Harry’s downtown. Meanwhile, to pass the morning profitably, I shall visit the North Carolina Collection and there peruse, with interest, your great-great-grandfather’s letters to Governor Zebulon Baird Vance and President Ulysses Simpson Grant.”

In the three hours following, while he’d have “perused” among the faded and brittle sheets of foolscap, I’d have returned with the briefcase to my overwarm room, ,taken the Oxford Vergili Opera and the Cassell’s New Latin Dictionary out of the briefcase and set them side by side on my desk. I’d have then opened the Vergili Opera to the Fourth Georgic and bookmarked it with a cheap Bic. Then, setting the briefcase by the bureau dresser, I’d have desultorily swept and dusted, changed my soiled and wrinkled bedsheets, and taken a brief nap on the coolness of the freshly laundered ones.

At noon precisely we, the two of us, would’ve been seated across from each other in a cramped, stuffing-sprouted booth in smoky Harry’s, and over the hour there—not a second longer or less—Grandfather would have slapped down onto the stained Formica the enlarged, cracked, yellowed black-and-white photograph of an antebellum façade, the old Woodall homeplace, to be sure: the window shutters missing, the panes cracked and broken, the now-wooden porch steps black-weathered and sagging, and the far-right column gone from the lower portico, replaced by an old creosote pole twice as thick as the remaining columns—which were white still, though chipped and splintered in places. Over the whole façade, the paint was peeling everywhere, like the truck of an old sycamore.

Without touching the steak sandwich Grandfather had ordered, he’d have regaled me once more with the statistics and facts of the old house and the Civil War anecdotes of events rumored to have taken place there: how the “Federals” had dumped dead chickens onto Mrs. Woodall’s grand piano and how the fellow-Mason Federal officer, ordered to “fire” the house, had refused to do so when he saw the Masonic emblem hanging above the parlor mantelpiece, and on and on ad nauseam: tales I’d heard from him since I was five or six—“history,” Grandfather called them. And all the while his face would have been flushed deeply, his voice oddly breathless and manic, now and then breaking high and hoarse, like an excited boy’s.

Then, the anecdotes finished, Grandfather would have slapped down another photo, also black-and-white but smaller and much more recent. It showed the face and neck of a handsome woman—in her midfifties, maybe—her (no doubt, dyed) dark hair styled in the high, Jackie Kennedy bouffant hairdo so popular in the sixties. Even in middle age, she had the bright eyes, the fine, straight noise, the full lips, and the high cheekbones of the beauty queen she had been—“crowned Miss Goldsboro back in 1931.” “And this feminam pulcherrimam, Dr. Lockhart—Mrs. Loreena Wooten,” he’d have said, “it is my intention to wed, once the homeplace is mine and its interior has grown fit for her presence. When we drive down to the homeplace on a future Saturday, I’ll take you to meet her, just outside Rosewood. Oh, you wouldn’t believe all her talents—photography, painting, sculpture, gardening—and more—Lord, I can’t keep count of ’em! And she’s always been so nice to me—so eager to see me. She’s out the X-ray trailer door before I can even get out of the car!” And on and on the old man would have rambled, rolling out nearly the same words I’d heard from him in Harry’s the six Saturdays previous.

Of course, all the while I’d have been spooning up my watery chowder in quick slurps, wolfing the underdone Reuben sandwich, gulping down the Mason jar of oversweetened iced tea, glancing covertly at my wristwatch, in torment for us to quit that smoke-hazed place and walk back across campus—him to his old white Chrysler, me to the clear still of my room, the Fourth Georgic open on my desk, the cheap Bic gripped in my right hand and poised above a sheet of legal pad. Grandfather would have taken a sip from his own Mason jar of oversweetened iced tea and then a bite out of his steak sandwich, chewing it slowly. Then he would have covered his mouth with his hand, cleared his throat long and loud, as if he were about to give a speech, and said—words I remembered verbatim from the letter he’d sent me seven Saturdays ago:

 

I recognize that some of the family will object loudly to my enterprises—your mother and your uncle Claude, especially. In fact, I can already hear them: “What? An eighty-year-old man living out there—in the country? And living there all by himself? And in that house in its condition? And with no central heat? Why, he’ll catch double pneumonia, just like his own mother in that drafty old house in Goldsboro. And remarrying at his age—and this common Loreena person at that?” And on and on and on, the same sort of shrill complaints which I heard your grandmother whine for over forty years—and which now, in my old age, I no longer wish to endure. Hence, I ask you, Dr. Lockhart, that you keep my two new enterprises confidential, at least until the sale of that grandeur is accomplished, at which time I shall write your mother and uncle and shall all reveal and at length.

 

Just so I yearned for it all—oddly, even the parts I resented—to come round again as I stood that Saturday morning in May behind my shut window high in Old East, gazing down at him so grand and erect beside the Old Well, the nine-o’clock sun just now brimming over the Playmakers pediment and glowing him full—from his silver crown to the shining black tips of his shoes.

In fact, a little over an hour ago, just as I stepped outside the dormitory, lugging the briefcase into the cool shadow of the quadrangle, I foresaw clear as a movie the whole Saturday ritual. And I intended to play it through once more. I saw no reason on earth to do any different.

