> 1 <
They passed through a small town, so small it consisted of a few scattered houses, a gas station/mini-mart, a diner and a bar. From what Ren could see of the houses, they didn’t look like much. He wondered what it would be like growing up in such a place. What if you were the only kid in town? What a lonely life that would be. There was nothing here, just a few buildings and miles of grasslands—no trees, nothing but mostly flat land covered with brown grass whichever direction one looked. Even the scenery was uninspiring.
Ren had pulled into himself. He also found he had pulled away from his father and was scrunched up, leaning against his door. He felt cold even though the day was anything but cool.
His dad glanced over at him, frowned, and said, “Ren?”
“I need to tell you about my back,” Ren answered.
A pause, then, “OK,” was the man’s response to that.
Ren sat up a little straighter. Now or never is what he was thinking. Nothing would get better by waiting.
“Mom’s boyfriend did it. He hit me and knocked me down onto my bed and tore the power cord out of the computer and whipped me with it.”
His dad was glancing over at him regularly now. Ren was looking out the front window as he spoke. He thought maybe his dad would jump in with questions when he stopped, but the man didn’t. Instead, he reached over and put his hand on Ren’s shoulder. Just laid it there.
Ren shuddered, but went on. “You need to know. My friend Bobby’s mom caught him and me together—naked. She told Mom. Mom yelled at me when I got home. Really viciously. Even more than usual. Told me to go to my room. I waited there till her boyfriend got home. I heard her talking to him, then he came into my room and did what you saw. He’d have kept going; he was enjoying it, enjoying hearing me scream; the louder I screamed, the harder he whipped me. But Mom told him to stop, and he did. He always did just what she told him to do.”
Ren stopped. He didn’t know why he stopped. He wasn’t done talking about it yet, but for some reason, his voice seemed to fail him right then. He swallowed, and when he continued he found himself speaking more softly.
“That was it. I was whipped, and then mom told me I was no longer going to live there, that she was disgusted having a queer son. When I came out for dinner, the boyfriend yelled at me to get back in the room. He said they weren’t feeding my gay ass any longer; I could starve to death, and good riddance. Lynn—he’s my brother—looked scared. I went back to my room. My mom woke me up in the morning. I had to pack what I wanted, but only what would fit in my suitcase. I had to wait till the rest of them ate breakfast, wait at the table and watch them eat. I hadn’t had any dinner, and watching them eat. . .” He stopped and swallowed again before continuing. “Her boyfriend spent the whole time telling me how disgusting I was and how every other real man would think the same thing when they learned I was a fag. Telling me how I’d probably get beat up a lot, and he was only sorry he wouldn’t be around to encourage them. When they weren’t looking, Lynn slipped me a piece of toast. Then Mom drove me to the train station, told me you’d meet me in Ashville, and good riddance—and to never come back.”
He stopped. That was all he had to tell. It was enough. He felt about as big as an ant. He hated that his eyes were watering. He wasn’t about to wipe them with his father sitting next to him.
They drove in silence for another mile. The thing that most surprised Ren was that during that time, his dad’s hand never left his shoulder.
“That’s it?” his father finally asked, breaking the silence.
“Yeah, er, I mean, yes, sir. But you needed to know...” and then, to seal the deal, to remove any doubt about what he was saying, “...that I’m gay.”
His dad shook his head and gave Ren’s shoulder a squeeze before removing his hand. “You might be. You’re 13! Boys do that at 13, and most of them don’t end up being gay. But if you are, you are. Now you’re probably scared that I don’t want a gay son. Right?”
He looked over at Ren. Ren simply nodded, not being able to keep his tears from falling and not trusting his voice.
His father acted as though he didn’t see the tears. “Ren, I told you about why I didn’t get along with your mother. I told you it was important to me to be myself, to do what I wanted to do, to be independent and honest. Those are the qualities I admire in men. Those are the qualities I’ll admire in you as you grow into a man. What I don’t care a fig about is who a man loves. Who you end up loving. Well, I will care if you choose someone as a partner who’s dishonest or cowardly or immoral or stupid and lazy. I’ll care because it’ll show poor judgment on your part.
“But being gay isn’t something that will bother me. I don’t care. Really. I care about the boy you are, and what I’ve seen from you so far tells me you’re a boy I can be proud to call my son.”
Ren couldn’t believe what he was hearing. What had he ever done for anyone to feel proud of him about? He’d just heard, too—the day before at the breakfast table where he had to watch the others eat—that real men would hate him; his dad sure seemed like a real man to him.
