I wrote 1969 – Stirrings in 1982 during a particularly lonely and unhappy time in my life shortly after my divorce from my wife of 12 years. The story was posted on a bulletin board at that time, and then I lost any track of it. In fact, I even lost my original file in one of my many computer upgrades or less frequent, hard-disk crashes.
I wrote the story primarily for my own consumption—to address conflicts in my mind on issues of sexuality and love—but I guess I got the writer's bug and decided, after drinking too much wine one night, to post it on a bulletin board for others to see. It was too much of a mixture of vanity and alcohol, I guess. I wrote it also because I wanted to recognize how some people can enter one's life briefly then, after departing physically, stay in the background of one's thoughts, never actually leaving the mind, like an ember in a campfire that might suddenly turn back to life. Jake Cantwell was just such a person.
For reasons that will become apparent, 1969 – Stirrings was to become the first part of a longer story that follows. I subsequently found a copy of the original story, which I reprint below, except that I have had to change the names used in 1969 – Stirrings to make them to conform to those in the follow-on story.
I awoke abruptly. It was the middle of the hottest night that summer in Mississippi. Jake's hand was resting on the top of my right thigh, the tips of his fingers just an inch from what I groggily realized was a raging erection. I lay on my back, sweaty from the interminable heat of that night, slowly stirring, but not alert enough to comprehend what was really happening. I didn't know how long Jake's hand had been there, but a more alert part of my body obviously had noticed some time earlier.
'My God! Oh, my God!' I said to myself as my senses returned and my confusion mounted. 'Oh, My God, God, God!'
It was well after midnight on the night before our project for the summer in the South was coming to an end. When I had gone to bed, the sounds coming through the window screens and the heavy night air were distant, evening laughter and the chattering of people enjoying the night. Now, beneath the hum of the fan, I could hear crickets, and when I padded off to the kitchen and then the bathroom, I could hear the rustling of animals and other creatures of the late night.
Even though it was late, there was no relief from the heat and humidity. It was just a miserable, sweltering night. That lone fan that sat on the dresser only pushed the heavy, wet air from one side of the room to the other as it oscillated, the breeze sweeping lazily across the old double bed on which we lay. Any semblance of blankets on the bed had been kicked aside as had the tangled top sheet that had covered my legs earlier. The sheet was thin and worn, but clean, though far too warm that night even to keep over me for modesty.
I had gone to bed as usual in my boxers, but some time during the night I had shucked them in sweaty desperation. Even they, skimpy as they were, were too hot to wear that night. Later in the night, I had thrown most of the sheet aside, unable to stand anything between me and the wafts of air that passed pathetically by with each swing of the fan. I counted on the semi-darkness to protect my modesty. At first light, I intended to slip the boxers back on, pull the sheet back over me and return to respectability.
Jake, next to me, and I were college students—me, actually a recent graduate—tutoring young black children in Mississippi for the summer, sharing a bed because we had to. There was nothing intimate between us.
* * *
According to the sheet of paper I was reading, his full name was John Edward Cantwell III. That sounded somewhat pretentious to me, but I guess not considering the college he was attending. As I was soon to find out, though, he was Jake to his friends. He clambered off the Greyhound bus in June of 1969 to start a summer of tutoring poor Southern, mainly black, kids in reading, writing, arithmetic and, as it turned out, whatever else we could think of. The young man looked around hesitantly as he stepped out of the bus door-well onto the platform. As the other passengers drifted away, it was clear he was the person I was waiting for.
For better or worse, my mind makes an immediate impression of people that I meet. For Jake, that instant impression was sunshine, joy, and spontaneity, all together at the same time, like the feeling I felt upon the first arrival of the Beatles in the United States. Deep down, I must have realized there was something larger than life about him. Usually, my first impressions are pretty accurate.
Jake was strikingly good looking. He was taller than I by an inch or so, medium shouldered, gangly, but with a trim athlete's waist. His face was topped with light auburn-colored hair—the tips probably turning strawberry blond if he were in the sun long enough. His soft curls fell lightly over his ears, collar and forehead. His eyes were light hazel and were flecked with what seemed like gold. He had a broad mouth that produced a radiant, fetching smile that dominated both his fine-boned face and his surroundings. His chin had just a hint of a cleft. His skin had a slightly reddish tone; as a child, he probably had had a severe case of freckles.
