Choir Master Key is inspired by our good singing to put together soaring performances at every service. He puts all of us through our paces. Attendance at First Baptist is climbing as word gets out of how inspired the choir is. I ask him if we can travel to Hippie’s grandparents’ church in Harlan County. He is enthusiastic. I call Hippie to get the phone number. I’m intrigued to see what a real Mimaw and Pipaw are like. A trip is arranged to the First Baptist in Harlan. It’s about a two hours’ drive. The Church owns a beat-up school bus. It’s a sunny mid-winter day when we make the trip. The adult choir members are in high spirits, for a non-indulging crew. We sing sappy old songs and eat the lunches that were packed for later. We trust that Harlan will host a Sunday dinner for everyone.
I instantly recognize Hippie’s grandparents, in their Sunday best, standing out front as our hosts.
“Good morning, Mr. and Mrs. Ground, I’m Andy and this here is John Boy. We was Gregory’s band mates in Miami.”
“Pleased as punch ta make yer acquaintance. Yer not them boys who blew up Gregory and Anna’s wedding cake, is ya?” Mimaw is determined to keep the record straight.
“No, ma’am. We was both gone at the time of the wedding. Those boys was always lookin’ to start trouble.”
“I always figured there was some goodness in that band. Gregory really blossomed once he started playin’. We was always worried ‘bout him with the odd family he has.” Pipaw pipes in.
“There was a lotta prayin’ done on his behalf.”
“We heard you was the instigator of his Christmas visit here. We’re mighty proud of the boy, married and all. He sang at services here. Now y’all is here to treat us agin.”
The girls come over and are introduced as our step-sisters. Everything is so normal.
“Gregory had us perform ‘Amazing Grace’ at rock n roll shows and at churches as far away as New York City.”
“We’ve bin hearin’ about this Ames Choir, even here in Harlan.”
“We hopes y’all won’ts be disappointed.”
“We’s jist thrilled y’alls come to our small congregation. We’s proud that it’s our boy who inspired y’all.”
Enough of the platitudes, it’s time to actually perform.
To paraphrase one of our favorite Broadway musicals, ‘everythin’s up-to-date in Ames, I-o-way,’ but not so much in the sticks of Harlan, population 5500. We know that Ames First Baptist doesn’t ‘cotton’ to holy rollin’ and speakin’ in tongues. Not the case in Harlan County. After we start our first hymn, individuals stand up and wave their hands to get God’s attention. By the end of the hymn, many congregants are rolling in the aisle. John Boy and I have been there before. To the shock of the twins and the other older choir members, we jump right in there with the rollers. Tongues freak me out, so I pull John Boy to his feet and escape back to the choir.
“What are you doin’?” Angie hisses.
“We always git in with them rollers. It’s fun. Jump in next time it starts up.” I tell her.
Jace remains on the floor, reciting the words Robby used in the Samhein spells, casting an evil eye at me.
After an especially fiery sermon, we sing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.’
The sermon has brought the rollers out again. Our singing inspired the tongues. The preacher stands up as we end, reaches under the pulpit and raises a straw basket over his head. John Boy and I have joined the rollers, with the twins adamantly opposed to participating. Again the tongues turn me away from the roiling mass of young, mostly female bodies. John Boy is transfixed as the preacher draws a snake out of the basket. Holding it at arm’s length by the neck, Preacher prays for Jesus to protect him. He asks everyone praying to ask for his protection. Rolling up his shirt sleeve, he holds his arm out for the snake, a six-foot rattler.
“I believe and trust in you, Jesus,” he prays, loosening his grip on the rattler.
The snake strikes at his exposed arm.
“Protect me, Jesus. I feel the devil’s evil coursing through my body,” he starts to shake. Closing his eyes, he raises his head toward the ceiling, The shaking subsides. He opens his eyes.
“Thank you, Jesus.” He is echoed by the membership, with many ‘amens.’
John Boy rises from the rollers, as if in a trance. Before I can stop him, he is standing in front of the Preacher, arms out, and exposed to the squirming rattler.
“I trust in your protection, Jesus,” he proclaims.
The snake strikes at him. The fangs bite him three times on the arm. I rush to stop him. He collapses into my arms. Jace flings the snake against the church wall. People scream as they only see the snake flying through the air.
“Pray for this boy,” the preacher orders.
I’ve enough of this hokum. I pick John Boy up, lay him in an open pew. I bite the fang marks and spit out the venom-infused blood from his arms. I repeat it for each strike. John Boy is still in his trance. His eyes open, smile at my hovering face, and passes out. Jace tells me he’s dying. I grab Hippie’s Pipaw and have him drive us to the local hospital. As we race out of the chapel, the preacher yells, “Be gone, ye disbelievers.”
