Warning: Adult sexuality themes, homophobic bullying, suicide, some language.
“I Pledge allegiance to the fag!” The biting homophobic slur cut deep through the air, like a sharpened razor blade, even though they weren’t even aimed at Charles, but rather his best friend Ronald. Charlie, would never forget them though, and they would repeat themselves in his mind, for the rest of his life.
Ronald had spent the brunt of his young life being teased for his weight. Starting with his Mom’s shopping for “husky” sized jeans at Hills Department Store, fit more for pickle barrels than young boys, which he quickly grew out of. Now, on top of that, he was being picked on for being a “sissy” simply because he had made the innocent mistake of talking about his newfound hobby of masturbation, in front of one of his male school buddies.
Elementary school kids were mean, but Charlie believed there were none meaner than those at his school. Perhaps every child thought as much, just as every child had once considered running away from home when they didn’t get what they wanted, or had wished at some point that they were dead, so their parents could suffer incomparable grief for not letting them get their way.
Charlie was right about one thing, though, if you were at all different in the Deep South, people could easily take offense to it. There was a hypocrisy that ran well-deep, far below the surface of Southern hospitality or porch-baked sweet tea. Catholics were idol worshipers, and gays belonged in Sodom and Gomorrah, as every Baptist minister was sure to tell you every Wednesday night, and again on Sunday morning. Even the Black kids got less teasing than them. God forbid you were Asian, or “Gaysian”, as the kids would call them; You’d probably get run clear out of town. Adding the “gay” part to the Portmanteau was considered more of an insult than the racial one. Even as a young adult it never sat quite right with Charlie.
He just couldn’t understand why God-fearing Christians, who taught love and compassion, could so vehemently ostracize their fellow humans, just because of sexual preference. Especially being since statistically half of them were also partaking of fantasies of the same sex. The fact that it was a hive mind mentality made it worse. Even big corporate CEOs and politicians made it a point to proselytize against homosexuality. Charlie had rather they just stuck to selling chicken sandwiches, instead of shaming consenting adults. The irony was Ronald’s Mom had always said “The empty can makes the loudest noise”, and sure enough, it seemed like a week didn’t go by without some anti-gay Televangelist or Congressman, getting caught soliciting sex with members of the same sex, often minors.
Be that what it may, it weighed no difference on Charlie’s young political formation. Right now he was concerned for his friend, his best friend, who had stumbled away awash with tears, while half the ball field just stood and stared at him.
“Ronnie. Come back!”, Charlie screamed, not caring what the others thought.
“Oh better go find your boyfriend, Chuck!”, said the mean snaggletoothed one looking every bit the role of “Scut Farkas” from “A Christmas Story”.
“Yeah better lube up for a round of Smear the Queer!”, screamed another sour-smelling toady boy.
Where did they learn such hate at such a young age?, thought Charlie. The answer was obvious; their parents. This kind of parroted hate-speak was generational, and passed down. Probably drunken uncles or father’s with their own feminine insecurities had slung them about to throw up their own barriers. It reminded Charlie of what he read about witch hunts in the 1600s. Of course, most people were kind, loving and compassionate, and didn’t believe in such degradation, but they had to remain silent for fear of being ostracized, themselves, as sympathizers. It always left Charlie feeling empty inside, but he could never imagine how others, like Ronald, had felt. That was a void that could probably never be filled, despite the number of moon pies and delicious fried chicken Ronald had tried to substitute, in lieu of acceptance.
Well, the time for change was now! Ronald had always had Charlie’s back no matter what. He never once, not even for a second, had not been loyal or talked ill of him. If anything, Ronnie had been overly protective and attached to him. Changing his classes to be in Charlie’s, signing up for the same Cub Scout Den, and countless nights spent between their two homes. Not once, ever, did Charlie feel threatened, either. He knew Ronald had a tendency to like boys over girls, but it never once deterred their friendship from blossoming, and even though both were just now cresting puberty and understanding emotions attached to the physical acts of sexuality, there was never any awkward moments between them. It had been about allegiance for Ronald, and now it was time to repay the favor. It was easy to stand up for what everyone publicly stood for, but to go against the grain, required courage in the face of adversity.
Charlie sprinted to Ronald’s house thinking he might have tried to find solace at home. If he knew the shy wounded boy at all, he most likely wanted to curl up and hide far away from menacing bullies, and the petrifying thought of being seen in public again, after such an embarrassment. Charlie frantically searched room by room of his friends' house. The domicile was in tatters. Ronald’s Mom, also overweight, was a habitual hoarder, and on top of things, always seemed to be bedridden for long periods of time, making a bad situation worse. It was hard to tell if her ailments were psychosomatic, or not, but the end result definitely manifested themselves into physical weaknesses. This made simple household chores an even harder task, and his father worked two jobs simply to make ends meet, so only came home for sleep. The result was a stifling living environment, that definitely wasn’t helping with Ronald’s mental stability any. It wasn't uncommon to see wayward roaches, or even the occasional rat scurry about, when a box or pile of unwashed clothes had been shifted.
“Is that you, Ron? There’s pot pies in the microwave.", came Ronald’s Mother’s feeble voice from her bedroom.
“No Mrs. H.”, Charlie broke into the room, in a panic. He wiped the sweat from his brow, and tried to compose himself, the best he could under the circumstances. “Have you seen, Ronald?”. He managed to spit out between deep breathes of air.
Ron’s Mother adjusted her muumuu, that had been riding up above her knee, as she lie supine on the bed. It was hot and she hadn’t been expecting any company, and although she could ignore people seeing the clutter, she always kept her genteel demeanor as a respectable lady. “Charles, is everything o.k.? Is something wrong?”
