Cole Parker


“We need to talk, Eddie.”

That’s not something you ever like hearing, especially when it’s coming from your dad. When has anything good ever come from that statement? Or that tone of voice it was said in?

That tone can be stern or disappointed or sad or frustrated, and any boy of 12 knows those tones and what to expect when he hears any of them. But this wasn’t said like that. Well, the tone suggested sad, but it was different, too. The closest I could get to identifying it was empathetic. I was immediately scared. Anything he had to say to me that caused him to feel empathy had to be bad. Really bad. My dad wasn’t the empathetic sort, not when it came to me, at least.

He was a man’s man, and his dignity and righteousness were always at the forefront. He stood up for what was right and for himself. The ‘for himself’ part comes easier if you’re six-foot four and 230-some pounds, and not even one of those is fat. Well, if you farm and are working 10 to 12 hours a day, more on the weekends, you’ll be in pretty good shape. I was, and I was only 12. Dad was almost forty, and he was built.

He was dark complected, but that was mostly from the sun. He was outdoors every day, and his skin showed it. Luckily, he had dark hair and eyes and the complexion one expects with that. He had a rugged face and eyes that penetrated when they were focused on you. He wasn’t a gentle man but not a mean or cruel one, either. Even though he could intimidate me at times, I still loved him.

His grandfather and father were both farmers. They had eighty acres of prime Iowa fields, and with the help of family and the occasional farmhands in busy seasons, they had a good life.

Times change. It was difficult these days for a small farmer to survive, what with the competition from large corporations holding so much land and able to cut prices of their products to where a single small farm struggled to make enough money to support one family.

It had galled him to do it, but he’d had no choice: he’d sold off a good bit of his land. He was able to farm the rest with just himself and Mom and me. We grew almost all of the food we ate, and there was just a little left over that he was able to sell along with a corn crop.

He’d never gone to college because he was the son of a farmer, and tradition held the family land went from father to son; college was just a pretension for those sorts of people. Dad was expected to take over the farm himself when it came time, and college meant four years away—four years of planting and harvest times!—and required money that wasn’t available to pay for such an indulgence. Besides, he was needed at home.

But this was fine with Dad. All he knew was farming. It almost killed him, selling much of his land to get out of debt, but hard choices come often for small farmers, and he made that one. By doing so, he kept what land remained. Then, he had to find something else to do to make money. He wasn’t able to find any high-paying jobs from a résumé that included no education or work experience in anything but farming. He looked for work at a place in town—we lived just outside Nevada, Iowa, a small town in the middle of the state—that sold and serviced farm equipment. He knew the people there because they did repair work on Dad’s equipment. They were sorry, but they were in the process of laying off one of their salesmen. The economic downturn was hurting everyone, and big-ticket sales were pretty much in the dumpster about then.

He did finally get part-time work at the feed-and-grain store in town as a clerk/salesman. It didn’t pay much, but he didn’t need that much. It was just enough to keep us out of debt. That mattered to Dad. More than just about anything.

We survived. I didn’t have the things a lot of kids my age did, but they were just things. I did have the love of both parents, I had my chores to do, and I felt I was doing my part at home. I got good grades at school. Life could have been a lot worse.

I wasn’t a big kid. The work on the farm made me strong, but the lack of food kept me stringy. A lot of boys at 12 looked like I did: a boy who was on the verge of growing both taller and wider. But what I looked like wasn’t of great concern. It wasn’t often I was off the farm; the only time with any frequency in the summer was church, which was a weekly occurrence for us, as it was for many Iowa farm families.

Of course, school was different. I did see other kids there. But I didn’t mingle much. Most of those kids were town kids, and I had nothing in common with them. They talked about video games and the latest movies and all sorts of things that weren’t part of my life.

I thought I was a pretty normal-looking boy, a little short for my age with an almost skeletal body, but at least a quarter of the boys my age in school looked like that. Puberty had started for many. It was on the horizon for me and the rest of us who were waiting. I had dark hair and eyes like my parents. My appearance wasn’t one to set me apart. It was one that made me very unnoticeable. That was fine with me. My life wasn’t at school. It was at home on the farm.

Living on the farm outside of town and having chores led to what hadn’t ever bothered me much: a lack of friends. I had very little downtime, not nearly enough to be taking the school bus to someone’s house after school and wasting time there. I didn’t want to then have to call Mom to come pick me up. She was doing chores at home, too. She was busy-busy-busy with helping Dad outside and then cooking and tending to the housekeeping, too. So, I couldn’t go out for any of the athletics the school offered as teams all practiced after school. Same way with the clubs and activities like the school newspaper. I’d have liked that. But there was no way to fit it in with my schedule. And I didn’t really mind. I wasn’t athletic. I didn’t have any problem doing the schoolwork I had, so I figured I was reasonably smart, but nothing special. That could have been my nickname, come to think of it. Mr. Nothing Special.

A kid does need someone to talk to, though. And some time to be a kid. To sit and ponder the mysteries of the world. Someone to examine his feelings with him, to approve of his thoughts. I had someone like that—sort of. I wasn’t entirely friendless.

One of my jobs was to take care of the few animals we had. We had one cow, and I milked her, brought her into the barn at night, let her out into the pasture in the morning. We had four chickens. I gathered the eggs, scattered their feed on the ground and made sure their chicken-wire enclosure remained intact. There were foxes in the area.

We also had three pigs: a young sow, a younger bore, and a piglet. The piglet was my friend.

Okay, I know that sounds odd, but pigs are smart and trainable if you take time with them. I was right there when he was born, I took care of him from then onward, and now, at one year old, he and I were bonded. He followed me around as I did my chores. I talked to him. Hell, I didn’t have anyone else to talk to, and boys of 12 have things on their minds, things they don’t wish to discuss with their parents. Piggles—that was his name—listened to everything I had to say to him and never once complained or argued or walked away in disgust.

We were a team. In the summer, there was a creek that ran along one side of our acres with a copse of cottonwood trees growing alongside because of the water. The creek over time had widened where there was a depression to make a small lake. I’d swim in that lake. I couldn’t convince Piggles to come in swimming, but he was happy to stand ankle deep in the water and watch me.

Do you have any idea how comforting it is for a lonely boy to have a companion, even a porcine one? It makes all the difference in the world. You’re not alone when you have someone with you. You’re not alone.

So, my family was doing all right. Not getting rich by a long shot but not in debt, either. Enough to eat, if just barely. That independence was really important to my dad. We didn’t have much room for accidents or disasters. If something broke, we’d either fix it ourselves or do without. That’s the way we were living. And it was fine. It was good to have some stoicism in your soul if you were a small farmer. I learned to be stoic from my father.

But now he said we needed to talk. And his eyes were showing me that I’d not like what he was going to talk to me about, but we’d do it anyway. We were close, and just seeing those eyes, hearing that voice and what they communicated to me got me scared.

He sat down at the kitchen table, so I did, too. We did almost all our serious talking in the kitchen.

