Sharon Frame Gay grew up a child of the highway, playing by the side of the road. Her work can be found in several anthologies, as well as BioStories, Gravel Magazine, Fiction on the Web, Literally Stories, Halcyon Days, Frontier Tales, Mid American Fiction and Photography, Write City, Literally Orphans and others. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee.
By Sharon Frame Gay
Sam lay folded in the duck blind, a scarf across his mouth, hiding the puffs of breath in the crisp October air so the birds wouldn't know he was there. On his lap was the shotgun, loaded and ready, safety on, as he watched the sky with his father for incoming mallards.
Here in the Ozarks, it was a rite of passage that a young man hunt for deer and birds in the fall, then fish for trout in the spring and summer. Before he was 5, he held his first shotgun in his hands, his first fishing pole, and learned to walk quietly in the woods alongside Big Sam, his father.
Sam hated every minute of it.
He much preferred the honeyed warmth of the kitchen, watching his mother fold and worry the bread batter before sliding it into a bowl, letting it rise on the counter. He liked to read at the table, the smell of the bread baking, the sweet sounds of the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. He always wanted to be a baker when he grew up, kneading and punching the dough, adding handfuls of raisins or slivered almonds, shaping the bread into crescents or rounds, watching them rise up under the kitchen towel placed over the bowl, and inhaling the yeasty aroma as it baked in the oven, coming out brown and crusty, with soft insides, butter running down the bread and into his mouth.
But Sam seldom talked to his mother, and especially Big Sam, about what he wanted to do. It was an unspoken assumption that he was going to work at the saw mill, threading tree planks through the mighty teeth, and watching them come out the other end, forever slivered into lumber. The sawmill was the biggest enterprise around here, and unless a young man went to college, left home and pursued another career, he was destined to don the thick brown gloves of the working man and head off to the mill with a tin bucket filled with last night's leftovers to eat, when the lunch whistle sounded. The entire town lived and ate by the whistle that the mill had. Its sound covered the town at 7 am, noon, and 5 pm, quitting time, like a fog. When the day was over, it seemed like the people of Poplar Run heaved a sigh of relief, began to breathe again, as the men hurried home to their supper and the machinery was shut down, the silence so eerie after listening to it all day long. The sharp smell of wood permeated the air, and it mingled with the coming darkness of autumn, a perfume dabbed behind the ear of Poplar Run.
At 18, and nearly 6 ft 2, Sam should be enjoying his senior year in high school. The small old fashioned brick building at the edge of town housed only about 200 students , from 8th through 12th grade, all of them raised in Poplar Run like puppies from the same litter, evolving, growing, socializing, and ultimately seeking out mates, under the noisy umbrella of the saw mill.
The girls loved Sam because he was handsome, kind, and respectful. "You aint like the rest, Sam," sighed Joni Walsh, one day as they sat on the bleachers and watched the marching band. "You don't try to get all us girls on our backs like the other boys. You just sit with us and laugh and listen to us when we have somethin' to say". Sam smiled back. He admitted that he was more comfortable with the girls in his school than some of the boys. Although he played on the football team, he didn't spend a lot of his free time carousing in cars with the other jocks, or meeting down at the one theater in town on a Saturday night, his hand placed on the waist of a girl friend who wore his letter jacket. His leather jacket, in fact, had never been worn by a girlfriend, and hung about his frame in a manner that suggested that it was as uncomfortable as he was.
No boy worth his salt in Poplar Run didn't dream of playing football on Friday nights, under the stadium lights that lit up the field so brightly, Sam was sure it could be seen from space. He dutifully tried out for the team freshman year and was surprised and pleased, but also a little bit scared, to discover that he had a knack for the game. His long legs carried him through all four years, racing down the field, scoring for the team, and bringing him some measure of success among his peers. But afterwards, he straggled behind the other players, not showering until they were done and getting dressed. He jumped in and out of the shower, his feet sliding on the wet concrete, and, turning towards the locker, threw his clothes back on his wet body, thrusting his toes into his shoes and squishing out the door, his duffle flung over his shoulder, weaving through the blackened streets of town until he saw the light from his kitchen window, beckoning him home.
