Friday, October 20, 2017

Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill: Chapter Seven

In Chapter Six, Wyatt blogs his first impression about Abraham Lincoln from his book of primary source letters: That Abraham Lincoln was in love with another guy. That Abraham Lincoln was gay.

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Okay community, here's Chapter Seven!

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Chapter 7
Monday January 12

            Mr. Guzman faked a yawn as he examined Jennie’s blog on his hand-held tablet. “So Lincoln established Thanksgiving as our national holiday… why should we care? Where’s your first impression?” Their I’m-not-a-substitute teacher walked the front of the room like it was his own personal kingdom. He’d been telling everyone what was wrong with their blog posts and why he’d given them some version of a ‘C.’ Eight minutes of class left and there were only four still standing: Jennie – who was under the ax – Mackenzie, Wyatt, and Jonathon.
            Jennie giggled nervously.
            Mr. Guzman continued his video-game-worthy massacre. “You’re in high school now, Miss Woo, and you need to dig deeper. ‘C-minus,’ but I’m being generous.”
            Jennie giggled again, which Wyatt thought was just weird.
            “And now, to use the technical term, the bat-shit crazy book reports.” That made the class titter. He swiped the screen to call up the next blog. “Miss Miller!”
            Mackenzie stopped playing with the end of her fancy French braid and poised her fingers over her laptop keyboard, ready to take down every word Mr. Guzman said.
            “Calling Lincoln an occultist and arguing that his belief that the living could communicate with the dead inspired his Gettysburg Address, among other speeches, is quite the first impression.”
            Mackenzie broke in, “I said it influenced him. Not inspired.” She was the first one of them to protest at all. Wyatt gave her props for that. “It’s possible Lincoln was just so in love with Mary that he went along with it, but he went to a séance! Surrounded with all the deaths in the Civil War, his own two sons dying, and the guilt… I think he at least wanted to believe that you could talk to dead people.”
            Mr. Guzman made a snapping sound with his mouth. “I’m not sure how you’re going to prove that, but either way, annotating one speech would have been sufficient. No one has time to read what would print out to be eighteen pages of material on a blog. Consider the math of it: I have four classes. “C-minus again.”
            The color drained from Mackenzie’s face. Wyatt knew it was the lowest grade she’d ever gotten, and it could ruin her perfect GPA.
            “Speaking of math, Mr. Yarrow…” Mr. Guzman put down the tablet on his desk, entwined his fingers and stretched them out, like this particular grading murder was going to be extra work.
            Wyatt tried to keep his face completely blank. He told himself he wouldn’t react, no matter what happened.
            “What a load of crap you posted.”
            Jonathon led the room’s explosion of laughter.
            Mr. Guzman waited for them to settle. “For someone whose family lives and breathes the history of Abraham Lincoln, I must say I was roundly disappointed. While I applaud your use of video, I found it hard to believe your book came out – forgive the pun – and said that Abraham Lincoln was gay.”
            Whispers of disbelief swirled around him. Wyatt guessed no one had read his post.
            Mr. Guzman continued, “In fact, when I spoke with Mr. Clifton at the library an hour ago, he assured me that was NOT in your book. Thus, what you’ve presented to the world is lies, or if I’m continuing to be generous, I might call it ‘offensive conjecture.’ A book report is not where we make things up. ‘F.’ The one failing mark for the entire ninth grade.”
            But… I didn’t make it up!
With Jonathon snickering and nasty stares boring into him from all sides, Wyatt felt Thai-chili-pepper-level heat engulf him. He sank down in his chair.
            Jonathon stage-whispered to Charlie, “What a fag!”
            Charlie answered in the same let-everyone-hear-but-pretend-it’s-just-between-us voice, “Yeah, Mosquito ball fag!”
            They cracked up.
            “Gentlemen, that’s enough.” A scowling Mr. Guzman picked up his tablet again. “And finally, Mr. Rails…”
            Jonathon swung around from smirking at Wyatt. He’d been giving him that I’m-so-happy-to-watch-you-crash-and-burn attitude all first period P.E., too, but Wyatt couldn’t figure out how Jonathon had known in advance Mr. Guzman had failed him.
            “I saved your critique for last, because frankly, even though you clocked in with only one minute to spare…” here Mr. Guzman’s voice changed, sounding pleasantly surprised. “You used your time relatively well.”
            Jonathon grinned, letting every one of his dentist-brochure-white teeth show.
            Mr. Guzman continued, “Mr. Rails’ book contains transcripts of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. In an elegant display of how ‘the medium is the message,’ his entire blog post took the form of a debate rebuttal to Mr. Yarrow’s blogged piece of… Well, we’ve established what it was.”
            Waves of laugher smashed into Wyatt. He slipped down even lower, wishing he could disappear.
            “Also, Mr. Rails used a quote from his book, citing the source material. And his post was… let’s be real people, I had to read 142 of these, blessedly short. Nicely done, Mr. Rails. You would have received a B-plus. But bullying, in any form, is not acceptable in my classroom, and your blogs are an extension of that domain. Accordingly, I’ve dropped you down to a B-minus.
“Dude! Still the highest grade in the class!” Jonathon bragged, and high-fived Charlie. Then he turned and aimed his finger like a gun at Mackenzie, all, I got you this time.
Mr. Guzman raised his voice to be heard. “Note that you will need to delete the personal attack as soon as humanly possible.”
            Personal attack? Wyatt couldn’t see the screen in Mr. Guzman’s hand.
            Mr. Guzman clicked his tongue and set down his hand-held computer. “That’s everyone. Remember, as we move forward, to state your thesis, and then back it up with evidence from your primary source materials.” He walked over and circled ‘Thesis’ on the white board. “Keep in mind that the more you blog, the more traffic you’ll get. I expect you to address the concerns we discussed…”
            Wyatt stopped listening. He’d ask Mackenzie to borrow her phone right after class – and turn it on – so he could get online and see what Jonathon had said about him.
            He wanted to know. He needed to know, but his stomach clenched at the thought of what he’d discover.

