(Editor’s Note: The ‘growing up gay’ tag is usually applied to essays. This story is strictly fictional.)
For a 12 year old, Clayton Simmons maintained the most peculiar habits. By a calculus all his own, he computed the precise number of movements and amount of time necessary to complete his morning rituals so that he ended up looking fabulous for the day. Teeth brushing required one minute, twenty-five seconds to attain maximum whiteness. Before brushing his teeth, he wrapped his hair with a towel so that it would dry, which it conveniently completed, by his reckoning, exactly three seconds after he finished with his teeth. Then, his hair required thirty-three brush strokes and anywhere from thirteen to twenty-eight picks with the comb, depending on the side of the head, to get his short Afro shaped just so. Impending puberty brought with it zits and a new set of calculations for how to manage them properly. He was still working on those.
His exactitudes took their toll on his large family’s patience. One restroom served eight, including two teenaged sisters who had their own rituals to fulfill. Weekday mornings meant a line to this sole location for preparation, and while other family members paired up so that two at a time could use the vanity, Clayton insisted on working alone. He could not imagine completing his required chores with one of his older brothers present. They didn’t understand. In any case, their presence would undoubtedly cause him to lose count during one of his rituals. His emergence from the restroom often elicited much eye-rolling from whichever sibling happened to be foot-tapping at the door, but his father had a particular greeting, which he reserved for his youngest.
“You always gotta be drama, don’t you?” he said with a world-weary drawl.
Clayton invariably just shrugged his shoulders, put on a small smile, and then walked to his room to dress.
His father, Randall, bore a vague resemblance to Justice Thurgood Marshall, a fact that a few of his more clever students pointed out. For that reason, he got the nickname “The Judge.” He did not spend the day in the classroom, but sat anxiously in the passenger’s seat of a training car to teach drivers education to, as he called it, a “gaggle of giggling girls and blister of belligerent boys, all of whom think they know too damned much.”
Clayton’s mother Edith worked at the nearby local public library. Over the summer, she gave her youngest a job shelving books, as a convenient way of keeping an eye on him during the day. Most of Clayton’s friend’s didn’t have working mothers, a fact that marked Edith “different” with the mommy set. “Different” meant having to hear comments like, “Oh, my husband would never let me out of the house during the day”; to that one she usually replied, “It’s a house, not a prison.” Her method of coping with Clayton’s eccentricities was to declare loudly, “Lord! You the worst one I got!” Again, Clayton usually brushed off the comments with a shrug and a smile grin, before traipsing off to a new adventure.
Clayton excelled in his studies at school and spoke the King’s English, which immediately got him labeled a teacher’s pet and a nerd, respectively. Kids teased him constantly, though he paid it no mind. They just weren’t as fabulous, he always reasoned with himself. Though he had friends, he preferred the attention of elders, partly because he was the baby of a family of older people; and partly because beneath his boisterousness hid a shy person with distinct vulnerabilities, which seemed more at risk around peers.
Mrs. Hamilton walked into the classroom after lunch, and slowly the class began to settle down.
“Heroes,” she said. “Who are your heroes? Who are your role models? Who do you look up to? This is what I want you to think about a bit today. Think about who influences you, who helps to mold your behavior. Is it a sports star? Is it a scientist? A doctor? A dentist? A firefighter? A policeman? Who do you look up to? Now, I want you to think about who that person might be, male or female. And I know all of your have wonderful parents, but I don’t want you to pick one of them. They should be your role models. Pick someone other than your daddy or your momma. I’ll give you five minutes to think about it, then we’ll go around and see who you picked.”
The desks were grouped together such that six sat together. Clayton sat at what used to be called the Brain Table, until Mrs. Hamilton decided to mix up the groupings a bit. She wanted the “brains” to spread more evenly throughout the room. This left Clayton and Diane as the only “brains” left of the original group. One student at the table represented the Smooth Posse, a bunch of kids who looked at Clayton in particular with a healthy dose of disdain.
Brian leaned back in his chair, legs spread wide apart, and stared as Julie hesitantly talked about her hero, a neighbor who was a nurse. He snorted and scratched his head until he heard enough.
“Yeah, whatever. My hero is Shaft.”
“Shaft is a fictional character,” Clayton advised.
“So what? He can still be a hero. Who’s yours, Clayton?”
“I can’t decide between Charles Nelson Reilly or Paul Lynde.”
“Who and who, son?”
“Hoodoo from Lidsville,” Diane said quietly. “And the man in the center square on the Hollywood Squares.”
“Are you serious? They’re both like a couple of tinker belles!” He fell out laughing. “Figures you’d pick a couple of people like that!”
Mrs. Hamilton came over to the table to see what the ruckus was all about.
“All right, settle down.”
“Mrs. Hamilton,” Brian said, still laughing, “You need to hear who Clayton’s choices are.”
“I’m sure Clayton has very good choices for heroes.”
“Hoodoo? A good choice?”
“Not Hoodoo, Charles Nelson Reilly,” Clayton corrected, in a staid voice. “But I think I want to chose Paul Lynde.”
“So you want to be an actor, Clayton?” Mrs. Hamilton asked.
“Why did you pick Paul Lynde?” Brian asked impatiently.
Clayton looked around and saw all the eyes in the classroom upon him. His situation reminded him of the few times he fell in the middle of a fight circle, after someone tried to pick a fight with him. He had two ways of handling the situation: defuse it with clever word play or some other nerdy tactic, or go all out, guns blazing, and let the punches fly. In this instance, he chose the latter.
“Because,” he said with Paul Lynde’s voice, “he’s so fabulous!” Which he then punctuated with Lynde’s classic chuckle.
The class exploded. It was a moment for the history books. No one refrained from laughter, including Mrs. Hamilton, though she quickly contained herself. Dueling chants broke out, “Nerdy! Nerdy!” and “Goofy! Goofy!” The Smooth posse, especially Brian, yelled the latter, and though Clayton wore the taunts well, as he always did, he knew the translation and predicament of his position.
“Alright, class, alright,” Mrs. Hamilton said. “Alright!” she yelled. “Paul Lynde is a comedian. He makes people laugh. And judging from today, I think you’re following in his footsteps, Clayton.”
“In more ways than one,” Brian muttered, loud enough for Clayton to hear.
Mrs. Hamilton thought it best to move to another table and ask that group of students for their choices. All eyes moved on, except for Brian’s, who kept his locked and loaded on Clayton. Paul Lynde’s apprentice avoided eye contact, though he sensed the attention he received. Finally, he granted Brian a glance, which he returned with a helpful communication: his finger pointing at him, followed by his fist hitting his opened hand. A quick head nod with furrowed eyebrows cemented Clayton’s fate. On the schoolyard the whole ritual translated as, “Your ass is grass after school.”
To be continued. . .
© 2012, gar. All rights reserved.