Friday, October 6, 2017

Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill: Chapter Five

In Chapter Four, Wyatt gets assigned a book for his President Abraham Lincoln book report, uses Mackenzie as protection from Jonathon, and learns that if business doesn't pick up, his family might lose their Lincoln Slept Here Bed and Breakfast.

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

To read about why I'm serializing my entire YA novel for free on this blog, click here.

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Okay, community, here's Chapter Five!

Chapter 5
Sunday January 11

            It was seven o’clock, the exhibits were shut for the day, and Wyatt was just about to pick up a second kitchen chair to carry to the exhibition screen in the old dining room when Mackenzie walked in from the hallway. “Hi, Honeybear!” She was back from dinner with her dad, joining them for the first time for their family movie night.
“Oh.” She had been waving a packet of microwave popcorn, but Mackenzie’s face fell as she smelled the rich wafts of steam and heard the PUHP-P-P-P-P-P-P! coming from the covered cast-iron pot by Wyatt’s dad.
            Wyatt nodded ‘hi’ from behind the chair back he was still holding.
            His dad shouted over the popping, “This is going to be way more delicious than from a microwave! Just like in old times!”
            “Thank you, Mackenzie. That’s very thoughtful.” Wyatt’s mom took the package from Mackenzie’s hand, and gave her a big hug. “We’ll save this for next time.” She shot her husband a look, then turned to Wyatt. “Sweetie, why don’t you offer your girlfriend something to drink?”
            Wyatt felt bad that he hadn’t warned Mackenzie about his dad’s latest circa-1860s kitchen toy. But how was I supposed to know she was going to bring anything? She never brings anything. Then he remembered. This wasn’t just her coming over while her dad was at an AA meeting, like this afternoon, when she’d hung out and done homework while Wyatt antiqued a bunch of President Abraham Lincoln Timelines. This was more like a date. Oh, man. How was he going to survive a date?
            His mom prodded him with her eyes. Wyatt let go of the chair and played his part. “We’ve got some sparkling apple juice…”
            “That sounds great.” Mackenzie joined him at the counter to help with the glasses.
            Wyatt’s mom peered down the empty hallway. “Your dad couldn’t join us, after all?”
            Mackenzie shook her head. “He wanted to study. There’s another police officer test coming up.”
            Banished to the converted dining room to set things up so his mom and Mackenzie could have ‘a little girl time’ before the movie, Wyatt set the fourth chair in front of the only T.V. in their B&B. He hit eject and put The Civil War in Four Minutes DVD in its case. His dad was already reading the latest Kovel’s Antiques & Collectables, all ready for the Bond movie since it wasn’t some boring documentary on 19th century field hospitals.
            Wyatt loaded the DVD. At least he could watch the previews.