And then there was something else, and this he voiced out loud. “But we’re in Texas,” Ren said. “I mean, thanks. Really, really thanks for what you said and for not hating me! Maybe I can stop being so scared now. But, we’re going to a ranch. In Texas. I’m gay! And I won’t fit in at all!”
“Why won’t you? Are you planning to get out of the truck and yell, ‘Hey, I’m here and I’m gay?’ No? Well, I didn’t think so! I think you’re going to act like a 13-year-old in a new place. You’ll be a little shy at first. Then you’ll get to know people, they’ll get to know you, you’ll like some of them and probably dislike some, too, and they’ll be the same way about you. Over time, you’ll sort things out, you’ll learn who to tell about that part of you, or you’ll learn not to tell anyone. You might find it best to keep that part of you hidden. Or not. It’ll be your decision. Your life from now on will mostly be up to you. How it goes will depend on what decisions you make and how you behave, and I hope, if you learn to trust me, you’ll let me help when you need it.
“But you might want to think about this: you’re coming to a new place, a place where no one knows you. If there’s anything you don’t like about yourself, now is when you can work on changing it. Where we’re going is where you’ll have the opportunity to define who you are. The person you present to the world is up to you.”
Ren looked over at his dad. He couldn’t really believe what he was hearing. In his whole life he couldn’t remember a single adult who’d ever talked to him like this or showed this degree of respect for him as a person. This was new territory for him and difficult to comprehend.
His dad was going on. “I don’t expect you to spend the rest of your life on this ranch. You’re going to want to leave at some point and make a life for yourself elsewhere. What you do between then and now is entirely up to you. I believe strongly in being an independent person. I’m not going to be telling you what to do, other than the things a dad would have a son do who was growing up with him; you know, chores and such so you can feel you’re part of how things work there, so you can feel worthwhile and know that you’re contributing positively to our life. I want you to be proud of yourself, and that’s one way to accomplish that. But, even then, I’d expect you to tell me if you have a reason to object to anything I ask of you. If you respect yourself, you’ll be able to do that. We’ll talk, you and I. Maybe you’ll teach me to do a better job of that, talking. I know it isn’t my best thing. I’m too accustomed to keeping everything inside me, keeping everything private. This is probably more words I’ve strung together at one time than I can remember in the past 10 years!”
Cal smiled, and somehow it seemed to Ren like he was sitting taller in his seat. Cal took a quick glance at him and said, “I’ve never had a teenage son before. I’ll be learning how to be a father, and I’ll probably screw it up now and then. I hope you have patience with me. Your being gay, if you really are and weren’t just doing what your hormones were telling you to do, will just make it a little more complicated because you’ll be feeling things I never felt, and so I won’t be on your wavelength to the degree most fathers are with their sons. Although from what I’ve heard, being on the particular wavelength most boys are on doesn’t really help those fathers or those sons a hell of a lot.”
Ren had been scared and depressed before he’d finally taken the plunge and spoken up about who he was and why he was here. He’d only seen more trouble ahead, and that thinking had put him in a dark and scary place. What he was hearing now was all sunshine. Could this really be true? He had no frame of reference to fit this in. He sat back in his seat, as much as his back would let him, and allowed what he’d just heard to wash over him.
Then he started to think about the things he didn’t like about himself, the things he could try to change. His dad had said he could do this, and he could see that this was certainly the opportune time if he wanted to. And he did! He didn’t like that he was shy; he found it almost impossible to look into someone’s eyes when first meeting them. He hated that he didn’t have the courage to stand up for himself; in a lifetime with his mother, he’d done that only once, and he was that way with other adults and older kids, too. He hated that he was so reserved and introverted, while other boys were open and carefree.
Could he change these things? Could he be how he wished he could be instead of who he’d been for almost 14 years? His automatic response was, no, he couldn’t change. But that, too, was something he needed to work on. He needed to stop being so negative, especially in regards to himself. And the thought came to him that the key to all this was the ‘working on it’ part. He didn’t have to change from a caterpillar to a butterfly in one instant. What he had to do was work on it and make progress toward what he wanted for himself. Recognizing what he wanted to change was the first part, but a very important one.
> 2 <
They drove for about a half hour before either of them spoke again. The land stayed mostly the same, although Ren could see more roll to it now, and an occasional tree or trees dotted the landscape. The silence in the truck was finally broken when Ren asked a question.
