To Die, To Sleep
A bitterly cold night in January, 1977. Boulder, Colorado. Home to the best party school in the United States, according to Playboy magazine—and they ought to know. The 1960s had left their mark on the town, which some called the Berkeley of the Rockies. Beautiful girls, handsome guys, so many perfect smiles.
The smiles hid ugly ghosts—rapes, drug overdoses, and abuse. Some of the abuse bruised bodies, some bruised souls. Some of the smiles hid secrets—secrets so terrible that lives could be destroyed. There was a lot of talk about freedom and civil rights and Gay Liberation in the 1970s, but just a whisper of the word “homosexual” could destroy a career and stop a life. What would Mom and Dad say?
In that darkness, in that night, a nineteen-year-old farmboy, a little drunk, a little high, walked quickly along the serpentine sidewalks that followed the creek through the old part of the campus. His jeans were tight against his thighs and his waist. He was going only a few blocks, so he didn’t wear a jacket; just a button-down shirt, carefully pressed. The few streetlights cast shadows through trees a hundred years old. There were modified call boxes. If a girl were raped or thought she was going to be, she was supposed to find one, pull a lever, and a siren would go off. Blue strobe lights would light the area and help the campus police find her.
The blond boy rested for a moment against one of those boxes, mesmerized by the clouds of water vapor he exhaled. He played the cloud game, just like he did when he was a kid in Nebraska. That one was a dinosaur, maybe a little malformed. That one was a rock rolling down a hill. Nebraska. If his mom knew what was going through his brain, through his heart right now, she’d die. If his dad knew, well, his dad would kill him.
All the names from the playground of the country school he attended for kindergarten and first grade echoed through his head. Faggot. Fairy. Cocksucker. How did the other kids know his secret even before he knew his secret? Recess meant staying close but not too close to the one-room schoolhouse. Close enough to be able to scream for the teacher if things got ugly. Uglier.
He loved to read. When the superintendent of schools came around during kindergarten, she gave him a reading test. She handed him a book and asked him to read to her. He turned the book 180 degrees and read every word upside-down, flawlessly. She handed him another book. He turned it upside-down. Again, he read the words without hesitation. Another book, and another, and another. The last had no pictures at all, just words, and it took him the better part of the afternoon to read it to her. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Upside-down.
The teacher looked at the clock at the back of the room, and she said good afternoon to all eight students. A boy and a girl in kindergarten, twin boys in fourth grade, a boy in fifth grade, a boy in sixth grade, and two boys in eighth grade. Mrs. Shotts taught them all. The superintendent walked outside with the boy to wait for his mother to pick him up, she thought, but he was used to walking the mile and a half home. She said she’d drive him. He said okay, in a soft voice, hoping that he wasn’t in trouble.
“How long have you been reading?” Her firm voice echoed in the shiny black car.
“A couple of years.”
“Who taught you?”
The boy didn’t know what to say, not wanting to get his older brother in trouble if he was doing something he wasn’t supposed to. He mumbled, “I just learned.” It wasn’t really his brother’s fault. He’d learned from his mother, too. At different times, each of them would sit across from him and read aloud, moving their fingers across the page. It didn’t take a genius to understand that they were pointing at symbols that matched the words they spoke. He begged them to read to him. Each night one or the other read him to sleep. Each morning, before his brothers had to go to school, they read to him. When the newspaper came in the mail at noon, his mother would read to him. Was it bad? Was that why the superintendent wanted to talk to his mom?
The superintendant’s car rolled down the long driveway to the brick house. The boy’s mother came out of the house, with her mouth in an O of surprise.
“Mrs. Dalton. Is everything okay? Is he—is he in some sort of trouble?”
“No, no, everything is fine! More than fine. I wonder if I can talk to you and your husband inside for a few minutes?”
“Honey, why don’t you go play with Trixie for a while.” A big English Shepherd came running out of nowhere and leaned against the boy. He found a stick and they went off to the fields to play fetch. “Don’t go far now!”
The boy confided to the dog. “I hope I’m not in trouble. I just read for Mrs. Dalton. I didn’t mean to do anything bad.”
Trixie nudged the boy’s hand, the hand with the stick, and licked him on the face.