But a few yards down the brick walkway, I noticed the quadrangle all silent but for sparrows chirping under eaves, and I raised my head from its accustomed stoop and saw not one of the dozens of students morose, disheveled, sullen-eyed—sauntering resentfully to their Saturday classes in Saunders or Bingham or Murphy or Dey. Only I was in this place, hearing my long, pounding strides.

I crossed Cameron, strode between the Playmakers and South Building, and came out into the larger, sun-splashed quadrangle, the great, white portico of Wilson Library shining far ahead of me. This place, too, was all empty. Just squirrels were there, scurrying up thick oak trunks, and robins pecked in the grass and among the thick claws of the oak roots.

I hurried past a sign—it caught my eye: a large square of white-painted plywood nailed to a stake driven into the ground. I stopped and swung around and strode back to it and stopped and stooped and, gripping the briefcase still, read the black-painted capitals, printed slightly askew. I pored slowly, slowly over them, and I read them slowly once more, as if they held me under a spell:

 

RALLY FOR PEACE!!!!

MCCORKLE PLACE AND FRANKLIN STREET

SHARP NOON SATURDAY MAY 9

SPEAKERS: ROBBIE BELLO STUDENT BODY PRESIDENT

AND MAYBE ABBIE HOFFMAN!!!!

COME HONOR OUR FALLEN COMRADES

KENT STATE MAY 4, 1970

A DAY THAT SHALL “LIVE IN INFAMY”!!!!

LONG LIVE THE REVOLUTION!!!!

 

Under the skewed capitals was tacked a dim, grainy photograph torn raggedly out of a newspaper. It showed a girl, seventeen or eighteen, dressed in dark pants, a dark blouse with sleeves to the elbows, a light-colored kerchief tied loosely around her neck. Her long dark hair was swept back to show a high clear forehead. She was kneeling on a street pavement, her slender white arms stretched out in front of her. Her mouth was open wide, as if she were yelling, shrieking, weeping—I couldn’t tell. She faced the body of a young man stretched out limp on his stomach, an arm stiff-straight down his side, his face twisted away from the camera, cheek firm on the pavement. He was dressed in dark jeans and a light-colored windbreaker, and his thick dark hair, mashed by the pavement, was bunched high around his head. From the other side of him—some torn place I couldn’t see—a thin dark stream—blood, I knew—ran twisting over the pavement and between the girl’s bent knees and on behind her, gathering in a ragged puddle at the curbside. To the right of the two of them stood a neatly long-haired young man in a worn, light-colored blazer, an open-collared shirt, and bell-bottom jeans and boots. His face was twisted away from them, staring bewildered into the distance. Beyond the three stretched flat ground and a high chain-link fence and then the flat ground again. Students were milling about, as bewildered as the one in the blazer and bell-bottoms. Some were gazing beyond the fence—at the retreating soldiers of the National Guard (I later learned). But most were gazing numbly at the dead boy, the grieving girl.

clip_image002

That clipped photograph I’d already seen but taken spare notice of. Just Wednesday afternoon, my roommate Victor Katz had slapped it hard on my desk, covering my open Fourth Georgic over which I’d been dutifully bent. Then he’d fairly screamed at me, in that self-righteous, “activist” shrill I found so irritating, “And here you can read Vir-gil [he’d spat out the g as if it were something rotten] when they’re murdering kids! Shame on you, Lockhart Titus! Shame! Shame! Shame! But at least you can redeem your prissy self, ’cause we’re rallying on Franklin tonight—and marching—permit or no permit. Let ’em cram us all in the paddy wagon—who gives a flying fuck? Anyway, you be down there, hear? Franklin and McCorkle. Eight sharp!” And before I could finish my usual, “I’m so sorry, but I’m due for a major exam tomorrow,” he’d spat, “Due—I know—like having a goddamn baby—and a re-tard at that! Fuck it!” And he’d whipped around and burst out of our room, slamming the door so hard behind him his framed Easy Rider poster (Dennis Hopper glaring from a Harley) dropped to the floor, splintering glass all the way out from under his bed. (I knew he’d just yell, “Fuck it!” when he got back and then sweep up the glass and roll up the poster and cardboard backing and dump it all into the trash barrel in the hallway and forget about it. “It’s just a thing!” he’d mutter: “Un-im-por-tant.”) But then, after the door slammed, the glass splinters inches from my feet, I could hear his big boots pounding down the hall, then fading as the stairwell door slammed shut. When there was quiet again, I merely glanced at the clipped photo, without seeing it, and whisper-sighed wearily, like a resigned old man, “It’s just not you, Lock—not your way, your life.” Then I tossed the photo flat into the waste basket beside my desk and hunched once more, dutifully—yet, deep inside, ruefully—over the Fourth Georgic.

About “that war” I had no opinion one way or the other. It was some far-away “foreign matter” that had no connection to me at all—other than the bothersome steps (I knew not what) I’d have to take to extend my draft deferment in June, or somehow get classified 4-F. In those tunnel-mirrored days, I was just a classics scholar, my mind set on summa cum laude and then graduate school at Princeton, where I’d already been accepted. Besides, I loathed—and shunned—loud, cursing “demonstrators,” especially the scruffy, long-haired “revolutionaries” with their self-righteous slogans and abrasive voices and megaphones and crudely hand-lettered posters and chanting rallies along Franklin Street.

