Friday, September 29, 2017

Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill: Chapter Four

In Chapter Three, Wyatt made the painful decision to go along with Mackenzie's Plan B... Mackenzie and Wyatt's parents are thrilled, but for Wyatt, it's like the hole he's in just keeps getting deeper and deeper.

Want to start at the beginning? Click here for Chapters One and Two.

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Okay, community, here's Chapter Four!




Chapter 4
Wednesday January 7

            While Mr. Guzman droned on about how they had to stop thinking of him as a substitute and that he was a real teacher and that he was going to hold them to real expectations, Wyatt stared at one of the five new motivational posters surrounding them. Re-decorating the room pretty much cemented the fact that Mrs. Elliot wasn’t coming back until her new baby was stuck in high school, too. This poster had the fortune cookie saying One Person Can Change The World over a circle of ripples spreading from the center of a still body of water. The photo made it seem like the ripples would go on forever. Something about it felt wrong.
            “…annual President Lincoln book reports.” Mr. Guzman had changed topics, and Wyatt shook his head as he tuned back in.
“This year you’ll do those reports as a series of blog posts on your very own blogs!” He said it like it was something they should be excited about. “The student with the most traffic to their blog by February twelfth will not only get an automatic ‘A,’ but, as the 9th grade Lincoln book report winner, they’ll have a place of honor in the upcoming parade as 9th Grade Grand Marshal!”
It was a cool prize – like being a celebrity for a day – but no one in the room was willing to admit they wanted it.
Even with his Mom organizing the parade for the last two years, Wyatt didn’t get to be in it. Jonathon and his sister rode along with their parents since their mom was voted Mayor back in sixth grade, but the rest of them hadn’t been in their town’s Lincoln’s Birthday/Valentine’s Day Parade since they were little kids riding with Tykes on Bikes.
Wyatt did notice Mackenzie had sat up straighter. He figured she was thinking 9th Grade Grand Marshal would sound good on her college applications. She was all dressed up again, this time in some lichen-green shirt with a bow on it like a lawyer on one of those T.V. shows. He missed the big Ivy League sweatshirts. He missed them just being friends.
 Mr. Guzman peered sideways at them. “Did I mention the hundred dollar cash prize, donated by Rails Realty?” The room exploded in excitement.
Wyatt thought that could buy a pretty nice pair of sneakers. New ones, not from the thrift store.
When he could talk loud enough to be heard again, Mr. Guzman continued. “For your first blog post – which must be online by six a.m. Monday when I’ll read them – you’ll each share your first impression of President Lincoln from your book. Over the course of the subsequent weeks and posts, you’ll dig deeper into your primary source material, develop a thesis, and go about proving it. To accomplish this, of course, each of you will need a book on Lincoln.” Mr. Guzman stood up. “And to that end, we’re off to the library.”
“Now?” The word was out of Wyatt’s mouth before he could edit himself. The only time they went to the library was their once-a-month field trip when no one really checked anything out anyway. They’d never gone in the middle of a class before.
“You’re such a dweeb, Yarrow!” Jonathon imitated a little girl’s voice, “Oh, no! I’m going to miss some precious learning!” He cracked up, like he was a comedian with his own talk show on T.V. Everyone laughed along with him.
Wyatt’s face blazed heat. He squeezed his pencil between his thumb and fingers so hard he imagined crushing the space between the molecules of wood and lead and turning the whole thing into a diamond. A diamond pencil would be pretty cool. I could sell it, and go to some private boarding school in a city somewhere. And never have to see these idiots again.
With a frown, Mr. Guzman waved the class quieter. “Now.”
Jonathon shouted his question, “Can we drive, if we have awesome rides?” He back-handed Charlie on the shoulder. His fart-catcher smirked, full of their superiority – Jonathon was the only Freshman in their whole school old enough to drive.
“No, Mr. Rails. In loco parentis means we’re walking. All of us. One big, happy family.”
Chairs scraped the floor as everyone got up for the sudden walking-into-town field trip and it hit Wyatt – the problem with the poster. Life wasn’t some still body of water, where you could make a ripple that changed everything. It was more like a white water river. With sharks. You were so busy swimming for your life, any ripples… didn’t have a chance.