“How come you’re a foreman? I mean, that sounds like a hands-on sort of job where you have to know all about ranching and how to handle all the workers and tell them what to do. You wouldn’t have to have a college degree, I imagine, but you would have to know how to do everything that has to be done, and there must be a million little things. But you’ve only been here a few years, and you said some of these men have been here much longer. Why would Mrs. Hanson have made you the foreman?”
Cal was quiet for a moment or two. Ren was getting to know him now, and this was the normal reaction he saw his dad go through before answering a question. The man was deliberate and wanted everything settled in his mind before he opened his mouth. Thinking before speaking. Not a usual thing for most people, and certainly not for himself, Ren thought. But maybe it should be.
“OK,” Cal finally said. “First, I did finish college. I decided I wasn’t going to let what had gone on with your mother be the reason I didn’t finish, so all the time I was roaming around, I was taking classes on my computer, and I did finish and graduate, thought I had the diploma mailed to me. Mrs. Hanson was impressed by that and it was one of the reasons she hired me. Now, second. I haven’t told you about my life at all before I met your mother.”
“Yeah, uh yes… yes, you did. You said you were shy in high school!”
Cal grinned at Ren, who returned it. “You don’t miss much, do you?” he laughed. “Well, yes, I was shy. And maybe part of that was the way I grew up. My dad was a farmer, and he not only farmed crops, he also had a small number of beef cattle. It wasn’t a large spread, but large enough that he hired a couple of hands to help him out.
“We were out in the country, and I didn’t have any other kids to associate with other than my brother, who was a couple years older than me. There wasn’t much to do there, and my father wasn’t one to play, anyway. He was a good man, but his father had worked hard all his life on the farm, and so did my dad. It was the only thing he knew.
“I guess this is a long way of saying I was raised on a ranch. I was raised around cattle, and maybe because there wasn’t anything else for a kid to do or maybe because I was just following the lead of my dad, I started in pretty early tagging along with my brother, the hands and my dad, watching, and then later doing what they did.”
He stopped, and Ren knew by now that if he wanted to know more, he’d have to ask. He was about to when he remembered what he’d just decided to do: think a little before opening your mouth. So he thought, then asked a different question entirely.
“Is that why you were shy in high school? Because you hadn’t grown up around kids?”
Cal didn’t smile this time. “I think it probably was. The elementary school I went to was very small, and the kids were all farm and ranch kids and were a lot like I was, not too talkative, pretty serious, and I never did make a lot of friends. When I went to high school, it was a lot bigger, and all those kids kind of knew each other, or at least I thought so, and none of them had anything in common with me. I didn’t really make any friends all the time I was there. That wasn’t all bad, of course. Not many kids from that high school went on to college. I spent most of the time while they were socializing by myself at home doing homework or chores. I discovered I had a decent head on my shoulders and turned my attention more into my schoolwork than most of the other kids did. I guess it paid off.”
Ren thought about that, growing up without any other kids around, a life much different from his in some ways. He hadn’t had a passel of friends, either, but he had had two or three. He knew he was a little shy, too, but not as much as some kids were. He didn’t feel it defined him, even though it was one of the things he was going to try to improve in himself.
Neither of them spoke again for several miles. Ren was thinking about what his dad had said and about himself, who he was and just what traits he did have when his father surprised him by asking about what he was thinking.
Cal said, “You’re being quiet all of a sudden. Why don’t you talk to me a little? I want to know about you. Can you tell me something about yourself? Maybe you’re not ready to talk about yourself personally, but you could tell me how your life has been for the past couple of years. I know I did a lot of growing up from about age 10 through 15. You’re right in the middle of that now. Maybe you could let me know what’s been going on with you the past couple of years. If you want to.”
Ren fell silent, thinking about how things started to get worse for him when he was 10, which was when his mother’s latest boyfriend moved in with them. As Ren grew older, the man seemed to resent him more and more. His mother seemed to get angrier at him, too, and it had gotten to where they’d been at war most of the time. On reflection, Ren now knew why. She’s always been bossy, but in the past couple of years, he’d started arguing and resisting her orders. Now he had context for that; it was just what his dad had done, and her reaction to it was just how she’d reacted to him!
They hadn’t been a happy few years. He’d been a relatively happy boy with pretty good self-confidence before that. He wasn’t happy or self-confident any longer.
Ren turned in the seat and looked at his dad, wanting to watch his face when he asked what he was going to ask. “Dad?” He paused, realizing the question might be rude. Then he asked it anyway because he wanted to know the answer. “Dad, were you happy when you were 12?”
