Yep, more of Rocky’s backstory. I wrote SO MUCH yesterday! Yeah, I’m that guy, you know? Every now and then I need Some Big Thing to happen to keep me moving. I get so tired of plodding on, ever on, wondering if today’s gonna be the day that doing the same thing over and over finally gives a different result…
The science fiction thing, yeah, it just…woke me up. The thought of doing something totally different for a little while. And it’s really what I need to be doing in the winter – something cerebral, action oriented, maybe a bit funny, but no Big Feelin’s like a romance novel requires. So we’ll see how much *good* output I can get on Rocky and Dex before Christmas week, which I’ll be dedicating to this other project.
Rocky watched the procession of cops and criminals in and out of the holding area. Mostly white cops arresting black men, he noticed. He’d already learned a lot about racism by having a black best friend, and tonight was another lesson.
Here he was, on a bench, hands free, bundled up in a police officer’s warm coat, lent to him by a kindly sergeant who’d seen him shivering. But his shivers hadn’t come from the chill in the room – it had come when Rocky watched his best friend led away to Juvenile Hall in handcuffs, while Rocky, who’d practically bragged about being the ringleader and sole culprit, was free, his sole legal punishment a phone call to his father.
Tonight he and Korey had “vandalized” an ATM, by pasting a “Bank of Evil” sticker over the Bank of America logo. It wasn’t Rocky’s first petty crime, just the first one for which he’d been arrested.
It had started a few months earlier with shoplifting – but a form of shoplifting Rocky considered a moral act.
He and Korey were 17 now, seniors in high school, and Rocky could hardly believe that, in 2005, it would still be possible for some Bible-thumping fool behind a pharmacy counter to refuse to sell condoms to a teenage boy.
Well, a black teenage boy, at any rate. “Just go in and get ‘em for me, will you?” Korey said outside, shrugging it off. “They’ll sell to you, I’m sure.” He tried to keep his tone light, but the bitterness was apparent.
Rocky smirked. “Right. No, they’ll say ‘just a minute, son,’ and pick up the phone and call my grandma.”
Korey laughed. “Well, fuck, man. I gotta date tonight. Guess it’s gonna be a blow-job-only night.”
After their years in the “nerd chrysalis” of adolescence, both boys had burst out of it like butterflies. Well, Korey had, anyway – suddenly, being a music freak who was into computers wasn’t the end of the world socially. And girls, Korey discovered, liked rebels and bad boys – and boys who were going to make money when they grew up. Especially if they played guitar.
Okay, so expressing your creativity in Georgia still got you called “faggot” on a daily basis. Especially if you adopted a personal style that most people outside Brooklyn had yet to see. But it was working like a charm for Korey, at least with the girls.
Korey used to laugh at Rocky when he angsted about being gay in Georgia. “You think you have it bad? I’m a straight black man in the Deep South who’s seriously into Belle and Sebastian. My own alleged kind have disowned me, man. I gotta get the fuck out of here.”
Rocky’s emergence from the cocoon had been slower, more cautious. He knew his looks had transformed from gangly dork into future rock star. He had the cheekbones, the kissable lips, the perfect skin, the lean but strong body…and the height of a rock star, too. Yeah, he’d always be on the short side, but he consoled himself that Anthony Kiedis was 5’ 9” and hell, Iggy Pop, that volcano of energy, was 5’ 7”. Of course Chris Cornell was 6’ 3” but that was because he was a God.
And he had the scowl, the permanent anger that makes some beautiful faces even more so – because it’s a righteous anger. And he had that anger on him now.
“No. No, my friend, it’s not a blow-job-only night for you.” And Rocky marched into the store.
He was coming to understand his power, and his privileges. Not only did he have his position as Reverend McCoy’s son to make the locals more deferent to him, but his new beauty meant even strangers were nicer to him.
He’d noticed it around the time he turned sixteen, the way the bullies suddenly stopped teasing him and moved on to weaker prey, the way the girls started to bat their eyelashes at him…and of course the way that some of the football players took a second longer than they should to blink and look away from his inquiring gaze.