* *

Wyatt looked up as Mackenzie and his mom finally came in, each with a large bowl of popcorn – one for his parents to share, the other for Mackenzie and Wyatt.
            He would have rather had his own.
            This preview was more soda commercial than spy thriller anyway. “Ready for the movie?” Wyatt aimed the remote to go back to the main menu, but his mom took it from him and hit mute instead.
            “Let’s visit a little, first.”
Wyatt knew it was because she was in no rush to see the inevitable action movie he always chose.
            Mackenzie scooted her chair right up against Wyatt’s, explaining, “We can share better this way.”
Wyatt grabbed a handful of popcorn and stuffed his mouth.
Wyatt’s mom gestured to the T.V. screen, her voice light like it was just a casual suggestion. “Maybe we could do one of our own. A commercial, for the B&B.” She glanced at Wyatt’s dad, who was frowning.
His dad wasn’t hearing any of it. “Word of mouth is the best advertising, and it’s free.”
“But Wyatt has his new camera, and we could put it online. It doesn’t need to cost any–”
“Liz!” His dad cut her off. “I’ll thank you to let me handle things my way.”
In the silence Wyatt could almost hear his mom thinking that his dad’s way wasn’t working so well. That’s what the bank guy thought, too – but his mom would never say it.
To Wyatt’s surprise, his mom tried once more, “How could it hurt to let more people know about us?”
“New topic.” His dad bristled, giving her a move on look.
Wyatt leaned over and whispered to Mackenzie, “You’re really family, if they’re fighting in front of you.”
Mackenzie stifled a giggle.
 “Okay,” Wyatt’s mom put up a hand in surrender. “And we’re not fighting. It was just a suggestion...”
If you avoid making waves, your boat never capsizes. His mom had told him that fortune-cookie-worthy motto enough times. But it occurred to Wyatt that a boat that didn’t make waves was a boat that didn’t move.
 “So…” His mom included them all in the conversation’s new direction. “Mackenzie was telling me that the Lincolns had séances in the White House!”
            Séances? Wyatt gave Mackenzie a quick glance. Why didn’t she mention that earlier?
            “Eight of them, at least.” Mackenzie sparkled at the attention. “Trying to communicate with their dead son.”
            “Which one?” Wyatt’s dad asked over his glasses.
“Willie, who died a year into the Civil War. He was twelve.” Mackenzie answered, and then glanced at Wyatt’s mom. “At least they knew he was dead.”
No one said anything, and Wyatt wondered if Mackenzie was talking about her own mom, off on some journey to ‘find herself.’ It had been like three years since Mackenzie had heard anything from her.
Mackenzie spoke first. “It turns out my book’s a lot more interesting than I thought it would be.”
            Wyatt’s dad said, “Ah, don’t judge a book by its cover.” Trust his dad to pull out the most time-worn cliché possible, dust it off, and put it out there like it was new wisdom.           
His mom eyed the Bond movie menu screen that had come up after the final preview, and he knew she was wishing it was some HGTV house-staging marathon instead. She stalled with one more question, this time for him. “How about your book, Sweetie? What’s it about?”
            His book. Still in his backpack, untouched. Because really, what was he supposed to do? He had to do a good job, or his parents would kill him, but not too good a job, or Jonathon would really kill him. So he just… hadn’t done anything.
            Wyatt tried to say it like it was no big deal. “I still have a little reading to do.” But as soon as the words left his mouth, he knew he was sunk. There was plenty of time, but his mom fixated on how he hadn’t even cracked the book. And then Mackenzie chimed in that their ‘first impression’ blog posts had to be online by 6 a.m., and hers had taken a lot longer than she thought, because of all the footnotes.
            Not helpful.
            So no cool cars or gadgets or super villains for 007 – or Wyatt.
            Just his mom’s relieved scolding, as she put the disc away for next Sunday.
            Just his own pathetic apology to Mackenzie, “Sorry this pushes your movie back a week.”
            Just her saying, “It was still one of the nicest family nights I’ve had in a long time. You don’t know how lucky you all are.”
Just him not feeling lucky at all.
            Just an awkward hug where Mackenzie tried to kiss Wyatt goodnight – on the lips – and at the last millisecond he turned his head so she kissed his cheek instead, and then he pretended he didn’t notice anything weird.
            Just a look askance from his dad as he got up to drive Mackenzie home. “You know better than this, young man.”
            Just Wyatt standing in the kitchen filling sandwich bags with popcorn – snacks for him to take to school for the whole week ahead that would be stale by Tuesday.
            Just… Lincoln.