Except for a light growth of beard showing above his lips and sparsely on his chin, Jake's face was smooth, but with age, I knew crow's nests would accent his eyes and deepen the sharp curved lines at the edges of his mouth.
Though he seemed thin and gangly at first, he was really graceful and strong as he had lugged his heavy suitcase, knapsack and several stuffed plastic bags off the bus. He looked 17, but I knew from the piece of paper in my hand that he had just finished his junior year in college.
He was to be my roommate for the summer at Grandma Hannah's house.
Grannah, as everybody called her, lived alone in a small house on Cypress Street, an unpaved, dusty road that went east to west through the poor part of town about three blocks from the bus station. Jake and I were to share a large double bed in a bedroom barely large enough to contain it. Grannah, who had given up this room for the summer, slept in a tiny bedroom/sitting room up the stairs that led from the living room.
"John Cantwell?" I said as I walked up to him.
"Yes. My friends call me Jake. Maybe I'll let you call me Jake someday." Well, maybe my first impression was wrong this time.
"I'm Rob Ellis%hellip;Jake," I said, emphasizing his name, as I shook his hand.
He laughed. "Hey, cheeky. I like that. That's one point for you." He marked a point for me with his index finger on the left side of a ledger in the air. Little did I know that the ledger would be a part of our lives for the next three months. He walked up to me, held out his hand and looked me in the eye. His eyes were a warm hazel. "Let's start over.
"Hi, I'm Jake. I have a very pretentious name otherwise. Not a hell of a lot I can do about it."
"I'm Rob. Robert Ellis. Not really too pretentious. Pleased to meet you. Thanks for the point." We looked each other in the eye, and a bond was formed.
"We're staying not far from here," I said. "Can you handle a walk? My car's in the shop. Otherwise, we can call a taxi, but it will take awhile to get here."
"A walk would be just fine. I've been sitting on my butt for four hours. Grab my bag, would you?" he asked, displaying his blazing smile. I picked it up. That was a mistake. God, it was unbelievably heavy for its size, and I'm a fairly strong person. I wished then I'd had my car. As I picked up the bag, I thought I caught Jake looking amused for just a fraction of a second before he quickly turned his head. I'm sure if he was amused at anything it was at my plight, of course.
That fraction of a smile, though, just raised my competitive instincts. I felt if I showed any display of weakness, I would lose manhood points. So I bore with the bag as I led Jake away from the station. I couldn't imagine what the bag contained. But I wasn't going to let John Edward Cantwell III—Jake, whether I was a friend or not—know that I begrudged the weight at all.
We walked down the unpaved roads into the poor part of town, turned onto Cypress Street for a block till we got to Grannah's place. I set the bag down on her walkway, not trying to show the relief I felt.
"Thanks," Jake said. "Tomorrow I know you'll be dying to whitewash my Aunt Sally's fence for me—that is, if I had an Aunt Sally or, for that matter, a fence," a statement that caused him to laugh mischievously. "Getting you to carry that bag without saying what you really wanted to say is one point for me, by the way. The score is now tied." He marked the right side of his air ledger with his finger.
I had been snookered. The Tom Sawyer trick had succeeded, and I realized that I was the willing participant. "Well, Mr. Sawyer, the first thing that will happen at Aunt Sally's fence—that is, if you had an Aunt Sally and she had a fence—will be the whitewash bucket, if you had a bucket, dumped over the top of your head, if you had a head." I stared at him defiantly sticking my jaw out forcefully. He began to giggle, then to laugh, which caused me to laugh as well.
"Mr. Sawyer? Tom Sawyer?" he said. "Actually, I like that. Better than John Edward Cantwell III. A deserved point for you." He licked his finger and made another line on the left side of the air ledger. "Maybe I should consider changing my name officially." Too late. To me his name was already changed. I'd decided to call him Sawyer from then on. However, for some unexplainable reason I decided it was to be a private name—an intimate name—a result of the bond that had passed between us as we met, to be used only when he and I were alone with each other. I couldn't explain why I had made the decision, but somehow it seemed right.
