When we entered Wentworth’s class, I immediately noticed Curtis and Rodney talking. Rodney glanced over at me, so I assumed that Curtis had told him about our exchange in the hallway.
I realized that there was no way I was going to be able to get along with the two brothers. I had been in their house two days, and neither had ever attempted to talk to me. Since we were the same age, it would be reasonable to expect us to bond. However, they viewed me more as a nuisance in their home than a potential friend. Judging by the number of friends they had, I guess they didn’t need one more- especially someone who also made no attempt to become friends.
Mike pointed to a desk and told me to sit down. He then crossed the room to talk to a few other guys. In fact, looking around, there were no girls in the classroom. Since he hadn’t shown yet, the room was rather raucous.
When he stepped through the door, everyone scattered to their seats. An instant hush filled the room. He stood and scanned the room until his eyes met mine. A smile appeared on his face.
“Mr. Barnett,” he announced cheerfully. “Glad to see you here.” I couldn’t respond because I was too embarrassed. Everyone in the class had turned to look at me, except for Curtis and Rodney.
Mr. Wentworth passed out paperback copies of Wuthering Heights. We were told to read three chapters by the end of the period, but no one did. Instead, he went around the room talking to the guys. From what I could tell, this was the way the class normal was taught. When I asked Mike about it, he said, “Who cares if we don’t read that stupid book. Everyone will get an ‘A’ anyway, whether we read it or not.”
He came over to me, pulled up a chair and straddled it. “Good to have you here in class, Casey,” he said. “I put in a special request.” Mike pulled his desk around so we were in a small group.
Mike looked at me and said, “We gotta talk him into playing ball, Coach. I’ve already mentioned it.”
Mr. Wentworth reached out and gripped my arm. My natural instinct was to pull away, but I didn’t. Since he was doing it in a room filled with other guys, I figured he didn’t mean anything by it.
“Nice,” he said as he pressed on my upper arm. He looked over at Mike and said, “I think he’d make a great pitcher.”
Mike exclaimed excitedly, “I was thinking the same thing.”
I pulled my arm away and rubbed it. “One thing, Mr. Wentworth...”
“What’s this Mr. Wentworth stuff,” he admonished me with a laugh. “Call me Coach like all the other boys.”
“Okay, Coach,” I said. “I really have no desire to play baseball. If I watch it on television, I fall asleep.”
“Well,” he stated, “Playing and watching are different things.” He looked at Mike and smiled. “We’ve had a championship team for the past three years. And we’re going to have another this year.” Mike nodded in agreement and high-fived the coach.
Mike looked at me pleadingly. “We just need a relief pitcher,” he said.” He looked over at Curtis. “Crawford wears out after about five innings. We need someone who can relieve him.”
I glanced over at Curtis who was sitting in the middle of a group of guys. Everyone seemed focused on whatever he was saying. I shrugged my shoulders and replied, “I don’t think this is a great idea.” I looked over at Mike and added, “Look what just happened in the hall.”
Coach gave Mike a puzzled look. “What happened?”
Mike laughed nervously. “It’s Monica,” he said. “Curtis saw her talking to Casey, and now he thinks Casey is moving in on her.”
Coach looked at Curtis and asked, “I thought they broke up last week?”
“They did,” replied Mike, “but he still doesn’t want her dating anyone other guys. He’s called her at night and made a few threats.”
“I don’t think you have to worry, Coach,” I replied. “I’m not interested in Monica.”
The coach looked over at Mike and laughed. “I bet you’re not,” he said jokingly. There seemed to be a knowing look exchanged between the coach and Mike. I was beginning to wonder if Mike was gay, and his coach knew about it. He had made a few comments since we met that seemed flirtatious. At the moment, though, I wasn’t sure if I was willing to play along. I hadn’t been out at my other school, and I didn’t intend to out myself here. Besides, Curtis and Rodney didn’t seem like the kind of guys who would want to live with a gay boy in their midst. I looked over at them as Rodney was animatedly talking about something. The other guys laughed when he put his hands on his chest and imitated a girl with large breasts.
“No,” I thought to myself. “Coming out could be dangerous.”
When the bell rang, Mike told me that we could eat lunch together in the cafeteria. We were joined by several other guys from our fourth period class. Mike introduced me to them as we walked down the hall.