* *

            Wyatt thought about watching something online, but didn’t think he could get away with it. Instead, he killed time designing his own Bond car – one that could drive like a race car, but also maneuver like a hummingbird in the air and like an otter through the water… and still shoot out lasers to stop the bad guys in their tracks. He drew his soldier’s face. Then drew himself in next to him. Wyatt imagined going for a drive, a Bond guy and him. He added them holding hands, and doodled the beginning of a heart – STOP!
            He crossed it out. All of it. Again and again, soaking the paper with blue ink. Then he cut the paper into thin strips, first one way, then the other, hand-shredding it like confetti. He threw a third of it in his trash can, another third in the bathroom trash can, and tossed the rest in the toilet. FLUSSHHH! No one would be able to put that back together.
At ten o’clock, when he figured the movie would have been over anyway, Wyatt pulled the top comforter up over his feet and grabbed the stupid Lincoln book.
            It was thin, seventy pages. He loved Mr. Clifton. Not like that. Just, cool. At least it wouldn’t take all night.
He opened the cover. It was a bit crumbly at the spine. How old was this thing?
            The full title read:
                        Joshua Fry Speed: Lincoln’s Most Intimate Friend
                        by Robert L. Kincaid
            Copyright page said 1943. Wyatt figured back then ‘intimate’ just meant close. Best friends. Maybe today it would be
                        Joshua Fry Speed: Lincoln’s BFF
            Maybe that’s what he’d call his blog.
            He opened the book at random. Page 55. It was a letter, signed
                        Yours Forever,
            Sounded like a love letter. Like it should be in Mackenzie’s book, love letters between Abe and Mary. With séances thrown in to keep it interesting. It was weird that Abe had signed it “Lincoln.” Wyatt scanned back to the top of page 54, where the letter began.
                        Springfield, October 5, 1842
                        Dear Speed:
            It was a letter to Joshua Fry Speed. Did everyone write like this back then? Why was Abe calling him by his last name? It was like they were in P.E. together or something.
            Wyatt started to read the letter. Joshua had been married eight months. Sounded like Abe had to talk him into it. And then Abe asked
“…But I want to ask a closer question, “Are you now in feeling as well as in judgment, glad that you are married as you are?” From anybody but me this would be an impudent question, not to be tolerated, but I know you will pardon it in me. Please answer it quickly, as I feel impatient to know.”

            Wyatt reasoned it through: So Joshua got married because he judged he should, not because he felt it. And Abe wanted to know if the feeling came later.
            When was this? He fished a piece of paper out of his jeans pocket and uncrumpled it to mark the page. It was Mackenzie’s note, the M and W for their names inside a heart.
He ran downstairs to grab a fresh President Abraham Lincoln Timeline. Back in his room, the stiff coffee-stained paper crackled as he unfolded it, and he searched for the year.
                        1842: Reconciles with Mary Todd. Marries her on November 4.
            This letter was before that wedding. Just a month before.
“Please answer it quickly as I feel impatient to know.”
            Abe was asking his BFF
“Are you now in feeling as well as in judgment, glad that you are married as you are?”

            Maybe Abe wasn’t sure if he should get married, either. Joshua hadn’t been.
            Wyatt stared at the heart note from Mackenzie. Goose bumps broke out along his upper back and arms. Whoa. He and Mackenzie weren’t married, but that was how he felt! He judged – it kind of made sense to be her boyfriend. But he didn’t feel it. Not the way he was supposed to.
            The goose bumps travelled all the way along his spine, down his legs. The hair on his scalp stood up.
            Was their reason for not feeling it the same as his?
            It wasn’t possible. Was it?
            He turned the pages backwards. This section was all letters, almost all of them from Abe to Joshua. He checked out how they ended
                        Ever Yours,
                        As Ever,
                        Yours Forever,
                        As Ever, Your Friend
                        Yours Forever,
            Who was this guy Joshua? Wyatt flipped to the beginning. He ran a store.
“A tall angular young man with lean, wrinkled cheeks and sad, gray eyes, walked into a general store in Springfield, Illinois, more than a century ago, and laid on the counter a pair of saddlebags which he carried in the crook of his long arm.  He asked the young proprietor of the store the price of a mattress, blankets, sheets, coverlid, and a pillow for a single bed.  The items came to seventeen dollars.
“It is perhaps cheap enough,“ the young man with the saddlebags said, “but small as it is, I am unable to pay it.  If you will credit me until Christmas, I will pay you then, if I do well; but if I do not, I may never be able to pay you.”
“The proprietor looked up into the face of his prospective customer and was moved by the forlorn expression in his eyes.  He said:
“You seem to be so much pained at contracting so small a debt, I think I can suggest a plan by which you can avoid the debt and at the same time attain your end.  I have a large room with a double bed which you are welcome to share with me.”
                        “Where is your room?”
            “Upstairs,” the proprietor replied, pointing to a pair of winding stairs which led from the store to the room.
“The tall young man picked up his saddle bags, went upstairs, set them down on the floor, returned below with a beaming countenance and exclaimed jovially,
                        “Well Speed, I’m moved!”