Beauty is a weapon, and beauty with charm as a shield is invincible. Rocky gave the clerks in the pharmacy his sunniest smile, making their day. And absolutely nobody was watching him when he pulled out a pick, jimmied open the lock on the plexiglass door behind which the “marital aids” were secured, and slipped a 3-pack of condoms (the expensive kind) into his pants pocket.
He bought a soda and made small talk with the clerk, sweet and innocent as a lamb. Outside, he handed the package to Korey, a triumphant glow on his face.
Korey made a face of mock disappointment. “Only three? Shit, it’s gonna be a short night.”
Rocky rolled his eyes. “Life is hard, my friend.”
His own celibacy was still intact. He’d slowly but surely come to the realization that he was gay, that he was everything his father, his neighbors, his church, regarded as wicked and sinful. But, having become a rock musician before he knew he was gay, he was already in the Devil’s grip, so adding “future cocksucker” to his list of sins wasn’t such a heavy burden.
It had just…dawned on him one night, smoking pot with Korey in his friend’s room, listening to Audioslave’s “Like a Stone” for about the 30,000th time. Chris Cornell, still his idol, still his God, his friend, his fantasy…lover. Yeah, he realized, the haze of THC breaking his fall, giving him a gentle landing as he crossed another border.
“I’m gay,” he blurted to Korey.
“Call the paper,” his friend replied. “Dog Bites Man. Bear Shits in Wood. Priest Touches Kiddies.”
They giggled. Then the short attention span that the weed imposed had them moving on to something else.
But he hadn’t acted on it. Not because he was ashamed, or afraid. But because…well, maybe some of what he’d been taught had stuck, after all. Nobody’s immune to the culture around them. It soaks into you in ways you can’t even see, even as you declare yourself free.
“True Love Waits” had been the cry of the abstinence-only movement, an effort to rein in raging adolescent hormones by not denying, but delaying, gratification. Of course, saving yourself for marriage wasn’t a possibility for Rocky, since he could never get married to anyone he might want to have sex with.
But some part of him believed in waiting. Like Chris Cornell, “Like a Stone,” he’d wait. For something wonderful. For someone who would make him feel…everything. For someone who would restore, replace, the exhilaration that his faith had once given him.
The shoplifting experience had been like a drug to Rocky. He was a good person, a good kid at heart. But he was also an adolescent, and the sense of power it had given him, to just walk in somewhere and…take what was denied others, had made him feel like a superhero, an Invisible Man, a snake charmer.
Korey had become obsessed with New York graffiti artists, and while Rocky’s artistic taste was too classical and formal to “get it,” he went along for the ride. They would bounce around town at night, as Korey refined his tag with cans of spray paint Rocky bought for him.
“It’s for a church mural project,” he’d say to the man at the paint store, his sunny wholesome smile in place, his hair neatly plastered down, his BLACK FLAG t-shirt concealed under a nice sweater. And the metal doors to the tagger temple were unlocked, and behold, behold, there was every color of the Krylon rainbow. Rocky would fill Korey’s order, written on stolen church stationary in case anyone wanted to pry. But they never did.
They got busted one night as Korey was tagging the back of the Publix market, the cops rolling up on them silently, lights suddenly flashing. Rocky was remanded to Faith’s custody, no booking, no charges. Korey was booked and charged as a minor, but Barrett Springfield’s wealth paid for a excellent lawyer who got the charges dropped.
It was hard to say who was in more trouble at home. Barrett was enraged that Korey would “do something as stupid as putting your black ass in legal jeopardy in a small Southern town.” Faith was stunned that Rocky had even dreamed of doing something illegal, let alone aided and abetted a criminal.
Rocky’s punishments were phoned in from afar, via Faith’s calls to the Reverend on the road. Reverend McCoy had become an intimate member of “The Family,” that group of right-wing Christian politicians hellbent, so to speak, on replacing the Constitution with the Bible.
Sadly, their support was eroding among Americans, who in ever greater numbers were refusing to see the truth that gay people were to blame for everything terrible in the world. Fortunately, however, they were discovering congregations in African nations, still free from secular humanism and liberal education, where their message about the Evils of Homosexuality were greeted with enthusiasm.