Sam had a secret. Lots of secrets, really. And one of them was that he just wasn't comfortable with his fellow students, or even his teachers for that matter. He didn't fit in. He hated killing the ducks and deer and fish every year that his father insisted he do. He didn't want to run out on the playing field with the team, prancing down the 50 yard line like young stallions. He hardly knew what to say to the other boys, and he fended off the girls right and left, as though he were heading for the goal posts and they were bound and determined to tackle him.
He had a bad relationship with Big Sam. Big Sam worked at the saw mill, arriving home at 5:15 exactly every night, his hair filled with wood chips and his lunch pail clanging by his side like a warning bell. He was a man's man. And he was bound and determined to make sure Sam would be just like him, and quit that ridiculous idea of baking bread for a living. That was for faggots and Frenchmen, or women who wore nets across their foreheads. "Shut the hell up about becoming a baker, Sam", he would say, when talk came around to what Sam wanted to do after high school. "We ain't got the money for cooking school anyway, and besides, there's a perfectly good living waiting for you right here in town. I already talked to Hank down at the mill and there will be job for you just as soon as you graduate."
The other senior boys had plans. Some were off to college. Their parents scrimped and saved to get their sons into the state university, boasting about it in the cafes and wrinkling their noses at the saw mill, even though they, themselves, have been married to it all their lives. Others were following a trade, either working for the mill or learning how to be a plumber or cabinet maker. Sam could hear them talking when he sat at the tables during lunch, their voices raised as they made their plans. The thought of working at the saw mill saddened Sam, and he felt isolated and forlorn, unable to voice his dream of becoming a baker to his few friends at school. They would most likely laugh at him.
He just needed to keep his head down and get through high school, he thought, with no more mistakes, like the one in August, during football practice. It was getting late. Practice was over, and as usual Sam hung back outside until most of the team had showered and headed towards home. When he walked into the locker room and stripped down, he was surprised to see Chad Purdy, the captain of the team, still around, showering. Tentatively, Sam stepped into the large shower area and turned on the nozzle, glancing at Chad as he began to soap himself. There was a frigid silence. "What the hell are you looking at, Campbell"? Chad asked and Sam mumbled, "nothing, man". "Bullshit", Chad said and took a menacing step forward. "I asked you what the hell you were looking at!" Sam felt his face turn red, and backed away, his shoulders touching the tile behind him. "Nothing, Chad, for God's sake. We've been friends since kindergarten!" Chad grabbed him by the shoulders and shoved him against the wall. Sam felt Chad's penis, wet and soapy, as it touched his bare thigh. "Don't you ever, ever look at me again, Sam, do you hear"? Sam nodded, feeling the prickling of tears behind his eyes. Chad shoved him once more for good measure, then stormed out of the shower, his wet footprints trailing behind him. Sam let out a breath and turned into the nozzle, letting the water wash away his tears and shame.
After that, Sam kept to himself even more. The other boys were cordial but distant. And the girls were giggly and pushy, passing him notes and trying to hook this or that girl up with him for a date.
By May, the other kids knew what they were going to do that summer and on in to the fall. Prom was coming up and then graduation, and there was energy in the halls as they chattered on with their plans, and counted the days until they were finished at Poplar Run High.
Sam asked Polly Randal to prom. Big Sam was so happy, that he lent him the truck for the night, and even gave him the money to rent a tux and buy Polly a corsage. There was going to be a party afterwards up at the lake, and Big Sam lifted a blanket in the back of the truck and showed Sam several six packs of beer. "For later," he winked, and cuffed him on the shoulder.
"Have fun and let loose a bit, son". Sam flushed. How he had wanted to feel his father's approval. All his life he yearned for it, and now it was there for the taking, if he conformed.