“Okay. I guess we’ll see.” A few more throws of the stick before Mrs. Dalton, his mother, and his father came out of the house. The man’s face was red. Maybe a little angry. Not good. Not good at all. Before he was even called, he headed to the house. He felt his father’s stare, the stare of a man looking at a two-headed calf. They’d seen one of those at the county fair, in a big glass bottle.
Dinner was quiet that night. Unusual, because the father always had opinions to share with his family. Didn’t want his family getting wrong ideas. If talking planted the right ideas, the boy’s head should have exploded by now.
“Honey, why don’t you go watch television.”
The boy moved to the living room, turned the knob on the black and white Philco television and waited for the picture to come up, for the sound to come on. From the kitchen, he heard his mother and father talking in German, just like they always did when they were keeping secrets or fighting. They never read to him in German. The father was drying dishes as they fought. The boy winced when he heard the sound of a plate shattering.
The father stormed into the living room, looked at the television screen, and saw the June Taylor dancers making a kaleidoscope on the floor of the studio. He turned off the television. His breath smelled of Mogan David wine and cigarette smoke. His stare reeked of a judgment just short of hate.
“You’re not going to be a sissy when you grow up. It’s all well and good for you to read, but you’re going to be a normal kid. No reading of poetry and crap. You learn science and math. Goddamned superintendent and her big ideas. Poetry and literature. And no more dancers on television. I will not have a fairy for a son.”
The cold of the metal call box bled into the nineteen-year-old boy’s skin through the cotton of his starched shirt. He whispered into the dark, “But you do. You do have a fairy for a son.”
His stomach did a flip, whether from the beer or the tension, he wasn’t sure. He staggered toward the creek bank. The acids from his stomach wanted to meet the cold air of winter, and they did. Don’t get the shirt dirty. Don’t make a mess. He vomited into the creek, but the creek was frozen, and his vomit slowly oozed across the ice until it froze, too.
The river didn’t really freeze solid, though. Boulder Creek had too much water flow to completely harden. It had a clear shell of ice at the surface. He remembered his lessons from physics and chemistry. Ice floats. It has a lower density than liquid water.
The numbers from the tables he’d memorized flew into and then out of his mind, into the freezing air, Hs and Os and Ns and Cs and little numbers that rode below them. One more echo in his father’s voice reached across the years. “Homosexuals serve no purpose. You’ve seen cattle, cats, even pigs, male and female, that’s how it works.”
No purpose. No purpose.
The boy walked slowly now. Maybe his legs were freezing, too. No, the blood in his veins had salt in it. That should lower the freezing temperature. One foot after another. The shadows of his legs made eerie shapes on the dirty snow between the sidewalk and the creek.
The bridge was old. Stone. Red stone. The mortar between the rocks was grimy. Someone should clean it. There was ice on the bridge. Roads and walkways over bridges always freeze before roads and walkways on the earth, because the earth holds heat longer than the air under a bridge.
One drunken size-12EEE foot after another. Like a Clydesdale showing off, slow and deliberate. The sides of the bridge were no more than two feet tall. The patterns of the stones were no patterns at all. They were random. Each fitted to the next though each was unique. There were no male stones and female stones. They just fit together.
He hadn’t slipped on the ice yet, and he was at the middle of the bridge. It had an arc to it. The middle was higher than either end. If he had a tape measure or two and his slide rule with him, he could have calculated the arc and the radius and the height and the length. He leaned over the side. A distant street lamp cast an anti-shadow, a small triangle of light on the water. In the center of the creek, there was no ice on the surface. He was entranced. Where was the water coming from that was fast and warm enough not to freeze? Was it natural, or was it effluent from a sewer or an overheated car—no, a lot of overheated cars, because the volume of the river was great and heat would be dissipated as the water was exposed to air. When water evaporates it takes heat with it so the water should be cold and—
Useless. Useless faggot. No son of mine. No purpose.
The formula for velocity is acceleration times time. The formula for distance is one half of the gravitational constant times the square of the time spent traveling. With his slide rule, he could calculate how fast his body would hit the water, stones, and ice in the creek. The triangle of open water was, he realized, almost exactly the same size he would be if he curled into a fetal position and fell. Jumped. Less air resistance in that position, too.