Rocky’s own religion was long gone. In his junior year, Korey had brought him a book called “The End of Faith,” by Sam Harris, the first atheist manifesto of the new secular age. Rocky had converted it into “Southern samizdat,” disassembling the book so he could leaf the pages into a textbook – the only way the book wouldn’t be found by his father. Reading that book, his own religious feelings already crippled by American Christianity’s constant attacks on homosexuality, well, that was his “conversion experience.” And there’s no atheist so virulent as a former believer.
And of course he still remembered that day, long ago – the antigay protest when he was just six years old, where he’d cheerfully carried a sign denouncing the gays. And the look on that man’s face, the look of horror and sadness, that an innocent child was being used to spread so much hate. All in the name of religion…
When the sentences were called in from afar, Faith often had to yell on the phone, to be heard on the crackly connection to Uganda. But the message that came back from the Reverend was loud and clear. Penance and punishment must be Rocky’s life until he saw the error of his ways.
They would have taken away his CDs, if he’d had any. But all his music was on the computer, torrented, because he had no money and no way to get any. But he swore he’d make it up to those artists when he had the money, someday.
His father was smart enough to check his computer for music. He saw the look of satisfaction on his dad’s face as he deleted the only two folders in the “Music” folder – Kelly Clarkson and Nickelback, Rocky’s little joke. What he didn’t know was that all the real music was buried deep in a Windows system folder.
It killed Faith to be the executor of her son’s decrees. To strip her grandson’s closet of rock-and-roll t-shirts, to have to go through a teenage boy’s drawers to make sure he hadn’t hidden anything…sinful. To take away his pens and pencils and…
No. She’d drawn the line there, so to speak. No matter what, she would leave him with his art supplies. There was a limit to what was just.
Rocky’s father drove him home from jail, the cold silence between them a contest. His father was home on one of his triumphal visits, to inform his flock about the great work being done in Africa, where there was still time to save them from the Gay Agenda. And to raise more urgently needed money, to buy his first class plane ticket back there, so he could continue to minister to these poor souls from the comfort of the Kampala Serena Hotel.
“Arrested,” he said, pacing back and forth in the living room in front of Faith and Rocky. “Arrested! This is a new low.”
He’d made his own search of Rocky’s room, and glared at Faith as he came back downstairs waving Rocky’s drawings, knowing she’d deliberately skipped them.
“What…the hell… is this!” he shouted, waving them around.
“Art,” Rocky said defiantly.
“Ha! Filth, is what it is.” His father’s eyes were different now, glittery, fevered. His membership in “The Family” had given him a taste for power. Now he had access to noble and upright politicians like Senator John Ensign and Governor Mark Sanford, and even a Supreme Court justice. Power had made him feel invincible, embedded his certainties even deeper.
“Evil, hateful, filth,” his father said, grimacing as he looked at them. Rocky’s art tutor had taught him well, had brought his talent to full flower. Gone were the drawings he’d once made of Faith playing the guitar, the people at church with their eyes closed, waving their hands like saints.
He’d become obsessed with da Vinci’s “grotesques,” his drawings of faces with twisted and exaggerated features. Rocky thought they were portraits of people who’d been turned inside out, as if their real selves had were completely apparent on their faces.
He’d copied the most famous one, the “Study of Five Grotesque Heads.” It had been done with a fine hand, and an eye for detail that the Master himself might grudge as worthy of an apprentice.
And in the place of the noble Roman patrician at the center, with four greedy, mad, ignorant and downright stupid people around him, leering and mocking, Rocky had drawn Harvey Milk, and surrounded him with Anita Bryant, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell…and Reverend Norman McCoy.
He smirked in triumph when he saw the look on his father’s face, his eyes widening when he came to that one.
The Reverend looked Rocky straight in the eyes as he tore it up, into little pieces, as Faith choked off a protest.
But it was too late. His father was an idiot. The originals were gone, but Rocky had prepared for that. They’d already been through Korey’s high-resolution scanner, and the images were safe on his friend’s hard drive.