Jonathon Rails’ Book Report Blog for Mr. Guzman’s 9th Grade History Class.Lincolnville High School.Book: The Lincoln-Douglas Debates by Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. REAL MEN. REAL AMERICA.
 First Impression Blog Post: Monday, January 12, 5:59 a.m.
Lincoln was not gay. Our greatest president ever, Abraham Lincoln, the founder of the Republican Party, was arguing with his advisors and said to them:
                        “If you call a sheep’s tail a leg, how many legs does a sheep have?”
                        “Five,” the advisors agreed.“No,” replied Lincoln. “A sheep only has four legs.” Then Lincoln added, “Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it so.” (pg. 4)
 Abraham Lincoln was one of the greatest debaters ever.
Calling him gay doesn't make him gay.
And calling him gay, like Wyatt Yarrow did in his blog? You’d have to be some kind of gay idiot to do that.

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“I want you to delete your post.” It was the first thing Mr. Guzman said in their ‘chat’ after school. “Your whole blog, in fact. Start over.”
“I don’t want to start over!” Reading what Jonathon blogged had made Wyatt want to prove this even more.
Mr. Guzman made a clicking sound and sighed. “Mr. Yarrow, I failed you because you were making things up–”
“I didn’t!”
“…And with a failing grade, I’m required to notify your parents.”
“That’s not fair! I worked hard on it, and it’s true!” Wyatt realized he was shouting, and fought to get back in control.
Mr. Guzman swiveled in his desk chair. “You really believe your book, this…” He scanned a spreadsheet he’d printed out. “Joshua Fry Speed, proves Abraham Lincoln was gay?”
“It’s the first I’ve heard of it.”
“I thought we were supposed to dig deep?”
Wyatt’s teacher chuckled at that. “Not so far that you lose touch with reality. There is a core to the Earth after all. Molten lava, I believe.”
“You’re letting Mackenzie do séances…” Wyatt got an inspiration. “And if I pull it, what’s Jonathon going to debate?”
Mr. Guzman seemed on the fence.
“Come on… I read the whole book, I did the assignment. I’ve got a thesis! Let me prove it.”
Mr. Guzman considered. “David Rice Atchison, President eleven point five, huh?” He was quiet for a moment more. Wyatt waited, not sure which way it would go. Finally, his teacher decided. “How about I let you do a make-up post? And when I say ‘make-up,’ you need to show me you’re not making it up. I want to see sound reasoning, and citations.” He stood and started packing his satchel. “I’ll give you till midnight Friday to post something to back up your thesis, such as it is, so I can see where this is going. And if you can’t convince me, then on Monday I’m afraid you’ll have to start over.”
Wyatt was relieved he was getting a chance.
            “I’m curious.” Mr. Guzman paused and looked over at Wyatt. “You don’t have any new material on Lincoln – your book is older than I am. So, if you’re working from the same body of evidence as the rest of the world, why are you suddenly able to see that Lincoln was gay when no one else has?”
            Wyatt felt the trap there, and he blustered. “Well, it’s not like I’m gay or anything! I’m dating Mackenzie!”
Mr. Guzman gave a nod. “She seems like a girl who knows what she wants.”
The fact that he didn’t just slam gay people was a silence that shouted in Wyatt’s mind. He needed to test the waters a little more. How would Jonathon put it? “I don’t know any fags myself, but if Lincoln was one, that’s important, isn’t it?”
Mr. Guzman studied Wyatt for a long moment. “Mr. Yarrow. I don’t want to hear that word in my classroom again.
“Sorry,” Wyatt shrugged, elated but trying to keep his emotions in check. “What about you telling my folks?”
            After a tongue click, Mr. Guzman said, “I’ll hold off on contacting your parents. For now. Do we have an understanding?”
            Fine. He’d show that jerk Jonathon and Mr. Guzman that he was right. That Abe was gay. But all he said was “Yeah,” and got the heck out of there before Mr. Guzman could change his mind.
            Wyatt had work to do.

