Cade’s 9th grade English class had a visitor from the local newspaper. He wanted the kids to write a story about a local park. It wasn’t required, so no big deal. Cade decided to blow it off. Then he changed his mind.
Mrs. Beckstrom was having a difficult time quieting the class. Ninth graders weren’t as bad as seventh or eighth graders, but they still had their moments. This was one of them. It was late in the school day and the class knew they were having a visitor. That meant, to them, that this was more or less a free period. And that was exactly the way they were acting.
Mrs. Beckstrom hated putting on her severe face, but she needed them to shape up before their guest arrived.
She sighed, then stood up from her desk and said, very softly, “That’s enough class. Settle down.” After that, she simply stood still, looking at them.
Mrs. Beckstrom was an experienced teacher, and a good one. She told each of her classes at the beginning of the year that when she asked them to settle, they had twenty seconds to do so, and anyone still talking or out of their seat after that would go talk to Mr. Condi, no questions asked, no excuses, no arguments. It was automatic. A few of the independent souls had, of course, needed to test her early on. Someone even had had the temerity to say he hadn’t heard her tell them to settle down. She’d opened her eyes really wide and asked, with feigned amazement, ‘Why didn’t you hear me?’ The kid was about to answer when he realized he was dead meat, no matter what he said, and no contrived excuse he came up with could possibly get him off the hook.
They were well into the second semester now—it was April—and even the rambunctious and risk-taking ones no longer thought they had the upper hand with her.
It took 19 seconds for them to settle. They gave in to her but did so begrudgingly. She didn’t care about that. She wasn’t looking to kill their spirits, simply their noisiness.
“Class, as you all have heard by now, the school is involved with a new program for your benefit. People who work in our city will be coming in over the next month to talk to you about their jobs. You’ll have to be making a career choice soon, whether it’s a college—and a major field of study at that college—or a job after high school, and the courses you take in high school can help you prepare for what you want to do. So! We’re welcoming our first speaker today. His name is Mr. Collins, and he’s due any minute now.”
She had their attention now and kept talking. “He works for the Independent Bugler. He’s a columnist there now but worked as a reporter for many years. You’ve probably read some of his work. He’ll speak to you about journalism as a career, and you can ask him any questions you can think of about working in that field. Ah, just on time!”
She said this because as she was finishing up, a soft knock on the door was followed by its opening and a head, just a head, sticking into the room with a questioning look on its face.
Mrs. Beckstrom walked to the door and, as she was doing so, the head entered the room attached to a pudgy body. Mr. Collins was a man in his fifties, short and rotund with a fringe of reddish hair on his mostly bald pate and a quizzical, somewhat skeptical look in his eyes, eyes which resided behind a pair of metal-framed glasses. Mrs. Beckstrom shook hands with him, told him the class was prepared to hear from him, and that he could go ahead when he was ready.
Mr. Collins thanked her, then turned to look at the class. He looked around thoroughly, making eye contact with whomever would return the favor. When he was done with that, he smiled at the class. Then he began speaking. His voice was a deep baritone, much deeper and stronger than the class expected from the rather short man. There was also a commanding presence in his voice.
“Thanks for having me, Mrs. Beckstrom. And class, thanks in advance for listening to me. I had planned to talk about what I do and how jobs at our newspaper work and what qualifications you need to get a job there, but I’m going to do very little of that and concentrate on something else instead today—something that excites me, and I hope will you, too. Mrs. Beckstrom doesn’t know about this. I only thought of it while I was driving here today to talk to you. I discussed it with your principal when I came in and he’s all for it. I hope Mrs. Beckstrom won’t be too upset with me.”
He took the opportunity to look over at her, his eyes sheepish and beguiling, a tentative and hopeful look belied by the supreme confidence of his speaking voice and the twinkle in his eyes. Mrs. Beckstrom nodded, smiled at him, and told herself that this wasn’t a man to take lightly.
“All right, let’s get started.” Mr. Collins again made eye contact with his audience, and then began talking about what a reporter did, the exciting days and the boring ones. He spoke anecdotally about his experiences, getting slightly risqué about some which delighted his audience and won him great attention. He talked about being promoted to writing his own column and the pressure of having to do so four times every week.
“You’d think that would be easy, wouldn’t you? Hey, look at you guys. You’re asked to write essays, or themes, or papers, or whatever they call them here, and you sit down and write them, and no one pays you for them, or gives you awards, or mentions how great you are. So my job sounds like a pretty good deal, huh?”
He stopped and looked around the room at his rapt audience of mostly 14-year-olds. “Nope, nothing to it. Except. . . .” He drew out both the word and then his silence till everyone was uncomfortable, then grinned. “It’s not easy, coming up with something new and riveting to write about—three new things, three columns, every week. At first, you think it’ll be a piece of cake. Then reality sets in. It ain’t easy, kids. It ain’t easy.”
He took a handkerchief out of his back pocket and mopped his brow, and could see empathy in the eyes of each kid in the class; they felt for him, for the pressure he was under, for the unremitting pressure of the days as they passed until another column was due. He repressed a smile, knowing he still had it, his charm still worked, he could still charm an audience and have it eating out of his hand. Mrs. Beckstrom repressed a smile, too, and couldn’t help but think about salesmen selling refrigerators to Eskimos.
He let the feeling he evoked set in, then smiled. “The writing, after you’ve done it a while, is the easy part. The ideas, fresh and new and riveting, they are the tough part.”
He paused, and spoke to Mrs. Beckstrom for a moment, softly. He didn’t need to do that. He was simply allowing the class a moment.
After that, he again took center stage, or what would have been center stage had there been one in the classroom. The class immediately stopped their whispering and fidgeting. Mr. Collins was an arresting speaker. He could command an audience simply by his presence, as he was doing now.
“I’m supposed to take questions. I don’t want to do that. I have something else to say to you. I don’t have time to answer questions and talk about this other topic, too. So, I’ll leave a bunch of my business cards on Mrs. Beckstrom’s desk. If any of you have anything you want to ask, send me an email. In the subject line, write Mrs. Beckstrom, then your name, making sure your email address is provided. I’ll answer each one of you. Now, let me talk about something else.”
He paused again. The kids relaxed, and some soft talking, the shuffling of feet and a giggle or two could be heard. Mrs. Beckstrom’s face hardened, and she glanced at Tim Gorman, then at Angela Pincess, the two who found it most difficult to sit still. Tim was leaning over, talking to his neighbor, grinning, and Angela was looking dreamily at the boy sitting in front of her, a boy named Cade Taylor who was totally unaware of his admirer. Mrs. Beckstrom refocused on Tim and wrinkled her eyebrows into a frown, which was enough to quiet the entire room.
Mr. Collins allowed the silence to build, gaining him the absolute attention of every kid in the room. As he knew it would.
“All right,” he said eventually. “I just told you all the pressure I’m under, having to write all these columns. Well, I was thinking about that today, earlier, and I got this great idea. There are what, 31 of you here? There are! At least today. 31 of you. And I got this great idea. Why not let some of you write my columns for me? If you all do it, that’s 31 columns I don’t have to write. Each month, I write about 14 columns, so if I can get you guys to do it for me, I get almost two month’s vacation. Golly gee!”
He shouted the last two words, threw up his arms, and did a little jig. The class burst out laughing. He stopped dancing, looked at them over his glasses, and smiled apologetically.
“Sorry about that. I get carried away sometimes. OK, enough. Let’s talk about this just a bit more seriously. That’s what I have in mind: for you guys to write for me. But it isn’t because I’m lazy. It’s because I want different perspectives about an issue that the paper is writing about right now, a controversial one. There are citizens making noise on both sides of this. And there’s one large and important group of citizens which hasn’t been heard from.”
He stopped and waited, and when every eye was on him, said in his deepest voice, “You guys! Kids. No one has asked you about this. As this is an issue that affects you, I think it’s time someone did.”
He stopped again. Mrs. Beckstrom watched her class react to Mr. Collins and again restrained a smile. This was the sort of man, she saw, who could have rid Hamelin of all its rats and still had time left to talk the townspeople into sweeping the streets clean of all the droppings.
Mr. Collins relaxed his posture, smiled, allowing the kids to relax as well, and suddenly about half the tense energy in the room seemed to dissipate. He began walking, pacing, looking at the kids in front of him, and when he spoke, it was with less passion, less vigor. He spoke in the manner of one being part of an intimate inner circle, speaking to his colleagues.
