Burn baby burn! This is flying off my fingertips! I give up for now on marking them out as chapters; I’m just gonna power through. Chapters are important in the end product, because research indicates that you need short ones to get people hooked, especially in your excerpt. And who am I to defy research? 🙂
As the years went by, Rocky had more and more time to himself. “Family time” evenings with his father weren’t possible when Reverend McCoy was gone so often, as he took a larger and larger place on the national stage. The Defense of Marriage Act wasn’t the end of the battle against the gay agenda – not by far. No, the gays were insidious; they would continue to undermine the family, the gays and all the secular humanists who were oppressing the Christian majority with their war on faith. Reverend McCoy was in demand on Fox News, at the National Prayer Breakfast, at conferences put on by Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition and Liberty University.
Reverend McCoy had taken the lessons of his marketing consultant to heart. He was one of the first to set aside the vituperative anti-gay rhetoric, if not the sentiment behind it. It turned out that anti-gay ordinances and measures polled so much better when they had a happy face on them. You didn’t have to say that the gays wanted to destroy marriage, if instead you said you were “defending marriage, protecting marriage.” You didn’t have to say that gay people couldn’t marry because gay sex was a sin and sin put you outside God’s love – you just said that “marriage is about love, the love between a man and a woman,” and everyone knew what you meant. You didn’t have to say that gay people were unfit parents when you could say that “a child needs a mother and a father” instead.
“Love the sinner, hate the sin” had worked for years, but now it was set aside because the word “hate” just didn’t poll well in any context. If you didn’t use negative words in your speech, the enemy was defanged – they couldn’t run a pull quote displaying your ignorance and hatred if all the words were about love, and defense, and “building strong families.”
Being a widower had made him a sympathetic figure after his wife passed from cancer when their son was only two. But in recent years, the ladies of the church had pressured him to remarry, to give Norman Jr. the mother and father that he himself preached was what a child needed.
But he didn’t, and he wouldn’t. “I’m married to my work now, to God’s work,” he’d say. “And my mother is an angel, she has the woman’s place at the table in our family.”
And they’d nod and smile and still they’d wonder in the back of their minds if there wasn’t something wrong with him, not being married himself even as he worked so hard to defend marriage. There had to be something funny about any man who wasn’t married, after all.
Left alone in his room, with no computer (it was downstairs and crammed with parental filtering software), no TV and no music other than the music he made, Norman was lucky, really. As the rest of his generation got sucked deeper and deeper into their devices, becoming passive, compulsive consumers of entertainment, he had no choice other than to create his own fun.
He only needed two things to build a whole world – pen and paper. He wrote poems and lyrics, and when that Muse was dry, he sat there and doodled idly. He drew his guitar over and over, his tongue between his teeth as he tried again and again to draw the straight lines of the strings, until finally he mastered it. In time, his doodles became figures, and figures became characters. He drew circles over and over until finally he could draw a head, with a realistic pair of eyes.
He drew people he’d seen in church, their eyes closed, their hands swaying. He drew his father at the pulpit, a hand chopping through the air to make his point. He drew the view from his window, and he drew his grandmother, over and over.
In January 2001, Faith McCoy was happy just to be alive for her 66th birthday. The world hadn’t ended with the turn of the millennium, though there was still 2012 to worry about, if you believed in that sort of thing.
She gasped when 12-year-old Norman presented her with a handmade birthday card, inside of which was a portrait of herself with her guitar.
“Did you do this?” she asked.
Norman smiled. “Yep. With a roller ball pen.”
“It’s…” She hadn’t known! All this time he had been learning to draw, keeping it from her and his father.
She hugged him. “You’re incredibly talented, Norman. So gifted. You have to…”
She almost said, “You have to show your father.” But for some reason she couldn’t explain, and wouldn’t care to think about, she was thrilled that her grandson had a secret life, a thing that was his and his alone.
And besides, she could see what the Reverend would say, anyway. He was concerned about the boy – he wasn’t social, and he wasn’t athletic. He’d been injured his first week in Little League, a dislocated shoulder that he had stoically refused to blame on anyone but himself.
