In an era decades before cellphones and Twitter, word spread instantly throughout campus: Clayton was to get a butt whipping. Mrs. Hamilton, though, was not naïve. She kept Clayton after class on a trumped up pretext. When the room had emptied, she walked slowly towards him.
“You know they’re waiting for you, Clayton,” she said. “What made you act out like that?”
“I don’t know,” he said truthfully. “It just came out.”
“Well, be careful where you act out. If it’s on the stage, then folks won’t bother you. But until you get there, you better watch your back.”
Sinclair rushed into the room, sweating and panting heavy.
“They’re waiting for you, Clayton! All of them, at the main gate!”
“You better go out the other way,” Mrs. Hamilton advised.
“The other way” meant ducking through a hole in the fence where it needed repair, a point at the exact opposite side of campus from the main gate. “Exit, stage left!” Clayton declared as he and Sinclair squeezed through the freedom passage. From there, they could walk easily along Vernon Avenue passed Normandie, with the intention of looping back around the long way to 48th Street, where Clayton’s family lived. Sinclair walked with him the whole way, even though as a second in a fight, he was just as inept as Clayton himself. But it didn’t make a difference. Their long walked kept them out of harm’s way.
Sinclair liked Clayton and his “funny little ways.” For some odd reason, they always ended up talking about girls when they were alone together. Sinclair talked as if he had a wrack of girls at his disposal for dates, though nothing ever came of it. Clayton listened patiently – most didn’t and just sloughed him off as a jive – and added his own two cents about what girls wanted. Both knew they were bullshitting each other big time, but that didn’t matter. They played the game well, and respected each other for their ability to do so. The unspoken truth was what attracted them to each other as friends in the first place. Their friendship originated during a 2nd grade rite of passage: the arcing urine stream in the restroom. Boys proved their prowess by standing as far back from the urinal as possible while still arcing their stream into it, and not onto the floor. Sinclair always felt his stream was sorry, but he never saw anyone as badass at the sport as Clayton. Little Clayton, nerdy little Clayton, goofy, nerdy little Clayton still held the school record for arcing some four years after setting it in 2nd grade. He had avoided the competition for a long time, but when he finally engaged, he owned it. He gained much respect that morning, and Sinclair, for one, never forgot.
They cruised triumphantly down 48th Street towards Budlong Avenue, self-satisfied that they had dodged a bullet.
“Snagglepuss never fails me!” Clayton declared.
Sinclair stopped mid-chuckle when he saw what looked like the Smooth Posse in front of Clayton’s house.
“What are they doing there?” he said.
“What, indeed,” Clayton said.
They crossed the street to get a better view. Brian stood at the door, talking with Clayton’s mother. They met her just as she arrived at home from the library. They had grown impatient waiting for Clayton to appear, so they hatched a new plan. Go home. Let his mother know what her son thought a hero looked like. Then she’ll do the butt-whipping for us! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!
Every Ha! Clayton imagined fed butterflies in his stomach. Somehow, getting it from his peers did not sting as much as getting it from his folks, because in the end, his peers didn’t matter. They didn’t know him. But his family was his own, and to lose them was to lose everything. He relayed these anxieties to Sinclair, who in his stormcrow fashion amplified them tenfold.
“What are you going to do?” he asked Clayton.
“I gotta get out of here. I gotta go. This is it. I better set out on my own.”
“Is that what you gotta do? For real?”
“Yeah, I think I better.”
“Where you gonna go?”
Lack of funds tethered Clayton to South Central, and he knew that. Though with sufficient bus fare, he thought maybe he could get to Hollywood. So that’s what he decided upon.
“I can’t go with you, cause if I do, then I’ll get a butt-whipping from my old man,” Sinclair said. Clayton nodded solemnly. They treated it all so seriously.
Sinclair lent him the quarter he needed to make bus fare. He walked him to the bus stop on Vermont and Vernon – they took the long way around again, to avoid going past Clayton’s house. Sinclair gave him a quick hug then skipped off on his way. It was the first time they had ever embraced and each marked the moment by recording it into a special space in their respective memories.