Just then, Grannah opened the front screen door to greet us. "Watch out, Grannah, or this fellow will ask you to carry his suitcase into the house," And, I thought to myself, you'd probably feel happy doing it. I could sense even then that that was the kind of impact Jake had on people.
Grannah was only about 5' tall, with white hair cut short and determined sparkling eyes in a milk-chocolate brown face. Grannah came up to Jake and gave him a hug.
Grannah was absolutely devoted to her children (a group to which I learned Jake and I now belonged), her people, whom she considered the poor blacks of the South, her church and her God, not necessarily in that order. This summer she would give her all—and more—to support her people. Thus, Jake and I were to be housed and fed so that we could teach "her" young children something of what we, the upper-middle-class privileged kids from the North, were able to take for granted.
Grannah started to lift Jake's bag like the hostess she considered herself to be. We both jumped forward at the same time to stop her. Jake reached her side first and deftly picked the bag from her hands, put his arm around her waist and walked her and his bag onto the broad porch and into the house. I picked up the rest of the bags he had left on the sidewalk. They were heavy, too. Had I been snookered again? As he stepped up on the porch, his left arm around Grannah's waist, Jake turned his head, wet his right finger and made a mark on his side of the air ledger. My middle finger, carefully licked, indicated what I thought of that maneuver. He laughed. Fortunately, Grannah wasn't looking at our interplay.
We squeezed us and the bags into our bedroom-for-the-summer, where I learned later that evening that I must have been carrying half a college library in Jake's suitcase—hence, the weight. I had claimed two of the four drawers in the dresser, leaving him the rest. I had claimed the right side of the bed, leaving him the left.
After setting his suitcases on the bed, I showed him around the small house—our bedroom on the main floor adjoining, through glass-paned double doors, a small living room with a black-and-white television, a couch covered with lacy things, a rocking chair and an upright piano, which served as a platform for photos and knickknacks. On the far side of the living room was the entrance to the kitchen, with the bathroom beyond. On the near side of the living room to our left was the door we had entered earlier, leading to the large screened front porch. Up a staircase off the living room was Grannah's sewing room and small bedroom where she was going to stay for the summer. I suspected it was hot as hell up there by afternoon.
As I finished the tour I could hear from the kitchen that Grannah had started to fix something for us to eat, and it smelled fantastic. It was. We would learn that Grannah could turn out magnificent Creole food—in great quantities.
We ended up on the porch, which had room for a couple of recently painted red metal rocking chairs and a porch swing, the fabric of its seating pad clean but showing its wear. Just outside the porch were a number of magnolia trees, heavy with summer leaf that shaded the house during the day and, during lightning storms, probably threatened to drop limbs onto the roof of the house, but rarely ever really did.
We sat on the chairs, talking small talk and learning that we had a lot of common interests until Grannah offered us some lemonade, which we gladly accepted. A cold beer would have been fine just then as well, but Grannah didn't drink beer and she didn't have it around the house. She said dinner would be ready in about 10 minutes.
Grannah had been making fried chicken, mashed potatoes and okra for supper, which she served family style in the kitchen. We three sat around the table getting acquainted—Jake and me wolfing down some of the best fried chicken anyone could ever have and even learning to like okra. For dessert there was a lemon pound cake. All this was lubricated with iced tea from what we would learn was a perennially full jar in the refrigerator. We three talked until night fell and the sounds of the day faded and the echoing sounds of the darkness took their place. Finally, I yawned and said I was heading off to bed.
The bed wasn't exactly large for two strapping young men. I exerted my claim to the right hand side, and I didn't really care if John Edward Cantwell III, whatever his pedigree might be, objected. He didn't. In fact, he was as cordial and disarming as could be. I stripped down to my boxer shorts and climbed in, staying as close as I could to my edge of the bed. Jake did the same on his side. Two other people could have slept between us. We lay there for 10 minutes. Jake kept looking at the gulf between us. I looked at it, too. And we both started to giggle.
"I won't attack you if you don't attack me," Jake finally said, eyeing the empty space.
"It's a deal." And we both spread out a bit.
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