“OK, this is the issue. For years, Cottonwood Creek Park was an important place in this town. The city maintained it and it was used by a large portion of our citizens. It had athletic fields, a picnic area, two beautiful gardens, sweeping lawns with benches and pathways, a large playground for little kids, a small lake for swimming and watercraft. It’s where our fireworks were shot off on the 4th of July; Easter-egg hunts were held there in the spring; and in October there was a Halloween parade for the kids, all wearing their costumes. The park brought almost the entire town together. The place was a mecca for town activities.
Mr. Collins’ voice now dropped in pitch. In basso profundo he continued, saying, “Then, the economy changed. Unemployment rose, so city funds raised from taxes dropped. Budget cutting began, and one of the first things to go was funding for park activities and maintenance. Money for the park just didn’t seem as important as using it for other things the city needed.”
Mrs. Beckstrom was watching the class. Every eye was glued to Mr. Collins. She was surprised. He was talking about the city budget now, of all things, and the class was rapt.
“You guys aren’t old enough to have experienced it, but our economy, the country’s economy, goes through cycles. Most of the time things are pretty good, and then we hit a point where they get bad for a while. That’s what’s happened in this country recently and in this town, too. You probably know someone who’s lost his job, maybe even your own dad or mom; it’s happening to too many people right now. Times are tough.”
He stopped there, giving the kids a chance to think about that. He could tell by the serious looks on the young faces that they did indeed understand the effects of a declining economy on the townspeople.
He moved to Mrs. Beckstrom’s worktable, moved a pile of papers, then sat on the edge of it before resuming. “Our city is run just like your families. “When there’s lots of money coming in, or simply enough money coming in, we can afford things that make life better. When there isn’t enough money, then we have to cut back on things to preserve the money we do have for necessities. And that’s what’s happening here. We’ve cut back on the hours the library is open. We cut out overtime in the police department, meaning there is less police coverage than there used to be. All over the city, cuts have been made. You’ve probably noticed some of them yourselves, like the community swimming pool being closed.”
He paused and looked over the class and saw some heads nod.
“One of the things that was cut, right off the bat, as I said, was park programs and maintenance. At all city parks, but especially at Cottonwood Creek Park. It is our largest, and took up the bulk of money budgeted for city park upkeep. By cutting all park funding, the city could save quite a bit of money and use it where it was more essential, and so that’s what they did.
“They did this a little over two years ago, just when the economy was really hurting. So nothing’s been done to keep Cottonwood Creek Park up from that time forward, and no more scheduled activities are held there. Now, what’s been the effect of this?”
He looked around the room. The kids were all listening. He hadn’t really expected a response, the question was mostly rhetorical, but one hand went up. He smiled and nodded. A boy who looked harder than the others, wearing a black tee shirt and uncombed hair said, belying the impression his appearance gave, “The park isn’t really a park any longer. It’s this big place in the center of town full of weeds that we all avoid. It isn’t safe.”
Mr. Collins nodded, grimly. “Exactly. It isn’t safe, and it’s an eyesore. The park has fallen into disrepair and is nothing like what it used to be. More specifically, the athletic fields have grown over with weeds, the dugouts at the baseball field have been vandalized, the surfacing on the tennis courts has cracked and the nets are gone, the basketball nets were stolen and the rims bent at the three courts. The beautiful lawns are now all tall weeds, the rental boats have been smashed. The restroom buildings there are now covered in graffiti, and many of their fixtures windows have been broken.”
Mr. Collins got up off the table. “The park used to be such a marvelous recreational and gathering center, a safe and fun place for people to meet and enjoy themselves and relax. It was part of town’s synergy. But, this former happy place is now a dark place, a blight, where drugs are sold and used, where fights break out, where very few people go any more. No sensible people go there after dark, and no one at any time for what they used to go there for.”
He could see his audience getting restless. No one liked hearing bad news. He needed them to be aware of the problem, however. Now, it was time to become more positive.
“OK. That’s what’s happened. The question is, where do we go from here? We’ve got a problem, and when problems arise, lots of people start coming up with solutions. That’s what we have here. What we’ve ended up with are, basically, two suggestions about what to do. There’s a lot of arguing going on about which of these solutions the town council should support.
“So, what are the two plans for the park? Well, first, a developer from out of state has offered to buy the land and build a shopping center and condominiums on it. It’s supposed to have fine restaurants, upscale shopping, a theater complex and other amenities like niche stores and amusements. It will provide jobs for construction workers while it’s being built, and then jobs at the various facilities, along with high-end housing. That’s one proposal.”
He cleared his throat and gave the class a little time to consider what such a development would be like. The town had nothing like it. None of the towns around them did, either.
“OK, now here’s the other proposal. It’s much different. Some citizens have formed a group that is pushing to keep the park a park. They say it’s a valuable community asset that the town council has allowed to go to pot. They say we need to pass a special, temporary tax to fund a massive park cleanup and refurbishment. They say that we should sell bonds to fund an endowment to pay for maintenance and park security personnel in perpetuity so that the park will remain a park for the enjoyment of our children, their children and future generations.”
Mr. Collins had been watching his audience. There had been excitement in the kids’ faces when hearing about a mall. He could see a number of girls looking at each other, their eyes bright and eager. He could see them imagining walking past all the stores in the mall, looking inside, but mostly looking at the boys also walking the mall aisles.
Now, with his talking about restoring the park, none of that excitement was evident in their faces.
He went into full salesman mode, trying not to lose them. “As you might imagine, there are many pros and cons that come with each proposal. Every time someone comes up with another reason why their idea is the best, an opposing argument is brought forward. The newspaper, our newspaper, is right in the middle of this. We tend to act not only as the town’s conscience, but as its bulletin board, too. Columns have been written, editorials have been written, op ed articles, too, but rather than settling the issue, all the opinions have just riled people up, and what to do with the park has become a hotter topic than ever right now.”
He paused again, met eyes again, and continued. “So, guys, this is where you come in. With all the shouting and arguing and posturing, what we haven’t heard is what you guys think. You, you guys right here in this classroom, you’re our future. Do you think the park should be brought back to life as a park, or are you in favor of a modern shopping-housing development on that land?”
Mr. Collins gave them a moment. The kids were looking back at him, and then at each other. Adults never asked them what they thought. They weren’t sure what to say.
“It’s not an easy question to answer,” he stated, starting up again. “There are reasons to support each of these ideas. A lot has been written trying to convince people why each proposal is what we should do. The fact, though, is that we can’t do both.
“So, why am I talking to you about this? Because I want you each to write a piece about what you think should be done. But I want more than that. I want you to write something persuasive. Something that will make people read it and say, ‘Hey, that kid’s got something there. I agree with this!’ That’s what I want, you to change some minds, to convince people. I want each of you to write your own column for the newspaper.
“How you do it, I don’t care. Say whatever you want, but write it well, because the good ones are going to be published in the paper. Yep, you’ll have your own piece in the paper, with your name on it. Your picture, too. But remember, the purpose is to sell everyone who reads it on your point of view, on what you think should be done, because the more persuasive you are, the more people will pay attention to what you’re saying, to what you feel.
“You all know how to be persuasive. You get your parents to buy you most of what you want. You get to stay up as late as you want by wheedling and cajoling, which is a form of persuasion. You get your parents to buy you dessert at a restaurant when they’re stuffed and ready to leave. That’s what I want here. I want you to persuade everyone to do what you think is best with that park land.
“Why else do I want you to do that? Because everyone in this town is doing it, trying to convince others to their way of thinking, and I think we need more voices involved. That’s the way to come up with the very best proposal, once all the dust has settled.
“So, that’s what I’ve asked your principal to let me ask you to do. He agrees with me. You guys write your essays, your teacher will look them over and give me the best ones, and I’ll make the final decision about which ones our readers get to see. I’ll tell you right now, I’ll publish the ones that do the best job of selling me on what you’re trying to sell. I like good English, but if I have to choose between a perfectly written paper that is simply words, or one where the English could be a little better but that really moves the readers, convinces them to your viewpoint, I’ll take that second one any day.”
He smiled at them, letting them know he was about done and the hard sell was over. He saw them sit back in their chairs.
Speaking with less fervor, he said, “Now I was in school once, so I know all the questions you’re going to ask. How long does it have to be? Does it have to be keyboarded into your computer and printed, or can I write it longhand? Do I have to use both sides of the paper, or just one? Single- or double-spaced? When is it due? You know, all the questions you bug your teachers with?” He stopped when he got the chuckle he expected, and grinned at Mrs. Beckstrom. “The only one of those questions you need to worry about is that last one. Newspapers have deadlines, and so do I. I’m passing the deadline on to you. You have a week to do this. Next week at the end of the school day, they have to be in. Anything handed in after that won’t qualify. But that’s the only rule you have to pay attention to. Anything else goes. Write it in verse if you think that’ll convince people.