The fall would likely not kill him, but the cold flowing water should finish him off… how quickly? For the first time in his life, he wished he’d taken some kind of biology classes. When they butchered cattle at home and put the meat in the freezer, how long did it take for the meat to freeze? An X, for the unknown, wrinkled across his forehead. He should know this shit. His father would know this shit. “Book learning is fine, but you need to know the real world, boy. Get your nose out of that book.”
He rubbed his hands together in the darkness. They were getting cold, but the memory of the butchered steer’s warm, sticky blood warmed them. The boy licked one of his fingers to make certain his hands were clean. No blood. He tilted his head. Rocks. If he could perfect his aim for his jump, his head would hit a rock, and with luck would split open. Surely cold water running through his open skull would facilitate his death.
He stood on the bridge railing. He calculated his trajectory. He guesstimated his speed. No fucking fairy. No fatty. No son of mine. The muscles in his legs tensed as he flexed his knees. “Keep your eye on the target,” his father had lectured when he failed at shooting a rifle. And he leapt. He was airborne. He felt the wind blowing up his pant legs, his shirt sleeves flapping like wings, and then—
Gravity stopped. The gravitational constant turned to zero. Not possible. His legs hit the side of the bridge, then he levitated and was sitting on the stone wall of the bridge.
Only then did he feel the warmth of a hand inside the back of his pants, holding on to them and his belt.
“You don’t want to do that. Nothin’s that bad.”
The boy turned to the source of the words. The black of the night obscured the face that surely stared at him. Only the whites of his rescuer’s eyes shined through the darkness.
“You don’t know what you’ve done,” the boy cried. “I was doing an experiment.”
Laughter, deep from the man’s chest, left pluses and minuses of water vapor in the air. “And how were you recording the results of your experiment?”
The sound of water flowing under the ice filled the air. There was no answer to the man’s question. He put his arm around the boy.
“Don’t. You don’t want to touch me. I’m—I’m a homosexual.”
“I don’t think I’m gonna catch it by touchin’ you. But I do think you need to get home before you freeze to death.”
There was a siren in the distance. The man’s body was huge. Maybe he was a football player. A dumb jock. Only a dumb jock would interrupt a science experiment.
The man’s other arm wrapped around the boy. His chest radiated steam heat, enough heat for the boy to stop shivering. The boy put his arms inside the man’s open jacket. His fingers felt nothing but muscle. Definitely a jock. Joint by joint, the boy flexed his fingers and felt them come back to life. The man pulled the boy’s head against his chest. One ear warmed up, the other was still numb.
“You gonna be okay?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”
“Boy, no need for sorry. Promise me you’ll go home? I don’t have a car or I’d drive you.”
There was a shooting star in the sky. It was only there for a moment. Were they supposed to be good luck or bad luck? That wasn’t in his physics book. The water rushed under the bridge, making little shooting stars there, too, through the opening in the ice. The triangle, whose area could be calculated by multiplying its base times its altitude and then by one-half. The triangle, whose area no longer seemed large enough to accept his body.
The man loosened his hug on the boy, slid one hand down to hold the boy’s arm, and stood. A moment, or a lifetime, later, the boy stood on the rock wall and looked down, one more time. The man’s unyielding grip on his arm loosened slightly when they were both off the wall of the bridge, and further still when they were completely off the bridge. Somewhere along the way, the man’s hand slipped from the boy’s arm, and they were walking hand-in-hand.
When they reached an intersection with another walkway, under a flickering, buzzing streetlight, the man’s voice rumbled, “I’m goin’ this way. Just tell me you’re gonna be all right.”
The boy looked down and saw big, black fingers intertwined with his own tanned fingers. “I’m going to be fine.”
Their hands separated. The boy walked ten steps, with an average stride of twenty-six inches, toward home, turned back around and yelled “Thank you!” at the top of his lungs, but there were only shadows.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, dial this number right now:
or visit this website: http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
Even if you only know the person online, there are ways to help. Put the telephone number in your cell phone right now, even if you don’t need it yourself. You never know when you will need to help someone else.
And to that black man who crossed that bridge almost four decades ago to stop this white farmboy from doing something stupid, I owe you everything, and I don’t even know your name. Thank you.
© 2014, Leland Dirks