That night at supper, when Wally, Dad, and I were nearly finished eating, I decided to bite the bullet. I had worried about it through the whole meal, and I knew that if I didn’t ask now I never would.
“Dad?” I waited until I had his attention before I asked, “When I introduced you to Oliver Talbott yesterday, you got a funny look on your face. Why?”
“I was just surprised, that’s all.”
“Surprised by what?”
“Well, you’ve talked a lot about him recently, but you’ve never mentioned that he was Black.”
“Why should I? Should that make a difference?”
Dad thought a little before saying, “No. Not at all as far as I’m concerned. But, Trevor,” he continued, “you have to understand that there is still prejudice here. I honestly don’t believe I’m prejudiced but being with a Black boy can be dangerous because other people, prejudiced people, might harm you both. I don’t have any problems with your being Oliver’s friend, but I just want to caution you about being careful where you go and what you say.”
“Like where?” I asked. “
“Well, like dark streets, maybe movie theaters, things like that.”
“So I have to change the way I live because I have a Black friend.”
“Probably some. Trevor, it’s you I’m worried about. I suspect Oliver already knows where and what is dangerous, so if you just follow his lead, you should be okay.”
“But I should start watching over my shoulder all the time?”
“It wouldn’t do any harm.”
“Well, I think it would, and I’m not gonna do it. I won’t go anywhere where Oliver is uncomfortable, but I’m not gonna change what I think or how I act.”
All this time, Wally had been listening, and as he listened, his eyes grew wider. At that point he spoke up. “Trevor, I really like Oliver, but now I’m a little afraid for both of you. Please don’t take chances.”
I was very angry, so I got up from the table and left the room.
In my bedroom, I lay on my bed. I wonder how many kids, when they’re upset, use their beds for a comfort place? I didn’t do it often because I wasn’t usually upset. Why should I be? I lived in a town I liked, I had good friends, I’d never been teased or picked on in school, and I lived with Dad and Wally, both of whom I loved.
About an hour later, Wally knocked on the door and came in. He was carrying a plate of cherry pie and ice cream. Handing it to me, he said, “Dad and I didn’t want you to miss this.”
I hesitated for a minute before taking it, but I’m a sucker for cherry pie and I couldn’t resist.
As I sat eating, Wally sat beside me on my bed and said, “Dad’s not prejudiced, you know.”
I nodded, having come to the same conclusion while I was thinking things through.
“He just wants you to be safe, and so do I.”
I nodded again. “I know, Wally. I get that and I appreciate it. But how can I be safe in a world that’s dangerous? How can I stay Oliver’s friend and be safe? I don’t think I can, so I have to make a choice. And the choice I’ve made is to stay with Oliver. It’s not like being Black is his fault. It’s nobody’s fault and it’s neither good nor bad. And he shouldn’t have to live without friends because of it. You know, I learned in science last year that skin color is only the color of the epidermis, which is microscopically thin. Underneath that, everyone’s the same.”
“Wow. That’s cool. But doesn’t he have other friends, like Art and Vinny and Pete?”
“Yeah, but I think I’m closer to him than the other guys are. Oh they like him and we all enjoy doing things together, but somehow, I feel really close to him. I don’t know why that is, but that closeness is there, and I’m not gonna deny it, not for you or Dad or some racist bastard.”
“Okay, I get that. But promise me that if you want to go somewhere and Oliver doesn’t think it’s safe, you won’t go.”
I promised him and thanked him for the pie. Wally left the room with my now empty plate. I’d even licked the ice cream and cherry juice off.
One day, after Pete had left for camp, the rest of us decided to go for a bike ride. We took lunches and plenty of water in our back packs and rode north out of town at about nine in the morning. We’d agreed to ride for about three hours, stop somewhere to eat, and then ride back. That should get us home about 3:30 or 4:00.
It was a beautiful day, not too hot for Tennessee, and with a nice cooling breeze. From the northern edge of town we rode through rolling hills and farmland.
By the time we’d ridden for half an hour, we decided to stop and take our shirts off. Vinny had brought some sunblock, so we slathered each other. I made it a point to team with Oliver and we spread it judiciously on each other. That was the first time I’d touched him except for brief moments in the pool. I loved the feel of his smooth skin and growing muscles. By the time we finished, I had to hide the boner in my shorts. I couldn’t tell whether he had the same reaction, but I could hope.
We rode on and entered into impromptu mini races. Someone at the back of the pack, often me, would suddenly speed up and pass the rest of the group before they sped up and joined him. Then we all high-fived. That seemed to happen every mile or so, although we weren’t really keeping track of distance. We were just riding for the fun of it, for the feeling of freedom and joy and the breeze playing over us and just being young and happy. None of us would have said that at the time, but it was the truth.
By the second hour, we were beginning to get thirsty, so we stopped in some shade and drank a little of our water. We didn’t want to drink too much because we didn’t want to run out. After that we sat on the ground and just looked around, chatting about nothing in particular.