“This won’t affect your grades. You don’t even have to do it. The reason you will, if you do, is that you want your voice to be heard about something you care about. If you do a good job, you’ll see your name in the paper over your own work, and so will all our readers. And lastly, more importantly, if you do a good job, you’ll persuade people to your way of thinking, and you might make a difference in something that will be important to the town you live in.”
+ + + + +
Cade Taylor pushed open his front door and stepped inside, dropping his backpack on the floor as he did. He wriggled his shoulders, something he did every time the weight came off. He felt it more than usual at the moment. It had been a long day.
“That you, Honey?” his mom called from the kitchen.
“Yeah,” he called back, wishing she wouldn’t call him that. He might have had someone with him. But so far his pleas had gone for naught.
“How was Brian?” she called.
“Same old, same old. When’s dinner? I’m starving, and have a shitload of homework. Oops! Did I say that?”
“Sorry, Mom.” But he grinned. He’d got her to drop the honey at the very least.
After learning when they’d eat he went upstairs to his room, dragging his backpack with him. He dropped the bag on his desk next to his computer, then slumped back onto his bed. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, then let it out again.
It had indeed been a long day, as they all tended to be recently. He lay still, just breathing, relaxing. He couldn’t stop his mind from working, though. He had a lot on it, which was one reason the days were so tiring.
He thought about Mrs. Beckstrom’s class. That Collins guy was pretty intense and interesting, but Cade didn’t think he’d bother with the paper. It sounded like a lot of work, and he really wasn’t that interested in the park. He’d spent a lot of time there as a kid, but he was in ninth grade now, and 14 years old, almost 15, and the park didn’t interest him all that much now. He had enough on his plate without writing some dumb paper. He wasn’t finishing his homework these days till past when he was supposed to be in bed. His mom was good about not giving him shit about it. She understood. The fact he was an A student and in mostly AP classes and didn’t give her much grief about anything at all probably played a part in that.
No, he decided, he’d blow off the paper. It wasn’t so much that he didn’t care about things. He did care about things. Things that should be in the paper, he thought, if it came down to that. But the park wasn’t one of them.
+ + + + +
He was surprised when he felt a hand on his shoulder, shaking him awake. He opened his eyes and saw his father’s face, a big grin on it, although Cade could see concern in his eyes, too.
“Hey, buddy. Didn’t think you were ready for afternoon naps. That’s more for people with gray hair and canes. You’ve a ways to go yet.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” was Cade’s riposte. His father loved to tease him, and he loved to tease his father back, but right then he had a sour taste in his mouth, and his brain seemed somewhat fuzzy. He remembered feeling that way before when awakened from a nap, something which seldom occurred because Cade was not much of a nap taker.
“Dinner’s on the table.” His dad squeezed his shoulder, then turned and left the room. Cade sat up, reorienting himself. He went into the bathroom, washed his hands and face, and went down to eat.
Cade was an only child. The three Taylors ate dinner together almost every night. If either parent was going to be late, they all usually waited and had a late dinner together. Cade’s mom said it was important that they do this. Cade didn’t know whether it was or wasn’t. It was just what they did. He wasn’t used to anything else.
As they ate, his mother supplied an amusing anecdote about a couple at the nursing home where she did volunteer work. Cade’s mother talked about the people there so much, Cade easily recognized many of the names and, from his mom’s stories, felt he knew some of her charges personally.
His father talked about having lunch with one of his clients. He was a CPA and did the books and tax work for many small businessmen in town. He bemoaned the fact that there were so few upscale restaurants in town to take clients to.
Which allowed Cade to mention they’d had a speaker in class today and get into the subject of the two proposals for Cottonwood Creek Park.
“If the park is sold and the land developed, one of the things that’s proposed is a venture that’ll include a few high-end restaurants. So I guess you’re for that, Dad?”
His father looked at him, then Cade’s mother, then back at Cade. “That’s a pretty complicated issue, Cade. There are lots of pluses and minuses. I guess mostly I’m for it, but it’s not cut and dried. It would change our town. We’d have a lot of people from other towns around us coming here, maybe moving here. That would bring money here, but bring problems, too. Would the money offset the problems we’d have? I don’t know. What do you think, Maggie?”
Cade’s mother had a different view. “I like the park. In the summer, a lot of the people in the home used to go there. It was close enough, and very nice for them. Not anymore. It isn’t nice there any longer and isn’t nearly as safe as it used to be. I’d like it to be restored to what it was so people would go there again. It would certainly be nice to have some new restaurants and a theater complex, but we did without those things and were always happy. More people would get more enjoyment out of the park, in my opinion, than the mall. I think, if it’s one or the other, I’d prefer to have the park restored.”
She stopped, then asked Cade, “So which side will you take in your paper?”
Cade looked down, then said, “I’m not going to write one.”
“Huh?” Surprisingly, that came at Cade in stereo. Both his parents had spoken at the same time.
“It’s not required we write one, and I’ve enough to worry about now without doing that. I’ve decided to skip it.”
His parents looked at each other, not saying a word. He hated when they did that. They seemed to be able to communicate silently with their eyes in a language he didn’t understand at all.
His mother was the one to speak. How did they decide that? How did his father know that she would do that? This marriage stuff was all a mystery to him.
“I guess that’s ok if you don’t want to write it. But your name in the paper? Wouldn’t that be something? And wouldn't you like to try to persuade people, like you told us that newspaperman wanted you to do? I think that would be fun. And you’re a good writer. I always enjoy your papers. I think this is too bad. Don’t you have an idea about the park? Don’t you care?”
Now why, Cade thought, did that suddenly feel like she’d stuck a knife in him? Yes, he did care! He cared terribly. He thought it strange how what he’d been thinking earlier in the afternoon was now suddenly being discussed, and again making him feel a little guilty. Which made him angry. He didn’t have the time or energy to get involved in everything there was to feel upset about. He had his own worries to think about, and he certainly cared about them. Just not about a stupid park. Things that mattered more than that park—that’s what he cared about. He did care, and felt those cares should be in the newspaper. On the front page even. For everyone to read and think about. He wished that’s what he could do, write something for everyone to read, and care about, and change. Do something about. Fix. Fixing what needed fixing in this town would do a whole lot more good than restoring a park, no matter how badly that was needed. It wasn’t even that the park wasn’t important. It was just that something else was more important.
And as sometimes happens when one is not even thinking about it, an idea came to him, fully formed, bigger than life. It hit him so hard, he stopped with his fork halfway to his mouth, his mouth already open, and simply sat.
After a few seconds, both his parents looking at their frozen son, Mr. Taylor said, “Uh, Cade?”
There was no reaction at all. Cade was a thousand miles away, off in space somewhere, coming to a decision.
+ + + + +
The next day, Cade stopped at Mrs. Beckstrom’s desk after class. “Do you have any of those cards Mr. Collins left?”
Mrs. Beckstrom smiled at Cade, then opened her top drawer and started scouting around. “You’re going to write an essay, then? Good. You’re one of the best writers in the ninth grade, Cade. I’ll look forward to reading your paper.”
She found the few cards she had left and handed one to Cade. He thanked her and turned to leave. She watched him walk to the door, and then through it. She shook her head. While he was still polite, he wasn’t the happy, engaging boy he had been. She wanted to say something to him, ask him if everything was all right, but the change in him was subtle, and somehow she didn’t feel she should intrude. She just had a feeling. Maybe, she thought, if he really got into this essay, if he got enthusiastic about it, it would pull his mind out of whatever had made him so moody recently.
+ + + + +
Cade waited till he got home, then went up to his room and called the number on the card Mrs. Beckstrom had given him.
“Hello. This is Ted Collins.”
Feeling slightly nervous, Cade took a breath and said, “Mr. Collins, my name is Cade Taylor. I’m in Mrs. Beckstrom’s class. I wanted to ask you something about the paper we’re supposed to write.”
“OK, shoot. I asked you guys to email me, but we can do it this way, too.”
“I’m sorry.” Cade wasn’t sorry, but thought it would sound better if he said he was. “It’s just that I want to make sure of something, and doing it over the phone should work better. What I want to know is if I’ve got the right idea of what the deal is here. As I understood what you said, you want a paper written, any length, that will be about Cottonwood Creek Park, whether we should keep it or sell it for development, and it should be persuasive and our own point of view. That’s it. Anything that fits those criteria and is well-written will be put in the paper. Is that right?”