But why hadn’t I asked Victor to move out long ago? Or why hadn’t I moved out myself and rented a cheap room in an old widow’s bungalow? For ever since we’d begun to room together, the first day of our freshman year (we’d been thrown together by lottery), I’d found him that loud, scruffy, self-righteous type I couldn’t bear. And day after day I’d had to hear him scold me in that shrill, quarrelsome way of his—for my “aloof prissiness.” Hearing him, how I’d winced with irritation inside!

But—oddly for an “activist” sort (who’d usually major in Political Science or Sociology or even Religion)—he held a very different ambition, a passion that had fiercely attracted me, in grade school and high school, and that attracted me now, a vocation for theater—for six years now my secret love, my mere fantasy-calling. A drama major, he played the leads, always the leads, in student productions—Dionysus, Orestes, Hamlet, Stanley in Streetcar, and more—all those roles so much like him: radiant with a dark and angry vitality.

And yes (and of this I was only vaguely, shamefully aware), he held other charms englowed with the first: the full sensuous lips, the straight white teeth revealed in a startling grin (rare) or a taut grimace (more often), the handsome, east-Mediterranean molding of his face, the high, thick, black curly hair, the wide, lake-brown eyes ever staring, ever piercing me, and, above all, the defined chest muscles under his T-shirts. (After rising, he did push-ups every morning, without fail.) So whenever we’d finished a falling out over my “aloof prissiness,” I’d squirm with resentment the whole night afterward and decide “with finality” to say to him next day (I’d even memorized the lines): “I’m terribly sorry, Victor, but this isn’t working out—our rooming together. Would you find another place to stay? I’ll help you search—help you move, even.” But next morning, in early dark, in the dim light of the desk lamp, I’d be bent wide-eyed and dry-mouthed over him as he slept on his back in his rumpled bed, that high shock of curly black hair spread over his coffee-stained pillow, that chest naked, hairy, defined and, when the heat was too high, coiled with the threads and tiny beads of his sweat, and I’d feel myself harden—fiercely, painfully—and so relent and “forget” to bring up “the subject” in the few minutes we gulped coffee together before rushing off to classes.

So, yes, I’d seen that photo Wednesday afternoon, and three days later, on that Saturday morning in May, a little past eight o’clock, I saw it again, tacked to the plywood sign, under the rally announcement. I was about to stride on—I was late for class—but found I couldn’t take my eyes off the kneeling girl, the shocked grief in her open mouth and outstretched arms. It came to me suddenly she was weeping in that deep, wrenched, down-in-the-lungs way I’d only—so far—heard once in my life, dredged up painfully out of myself, years ago, in circumstances that, at twenty-two, I’d long damped from memory. I gazed at her a while longer, shuddered violently, then shook my head to steady myself and swung around and strode on, faster now, over the antique brick and then, taking two at a time, up the broad stair steps of Murphy Hall and through the double swinging doors and into the small, bare vestibule. I glanced at the restroom’s double doors to my left, shook my head sharply, then lunged through a second pair of swinging doors and into the corridor and stopped, the gripped black briefcase a great weight by my side. This place, too, was empty, like the campus, and I slowed, as if entering a church, and heard my footsteps echoing. When I entered Room 204, my vast, high-ceilinged Virgil room (much too large for a class of twelve students), I saw empty school desks in neat rows and, on the blackboard, a note in Dr. Applewhite’s neat cursive, “Out of respect for the Kent State fallen, once again no class shall be conducted today. For Tuesday, May 12 (we shall meet then), translate the next fifty lines of the Fourth Georgic.”

I scanned the rows of empty desks, heard a sharp clank from a cooling radiator, then saw in my mind the grieving girl from the photograph. My stomach fell as I felt for the first time in five years (an eternity when you are twenty-two) how lonely my life was and how utterly deep a lonesomeness it had been. I remembered how, for four years nearly, I’d lived only for my cramped routine: the striding to classes, the hunched studying over the scratched, wobbly table I called “the desk,” the occasional yet ever formal, cerebral conversations with Victor over our gulps of morning coffee, the rushed, solitary meals at Lenoir Hall and the Carolina Inn, and, in the summers, (yes, summers even—what might have been bright, carefree, Frisbee-flinging Junes, Julys, Augusts, or, better, enlivening work outdoors, as a camp counselor, perhaps) my lonely job at Wilson Library: shelving books, filing cards in narrow drawers, steering by their cool, bony wrists bespectacled, owl-eyed old ladies into the stacks—to their adored books they could barely read, much less see to find. As I stood in that vast, silent classroom, I saw the past four years (except for rare, strange fits of mine this past April—and rare, strange fits of Grandfather, too—this strange, maddening April wholly uncharacteristic of both of us)—saw those four years as a life without energy or heart or connection or desire. A life without soul. Dead as that clank of the old Murphy radiator.

Lugging the heavy briefcase still, I squeezed between the empty desks to a high window flung wide open, the blinds raised as high as they could go. I stared down upon the quadrangle and saw, just by chance—a blessing? a curse?—I’ll never know for sure, even now, twenty-six years later—saw a young man, maybe eighteen, walking close beside his girlfriend, their arms curved tightly around each other’s waists. They were dressed in faded blue jeans and tie-dyed T-shirts and floppy leather sandals. They stopped midstride a moment by a great white oak and, embracing softly, tenderly, kissed each other on the mouth—a long, deep, tongue-swirling kiss, the girl sweetly groaning. Then they drew apart, slowly, and the boy reached up to brush a fly from her long dark hair. Then they walked on, slowly, hand in hand, their sandals slapping the brick pavement.