* *

            Wyatt was in the living room on the red and yellow Turkish rug by the fireplace. If asked, he could tell guests these kinds of rugs were popular in the 1800s. But this one was from Costco.
            He had a bunch of volumes of The Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln out of the glass bookcase, and he was going through the huge index (all of volume twelve) when the doorbell rang. Which was odd, because they were kind of like a hotel – during the day, people just walked in. The clouds were already showing off pink and gold sunset colors, and it was just after 5 p.m.
            Wyatt heard his mom open the front door. “Ira? Where did the time go – is it seven already? Let me get Gregory…”
            “Um, no. Actually, Mrs. Yarrow, no bowling for me tonight. I’m here on official library business.”
            Wyatt put volume twelve on top of Joshua Fry Speed to hold his spot in both, curious. What was Mr. Clifton talking about?
            “Really, Ira. You can call me Liz. ‘Mrs. Yarrow’ makes me sound like my mother-in-law.”
            “I just feel we should keep things official. Me being here on business and all.”
            Wyatt inched to the doorway, careful to keep out of sight.
            “Oh!” His mom chuckled. “You make it sound like you work for the F.B.I.!”
            “I wish I could find some humor in this as well, Mrs. Yarrow. Unfortunately, there’s a matter about which I might lose my job, and I need your help. Specifically, I need Wyatt’s help.”
            His mom’s voice got quieter. “Come in. Wyatt’s doing homework in the living room. This Lincoln blog project has him all fired up.”
            “Ira!” Wyatt’s dad’s voice. “You’re early!”
            There was a pause. Wyatt guessed they were shaking hands.
            “He has something he needs to discuss with Wyatt?” His mom tried to explain, but she sounded baffled. Wyatt was, too.
            Adult steps came down the hall. Wyatt scrambled back to his pile of books, pretending to study. As they walked in, he was underlining ‘Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, letters to’ in his notebook.
            “Wyatt?” His dad said.
            To seem busy, Wyatt added an exclamation point. He glanced up, feigning surprise.
            “Sorry to interrupt you. Your mom and I love that you’re studying, it’s just that Mr. Clifton stopped by and he’s saying he needs our help.”
            Their town librarian was sweating, and it was January. What was going on?
            Mr. Clifton stammered out the words, “Wyatt. The… the book about President Lincoln I gave you…”
            Wyatt made a huge effort to not let his eyes move to it, under volume twelve right in front of him. One brown corner was poking out. “Yeah?”
            “I… I made a mistake in allowing it to be checked out. You see, it’s really a reference book, and I’ve violated a rather important guideline of library science by allowing it to enter circulation.”
            Wyatt thought about the crumbly spine, and how he’d been careful with it. But right now, it was being squished. “I didn’t hurt it or anything!”
            “I just… I need to get it back.”
            “But I need it for my report! I’m supposed to have it for six weeks!”
            “I’m sure we can find you another book. That one needs to come back to the library. Tonight.”
            Wyatt couldn’t hold the words in. “But you gave it to me! You never know where a book can take you, remember?”
            Mr. Clifton flushed and puffed out his cheeks. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Every Lincoln book was assigned randomly, and your getting a reference book was simply a mistake.”
            He’s lying!
            “The bottom line is, I need that book back, now.” Mr. Clifton took a step towards Wyatt but Wyatt’s dad got between them.
            “Ira… I don’t know how appropriate this is. Wyatt didn’t do anything wrong.”
            “I’m not saying he did. It’s just that I could lose my job over this!”
            “That’s ridiculous.” Wyatt’s mom said. “No one’s going to fire you for checking out a reference book.”
            Mr. Clifton sniffed. “Some of us serve at the whim of the Mayor. You should understand that.”
            Wyatt’s dad shifted to the tone of voice he used when someone complained about running out of hot water, or the rooms being too drafty, and he tried to convince them that what they got was actually what they had wanted in the first place – a real Civil War-Era experience. “What’s the harm in letting the boy have the book for now? I’ve used the historical reference section. It’s not like there are hordes of people lined up for those books. He’ll return it safe and sound when it’s due.”