Mr. Collins was quiet for a moment. Just when Cade was about to ask if he was still there, Mr. Collins, sounding very suspicious, said, “That’s exactly right, but why does it sound to me like I’m being set up here? Why do I get the impression you’re getting me to establish those exact conditions just so you’ll be able to get away with something somehow?”
It was Cade’s turn to pause. He wondered if he should tell Mr. Collins what he was planning. Then, he decided not to. Mr. Collins had no idea who he was or how he could write, of what he was capable of doing, and if Cade tried to explain, it would simply be a kid talking to an adult, a skeptical one at that. No, his best course of action, if he had to fight for what he wanted, would be to do so after he had written his paper and had it sitting on Mr. Collins’ desk. Then he’d have something specific to fight over.
“I just didn’t want to waste my time, researching and writing something that had no chance of being in the paper. That’s all. You’ve assured me of what I need to do, and if I do it well, you’re telling me it’ll go in the paper. That’s all I wanted to know.”
Mr. Collins cleared his throat. “Well, you’re forgetting the part about your teacher selecting it as a possibility for publication, and then my approving it, too.”
Cade didn’t like that last bit. So he pushed. “But you said you’d approve papers that met your requirements if they were persuasive and well-written. You didn’t say anything about them having to meet your own views on things, or some other criteria you haven’t told us about. That’s why I’m calling.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean that. I want dissenting views. That’s why we’re doing this.”
Cade smiled. “So why, then, would you not approve my paper, if it meets your requirements and is well-written?”
Mr. Collins suddenly had a little more respect for his caller, whose voice was definitely a kid’s voice, but whose reasoning was as mature as any adult’s.
He laughed. “I guess you’ve got me there, uh, Cade. I’ll certainly be looking forward to seeing your paper.”
“All right, then. We’ll probably talk again about this, but I’ve heard what you said. Goodbye, Mr. Collins.”
“Goodbye, Cade.” He again sounded suspicious.
+ + + + +
Cade sat at his computer, visiting sites, writing emails, gathering information. He knew he had to exceed his usual preparation for writing this paper. Normally, just writing off the top of his head was plenty to get him an A. This time, he had to know for sure what he was talking about. There had to be enough fact in his piece to make sure that it got in the paper.
He was tired. His day had been unusually stressful. It was late and he knew he should have been in bed a while ago but he’d been thinking about what he wanted to say for three days now and it was time to get it written down.
He worked late into the night, and into the early morning. He’d found that sometimes, when he was writing, the words almost came unbidden, almost directly from his fingertips onto the keyboard. He had moments like that this time. Even so, it took ages before he finally flopped onto his bed, still in his tee shirt and boxers. He was asleep before his head hit his pillow.
The paper wasn’t finished. But the framework was solidly in place. It still needed some enhancing, some editing, but he felt good about it. He’d turned off the computer with a smile on his face, his first real smile in some time.
+ + + + +
Mrs. Beckstrom filled her briefcase with the papers that had been submitted about Cottonwood Creek Park. She’d been surprised to see so many handed in. It had been an optional assignment and so she’d expected maybe, at best, she’d have a quarter of the class participating. Instead, all but her slackers had written papers. She was pleased to see that, even though it meant a couple of night’s work for her that she didn’t really need. But it proved to her, again, how a really fine speaker could reach and motivate teenagers. Mr. Collins had done just that.
When she got home, she changed clothes, then browned a pot roast and got it simmering on the stove before going to her den. The papers were waiting and she might as well get started in the three hours she had before dinner.
+ + + + +
“Cade, can you see me after class?”
“Sure, Mrs. Beckstrom.”
An hour later, Cade sat down up next to Mrs. Beckstrom’s desk where she indicated, feeling a little uneasy. She’d read his paper. He knew that’s what this would be about. He was nervous about what she’d say, but wanted to hear it anyway. He thought what he’d written was good, maybe even the best thing he’d ever done. There was enough ego in him to want to know what she thought about it. Even if she didn’t like what he’d said, maybe she’d agree that he’d said it well.
She waited till all the other kids had left before speaking to him.
“Cade, your paper. . . I hardly know what to say. I don’t really think that’s what they wanted. And it’s so long! And, well. . . .” She stopped, unsure just what to say.
One of his patented lopsided grins formed on Cade’s face, the grin she hadn’t seen for so long. “Did you like it?” He couldn’t help himself. He had to ask.
“Truthfully, I thought it was magnificent, Cade. No one else in here could have written that. And it was certainly persuasive. But. . . .” She tapered off again, then said, “I don’t think they’ll print it.”
“Are you going to send it to Mr. Collins with the ones you feel are good enough?”
She hadn’t even considered whether or not to do that, and his question made her stop and think. She found herself gazing into his very earnest face and then realized she was nodding. “Of course I will. But I don’t know what he’ll say, or whether he’ll approve it.”
Cade grinned again. “I think he will. He promised me, if it’s good enough and it meets his conditions, he will.”
“You spoke to him?”
“Yeah, I called him on the phone. I know it’s not going to be what he expected, and before doing all the work I did on it, I wanted to be sure I wouldn’t be wasting my time. He said it had to be about the park and be persuasive and approved by you. That was it.”
“But its. . .” She tapered off, not saying what she really meant, then finished with, “It’s so long!”
Cade grinned again. “I checked that. I kind of slipped it in where he probably didn’t even hear it, but I said, ‘Any length,’ and he said, ‘Yes.’ So I’ve got that covered.”
Mrs. Beckstrom shook her head. “Well. . . I don’t know, Cade. I guess we’ll see. But it is an exceptional paper. You should be proud of it.”
“Thanks, Mrs. B. I am.”
+ + + + +
Cade answered his phone. “Hello?”
“What the blazes is this?” The voice was loud, and Cade moved his cell phone away from his ear. “Mr. Collins?”
“Of course, it is. But that doesn’t answer my question. What did you think you were doing?”
Cade had realized when he’d handed his paper in that he was going to have to defend it. He really didn’t much like confrontation, but he wasn’t one to back down from something he believed in, either. He’d rather Mr. Collins wasn’t angry, or shouting, but he wasn’t going to let that part bother him. He’d learned, facing angry kids a lot bigger than he was across the scrimmage line, to simply concentrate on what he was going to do and not worry about what they were thinking.
“If you’re asking what my essay is, it’s a submission that meets your ground rules, and I’m expecting it to go in the paper. That’s what it is.”
“Now see here, young man. You were supposed to be writing for or against saving the park.”
“But all that other stuff. That’s what the essay ends up being about. The park stuff is almost incidental. The park was supposed to be the focus of the paper.”
“So are you changing the rules now, Mr. Collins? After I wrote the piece? That doesn’t seem very fair, especially after I took the trouble to verify with you just what was required.”
“I’m not changing anything! You knew what it was supposed to be about!”
“And it is about that. I’m clearly in favor of keeping the park. No one reading it will think otherwise.”
“But. . . .” Mr. Collins had to stop. For all his posturing, he was a very smart man and that had served him well in his career. Now, with this boy on the phone with him putting up an argument, he stopped trying to use his wits to debate with the kid and actually thought about what he was hearing. The kid had some moxie, that was obvious, and Mr. Collins didn’t want to pull rank on him just because he could. He realized the kid had a point. He also knew he’d been suckered. Scammed. The kid had had his way with him.
With the pause giving him an opportunity, Cade spoke. “Did you like the piece?” It wasn’t ego this time. Cade knew the man had to admit it was, and that would give him an advantage should the argument continue.
“Yes, I liked it. But it wasn’t what it was supposed to be. But you know, there’s a lot of good stuff there. I guess I can just edit out the other stuff and then print it.”
Cade hadn’t thought of that. Now he was the one who was angry. “Absolutely not! If you’re going to print it, print it all, just like it is. As you agreed to do. You said any length. If there are English mistakes, that’s fine. I’m 14. I’m allowed some mistakes. And if you want to fix those, I’m OK with that. But I wrote what I did for it to be published. And I want all of it published. You said it was good. It is. It might make a difference. Probably not, but it might. And the difference I want wasn’t just that the park be saved. So, you print it whole, or not at all. Fair is fair.”
There was silence on the other end. It went on. Cade waited.
Finally, Mr. Collins said, “Fair certainly is fair, and I always try to be. Let me think about this.” And then Cade was listening to a dial tone.
+ + + + +
Cade visited Mr. Collins in his cubicle at the newspaper the next day. They had a lively discussion. In person, Mr. Collins had the same charisma he’d shown in Cade’s classroom and was very persuasive. Cade had the edge, however. Mr. Collins wanted his essay, at least parts of it, and Cade was committed, deeply committed, to what he wanted: his essay printed in the newspaper whole. He was allowing no wiggle room on that. The paper would be published in its entirety or not at all. Therefore, it was easy for him to reject any and all of Mr. Collins’ arguments.