* *

After his latest humiliation, Wyatt didn’t feel like talking. And once Mackenzie informed him, making it sound like Mr. Guzman had made a mistake, that In Loco Parentis actually meant ‘in the place of a parent,’ she was silent, too. They walked together, though.
With the trees lining both sides of Route 37, Wyatt could almost remember what it felt like when they were just best friends. But now, everything was different. The class trailed behind them as they followed Jennie and Mr. Guzman on the sidewalk. Mackenzie wore her backpack, but Wyatt carried his in both hands. It wasn’t that heavy, but this way he didn’t need to deal with figuring out what to do if Mackenzie tried to hold his hand.
Jennie answered their new teacher’s question about the best donuts in town (Sandee’s Liquor and Candy Mart, hands down), and they crossed under the covered bridge with its sign,

Welcome to Lincolnville – Real America

Ten minutes later, the age-old riddle of what do you get when you take 35 Ninth Graders to a public library in the middle of the school day? was answered: Chaos.
“Please have your library card ready!” Mr. Guzman tried to control things, but he sounded like he was about to lose his voice. “Once you get your Lincoln book, head out to the steps and you can start reading before we all head back!”
Wyatt straggled behind the team guys, not wanting to get called out for being too into it. One advantage of having a last name starting with “Y” was that no one ever complained if he was at the end of the line.
“So, whadda ya think? Mud Flaps?” Jonathon was four guys ahead of him.
 “The kind with the naked girl silhouettes with the pointy tits?” Charlie sniggered. “Becca would kill you!”
Jonathon shook his head. “The only reason I’m not going to punch you for saying something as girly as ‘silhouettes’ is because you used it in a sentence with ‘tits.’”
“That’s big of you.” Wyatt said to himself.
“I’m bigger than you!” Jonathon shot back.
He heard that? Oh, man.
Wyatt looked away. Where was Mackenzie?
Jonathon said to Charlie, loud enough for the whole library to hear, “Does that guy even have any balls?”
Wyatt spotted her. Mackenzie already had her book, but something had pissed her off – she was all waving arms at Mr. Guzman. She clomped over to Wyatt in his mom’s knee-high black boots. His mom and his girlfriend sharing shoes was something that was going to take some getting used to.
“They’re not even letting us choose!” She showed Wyatt proof of the injustice: her book had an oval cover photo of Lincoln and his son reading together, under the title, Lincoln at Home: Two Glimpses of Abraham Lincoln’s Family Life. She made a face. “I wanted something important. Not a bunch of ‘how are the children?’ love letters!”
            Wyatt wanted to commiserate, but was hyper-aware Jonathon was tracking every word. “How many pages is it?”
Mackenzie rolled her eyes. “That’s such a guy question.”
Wyatt shrugged. “I’m a guy. Sue me.”
She flipped to the end. “One hundred and twenty-four. And the type is huge!” With a growl that made Wyatt grin – there was the old Mackenzie! – she shoved the book in her backpack.
“Hey, Mackenzie.” Jonathon said, all smooth. They must have switched places with Tai and Miguel because now he and Charlie were right in front of Wyatt. It put Wyatt even more on edge. And was Jonathon checking Mackenzie out?
“Once again!” Mr. Guzman called out, “If you have received your book, you should be outside, reading!”
“Hi,” she answered Jonathon, then focused back on Wyatt. “Here,” she pressed a square of folded paper into Wyatt’s hand. “I better go…  See you out there.”
“Sure.” Wyatt wove his fingers through hers, holding her a moment. He was pretty sure she wouldn’t try to kiss him with all the people around, and he wanted to make sure Jonathon saw them connect.
She smiled down at the library’s worn shag carpet. She might have even blushed, but with her makeup, Wyatt couldn’t tell. With a squeeze to his hand, Mackenzie headed out, all glowy.
Wyatt unfolded the note. She had drawn their initials across lined paper. M & W in a 3-D cartoon heart. Wyatt’s throat tightened. I’m such a jerk.
“Whatcha got there, freak?” Jonathon was trying to see over Wyatt’s shoulder, so Wyatt shifted back to acting-mode and showed him. He gave Jonathon a Got that? She’s mine look.
Jonathon turned to Charlie. “I feel sorry for her. Dating a guy with mosquito balls.”
They burst out laughing, and once started, couldn’t seem to stop.
“Mosquito balls!” Charlie howled.
Wyatt pretended he didn’t notice, but he could feel his face get hot, like sunburn. Welts and boils. Puss oozing down his cheeks. Fourth-degree life-threatening sunburn. He made like the books on the shelves were suddenly interesting. Really interesting.