Again, I saw in my mind the grieving girl in the photograph, her mouth wrenched open, crying out the anguish in her young heart, and I felt deep down this Saturday would go different from the others—would have to go different—or I’d take a knife and rip myself open.

Knowing now—but without the words—what it was I first must do, I swung around and strode out of the classroom, kicking aside the close-spaced desks and lugging the black briefcase like a heavy wooden leg I longed to be rid of. I strode down the corridor and through the paired swinging doors and into the vestibule and stopped.

To my right was that other pair of swinging doors—metal gray, scratched everywhere with graffiti, and, as always, unlatched. Taped on the wall to the right of them was a page torn from The Daily Tar Heel, showing Victor’s photograph. I recognized the large head, the high shock of curly hair, the staring eyes and creased forehead, the thick lips—now shut tightly. The headline read, “Student Activists Arrested for Trespassing,” and the article below told how Victor and “a few activist cohorts” had broken into South Building late Wednesday night and “barricaded” themselves inside, “vowing” by megaphone they’d never come out until Chancellor Sitterson had “publicly condemned the Kent State murderers.” But the Chancellor—the article ran on—“refused to accede to the demands of criminals,” and three hours later, the State Patrol was “summoned,” the building “stormed,” and the activists “forcibly evicted.” Going limp, they were “physically carried” to Highway Patrol cars, driven to the Hillsboro jail, and released “on unsecured bond.”

I leaned close to Victor’s photograph and stared at the bulged, bloodshot eyes that, in my bewilderment of the morning, seemed to yell at me: “So you wouldn’t come to our Wednesday rally, prissy, shirking son of a bitch! I know you! Well, girl, since you’re so close now—inches away—maybe you can dredge up the Lockhart guts to enter this thy portal and stride down these thy stair steps and into the shrine you’ve been longing for years to enter and there do the other act that makes you you—what you refuse to admit is in you, a part of you, like your arm, your leg, your ‘unmentionables’ (as you’d prissy-say)—ha!—won’t even admit it to yourself. Yeah, baby, I’ve seen those Blue Boys and muscle mags of yours, sticking out from under your mattress when you hadn’t shoved them in enough. So I know what you want—what you’ve been wanting for fucking years! Besides, I’ve seen the way you stare at me early mornings—yeah, I’m awake as an owl, eyes squinted and just a-suckin’ it all in—pardon the pun, baby. So since you wouldn’t join us Wednesday night and won’t today either—noon to fuckin’ midnight if we have to!—at least long live this revolution—down there—in thy basement shrine of cum and stalls and piss and men. There’s one guy waiting at least—and about your age, too, and just as lonely and hungry as you are—waiting for a suck or a fuck or just a kiss—one deep, deep tounging kiss—so he may as well be yours, baby! And when you’re oh, yeah! satisfied—maybe even cornhole satisfied—then you can dredge up those Lockhart guts to long-leg it down to McCorkle and Franklin and join us and yell!”

Of course, his eyes—his words—were my words speaking to me in my mind, in hushed and frantic whispering: words luring me, hardening me, until I felt a wetness, a slow and sweet-painful ooze. In a clench of fear, I was about to swing around, as I’d swung around many times before, in the late nights I’d finished studying in a Murphy classroom and then left it, breathlessly, and stridden down to the vestibule and caught sight of those swinging, unlatched doors and even pushed through them and stepped—softly, slowly—down the four stair steps, lugging my briefcase, then leaned an ear against another pair of doors, likewise unlatched, gateway to the shrine of my deep heart’s need, and, leaning so, ears as alert and keen as the throbbing in my groin, heard the soft groans and moans, the moist, rhythmic slaps of balls against buttocks, then the louder groans and shrieks of orgasm. How I’d swung around, terror-clenched, and stridden back up the steps and out into the cool, clear night and yelled, “Thank God! Thank God! Thank God!”

So on that Saturday morning, I was just about to swing around again and stride back to the safe serene of my room, gripped in the years-long terror of being myself truly. (Yes, there is ever a terror, a danger, in that—blooming into the man, or woman, wholly different from the person your parents expected, knew, you would turn out to be: the terror because of your new, dizzying freedom and your whole, shuddering openness to the deep, past, scarring wounds in your own—owned—soul.) But then I caught Victor’s eyes again, the bulged, bloodshot eyes in the photograph: saw the rage and passion in them—for acting, living, loving—and I saw once more, in contrast, like a movie in fast forward, my years of stooped head and shirt collars buttoned to the neck and tightly knotted ties and the heavy, black brief briefcase and the solitary studying and all its imprisoning ennui—the isolation, the shame, the death-in-life. And, as if some strange new flame had surged up in me—a flame stranger than all my odd behaviors since this strange, maddening April—a sudden, fierce flame that seemed to pierce from Victor’s eyes, I dropped that grim briefcase like a rock, feeling the floor shudder, and heaved myself through the swinging doors and strode (no stepping “softly, slowly” now) down the four, broad stair steps and shoved through the second pair of swinging doors and into the large, echoing restroom with the six stalls along the left side and the six urinals along the right, the six stained sinks side by side at the far end of the room before me.