They talked for quite a while because Mr. Collins wasn’t used to losing arguments, and certainly not to 14-year-old boys. But, when Cade left, he was smiling, and Mr. Collins was sitting, scratching his head, wondering how he’d been so thoroughly outfoxed.
The essay, along with the others that had been accepted for publication, all appeared in the paper the next day. Cade’s was the only one which wasn’t edited. And, it was the only one that appeared on the front page. It also didn’t appear that day in its entirety. The part left out would appear the next day. Newspapers are, after all, in business to sell papers.
+ + + + +
Mr. Taylor was reading the newspaper when Cade came down to breakfast the following morning. He was reading in the second section, the local news section, having been directed there at the bottom of an article on the front page. He was so absorbed in what he was reading he didn’t even notice when his son sat down next to him.
Cade had his usual, a bowl of cereal with sliced bananas, along with orange juice and toast. That day he’d gone with grape jelly. He ate in silence. When he finished, he put his dishes in the dishwasher, then was leaving the kitchen when he was stopped.
“Uh, morning, Dad.” Cade grinned.
“This. . . this. . . you wrote this?”
“I guess so. I haven’t seen the paper yet.”
“How. . . uh. . . well, I mean. . . wow!”
“Yeah, that’s about it I guess.” Cade was still grinning.
“Has your mother seen it? I mean, your essay. I know she hasn’t seen the paper yet.”
Cade’s mother always helped with breakfast at the nursing home, so neither of the other two Taylors saw her in the morning before she left for the day.
“No, I wanted it to be a surprise for everyone. Even you guys.”
“Well, you certainly accomplished that.”
“Hey, Dad, how about leaving the paper? I’m going to read it to Brian, and I think it’ll be more impressive if I do it from the newspaper. I’ll take the paper with me to school.”
His father looked at him a moment, all levity suddenly gone, then nodded. Then he stood up and hugged his son.
+ + + + +
“How is he today?”
Cade’s eyes fell, along with his shoulders. The nurse grimaced. She hated disappointing Cade. He came, every day, the only one who did other than Brian’s parents. Every day, after school, he’d come and sit with him. Before he went in, every day she’d give him the same answer to the same question. And still he came.
He looked up at her, forced a smile, then said, “Well, I’ll go in. I have something to read to him today.”
She reached out and touched his shoulder, gave him a tired smile, and Cade went into the room; she went to check her next patient.
Brian was lying on his bed in the same position he’d been in yesterday. And the day before. Cade watched him for a moment, then pulled up a chair next to his bed. First, he reached out and took Brian’s hand and held it for a few moments. Then he let it go and picked up the newspaper he’d laid on the bed before pulling up the chair. He didn’t have to open it up, not yet. His essay started on the first page.
“Brian, I don’t know if you can hear me.” He stopped and got a wry smile on his face. This was the first thing he said every day. He was waiting for the day Brian would give him his patented, sarcastic grin and say, “Enough with that already! Every day! I’m sick of it!” He hadn’t said it yet, hadn’t said anything, but Cade was hoping.
“I’ve got something to read to you. It’s in the newspaper and everything. It might take a while, and if you have to get up to go to the bathroom, just go ahead. I’ll wait for you.”
That was a joke. He and Brian always had joked, and Cade saw no reason to stop now.
He looked at the paper, finding his place. His writing began right under a small picture of him. All the kids with pieces in the paper had had their pictures taken. He thought his looked dorky. His dark, almost black hair was long and covered the sides of his face. He kept it that way as some sort of teenage rebellion—about his only sign of rebellion. A lot of people were always telling him to get it cut. Not his parents—they were cool with it—but other adults. Keeping it long was simply his trying to be himself, to show his independence, and that was one small way to do it. In any case, he liked his hair, but his nose! He’d never liked his nose. At least he wasn’t smiling. That would have been dumb.
“If it gets boring, just wiggle a finger or something and I’ll stop, OK?” He looked at Brian, then back at the paper and began.
I’m 14. It’s surprising that I was asked to write my opinion about the park for the newspaper. I’m a kid. Who ever listens to a kid about anything important? Other kids is about all. And kids aren’t going to have any say in this, are they?
But I was asked, and so I’m going to give you my opinion. You probably won’t like it. But that’s okay. I’m not asking you to like it. I’d like it if you paid attention to what I have to say, though. I’d like that a lot.
So let’s get right to it. Should the park be developed, or kept as a park?
Developing it would be dumb. I’m not just saying that. I’ll tell you why it’s true. Do you know how many shopping centers have been built that have then failed in their first year? A lot, that’s how many. A whole lot. More failed last year than ever before, but the failure rate has been rising every year. I know. I looked it up. The people who want to build a development where Cottonwood Creek Park now stands hope you don’t know that. What they do is, they get investors to put money into their projects so there is no out-of-pocket cost for them. They’re builders. They don’t make money from investments; they make money building things. They don’t care if the development succeeds or not after it’s been built, after they’ve been paid and moved on to their next project. They just want to make their money building it. That’s their job. That’s what they do.
But most new shopping centers have a hard time at first, and this one, well, it doesn’t make much sense. They’re going to give us a big-city shopping center with high-end this and high-end that, and we’re a small town. How in the world can the people living here support such a place? Sustain it? A lot of families here are really hurting right now. Not too many of us can afford to shop in high-end shops, or eat in high-end restaurants, and certainly not very often. How can a small town fill a theater complex with multi-screens every night? We can’t! Oh yeah, maybe we can go there, and to the restaurants on special occasions, but every day? Those high-end places need customers, a lot of customers, and they need them regularly if they are to survive.
So, from my perspective, the chances are this place will fail. Probably within the first year, and almost certainly within two. And is anyone talking about that? I haven’t heard anything like that. All I hear is how exciting this all is, how great the place will be. No one is talking reality; they’re all talking about a dream.
The people proposing the development probably are hating me right now. They don’t want anyone thinking about the place going under and all the investment dollars that will be sunk into it going south, too. They want you thinking about the bright lights, full parking lots, happy shoppers, people putting their names on waiting lists for a table at one of the white-table-cloth, $50-a-bottle wine restaurants that will beckon, and all the cash registers in all the fancy stores going ching-ching. Abandoned stores, weeds growing through cracks in empty parking lots, eyesore chain-link fences rusting around buildings with broken windows and empty spaces on walls where their signs have been removed, that’s not an image they want in anyone’s head.
Well, what about the park then? It’s gone to hell. The city decided it couldn’t afford to keep it up and now it’s a mess. So, do we bring in a bright new development that will provide jobs and make the town sparkle, only to see it fall apart, all the jobs disappearing and leaving us with some cracking asphalt and a bunch of investors, many of them local people, losing their shirts; or do we keep a lot of acres of parkland that have gone to seed and become dangerous? Wow! What a choice.
I’ll give you my answer to that question. I will. Later.
First, though, I want to tell you about my two favorite memories of that park, which I know seems a strange segue here but it was part of this assignment we were given.
So, my memories. First, two years ago, when the park was still a nice place, I was playing baseball at the main diamond. It was where the big kids play. I was a big kid, finally. I was twelve, in the Little League majors division. I wasn’t all that good, but I got selected onto a majors team during the players’ draft at the beginning of the season. I was a decent fielder. I played second base and actually was damned good at doing that. It was hitting that I had problems with. (Okay, that’s one ‘damn’ and one ‘hell’. I am counting. But we’re all adults here, aren’t we? I’m not sure how many kids read this paper, but those that do, they’ve heard those words before. I’m not corrupting them, believe me. I’m making this real.)
So anyway, I was playing on the big field. It was an important game. We needed to win. And I was at bat. Last inning. We were one run down. Two out, and Frank, my teammate, was on second. That was the good news; the bad news was the part about me being up, because I was the worst hitter on the team. Which was sort of embarrassing because everyone thought I was a pretty good athlete. I was kind of good sized for my age and I was coordinated and otherwise athletic. But I couldn’t hit a lick.
So I was up, and the pitcher was a guy we all hated facing because he threw hard, and it scared us. Hey, I don’t care who you are, if some kid is standing 45 feet away and throwing a hard baseball in your general vicinity about a zillion miles per hour, it’s scary.
