Chapter 21 

Stepping Back From The Abyss

 

         My cake was chocolate on chocolate with chocolate flowers decorating the top.  Walt had just enough candles to get to seventeen.  I watched him place the candles one-by-one on the cake after we finished dinner. His hand shook and the chore tired him out.           

       Each candle was a year, but I still wasn’t positive how old I really was. My lie about my age had permeated my brain over the time I’d spent on the street. I wasn’t sure of anything anymore.      

       They didn't look like much. There seemed to be far too few for the way I felt.  I tried to remember the day I turned sixteen. I remembered Ralphie standing across from me with the beaming smile he always wore. I shut down the memory and forced myself back into the present.  Ralphie had left me without a word and for that I couldn’t forgive him.  Because of him I’d been to hell and back and he didn’t deserve a place in my memories, only I couldn’t keep him out.

       My world was so much smaller then.  I remembered myself being such a little boy a year ago. Not that I was so much bigger or so much wiser now, but there seemed to be no relationship from the then me to the present me. I felt like I had seen too much and gone too far from that little boy to ever find him again. I didn't know if I'd live to see another birthday.  I wasn’t sure Walt would be alive either. It came to me that Ty might not be alive. A year ago I thought Ralphie would always be alive.          

       The value of life had changed, and in the next day the reality of my own mortality was going to be made painfully clear.     

       There were no presents, and yet there was a gift I couldn't touch or see. I completed the ceremony of blowing out the candles after Ty lit them with a torch of a lighter.  They could tell I had no enthusiasm for anything more. We ate cake and ice cream in smiling silence.         

       I ate a second piece with more ice cream.  For days now I felt like I couldn't get enough to eat. I worried I'd weigh a ton by the time I was seventeen.   I made no attempt to curb my eating habits.  I ate everything I could get my hands on, and even after I was full. I ate because  I could. I kept eating because I could.  

       "Ty, Billie Joe has given me his home phone number.  Tomorrow I'll call and see if I can open the door to getting him back home."             

       "Good!  Maybe I should talk to Todd."             

       "Yes!  I think we better let Todd know what we are doing.  That way we can stay out of trouble if his family is looking for someone to blame."             

       "I'm to blame.  They're to blame.  Don't worry. I'll straighten that out," I said.        

       "Some people don't want things straightening out.  We need to cover our ass here," Walt said.             

       We listened to more sixties music and I sat with my legs tucked under me on the corner of the couch.  I wondered what that first meeting would be like. I didn't look forward to hours of traveling and knowing at the end I’d need to face my parents.  What was I going to say?  How was I going to explain where I'd been and what I had done?  How much did they already know?  Did I keep lying or was it time to try to recover what was left of my soul?

       Bad things always come right away.  I'd have to wait for Carl for almost forever.  The next morning Walt sat in his easy chair with the phone on his lap and my parents phone number in his hand.  I sat on one side of the couch, Ty sat on the other side.  My feet were tucked up under me and my mind was rushing inside my head but it was blank.  There was only a cold fear that lay in the pit of my stomach.  My brain wasn't able to settle on anything but the phone and where I knew it led.  In this case it led directly to dread.               

       The phone must have rung ten times on the other end.        

       "Hello, I'm Walter Amos  Rhodes.  No, you don't know me.  No, sir.  If you'll give me a second I'll explain.  I'm calling you from San Francisco. Yes, I do.  Yes, I have.  He's okay.  That's why I'm calling you, Mr. Walker."        

       "Mr. Walker. . . .  Mr. Walker!  If you'll listen I'll explain to you why I'm calling. . . .  Mr. Walker?"       

       Walt held the receiver of the phone, with its sound of angry bees, down to his chest.  He looked at my face.  He tried to smile, but it didn't take.  He put the receiver back to his ear.               

       "Yes.  I'm still here.  If you'll give me a chance.  Yes, I know you can have me arrested. Yes, sir, I know you know people in San Francisco.  One of them is your son, Mr. Walker, and if you'll listen to me for a minute maybe we can get Billie Joe home where he belongs. Thank you."  

