Name’s Ari, which is short for Aristarchus. Aristarchus Archer. AA—ha! Can you believe it? Maybe I was supposed to be a living prompt for my momma or something. Anyhow, Pops was one of those weird dudes who wished they were back in Ancient History. He was too domineering to be cowed into Johnny Jr. or Billy by my momma, sad sack of shit she was, so Aristarchus I became. Pops didn’t live to see the derision his eccentricity would rain down upon me, but hey, in love and war, well, you know. Yeah, see he got shot down somewhere over the Middle East when I was six, and all that returned was a box full of pieces and a pretty folded flag.
That’s when momma’s drinking, which had always been twenty-four hour buzz steady, surged toward incapacitating. She was either swinging or falling, and either way it was bones, hers and mine, ended up broken. Ever see a right hook from a drunken hag in a sling? Tragic comedy.
Well anyhow, D.H.S. came a-knocking after I showed at school with one too many shiners. It was gonna be foster care for me and the crazy house for Momma. I used to wonder then who won the lottery!
Anyhow—my Archer uncles, Pop’s brothers, were detached but loyal. When they found out their baby brother’s baby was getting tossed into the machine to be chewed up, systematically and over time, they came to my rescue—one at a time.
First was Rocky. The youngest, he and Pops were closest and I think he felt the most responsibility. His girlfriend Sandra was a real bitch, though, and made him choose. I was just a kid, and well, what she lacked in personality I guess she made up in other, more sensual ways. Rocky only kept me about six weeks before he passed me on to Jimmy.
Now, Jimmy Archer should have been the one. Attorney making good dough, nice house in a respectable neighborhood, sweet ride, and plenty of fancy health food in the pantry. Everybody’s got demons, though, and Jimmy’s was Lady Luck. I’d been with him through a semester of school and everything seemed to be going well. But then he just swung off kilter. Jimmy was coming home after I’d gone to bed almost every night. He’d be laid out asleep with his suit on when I left for the bus in the morning. When I did see him awake, he was haggard. He’d try to smile, but I’d see the pain, like he was starving or something.
Once in a while he’d have a few manic days—the days he’d won, I guess. He’d take me out to dinner and the movies or to the batting cages and mini-golf. There was this look of satisfaction, and I knew he really wanted to do well for his dead brother and for me, too. He cared, for real, and this warmed my heart. The glow would even get me through the other days, which became more frequent and for longer stretches.
One day they came to get his Camaro, and he wasn’t even home. Some big dudes loaded it up on their wrecker and when I walked outside to watch, they glanced at me and one of them looked kind of sad, but they didn’t say anything, just drove away. Two days later my last hope—The Elder—pulled to the curb in an old beat up pickup.
The other uncles and my pops called their oldest brother The Elder because he was, in fact, the elder; I guess he was also a real know-it-all son of a bitch. So, The Elder—Dr. Myron Archer—taught Biology at Winchester College, way up in the mountains with the country folk. And he was a smart dude, it turned out. Came off totally different to me, though. I couldn’t find the asshole the other Archer Boys had always talked about. Aloof, maybe, but also steady. I always had food in my belly, clothes on my back, a good bed and a roof that didn’t leak. And he sort of let me become whatever in the hell I was supposed to be. I guess he believed in nature over nurture, being a biologist and all. His home was a sterile environment. Except, I don’t think he was studying me. Who knows? Uncle Myron was like one of those vow of silence monks.
Now, down along the way I started noticing the boys, not the girls, and this was upsetting, man. I mean, I’m up here in the backwoods with all of these hillbillies, you know, and this shit ain’t gonna fly. So I tried, real hard, to find a nice girl. I wanted to talk with The Elder, the nickname signaling wisdom and all, but that would be kinda like fracking. Drop that dynamite into the quiet earthiness of Uncle Myron and who knows what might come up to the surface. Naw, he was cool with me and I wanted to keep it that way. Studies and sports, that’s all, and he helped me do real well.
Even won a scholarship from the First Bank of Winchester—$1500 to the school of my choice. Decided I could stay with Uncle Myron and save some money. He was cool with the idea, said it was smart. I enrolled at Winchester College, with a major in History. Uncle Myron kind of looked at me strange when I told him. He was a practical dude, probably thought studying the past was useless and wouldn’t lead to worthwhile employment, but he didn’t judge, just let me be, per his normal procedure.
Everything was trudging along just dandy until the middle of my sophomore year. I was straight As all the way through at that point, but some of my classmates started doing some scholarly research into my social life, and each new discovery was like finding an artifact which led to further questions.
Ronald Williams III, esquire, son of some country bumpkin rich folk who owned a chain of liquor stores all through the Smoky Mountains, was the first to raise an eyebrow. We were all out studying one night at Jackson’s Jugs, a local joint that served brews and heavy-set country girls alongside ribeyes and baked potatoes.
