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The Door of the Heart
By Diana Finfrock Farrar
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2014 Diana Finfrock Farrar
All rights reserved.
Both Sides of Humanity
They may as well have gunned him down. The pain he experienced as the crowd gathered round him was every bit as real as if they had shot him in the gut. Or in the heart. Actually, that would have been preferable to enduring this. They were pointing and laughing. They were calling him terrible names. And it was only the third day of school.
Dr. Price had gotten there quickly and Jamie had held it together until the door had closed behind them and Dr. Price had rested his arm gently on his shoulder. But with that touch, so full of compassion, and within the safety of the principal's office, he had fallen apart. Words left unspoken for so long had tumbled out amidst his tears.
"You'd think I'd be used to it by now ..." He was angry. Angry about what those guys had done, angry at the crowd's reaction, but most of all, angry at himself for letting it get to him.
"But they just won't leave me alone. They've been doing this for a long time and I'm tired of it. I'm tired of being teased, and threatened, and shoved into walls — or toilet seats." He had to pause to choke back the sobs that threatened to engulf him at that memory.
"They just can't stand that I'm different from them.
"Sometimes they push me so far I just want to slug 'em and call them names. You know? Become the bully myself." He doubled over and slugged his own thighs instead, then pressed his balled fists hard against his streaming eyes. But the tears came anyway and Dr. Price let them come.
"But I know I can never do that ... because I know how it feels." He wiped his nose with the back of his hand, continuing to stare at his knees.
He wished with all his heart that he wouldn't feel anything anymore, but he did.
"Crazy, but the teachers all think these guys are my friends, when really, my only 'friends,' are probably the kids who don't want to be around me at all. But that's my fault, I guess, 'cause I've never told anyone about any of this before."
He had always thought he could protect his mom and dad, and his little sister, with his silence. He had never wanted them to be a part of this: his embarrassment; his shame; his self-hatred. It had always been his: his secret and his responsibility. Until today. He searched his principal's eyes, seeking their comfort — maybe even their protection — before he continued.
"They've threatened to kill me if I do. I don't think they'd really go that far, but I've never wanted to give 'em the chance.
He looked out the large window of Dr. Price's office, attempting to regain composure. "They're right about one thing, though. I don't belong here." Never had that felt so true as it did today. Jamie O'Dell wished with all his heart that he could be anywhere other than at Westmont High.
Today, they had taped a big "G" over the "R" on his Devil Rays ball cap, and someone had scrawled "is gay" in hot-pink puff paint just under his name on the back of his jersey. Both had been exhibited on a crude manikin — effeminate features drawn on a canvas face, head and jersey hung on a broomstick, sneakers dangling below the jersey from black net pantyhose. A baseball bat, placed just under the shoes, sported a sign, "FAG." And it had all been on display outside the gym for almost an hour before being found and immediately taken down by one of the coaches.
It was just too big. Now everybody knew, because they had all seen it. The damage had been done.
And this time he was talking.
* * *
Ed Sloan gripped his highball as if to squeeze the comfort he desired right out of the glass. He was incapable of relaxing despite the lavish comfort of the room. And his ruddy complexion was not due to the afternoon heat outside.
"That's the way I see it, Ed." Bill Pritchett swirled the amber liquid in his glass, careful not to meet the commissioner's eye. He was no match for the commanding personality sitting opposite him, especially when Ed Sloan was as enraged as he was this afternoon. Bill's level head and steady demeanor had been the perfect foil to Sloan's zeal over the years, and if their decades-old partnership had taught him anything, it had taught him that this was a time when he needed to exercise his diplomatic skills.
The incident had encroached on their perfect day — opening day of dove season — and they now sat, unable to shake the nagging tension that stalked them. It was palpable still.
"Well, I just can't accept that, Pritchett. I certainly don't intend to let my boy, or the others for that matter, take the fall for that O'Dell kid without a fight." And Commissioner Sloan knew how to fight. He was a proud and principled man whose steely gray eyes could garner the strength of an ally or pierce to the core a vulnerable opponent. His commanding baritone often overpowered even the most brilliant of colleagues, and he knew how to utilize his size and position to prove his point, make the sale, or get the vote. Standing nearly six foot four, he could tower over most adversaries, and when challenged he could intimidate with a lift of his arrogant brow or a thrust of his aggressive jaw.
"Well, the truth is, Ed," Bill persevered, "this is an uncommon situation. Even you can admit that, can't you?"
Sloan did not reply, but instead helped himself to another glass of whiskey while the portraits of former statesman, esteemed and otherwise, watched the two sparring friends from gilded frames hung high on the walls that surrounded them.
"Bella McLoughlin from News 25 wants another interview and I got a call yesterday from the people at Daybreak Austin. They want you to appear on their local morning show. Ed, times are changing and this may be a time where you can't just dig in your heels and try to bellow louder than everyone else to make this go away. You've got to show some compassion here, friend."