And besides, Rocky thought with the boundless confidence of young talent, it’s not like I can’t draw it again. Even better this time. I want to get those waves in Anita’s wig-like hair to be more like the way da Vinci did hair…
The Reverend saw it, the defiance, the literal devil-may-care look on his son’s face. This wasn’t punishment, not even. His features contorted into a grotesque of his own, and he knew, he knew what to do. He stomped up the steps to Rocky’s room.
Faith screamed when he came down, Rocky’s guitar in hand, the instrument that had once been Faith’s. They watched with horror as he raised it above his head, and smashed it down on the floor.
The instrument was well built, and the body came apart cleanly. It could be fixed, Faith thought irrationally.
Until the Reverend brought his foot down on the parts, again and again. Until it was nothing but wreckage.
“There!” He shouted in triumph. “Now there’s a punishment you’ll remember!”
He didn’t know what he’d done. He didn’t know, couldn’t know. But the grin left his face when he saw the looks on theirs. He didn’t know, he had to know. Nobody’s that stupid.
All his life his mother had looked at him with concern, with love, with fear. Always, she had done for him, done more than any mother could. Raised him alone, and then raised Norman Junior. Always there had been a light in her face when she looked at him.
It was gone. She looked at him like a trespasser, an invader. It chilled his heart, his bones. It frightened him.
And his son. His son was in shock. As if his father had killed his puppy before his eyes. He just couldn’t believe it, that anyone could be capable of such a thing. All this time, Norman Junior had met him with defiance, but it was the defiance of any son against a father. Now Norman looked at him as if…as if he was a stranger.
So it was done, that day. The defender of family values had destroyed his own family.
But the most important drawings had already been mailed. Rocky had applied to one university, the University of Georgia in Athens. Somehow, he thought, he could manage in-state tuition. There’d be no help from his father, he knew – not when his plan was to attend UGA’s Lamar Dodd School of Art.
Two nights after his guitar had been smashed, he heard his father and grandmother arguing downstairs. He had to listen to music on his computer with one headphone off the ear, in case he heard approaching footsteps and had to do a quick Alt-Tab out of iTunes and back to his schoolwork. Fortunately, he was listening to one of The Doves’ quieter tracks, and heard the commotion.
He stopped the music and put his ear against his door.
“This is the opportunity of a lifetime. Do you want him to be a high school graduate, with no future?”
“Do you want him to go to that town and lose his soul? Or what’s left of it?”
“You don’t have much faith in your son’s ability to resist temptation.”
“Resist! Look at him now, succumbing to every form of temptation.”
His grandmother’s laugh was shockingly harsh. “Are you insane? He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke pot, he’s a virgin for all I know.” Rocky blushed, thinking of his many stoned evenings with Korey. Well, two out of three wasn’t bad.
Then it dawned on him. It must have come. The letter. Or, as it’s known to high school seniors, THE LETTER. The fat one. The YES. The YES, YOUR LIFE IS GOING TO CHANGE letter.
He ran downstairs. “Let me see it,” he said, startling them.
His father started to talk, waving the, yes, fat envelope. But Faith grabbed the envelope. “Here. You’re going to college, Norman.”
His hands shook as he pulled out the cover letter. Acceptance, Fall 2006, and…
“Partial scholarship,” he whispered.
“Partial,” his father crowed, almost gleeful. “How are you going to leave home and go to school on a partial scholarship, I might ask.”
“I’ll live on the streets if I have to.”
“No,” Faith said. “You won’t.” She opened her purse. “I keep this with me at all times. Ready for this day, the day I’ve begged God to bring to you, Norman.” She handed him what looked like a passport.
“What…what is it?”
She sighed and rolled her eyes. “Young people. It’s a passbook. A savings account book. Your college fund.”
The Reverend spluttered. “All these years, you’ve been…”
“Shut up,” Faith commanded her son. “Just shut it.”
Just the shock of it, his mother talking to him like that, did indeed shut the Reverend up.
“It’s not a lot. But it’s enough to keep you going through the first year. You’ll have to get more scholarships, student loans, all that. But you’re going, Nor…”
She stopped herself. Looked at him with joy in her face. Grinned like a conspirator.
“You’re going to college, Rocky.”