The prom was filled with all Sam's classmates, all dressed up and dancing until the sweat ran down their temples, booze already on the breath of some of the boys and the girls fretting and fussing with their too tight dresses and pinching high heels. Polly clung to him like a life jacket. She held on to his elbow possessively, raking her nails lightly up and down his arm and folding herself into him when they slow danced. It was no surprise that on the way to the lake for the party, she asked him to pull over on a dusty road for a moment. When he did, she reached over and shut off the engine, then turned to him with a sweet smile. "Why don't you kiss me, Sam"? she asked, her breath soft on his face and the smell of her perfume rising from her neck. Sam placed his lips tepidly on hers, then drew slightly away, and kissed her on the cheek. Polly scooted closer, and nuzzled his neck. Sam put his arm around her and lightly stroked her shoulder. Then, boldly, Polly placed Sam's hand on her breast. Sam drew back and smiled at her. "Don't you think we should head on to the party now"? he asked. Polly flounced over to her side of the truck and turned away. "Whatever, Sam. I guess you just plain don't like me". "Why, I like you just fine, Polly", Sam exclaimed, wounded by her comment. "Well if you like me and you won't kiss me, maybe kids at school are right. Maybe you're just weird or something" Polly said, her eyes filled with tears. "Let's get going," she grumbled, then turned her face towards the window and stared up into the sky the rest of the way to the lake. Once Sam pulled into the parking lot, she flounced out of the car and went to join the others. Miserable, Sam sat on a rock at the edge of the clearing, watching his fellow classmates revel in graduation, drinking, laughing, sharing beer and food. Nobody came up to him. Nobody noticed him. Around midnight, Polly staggered up. It was obvious that she had been drinking. "Go on home, Sam", she said. "I'm getting a ride with Bobby Richardson and I ain't leaving til later." Before he could open his mouth, she was walking back down to the pavilion, leaving him alone in the night air. He slowly got up and brushed off his pants, then ambled back to the pickup truck and headed home, the carnation Polly gave him wilting in his tuxedo lapel.
Two weeks later, Sam was standing in line at the sawmill, tin bucket in hand, and fresh work gloves tucked into the back pocket of his oldest jeans. Gazing around at the rest of the men, he noticed one or two classmates and a few guys from previous years at Poplar High. Looking behind him, he was stunned to see Chad in line, shifting from one foot to another. Chad the football star! Apparently he had already had his moment of glory on the field and was going to bloom out right where he was, in the mill, here in this town. He looked away, uncomfortable, remembering their last encounter.
The 7 am whistle blew, and the gates opened, everybody shuffling in. He saw his father far up ahead, turning into one building but he knew that his instructions were to go all the way to the end building, where he would be loading lumber on to the semi trucks crouched in the parking lot, waiting to be fed tons of wood. As he passed a group of men, he heard one say "that kid's Big Sam's son. He's kind of strange, but don't let Big Sam hear ya say that". Sam felt tears prick behind his eyes, but he held his head and walked towards the back of the lot. There he met two gruff older men who had few words to say to him. They told him to start unloading the wood from the back of the truck and put it in piles near the saws.
By lunch time, Sam's hands were blistered and bleeding, even with the heavy gloves on. His back ached and his feet hurt from hours of hard labor. When the whistle blew for lunch, it sounded like a lullaby to him. He sank gratefully on to the ground and opened his lunch pail and ate alone. The sawmill was vast. Sam saw hundreds of men walking around, smoking, talking, ambling. Some men were clustered together in a group while others sat by themselves. Far across the lumber yard, Sam could see his father, sitting with another man.
At 5:00 when the whistle blew again, men dropped what they were doing and headed, trancelike, towards the gate. Sam shuffled along with them. At one point, he saw Chad, and they nodded at each other. He knew that Chad would never approach him at work or become a friend. That possibility ended in the showers last year.
When he walked in the door at home, Sam smelled dinner baking, and the yeasty tang of bread, freshly baked and out on the counter. He nearly swooned with joy to be back in the warm kitchen, his smiling mother, Patsy Cline spilling out from the radio. "How was it ?" his mother asked, a hopeful smile on her face. "Exactly how I thought it would be", Sam mumbled, then headed to his room, shucking his clothes along the way in the mud room, throwing on something clean to wear for supper. A moment later, he heard the back door reverberate with Big Sam's entrance and he ambled out to the kitchen table.
His father nodded at him and said "how was it today"? "Fine," said Sam and the two men sat down at the old formica table like strangers. Big Sam said nothing more, buttering his bread and eating his chicken in swift, forceful bites, then pushed off from the table and walked into the living room, where he sat down and picked up the newspaper.