Ed took another swig, the thought of more negative media attention burning his insides as much as the stout liquor in his gut. How dare they turn on him like this!
He was admired by his public. They listened to what he had to say. They followed his lead. They looked up to him. His message hadn't changed. So why had they? Ed was incensed at the betrayal. He had basked in the respect that his office and the media attention had brought him, and he had preened in the adoring spotlight, spreading his feathers frequently and without restraint at every opportunity. He took pride in the fact that his admirers saw in him a morally right compass and followed his trumpeting call to righteousness, unquestioningly. But now his feathers were being tarred.
"I know you don't want to see your kid punished like this, but you've got to think about how this incident is playing out in the public eye." As Sloan's campaign manager, Bill Pritchett thought about public perception a lot.
"Times may be changing, dammit, but I don't intend to." Ed set the decanter down with a force that commanded Bill's attention. "All I can say is that the O'Dell boy asked for it. He's a fucking pervert. And Michael was just protecting himself from that kind of behavior. Hell, the whole school ought to be grateful to Michael for standing up for Christian principles!"
It was quiet in the room now, save for the ticking of the pendulum housed in the great grandfather clock and the tinkling of ice in the men's glasses.
"Okay, Ed, let's go over the details again. Give me everything exactly as it happened. Maybe I can think of something to do." Pritchett hoped this tactic would defuse the negative energy fueling his friend's resistance to reason.
Coverage of the incident was still going strong in the local paper, but now there was increasing interest in this story from surrounding towns. The worship of Texas high school football and its standout players began early, and Michael Sloan was a promising young sophomore quarterback and kicker, the pride and joy of his powerful father. His popularity as a talented player, coupled with his father's prestigious position, made Michael's suspension from the team an issue the media had pounced upon, as much as, so it seemed, the initial reason for the suspension.
While rushing to put its own stamp on the issue, the media was running the story ad nauseum, creating a sideshow of polarization. It began as the Temple Daily Telegram, the Killeen Daily Herald and the Waco Tribune-Herald blamed the potential downfall of the Devil Rays football season on the unfair punishment of those rightly wanting to defend traditional morality and then editorialized on the obvious dangers that homosexuality in a community's midst can bring. That caught the attention of the more progressive urban communities, like Austin, which countered with their own headlines: "BIGOTRY DOES NOT BELONG!" "COMMISSIONER ATTACKS GAY TEEN!" and "WHOSE SIDE IS GOD ON?" In pandering to their audience's prevailing views, both sides obviously pushed their own agendas.
Pritchett certainly didn't relish seeing Ed's head placed upon this media circus platter, but the Land Commissioner's rigidity was making that inevitability difficult to avoid. Continuing to dodge the stream of inquiries and interview requests from reporters was just as damaging as encouraging Ed to continue speaking publicly. His raw emotions had gotten the better of him in his last encounter with a camera, and the media had run with it.
"The best players should be allowed to play the game, period," Ed had declared. "Our schools and communities deserve that. If every red-blooded American man, woman and child does not stand up and shout the gays back down into their place right now, then none of us will be able to avoid the depravity they will bring on us all! It has already begun with these unjust suspensions right here, and now is the time to take charge."
Energized and emboldened by the roar of his approving constituents, the Commissioner crossed the line.
"We got Osama for cryin' out loud. Surely we can contain this threat which is every bit as serious to the continuation of American culture as we know it!"
The sound bite had gone viral. And the next morning's headlines had read, "TEXAS COMMISSIONER EQUATES HOMOSEXUALITY WITH TERRORIST THREAT."
And if this wave continued building strength, it had the potential to wipe out Ed's reputation and possibly even his career. Pritchett grimaced when remembering Clayton Williams' comment, made decades ago, equating cold wet weather having spoiled a scheduled campaign event to being raped. The Texas gubernatorial candidate had stated that "if it is inevitable, just relax and enjoy it." That one thoughtless statement had taken off like wildfire across the dry Texas prairie and Williams had been reduced to political ash — an idiot, a caricature of chauvinism. He had been destroyed in the polls. Ed's recent declarations resounded in Pritchett's head, bringing back the memory of news programs from his youth: grainy black-and-white visions of fire hoses trained on Negroes in Selma and Montgomery.
The stately clock chimed the quarter hour. "I've told you before, Pritchett, but I'm happy to oblige if it amuses you," said Sloan, as he pushed himself back into the chair even further, more than ready to embark on this story of injustice yet again.