       "No, I don't know where he's at right now.  I know someone that knows him. A friend of mine is quite close with people Billie Joe knows.  Yes, I've seen him.  He gave me your phone number.  He's afraid to call you himself.  Mr. Walker you'll have to ask yourself why he is afraid to talk to you.  I'm merely in the middle of this thing.  I'd like to get him home and off the streets. That's my only interest here."               

       "Yes, I know there is a reward.  No, I don't expect to collect it.  That would go to Ty Pruett.  He'll set up the final details.  He's the one who knows Billie Joe."     

       "I just know he's willing to return home if you aren't going to make it too tough on him.  That's why I'm calling you."             

       "No, I won't give you my number.  You'd have the police up here in half an hour." 

       He listened to more of the angry buzz. 

       "Your phone may have been tapped two months ago, but I doubt there is still a tap on after this length of time.  The police have better things to do.  All I want to do is get him home to you Mr. Walker.           

       "I'll tell you what.  I will call you tomorrow at this time.  Todd Dorsey is a social worker in San Francisco.  He knows about Billie Joe.  He also knows Ty very well.  I think between the two of them we can get him to come in.  We can get him home to you.  You wait for my call at this time tomorrow.  I'll see what we can set up.  You can trust Todd.  He gets kids home to where they belong all the time.  It's his job."       

       He listened again for a moment, and then said, "You have a nice day too, sir.  Yes, very nice talking to you."           

       Walt hung the phone up.  He looked at me squirming on the couch.         Quite an old man you got there."           

       "Ain't that the truth!  He was pretty mad?"            

       "I guess.  I don't really know.  He tried to do all the talking.  Wanted to tell me all he could do."             

       "That's my dad.  He's always in control."        

       "We'll get Todd on it tomorrow.  He won't be overpowered.  I don't have the time to argue."         

        The hours had grown intolerably long.  I didn't sleep much that night.  I spent most of my time in the kitchen drinking ice water and worrying.  Ty kept getting up to see if I was okay.  My stomach was all turned upside down, and I just wanted to get it over with.  A couple of times I almost left the apartment, but I couldn't.  I couldn't face the street again.  Being warm, well fed and comfortable was more addictive than the streets.  They had lost all of their allure.               

       Todd came over at ten the next morning.  He was overjoyed that I was going home.  We sat around the dinning room table and drank coffee.  Walt tried to explain the conversation from the day before.   Then the talk took a serious turn.           

       "There are complications about him going home, Todd," Walt said.        

       "Wait a minute.  He's not backing out?"          

       "I don't think so.  If they agree not to chain him to his bedroom wall, I think he'll go for almost anything else.  It's just I talked to his father. I don't know how he's going to handle it."  

       Todd looked puzzled.  "He's offered a reward.  He's been in touch with the police, social services, offered to come out the day they found his things up at the motel.  He seems to want him back.  What are you talking about?"     

       Walt turned to me with solemn eyes.  "Billie Joe, I know what you told me was in confidence, but Todd's a confidential kind of guy.  He could have busted you from the get-go.  I think you better talk to him about what we talked about."          

       "No, I don't think I should."       

       "It's up to you to tell him, or I will.  We are talking some serious shit here."             

       "I'm going out," Ty said.            

       "Please stay," I said.  "You're my only protection from these two."          

       "I don't want to hear this, Billie Joe."              

       "Truth hurts, Ty."  I gulped air to ease my chest.  "I'm sorry. You did your best."               

       "I should have kicked your ass right off.  I should have forced you to go home instead of lettin’ you be gettin’ all up inside my head.  I tried to keep you out of it."  His face screwed up with anguish.  "I tried."        

       Todd watched us with a puzzled face.  "Look you guys, I'm a bit lost here. What's this all about."            

       "Billie Joe's going to need to do some watching when he gets home," Walt said.  "I don't think Mr. Walker is the kind of man that wants to hear this. I sure as hell won't tell him.  I don't even want to see him.  I already talked to him."                