He playfully hit a tall boy with a face full of acne in the ribs. “Pizza Face here is our first baseman. You can’t miss him if you throw the ball to him.” I looked up at the guy as his face reddened. It highlighted his blemishes even more. I felt sorry for him, because he would be attractive if not for the unsightly acne on his face.
He introduced me to another boy who was extremely short. He couldn’t have been much more than 5’4”. He looked impish with blond hair and an upturned nose. “This is Pip,” he laughed. “Short for pipsqueak.”
After shaking his hand, I laughed and asked, “Don’t any of you guys have normal names.” I looked over at Mike and asked, “What’s yours?”
The two other boys said in unison, “Ass bandit!”
They laughed uproariously when I asked, “What’s that mean?”
Pip looked around, and then leaned into me and whispered so no one around us could hear, “Don’t drop the soap and bend over to pick it up in the shower, or you’ll find out what it means.”
My eyes widened as I looked over at Mike. He shrugged his shoulders and laughingly said, “What can I say?” The tall boy poked him in the side and laughed.
When we walked through the cafeteria, several students looked up at us and stared. Mike stopped at almost every table and gave them a friendly, “How’s it going?” He introduced me to many of the students. He always added that I was going to be on the baseball team.
We went through the food line, and I purchased a hamburger and fries. My father had given me money that morning in the kitchen. I still had several dollars left over. It was enough to buy some snacks after school to eat on the walk home.
As I was following Mike and the others to a table across the cafeteria, Lane jumped up from a table and came running over. He grabbed my arm and insisted that I come eat with him and his friends.
“Not today,” I said. “I’m eating with some of the guys I met today.”
A saddened expression appeared on his face. “Okay,” he mumbled as his shoulders slumped and he walked dejectedly away.
I ate at a table full of baseball players. While basketball and football dominate most school sports, baseball appeared to be the most popular here. And the table I was sitting at was occupied by most of the star athletes, that is except for Curtis and Rodney. Several guys asked where they were, so I assumed they normally sat with them. I guess they chose to sit elsewhere since I was sitting at their table.
I was hit with a barrage of questions. Everyone wanted to know why I had come to North Carolina in the middle of the school year. I attempted to evade the questions with vague answers, but I think Mike was beginning to understand. He knew it wasn’t because of a divorce, but I don’t think he had figured out yet it was because my mother was a homophobic bitch.
They also seemed surprised that Mike and Coach Wentworth were trying so hard to recruit me as a baseball player when I told them I didn’t even like baseball. Mike kept assuring him he had an eye for talent. The more we talked, I was becoming certain he had an eye on more than just my talent. Even a few of the guys made a few crude gay jokes directed at him, and he would just laugh them off. It was becoming more evident that he was out, and that his teammates didn’t seem to care. Their attitude made me feel more comfortable around them. In my old school, a gay student would have been bullied and ridiculed. I didn’t feel that would happen here.
Fifth and sixth periods were typical boring classes. I always hated Spanish, and I could never understand why counselors were so adamant about students learning a foreign language. One told me once that we were becoming a more diverse nation. They couldn’t give me an answer when I asked them why I should learn their language; and besides, shouldn’t they learn ours instead.
Law class seemed interesting, but the teacher made it boring. She talked to us like we were a bunch of first graders. We had already had American History, so we were familiar with the Constitution and our rights. She made everything she said sound like it was a new and innovative thought. I was going to raise my hand and tell her she didn’t have to be so condescending, but I figured it would probably end with me being sent to the principal’s office. Look what happened the last time I challenged a teacher.
I almost did end up in the principal’s office during gym if it hadn’t been for Coach Wentworth. The class was really unstructured. He assigned me a gym outfit. All the other guys had already dressed by the time I did.
When I entered the gym, there were two separate half-court basketball games going on. When he saw me emerge from the metal doors, Mike instantly called me over and told me I’d be on his team. The other teammates I had met at lunch.
However, Curtis and Rodney were on the opposing team. Each time the ball was thrown to me, Curtis would intentionally foul me with a harsh elbow to the ribs or back. Since there were no referees, and Coach Wentworth was nowhere to be seen, no one called the fouls. After about ten harsh blows, I had finally had enough.