Charlie didn’t have the heart to tell her about the incident at the ball field. It wouldn’t help things, and would only worry her more. “No Mrs. H., just really need to talk to him. See ya.”
“Grab some Little Debbies on your way out”, she hollered over the din of the storm now brewing in her head. If there was one thing her family understood, it was the value of a good comfort food during a crisis.
Charlie sat down on the porch stoop to gather his thoughts. He thought about all the places they hung out at, and where Ronald might have been most apt to run off to. But the more the left-side of his brain tried to think of logistics and compute running times to various locations, the more the right-side of his brain counterattacked with memories of Ronald’s friendship. He didn’t know why, but it was something he had little control over, as if the flood gates of some emotional dam had burst forth to question what kind of friend he had actually been to Ronald.
Instead, all he could muster was the times he had failed him. The time the other boys had referred to Ronald as a Chub Scout, and Charles had pretended not to hear. Or the time in the cafeteria that Scotty Lipscomb had joked that Ronald was one hair net away from being a lunch lady himself; Hell, Charlie himself, had even cracked a smile at that one, but not once had he thought of the irreparable damage being done. Kids were mean, it was just something they all accepted; Survival of the fittest and all that.
But it had been this last time that kept playing on repeat over and over in Charlie’s head. This time they had crossed the line, and what had been said had gone from sophomoric ribbing, to the barbaric repeating of vile vitriol. And where had Charlie’s allegiance gone then? He hated himself for not sticking up for his friend. He should have called those kids out, and threatened them right back. But he hadn’t, and now the ever growing void inside him, was swirling like a black hole looking for its next consumable victim. He had to find Ronald fast, before something drastic happened. He had to make amends, and vow from this day forward to be by his side, no matter what the ramifications were, or how severe the threat of becoming a social pariah was.
He jumped to his feet as if struck by lighting. He suddenly had a revelation. The man Ronald most admired in life had been his grandfather, who had unfortunately passed away two summers earlier, due to a lifetime of smoking cigars, which had finally caught up to him. A few fields away and past the tree-line, his Grandfather had a barn still filled with some of his personal things. If Ronald wanted to find peaceful solace anywhere, it would have been there. Charlie had been there a few times, where they had chased the rats and squirrels away with buck shot, out of an old rusted-out 1949 Kasier that had been parked on flat tires for decades. He remembered the cigar smell that still filled the cars interior and had caused the once lavish satin headliner to fall down like a drooping circus tent. Charlie darted away so fast, he felt as though he was floating. His subconscious brain was calculating footsteps over downed trees and through thick thorny brambles of Poison Oak and Georgia blackberries, before his conscious mind ever could. He made it to the barn in no time flat.
Once there, he slowly creeped around the huge top-hung sliding doors, that were already rusted in place, mostly open. There was a stillness in the air that hung like a cloud in the thick quilt of humidity, typical on Southern summer afternoons. The sloping backside of the vintage motorcar stuck out, as its nose had been tucked deep inside the barn, and looked every much the part of a sleeping cat.
“Ronnie, you here?” He called out heedful of his own intuition. Something didn’t feel right.
“Took you long enough.” Ronald’s voice came from the front of the car. Charlie peeked underneath and could see that he was seated on the hay-strewn earth. His tattered navy blue Chuck-T All-stars were in view, making curved swaths in the dirt. It was obvious, by the visible trenches, that this had been happening for a while. When he got them, Ronald had even joked that he knew they would be strong and last forever if they had been named after a guy named Charlie.
Charles wanted to run to his friend. His knees bent forward and he prepared himself to run to Ronnie’s aid and rescue.
“Don’t Charlie!”, came the abrupt warning that stopped Charlie in his tracks. The tone was serious, and one he had never heard Ronald use before. “I need to be alone, right now.”
Charlie bent down to the rear of the Kaiser. He could see the solemn look of sadness on his face, reflected in the red dust-covered chrome of the vehicle’s expansive bumper. It was a Charlie he didn’t recognize and didn’t like. He felt the void come back again, eating him from the inside. He felt like a traitor, not like a best friend, but like one of those ugly bullies. He turned his gaze away.
“Ronnie, I just came to say…”
“You don’t have to say anything, Chuck. The fact that you’re here says it all.” His feet shuffled more in the dirt, like an impatient wallflower at a school dance, not knowing what to say next, or how to take the initiative.
Charlie sunk down to the back of the car. He didn’t even care that the bulleted chrome braces of the car’s bumper were digging into the small of his back; There were much more important things on his mind now. He felt the warmth of tears stream down his cheeks, and tasted the salty sting in his chapped lips. He could tell the crystal green paint of the ’49 Kaiser Custom Vagabond had been resplendent in its day, much like his friendship with Ronald. But just like it, too, it was now dulled and pockmarked with the irreversible cancer of rust spots.
“I love you, Chuck. More than you could ever know.”, Ronald managed to say, barely above a whisper. His heavy breathes revealed that he too had been crying in between thoughts.
“I… I… I…”, but just as the words began to crest Charlie's lips, the crack of a shotgun had broken the air in two. The silence immediately following was even louder.
Charlie, didn’t have to look to know what had happened, and that his friend had taken his own life with his grandfather's shotgun. He had felt it coming all day. If he had looked, though, he would have seen the Chuckie T’s now drenched in the deep crimson red of quickly pooling blood, a visual interpretation of their now deceased friendship. His best friend’s body lie crumpled like a rag doll in front of the former Chieftain of the Road. The empty space inside entirely consumed him with an overwhelming wave of grief.
“I love you too, Ronnie.”, but, once again, it was too late coming.
There was nothing else left to say.