       "Wait.  Wait.  Ty, you said Billie Joe was safe.  Careful."                  "Look, Todd, when he was around me.  I kept him careful.  I don't know anything about this, I don't even want to know," Ty said.               

       "It was after Ty came up to help Walt.  After the police came and Gene and I escaped.  I holed up with him a few days.  Then we holed up back at the hotel.  Me and five or six guys.   People were coming and going."  I took in more air.  "I started doing drugs with them.  I mean all the time.  I was stoned for a week or so, I guess.  Four days?  It could have been two weeks. I don't remember much."        

       "Shit!" Todd said.  "I see where this is going.   Jesus Christ!  I got to face this man and tell him that?  I can see why you don't want to see him Walt."              

       "How many?"  Ty's voice was low.            

       "How many what?"             

       "How many guys were you with in this maybe four days, maybe a week, maybe two week period of time?"       

       "I don't know.  Five?  Ten?  Twenty?  I don't know.  They came and went.  There were five or six of us staying there.  Sharon brought guys up. They partied with us.  I don't know.  I did it with all of them I guess."                

       "Jesus Fucking Christ!  You ever think about AIDS boy?"                

       "No, sir. I didn't think about anything."           

       "Jesus Fucking Christ!!  How many since?  How many you been with since you left that party at the hotel?"            

       "None.  Nobody I done nothin with."        

       "Good.  At least that's something.  You aren't spreading it."           "Tell him the truth Billie Joe.  He ain't fuckin around here.  Tell him about the guys you was gettin in with when I found you."             

       "No.  I didn't do anything.  They just wanted to blow me for money.  It was only two.  That was only a few.  I wasn't doing no sex with anyone but Fred.  I don't remember how many I got in with."        

       "You mean you were doing Fred?"  Todd walked around in circles with his hands on his hips.              

       "He was up there at the party for the same amount of time I was.  We were doing it together all the time after the party."            

       "He do it with all those guys too?"           

       "No.  I don't think so.  There was one guy.  Gil.  They were doing it, and maybe others.  I really didn't have much time to worry about Fred.  I kept pretty busy."                 

       "How many guys did you hustle?"            

       "I don't remember."            

       "Shit!  What kind of cars?  What do you remember?"             

       "We were still doing drugs.  Fred and me.  I couldn't do anything mostly. I faked like I was.  I don't know how many.  One kid.   Shiny car.  Green Pontiac I think.  I remember he was seventeen.  He thought I was older than he was.  He's the only one I liked."             

       "What did you do?"             

       "He blew me."             

       "You orgasm?"             

       "Yeah!  I told you I liked him.   It's what he wanted."            

       "Jesus Fucking Christ!  What's this kid's name?  Green Pontiac.   Do you remember the tag?"             

       "I don't even remember what day it was."             

       "Look, you little shit," Todd exploded.  “Don't you know what you've done?  Don't you know you are infecting people with this shit if you got it?  Don't you know this seventeen year old might have AIDS because of you?  Don't you know this is no game?  Look around you, Billie Joe!   See him?"   He jerked his head toward Walt.  "He's dying of AIDS.  He darted his eyes at Ty.  " See him?  He's going to be dying of AIDS.  You might be going down that same road.  That seventeen year old kid you liked might be going down that road with you.  That's what this is about!"  He fell back on the sofa, his eyes glaring with exasperation.        

       It was like being hit by a boxer in rapid fire punches.  The reality had never struck me.  I mean I knew Walt was dying and I felt sorry for that.  I felt sorry Ty said he was going to die, but the possibility of my getting it and of my giving it to others had never once entered my mind.  Not until that very instant.  The realization shocked me.   

       "Did the boy tell you his name?"              

       "I don't remember."            

       We sat around waiting for eleven o'clock.  Todd grew very very quiet.  I think I preferred him ranting and raving to the silence.  At exactly eleven o'clock he looked at his watch.  He picked up the phone and dialed.           