The only light filtered in from the four, wide, green-frosted windows above the sinks, windows without latches, not meant to be opened. The light—a dingy, washed-out green—reminded me of the light I had seen in a gas chamber once, when I was ten, and a playmate and I had decided one summer day, on a lark, to dress in suits and ties and catch the bus to south Raleigh and tour Central Prison. The light in the restroom was that same light—sick-green yet oddly alluring.

So quiet it was in that place I felt it was only I there, and I breathed disappointment and relief at the same time. Then I felt so sudden a wave of exhaustion my head swam a little. To steady it, I entered a stall at the far end of the dim room, by one of the stained sinks, quietly lowered the toilet seat and, seeing it was dry, sat on it with my pants still on. I leaned over and cupped my chin in my hand, Thinker-like. For a time I could hear only the sound of my slow breathing—sigh-like, despairing.

Then, in the stall beside me, I heard a footstep, a rustle of cloth, the long, slow rattle of a tissue holder being turned, then the faint rip of the tissue. I stared down to my right just as a thick finger protruded under the stall edge, wrapped thickly in the tissue. As if it were some strange snake charming me, luring me, I rose slowly from my toilet seat and stepped quietly out of the stall and faced the scratched metal door next to mine. I knocked once, gently, shyly, my heart pounding. There was silence a moment inside the stall, then a catch of breath and a belt buckle clinking. Then: the soft, slow sliding down of pants over thighs (jeans, surely—tight ones!), then the elastic band of briefs, the same slow sliding down, paused to be raised over knees, then the continued sliding down—over smooth calves? or hairy ones? I could only wonder. I heard then the quick, rhythmic flicks of a shirt being unbuttoned, then the shirt sliding back over shoulders, down arms, then the soft plop when it hit the tile floor. Then I heard the same smooth sliding of an undershirt being removed and the same little plop.

I squatted and, peering under the door rim, saw thick, black, scuffed hiking boots with thick, white socks mud-stained and folded tightly over the rims of the boots. These would stay on him—how I knew, I didn’t know—I just knew. (Perhaps I knew—I see now—from the Blue Boys from that “bookstore” in east Durham—the slick, musty magazines of grainy photos of “macho” exhibitionists. Yes, long before that Saturday May morning, I’d learned effeminate men weren’t the only ones “that way.” Quite the contrary!)

I stood up, and a latch slid back, sharply, echoing in the large room, and the stall door swung sharply inward, gripped all the way to metal-slap by a meaty, veined hand with thick, flat-tipped fingers and nails trimmed to the quick. The hand was all smooth on the back, not a hair anywhere. It was the huge hand of a wrestler on the team, so it seemed to me then, in my welling fantasy. Through the open door propped by a boot, I saw, even in the dim green of the stall, a crew-cut, heavily muscled guy, about my age, sitting naked on the toilet seat, his thick, shaved thighs spread wide, his thick member erect to his belly button and curving back slightly over the fringe of black hair that ran down, like some dark-alive wire, to his shaved crotch. His arms were raised, spread, elbows bent, into a biceps pose, the defined peaks raised sharp, the inner arms mapped with twisted veins. His chest, all smooth (and, oddly, pale as a sheet) was flexed into twin, slightly quivering mounds with a deep rift down the center of them. The nipples were dark pink and the size of quarters, the center tips raised into hard little cones. His neck was wrestler-thick, and, over his broad, slightly puffy, pimple-cluttered face spread a wide, gap-toothed grin with thick, salmon-colored lips. His eyes—their color invisible—were deep-set under ridged brows, their thick hair meeting above a flat, squashed-in nose. He was a guy right out of the pages of Honcho or Torso or the photo spreads in Blue Boy devoted to wrestling and S & M. For a moment, my head swam, and I thought I was back in my dorm room, alone, the door latched from inside, my eyes peering hungrily at one of those photos. But then the smell—of sharp urine mixed with Clorox—brought me back to the dim green, and I knew this guy was no grainy, fantasy-photo, but sat on that toilet realsolid—absolutely here.

I waited for him to speak, but he kept that wide, gap-toothed smile, that stare under hooded eyes, the thick arms and thick chest flexed and quivering, the member wholly erect and just beginning to ooze from the tip—a tiny, clear bubble that swelled, burst, then slid slowly, in twin curving threads, down the circumcised head.

When the silence and his grinning and the oozing and the flexing became too much to bear—from either of us—I knew (or thought I knew) what it was he wanted me to do—wanted us to do. And so with no words between us, he slid his boot from against the door, and, stepping inside the stall, I turned and closed the door all the way and latched it behind me. Then, facing him, I stepped to him as close as I could and bent my puckered lips to his.

“Naw. No girl stuff!” he yelled, his words like a slap.

I would have swung around and left right then, but I was too “hard” for that—too painful—too welling for him.

Knowing now what he really wanted, I knelt on the cool tile floor and, in surprise to myself (since I’d only read of this “act” before, in those Blue Boys bought, eyes lowered, from that “bookstore” in east Durham), I bent over his erect member and, as if I had done it all my life, gripped its base with my right fist, feeling the rock tautness, the thick, rubbery vein, the sparse stubble of shaved hair. Then I opened my mouth as wide is it could go and, cupping my lips gently around the whole head, tasted the thick rim, the rubbery firmness—smelled the heavy, male-crotch smell. And I began the slow rhythmic sliding I could only imagine, hungrily, for so many years, as I’d waited to burst into white bloom in my bed: my gripping mouth plunging down to shaft-base where my fingers were gently clamped, then sliding back up to the head and coming off it with a loud slurp! Then plunging down again, sucking up again—down and up, down and up, moistening with my spit the whole, hard, curved-back shaft, all the while hearing his low, prolonged groan and then a hoarse, deep “Yeah, oh, yeeeeeee-ah!