            That sounded weird. They didn’t know each other, but Joshua offered to share his bed with him? That was pretty intimate.
“This episode is familiar to all students of the life of Abraham Lincoln.  The date of its occurrence, April 15, 1837, marked the transition of Lincoln into a career which led to immortality.”

            Wyatt kept reading. Turned out Abe was really successful in Springfield. But long after he could afford his own bed, he still shared that bed with Joshua. They shared it for four years.
            The bed!
            Quickly, Wyatt thumbed back through the pages, scanning for the facts.
                        “Springfield, Illinois”
                        “a double bed”
            He raced out of his room to the stairs, nearly colliding with his dad who was coming out of the laundry room with a basket of folded kitchen towels and napkins. His dad put a finger to his lips, signaling there were guests in Room Six. “Where are you going?” he whispered.
            “Homework.” Wyatt held up the book.
            “Seems like there’s more to it than you thought. Good thing we didn’t watch the movie.”
            “Yeah. I guess you and Mom were right.” Wyatt kept his head down. There was no way they could know he’d just started.
            “Well, do your best. And don’t stay up too late.”
            Wyatt nodded to get away, and hustled one flight down, trying to not be too loud. Or too excited.
            He opened the door to their Lincoln Room and hit the switch on the electric-posing-as-oil lamp. Orange-yellow light flickered across the rocking chair, the dresser, the sheets.
            Suddenly in his mind Wyatt saw a second pillow by the first. He blinked it away. Abe hadn’t bought one, so maybe they shared the pillow, too?
            He knew the dates, but had to check anyway. The small bronze plaque on its wooden stand in front of the bed announced,

Lincoln Slept Here
1837 – 1841

            It was theirs. The bed Abe and Joshua shared.  It was their bed!
                        In judgment but not in feeling
            Was it code?
            Could Abe and Joshua have been…
            Wyatt’s legs gave way and he was sitting on the floor, heart pounding. He opened the book and read like his life depended on it.

* *

            It was past midnight when, back in his room, Wyatt went online. He’d read Joshua Fry Speed: Lincoln’s Most Intimate Friend cover-to-cover but now he hesitated, cursor in the search box. This was something he couldn’t take back. His mom had disabled ‘clear history’ and checked his browser once a week, part of their family internet compromise: If you’d be embarrassed for your mother to know you’ve been there, you shouldn’t be there in the first place. If it had been up to his dad, they wouldn’t have internet at all.
But Wyatt had to know, and he could figure out how to cover his tracks later. He typed,
                        was lincoln gay?
and hit return.
            50 million results.
            One of the hits on the first page was a review of some book, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln. There was that word again. Intimate. Wyatt toggled and did a book search instead. It was the only book that popped for “abraham lincoln gay.”
            But for ‘abraham lincoln,’ 38,355 books came up. If the gay thing only came up in one of them, how could it be true?
            Wyatt’s book didn’t come out and say he was gay, but those letters…
            And Lincoln was a hero. Lots of people wouldn’t want him to be in love with another guy. But, what if he was?
            Wyatt smoothed out the President Abraham Lincoln Timeline on his desk.
1837: Moves to Springfield (new capital) and begins practicing as a trial lawyer.
            Nothing about where he lived, or sharing a bed, or maybe falling in love with Joshua Fry Speed. The only stuff about Lincoln’s personal life was
1840: Becomes engaged to Mary Todd.
1841: Breaks engagement to Mary Todd and plunges into deep depression. This is one of many bouts of depression that Lincoln suffered throughout his life.
1842: Reconciles with Mary Todd. Marries her on November 4.
            The ‘Fatal First” of January 1841 was supposed to be the trigger of Lincoln’s giant depression. It was when he broke his engagement to Mary the first time round.
            But in Joshua Fry Speed: Lincoln’s Most Intimate Friend, January 1, 1841 was also when Joshua told Abe he was moving back to Kentucky. Away from Abe. Marking the end of their four years of living together. The end of their sharing that bed one floor down from where Wyatt was sitting right now.
            Nobody really had a reason why Abe broke things off with Mary the first time and got so depressed. But… What if Abe’s depression wasn’t about Mary, but about being freaked out about being in love with Joshua? About Joshua kind of breaking up with him, moving away, and eventually marrying that woman Fanny?
            And then eight months after Joshua got married, Abe went ahead and married Mary because he judged it the right thing to do. The politically smart thing to do. Even if his heart, and Joshua’s heart – their feelings – were elsewhere…
            In judgment but not in feeling.
            But no one’s ever said anything about it!
            Wyatt remembered that one book that came up in the search. Or maybe when they did say it, no one listened. He got back on the computer.
                        ‘was president lincoln gay?’
            A lot of the sites that popped up were angry, ‘the very question insults the memory of our greatest President’ – stuff like that.
            One site argued that no one could be a ‘homosexual’ before this Austrian guy invented the word for it in 1869, four years after Lincoln was gunned down by John Wilkes Booth. What a load of crap. Guys falling in love with other guys didn’t all of a sudden start when they came up with a word for it.
            I didn’t need any words to know.
            Wyatt found a video clip: “Was Lincoln Gay?” And hit play.
Internet Video: “Was Lincoln Gay?”