       "Mr. Walker please.  Todd Dorsey here.  I think you were expecting my call. Yes, sir.  I am in touch with the boy that knows Billie Joe.  I've spoken to Billie Joe.  Yes, sir.  He is willing to come home."  

       My father's voice was a tiny tinny sound at his ear. 

       "You will.  Yes, sir.  I think I can set that up.  I'll give you my numbers.  Yes, sir.  You call me and let me know when.  Yes, sir.  I'm working on it right now.  Yes, sir."              

       Todd paused and listened again to my dad for a moment. 

       "Mr. Walker, there are some things we've got to talk about.  Well, number one, Billie Joe is under my jurisdiction.  I feel a responsibility when I get a boy home to see he's treated fair.  Yes, sir.  Yes, sir.  I understand, Mr. Walker.  My main aim is to see they aren't abused once they return.  If we can get him back to you, and you have a mind to be fair, we might be able to keep him home until he's eighteen.  That's my only concern.  I don't want him out here on my streets again in a few weeks."             

       "Well, first, I'll contact the social services authorities there.  They'll be asked to check on him and report back to me.  I want him to be safe and able to get his life back in the right direction.  We like to have the co-operation of the parents.  Yes, sir.  I know they are a handful, sir.  We know discipline is needed as part of the answer.  Maybe a few therapy sessions to help him readjust, Mr. Walker.  We find that to be helpful."        

       He listened again for a longer period.  "I don't think you understand, Mr. Walker.  Your boy has been living on the streets.  There are no rules on the streets.  Once these kids get out there, it's really hard to get them home again.  We're lucky with Billie Joe.  If you push him, he'll be gone in a Minneapolis minute, Mr. Walker.  I work with these kids every day.  I know once they are on the street it's hard getting them off." 

       He listened a minute.  "Yes, sir.  It's hard keeping them off.  It's going to take some effort on your part.  You can keep him home, or you can run him right back to me."        

       Todd looked at me and raised his eyebrows. 

       "There is one more thing.  I really don't know how to say this.  It's just come to my attention, and well, as his parent, I can't keep this from you.  There will have to be testing when he gets home.  STD's, Mr. Walker.  That's tests for Sexually Transmitted Diseases, sir.  I'm afraid so.  It's how they survive.  Mr. Walker.  Mr. Walker.  Please, Mr. Walker, listen to what I have to say. AIDS, Mr. Walker.  Billie Joe will need to be tested for the AIDS virus.  I would suggest immediately and then every couple of months for six months. Some people show it pretty fast, and others take as much as six months to develop the antibodies.  I'll make sure you get all the information you need.  I'll take care of that myself.

               "I know, sir.  I wish I didn't have to.  We're talking your son's life now.  It's better to be safe than sorry, sir.  Yes, sir.   Well, you call my office or my pager number.  You can leave a message or I'll call you back if you like.  You can give me the details and I can set everything up.  No, sir.  No.   I don't think it's necessary to keep him locked up.  He's in a safe house and he's ready to go home, sir.  Yes, sir.  Good-bye."           

       Todd wiped the sweat from his forehead and looked at me.           "He's coming for you.  He'll fly here as quick as he can get a flight.  He thinks it will be tomorrow before he can get out of there.  He says he could go to O'Hare, but he thinks it will be better to get you right back home without a lot of extra traveling."               

       "He mad?"            

       "That's not a word I'd use.  Your father is not a happy camper.  I'll do what I can, but he sounds like a pretty strong-willed man.  I don't think life on the farm will be the same for you."        

       "Didn't expect it to be.  What about the AIDS thing?"        

       "I think that threw him.  He tried to tell me all the ways you could get AIDS.  He left out sex.  I'm afraid your father isn't ready for thinking about his little boy being in the middle of an orgy.  I don't know if I'm ready for that.  You're going to have a problem answering his questions.  I'll do what I can for you."           

       He drew a deep breath, relaxing the tension that had built up while he talked to my father. 