“Eddie, the differential on the tractor blew out this morning. I was just driving the tractor in the field like usual, nothing different, and kaplowie, it went. I can’t drive it without a differential. I called in, and they said they don’t have a rebuilt one, but do have a new one, and anyway you can’t trust a rebuild; they go out, and I’d be stuck again, maybe when it was vital the tractor was working. Like right now. I said I’d take the new one.”

I was starting to feel a lot more nervous.

“I checked around. The guys at the store are giving me a special price. They know our circumstances. I’d told them when I was applying for a job there. They’re giving me the differential at cost and time to pay with no interest. We help each other out in this community.”

He stopped to take a sip of water. I could hear the tension in his voice. Just got me more rattled.

“Eddie, we have to have the tractor and not a few weeks from now. Now is when we need it. I called around, and everyone we know is using theirs now, too. No one can spare one even for a short loan. I had to buy the differential.”

“Yeah?” My heart was beating hard enough I figured he could hear it.

“So, the price of it is just the price we’d get by selling Piggles.”

I jumped up from my chair, causing it to fall over behind me.
“No,” I screamed. “You can’t! I won’t let you!”

“This is a tragedy, Eddie. I know that. I know what he means to you. But you’ve seen our animals being slaughtered before. We only raise the pigs so we can sell them. I know he’s your pet. Hell, it’s cute as anything, seeing him follow you around. And I know you don’t have any friends. With our life like it is now, with no money to hire help, that’s just the way it is. And I hate to do this. I hate to do this to you. But it’s the only way. Without that tractor during planting season, we’d have no crop. No crop, no farm income. We’d end up selling the farm, have to live in town, which we can’t afford, and, well, this farm is what we have, what I’m going to give to you. All I’ll have to pass on to you. We can’t lose it.”

“Find another way, then! You can’t have Piggles!”

“I already found a buyer, Eddie. I’m getting the money tomorrow. I hate hurting you this way. I hate it. But we’re a family. I have to do my best for the family. I don’t have any other choice. It’s forcing you to grow up a little, which is too bad, and I hate being the cause of that. But life’s hard, and hard choices have to be made.”

He stood up, too, and opened his arms to me. I pushed him aside. “You sell him, and I’ll never talk to you again.” Then I stomped upstairs and spent a whole lot of time getting my pillow all wet.

I did come down for dinner. Mom came and got me. Dad was a powerful man but would never use his physicality against me. Mom was small; even I was stronger than she was. But no way could I defy her. She said come, and I came. I was good to my word, though. I didn’t say anything to Dad. He didn’t push the point. He made a couple of tries, and I ignored him. I finished my meal as quickly as I could, then went out to see Piggles. I let him out of the pen, walked to the steps by the back porch and sat down. He came up and sat next to me. That was what he always did. I hugged him and started crying again.

Scene break

I had to go to school in the morning. I didn’t want to, but kids don’t have much choice when dealing with adults. So I went, but I couldn’t concentrate. All I could do was think of Piggles. He’d be scared, given by an adult he knew to one he didn’t, and I wouldn’t be anywhere around to comfort him. Dad didn’t care about Piggles’ feelings. I did. I cared maybe too much. But I did care. He meant everything to me; he was part of my soul.

I’d always been capable if unnoticed at school. Now, all I could think of was Piggles. I didn’t pay attention in any of my classes. Didn’t answer any teachers till they raised their voices at me, and then I mostly just shook my head and still didn’t speak. I didn’t have a clue what they’d been talking about, or what they were asking me. I was in my own world, and it was a very dark place.

I’d always been one of the good kids. They didn’t know how to treat me now that I was so distant and shut off. Pretty soon, word got around, and the teachers did what worked best for them. They stopped calling on me; they simply ignored me, let me suffer in silence.

I didn’t know any of the other kids other than their names. I’d always eaten alone in the cafeteria. I had nothing to add to the conversations they had, and it was easier to just be by myself. Mom always packed my lunch: a sandwich, a piece of fruit, and a cookie, usually an Oreo. Milk was free, so I always had that. We didn’t have any money; that cookie was an indulgence. Having always been an outsider at school now helped.

None of the kids paid me any mind. I was comfortable sitting alone or the infrequent times for whatever reason that I was at a table with boys in my classes. Then, I’d sit there and not contribute to the talk floating around me. That had always worked well for me. Now that I was incommunicado with everyone, whether sitting by myself or with others, I was just as quiet as ever. I’m not sure anyone even noticed.

This went on for a few days. I got zeros for class participation, zeros on tests I just didn’t bother to take. Then I was called in to see the school’s guidance counselor. She was a heavy, middle-aged woman no one liked. That was due to her manner. She had a way of making us feel like we were a burden to her. Hell, she had a job because of us! We were her job. Yet she didn’t act that way.

She asked what my problem was. I didn’t answer, just looked at her. I was getting good at this. What I wasn’t getting better at was working my way out of the depression I’d fallen into. I knew I should talk to someone. The guidance lady wasn’t the one. Her name was Mrs. Grassy, but the other kids all called her Brassy because she didn’t have even one empathetic blood corpuscle flowing in her veins and was loud and abrasive when she spoke.

I didn’t speak, so she did, “Look—” she had to stop to look at the folder in front of her. She couldn’t even remember my name? Yet she’d called me in. Yeah, she was certainly someone I was going to open up to “—uh, Edward, I’ve got a hundred kids to talk to today. No time at all to waste fooling around with kids who need a nursemaid—”

She kept speaking, but I got up and walked out, and whether she finished that sentence or not, I didn’t know and cared even less.

That got me called in to see the principal. Mr. Barlow was a different sort of person altogether. He was short and thin with barbered hair; he’d been in his position for many years. He always had a suit on with a tie. I’d heard the office ladies speaking about him once: the less-than-fully-formally-dressed that anyone had seen him in was when the A/C had broken one warm day and he’d actually taken his suit coat off for a few hours, but only in his office.

He could have been stuffy and strict and rigid in his views, but that wasn’t his reputation. He might dress formally, but his attitude was soft and warm. He told us at the beginning of the year that he’d help anyone with any problem they were having; just come talk to him. Many kids did, and it became common knowledge that he was on our side. His way with us earned him great respect. And even greater rapport.

He didn’t have a folder on the desk in front of him. His desk was bare. He gestured at a chair, then came out from behind his desk and sat in the one next to me. “Eddie,” he said, “I know your dad. He’s a good man. I’m on the council of the church your family attends. He’s a member of it, too. We’ve gotten to be friendly. So, it was no surprise he asked to speak to me. He feels terrible.

“I know about what happened. I know it from his side. He’s very sorry for what happened but felt he had to put saving the farm ahead of your feelings in this case. Now he hates how it’s affected you. He just wanted my advice and perhaps to be told he’d done the right thing. I didn’t tell him that. I just listened and said I’d talk to you.”

His eyes told me he was speaking from his heart. Kids learn to read eyes sometimes. It’s sort of up to the adults to let them. This one was allowing it. He wanted me to know he cared.