His dad glanced over at him, and Ren saw him evince a wry grin. “That’s a really strange age. You know you’re not a little kid any longer, and yet you still enjoy a lot of those kid things, but can’t do them. Your body is beginning to change, and you don’t like what it’s becoming for the most part because it isn’t you any longer. At 11 you were on top of the world, and now, this? You can’t even do a lot of the things you could do easily any more. You’re growing, and your bones hurt, and you aren’t sure who you are any longer. Things were pretty cut and dried and clear to you a year earlier, but not at 12.”
That wasn’t what Ren wanted to know. He knew all that, all about the changes. He was still experiencing them. “Yeah, but were you happy?”
His father laughed. “Well, yeah, sometimes. Sometimes not. My father was a tough man, but he loved me. He wasn’t mean at all, but fathers back then, farm fathers at least, expected their sons to toe the line, and I toed the line. Maybe that’s a reason I grew up wanting to be independent, but at the time what I was experiencing at home didn’t seem oppressive, and he wasn’t at all tyrannical or cruel. When I left home, however, I’d become pretty self-reliant, and I soon discovered I needed my independence if I was going to be happy. I wanted to be able to do things my way and not be answering to a bunch of bosses who felt they were superior to me. My dad encouraged me to figure out how to do things the best I could, to look at them before suddenly jumping in, to use my head. I’d learned that well. It was ingrained in me, I guess.”
Ren was set to ask another question, but to his surprise, his dad continued. The remembering was causing him to want to talk.
“I was small like you are. My dad didn’t ask any less of me because of that, but we talked about it. My dad talked to my brother and me a lot at night. He was pretty smart. Maybe I got my brains from him. He told me bigger kids would probably try to take advantage of me because of my size, and I’d probably get in some fights—and probably lose some, too. But he said not to back down; I’d not like myself very much if I did, and the pain from that would be much worse than the pain of a busted nose or sore jaw. But he also said there was nothing wrong with avoiding a fight, if I could without running away from it. He told me I had a good head on my shoulders and to use what assets I had to make my way in the world. I took that to mean if I could talk my way out of a fight, there was nothing wrong with that. If you’ve got brains, use them.”
He stopped and glanced over at Ren, who was watching him intently. “What about you? Are you smart?”
Ren blushed. Then he nodded. “I think so. I do real well in school. But even more than that, I can figure things out pretty well. Mechanical things—but people, too.”
His father smiled. “Thought so. You look like I did at your age, and I can see some of my mannerisms, too, even though I wasn’t around for you to copy them. I’m not surprised you’d have some brains in your head. You might do well to take the same advice I did from my old man: learn to use them. Try to live using your brains instead of your emotions. Don’t just react to things; think about them.”
Ren reflected on that, about Cal’s father—his own grandfather, come to think of it—talking to his sons, giving them advice. He’d never had that. He wondered if he’d have been able to tell that man, his grandfather, he was gay if he’d known him when growing up. He thought maybe, if their relationship was good; maybe he could have. Maybe his dad would have said the same thing then, that maybe he wasn’t gay. But Ren was. He knew that. He just knew. But this conversation, talking about things like this, getting adult advice that wasn’t being given as criticism for what he’d supposedly done wrong, someone giving him advice because they felt he could benefit from it, like he mattered—this was all new territory for him. It was beyond anything he’d experienced in the past, and it made him feel really good in a way that was new to him. He knew one thing for sure: he liked it.
They rode in silence for a while, staring at the unchanging landscape, Ren thinking. He wanted to know more about his dad. And the man had seemed to warm up, remembering when he was younger. Maybe that was a way to get him to say more.
“Did you know who you were when you were 13? You said you weren’t sure at 12.”
Cal turned his head toward Ren instead of answering. He studied him for a moment, then asked, “You’re 13. Do you know who you are? I don’t mean know you’re gay. I mean important stuff like what you want to be when you’re grown; like what you’d do if you saw a bunch of kids hurting another kid who was all alone; like would you tell the truth if the truth would get you in trouble and a lie would get you out of it; like if you really wanted an A in a class and needed an A on a test you were taking, would you cheat on it to get that A if no one would know; like...”
He stopped when he saw Ren shaking his head. “I thought I knew who I was,” Ren said. “But then, I thought my name was Walker, too. I can tell you what the correct answer for all those things is. But you want me to be honest. I want to be, too. So the truth is I don’t know for sure what I’d do with most of those things till I was faced with them. I guess, when it comes to knowing who I am, I still need to find out.”