       "He'll be here as soon as he can get here.  I'll call Walt as quick as your father calls me.  Let's just stay close to the house. I'll go see about setting Fred up for testing.  I was afraid of this." 

       "What are my chances?" I asked.             

       "Chances of getting it or chances of not getting it?"              

       "Either."               

       "Billie Joe, the more risks you take the more likely you are to get it. Most of the kids up in that hotel have it.  That means you've been exposed. The chances you've got it are good.  Maybe you'll be lucky.  It happens, but unprotected sex with half a dozen to a dozen partners . . . well, you are on a thin rope young man." 

       "What about the kid I was with?"     

       "If it was a one shot deal, and you'd just been exposed, his odds are a lot better than yours.  We just don't know how quickly it spreads, but indications are in the first few days after you are exposed, you are probably most infectious.  The virus particles and antibodies are multiplying at a tremendous rate just after they enter the body.   Then it slows down and takes up to six months to finally show up.  For the next six months you'll have to be monitored."          

       "How long if I got it?  How long will I live?"           

       "Hard to say.  That's the hardest part of the entire equation.  The people getting it now seem to be living longer with it.  AZT and some other drugs are slowing it down.  There are better treatments for the opportunistic infections.  It's an unknown.  You could be dead in a year.  You could still be going strong in ten years.  There just is no way to give you an answer."   

       "His name was Danny, but he didn't do anything.  I remember now.  I did it to him.  I was still pretty high at the time.  He thought I was nice.  He was just a kid."          

       "Good.  At least you don't have that on your conscience and I won't have to be looking for him.  It won't be easy, Billie Joe, but you are doing the right thing.  You get your life back under control.  Go Home.  Take your medicine.  Finish school.  Then come back to San Francisco.  I don't want to ever catch you out on my streets again, but you can stop by and say 'Hi' once you graduate high school."        

       "I just might do that.  I think I'll stay home, now.  I've found out what I wanted to know."   

       "What's that?" Todd asked.               

       "It sucks.  The streets suck.  Most of the people suck.  There are a few cool dudes, but most just want to use you."              

       "They couldn't use you if you weren't out there.  That's what I'm up against every day.  You just go home and straighten your life out.  It will be hard at first, but you'll settle back in."  

       "Ty, you knew Harvey didn't you?"           

       "Yeah!  Little prick!  Loud mouth."           

       "They found him dead up near the park."               

       "Someone did him?"           

       "No.  It was AIDS.  They had him in custody after the motel raid.  They put him up in the hospital.  He had pneumonia so they say.  He walked out. Found him a few days later up near the park.  Natural causes.  If you can call AIDS natural causes.  That's what happens when you don't take the meds. Harvey was a hardhead." 

       He grimaced and looked into the distance, superimposing the past on the present.  "No longer."        

       I thought about Harvey.  I thought about Dennis and John.  I thought about all the guys I was with up in the hotel.  I wondered about Tim and Tony.  Gene and Don.  Bryce and Gil.  How many of us would be dead this time next year?  How many of us would be infected?  Their faces made trips back and forth through my brain.  I felt weak and empty and even sorry for Harvey.  I didn't like him.  I didn't like the way he was, but he didn't deserve to die.  I didn't much like the way I was either.               

       Todd talked with Walt and Ty for a while.  I just sat and pretended to listen, but my mind was rushing a million miles a second.  I tried to remember the faces of the people I'd been with those nights in the hotel.  I could remember a lot of details, but mostly I had been concerned with areas other than faces.  I always lost count at ten or eleven.  I knew I'd been with at least that many.     

       The thought that those few hours of sex could cost me my life seemed contradictory.  How could something that gave me that much pleasure be deadly?  Now I had to worry about touching anyone else.  For six months I'd have to be careful of everyone I got close to. I couldn't allow myself to become involved with anyone sexually.  That was going to be the hardest thing of all.  I still wanted to be able to have sex.    

       But of course I would be in Minnesota . . . and no one had sex in Minnesota.  Not so's you'd notice anyway.