“I’d like to hear about this from your point of view, Eddie. I’m not here to judge either of you. I just want to understand the dimensions of the problem and hope I can get a feeling for a way to make things better. Will you do me the large favor of telling me about this: why you’ve become so upset? Not just the obvious of the matter, but the pith.”

He grimaced. “I’m sorry, I get that way at times. I meant, I’d like to know what happened but also how you felt, how you’re still feeling, and if you can see any way to make things better. Is there a solution to this that’s practical and doable?”

He was a difficult man to resist because he was warm and encouraging, and he made me feel I was hurting him as well and my father. I gave in; I spoke to him. I was feeling so rotten, I knew I had to talk to someone, and I had the feeling he’d really listen. So, I did it. I surprised myself with all I told him, how I liked the farm and my parents, but how right now I couldn’t even look at my dad without feeling this great animosity. I told him I was so lonely that I almost couldn’t breathe, that Piggles had been the only outlet I had for my feelings, and when he was taken away, I just felt empty. Alone and empty. No motivation to do anything at all. No purpose. Nothing mattered. I didn’t really see how Piggles had made that much difference, but he had. I could cope with my life with him in it. I didn’t seem able to without him.

I think I went through a half a box of Kleenex by the time I was done. I was 12, but, talking about this, I didn’t seem emotionally older than when I was six. Crying came way too easily. I could usually control it. I couldn’t when talking to him. He’d actually used a sheet or two of Kleenex as well, hard as it was for me to believe. Maybe when you really do care about people, you do share in their misery.

He told me he’d spend some time thinking about it. He asked me to please try to do better in school. That would help everyone: my parents, the teachers, even the kids who looked up to me. I said there weren’t any of those, and he said there were, the quiet ones I’d never noticed. He said I needed to let go of the past a little more than I had and come back into the present. It would be good for everyone, but mostly good for me. He asked me if I’d try.

I told him I would, but I didn’t really believe it.

Scene break

It was very hard to back off my resolve not to speak to Dad. But to pull myself out of my funk, I needed to. I had to acknowledge to myself that Piggles was gone, and I had to deal with life without him. The fact Dad had done this, though, still rankled. After I spoke with Mr. Barlow, I stopped turning away from Dad, I stopped walking away when he spoke to me, but I still couldn’t bring myself to speak to him. I’d nod or shake my head if that was absolutely required. But that was it.

I saw the sadness in his eyes. It didn’t temper my animosity. Maybe if I were 16, I’d be able to let go of how I felt. I was 12, emotional and immature, and I still felt like he’d known how what he was doing would affect me, and he went on with it without a care in the world. If he was suffering from the decision he’d made, good! He deserved it. I was suffering, too, and much more.

We went to church on Sunday. Seemed like most everyone else did, too, in rural Iowa. Ours was a small church west of Nevada that served mostly farm families. It wasn’t large but was quite pretty, set on a small piece of land with many cottonwoods, bur oaks and red cedars growing along a creek that ran behind it. The parking lot lay beside the church, too, with a path that led to the front doors. We knew everyone who attended. I no longer spent the hour of services with the Sunday School kids. I listened to the sermons. Mostly, though, I ignored them because they had no relevance to my life. I spent a lot of time looking around.

This day, we had a temp as a minister. Our regular guy was absent for some reason; the only thing I knew was he’d be returning soon, which was good because I liked him. His sermons were generally short and almost always upbeat.

Today’s minister was much different. This guy preached fire and brimstone. We were used to hearing how much God loved us. Not how hot the fires of hell were. This wasn’t what we were used to, and the crowd was edgy because of that.

I knew everyone’s name in our congregation; it was likely they all knew mine, too; if not my actual name, they surely knew my family. I wasn’t able to look around as usual that day. I was stunned by what was coming from the pulpit. I couldn’t help but listen because most of what he was saying, he was shouting.

But the restless crowd was something new, and I did glance around once or twice, feeling their unease. As I moved my gaze over the customers, I discovered some people I’d never seen before. Newcomers! It looked like a family of three, a husband and wife and a son. The son might have been my age—or maybe not. I couldn’t tell. The one thing that was so obvious about them was that they were like no other people I’d ever seen. They were black. But not the color of black people I’d seen before. I’d seen some blacks, but very few. Iowa didn’t seem to have many blacks. I’d heard the figure one percent, but it seemed even less than that in Nevada.

I was at the middle school and didn’t think there was even one black kid there. There were a couple in the high school, just two that I knew about, and they were on the football team, had friends there, and I’d never heard about any problems, racial problems. From what I’d learned in my history classes, Iowa hadn’t had the racial problems other states had experienced. They in fact had sent many men, and a large Negro component, to fight for the North in the Civil War.

These new people, though, weren’t black like the ones in school. Those people were all brown. These were black. Like ebony. I’d never seen that before. It was why it was difficult for me to put an age on any of them, even the boy.

I was distracted from looking at them and my eyes moved back to front and center. The minister’s voice had been rising even more, and now he was shouting, his face a deep red. Every eye in the place was on him.

“Deuteronomy, Exodus, Leviticus, all speak of slavery. It was condoned in the Bible, and it’s still in effect in most of the world. Black people are born into slavery and slavery is their natural place in the world.” His face was red, he was sweating, and his eyes were pointing at the black strangers.

“The Bible accepts black slavery. By doing so, it encourages us to feel that slavery is the accepted place for blacks. As a society, we’ve been moved away from Biblical approvals. Blacks are no longer subject to slavery here. It is not now permitted by law, but by this enabling, we’ve made it possible for blacks to be part of our communities in ways never permitted earlier. Now, we must take special care not to allow a mixing of the races. The white race is the dominant race on earth and shall remain dominant. We are—”

He halted because he was stopped. Three things happened at once. First, the black man stood and motioned for his wife and son to rise with him. They all stepped out of the pew, then all three turned their backs to the minister and walked toward the door. Second, my father squeezed my leg and whispered to me, “Don’t let them leave! Keep them in the parking lot till I get there.” The third thing was beyond belief to me. I heard my father stand, and I heard his voice. I didn’t see him because I was on my feet and on the way to the front of the church and the doors the black family had just passed through. I did hear my dad’s voice, though, before I reached the door.

“Shut up!” That’s what I heard. Unimaginable, him saying that out loud in the church. And to a minister! But I heard it. I’d never heard those two words coming from his mouth anywhere, ever. I heard it clearly then, though, because my dad had a loud voice when he wanted it loud, and this time he was shouting. He continued with, “Don’t say another word. That kind of talk isn’t allowed here. I speak on behalf of others on the church council. Black people are welcome here, in this town, and in this state. You aren’t. You’re to be out of this building in the next half hour and if you have an ounce of sense, you’ll never show your face here again. In earlier days, you’d have been tarred-and-feathered! We’re a New Testament congregation and reject everything you’ve preached today. How you preach like this anywhere in this state, I don’t understand. Now, get out. Right now. Take your things and go.”