I must have pumped a minute before he came, groaning, in a thick, warm jet on my tongue—a taste sweet, yet slightly astringent, like the smell of a gym or an indoor pool. Suddenly, silent now, he came twice more in my mouth, and I swallowed, savoring each warm, bittersweet burst, while under my fly my own member stood, arcing back—pained, taut, oozing.

“Taste good, yeah!” he whispered, and he reached out a meaty hand and felt my crouch, the bulge and the tautness. “Feels like you’re ready for me, baby!”

I slid my mouth off him and wiped away the single strand of mixed saliva and semen. Then, as if in a dance, we rose at the same time, slowly, gracefully—I from my knees, he from his toilet seat, and he turned around and knelt and pressed the palms of his huge hands tight to the sides of the toilet tank and thrust his rear hard upward. I saw two round, taut glutes, as smooth and pale as the rest of him, and, between the glutes, the darker, hairless cleft of his anus. (Yes, he’d shaved that, too.)

“Don’t worry, baby, I’ve douched,” he said aloud, his voice lilting suddenly, girl-like, on the “douched.”

I saw that dark crevice of his anus inviting me, and, from my years of Blue Boys, from my recent weeks of intent listening outside the restroom doors—to the breathy groans, the rhythmic slapping of balls against buttocks—I knew, once more, exactly what to do: how to perform the whole lust-crazed, and, at that time in my life, shamefully relished ritual.

Quickly, breathlessly, I unbuckled my belt and shoved down pants and underwear to my shoes. Three or four times I fingered saliva off my tongue and onto my cock, spreading it thick around the taut head and down the shaft, and then, kneeling again and gripping it, I began to slide it slowly into him. I heard his breath catch, and I whispered, “Slower? Am I hurting you?” And he cried out, in pain, “No! Fuck me hard, baby! Make me bleed!”

I pushed all the way in, felt the soft-hard doughnut in him that kept me from going deeper, heard him shriek, “Aw yeeeeeee-ah!”—and cried out myself, “Oh, God, Jesus!” all the while wondering in my mind, Is this Ihere, now, doing this, yelling this?

I could not recognize myself. This couldn’t be I. And for a moment I felt as if I, the real I, were standing back against the stall door, watching the whole scene, dispassionately, my elbows folded: two young men—one tall and lanky, the other his thick and muscular opposite—fucking like dogs, or, to put it literarily, performing the sodomy to which Dante assigned a whole circle of Hell, a whole ring of Purgatory.

And then I—this not-I, this not-Lockhart Elledge—must have shed, slid off, shook loose—I don’t know how to say it—all those celibate, armored, held-in years like layer upon layer of old numbed and leathered skin. For, like a seasoned yet still hungry lover, I leaned upon his broad back ridged with muscle, clamped my skinny arms around his thick shoulders, felt in my elbows’ hollows the hard, bunched curves of his deltoids: yes, I clamped—hugged—him so hard I trembled, and began to pump into him as hard as I could, in and back, in and back, in and back, taking care to stay in him, never slide out of him. (“Seasoned yet hungry”—there were no other words.)

I bent my head down and around him, saw his meaty grip pumping his own member, grown stiff again, and after I’d pumped a minute maybe, I came in a huge relieving burst, filling him full (or so it seemed, in my wild fantasy), and right after, thick jets of white flew out of him, splattering the toilet bowl.

While he groaned loudly, echoing in the vast room, I kept silent, thinking—no, longing—it would happen: Yes, he—the old fart—he’s come to the swinging doors now, seeking me here, knowing, somehow, exactly where he’ll find me and what I’ll be doing, and now he’s pushing himself slowly, weakly through the swinging doors and entering the vast, urine-smelling room, stopping a moment to adjust old eyes to the dim green. He steps forward now, slowly, in his old man’s listing gait. He steps, knowing, to the next-to-last stall from the row of sinks. Now, with a veined hand, he pushes the stall door, but it won’t open, so he leans his spider-veined face to a slit between the door hinges, and, yes, even with his old eyes, squinting till they tear, he sees me inside—me, his only grandson, the Professor Classicus Futurus, the family scion of “highest hopes” and “limitless expectations” (as he wrote me on a postcard once—years ago). Yes, the stuck-up old fart, he sees me, this “scion,” now kneeling on dirty semen-stained tile, locked inside the bowels of some “common,” pea-brained athlete, my arms tight as a lover’s—a pervert’s, rather—around the crudely overpumped shoulders—me, the sole, fertile male “sustainer” of the Woodall line, pumping his last, thick, white burst as crudely as one dog into another, while the crude, “common,” pea-brained athlete cries out, “Fuck me hard, baby! Make me bleed!”

(But, of course, the old man never enters this dim green and never will. He now stands erect and elegant beside the Old Well, old, watery blue eyes fixed across Cameron and down the wide, brick walkway, waiting . . . )

When I filled the wrestler all I could, I felt at once the old emptiness and melancholy after orgasm, then the old, filling shame, and I thought, angrily, No, Lock, you’re not that. You should know better! You’re better than that! How I hate that! It’s not your direction! Can’t you realize? Can’t you learn? Just like your whoring father—never could learn!—and shot dead in a Phenix City whorehouse before you were born or when I was just a baby two years old, I can’t remember! (And I couldn’t remember, not then.)