Line 204 came in short order. It was one of the few lines that ran regularly, except when two or three showed up at once, then there was a big old delay. But Clayton was lucky. He got on the bus and took a seat towards the front, after looking anxiously towards the back for members of the Smooth Posse. He sighted none.
During the ride, he busied himself with thoughts of his career in entertainment. He thought about Paul Lynde and how easily he can rip out one zinger after another on the Hollywood Squares. He thought maybe he could meet Paul Lynde and become his understudy. Clayton concocted all sorts of schemes for meeting him. He thought first he would try all the best restaurants in Hollywood. He thought about going to clubs, too, but knew he couldn’t get into any of them. Then he smiled. Just wait outside the studio where they taped Hollywood Squares! He felt satisfied that he landed on the best answer.
He got off the bus at Hollywood Boulevard, then transferred to another. He got it in his head that the best place to start would be Hollywood and Vine. No rhyme or reason informed his impulsive decision apart for blind romanticism. In truth, he had no idea where the Hollywood Squares was taped. Faulty logic told him that there would be signs pointing the way. But as soon as he got off the bus, he thought that perhaps he had made a mistake. The street was filthy. The sky was growing dark. The air chilled. And everybody looked like dark shadows instead of people. Clayton started to feel very much alone.
A few nasty eyes flicked his way, increasing his nervousness. Clayton was accustomed to nice eyes or at least tolerant eyes. The myriad of adult emotions had not made themselves known to him, and his imagination had not informed him of their existence. Therefore he had no way of coping with them.
Clayton began to walk and noticed the stars imbedded in the sidewalk. He read the names, searching for Paul Lynde’s. A shadow walked up to him, a tall man in tight pants and a shirt half buttoned opened, revealing his hairy chest. He wore a huge Afro and a goatee.
“What’s your story, morning glory?” the man said.
“Hello,” Clayton said, with a nervous smile.
“You look like a smart little brother. You want to make some money?”
Clayton’s mother warmed him about big, tall men who offered him goodies. He tried to think of a way to politely get out of the situation.
“I’m OK, thank you,” he said.
“I know you’re OK. You’re more than OK,” the man said, with a smile. “Everybody needs to make some money. Come with me, and you can, too.”
Clayton didn’t know how to handle the situation and looked at the man’s widening grin with great apprehension. Suddenly, another figure approached, much shorter, with short hair like Clayton’s.
“You need to move along,” he said to the taller man.
“This ain’t none of your business, so why don’t you just move along.”
“I’m making it my business. You get any closer and you’ll see how much of my business it will be.”
The taller man looked at the little guy with a raised eyebrow. A sneer crept on his face. He looked at Clayton with disgust, then moved along, as ordered.
“We’ve tangled before. He knows better than to mess with me.”
“Of course, really. I beat the living shit out of him, and he knows I can do it again. You can’t be polite with folks like that. You gotta tell them where they can shove it.”
Clayton stared at the man sort of wide-eyed, like it had never occurred to him to be impolite to an adult before. The man looked Clayton up and down.
“Aren’t we a little young to be doing the streets, dear?” the man said.
“I, I, I ran away from home.”
“Hmm.” Then a pause followed. Clayton watched as the signal light turned from green to yellow to red and then eventually back to green again. The man’s eye seemed to follow another man as he walked across the street.
“If I were you,” he said suddenly, “I’d go back home before it gets really dark out here. Whatever it is you’re running away from, it can’t be that bad.”
“How do you know?” Clayton said, with a hint of attitude. The man smiled slightly, before his detached look returned.
“Because, dear, you don’t look like an abused child. I don’t see any welts on your arm. Your clothes look brand new. Your hair looks good. You don’t look like you’re starving. I could show you kids out here who came from broken homes, and honey, you do not look like one of them.”
The man had a gruff manner and he spoke from the hip. But Clayton felt no malice. Indeed, he liked being called “dear” and “honey” like it was a given.