I was stunned. My father, a man of few words, was careful with the ones he did use, and he had just stood before friends and God and yelled at a minister!

By then I’d reached the doors and was out. I raced around the church and saw the black family ahead of me, walking to the parking lot.

“Wait,” I shouted, afraid they’d be getting into a car before I could reach them.

I saw them stop and turn to look at me. I was still running toward them. I stopped when I reached where they were standing.

“Thanks for stopping,” I said, breathing hard, trying to get my breath back so I could speak properly. After a few seconds, I said, “My father stopped that man from speaking. What he was saying was as offensive to the congregation as it was to you. My father is a member of the council that runs the church and that hires the minister, and today’s man was just a fill-in for our regular minister. A temp. My father wants to talk to you, probably to apologize. Would you please wait for him? He’ll be out very quickly, I’m sure.”

The man looked very proud to me. I don’t know why I read him that way or how to describe the look on his face, but the way he held his body and what I saw on his face simply suggested pride to me. The boy didn’t show me anything at all but was looking straight at me, expressionless, and the wife spent her time looking at her husband.

Then the door of the church crashed open and my father came out. He saw us, smiled, and jogged over to us. I stepped away. When he joined us, I managed to escape without anyone noticing.

Scene break

At school the next day, Mr. Barlow met me in the hall before our first class and invited me to join him in his office. I was surprised to see the black boy and his father sitting outside Mr. Barlow’s door.

Mr. Barlow took me into his office and closed the door. He had me sit down, and he sat next to me again like he had before.

“Eddie,” he said, “I was at church yesterday when your father was so noble. He didn’t have time to check with the others on the council, but he didn’t have to. We all see eye to eye on almost everything, and getting that bigot to stop and leave was something all of us agreed with. That sort of nonsense doesn’t belong in our church. Not in any house of God, really.

“Anyway, he probably told you at home, but he got the black family to agree to return next week. He spoke to them for quite a time, and the man, Mr. Nkosi, mentioned something he was worrying about, and your dad called me over. I joined them in the parking lot, and I suggested a way to relieve his mind. Did your dad talk to you about this?”

“We’re still not speaking,” I said. I felt a little subdued, a little embarrassed saying that. Kinda like I was letting both myself and Dad down. Kinda like I wished I’d just answered Mr. Barlow’s question with the word no and stopped there.

I saw disappointment cross Mr. Barlow’s face, but it was just there and gone that quickly. He said, “Well, what was decided was that, if you agreed, his son, Akuchi, will spend the next few days with you here so he can get his feet on the ground and other kids can get used to him. Everything is so different here for him. He’s 12, like you, and maybe you can imagine being dumped into a new school where no one is your color and where the culture is different and you don’t know anyone and you look entirely different from everyone else. That’s what Akuchi is facing. But he won’t be alone if you’ll agree to be with him. I know it’s asking a lot, but you’re mature enough to do this if you’d be willing. To tell the truth, Eddie, I can’t think of any boy in this school who I thought could do this as well as you could.”

Even being buttered up like that, I still had to think about this for a second. Did I want to do this? I’d always been a loner at this school. I liked it that I didn’t stand out, that people ignored me, and I didn’t need any of the social skills which I didn’t have. Now I’d stand out like that sore thumb one hears about, and people would be looking at him and see me, too. People would talk to me about him, and I wouldn’t know what to say.

That was the bad stuff. Was there anything good to offset it? Well, I’d been lonely. No doubt about that. Even with Piggles, I’d still been lonely. Not as lonely as when he was gone, but that was in the past anyway. Now, this was an opportunity to meet someone who’d maybe cling to me like a lifesaving float in the middle of the ocean. Did I want that? Did I want the responsibility?

I’d been so unhappy recently. Yeah, it was due to the Piggles incident, but I knew it was more than just that. It was possible having a boy my age to talk to would be good. Maybe not. Maybe he didn’t even speak English. Maybe he wouldn’t be the empathetic or even sympathetic type. Most boys didn’t seem to be either. Maybe he’d have no interest in talking to me.

Well, Piggles hadn’t said anything, either. And we’d gotten along fine.

“Mr. Barlow, I’m willing to give it a try.”

“Oh, that’s so great, Eddie! Thanks so much. If it’s okay with you, I’ll bring Akuchi and his father in so we can talk for a moment, and then I’ll turn you boys loose. Rather than go to your first-period class, I’d suggest finding an empty space and just getting acquainted first. He has to have a ton of questions you could answer for him. If you need to skip more than one class, it’s fine. Just do what you feel is best for him. I wasn’t joshing you, Eddie: I think you’re the best boy here for this job.”

Scene break

Meeting in the office was awkward, and I’m sure all four of us felt it. I found right off I couldn’t read Akuchi at all. Not only was his face hard to see with all the blackness it had, but he was good at keeping any emotions off it. So, I was operating blind with him, and I’m not the most social kid in the world at the best of times. He’d have been much better off with an extrovert for his guide into a new world. However, perhaps I was going to find he wasn’t extroverted himself, and if his mentor was a guy like some of those bigger-than-life kids who were always on stage, he’d have been lost in that guy’s shadow.

I could accept reservation and reticence in a kid. I had it myself. I couldn’t read that in him, couldn’t read much of anything, but perhaps he could read it in me. I felt like an open book to everyone. Probably wasn’t, but I felt that way.

Very soon, the two of us were sent off on our own. I think everyone was glad for that to happen; I know I was. That first meeting wasn’t just awkward; it was weird. No one quite knew what to say. The adults seemed as tongue-tied as we were.

Akuchi looked a little like a lamb being led to slaughter as I walked out of the office with him, which made me think of Piggles, which didn’t help my mood any. But I quickly found that if I didn’t start a conversation, there’d be no conversation, so getting acquainted would not be accomplished. That was my mission, and it was up to me to achieve it.

“You do speak English, I hope?” I asked. Easy to say that sarcastically. I kept my tone hopeful instead.

He nodded. Great. I knew right away I had to ask questions without yes-or-no answers. I knew one right away, too.

“What would you like to ask me?” There. His turn.

He looked around. We were walking slowly down the main corridor that paralleled the front of the school. There were a few classrooms here but also offices for people like the principal and administrative staff where we’d just been, the vice-principal, the nurse, the guidance people. The auditorium was at one end of the hall, the cafeteria at the other.

I took him to the cafeteria. I considered the auditorium, but when empty, that place is dark and a little spooky. The cafeteria was deserted, but the place was brightly lit, and people were working in the kitchen behind it. It wasn’t like a tomb in there.

We sat down, and he looked around, not meeting my eyes at all. I remained silent. Still his turn.

He finally looked up at me. And he grinned. I didn’t expect that at all. He spoke, and it was in English. “What are American boys like? We had troubles between white and black in South Africa. I’ve read there are similar problems here. Is that true in this city?”

It felt good that we’d be able to talk to each other. He had an accent I’d never heard before. A little Australian or British—they have too much in common for someone like me who hears so little of each to tell them apart—but a little of something else, too. In Iowa, we didn’t have many foreigners and didn’t hear accents. All I knew was I loved the way he sounded.