I slid out of him, quickly, and without even wiping the shit off me, I stood and jerked up my underwear and dress pants and buckled my belt and swung around and unlatched the door and rushed out of the stall. As I strode to the swinging doors, I heard him shout, “Hey, what’s the rush, darlin’? You’re good, baby! Nice big dick! But you got to learn to hold it longer—fuck me till I bleed! So how ’bout tonight? Say nine? Same place? Same stall? I’ll be waitin’ on yuh, pumpin’ for yuh. And maybe we’ll do the girl-stuff. Your lips—they pretty sexy, too!”

He went on longer—hoarsely, longingly, desperately (or so it seemed to me then)—but I could no longer hear him, since I’d left that dirty, urine-stinking room, that dim, nauseous green which—especially now, fiercely—called to mind the gas chamber I had seen when I was ten and dressed in a suit, in the summertime.

Beyond the second pair of doors I gripped up the heavy, black briefcase and strode out of the vestibule and into the sunny air, shoving all that pervert- stuff—that not-Lockhart Elledge—behind me.

But when I came within sight of the Playmakers and saw, in the oak-shaded distance, my Grandfather Woodall standing beside the Old Well, peering just now at his big pocket watch, I tasted the sticky semen on the roof of my mouth, smelled the vile shit welling up out of my crotch and the sharp sweat from my perverted exertions, saw the new ragged wrinkles and creases in my newly pressed pants and starched shirt, and I knew I could not go meet him now and grip his proffered hand—not in this dishevelment—this not-me.

So I sneaked—there’s no other word—around the other end of the Playmakers, the portico end, and entered Old East by a side door and strode up the three flights of stairway and into my room and shut the door behind me. I dropped the briefcase on the bed and went to the shut window before my desk and looked down at the Old Well and saw him standing beside it, gray Homburg held out with both veined hands in front of him, his blue gaze fixed across Cameron at the brick walkway between South Building and the Playmakers Theater. Seeing him so erect and elegant there, the sun just now glowing him full, from his silver crown to the shining black tips of his shoes—and remembering, too, how it had gone between us every Saturday morning since the twenty-eighth of March—the whole blessed, because expected, ritual!—and wanting—longing—that it should come round so again, I saw it was five before nine by the clock on my desk, and I thought, Yes, if I hurried, I’d have time to shower and change clothes and rinse my mouth and go out the side door and come around the Playmakers and stride to him, carrying the heavy briefcase—I, the Lockhart-TitusElledge-Classics-Man he’s always known me to be (for four years anyway)—my right hand, as I’ll approach him, stretched out to grip his proffered one. So—yes—I can still make it all come round again, and it’ll be as if all that—in that sick-green restroom—never happened—all that “pervert stuff.” (So I called it then, twenty-six years ago, in my innocence, my ignorance).

But, again, I tasted the semen, felt it sticky and sordid on my palate, like rotten glue, and, again, I smelled the shit welling in sharp waves from out of my crotch, and I remembered that girl in the photograph, her mouth wrenched wide in grief, remembered the empty campus and the canceled class and Dr. Applewhite’s neat cursive on the blackboard, remembered the big peace rally planned for tonight: knew McCorkle Place was already being filled with herds of long-haired, patches-jeaned “peaceniks” and leather-goods hawkers and ponytailed technicians setting up podiums and speakers and amplifiers and microphones and the white, portable toilets that, even empty, always seemed to spread their stink of urine. And I knew at noon Grandfather and I, in our dress clothes and ties, would have to cross that noisy, smelly quadrangle on our way to Harry’s and then cross it again on our way back, Grandfather to his old Chrysler, I to my dorm room in Old East. And I knew that night even my shut windows could not muffle the vulgar rock music from even as far away as McCorkle—could not muffle the harsh ranting of the speakers and the ugly cheers and the insipid slogan so popular since a recent speech of Nixon’s—that vulgar chant and response: “What do we want? [Pause.] PEACE!” [Pause.] “When do we want it?” [Pause.] NOW!”

And I knew, my mind still cluttered by the daylong distraction—and, yes, my shame still lingering from the morning hour in the Murphy Hall restroom—I’d rise irritably from the Fourth Georgic now and again all through the noisy evening and sweating miserably in the overwarm room, pace about, fingers in ears, and shout, “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up, faggots!” And then, oddly, to calm myself, I knew I’d step, ears still plugged, to the window above my bed, shut tight, like the other, and leaning sideways, stare down on the pinewood of the sill and read once more the mysterious graffiti—the “inscription,” rather—carved carefully, it seemed, by a small pocket knife: that “CARPE DIEM, QUAM MINIMUM CREDULA POSTERO. BUT NOT FOR ME. NOT ANY MORE. NEVER. NEVER. NEVER. NEVER. I THINK IT’S FIVE. I’LL ADD ANOTHER. NEVER. 8 MAY 19—” For four years nearly, I’d often wondered about it: Who’d carved it? And why so carefully? It must have taken him hours. And what was he thinking—feeling? In what year was it carved? It looked old, was all I could surmise from the faded and shallow cuts of the high, neat, perfectly aligned all-capitals, polished over by the years—decades!—of janitors. (Victor never noticed it, and I never brought it to his attention. It was my odd, private prayer, meant for my eyes only—and for some deep, unknown place in my soul.)