But Faith had seen the way the other boys had smelled his difference, his natural apartness from the pack. And the pack had responded, and attacked the runt of the litter. He hadn’t gone back to Little League, and Faith had made excuses for him when the Reverend called from the road to ask about it.
“The boy’s sensitive,” she’d said, then regretted it. “Sensitive” meant only one thing in a boy.
“That’s the problem, isn’t it?” her own son said back to her. Faith had married an old fashioned man, always ready with his belt and his hand and, maybe worst of all, a hard word. They hadn’t spared the rod, and in the fullness of time she now had cause to regret it.
One day when she and Norman were doing schoolwork, Faith set aside their science textbook, “It Couldn’t Just Happen! Fascinating Facts about God’s World.”
“Norman, would you like to be a Boy Scout?”
His eyes dilated in fear. “Do I have to?”
“You’d get to do a lot of fun things, learn skills, go camping, meet other boys your age…”
She saw the dismay on his face when she got to “boys your age.”
“I just worry that you don’t, well, you don’t have any friends.”
Norman startled her by bursting out into the sunniest, happiest smile she’d ever seen on him. “Oh, but I do. I have my guitar, and my sketchbook.”
The next time she talked to the Reverend on the phone, she made her case. “I think it’s time the boy goes to school,” she said. “Home schooling is all well and good, but if you want him to learn to socialize, he’s got to be with kids his own age. And public schools here, well, it’s not like the local school board is a hotbed of liberalism, you know.”
The Reverend laughed, knowing that was true, since he’d help ensure it. “I’ll think about it.”
She knew not to press the issue, but she wasn’t done. “All the same, with you gone so much, I have so much to do to keep this house gong. I want to bring in a tutor to help him with his studies.”
There was a pause on the other end. She knew what she was doing, pushing a guilt button by reminding him that it was all on her, that he was an absent father, in his own way.
She smiled. She had asked the head of the household for a tutor, and he had agreed. She had done her duty. There was no reason to tell him the tutor would be an art teacher.
Like everyone else in the nation, Norman and his grandmother were glued to the television set in the days after 9/11. But they weren’t tuned to CNN, or the networks. They were watching Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell was his guest.
“The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked,” Falwell said. “And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’”
“I totally concur,” Pat Robertson said.
Norman turned to his grandmother. “So the gays crashed the planes into the buildings?”
She almost gave in to horrified laughter. “No. They didn’t.”
“But they made the planes crash.”
“No,” Faith said. Her denial should have made her feel like Judas. But it didn’t. She hadn’t lost her faith in God that moment, but she’d lost her faith in something.
Norman clutched his backpack, looking back at his grandmother, waving from the car. “It’s everyone’s first day,” she’d comforted him. “Not a single one of these kids has been in this school before. So they’re all just as nervous as you are.”
He wanted to believe that, but as he walked into the halls of his first public school as a fourteen-year-old high school freshman, he knew it wasn’t true. The other kids all knew each other, having spent their whole lives together in the system. They laughed and squealed and shouted and threw things and slammed locker doors and ran when nobody was there to tell them not to.
He realized that he looked a fool in his dress shoes and slacks and button-down short-sleeve shirt, the outfit Faith had chosen for him so he’d look nice on his first day – so he’d make a good impression. The other kids were in shorts, loudly colored shirts, dressed for play, not work. Norman looked more like a teacher than a student.
He entered his first classroom, already full of chattering kids. His instinct had been to go to the back of the room, to hunker down and be invisible, but one look at the boys in the back fixed that. Two of them were his former teammates from Little League, who’d thrown him to the ground so hard they’d screwed up his shoulder. He hadn’t been able to play guitar for weeks. They were smirking as if they were in on a joke that nobody had to tell, ready to get away with things back there they hadn’t even thought of yet.
There was a desk open in the first row, near the teacher. This looked safe – how much could they do to him with the teacher right there?
He sat down and looked nervously about. The girl on his left was turned around, giggling with a friend. On the other side was a black boy, who looked even more uncomfortable than Norman. And dorkier, too – he had old fashioned glasses that looked like he’d inherited them – the heavy silver “aviator” style that had been so trendy in the 70s, and would never ever be trendy again, other than with mechanical and electrical engineers who wanted something sturdy and didn’t care how ugly they were.