I carry John Boy into Emergency, yelling I have a snake bite victim.
“Coming from First Baptist?” the orderly asks.
“He was bitten three times.”
“Well, that’s a new one,” he observes. He acts like it’s a weekly occurrence.
John Boy is still in a coma. The anti-venom is administered three times. His pulse rate is low and his blood pressure almost non-existent. A doctor tells me that all they can do is pray that the anti-venom will eventually work.
I scream at him, “It’s praying that got him bit.”
I call the Stones, speaking with Mr. Stone. He immediately orders an Air-Evac to come to Harlan and transport John Boy to Ames, where there is a modern hospital. The twins and I ride with John Boy, who is feverish and delusional. We’re in Ames within an hour.
He remains in a coma. The doctors say it was better for him to be comatose. Mummy and Daddy arrive that night. We all keep watch as John Boy’s fever spikes to 104 degrees. We are warned that if it goes higher, they will have to chill his body in an ice bath. The high temperature is the body’s way to kill the venom. I fall asleep holding his hand, my head on the bed beside him.
I awake with him squeezing my hand. He was staring at me while I slept.
“John Boy,” I murmur. He just smiles.
Jace tells me that he can’t speak. We both start crying. The Stones have been sitting outside and rush in.
“He’s awake, but he can’t talk.”
I push the call button, and a doctor is summoned.
“Not to panic,” he tells the Stones. “It’s probably not a stroke, just residual impairment from the venom and all the medication. We’ll run a scan to make sure he doesn’t have a brain bleed.”
I sit with the Stones while John Boy has the scan. I need to apologize for putting their son in danger. I worry they think it’s my fault. I’m still furious at that preacher for cursing us as non-believers when he almost killed my boyfriend. We’re so naïve.
“Don’t blame yourself, Tim. Johnny’s always been impetuous. We over-protected him. He’s our baby.”
“I just want him better.” I want to cry, but the tears have stopped, wasted on too many maudlin moments.
Jace sits with me outside John Boy’s room. He signs that I should be patient because John Boy’s heart is fine and he is able to communicate with Jace.
“Does he know we’re all here?”
“Of course, he can see you. It’s a loss of faith in himself that keeps him from speaking.”
“Why did he do it? Did he believe Jesus would protect him?”
“He believes you’re Jesus. He trusts you’ll protect him, which you did. He would have died in Harlan at that country clinic.”
“But will he recover?”
“He trusts me to communicate for him now,” Jace explains.
“But you’re dead.”
“Not to Jack and you, and through you, to many young people.”
I slump over in the seat, trying to understand.
“I’ve got to see Dr. Kamikaze and get him to help John Boy.”
Dr. Kam comes after his morning classes are done. I explain what happened. He is one of the few adults who trusts and loves Jace. We sit next to John Boy on his hospital bed. He watches us with a half-smile. It scares me that he looks like an idiot. He reaches to hold my hand, reassuring me that he is fine. It is the first time Dr. Kam treats John Boy.
“Get Jace to translate my questions to John Boy. You have to speak for both of them,” he advises. Jace nods.
“If you wanted to, can you speak?” is the first question.
“He tried to speak and couldn’t. Now he’s fine about it,” I answer.
“How long does he plan to stay silent?”
“Does he know how sad it makes you?”
“He wants to be in my heart forever, like Jace is.”
I turn to him and plead, “You are in my heart forever. I need you in my arms now.”
Jace shrugs. “He knows you expected him to leave next year. You told Tommy that.”
I feel so guilty. “I can follow you to college. I’ll never leave you. I just told Tommy that to make him feel better.”
“He knows college is a waste for you. You’re ready to be in the adult world.”
“Then, come with me,” I tell him.
“He has a different path than you. He’s an adventurer. You’re an adventure.”
He is dismissing me. I refuse to be spurned. “I will not let you go,” I cry.
“You both have different destinies. Don’t delay your own.” Dr. Kam interjects. “Don’t argue with him now. His health is still fragile. He may not truly mean what he is telling you. I think his jealousy about Tommy may be clouding his judgment.”
John Boy watches Dr. Kam. The idiot smile on his face is replaced with concern and thoughtfulness. He falls asleep. I taxed him with our argument.
Dr. Kam takes me into the hall.
“My impression is Jack likes all this attention. He may be feeling guilty as well, for putting everyone through all the drama. Letting the snake bite him was an impetuous act.”
“I feel guilty for not stopping him.”
“That’s all part of his guilt.”