Everything would be so much easier if I really did love Mackenzie that way.
The line crept forward. Twenty-five kids left. They passed the teen shelves, the handful of books Wyatt was never going to check out. Nobody ever checked them out.
Boy Meets Boy.
Rainbow Boys.
Absolutely, Positively Not.
            Over Thanksgiving Break Wyatt had tried to grab Absolutely… He’d hidden it inside this giant soccer bio The Great Dens and tried to read it in the far back by the parking lot window. He’d even shelved it in-between these ancient issues of Ladies Home Journal, whatever the heck that was, so he could grab it the next time to keep reading about Steven and his secret – he square danced with his mother – and his other secret… To cover his tracks, Wyatt had even checked out Pete Schmeichel’s bio. But when he’d come back to read more, Absolutely… was gone.
            He didn’t have the nerve to try again.
            Wyatt tried to not stare at the books, but he was jumpy, like they might throw themselves out at him and ruin everything. Jonathon and Charlie were right next to him. Real guys don’t ache to read stuff like that. So I won’t.
            Fifteen kids left ahead of him. Six.
            Mr. Guzman came up to them. “We needed to start back two minutes ago. Get your books, and hustle up to join us. Can I trust you gentlemen?” They all bobbed their heads yes. Mr. Guzman looked at each of them in turn. He gave a nod, and then took long strides out the door.
Wyatt heard Mr. Guzman call, “Okay, just a few more students to go, so let’s start heading back. Miss Miller, lead the way!”
            When they were the last three in line, Jonathon asked the librarian, “You got anything short?”
            Mr. Clifton, who was Wyatt’s dad’s age but dressed like an old man even when the two of them went bowling, jerked his head up in surprise. Jonathon gave him his teeth-whitening brochure grin, all Recognize me? I’m the Mayor’s son, and you owe me. After all, there used to be six librarians in their town, but last summer Mayor Rails closed all the school libraries as a cost-saving measure and all the books came here. So now there was just Mr. Clifton.
            Their town librarian reached for the smaller of the two books left. Of course. He knew who Jonathon was, all right.
            Jonathon squinted at the title, “You’ve got to be kidding me. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates? Boooring!”
            “I have some encyclopedia-length sets I was saving for the upper-classmen, if you would prefer…”
            Jonathon put up a muscle-veined hand and grumbled, “I’ll make this work.” On his way out, he lowered his voice so just Wyatt could hear, “You better make sure my grade’s better than yours on this… If you know what’s good for you, Mosquito-Ball Boy.”
            Wyatt didn’t say anything. You don’t provoke a shark.
            Charlie got his book next. Jogging over to where Jonathan was waiting by the door, he tossed it up in the air while he spun around and almost dropped it.
            “Nice move, twinkle-toes.” Jonathon teased.
            Charlie shot back, “Bitch, shut up!”
            Mr. Clifton scolded them, all uptight. “Please respect library property!”
            They ignored him.
            Charlie clapped Jonathon on the shoulder. “Let’s blow this dump.”
            They headed out, pausing in the patch of sun on the stone landing. Jonathon nudged Charlie, “Hey, let’s stop at Sandee’s. Guzman practically gave us a late pass!”
Hooting, they ran down the steps.
Mr. Clifton and Wyatt both let out a sigh. The librarian chuckled, and Wyatt turned back to him.
            “You the last one, Wyatt?” He glanced around for stragglers. There weren’t any.
            “Looks like it.” Wyatt handed him his library card.
            “That was my last ninth grade book.” Mr. Clifton gestured to the counter. The pile he’d been pulling from was gone.
            “You mean I get out of this?”
            “Hardly.” He sounded amused as he ran the scanner’s red light over Wyatt’s card. “But there is a title I thought you might enjoy.” From somewhere under the counter he fished out a book. It was thin, with a worn brown cover. It seemed old, like something Wyatt’s dad would read to fix the hot water faucet in the third floor bathroom, which was still dripping after he’d ‘fixed’ it the first two times.
            Mr. Clifton scanned the book’s bar code and handed it and Wyatt’s card over.
            Wyatt read the title. “Joshua Fry Speed?” He looked up at the librarian. “That doesn’t make any sense. It isn’t even about Lincoln.”
            The skin around Mr. Clifton’s eyes crinkled, like he knew something Wyatt didn’t. “You never know where a book might take you.”