A professor in a suit stands at a podium in a small conference room. Words on the screen read “Family Values in Christ Coalition Summit.” He speaks with an I-know-better-than-you attitude.

Rumors of President Lincoln having a deviant ‘Alternative Lifestyle’ are simply that, wild expressions of a shrill homosexual agenda that no serious historian takes seriously. And what proof do they have?

The Professor holds up a copy of The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln and sneers.

Conjecture and fantasy, by an activist with a pro-homosexual agenda. Pure trash.

He uses his foot to open the lid of a conveniently placed trash can and drops the book in with a clang.

Can you imagine lipstick and pink eye shadow on Lincoln’s face on Mount Rushmore?

The video cuts to a cartoon image of that very thing, with a pink feather boa around Lincoln’s made-up face on the mountainside. An unseen audience bursts out laughing.

* *

Wyatt hit stop.
He didn’t want to dress up like a girl, or be a girl. And he didn’t know if Lincoln did or didn’t, but that had nothing to do with whether or not Lincoln was gay. Or bi. Or whatever you’d call it if Abe’s feeling was for Joshua instead of Mary…
Next to the frozen image of Lincoln’s Mt. Rushmore face in drag, the website suggested:

Other videos you might like:
Marcia Gay Harden Visits Mt. Rushmore
Dead Presidents Punk and Rock Washington, D.C.
George Washington’s Gay Inspector General

What was that one about?
Cautiously, Wyatt hit play.
Internet Video: “George Washington’s Gay Inspector General”

A handsome teen guy sits in front of an outdoor-sized Gay Pride Rainbow flag pinned to the wall behind him. He wears a rainbow bracelet and is strumming a fast-intro on a blue acoustic guitar. The tune is ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy.’

An inset picture of an oil painting pops into the frame next to him. It’s of an old military guy in one of those white wigs from Revolutionary War-time, in a gold vest with lots of medals pinned to his jacket.

Words scroll on the bottom of the screen:

Music: George M. Cohan
New Lyrics: Martin Sykes

The teen, Martin, smiles – teeth brilliant white against his darker skin. His fingers fly, building the song to the familiar chorus.

Martin (sings)
Von Steuben’s a Yankee Doodle Dandy!
A Yankee Doodle who liked guys…
Freidrich Wilhelm Von Steu-eu-ben,
Without him there’d be no Fourth of July!

The inset image changes as Martin continues singing, showing other old paintings of:
Ben Franklin,
Washington at Valley Forge inspecting troops,
And finally, the famous painting of George Washington Crossing the Delaware, the new flag of the United States of America unfurling behind him.

Martin (sings)
Ben Franklin, knew that our army, need-ed help
General Washington, he knew it too.
Freid-rich. Went. To. Valley. Forge. Just. To. Train. Our. Sol-diers.
He’s why American’s here for you!

Martin finishes the song with a flourish of strumming. For the first time, he looks directly at the camera.

And that’s all true.