I’d answer his question, but first I had to know. “You speak English like it’s your native language. How come?”

“Our schools want us to be able to be international people. We’re taught English all through school, starting in Grade R.”


“That’s what kindergarten is called there.”

“Oh, well, good. That makes this easier. All right, to answer your question, Iowa is one of our 50 states, kind of in the middle. It’s basically a conservative state, but our city, Nevada, is sorta a suburb of Ames, which is a college town and tends to be more liberal. I don’t know how to explain conservative and liberal; they’re too complicated. Most people in Iowa are conservatives. It seems to me they like things as they used to be. This town, and the bigger one nearby, Ames, they’re both liberal. They look forward and look for ways to make things better than they were. That’s what Dad’s told me. From what I read, race relations can be more of a problem in conservative areas. But we don’t have them here.

“You shouldn’t have that problem. In Nevada, the number of black families is very few. That’s true in school here, too. But the ones that are here aren’t treated any differently than anyone else. So I don’t think you’ll have any trouble here other than everyone staring at you.”

He didn’t answer right away but was making steady eye contact now. Then he said something that changed the whole dynamic I felt with him.

“I know. I had to put up with that at home, too. All the time staring! It’s a problem when you’re more handsome than anyone else. Something I’ve always had to learn to deal with.”

There was something in his eyes as he said it. He tried to hide it by looking away, but I saw it. I catch onto things pretty fast. I suddenly felt he was teasing me! He wasn’t as shy as I thought. He wasn’t as stunned by moving halfway around the world and ending up in Nevada, Iowa. He felt comfortable enough to make a joke.

Hey. If this kid had any personality at all, this would be much easier. And I now thought he had a load of that. I’d have been a basket case if you yanked me off a farm in Nevada and dropped me thousands of miles away in South Africa. He’d done the reverse, and he was joking with me, someone he had yet to know well at all.

I needed to change my game plan. If he wanted to joke with me, perhaps even tease me, well, that meant it was okay to talk to him in the same vein. Anywhere in the world, that would be the way kids would deal with kids.

“Okay, I’ll take it that you’re not a bit shy and are able to cope with what comes your way. You won’t be picked on in school, but you will be noticed. Kids’ll stare, but being so handsome, you’re used to that and will know how to handle it. You don’t want to ask for trouble though. So, first off, we have to change your name.”

That caught his attention, just like I thought it would.

“What’s wrong with my name?”

“I heard your dad pronounce it. I don’t know how you spell it, but the sound of it is a-coochie. That may fly in your country, but here, it’s way too close to a couple of words no boy can get away with having for a name.”

“Akuchi is a common first name in South Africa.” He sounded a bit defensive. “It’s a good name.”

“Well here there are two terms close to that name, and you don’t want to be associated with either one. The first is hoochie-coochie. The hoochie-coochie is a sorta sexy dance. With your name, if we don’t change it, when boys see you, they’ll start dancing, wiggling their butts and laughing. Very bad. Horrible start for you. New boys have it tough. You probably are worrying about being accepted and liked. What you don’t want is to become a laughingstock right off the bat. That would be awful for you and might take months to correct.”

He started to protest, but I held up my hand like a traffic cop and talked over him. “That’s the first term you don’t want to make anyone think of. The second is coochy-coo. That’s a love term a mom uses to make a baby giggle. No respectable guy in seventh grade can have a name anywhere near those sounds. You’d never live it down. It’s important what your name is. I mean, a name like Slugger, or Biff, or Killer, or Brick; those names give you some game. Uh, authenticity. Akuchi is way too close to coochy-coo; it won’t do.”

“But I like my name!”

“Yeah, so did a kid who went to school here last year. His name was Snowdon. Except right off, and maybe because he was a little effeminate; everyone was calling him Snowflake. Still would do today even though he grew out of the effeminate act, but they moved away. Another problem might be, Akuchi sounds a bit like cooties, and that’s another thing to avoid. No, unless you get off on being teased, you can’t tell anyone your name if Akuchi.”

“What’s get off on?”

“A, well, it’s a phrase we use that isn’t very nice. It involves sex.”

“Okay, now I’m learning something I need to know!” I could see the excitement grow in his eyes. “I want to know about sex. We know about sex in South Africa. I didn’t know whether American boys did or not. Probably not like we do at home.”

“We know about sex! Well, most of us from reading and talking and seeing something on the internet. Some of us know about it personally, I guess. But I’m 12, like you. Next year, when they’re 13, is when most boys start messing around.”

“Messing around. Getting off. Am I to learn about these from you? You seem embarrassed? Maybe I can ask someone older.”

I saw it in his eyes again. He liked to tweak me! “You want to learn about these things?” I asked, giving him the eye. Trying to embarrass him. He didn’t seem to understand the concept. I was starting to think I liked this guy.

He was black as anything you want to use as a comparison. Coal, moonless nights, ebony wood, witches’ nightgowns. But I was used to that now. We were in a brightly lit room, and I could see his face, start to read his expressions. He was my age. I could see that much more clearly now.

He was more interested in sex than I was. Sure, I overheard other boys talking about it. Especially in the locker room before and after gym. I didn’t eat lunch with the others often, except when Mom hadn’t made my lunch, and then I did hear it at the table where I sat. I didn’t get involved. Perhaps when I started puberty I’d be more interested.

He answered my question with a light shining in his eyes. “Oh, yes. Very much. Boys in South Africa do these things—sex, I mean, together. Even at ten and eleven. Even younger. We don’t wait till we’re 13 or older. I figured American boys might be backward like you say.”

“We’re not backward! What did you do?”

“You mean me, personally?”

No, I hadn’t meant that. But did he want to tell me? Well, wasn’t I supposed to be getting acquainted with him? Wouldn’t his telling me about his sex life be part of that? Even if I wasn’t all that interested in sex myself, hearing him talk about it certainly would be, what? Exciting, I guessed. It surprised me that I felt that way.

As noted, I wasn’t into puberty yet. I didn’t have body changes going on or hormones keeping me awake at night or whatever it was they did. But sure, I was interested in sex, at least a little. What boy isn’t?

“Yes,” I said, and hoped I wasn’t blushing.

He didn’t seem shy at all. Maybe sex was more open in South Africa. I’d heard it was in Europe.

He got a big grin on his face. His eyes were alive. “Boys back home aren’t modest. We swim naked, and so seeing each other that way is no big deal. We compare dicks starting in Grade 1. Girls that are interested come look, too. We look at them. It’s all fun and excitement.

“It doesn’t stop as we grow older. Some of the boys get together in groups and play with each other. I did some of that. Great fun, fun times. Parents didn’t seem to mind. They just said it was curiosity, and there was nothing wrong with that. When the boys learned about wanking, they did that together, too.”

“What’s wanking?” I asked. I’d never heard of that.

“You know,” he said and did the jackoff motion with his hand.

“Oh, you mean jacking off.”