“Once he’s at home and recovered from the side effects, you can find out if he really wants to break up with you.”
It is crystal clear what Dr. Kam is seeing. All the drama with Tommy took a toll on poor John Boy. I was so selfish for loving two people at the same time. I go back into his room and climb into bed with him, fully dressed. He wraps his arms around me. I’m instantly asleep.
The Stones and the attending doctor wake me up. The scans are clear. It is a matter of waiting for progress with his speech loss. The moms tell me to go to school. There is nothing wrong with me, except for a broken heart, yet again.
I arrive in time for lunch. I sit at the ten-pin table with ‘Gator and the twins. They all know that John Boy is in the hospital, having heard about the serpent handling and anointing of the holy spirit incident in Harlan.
“Is he getting better?” Amy asks.
“The doctors are confident he will. He recovered from the snake bite but is unable to speak.”
“Them serpents shut that boy up,” Clarence decides. He is one of the more religious of the group.
“Dr. Kam saw him and thinks he’s still delusional. Maybe he’s still mad over the whole Tommy drama.”
“They’s blamin’ that boy fer what?” ‘Gator is quick to defend his buddy.
“No. He blames me for tryin’ to have two boyfriends.”
“What are you, super gay?” Noah quips.
Everyone laughs but me.
Afternoon classes are a blur. Several kids come up and ask about John Boy. The gossip mill has been turning. John Boy’s fag hag coterie rush me in the hall, wanting details.
“The Baptists believe that the holy spirit will protect you from the serpent’s venom. John Boy got imbued with the Spirit. We were holy rolling and he started speaking in tongues. Tongues makes me feel queasy, so I returned to the choir. When the preacher brought out the snake, John Boy offered himself to prove the power of the holy spirit. Apparently the snake recognized that he is really a Catholic and bit him three times. The anti-venom didn’t work on him. We flew back to Ames and he’s in the hospital,” I describe the ordeal.
The girls are beside themselves.
“Can we visit him?” their leader asks.
“I’m sure he’ll love seeing you. I’ll have to find out if he can have visitors. He still can’t talk and is recovering.”
They make up a card that has an angel ascending into heaven. It is more of a sympathy than a get-well card.
After the last bell, I go to the band room and start playing acoustic guitar. I can’t express in words what I feel. Feelings are easier to express in the music. I stay away from Pink Floyd, too associated with death. I play the Eagles’ ‘Desperado.’
I sing the last verses to myself, letting the feelings make the words soar at the end.
‘Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses?
Come down from your fences, open the gate
It may be rainin’, but there’s a rainbow above you
You better let somebody love you (let somebody love you)
You better let somebody love you before it’s too late’
• written by Don Henley, Glenn Lewis Frey
• copyright with Lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., Don Henly/Glenn Frey/Eagles
I’ve been sitting behind the amps, hidden from sight. I’m afraid I’ll start crying. The tears have dried up. Standing up I see I have an audience. Mrs. Hull and her band fags are listening.
“That was so beautiful, Andy,” she gushes.
The band fags rush over and hug me. Instead of two boyfriends, now I had five plus a couple of girls. They make me smile, not cry. I realize I have to own this latest tragedy.
The twins collect me. We go straight to the hospital.
The Stones are in consultation with John Boy’s doctors. Jace has been listening.
“The scans are all negative. His fever is gone and the white blood count has returned to normal. His loss of speech is termed psychosomatic, in his head.”
“We knew that,” I tell Jace
“The thing is, the Stones want to transfer him to some fancy hospital in New York. They say he needs a speech specialist.”
I rush into John Boy’s room.
“Do you want to go to New York?” I ask him.
Jace answers, “Will Andy come see me?”
“I’m your Andy. I’ll come with you. Andy Warhol can visit us both.”
The idiot smile turns into a grin.
Before asking Mummy, I call home. Molly answers.
“I need your permission to stay with John Boy.”
“That’s fine. Who do I speak with?”
The new me admits, “They’re taking him to New York.”
“Whoa, Cowboy. I need a little better convincing than you sneaking it by me as a hospital room visit.”
“I know. I need you on my side. I has ta go. Jace and I can speak to him. He’s refusing to talk. It’s all my fault.”
“If you’re to blame, shouldn’t he be protected from seeing you, for at least a while?”
“It’s not about right or wrong. John Boy needs me. I can speak for him.”
She put her hand over the phone and gets Mom.
“Andy, you can’t just leave. We trusted you.”
“You have to trust me now. I’ll come back as soon as possible. They think he’s mental. I can talk for him.”
“Well, if his parents want you to come, you must be back before school on Monday.”