When the final whistle blew at the mill on Friday night, Sam stood in line with the others for his paycheck. This was the second month of work, and the days blended into one another much like the ingredients in the bread bowl, swirling and melding, and just like the batter, he felt like all the lumps and edges had been beaten out of him. Every day at lunch he sat alone. Every night at the dinner table, he sat in stony silence with Big Sam, while the muted tones of the radio accompanied the chewing and swallowing.
He kept his money in an old sock in his top drawer, along with a brochure for a cooking school in St. Louis. The cost to go was still too dear, but every nickel that he saved, was one step closer to his dream.
He didn't tell his parents, or anybody else, about what he planned to do. He just kept it to himself, and thought of breads and cakes and rolls while he wrangled the lumber and grew large callouses on his hands.
One night, Sam was asked to stay a bit later so that the last of the big trucks could be loaded and sent on its way. There were about ten men, working hard, lifting and grunting, the many hands making short work of the pile of lumber . Chad was one of them. He was working side by side with a man that Sam didn't know. A rugged man, with yellowed teeth and tobacco stains on his clothes and chin. His eyes were small and mean, like a feral pig, and they rested on Sam. "Hey Chad", the man said "is this the guy that you told me about? The guy who was staring at you in the shower last year"? Chad nodded sharply, then started to walk off. "So, kid," the man said, leering at Sam "what is it you want from Chaddie boy here"? "Nothing" Sam said . "It was a misunderstanding. Just leave me alone". "Leave you alone"? Leave you alone? I betcha that's not what you wanted Chad to do, is it? You were wanting to do something not natural and evil and you're a sick twisted bastard if I ever saw one".
Sam backed up a few paces and turned towards the front gate. He took two steps and suddenly felt himself pushed from behind and landed face down in the mill yard. "Look at me when I talk to you", the older man growled, and tapped Sam with his foot. "Come on, Burt, leave him alone", Chad urged, "it's no big deal". "Well," Burt said, "it may be no big deal to you, but I aint working with no faggot every day, wondering what's going through his twisted little pecker of a mind. He needs to leave the mill and leave it NOW". Sam started to get up and Burt kicked him hard in the back, pushing him further into the dirt. "Stand up", Burt yelled. "Stand up and take it like the man you'll never be". "I said leave him be, Burt" Chad said, his eye darting back and forth, agitated. "Leave him alone, Chad, really? What, is he your girlfriend now"? "Hell no, Burt" Chad said through gritted teeth. "Well then, come get your licks in, and teach this faggot not to walk in your shadow anymore with his hang dog eyes and his fairy ways" spit Burt.
Chad walked towards Sam, his hands shaking. "Get up, God damnit," he swore, "get up and get out of here before you get hurt". His boot connected with a kidney and Sam hunched over with dry heaves. Suddenly, he felt a blind rage come over him, and he climbed back up, grabbed Chad by the knees and tackled him. The two boys rolled in the dirt together, taking hits, scratching at each other, fists flying. Burt grabbed Sam by the arms and hauled him to his feet. "Get him, Chad", and Chad drove his fist deep into Sam's belly.
"What the hell is going on here," cried the foreman, Gus. "Nothing, man", Burt said. "This here kid started calling Chad names and badgering him until Chad couldn't take it anymore".
"Is that true, Chad"? Chad nodded nervously, sweat trickling down his cheek.
"Look here, Sam", Gus said. "I hired you because of Big Sam, but it's been clear since day one that you don't belong here. And I won't have anybody starting trouble in the saw mill. As far as I'm concerned, you're fired and good riddance. Get your sorry ass out of my yard and find somewhere else to be a pain in the butt".
Sam stayed in the woods until he saw the light go out in his parent's bedroom. Still clutching his belly, he stole quietly into the house and into bed. Only when his head hit the pillow, did he allow the tears to flow freely in great choking sobs. The moonlight streaming through the window lit up the room and he saw his football jersey tossed over a chair, photos of himself with the team on the wall, a semi deflated football lying in the corner, the detritus of the only thing that ever seemed normal to Sam, the only thing he could do where he wasn't ridiculed or ignored or made to feel less than he was. And yet, the sport meant nothing to him. The boys on the team were strangers. He only joined the team to feel acceptance. He felt like he was living a life that really didn't exist for him. The life Big Sam wanted him to lead. The life that proved that he wasn't different. And the life that trapped him.