“So,” I says, “Who was the commanding general for the Confederates at the Crater, and why didn’t he stop the massacre?” I was sure this would be an essay on the upcoming test.
“Look, those coloreds shoulda’ re-conized the danger they put themselves in, fightin’ us like that!” declared Jeb Colt, one of the locals who stayed home for college, would likely stay home for work and never leave Winchester.
“Hey! Watch it there Jeb, you can’t say that kinda stuff,” interrupted young Ronald the Third. Suddenly he looked up behind me and his eyes got big and his youthful cheeks flushed.
“Woah, look at the tits on yonder sow!”
I looked down at my half-eaten, overcooked steak, and I blushed, too.
“What in the hell is wrong with you, Ari? It don’t hurt to take in a kindly sight. Take a look at her; it ain’t like your stealing or anyth’n. She gettin’ paid.” He suddenly hollered, his voice shrieking above the jukebox, where Johnny Cash was just warming up, singing “Love is a burning thing….”
“Hon, can you come over here and show our young intellectual your two pounds of flesh up close. And I’ll pay you double the regular to take him to the backroom for a little anatomical investi-gation!”
The girl sauntered over and put a tender hand on my shoulder. I looked up and she smiled, but it was a sad, worn out smile.
“Sure, Ronny, he seems innocent enough. I’ll go easy on him. Come on, baby, follow me.”
“No, thank you, Ma’am.” My voice was almost a whisper.
“What! You a faggot or something?”
I couldn’t breathe.
“Dude, I gotta study. Test is tomorrow. See you later, Jeb.”
I practically leapt from the booth and ran to the door, and though I couldn’t hear them, I knew Jeb and Ronald were already letting their curiosity run wild. My secret was hanging by a dangerous thread. The door slammed behind me and I was enveloped by cigarette smoke. The gravel crunched under my boots and the Man in Black’s muffled growl tapered as I jogged to my car—“…it burns, burns, burns. The ring of fire…”.
Now, like I said, I was making As all the way through and I guess it got the attention of the faculty. They must’a figured if I was Dr. Archer’s nephew, I couldn’t be much else but smart. Course they didn’t know the rest of the clan like I did. Anyhow Professor Adams, my lit teacher, pulled me aside one day and invited me to a reading at one of the faculty homes near campus. One of his colleagues—Dr. Lance Rosenthal—had recently published and would be sharing his poetry with a select few. I guess I was considered worthy.
I asked The Elder what he thought and when he looked up from his desk, where he was hard at work jotting notes amidst a sloppy pile of scholarly texts, he looked stern.
“Dr. Rosenthal—yes, I know him. Smart, fancy words fellow, wears the colorful bowties. Kind of peculiar, I’d say.”
Then he took off his reading glasses and sat them on the desk, folded his hands, closed his eyes. He took a deep breathe, then looked up, a half-smile on his lips.
“But interesting. I’m sure the reading will be pleasant and perhaps, enlightening. They must think a lot of you if they asked. Enjoy the reading.”
So off I went, and this dude—Dr. Rosenthal—was up front with this orange bowtie and a smile, a flourish in his tone. He had me captivated, dude. I mean, it was beautiful. I didn’t get most of it, I’m sure, but there was this one line he kept coming to as a sort of refrain:
Savior of Rome
sheltered among Heathen
fathomed the Unknown.”
I dug it, ‘cause I knew about that dude Aetius. Roman boss from the 5th century, actually lived among the Huns and Goths as a sort of diplomatic exchange student. Anyhow, the poem was about how ol’ Aetius could jive with the barbarian tribes and was able to protect Rome, even against Attila the Hun. The poem was a tragedy, though, told how Aetius got assassinated because someone said he was freak. After that Rome fell to pieces, and they’d done it to themselves.
Anyhow, Dr. Rosenthal finished his reading and sat next to Professor Adams, who gave him a real affectionate hug and then put a hand on his knee and left it there. My heart started beating fast, but when I looked around, no one said a thing or even acted out of sorts. I took a deep, kind of restful sigh, and smiled, man. Sat back and closed my eyes, thought, well, maybe I’m not totally alone.
That was also the night I met Adrian.
Adrian was a freshman business major from Knoxville, you know a big city, so he hadn’t learned yet to be afraid of what he was, at least in this place. So that first night he cozied up to me pretty tight, but I was like wait a minute, let’s cool it down a bit. He kind of chuckled at that, but said okay, we’ll take it slow.
I still had a few general classes to take and so the next semester, Adrian and I signed up for every class we could take together, and we started hanging out before class, after class, late at night, you know—just studying and all, but clearly wanting more. Problem was, Ronald the Third and his back-woodsy buddy Jeb were still on the prowl. And they were definitely on to me now.