But I was up, and I knew we had to win this game, and everyone in the dugout was yelling for me. That was special to me, because they could have been groaning, but they weren’t. They were pulling for me. The pitcher had me down in the count, 1 and 2, and I knew his next pitch would be an inside fastball. Knew it. That was the way he pitched. Scare you off the plate when he was ahead in the count, then strike you out with one on the outside edge. He knew we were scared, and he used that against us.
He threw it, right where I knew he would, and I was prepared. I almost closed my eyes but didn’t, I pulled my hands in like you have to do to hit an inside pitch, and swung hard. How I hit it, I still don’t know, but I did. Solid. Hit it solid. The speed of his pitch and my contact sent it deep into the gap between right and center. Okay, so I didn’t really get around on the ball, didn’t pull it. But I did hit it!
I was off like a shot. I couldn’t hit, but the rest of the game came naturally to me. I hit first knowing I had at least a triple. Rounded first, rounded second and picked up the coach at third, expecting him to give me the signal to slide, either to the right or left of the bag depending on where the throw was going. He didn’t. He just kept circling his arm.
I didn’t spend any time wondering what was going on in the outfield, if someone had fallen down or was having to fight for the ball with a feisty chipmunk. I just kept running, now sucking wind but running. As I neared the plate, I saw the catcher getting ready to catch the ball, and Frank, who’d just scored, waving me to slide.
The catcher, a kid named Tom who was really heavy, which is why they had him catching, had the plate blocked. In Little League, you’re not supposed to try to bull over the catcher. I couldn’t have, anyway. Even as big as I was, I’d have bounced off.
So I slid. I slid way, way outside the plate. I heard the ball smack into Tom’s mitt as I hit the dirt. He caught it and started a sweep tag, but I was too far away from him to be tagged and then I was past him. Past the plate, too. But I reached back and was just able to touch the plate with my fingers as my slide took me past it.
We’d tied the game! And I’d done it. With an inside the park homer, of all things. Me, off the best pitcher in the league. Me, with my .206 batting average.
We went on and won the game the next inning. They’d had to change pitchers, and the new guy didn’t have a chance. We were pumped, and they were toast.
That all happened at Cottonwood Creek Park, on their big diamond, with its manicured field, its lights, its stands that were full of cheering people that night, including my parents. I think I’ll always remember that. If it hadn’t been in the park, with the crowd and all the rest of it, it wouldn't be such a great memory. But it was, and it still is.
Is that any reason to keep the park? Of course not. But we were told to write about our favorite memories of the place, and that’s one of mine.
I want to tell you about another one, too. This one was last year. I like this memory even better than the one about me. This is about a friend of mine, and is even better, but I think I just said that.
Here it is.
Cade stopped. He got up and walked around, then took a drink from the glass of water that was on Brian’s bedside stand. The one Brian never used.
He glanced at the clock and saw it was about the time he usually left. He’d be late tonight. He’d already cleared it with his mom. He’d call them when he was done, and they’d come pick him up.
He sat back down and picked up the paper after first taking Brian’s hand again. He took a good long look at Brian, too. He could do that now. Brian lay still with his eyes closed, closed so their deep blue couldn’t be seen. Nor could his bright blond hair; his head was swathed in bandages, and in any case, his hair had been cut off. But his face could be seen, with his peaches and cream complexion. It looked different without Brian’s blond mane encircling it, without his flashing, intelligent, laughing eyes drawing attention away from the contours of his cheeks and chin. Brian, for some reason Cade never had been able to understand, had never liked Cade to look at him like he was now and always said something sarcastic or turned away, or even attacked him, yelling a bonsai yell and laughing before he actually made contact, trying to tackle him or wrestle him down. Now, Cade could look all he wanted, and did, marveling at Brian’s good looks, regretting how still he lay and the fact he wasn’t awake to rebuke him.
He squeezed Brian’s hand, something he kept doing periodically during his visits, hoping his squeeze would be returned. When he’d first visited Brian and taken his hand, he’d been overjoyed that Brian had responded somewhat to that, that his hand had shaped itself to Cade’s. But a nurse had told him that was common, it was merely a reflex action, and until Brian actually reacted with some conscious awareness to his hand being squeezed, either by squeezing back in a meaningful way or by trying to pull his hand away, either or both of which could be considered signs of returning metal capability, he shouldn’t get overly optimistic.
Brian had done neither of those things yet, but Cade kept hoping. He would squeeze Brian’s hand several times on each visit while speaking to him, and while the reflex of Brian molding his hand to Cade’s returned, there were no return squeezes or other signs that Brian was trying to communicate with Cade or was aware of his presence.
Cade found his place in the article, and before he started reading again, composed himself and said cheerfully, even conspiratorially to Brian, “You’ll like this part. It’s about you.”
My friend’s name is Brian. He’s my best friend. I don’t know if you adults remember, but when you’ve got a best friend and you’re my age, after your parents, that friend is the most important person in your life.
I have to tell you something about Brian. He wouldn't mind me telling, and anyway you have to know. He’s gay. He’s known it for a long time, and I have, too. He’s never made a secret of it because he’s not ashamed or anything. It’s who he is, and he’s happy being himself.
The only hard thing was, all the rest of us guys, when we were 13, were starting to think about girls and to figure out which ones we kind of liked, and he couldn’t do that. He could, and did, figure out which boys he found attractive, but he learned really quickly that telling them didn’t work out well. This is a small town we live in, and there probably aren’t that many gay boys in it to choose from, and those who are gay must be afraid to admit it because so far, Brian hasn’t had any luck finding anyone like himself. So Brian, feeling the same things we all do, hasn’t had any luck finding someone to share his feelings with.
Most anyone who knows Brian knows he’s gay. But his personality is irrepressible, he’s really nice, and he has lots of friends. No one messes with him because he’s an easy kid to like and because of all those friends he has. I’m his friend, his best one, but there are others, too.
Okay, back to the park. You all remember, don’t you, when we had a big Clean Up the Park day? It was just about a year ago now, last spring. Brian and I decided to pitch in. Actually, it was Brian telling me he was going to do it and I was too or he’d kick my ass. Brian wouldn't actually kick my ass. He’s too nice, and I’m bigger than he is. But that’s Brian. He’s threatening stuff like that all the time. He somehow gets me to do most anything he wants me to, one way or another. It’s hard to deny him most anything.
So, we were at the park that Saturday, Cottonwood Creek Park, along with it seemed about half the town. I think a lot of people are disappointed the park has gotten like it has; they miss it being nice. Maybe that’s why so many people turned out. But anyway, there we were, Brian and I, and the guys coordinating the activities assigned us and a few other guys about our age to something we could handle: picking up all the litter on both sides of the creek that flows into the lake. It was about 100, maybe even 200 yards of creek-side we needed to pick up, some of it kind of secluded where it first entered the park, and then getting more open as the creek neared and then ran into the lake. We were given plastic trash bags and cotton gloves and sent on our way.
This being a small town with only one high school, we knew all the kids our age who lived here. Maybe not knew them well, but at least knew who they were. So we knew everyone we were working with, except one. There was one new kid. Neither Brian or I had ever seen him before.
Half of us went on one side of the creek, half on the other. The new kid was in the other group, across the creek from us. Brian looked at him, watched him a little, trying not to stare, trying not to be obvious. I watched Brian as we worked and started grinning. I knew what he was doing, what he was thinking.
After an hour or so, we were out of the secluded part of the creek and in the open, our bags filling up with trash, pop and beer cans, even some discarded clothing, and everyone was sitting down, taking a break. I sat down next to Brian. His eyes were looking across the creek. I took a look in the direction of his eyes and there was the new kid, sitting down, talking to another of the guys over there. While I was looking, that other kid and the new kid both looked up, and both looked directly at Brian. Then the new kid looked away real fast.
“Did you see that?” Brian asked me. His voice had an excited edge to it.
Brian and I always teased each other about most everything. You can only do that if you’re really close. “Yeah, I saw Chuck looking at you. I don’t think he’s really into you, Bri. He told me he thinks Marylu Tullins might like him, and he’s going to see if she’ll go to the movies with him. Besides, Chuck’s kinda ugly.” (Hey, if this gets in the paper, I’ve got to explain something. Chuck isn’t really ugly. That’s just the way we guys talk! I don’t mean to say he’s a movie star or anything, but he’s not ugly. Not really. Anyway, he and Marylu are a couple now, so I’m sure he won’t mind me mentioning his name.)
Brian hit me in the shoulder. He does that. Good thing I’m so tough I don’t notice.
“Not Chuck! The new kid. I think he was asking Chuck about me. Did you see him turn away? I think he was blushing!”
I made a face like I was considering this. “Nah,” I finally said, “he probably was looking at me, asking Chuck who that really handsome kid is.”