And I knew that at nine that night the wrestler would be awaiting me, tempting me, naked on his toilet seat, in that dim-green death chamber in the basement of Murphy Hall.

Remembering—and foreseeing—all this prickly and black disorder distorting my for so long serene and bright and studious Saturdays, I realized, with a breath-clench of fear, that I could not stay in this room today and sit all daylight and into the night (perhaps grabbing a bite at Lenoir) before my open Fourth Georgic and translate those suddenly tiresome lines, all the while tasting the residue of that common hunk’s semen in my mouth which I knew would take hours to clear, no matter how often I’d rise to go out to the restroom and rinse and gargle. No, in fact, I wouldn’t—couldn’t—stay anywhere else on campus or even in town.

But where would I go—escape? I dreaded a bus ride or a hitchhike home (where, since my last visit on March 21, a Saturday, I had decided never to visit again, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter and birthdays—and only then to satisfy my mother’s constant pleading—“for my sake,” she had whined, “and for the family.”) In fact, ever since that Saturday, just the thought of home—the being there—depressed me: my always slightly chill upstairs bedroom, my Georgics open on the rickety, fake-pine, little-boy’s desk by the red-curtained window—desk and curtains I had known, in the despair of familiarity, since I was five or six.

So—Where? Where? I flailed inwardly.

My eyes on Grandfather glowing in full sun now, like a classic statue, I saw in my mind, at first in far, aching distance, at the beginning of a long, straight, dirt drive flanked by tall pines, the sunlit, white façade of an antebellum house, the middle third of it a double portico of balustrades and four Ionic columns. Under a green, low-pitched roof shone a triangular pediment with a little arched window in the center—a third eye, if you will, winking back the sun. As I came closer, I saw, near the left end of the portico, a huge, old oak in full leaf, its thick branches arcing over the drive. A white-brick chimney stood high at each corner of the great house. Closer still, I saw the large upper and lower double windows on each side of the porticos, their green shutters now attached, but closed. And I saw, in the center of the lower portico, the broad, white, intricately molded double door, just now opening inward, inviting me . . .

I saw a great serenity in that place I had nearly forgotten ever was, and, with its white-glowing image in my mind, its façade nearly like that of a temple at Paestum or Delphi, I saw a refuge—a soul restorative—where just by breathing of the pine-winey floorboards and the remnant leaves of tobacco hung every September in one of the upper rooms, I could cleanse away all my sick-green shame and black distraction of the morning. And I decided that this Saturday I’d at last, like some long-withholding lover, surrender myself and, hard upon our ritual grip, say—cry out even, like a breathless boy: “Yes, Grandfather, I’ll drive down with you today. We can stop by Bentonville and tour the battlefield and then visit Mrs. Wooten in Rosewood and then meet Uncle Merrick on the lower portico, and when the papers are signed and you own your dream (or nearly own it) [I knew the closing might take weeks to complete], we can stop by Ava Gardner’s school—I’ve never seen it—the inside of it—and, if we have the time, that old church your grandfather Blow-Your-Horn-Billy built for the colored people—I’ve never seen it either—the inside.” (I had seen the interior—but just once—and the ten years since had damped the episode from memory—to which I’ll come in due time.)

So I had planned to say to him, in a relieving, longing burst. But first I had to clean myself—shower and scrub—then change into clean, pressed dress slacks and starched white shirt and tie, had to rinse and gargle as hard as I could.

I hurried through all of it—so fast I forgot to pack laundry and clean clothes, forgot even my books and briefcase. In ten minutes, I was down the stairs and out the front door, walking slowly and quietly toward him, arms swinging loosely. I came up behind him, not quite on tiptoe, and said right out not the long, boyishly breathless speech I’d planned—wanted—but the simple, almost perfunctory, “Dee-di, does Uncle Merrick know we’re on our way?” (“Dee-di”—this was the first time I’d called him that since I was twelve. For years—the few times I’d seen him—I’d addressed him as “Grandfather,” even to his face, or, jocularly, as “Dr. Claude Alexander Woodall, Medical Man.”)

He gave a little jerk of surprise and turned around, listing slightly, and faced me and, holding his Homburg in his left hand, stretched out his right. I gripped it, dutifully, and then, as he set the Homburg on his head, straightening it just so, his face began to flush with pleasure, and his eyes brightened behind the thick glasses, and he said, in his old voice laced with catarrh, “So you’ve at last received a break in your hard studying, Dr. Lockhart—but—why—you’re supposed to—” He waved a veined hand back toward South Building and the Playmakers, my usual route to him.

“My class was canceled,” I said. “You know—all the peace people and that sort of thing.”

He nodded, chuckling, “Yessir,” and, tapping his foot in rhythm, softly chanted, “‘All we want is peace, peace, peace.’” Then he laughed, “Heh heh, all that carrying on.” I laughed with him, conspiratorially: all that common, herd behavior was beneath us.

Then he cleared his throat and said, “My car’s in the Playmakers lot. We can be down in Klan Country in an hour and a half.” Here he laughed at some private joke and whispered, just loud enough for me to hear, “Yessir, your old Uncle Merrick, he was one of ’em, maybe still is.”

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