“We call it wanking. That’s what the South Africans call it if they’re speaking English. Do you do that?”

Oops. I was supposed to be learning about him, not him about me. Not about this, at least. He was looking at me, and if I didn’t answer, the chemistry that had been building would be altered. At least I felt that way.

“No,” I said, but didn’t drop my eyes like I was embarrassed by that. “I tried it once and I got hard, but it didn’t feel all that good, and I thought maybe I wasn’t old enough yet.”

He was staring at me, and I saw a change in his eyes I couldn’t read. “I understand. It’s only in the last month that I’ve done it where it felt really good, like it’s supposed to. Before that, I was like you. I didn’t feel much, and even when another boy was helping, nothing happened, and I just had him stop. But I was helping him as he was me, and I saw what was supposed to happen. I knew it was just a matter of time for me, and it was. I think very soon now, it’ll work for you, too. Do you want me to show you how?”

Now there was a question!

I answered it the best I could. “Maybe American boys are a little more modest than you guys were. Maybe I’ll learn on my own.”

“That’s fine. Maybe when it does work, you’ll change your mind! It’s fun with someone else. Keep trying.” He grinned at me. His grin was like nothing I’d seen before: brilliant white teeth, laughing eyes with white around them, all in a face like midnight.

But that face was alive now and very interesting.

We talked about more mundane things after that. I did warn him that talking about sex wasn’t something everyone did and he might want to be careful. He was, of course, different in that he was from a foreign country and didn’t look like anyone here. I told him people would have a lot of curiosity about him, and his views on and history with sex would be best kept under wraps until he had his feet firmly on the ground here.

And telling him that made me aware of how many idiomatic expressions I used. They had different ones in South Africa, and I was to find I didn’t get them any better than he got mine.

All part of the learning process.

Scene break

We spent a lot of time together. While he wasn’t a bit shy with me and never had been, he was a little different in a group of kids. Maybe he was comfortable one on one and not so much when outnumbered. As a result, he tended to check out where I was when he entered a room by himself, and he quickly came over to be with me. I kind of liked that.

I got to know him well. He got to know me, too. It wasn’t long before I was pouring out my broken heart to him about Piggles. Surprisingly, the wound wasn’t nearly as deep now. I could tell him without fear of breaking into sobs like I’d done with Mr. Barlow. I didn’t cry myself to sleep any longer. When I thought of Piggles, his absence still hurt, but I realized I wasn’t thinking about him as often now.

The name that Akuchi and I had chosen for him was Akili. We’d looked up a lot of names, and he’d loved that one. It wasn’t South African, but it sounded sort of like it was, at least to me, and it meant bright and intelligent. He was both of those, and it was hard to make fun of that name. So, he became Akili. We got the teachers to go along with us by saying Akuchi was a tribal name that had bad connotations for him, and he only answered to Akili. That worked. Even I used it. I didn’t want to screw up and use his real name and be overheard.

One reason we spent so much time together was that he often came home with me after school. His dad and mother both had jobs, he teaching at the university in Ames—which was why he and his family could come here with immigrant status; there was another reason as well I’d learn later. His mom worked in a food pantry in Nevada that served the underprivileged in town. Both had uncertain hours and weren’t sure when they’d be home in the afternoon. So, unless otherwise directed, Akili came home with me.

My father was a very proud man; Akili’s was a very persuasive one. Akili was a boy reaching toward teenhood, just as I was. Accordingly, the thing he did best of anything was eating. I was an eating machine, and only our family circumstances kept me in check. I never got as much food as I wanted, and I accepted that; it was the reason—well, part of the reason—I was so skinny. Akili had never had to hold back when it came to eating. He wasn’t skin and bones like I was. He wasn’t a bit chubby, but he was my height. He outweighed me by twenty pounds.

I told him that because of all the chores I did and all the ones he never did, he might be a slugabed but I was not. Then I explained slugbabed to him. But that description of him didn’t last long; he soon was doing my chores right along with me. The farm had work to do that needed to be done, and I did my share of it. He joined in right away. I told him he didn’t have to. He had homework just like I did, and he could do it by himself at our house after school. He just laughed at me, watched what I did, and joined in.

He often ate dinner with us, too. We ate early, like many farm families, and no matter what, Mom wouldn’t let him sit and watch as we ate till his parent arrived to pick him up. So. he joined us at the table, and, like with my chores, at first he watched me. We had nice dinners, but much of them came from our own dirt; just a bit from our animals. Lots of veggies, very little meat. We didn’t have second helpings, either. That would be food Mom could sell at the market to get us a smidgeon more income.

Akili must have spoken to his dad, because the next time Akili was over, it was his dad who picked him up. And he insisted on talking to my dad privately.

His dad wanted to pay a small fee for us taking care of Akili in the afternoons. He insisted. My father absolutely refused, saying Akili was a guest, and there was no way a guest of our family was going to pay us anything. They talked for a very long time. My father could be adamant; this was a matter of pride to him. Mr. Nkosi was tenacious. I don’t know everything that was said, but in the end, we were receiving $100 a week for Akili spending time and eating quite a few dinners with us. I had an inkling that what I was doing for Akili at school was brought into the discussion. I hoped not. I felt the same pride my dad did, I guess. I didn’t want anyone to think that I was friends with Akili for money!

Scene break

I was getting worried. I liked Akili; I liked him being dependent on me, though it was obvious that was choice more than need now that he’d been with me for almost four months, and I hated the thought of that dependence ending. I was very happy when Akili told me his father had a contract for next year at Iowa State. Where the worry came was from somewhere else.

We were both 13 now, and all those wicked things puberty wrought were upon us. Many changes. More showers and using deodorant. Thinking about shaving. Tissues by the bed filling the waste basket quickly. Random thoughts that were usually focused where they’d never been before. Hair in the wrong places. Crushes.

That latter one was messing with me. I’d had almost none of those earlier. I’d had little contact with kids other than at school, and I’d kept a low profile there, my eyes down, my thoughts to myself. I’d been uninterested in the other kids, to tell the truth. Then Akili came along, and over time he’d become something of a minor celebrity at school, mostly due to his exotic looks, but he also had a very engaging way about him—and that magical accent.

He’d been my first friend, and I’d been his, and he hadn’t seen fit to throw me away. I was still with him mostly because he was loyal and kept me close. So, I was now in the social flow of the school. I wasn’t really comfortable there, but I was with Akili, and so I was okay.

What did this have to do with crushes?

Easy. Now that I was mixing with other kids, I saw a lot of them, spent time with and around them, and I realized some were very cute. Both sexes. And I found myself thinking about them at home in bed. Yes, I’d become familiar with crushes.

All this mingling, it was a school thing. Akili and I still rode the bus home every day. Akili was now coming five days a week. His mother had been working an odd schedule at first, but she’d been promoted, was a supervisor now, and her responsibilities kept her at work longer every day.