Why did she give in so easily? Why did Molly let her make the decision? Why was I even thinking about it? Trust, I guess.
“Thank you. Thank you. I’ll have the Stones call you.”
I walk up to the Stones and hospital staff.
“Johnny knows you want to take him to New York. It’s okay.”
“How do you know that?” Mummy asks.
“Jace,” I answer, without giving any further explanation.
“Johnny’s talking to you?”
“We use sign language.”
“Sounds like he’s coming around,” the doctor surmises. “But I’m worried that his temperature has gone up again.”
“He wants to talk but can’t.”
“At least we know his brain is okay.”
“My therapist, Dr. Kam, believes his heart is hurt. He says it was too much pressure for him to bear, arriving when I had another boyfriend here.”
“We have decided to move him to a Columbia-Presbyterian in New York.”
“I’ll go with him, so I can speak for him until he gets his voice back. My parents say it’s okay to stay through the weekend.”
“Of course, Tim. Your being there should help heal his heart.”
Mom and Molly speak with the Stones when they come to pick me up. John Boy is to be moved by private jet. I can stay at their family apartment on Central Park West. I tell the twins what has happened, so they can tell ‘Gator and anyone else who asks. They’re jealous I get to go to New York. I promise to be back by Monday.
The hospital is in Washington Heights, near Columbia University. Jack sleeps the entire trip from Iowa. His fever is 102 degrees on arrival, high but not dangerous. I sit with him and translate his answers to many medical questions.
Once he is settled and asleep, I call Andy, hoping he will visit, leaving a message with his assistant. The assistant, Blair, remembers me and is very flirty. I promise to visit the Factory Downtown.
I’m dozing when Andy arrives. John Boy sits up as Andy sits on his bed. I translate John Boy’s side of the conversation.
“I was snake-bit, Andy,” John Boy explains.
Andy upbraids me, “You were supposed to protect him.”
“Those Baptists bewitched him. He was holy rolling and speaking in tongues. When they brought out the rattlesnake, John Boy was mesmerized, walked up to it and was bitten three times.”
“The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Those Baptists could tell he’s Catholic.”
John Boy giggles, the first sound he’s made in days.
I have Andy retell stories from their stay on Jackie O’s yacht at Cannes. It keeps John Boy giggling. I run and bring a doctor back to observe the change. When the doctor asks John Boy questions, all he does is giggle louder. He looks like an idiot, a big grin on his face, unable to stop laughing. The doctor notes the progress on his chart.
Andy promises to come the next day. I hug him, with a kiss to his cheek. His smile is a mirror image of John Boy’s idiot grin. Maybe it’s contagious.
“Come by the Factory when Jack no longer needs you 24 hours a day. I want to show you what I’m working on.”
“I can tell you about the show I put on for Christmas – Little House on the Prairie.”
“You’ve gone straight on me?”
“I get accused of turning all the farm boys gay.”
“Should I come visit?”
“My best friend is called ‘Gator – he’s captain of the football team.”
“Once you were so sophisticated.”
“Come visit. I even ride the cows home to the barn for milking.”
“I left Pittsburgh to escape all that.”
“Can we spend time together once John Boy’s better. I’m jealous that I missed being with you.”
“We can catch up later. There must be a story in how you ended up in Iowa. Last year you were doing Shakespeare. Now you’re doing TV shows. I’m intrigued. Talk with my assistant.”
“He seems to like me.”
“I’m sure. But I discovered you at 14 and want to work with you on my new project.”
“That’s exciting. Let’s do lunch, baby.”
“You are still too funny,” he laughs.
“I’ll be 18 this summer. I’m not the same fresh face you remember.”
Next I call Tina. Her dad is happier than she is to hear from me. She and I haven’t spoken in months.
“Buenas tardes,” she answers.
“Buenas tardes, chica. Estoy Tim.”
“Son novio viejo.”
“Oh, el amigo de Pedro.”
“Si. Hay venido a Nueva York.”
“Si, en Washington Heights. Jack’s in the hospital. Please come and visit. Bring Pedro, el burro.”
The two of them show up at dinner time, making a fuss about spoon-feeding John Boy. Pete looks much older, having grown a pencil mustache, like all good muchachos. Their closeness makes me jealous, until he pulls me into a big hug.
“Not so shy,” I smile at him.
“I’ve got my woman. I have you to thank,” as he pulls Tina into our hug.
She turns red, letting me know she and Pete are more than holding hands now.
“I’m staying on the Upper Westside, at Jack’s family apartment,” I tell them. “Let’s get together once Jack is out of the hospital.”