Brian laughed. “Hey! I hope he was! If so, that probably means he likes guys. Well, you’re not available for him. I am. So even if he was looking at you, that’s okay. It means I have a chance when he realizes what he really needs is quality over quantity.”
I pretended to bristle. “Quantity?! It’s all muscle. And, well, maybe he was looking at you after all, Bri, and asking Chuck who the really dumb-looking kid was.”
Brian didn’t take any time at all coming up with an answer for that. “Yeah, you were probably right the first time. He probably was asking about you, then.”
While we’d been talking, Brian had never taken his eyes off the new kid. Now, the kid looked over at us again, sort of tentatively, surreptitiously, then dropped his eyes immediately. Brian asked me, “If that were a hot girl, looking at you like that, what would you do? This is all new to me.” The excitement was still in his voice.
“I’d talk to her. Find a way to do that so it seemed natural. Hey, I know. Follow me.”
“Hey! What are you doing?” Panic, big time.
I didn’t give him a chance not to. I dropped my trash bag and walked over to the creek. That time of year, in the spring, there was much more water in it than usual, but with a running start I could still jump across it. I ran and jumped, and Brian landed right beside me.
“Hey,” I called out. “Anyone got any extra bags? We’ve filled ours.”
I’d made sure when I jumped across, the guys nearest to where we’d land would be Chuck and the new kid. So it was no surprise the kid was right there and came over with an empty bag.
“Hi,” I said. “Thanks. I’m Cade, by the way, and this is Brian.”
Up close, the kid was even more attractive than I’d thought.
“I’m Jared,” he said. (That wasn’t what he said, but I’m trying to protect his privacy here. For this article, I’m going to call him Jared.) He had one of those high pitched, breathy adolescent voices. He was talking to me, but his eyes were on Brian.
So I got bold. It’s not that hard to do when you’re talking to someone you yourself aren’t attracted to that way, just another boy. “Jared, I think there’s more stuff to pick up on our side of the creek. You want to join us over there, work with us?”
And that’s how Brian met Jared, and Jared met Brian. What happened after that is their business, but Brian left the park that day with Jared’s phone number. And they began the process of getting to know each other, of becoming friends. Jared’s a little shy, which Brian both loves and gets frustrated with. Anyway, Brian started being a happier boy that day, a more relaxed boy, and that’s why that’s my happiest memory of Cottonwood Creek Park.
Cade stopped again and took a peek at the clock on the wall. He had to leave soon. He stood up and walked over to the window and used his cell phone to call his parents. His mom said she’d be there in ten minutes.
He sat down again and told Brian there was more to read, but he’d finish it tomorrow.
“I’ve got to get home now, Bri. You take it easy. Keep getting better. I don’t know why, but the past two days, I’ve had the impression you could hear me. I didn’t feel that before. Maybe I’m just hoping. But I’ve been hoping all along, and I just feel something in the air now that wasn’t here before, an urgency, or maybe an anticipation. Keep trying to come back, Bri. Keep trying really hard. I miss you so much.”
He stopped and cleared his throat. After a few moments, he said, “Anyway, I’ve got to go. I’ll be back tomorrow to finish the article. I know, I already said that. I need you awake so you can tell me I’m being redundant. And laugh at me. I miss that. I miss a lot of things.”
He squeezed Brian’s hand. And waited. Did he feel something? No, he didn’t.
He stood up, wiped his eyes and composed himself as he usually had to do when leaving, and headed for the hospital’s main doors.
+ + + + +
“How is he today?” Cade asked as usual on arriving, expecting his usual ‘No change’ answer. Instead, the nurse laid a hand on his shoulder and steered him to a chair in the waiting room.
“He had an event last night, Cade.” Cade’s heart lurched; he could tell by the nurse’s tone of voice that the ‘event’ wasn’t something good. “His blood pressure suddenly dropped, and then he went into cardiac defibrillation. They had to call for the crash cart and shock him, and he didn’t come back right away. They did eventually get his heart going again. It was touch and go for a bit.”
“So he’s all right now?”
“Cade, honey, we simply don’t know. He’s still in his coma. There’s really no difference in his brainwave readings from before what happened and now. We can only speculate what caused it. But, we also can’t rule out that it won’t happen again.”
“So he’s no worse?”
“We don’t know. That’s the bottom line. We hope not, there’s nothing indicating that he is. But it’s worrisome, simply because we don’t know if it’ll happen again, and if it does, whether we’ll be able to pull him out of it.”
She stopped, and when Cade was silent, squeezed his arm and said, “I just wanted you to know. Nothing’s changed, really, but ever since he was admitted, we, and you, knew he was seriously hurt.”
Cade felt tears form in his eyes. Angrily, he wiped them away, then stood up. “Thanks,” he said, “but I have more to read to him today, and I’d better get to it. I appreciate you keeping me informed.”
He turned away from the nurse’s sad smile and sympathetic eyes and walked to Brian’s room. He stopped to compose himself, then entered. Everything looked exactly the same as usual. There was no indication at all that his friend had come close to dying last night.
Cade sat down by the bed, said, “Hi, Bri,” and immediately picked up Brian’s limp hand and squeezed it. Then, after a few moments, he gently set it back on top of the covers. He picked up the newspaper he’d brought with him.
“Okay, let’s see where we are.” He found his place, then said, in the voice one uses when pretending to speak a theatrical aside, “This is where I got a little philosophical. I tried to put a little bit of everything in here. We’ll get back to more stuff about you later. Just wait for it.”
Cade took one last look at Brian, then began reading.
I’m going to talk about something else now. I’m sorry this is so long, but I have some more to say, and some of it is important.
We learned about metaphors when I was in Mrs. Lumley’s 4th grade class. I didn’t always understand the examples she gave, but that was five years ago. I’m older now, and I get it better now. And I’ve been thinking.
I’ve been hearing the word ‘care’ a lot recently. People asking each other, even people asking me, do I care about the park? I do care, but I care about other things more deeply. People, mostly. My friends, my family. People I know. That’s where most of my care is centered.
But I care about this town, too. I live here, and there’s a lot to like about our town. We’re a community, probably more so than a big city. I don’t know that for sure. I’ve lived here all my life.
Cottonwood Creek Park seems like a metaphor to me. A metaphor for our society. When it was being taken care of, when people cared about it, it was a great place for kids, for younger adults, for older ones, too. When the town stopped caring about it, it stopped being nice. It got run down, it no longer was as attractive as it had been, and so fewer people went there. It got worse and worse. Isn’t that the way our society is? When people care about something, when they work to make sure it’s okay, then things are good. When they only pay attention to their own lives and don’t care what’s going on around them, when everyone only cares about their own concerns and no one gives a damn about other people or their environment or what really matters, then our society goes downhill fast. Just like what’s happened with Cottonwood Creek Park.
But, you know, just as things can go bad really fast, they can get good again, too, if people not only care, but do something about it. We can make a change for the good if we not only care but put our cares into action. If we all contribute to cleaning and fixing up the park, it’ll come back to how it was. Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I’m a kid. Kids are allowed to be optimists. Most of us are. I think if a lot of people get involved in that park and they see that a bunch of others share a common goal, they’ll learn something about each other, how similar they are, and that most people are good people, and maybe more than just the park will be better off for it. Maybe the town will, too.
I can already hear the negative people out there. They’ll be pointing out all the problems. They won’t be looking for solutions, just sniping at any optimism they see floating around. Well, believe it or not, there are solutions if we want to find them. I was going to list all the details here, but this is already too long. So rather than get specific, let me just say this. I contacted the Mayor and found out what it would cost to have regular maintenance and regular security at the park. Then I spoke to my father, who’s a CPA. I found out what it would cost to get a bond measure passed to fund these costs. And you know what? Even in these difficult times, the numbers aren’t that high. It is doable. Especially if some of the people who have money in town support it. Perhaps those same people who would be investing in the proposed development could support this instead of something that has a good chance of failing in its first year, and almost certainly the year after when the newness and novelty would have worn off. By then, the high prices of shopping there would probably be taking their toll. If these same people would put their money behind the park rehabilitation, they would be helping the city, and making an awful lot of grateful friends. And it would cost them less money!
If we go ahead with the development, if it does get built and then fails, this town will be a lot worse off than it is now. We’ll have attracted all sorts of outsiders here who worked on the development, and some of those outsiders will bring problems with them. We’ve all seen what happens when a place like Cottonwood Creek Park goes to seed. It has become a place that’s attracted people and activities that we didn’t used to have to worry about in this town.