The video ended, and Wyatt stared at the guy on the screen, letting it sink in. He was so out. And proud. Probably lived in New York City, with some model boyfriend. And that song – a gay general who helped America win the revolutionary war against the British?
So cool.
The video player suggested another video, “Also from Martin Sykes:”

Legal Advocates of Oregon: Rhonda Sykes on 2 Years of Speaking Truth To Power

Not so interesting. And he was getting distracted.
            Back to Lincoln, and those letters. What if this Kincaid guy who wrote Joshua Fry Speed: Lincoln’s Most Intimate Friend was making it all up? What if the letters weren’t even real?
            Wyatt picked up the book and checked the boring stuff in the beginning. On the title page, above the year, it read, “Department of Lincolnalia, Lincoln Memorial University, Harrogate, Tennessee.” The author couldn’t have made up the letters and still gotten it published by a university named after Lincoln! They had to be real.
            Still, Wyatt had never even heard of Joshua Fry Speed before. And if they were an item, wouldn’t he have?
            Maybe not. Maybe historians were trying to keep this a secret.
            He’d never heard of Von Steuben – and him being gay – either, until a minute ago.
            But since everyone loved Lincoln, if the world knew Abe was gay – that he loved another guy – maybe they’d start to feel differently about gay people. Maybe, if Abe was out, everybody gay would be able to come out.
            Wyatt had a first impression about Abraham Lincoln, that was for sure. But if he was going to pull off this blog post, he had a lot to do.

* *

            It was past 4 a.m. when Wyatt finished and his post was live on the school blog host. He unplugged his laptop and fast-carried it to the bathroom sink before the two-minute battery charge gave out. Careful to not electrocute himself, he leaned the laptop on its side under the faucet and turned the water on. It poured into the side slot, drenching the keyboard. Something inside whirred and shorted out. The screen went blank.
            A dead computer tells no tales.
            He carried it back to his desk wrapped in a towel, and spilled a glass of water on the wood floor right below the table edge. He let it soak in, making sure his story would make sense.
            Tracks covered.
            Wyatt fell into bed, head swimming. He thought about brushing his teeth, but just pulled the three comforters up, overwhelmed and desperately tired. As he lay there, waiting to slip into sleep, one thought surfaced…
            Lincoln freed the slaves. Maybe now, he can free the gays.
            Maybe, he can free me.

* *

* *

Chapter Five Endnotes

In Chapter 5, Mackenzie discusses the séances held in the White House while Lincoln was President. The séances are discussed on pages 40-41 of Lincoln at Home: Two Glimpses of Abraham Lincoln’s Family Life.
Wyatt reads the whole 70 pages of Joshua Fry Speed: Lincoln’s Most Intimate Friend. The October 5, 1842 letter where Abe asks Joshua, “are you now in feeling as well as judgment glad that you are married as you are?” is on pages 54-55, and is also found on pages 161-162 of Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches And Writings, Edited by Roy P. Basler, Preface by Carl Sandburg, De Capo Press paperback edition, Perseus Books Group, Cleveland, Ohio, 2001. The excerpt explaining how Abe met Joshua, wanting to buy stuff for a bed from Joshua’s store, is taken from pages 9-10 of Joshua Fry Speed: Lincoln’s Most Intimate Friend. That same book includes the five letters Wyatt noticed Abe wrote Joshua that ended with the sign-offs, “Ever Yours,” “As Ever,” “Yours Forever,” “As Ever, Your Friend” and “Yours Forever” – on pages 53, 52, 50, 49 and 48.
Wyatt also refers to their B&B’s ‘President Abraham Lincoln Timeline,’ and the timeline dates and quotes I used are from the Abraham Lincoln Chronology (Historical Documents Co., 1993.) I purchased my copy at the Lincoln Memorial Shrine, Redlands, California in April 2011. Their timeline was “reproduced on antiqued parchment that looks and feels old,” which inspired Wyatt’s antiquing chore.
Martin’s video song about Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, the gay man who helped the U.S. win the Revolutionary War and who “single-handedly turned a militia, consisting mostly of farmers, into a well-trained, disciplined and professional army that was able to stand musket-to-musket combat with the British” is also based on real history. You can read more about von Steuben, his being gay and his role in U.S. history here:

* *

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