My crushes weren’t all that strong and they weren’t what bothered me. Akili was having them, too, and he’d tell me about them, and I was scared to death he’d attach himself to someone else. That I’d lose him. My thoughts kept retreating to Piggles. That had happened so fast. There one day, gone the next. It could happen again. Akili didn’t need me any longer. And at 13, he was plenty old enough to be alone at his house. He didn’t need our parental support any longer. There was really no reason for him to come home with me every day.

He did, though. We were very tight. He’d tell me about his crushes and the things he’d like to do with them. It didn’t escape my notice. His crushes were ten- or twelve-to-one on boys. The girls? The few crushes he had on them were on tomboys who were cute but dressed and acted the same way the boys did.

We were riding home on the bus when I confronted him on this after it had become obvious to me. He looked at me with the expression that told me I was being intentionally stupid.

“I’m gay, Eddie. You know that! I told you I messed around with boys back home and how much I liked that. You’re smart. You know who I crush on. You have to have figured out I’m gay.”

“I’m not very sophisticated about anything involving human sexual relationships, Akili. You know that! I just never thought about it, with respect to you I mean. Then just today it hit me about you and your crushes. Still, I was teasing when I said anything. Yeah, I should have known. I can see it now. But I didn’t know. Do your parents know?”

“Of course. That’s why we moved here; well, one of the reasons. There’s an element in South Africa that’s very opposed to gays. We moved here to escape that. But tell me, Eddie. Does this upset you?”

I didn’t hesitate at all. “You’re my best friend in the world, my only one, maybe, but still my best. No, it doesn’t matter to me, except . . .”

Akili looked at me without speaking. I guess he wanted me to finish that sentence.

I had to think. The thing was, my crushes were almost all on girls. The occasional cute boy was there, but then my thoughts about them when I was in bed at night centered on friendship with them, not sex. I knew so little about being gay, but I thought it was pretty clear that I wasn’t.

But this was tricky. I didn’t have a problem with Akili being gay, but what if he had a problem with me being straight? What if one of his crushes had a crush on him? What if they got together? What if I got bumped to the side of the road?

I’d always been honest, more or less, with Akili. Could I pretend to be gay just to keep him for myself? I didn’t think that would work. Certainly not for very long.

We hadn’t done anything sexual with each other. I’d never been interested, and he’d probably read that in me. I think boys who want to experiment with other boys must give off signals, somehow, of their desires, because they did seem to find each other. Akili said this was easy in South Africa, maybe because almost all the boys there got involved. That certainly wasn’t the case here. This country was founded by puritanical people, and that ethic was still felt here all these years later. Most people here went to church, and I wasn’t aware of any church in town that preached boys should do what felt good to them. If they spoke on the topic at all, it was to discourage it, not promote it.

Anyway, it just had never come up, mentioned or tacitly suggested between us. Now, the topic was in front of us, and by wanting me to speak to how I felt about his being gay, doing things together was a logical progression. And I didn’t know how I felt about it.

The one thing I knew for certain was I didn’t want to lose what I had with Akili.

“Akili, you’re my friend. I don’t care if you’re gay. The only thing different is now I know and before I didn’t, but I’ve liked you since I met you. Knowing you’re gay doesn’t mean you’re anything different from how you’ve always been, the Akili I like. No, it doesn’t bother me. There’s just one thing.”

He knew my tone of voice as well as I knew his. He knew that last sentence was provocative and probably humorous.

“What’s that?” He asked that very cautiously.

“Don’t expect me to be pointing out cute boys to you.”

He smiled. I tried to but couldn’t. I turned away. He noticed.

“What’s wrong, Eddie?”

I didn’t want to tell him, but I also didn’t want to live a lie, or live scared. Better to at least talk about it. “I’m worried you’ll find someone who wants to do what you like doing. I’m straight. Pretty sure at least. The urge to do more of what you want has to be hitting you like a bulldozer right now. I’m going to get left out, aren’t I?”

He shoved over in his seat, pushing me against the wall and window. He then draped his arm over my shoulder and pulled us even closer together. “Eddie, we did have lots of sex back home. We all played around, most of us at least. But that’s all it was: play. None of those boys fell in love with each other.

“Yes, I want to do that again. But just the sex, not the falling in love. You may be straight, but if I’d fall in love with anyone right now, it would be you. Love and sex aren’t the same. But, you know, there’s more to be said about this.”

“You love me?” There was awe in my voice.

“Sure, some ways. You must have feelings for me, too. I see it in your eyes when we’re apart on the playground and you see me. I see how your eyes light up.”

“I think I do. I just never thought about it that way. But what’s this more-to-be-said business?”

He laughed. “Eddie you’re a boy and you’re thirteen. You said I was eager for sex. You must be, too, unless there’s a medical problem with you. I’ve heard the term undersexed, but I’ve never heard it said about boys our age. Wouldn’t you like to fool around some? Not wanting it to be a special time with a certain girl or boy, not to please a partner, but just for yourself?”

I blushed. He pulled me tighter against him. “Huh? Huh?” and he laughed again. He took this stuff so casually. I don’t know why it was more serious to me. Well, I had a very reserved nature, and he was outgoing. That probably played into it.

“Maybe,” I managed.

“Meaning yes! Then you’re normal. Okay then. You and I, we’re going to mess around. You’ll see all the thoughts you have tying sex and love together aren’t real. At our age, we’re not ready for love, marital love, but we are for sex. You need to know this, Eddie.”

I was scared. Yeah, Mom had drummed it into me how love is this great, incandescent thing, and it involved sex when the love was already there and established. Putting sex before love would ruin the relationship, and the relationship; the love, that was what mattered. I’d taken that to heart. I’d believed my mother, just like most boys do.

Scene break

We were in my bedroom. Nothing strange about that. We did our homework together most days after we’d completed my afternoon chores. We’d always left the door open. No reason to close it.

My heart was beating like a racehorse. Sure, I’d had sexual urges of late; they were getting stronger all the time. I’d never even considered doing anything with a boy because . . . well, my mom. She’d brainwashed me! What Akili had said rang a bell. I doubted I’d be ready for a wife for years yet, but I was sure ready for sex now. I’d been quashing those feelings. Now I wasn’t going to, and I was so nervous I felt lightheaded.

That made me think. How had Mom known sex without love was less than sex with it? I was sure she was inexperienced when she got married. Dad, too. That was back at a time when being a virgin was very important. It seemed possible that all Mom had told me was what she’d been taught. That was a comforting thought for me just then.

Dad was out in the field, and Mom had gone into town. I still left the door open. If Dad came in, it would be noisily. It always was with him, and he rarely had any reason to come upstairs. What he’d do was call up to see if we needed anything.

I didn’t know how to start. Akili did. He stripped off and grinned at me. He was hard already. Well, I was too, and I hadn’t removed a stitch yet.

“This is all touching and feeling, rubbing and stroking. No kissing. Kissing is part of love. What we’re doing is learning about sex, what feels good, and what feels even better.”

I undressed. We looked each other over, and I felt even more ready for this, looking at him. He was beautiful. He told me I was, too. Me!