I just happened to be sitting next to Oliver. Well, “happened to be” is really pushing the truth. I had sat next to him on purpose. He smiled at me, that delicious smile, the lips I sometimes thought about kissing. Nobody else ever said a word about us. I wondered when they would begin to figure out that Oliver and I were really tight.
We all just talked and sometimes dissed each other.
“Why are you always at the back of the pack?” asked Art, who was nearly always near the front.
“Because I don’t want you to get lost,” I said. “I have to keep track of you. After all, you are directionally challenged. Remember the day when you scored a soccer goal for the wrong team?”
“You’re never gonna let me forget that, are you?”
“Nope. I’m like an elephant. I never forget anything.”
Laughing, Vinny said, “Trevor, you’re the scrawniest elephant I’ve ever seen.”
We bantered like that for about half an hour or so, then without anybody saying anything, we remounted our bikes and continued to head north.
At noon we started looking for a good place to stop. Finally Art, who was, as usual, in the lead, spotted a large oak tree near the road. He pulled over and we all followed. Laying our bikes down, we took out our lunches and water and relaxed in the shade, eating and talking and laughing. Eventually we lay down on the ground under the tree and closed our eyes.
About a half hour later, I awoke. I looked over at Oliver, who was breathing easily and very much asleep. I took a few minutes to just admire him. Damn, he was beautiful. How could anybody ever hate him?
Looking at my watch, I called the other guys. They groaned some as they woke up, but we were soon back on our bikes and headed south.
Because of our direction, the sun was more in our eyes. The occasional cars that passed us were careful not to hit us.
We took a break about halfway back. Well we thought, judging by the time, it was about half-way, but we really didn’t know. In fact, we didn’t really care. We knew where we were heading and we knew that in time we’d get there.
After a good rest we resumed riding. Maybe we were in too much of a hurry. I don’t know. But Vinny, who at that point was at the rear of the group, yelled, and we heard a crash.
We all stopped and looked back. Vinny was lying at the side of the road, holding his left arm and moaning. We laid our bikes down and walked back to him.
“What happened?” Art asked.
“I hit a pothole that none of you warned me about.” He was clearly in pain and he sounded angry as well.
“We’d better call someone,” said Oliver. “I don’t have my phone with me. Do any of you?”
“I do,” I replied. “Dad never lets me go anywhere without it.” I didn’t call 911 because an ambulance would have had to drive out from the city. Vinny told us his mom and dad were out of town for the day, so I called Dad and told him what had happened. He said he was in Wallaceville and could take a break and drive out to us.
We tried to comfort Vinny as well as we could. A car stopped and the driver asked if we needed help. I thanked him but told him my dad was on his way.
Soon Dad drove past us, turned around, and came back to where Vinny was still lying on the ground. All talking at once, we told Dad what had happened. It took him a few moments to sort out what we were saying. He knelt beside Vinny, looked at his arm, and said, “Well, it doesn’t look too bad. At least the bone didn’t break through the skin. Vinny, every red-blooded American boy needs to break a bone or two and I guess today was your turn.”
With Vinny holding his arm across his chest, Dad helped him up and into our van. I retrieved Vinny’s bike and loaded it into the rear. Then Dad drove off.
We all sat at the side of the road for a few minutes. All the joy we’d felt in the day was gone. Subdued, we got up, climbed on our bikes, and rode silently towards town.
In the middle of town we broke up. Oliver and I rode partway home together, still not saying much. I invited him to my house for a soda and something to eat. He thought about that and then agreed.
In my kitchen, we talked about the bike ride, and how much fun it had been until Vinny’s accident.
“That’s so strange,” Oliver said. “You can be having a great time and then suddenly something happens and everything changes.”
“Yeah,” I replied.
We were silent for a bit before Oliver said, “I sure hope he can still go camping with us.”
“I guess he won’t be able to swim for a while.”
“But at least it was his left arm and he’s right-handed.”
“Is that all you can say?”
“Nope.” I couldn’t keep it up any longer and we both laughed.
Then we talked some about what we might do the next day, agreeing that it wouldn’t be another bike ride.
I rode to Oliver’s house with him and went in. I had been there several times, so his mom knew me pretty well. He had an older sister, Callie, whom I’d only met once. I guess she was out and about as much as Oliver and I were.
After I got a hug from Mrs. Talbott, I rode back home as it was nearly supper time.
When Wally came into the house, he asked where Dad was. I told him about our ride and Vinny’s accident.
“Ouch!” he said.
Soon after we arrived, Dad came home and sat in his chair with his beer. I asked him how Vinny was.
“He’ll be fine. It was a very simple wrist fracture and it was easy to fix. He should only be in his cast for a few weeks.”
“Did you take him home?”
“No, Mrs. DiNardo came and took him home after she talked with the doctor.”
When Dad finished his beer, Wally and I heated our suppers. As we ate, I said, “Maybe we should change our campsite reservation at the park until later in August.”
Dad thought that was a good idea, so after we’d put the dishes in the dishwasher I made the call. Then I watched some brainless show on TV before going up to bed. What a bummer, I thought. Poor Vinny!