“Well, I was afraid they’d disown me,” Clayton said.
“If they disown you, then they ain’t what you call ‘love ones,’ are they? Shoot, my family knew exactly who I was, and I dared them to say anything about it. They never did. And when I go back and visit my parents, they treat me with the respect I expect, and I do the same for them. That’s how it goes. You’ll see. But I think you better get home, before your family starts to worry about you.”
“You don’t think they’ll get mad?”
“Of course they will, if they love you. Come on, let’s find a phone.”
They began walking down Vine towards Sunset. A call girl waved at them. “Hey, T!” she called out.
“How you doing?” T shouted back. “Now she’s a runaway,” he said to Clayton. “Her own daddy put her on the streets when she was little.”
“Happens a lot, dear. That’s why I say, if you got a good home, stay there.”
“What do you do?”
“I play piano at a few of the clubs.”
“I want to be like Paul Lynde.”
“That bitch? Honey, you better find yourself a better role model than that. I mean, he’s funny and everything, but girlfriend is nasty.”
“Oh, honey! I’ve met him. He’s not that friendly.”
Maybe being an understudy would not be such a good idea after all, Clayton thought. Hunger began setting in, too. Home and its creature comforts beckoned. When they walked towards a phone booth at the gas station, he felt relief at the thought that he would soon be reunited with those comforts.
T put in the money, and had Clayton dial the number.
“Hello?” his mother answered quickly.
“Hi Mom,” Clayton said, very shyly.
“Where are you? Are you safe?”
“I’m fine. I’m in Hollywood. Can Daddy pick me up?”
He began to weep a little. T gave him a tissue, looking as detached as ever. Clayton began to tell his mother what happened, but she interrupted. “Yes, I know all about it. Sinclair told me. You should know better than to think I’d come after you for being sassy in class.”
“I’m sorry, Mommy,” he wept.
“Are you safe?”
“I’m with a man who fought someone off for me,” he said.
“Here, let me have the phone,” T said. “Hello? Yes. My name is T. Yes, he’s alright. I told him he needed to call home and I’ll stay with him until you get here. We’re at Sunset and Vine, at the Mobil station. Uh-huh. Yeah. You’re welcome. OK, here. Bye.”
“You stay with T, alright, baby? Mommy’s not mad at you, she’s just worried, alright?”
They hung up.
T took Clayton to a café next to the gas station. He bought himself a coffee and Clayton a small Coke. T liked to stare out the window at the passing fancies, male and female. He seemed to know most of the face that wandered by.
“He think’s he’s all that, but his thoughts do not coincide with reality.”
He kept Clayton giggling with zingers like that.
“Why don’t you do stand up or TV?”
“Honey, they is no room on the stage for black queens, not in this town. Anyway, I’m a piano player.”
“I’d like to hear you play some time.”
“Certainly. When you’re old enough to get into the club.”
He told him which one, and Clayton promised to visit one day.
After a half-hour, he saw his father’s car drive into the gas station lot. He needn’t have worried about his father’s disposition. As soon as he ran out to meet him, his father opened the car door and stared at his youngest not with anger, but with the most world-weary face he ever wore. Randall’s day brought him two students that nearly collided with a lamppost, while chattering away about how good they were; and another who got the trunk key stuck in the ignition, thus canceling the session for that day while they waited for the service truck to come and extricate the malignant key. Those trials, though, vanished in the face of his wide-eyed son and his crazy flights of fancy. As soon as he opened the door, he let out his usual refrain.
“You always gotta be drama, don’t you?”
Randall thanked T for babysitting his son, and offered him a twenty for his troubles, which T refused. “It was nothing,” he drawled with matching world-weary detachment. Randall then beckoned his son to get in.
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” Clayton said.
“Why you wanna come to nasty old Hollywood, anyway? To get famous? This ain’t where it happens.”
“I know now,” he said. “But at least I met the black Paul Lynde.”
© 2012, gar. All rights reserved.