As I was going for a lay-up, Curtis elbowed me in my chest. I fell to the ground and gasped for air. Mike and several others rushed over to see how I was. When I’d caught my breath, I jumped up and ran toward Curtis, and I pushed him so hard he fell down.
He got up, stood before me and shouted, “What’s wrong with you Mother Fucker?”
I pushed him again and hollered angrily, “You’re my problem, Asshole.”
He charged me and tackled me around the waist. When we fell to the ground, he started pounding me in my back. I managed to break free and straddle him. I hit him several times in the face before Mike, Rodney and several other guys pulled me off him.
Suddenly, I heard a whistle blowing across the gym. When I looked over, Coach Wentworth was running across the floor. He looked at me and then at Curtis, who was still on the gym floor nursing his eye. Coach shouted, “What the hell is going on out here?”
Mike grabbed the coach’s arm and walked him away. “Nothing, Coach,” he said. “Just a little misunderstanding is all. You know how Crawford is, he gets a little too rough with the elbows.”
The coach turned and looked back at the floor, and then at me. “Barrett,” he hollered as he pointed to the gym door. “My office. Now!” He turned and stormed off.
I looked wildly over at Mike. The first day in school and I was already in trouble. “Don’t sweat it,” Mike assured me. “His bark is worse than his bite.”
As I headed across the floor, several guys were helping Curtis to his feet. He looked over angrily and said threateningly for the second time, “This ain’t over, Asshole.”
Coach Wentworth was sitting on the edge of his desk. A metal chair was in front of him. He pointed to it and told me to sit down. He studied me for a minute before speaking. “Listen, Barrett. I know I’m young, but I’ve been around the block a few times.” He stopped, and I wasn’t sure if he wanted me to say anything, but I decided not to speak.
“I’m a pretty good judge of character,” he continued. “I can look at someone and know that there are things bothering them.” He jumped from the side of his desk and walked behind me. “I don’t know yet what’s bothering you, but eventually I’ll find out, or you’ll just tell me when you want me to know.”
I could feel tears welling up in my eyes, but I batted them away. The last thing I wanted was for Coach Wentworth to see me crying. He put his hands on my shoulders. “Curtis is a jerk.” His comment surprised me. I had the impression that Curtis was one of his favorite players. “He’ll always be a jerk.” He squeezed my shoulders tighter. “You’re better than that, I can tell.”
He walked around and sat back down on the side of his desk. I looked down because I knew tears were still in my eyes. “I want you on the baseball team because I have a feeling you’re one of those kids who think the world has shit on them.” I reached up and wiped tears falling from my cheek.
“I don’t give a damn if you can catch a ball, or pitch like Roger Clemons. I just want you to feel that you’re successful doing something.” He paused, and I could sense he was waiting for me to reply.
I stood and muttered quickly, “I think I should go.”
He said softly, “Sit down, Casey.” I sat back in my chair and hung my head once again. “I’m not trying to upset you,” he assured me. “I just want you to know why I want you to play baseball for me. Besides,” he added, “I still think you got one hell of an arm, and I need a relief pitcher.”
I laughed slightly and said, “I’ve never thrown a ball before.”
“Then,” he remarked, “Let me teach you.” He held out his hand and said, “Deal?”
I hesitated a minute before shaking his hand. “Deal,” I replied.
“Good,” he said as he jumped from his desk. “Come by my office tomorrow after school. I’ll take you out to the field and you can work with Jimmy Buckner, my starting pitcher. If he can’t teach you how to pitch, then I don’t know anyone else who can.”
I rose and stood before Coach Wentworth. “Thanks,” I mumbled softly.
“I mean it, Casey,” he replied. “If you ever need anything, my door is always open.” I nodded my head and picked up my book bag off the floor.
As I was leaving, Coach stopped me. “Casey,” he said. “Just so you know, Mike is a player. Be careful.”
My face reddened as I nodded and responded, “Yes, Sir.”
I went back out to the gym and sat in the bleachers and watched the other guys play basketball. Mike kept looking up at me. I know he wanted to talk to me about my conversation with Coach Wentworth. When Coach stepped out and blew his whistle, Mike walked over and sat down beside me.
He asked worriedly, “You okay, Casey?” I told him that I was, and that Coach Wentworth had just talked to me about my confrontation with Curtis.