            Mr. Clifton gaped at the three of them. “You don’t understand!”
            “We’ll make sure he returns it not a day late. But until then, Wyatt has homework.” With an iron grip on his arm, Wyatt’s dad guided Mr. Clifton out of the room. It felt really good, his dad standing up for him and everything.
            His mom gave Wyatt a worried look, then followed them.
            He listened to the adults argue in the entry hall. Mr. Clifton’s voice was shrill. “I told her no one’s going to believe a high school kid’s book report, but the Mayor wants this dealt with. Have you seen his blog post?”
            There was a pause, like they were calling it up on the reception computer.
            Moving quietly, Wyatt took Joshua Fry Speed: Lincoln’s Most Intimate Friend, turned it so the plain back cover faced out, and sandwiched it in the glass bookcase behind volumes eleven and twelve of The Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln. Then he pulled out volumes one through ten so they were all even.
            Completely hidden.
            He could hear his video playing on the tinny desk speakers. With a twist of the old-fashioned skeleton key, he locked the bookcase, and slid the key into his jeans pocket. Slipping out to the stairs, he stayed silent as a Civil War ghost. He stopped on the second floor landing, listening.
            Mr. Clifton cleared his throat. “It’s like Pandora’s Box.”
“All hell is going to break loose because of this,” Mr. Clifton continued. “I’m just trying to close it again.”
            But he gave me the book on purpose! Does he know about me? Wyatt tried to figure it out. Maybe Mr. Clifton had seen him hide Absolutely… But if he did know, and that’s why he gave him Joshua Fry Speed, wasn’t it because he wanted Wyatt to find out about Lincoln?
            He couldn’t hear what his parents said, but Mr. Clifton’s words hit him in the gut. “Did Wyatt tell you he got an ‘F’ on this report?”
            That bastard.
            Wyatt snuck the rest of the way up to the third floor. He had to get ready for the Inquisition.
            A thought stopped him at the hallway bookcase by Room Eight. His laptop was dead – at breakfast, his mom had given him a twenty-minute lecture about responsibility, and how he wouldn’t get a new computer until he could buy one with his own money. Given that he barely had twenty dollars saved up, and he only made twenty-nine cents for every coffee-aged document they sold downstairs, that was going to take a while.
The reception computer was off-limits except for homework. His parents and Mr. Clifton were on that now, anyway… but they did have this old set of Encyclopedias. Wyatt had never really thought of the cream, blue, and red-striped leather-bound set as anything more than period wallpaper, but maybe it had something on Pandora. After all, Wyatt figured, that’s what people did before the internet, right?
            He grabbed volume 18, ORN-PHT, and headed to his room.
            Turned out Pandora was this girl who got a box from the King of the Gods. Only she wasn’t allowed to open it. Of course, she did open it, and from inside all the different kinds of evil escaped into the world.
            Why would the truth about Abe loving another guy be evil?
            With the box open and all these Evils escaping, Pandora panicked, and slammed the lid shut. But that left only one thing trapped inside: Hope.
            Wyatt wondered if she ever let that out.
            He wished he hadn’t ruined his laptop after all. Maybe in computer lab he could add his blog as an external link to the Wikipedia article on Lincoln.
            The world needed to know, and he wanted to tell everybody.
            It was time to let Hope out.
            But first, he’d have to deal with his dad and mom, and make sure they didn’t know about him.

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Endnotes for Chapter 7 
On his blog, Jonathon quotes Lincoln’s joke about “calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it so.” Abe did say this, but it wasn’t included in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates book I imagined Jonathon had for his book report (not on page 4 or elsewhere.) I actually found this Lincoln quote on page 194 of The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln: A Treasury of Quotations, Anecdotes, and Observations, Edited by James C. Humes, Gramercy Books, Random House, 1996.

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