We got on the bed, and he started touching. He knew exactly what to do. There wasn’t any talking, just exploring with our hands. We were both young and eager and we both climaxed way too quickly. But he didn’t stop. He stroked my chest and legs, and I did the same till we were ready again.

One more time, and by then I was exhausted. By then, he was eager to talk. I lay back on the bed, naked and sated, and he did, too, feeling just what I was, and we talked.

“That’s what it’s like, but just some of the stuff we can do. There’s a lot more. Some of the boys our age were already into screwing. I never was. I think you have to be older to find that part of the body interesting. Just seems nasty to me. But then, sucking seemed that way, too, until the first time I did it.

“I want you to love what we’re doing, and so you need to tell me when there’s anything you don’t want to do. When I start to do something you’re unsure of or uncomfortable with, you have to tell me. The last thing in the world I want for you is to be upset with anything. I want this to be an exciting adventure you’re on, something you look forward to. So, did you like what we did?”

“I had no idea! I think we’re going to do a lot of this.”

He laughed. “Me, too. And Eddie, whether we do or not, whether I end up with one of my crushes doing stuff, you’re my best friend, just like I’m yours, and I hope that’s always going to be. Let’s just see what happens and not worry about it. But if you do have worries, tell me. We’ll work through them together.”

Scene break

That was the beginning of a long journey together. Grades 7 through 12. His father’s contract was renewed each year, and by the time we were seniors, the man was a full professor and tenured.

It wasn’t till my junior year that I had the courage to ask a girl out. Actually, I probably only did it because Akili was pushing me so hard. He dated a couple of boys during that time, but neither of them lasted very long. He told me why they weren’t right for him. I told him why the girl wasn’t right for me. His reasons sounded inane to me, but I guess they were important to him. My reason was, the girl just didn’t turn me on. She was nice enough and pretty enough, and my mom loved her, but I wanted more than I figured she had to offer. Four dates and I was through with her. It felt like three too many.

Akili and I kept up what I now called our practice sessions. I’d grown very fond of them. They were meant to get me ready for marriage. I was saving screwing for that. Actually, the idea of screwing Akili or he screwing me didn’t have any appeal at all. He said it didn’t him, either. By then, I thought probably everything that could be learned hadn’t only been learned but practiced to near-perfection. Mom had always told me that sex was okay, but sex supported by love was much better. My opinion was, if the sex then was even twice as good, it might very well kill me.

Akili had applied to Iowa State. He’d get free tuition as his father was on the faculty. Me. Well, that was more difficult.

My father wanted me to take over on the farm. He thought a high school diploma was all I needed. More than enough, really. I’d just spent six years, though, competing academically with Akili. It was the first time I’d ever made any effort in school. It wasn’t a fair competition as Akili was very smart; he had smart parents. I had ones who’d never been inspired to do much in school. I knew Dad was smart when it came to the farm, but there wasn’t much else he was interested in.

Akili had teased and tormented me in the way he knew would be effective. If I’d have gotten pissed, I’d have quit. He made a point of how hard he was having to work to keep up with me. It was bullshit, but it was really good bullshit. We did homework together every day, and he taught me stuff that the teachers didn’t do a good job of explaining.

We tended to match test scores. Every one I got after I started working with Akili was an A.

It was a struggle for me, but I had a goal, and hard work was who I was. I felt a need to match Akili. I did. We were in the top five academically by the time we graduated. Akili had a free ride at ISU. I applied, just to get him off my back, and I got accepted and offered a scholarship, too.

This was unprecedented and something totally unexpected. And it caused a problem at home. Dad wanted me on the farm. And I, surprisingly, wanted to continue school. ISU had an agricultural science program. That was what I wanted to study. But to go on to college? Yes! I wanted that.

Okay, to be fair, I wanted to be where Akili was. That was part of it. We were still tight friends. The thought of losing him had been hard when I was 13; it was unimaginable now.

I had a choice to make, and I made it. I told Mom and Dad I wanted to talk to them after dinner one night. They looked at each other and nodded.

We sat in the parlor. It was the least-used room in the house. But the kitchen was too much their world; I wanted a more neutral space.

“Dad, Mom, I’ve decided. I have a full-ride scholarship to ISU. I’m going. I know it’s not what you want, but it’s what I want. It was a very hard decision, but I have to do what I think is best for me, and ultimately for all of us.

“Before you start with your reasons why it’s a bad decision, Dad, I need to remind you that several years ago, you were facing a similar problem.  You had to decide what was best, even if it hurt someone.  I now see that you made the right decision.  Selling Piggles hurt me more than you can imagine, but you knew I’d get over it in time and that it would save the farm.  So, you did what had to be done.  Now, I’m doing the same thing.  It’ll hurt both of you, and I’m unhappy about that, but it’s what I need to do. For me and our family.

“You had no way to know at the time, but losing Piggles affected me more profoundly than anything I was ready for.  Ever since, I’ve been aware that things I cherish can vanish, suddenly and completely.  So, I’ve lived my life holding things that are important to me close, afraid they’ll vanish, too.  What I have now, what I need, I’m not letting get away.  That characteristic has come from the loss of Piggles and is a major part of who I am and how I act.

“I’ll get a degree in ag science.  I’ll learn modern methods of farming and how to keep a small farm profitable.  I’ll pass that on to you, and I may want to come back and put into practice what I’ll have learned.  But I’m not promising that.  It’s what I want now, what my plan now is, but I can’t say for certain what I’ll want then.  I do know this: I’m going to accept the scholarship.

“My scholarship includes room and board.  For the first year at least, I’m going to take that.  I’ll move out of here.  At the end of that year, I’ll have a better grasp on what I want.  I may ask to move back.  I may not.  We’ll see.”

They didn’t like it, they made sure I knew that. But they loved me, and I them, and they weren’t going to turn their backs on me or kick me out.  They gave me their blessings.  I was leaving them shorthanded, but the farm was in better financial shape now than it had been during the recession.  That was over.  Farm prices were up, and they were making ends meet.  They’d miss my free labor, but they’d be fine.

ISU had a rule that first-year students live in a dorm.  Because of Akili’s situation, he was allowed to live off campus, and somehow, I got permission to join him.  Someone behind the scenes threw a little weight around.  I never did find out who, but it happened.  We got a very small student apartment.  I was never happier than when we moved in together.

I wasn’t worried so much now that Akili would find someone else and I’d be left in the dust.  It was apparent to me that he loved me.  As a brother, but more.  Those practice sessions had become intense over the years.

And for me, too.  I can only repeat: those practice sessions had become intense over the years.  The best way to say it is, I was no longer so sure I was straight.  And I wasn’t worried about it a bit.  Akili wasn’t Piggles.  He was even more important than Piggles, and there was no way I was letting him go.

When we saw the apartment for the first time, I couldn’t stop smiling.  It had everything I wanted.  And with Akili there, everything I needed.

I took his hand, sat down in the middle of the living room floor, and pulled him down with me.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“Homecoming,” I said, and then I kissed him.


Image by Brett Sayles at Pexels