They stay until John Boy falls asleep. I accompany them down to the lobby and pay for a cab to take them home. It’s nearby in the Bronx.
“Always the big spender,” Pete kids me.
“Yeah. I get great tips as a pizza delivery boy in Iowa.”
I arrive at the apartment after 10 pm. Two of Jack’s cousins, Brett and Trent, live there permanently. They barely know Jack, as the families are not close. The rumors they’ve heard are a great starting point for me to get to know them.
“Why are you with Uncle Edgar and Aunt Dorothy?”
“John Boy’s my boyfriend.”
“Cool. We thought he was just a nerd. How’d he meet you in Iowa?”
“We met in 11th grade last year in Miami. He was my understudy in ‘A Midsummer’s Night Dream.”
“So, you seduced him?”
“He’d never smoked pot before. My friends got him stoned. He attacked me. I took him home. We’ve been together after that. Pot makes him super horny.”
“We’ll make sure to avoid that.”
“Gay doesn’t run in the family?” I kid them.
“Just pot smoking,” as Brett pulls out a fat joint.
We smoke out while I explain how the two of us ended up in Iowa. The brothers soon are cuddled up with each other. Gayness isn’t genetic, in the Stone family, but pot breaking down inhibitions evidently is. It is the first time I enjoy getting high since leaving the Everglades. As I relate the many band and fugitive stories, they creep closer to me as we sit in the living room in front of a fire on a large couch. They put my legs on their laps – upper class bonding is a gradual, step-by-step ritual.
“We like you,” they decide. “Come out with us on Friday night and meet our friends.”
They attend Collegiate and have friends from the Dalton School and Spence.
“Well, John Boy will probably be coming here tomorrow, once the hospital releases him. We do everything together.”
“We’re looking forward to what that nerd has become.”
“He won’t disappoint you.”
They insist I sleep in their room. Trent gives me his bed, tucking in with his brother. In the morning, they bemoan my less than fashionable attire.
“You can’t look like a hayseed in the City,” as they dress me from their copious closet. Paisley replaces tees and jeans.
Walking into John Boy’s hospital room, he smiles at my preppy look.
“You letting my cousins dress you now?” he signs to Jace.
“Just like the twins do. And, you used to tell me which gay underwear to choose each day.”
He motions me to come closer, pulling the tail of my shirt out of my trousers. He snaps my briefs, giving me an instant boner. We are stroking each other when a male nurse walks in.
“I knew you’d be going at it,” he notes
I love New York.
I call Jay while John Boy is processed to be released.
“Hi, Jay, still married?”
“No complaints yet.”
“Jack and I get first dibs.”
“How about we stick to phone sex?”
“This is a business call.”
“What do you need?”
“I’m in New York. Jack got snake-bit and needed real medical care.”
“Is he okay?”
“After the country doctor told us to pray for recovery, we came East. He’s getting released as we speak.”
“So you want Martin’s number, huh?”
“Please. I hear he couldn’t sell the film without his star performer.”
“That would be you, I’m guessing?”
“Yeah. Maybe we can do something different. America’s not ready for teenage gay sex.”
“Andy Warhol came to see Jack. He’s got something planned. Maybe Marty can collaborate with him.”
“Not sure they’re that compatible – the Bronx meets the East Village. Anyway, Marty’s promoting his new gangster movie, ‘Taxi Driver,’ for the Academy Awards. Maybe after he’s done with the media circus.”
“I go back to Iowa on Sunday. Can you at least get me some time with him?”
“I’ll do my best.”
“Yeah. Work your magic. Is Mike available?”
“Hi, Tim. You’re in New York?” Mr. Antonio comes on the line after a pause.
“Yeah. Jack got snake-bit in a Baptist Church and needs real doctors to be cured.”
“Michael said he had a great time over Christmas. Jack stayed after that?”
“We were being good little Baptist choir boys when this back-country preacher sicc’d a snake on Jack, calling us unbelievers.”
“You are a magnet for trouble.”
“Yeah. A real drama queen. My sisters claim I’m possessed.”
“Anything I can do for you?”
“Not really. I just wanted to say hi and apologize for all the trouble I’ve caused. I asked Jay to get me time with Marty.”
“No apologies needed. You have been a good influence on Michael, and even Robby. They made it back from Iowa without having to rob a liquor store or anything else illegal.”
“They are just slowing down with age.”
“You’re still the godparent to my unborn grandchild.”
The Stones come out of the hospital, with the newly released Jack. He still is not talking. His idiot grin and manic laugh are beginning to bug me. I sign that we will go see Andy after he is settled in at the apartment. Good thing there are 30 hours in a New York day.