His dad smiled. “Everyone does at 13. The fact you’ll admit it puts you ahead of the game. And gives me just one more reason to find you an impressive kid.”
> 3 <
They stopped for lunch in a larger town than the last one they’d driven through. They passed a sign reading Campburn Lake, and shortly after they were in town itself. This one had houses and a downtown and even a school. The only thing Ren couldn’t see was a lake. Cal told him there was one, but it was off to the north, and they wouldn’t see it from the highway. He said there were a number of small lakes in the area, some less than an acre in size, some considerably larger.
Ren ordered a cheeseburger and fries. Cal had a salad. “I don’t eat a whole lot,” he told Ren. “I stay lean and mean, just as I like it.” He grinned, and Ren did, too, and felt himself growing very comfortable with this man. Ren reached up and swiped his hair back off his forehead, and then realized he’d seen Cal do the same thing an hour earlier, and he’d done it the exact same way.
Having seen the houses and people outside as they drove into town, Ren asked, “Are we close to the ranch yet? Is this where I’ll be going to school?”
“No, we’re still a couple of hours from the ranch. It would be too much of a trip for the kids, over four hours a day in a bus. So we sort of homeschool all the kids. You’ll see.”
Ren grinned. If there was a way for his dad not to have to talk about things, he seemed to find it. But Ren was getting used to it, and the man was right: he would see. When they got there.
Whenever that was.
After lunch, they were back in the truck. Ren burped as silently as he could, and watched the boring scenery pass by. He didn’t realize it, but when he opened his eyes a while later, he knew he’d fallen asleep. The sun was halfway down the sky, now directly in their eyes as they drove west.
He must have moved because his dad looked over at him, then smiled. “Hey, kid! I think you probably needed that. I’ve been thinking about what you’ve been through the past few days. Few years, really. You know, you’re pretty tough. You don’t look it. You’re skinny and not very tall. I don’t see much muscle on your arms. That’s what anyone sees, looking at you. But inside, where it matters, you’re strong. You got whipped and didn’t say anything when your back must have been killing you all day. You were starving when we got to the Ashville house, and you didn’t ask for food. You were making the best of a terrible situation and I didn’t hear one word of complaint. You had to be scared, probably feeling a little sick or nauseous, and you never gave a hint of that to me.
“Then you had this secret about yourself, too, and had no idea how I’d react or what I’d do when I found out. What if I rejected you, said I couldn’t abide a gay son? You’d have had nowhere to go. You’d have been completely lost. But you didn’t dither about it. You thought about it, probably weighed your options and decided, and you came out and told me.”
He took a moment to look into Ren’s face. Their eyes met.
Cal looked away, but when he spoke, Ren heard something new in his voice. There was evident pride there now. “Yeah, tough. That’s the right word. You know, you’re going to do fine at the ranch. Really fine. Just by being yourself.”
Ren liked what he was hearing but didn’t really believe it. He liked that his dad thought that way, but for himself, he wasn’t sure. He was small, and no matter what his dad said, he wasn’t tough. He’d be out of place where everyone knew everyone. He was a little scared. He admitted that to himself. But he’d have to face it. He now knew one thing that helped. He knew his father was proud of him and liked him and that he had someone behind him now. He hadn’t had that before. Having someone like that, well, it might make all the difference in the world.
They drove on, and Ren screwed up the courage to ask something he’d been thinking and worrying about. “Dad, what should I do when we get there? How should I act? I’ll be the new kid. How do I fit in? I’ve never been the new kid before.”
“We talked about this a while ago.”
“Yeah, but, well, I guess I’m just really nervous.”
Cal put his hand on Ren’s shoulder again and squeezed it gently. “I’m going to tell you something now, Ren. Something to think about, and maybe it’ll help when we get there. It’s pretty simple, really. Something I’ve learned. It’s this: whatever you want out of life, go after it. The rewards in life are there for those who seek them out. Luck seems to follow those who are out there trying to get what they want. Be aggressive, not passive, in finding what you want. By that, I don’t mean walking all over others or pushing them aside. I mean, don’t sit back and wait for what you want to come to you. Go get it for yourself. Don’t step on other people, but actively seek what you want. You need to lead your life on your terms, find what makes you happy, and not just do what someone else thinks you should.”He glanced at Ren, trying to gauge the boy’s reaction. Ren was looking at him intently. Good, Cal thought. “And there’s one last thing. It’s simple: be kind. Go after what you want using your best asset, your head, and be kind. With those things in mind, I think you’ll be ready for whatever you’ll find at the ranch.”