* *

            “You keep talking about the payment deadlines we missed, but shouldn’t we get some credit for sending in January’s early? If you count that, we made ten out of the last twelve!” The panic in his dad’s voice stopped Wyatt just before the kitchen doorway. His dad was on the phone, and while Wyatt wasn’t an eavesdropper, he was hungry. Maybe he’d just wait.
            “The Richardson wedding really helped – and they said they had friends who were planning an April wedding that might… Okay – I’m listening.” A few seconds later, his dad blurted out, “Benny, you know we’re good for it! Liz works for the mayor, for God’s sake, and that’s a solid income!” His dad’s voice dropped. “Business will pick up, I know it.”
            Wyatt was thinking maybe he should go up to his room after all, but he didn’t move.
            “I know I’ve been saying that for years. Come on…”
            Wyatt and his dad were both silent for nearly a whole minute.
            “I hear you. Last chance, I promise. Thanks.” His dad hung up, and Wyatt counted to ten before heading in.
            Making sure to keep his voice light, like he hadn’t heard any of it, Wyatt said, “Hey, Dad.”
            Reading glasses on top of his head, his dad jerked away, but not before Wyatt could see that his eyes were all red. Wyatt took his time staring at the bulk-case yogurt packs in the fridge.
            “How’d your day go?” His dad asked, voice still raw.
            Wyatt kept his back turned, but he could see his dad in his mind: He was 48 years old, ran a failing business, was always stressed about money, and spent most of his time lost in history. He would never understand. So all Wyatt said was, “Fine.”
            “Good.”
Wyatt grabbed a mango yogurt, peeled off the top and snagged a spoon.
            “Don’t ruin your dinner.” His dad said, sounding nearly back to normal.
            Mouth full, Wyatt grunted that he heard him. He headed to the stairs but his dad pushed out the chair next to him. “We need to talk.”
            All the muscles in Wyatt’s shoulders tensed up. Not much good ever followed those words. He swiveled slowly. His dad pointed to the spot next to him at the American Pine and Poplar Farm Table. 1820s. Kentucky.
            Wyatt sat down, wary, staring at the upside-down pile of bank documents in front of them. He didn’t want to hear about his dad’s argument with the guy at the bank. Were they going to lose the B&B? Where would they move? Wyatt squished down his questions and waited, the yogurt all of a suddenly violently sweet on his tongue.
            “So,” his dad said. “Are you being careful? You know, with Mackenzie?”
            With her feelings? Wyatt resisted the wave of guilt that threatened to swamp him.
            “I mean, you’re using… protection, right?”
            “Dad!”
            “Your first girlfriend, you must be in a rush to try everything, but–”
            “Dad!!”
            “…But you need to be smart.”
            “I don’t want to be having this conversation!”
            “I don’t want to be changing your kid’s diaper while you’re still a Freshman in High School!”
            Wyatt couldn’t help but smile. “Babies take nine months. I’d be a Sophomore.”
            His dad brandished his reading glasses. “Don’t get funny with me! This is serious!”
            Wyatt met his dad’s eye – on this, he could be totally honest. “Dad, I promise. You have nothing to worry about.”
            “Why? How far did she let you get?”
            “I’m not having this conversation!” Wyatt leapt up and ran to the stairs.
            “Wyatt!” His dad called after him. “We haven’t even talked about S.T.D.s!”


             
* *


* *

Chapter Four Endnotes


The books I imagine Mr. Clifton gives our three main characters are: for Mackenzie, Lincoln at Home: Two Glimpses of Abraham Lincoln’s Family Life by David Herbert Donald, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1999; for Jonathon, The Lincoln-Douglas Debates, Edited by Rodney O. Davis and Douglas L. Wilson, The Knox College Lincoln Studies Center, University of Illinois Press, 2008; and for Wyatt, of course, Joshua Fry Speed: Lincoln’s Most Intimate Friend.

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