Saw Jeb one day on the college green and he announces real loud, so everyone in the Smoky Mountains could hear—
“So, Ari, ain’t seen you around lately. You been hanging out with the new kid, that flaky Adrian character, right? Well, I just thought you’d like to know he’s one of those fucking shit-pushers, and we don’t put up with that crap around here!”
So I’m paralyzed, all of my personal stuff is on Broad Street and here comes Adrian, flushed, looking at me like—why won’t you stand up for me? I’m fighting to find enough courage to speak and then I see Ronald the Third with a bunch of local goons, most of them not even Winchester students—you know, country thugs—a dozen or so of them. They come rushing on the scene and Ronald cracks Adrian with a right hook, and he goes down. Then Ronald and the rednecks start kicking him in the ribs repeatedly.
I’m running over and Jeb is chasing me, saying, “We like you, man, don’t blow your future, dude, you still got time to get it straight an all,” but I keep running and then he puts hands on me so I start swinging, but Jeb’s a big, strong bumpkin and next thing I know, I’m curled up in the fetal position and I can hear my bones snapping inside my body, but I can’t see because my eyes are filled with blood.
Next thing I hear grunts and cursing—the sounds of pain—coming from the hillbillies, and then I hear Uncle Myron, screaming and swinging. I heard later he’d come out of the science hall with a wooden bat he kept behind his desk. It had been a signed gift from some ancient baseball guy who made it into the Hall of Fame or something.
Well, anyways, so much for his old prized autographed keepsake, he busted that thing into sawdust, and nearly killed a couple of the local boys. The cops came and arrested a few of the local thugs, but they let off Ronald the Third and his bitch Jeb.
They also arrested Uncle Myron, Adrian and me.
A few weeks later Dr. Rosenthal and Professor Adams got together with the ACLU and hired a lawyer that got the charges against all of us dropped. The problem is that while under law you might struggle for and find some balance, you know – aside from those assholes Ronald and Jeb emerging unscathed – but most people just don’t give a shit. Especially the big powerful folk who gotta worry what people think.
So my uncle Myron gets called into the President’s office and even though he was the most highly decorated, most successful, most published faculty member on campus, they fired him on the spot, and cut off all his benefits then and there. Of course I got kicked out and my scholarship revoked. Uncle Myron could get work at a dozen other regional universities any time he tries, but it’ll be hard for him to leave Winchester after so many years. He could sue the shit out of the school, and I hope he will. But at least for a little bit, we’re living poor, working double crap jobs, with everybody looking at us and whispering behind our backs.
And Adrian’s folks moved him back to Knoxville. He never even said goodbye.
A few weeks later Uncle Myron and I were sitting out on the porch and Ronald the Third and Jeb Colt came riding by in trucks, hollered out “faggots!” and threw some bags of burning shit at our place. Well, we cleaned up and called the police, who didn’t seem all that interested and scowled at us the whole time like we’d committed the crime. Afterwards, Uncle Myron and I had a long talk.
He said he loved me, and not to worry about what happened. Later I told him how I was always afraid to ask him about being gay, because I was sure he wouldn’t be down, and I went on and on. Dude, I thought he was totally like marriage equality and all. I mean he proved it for real, right?
I asked when he’d opened up his mind, become an ally.
But then he goes and blows my mind, in like—a crappy way. He got real somber and was wringing his hands, acting all nervous. I’d never seen him get so agitated. Then he starts in, voice kind of shaking.
“Ari, to be honest with you, I’ve never been comfortable with the changing conversation regarding sexuality and gender. Maybe I will change my mind someday, but I don’t know. Sorry if I disappoint you.”
He stared at the floor and dude, was it awkward. Kinda made me wanna cry.
“I hope that doesn’t hurt you.”
I brushed it off, but it hurt like knowing I’d never see my Pops again.
After an elongated silence he walked over to me and put his arm around my neck. He stood me up, squeezed both shoulders, then leaned over and kissed me on the forehead, looked in my eyes and spoke, quietly.
“I would have stopped Ronald and his gang even if I didn’t know you. That kind of person—with such venomous hate in their heart—is a plague, and what he did was barbarous. People get uncomfortable and act like fools, try to make everyone different go away, and sometimes, if they won’t go away, they terrorize them or worse. I hope you won’t lump me and other bewildered folks with those savages.”
He hugged me tight and though I could feel his beating heart, I stared past him, cold. I wasn’t listening anymore, but I still heard.
“Either way—I will always stand by you, no matter what. You’re my blood, Ari, and I love you. And I will sit with you and listen any time you like. I will try to hear your story. I just pray you can still love me—even if I can’t understand.”
Story by Blake Kilgore
Photo by Flickr/Ewen Rober