“You can trust, Coach,” assured Mike. “He’s been there for me quite a few times.”
“I know,” I replied. Mike asked if I’d like to go to his house after school, but I told him I had promised Lane I’d walk home with him.
“Isn’t he Curtis and Rodney’s little retarded brother?”
I stood and looked down angrily at him. “Don’t ever call him retarded again,” I spat angrily. “Got it?”
“Geez, Casey,” remarked Mike when he noticed how upset I was. “Chill. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Well,” I replied, “Just don’t ever call him retarded.” I climbed off the bleachers and headed toward the door.
I went past Lane’s class after school looking for him. Mrs. Chambers said he left a few minutes earlier. I hurried out the door and looked around for him. When I didn’t see him, I began walking home.
I didn’t know his routine. We were supposed to meet up and walk home together, but I didn’t know if he walked home with someone else. I knew he didn’t ride home with Rodney and Curtis. They were probably at basketball practice.
I walked quickly down the sidewalk toward home. After about three blocks, I saw him trudging along with his backpack slung over his shoulder. When I hollered out his name, he didn’t even turn.
I ran to catch up with him. When I approached, I could hear him mumbling to himself. I grabbed his shoulder to stop him. “Didn’t you hear..” I stopped when I noticed he was crying.
I knelt down before him and asked worriedly, “What’s wrong, Buddy?”
“I’m not your buddy,” he cried as he turned and hurried away. I ran after him, and I stopped him.
I asked again, “What’s wrong?”
He looked up, wiped tears from his eyes and replied sadly, “You’re like everyone else.” He wiped his eyes again. “I thought you were going to be different.”
I was puzzled because I had no idea what was wrong. “What are you talking about, Lane?”
He started sobbing as he stood before me. “You think I’m stupid like everyone else,” he cried.
I reached out and pulled him into my arms. He rested his head on my chest. “I don’t think you’re stupid,” I whispered softly into his ear.
He mumbled, “Then why wouldn’t you eat with me at lunch? I saved you a seat.” He started crying harder. “You’re afraid to be seen with me just like Rodney and Curtis. They are always telling me I’m in the stupid kids’ class.” I held him tightly as he sobbed into my chest.
“I don’t think you’re stupid,” I said as I tried to comfort him. By now, my eyes were filled with tears. For the first time, I was beginning to realize the environment in which Lane was growing up. He had to hide in his brothers’ shadows because they were embarrassed to have a brother who was not as athletic or smart as they were.
I then thought back to all the comments I’d heard in school about the students who were in special classes. I was even guilty of making a few myself. I used to tease Terry about riding the ‘short yellow bus’ when I tried to insult him. We’d laugh about it; but I didn’t realize, until now, just how demeaning those statements could be.
He looked up at me with a tear-stained face. “Then why wouldn’t you eat with me at lunch after I saved you a seat. Donnie got mad because I wouldn’t let him sit beside me.”
I took him by his hand and led him over to a nearby ash tree. I looked to make sure no one would get upset if we sat in their yard. I sat down, and then patted the ground beside me. Lane sat and scooted toward me until we were closely touching.
“This was my first day at school,” I told him. He looked at me and nodded. “And it wasn’t very easy for me. I made a friend and he wanted me to sit beside him.”
“But I saved you a seat,” he replied as he looked at me and pouted.
“But you said you normally sit with your friend, Donnie, right?” He nodded his head. “And I need a friend to sit with me.”
“You could have both sat with us,” he said.
“You’re right,” I replied. “We could have, and now thinking about it, we should have. You’re just as much a friend as Mike is.” A smile started to form on his lips.
He asked hopefully, “I’m your friend?”
I put my arm around his shoulder and pulled him into me. He relaxed his head on my neck. “You’re my best buddy,” I assured him.
“So you don’t think I’m stupid?”
“Of course not,” I responded as I pulled him tighter to my side. “There’s nothing stupid about my best friend.”
He pulled away and looked at me with the broadest smile on his face. His eyes were twinkling from his former tears. “I’m your best friend?”
I replied with a smile, “The bestest friend a guy ever had.” I stood and extended my hand and pulled him to his feet. “Let’s go home, Bestest Friend.”
He continued to hold my hand as he skipped beside me. “Okay, Bestest Friend,” he giggled.