The boy looked sideways at Norman, and Norman whispered “Hey.”
“Hey,” the boy whispered back, as if they were strangers who had both found themselves hiding behind the same wall, taking shelter from the riot on the other side.
Someone kicked his chair from behind, hard. “Race traitor,” the boy whispered.
Norman whipped around, surprising himself as much as anyone else. “Ignorant cracker,” he said loudly. “Why are you calling me a race traitor?”
The boy flushed. “I di’n’t say nothin’.” Then the teacher came in and the class quieted down.
After class, the black boy followed him down the hall. “You know that guy?” he asked Norman as he changed out books at his locker.
“No. I don’t know anyone.”
“You just move here? You sound local.”
“I’ve been homeschooled. I’m Norman.” He extended his hand.
“Korey,” the other boy said, shaking it firmly. “Well, see you later.”
“You wanna hang out?” Norman asked him. It occurred to him that it would be nice to have a friend.
Korey looked at him, his eyes magnified by the thick lenses. “You’re asking for trouble, you know. Hanging out with a black boy.”
Norman shrugged. “I don’t care.”
Korey smiled. “Okay dude. So, do you like music?”
After school, Norman called his grandmother from a pay phone. “Can I hang out at a friend’s house for a while?”
The pause on the other end of the line was short. “Of course, dear,” Faith said. “I’m so glad you’ve made a friend already! Just be home in time for supper. And give me the boy’s parent’s phone number.”
He and Korey walked slowly in the sweltering August heat, and Rocky followed Korey’s lead as he switched back and forth from one side of the street to the other, depending on which side had the biggest shade trees over the sidewalk.
“We’re not supposed to feel the heat, but let me tell you, I sure do.”
“Who’s we?” Norman asked.
Korey turned and looked at him. “What are you, a Moon Man? Black people, dummy.”
Racism wasn’t something Norman thought about. There were plenty of people around him who were racist. Miss June was always talking about the “damn niggers,” but she’d be immediately told by the other old ladies to keep her voice down – as if it wasn’t thinking it, but saying it, that was wrong. “They can’t help it if they were born that way” was about the kindest thing the other old birds had to say on the subject.
His art tutor, Mrs. Jackson, was black. She was a friend of Faith’s, Norman could see, though their friendship was a little formal. They wouldn’t have coffee at the kitchen table the way she did with her other friends, but they’d sit in the living room as if it were a more formal occasion. As if being found together in the kitchen would constitute a breach of the social order.
Years later, he would unpack all the data and see that there was a divide between the two women that neither would cross – Mrs. Jackson would never attend Family Victory Church, not because she’d be stopped at the door or told to sit in the balcony, but because self-segregation was more powerful than any law. Like the secret codes used to denounce the gays, cloaked in positivity, it was said that everyone would just be happier and better off, keeping with their own kind.
“So what kind of music you like,” Korey said as they came up to his house. It was small, and old, but reasonably well-kept. The outside could have used a coat of paint, but there were no weeds in the lawn or anything ramshackle. “You like grunge, or emo, or metal, or country, or what.”
“You serious? Don’t you watch MTV?”
“No, we only watch Fox News and the Christian channels.”
“Just the Christian music channels.”
Korey shook his head, unlocking the front door. “Bible boy, huh? Damn. That’s… But you play the guitar, you said.”
“Yeah,” Norman said, looking around the dim foyer. “Just…”
“Just Christian music, right. Shit. You need your mind opened, man.”
“My daddy says that rock is the devil’s music.”
Korey snorted. “Well, my daddy is a session musician. You know what that is?”
Rocky nodded as they walked through the living room. Korey stopped at another door.
“So,” Korey said, his hand on the knob. He threw the door open with a flourish.
There were no windows but the room was bright. A large skylight bathed the room in soft light. For a moment, it looked to Norman like the walls had the craziest wallpaper he’d ever seen. Then he realized. They were record albums. Thousands and thousands of vinyl discs, a library of them so vast it seemed that it would take a lifetime to listen to them all.
On one wall, there was an alcove, backlit with little spots like an altar, on which a turntable waited for the next disc.
Korey smiled at the awe on Norman’s face.
“If rock and roll is the devil’s music, then welcome to Hell.”