Pritchett knew the details. Ed had needed to vent about them all morning long. Pritchett had actually encouraged Ed to talk, hoping it would cool his emotions, which were still as hot as this summer afternoon. They had perched upon faded green stools, squinted into the early morning sun, and pondered their options. "Gay people are part of the fabric of our society," he had told Ed. "You're gonna have to come out and say something like that to diffuse your earlier comments." Sloan's response had not been positive. "I refuse to be a political and religious boomerang changing direction on the whims of public opinion. I've got principles, dammit!" He had sprung from his stool, turning it over, and had begun pacing the riverbank, his long strides resembling the rhythmic pounding of a hammer driving in a nail.
Pritchett had decided to bide his time. And the scotch was now mellowing Ed's temper.
"So, I get a call from the school principal. And he says I have to get up there right away, that Michael had gotten into a little trouble. I asked, 'What kind of trouble?' I was already on the road to Austin and had a shitload of work to do for the Land Commission. 'Well,' he says, 'seems Michael had played a prank on another kid' ..."
"Ed, a prank? Really? I doubt that's what Price called it. Those boys did something that could be considered a hate crime these days." That's the trouble with this world today, thought Bill. Too many people confuse pranks with abuse. Pranks are done in innocent fun and no one is hurt. But these boys intended to hurt.
Sloan's son and several of the other athletes had done a masterful job of humiliating Jamie O'Dell in front of the whole school. And those who had seen it, almost the entire student body, became unrelenting in their baiting. Seemingly, the effigy had given everyone permission to be cruel. Even those who had never before had a disparaging thought about Jamie, much less a derogatory remark, now joined in the "fun."
"A hate crime? Come on, Bill, all they did was make a dummy with his jersey number on it and put it in front of the school." Then chuckling to himself, Sloan continued, "Honestly, I think it was pretty clever. Devil Gays instead of Devil Rays? And the eyelashes and lipstick were nice touches, too."
"I can see it now," said Bill gesturing with his hands as if reading a headline. "Texas Land Commissioner Tarred and Feathered." He leaned forward, looking directly at his friend, and punctuated every phrase with a nod of his head. "By his constituents — in front of the Capitol building — but members of the Human Rights Campaign call it just a 'prank.'"
Sloan eyed his friend from over the rim of his glass. He had gotten the point. He dismissed the sarcastic tone of his campaign manager with a wave of his hand, and sighed. "It was only up there for less than an hour, Pritchett."
"Ed, this is serious stuff!" Bill leaned in even further to press the point. "What they did was more than just inappropriate. It was purposefully done to hurt and shame — clearly to punish Jamie. How do you consider we get everyone to buy into this 'self-defense of morality' route that you are suggesting? Jamie didn't do anything. Help me out, here."
Sloan's expression turned grave. Determined to drive his point home, he squared his shoulders and began in his deepest, most resonant voice of authority.
"Bill, homosexuality is not the way God planned it!" He raised his arms dramatically to the sky, in an effort to enlist heaven's help for his cause. "We responsible adults, particularly those of us who honor God through our public service, should not allow boys like that to interact with other kids. It just isn't safe. If we give in now, what is next? Condoning pornography at school? Asking us to be tolerant and understanding of campus pedophiles? Most of them don't even shave yet, for God's sake."
Ed dropped his bravado momentarily, "Kids are impressionable at that age. Don't want them getting the wrong ideas, you know." He took another mouthful of scotch to fortify himself and held it in his bulging cheeks before swallowing with a frown. "Hell, even the Boy Scouts are being called to compromise their morals on this one. A good scout pledges to keep himself morally straight, but does anyone else besides me see the irony in a gay kid attempting that same oath?" Ed laughed loudly at his own joke.
Excerpted from The Door of the Heart by Diana Finfrock Farrar. Copyright © 2014 Diana Finfrock Farrar. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Both Sides of Humanity, 1,
Chapter 2 Family Business, 23,
Chapter 3 Homecoming Mums, 32,
Chapter 4 Coffee Shop, 47,
Chapter 5 Reconciliation, 63,
Chapter 6 As in Uncle Tom's Closet, 71,
Chapter 7 Henry Keene, 82,
Chapter 8 Someday is Here, 96,
Chapter 9 True Love is Worth the Wait, 111,
Chapter 10 Trick-or-Treat, 118,
Chapter 11 Friends and Family, 130,
Chapter 12 PFLAG, 140,
Chapter 13 State Fair, 164,
Chapter 14 Free at Last, 186,
Chapter 15 Bunko, 198,
Chapter 16 Vaughn Christmas, 214,
Chapter 17 The Trevor Project, 223,
Chapter 18 Challenge to Change, 241,
Chapter 19 Speaking the Truth, 254,
Chapter 20 More Telling, 271,
Chapter 21 Struggle with Darkness, 289,
Chapter 22 Despair within Doctrine, 308,
Chapter 23 A Living Legacy Begins, 330,
Chapter 24 We Meet Andrew, 341,
Chapter 25 Ed Meets the Recipient, 357,
Chapter 26 Old Friends, 374,
Chapter 27 Lenses of Comfort or Change, 391,
End Notes, 405,