It was nearly dawn when Sam stole from the house. He packed an old duffle bag with his few items of clothes, and his sock full of money. It wouldn't be near enough to get him to St. Louis and into that cooking school. Sam knew he had to work somewhere and earn his keep in the city until the day when he could live his dream. He knew when his father went to work the next day, he'd hear the news that his son caused a ruckus and was fired. He knew that Big Sam would come home and beat him silly. There was no time to ponder.
The bus depot was on the far side of town. It was fitting that when the Greyhound pulled up to the station, heading north, that the morning whistle blew at the saw mill, a final goodbye. To Sam it sounded like grief. The bus door opened, and he stepped inside. He was the only citizen leaving Poplar Run that day. The bus was nearly full with people, staring straight ahead or sleeping, the interior smelling like wet coats and broken dreams. Sam found a place right up front, and hoisted his duffel above his head. Looking out the window, he saw his town slip away until the buildings were nothing more than toy size on the horizon. Weary, he closed his eyes and settled in with the other travelers.
The bus stopped outside another smoky Ozark town, the buildings crouching low in the afternoon sun, closed up like a spinster's mouth. He wandered in to the depot with a few other passengers, paid out precious money for a limp ham sandwich on rye, the cheese dry and turning up on the edges, washing it down with a Mountain Dew. Too soon, he heard the bus engine start up and he fell in behind the others, marching up and into the dank aisle. The Greyhound gave a hydraulic burp , then rambled towards the highway, each bump in the road jostling the passengers, until it hit the tarmac, then smoothed out into its own pace, loping like a horse down the road as it wound through the mountains.
Sam lay his head against the window ledge and fell asleep, his breath rising and falling with the others, all taking in the same air, though they were strangers. He did not bother getting off at the next two stops but continued to doze as they hurtled towards his destiny.
It was in the earliest light of dawn, before even the mountains woke, when the tired bus turned off the highway and picked its way through the city streets of St. Louis. It was steamy outside, and inside the air conditioning on the bus left a sheen of sweat on the window. Sam peered out, watching the city go by as though through a filter, the beginning of day shedding a kind light on the streets. A few stragglers were on the sidewalks, lurching home from work, or worse, and only a few looked up to watch them go by. One young man gave them all the finger, and an old black woman stood in a doorway, shaking her head at them, as though they were making a grave error.
The bus slid into its bay at the downtown Greyhound station, the smell of diesel fuel and lost hope riding on the air. "St Louis, Missouri", the drive announced over the PA system in a bored voice, and the riders stirred. A few children began to talk, their mothers shushing them, as others stood and stretched, reaching overhead for their baggage. Sam rose with the rest of the people, grabbing his duffle and standing in line, waiting for the door to open. When it did, he felt a slight, muggy breeze wafting up the stairs, a breeze full of promise, the smell of yeast in the air, a siren's song beckoning him into the future.
He took a step forward, then stopped and turned, looked behind him. Nearly all the passengers were standing in the aisles now, disheveled, dirty, tired. Their eyes were cast downward, their mouths in solemn lines as they waited their turn to shuffle forward.
Suddenly, Sam drew himself up to full height and said, quite loudly, "hey folks, I have something to tell you". Startled, the weary eyes all looked to him expectantly. He saw the faces of society; men, women, children, all on this journey of life. He saw sorrow and joy in
their faces, peace and unrest, as their faces all swam before him. He let out a great breath, then, one he had been holding in for most of his life.
"I'm gay". Sam announced.
There was silence, drawn out like the tail of a comet. Some folks shook their heads in confusion, others glared at him in disdain. Still others ignored him altogether.
Then a voice in the back of the bus shouted, "who gives a shit, kid"?
Sam smiled, flung his bag over his shoulder and winked. "I do", he said, then quietly stepped off the bus.