I’m going to finish this now. It’s gone on too long already. But this last part, it’s why I wrote this in the first place. I hope you read on just a little farther.
We’ve, all of us, allowed the park to deteriorate. When that happens anywhere, park or town or wherever, good people start avoiding that place. Bad people then start filling the void. That’s what’s happened in our park. When all the good people in town stopped going there, the park became a haven for rough kids, wanna-be gangs, kids who do drugs; it became a place for fights and teenage sex and drinking. No one was there to stop it. The police don’t have the manpower to do more than patrol it occasionally, and that had no effect at all.
Now some people will say, ‘let those kids have the park. As long as we stay away, they’ll only hurt themselves. It’s not my problem.’
But it is. It’s all our problem if we care about each other. And it isn’t only the bad kids that get hurt.
Now I’m going to talk about my friend Brian again. This is a little tough, and you might want to stop reading here if you’re sensitive. Like I said earlier, Brian is this really nice kid, and he likes everyone, and most people really take to him right away. But he’s gay, and some people, for no reason I can understand, hate people who are different from themselves. There are a few, only a few, kids at school like that. Most kids aren’t that way, and Brian is safe at school.
He wasn’t safe at the park, however. He was with Jared a couple of weeks ago, and they were walking past the park. Not even walking through it. Just past it. And Brian saw three guys up ahead looking at them. Three guys Brian knew but Jared didn’t. Before they met those three guys, Brian stopped, then told Jared to turn around and run. Jared didn’t want to, didn’t know why Brian said that, but Brian told him again to run, and pushed him, and Jared could hear something in his voice that made him obey. He started running, and looked back, and saw that the three guys had grabbed Brian and were pulling him into the park. Brian was resisting, but it was three to one, and Brian was the smallest of the three.
Jared did a very, very smart thing. He didn’t try to stop the three guys. He ran and pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and dialed 911. He told the dispatcher that there was a fight going on in the park and a kid was getting beaten up, and to come as fast as they could. They did. They responded right away, and Jared was waiting for them. He showed them where the kids had taken Brian.
The police and Jared went looking for Brian, and they found him. He was lying behind some bushes that screened him from the street. He was unconscious. The police called an ambulance, and Brian was taken to the hospital.
It’s hard to describe what had happened to him. He’d been savagely beaten. Even after he was on the ground, the beating continued. In the hospital, they found he had a broken arm, three broken ribs and two cracked ones, he’d been stomped and had broken fingers on his left hand, but the worst was he’d been kicked at least four times in the head. He had a severe concussion.
Brian has been in a coma ever since. He’s lying in a hospital bed with tubes in him. They had to remove a section of his skull because his brain was swelling. The doctors say only the fact that Jared got help as quickly as he did made the prognosis as good as it is, and it’s really not very good at all. The doctors don’t know if he’ll recover, and if he does, whether there’ll be permanent brain damage or not.
Why am I writing this? Not because I want to make anyone think that if a development is built on the park ground and fails that we’ll have more of this. That isn’t my point at all. I’m angry and sad and hurting over what happened to Brian. I think it’s all our fault. We’ve condoned hatred in our community. Whether Brian lives or dies, we need to put a stop to the attitudes and actions of some people here. And that’s what I want to help foster. We need to get rid our town of hate.
I’d like us all to resurrect Cottonwood Creek Park, with money and time and effort. I want it to become a community park again, where we all get together, all meet each other. And then I’d like to rename it. I want to call it the Brian Baldwin Friendship Park. I want it to be a place we can all be proud of, where we can all meet as a community and all celebrate our own strengths and differences. Together.
Brian is gay. Because of that, he got beat up, almost killed, and we don’t know at this time how well he’ll recover, or even if he will recover. I don’t want to live in a town that permits this. I want this town to reject this behavior and teach everyone, in our schools and churches, that such hatred is wrong. I want this community to stand for tolerance and acceptance. And I want to have a symbol of that, a lasting memorial to it, in our city park. I want a plaque, or a fountain, or something, something that will remind people when they see it of our commitment to living together, in peace and harmony. I want people in this town to care about each other.
While you’re thinking about all this, if you have a spare moment, I don’t see where it would hurt to say a prayer or two for Brian. Maybe a whole community doing that would help him, and it would be a good place for all of us together to begin pulling for a common cause.
Cade came to the end and stopped. Then he picked up Brian’s hand again and gently squeezed it. He thought how appropriate it would be if, right then, he finally got a return squeeze.
It wasn’t to be. He sighed and laid the hand back on the sheets.
He sat with Brian a while longer, telling him about what had happened at school that day, nothing very important, just talk. He had to work hard to keep his voice even. Sometimes, he was silent.
He was surprised when there was a knock on the doorjamb, and then Chris, the boy he’d called Jared in his article, walked in.
Chris nodded. Cade was always taken aback by how shy the boy was. The boy had a hard time meeting anyone’s eyes. Now, he glanced at Cade, then returned his eyes to Brian. “Any change?” he asked, his voice soft as always.
“Afraid not. They said he had a difficult night. He seems the same as always to me.”
Chris moved to the other side of the bed. He tentatively raised his hand to touch Brian’s cheek, then pulled it back.
“It’s okay if you touch him.”
Cade’s approval seemed to make a difference, and this time Chris’ fingers brushed Brian’s cheek.
Cade watched, then said, “I thought your father didn’t want you coming here. You said he thought it might not be safe for you.”
“Yeah. He doesn’t know I’m here.” He paused, then said, “I needed to see him.”
“You saved him, you know.”
“The police said that. You did before, too. The one thing that no one thinks to say is—he saved me, too.”
Cade realized, hearing it, that it was true. And he hadn’t thought of it before.
Chris spoke again. “I keep wondering, maybe if I’d have tried to stop them, started screaming, maybe fought them, did something instead of running away, whether it might have come out differently.”
“It might have come out worse.” Cade’s voice was much stronger, much less tentative than Chris’. “The fact medical help came so fast is the only reason he has a chance now. If they’d taken you, too, then you might both be dead by now. You did the right thing, Chris.”
Chris didn’t answer. He glanced at Cade, then quickly away again.
The nurse came in at that moment and told both boys they needed to leave. The doctor was on his way in to examine Brian.
As Cade and Chris walked toward the hospital door, Cade asked if Chris had had any luck yet trying to identify the guys who’d attacked Brian. Chris shook his head. He didn’t know them, he’d only caught a glimpse of them before Brian had sent him running, and the police had no mug shots that he recognized. Nor had he been able to supply anything the police artist could work with. He hadn’t seen anyone at school who looked like what he remembered, either. About the only hope of catching the guys would be if Brian recovered, and then only if he was able to remember the attack.
+ + + + +
Mr. Collins phoned Cade that evening. “Any chance you could come see me tomorrow? My office, after school?”
Cade thought, then said, “I don’t really see how. I always visit Brian after school, and I’ve got a ton of homework to do after that. What did you want to talk about? Can’t you just tell me on the phone?”
“I suppose so. It’s just that, well, your essay has really stirred things up around here. Our phones have been ringing off the hook. My editor’s assigned me to do a follow-up on Brian, there’s more interest in what can be done to save the park, the developers want a retraction of your piece and an apology and are threatening a lawsuit, and we’re getting all sorts of questions about you.”
“Yeah, everyone wants to know about you. I’m supposed to do an article about you, too. I thought you could come in for an interview.”
“I don’t want anything written about me!”
“Why not? Everyone’s curious. You’re hot right now!”
“Well, I shouldn’t be. I do want the park to be fixed up and renamed. When Brian’s well, I want to take him there to see his name on it. Maybe they can have a plaque or something. His own name on the park. That’s something he’d like.”
“We’ll do an article about you, then, and you can say all that, and it might help.”
Cade thought a moment, then responded with, “Are you writing anything to get support for saving the park, then? You’re not worrying about the lawsuit?”
“Cade, we need to meet to talk all this over. It’s too difficult on the phone. And it needs to be soon, while you’ve got everyone’s attention. I know, how about tomorrow during school? Do you have a free period?”
“Yeah. In fact, maybe two. Right before Mrs. Beckstrom’s class I have a study hall, and she’d probably allow me to be late to her class, or even miss it entirely. She kind of liked what I wrote for the paper. I can probably talk her into it.”
“Great! I’ll talk to your principal and arrange for you to get out of your study hall. See you tomorrow.”
+ + + + +
“How is he today?” When Cade asked this time, he was more nervous about the answer. He hoped Brian hadn’t had another bad night.
The nurse smiled. “No problems last night, and the doctor seemed pleased after examining him yesterday. Brian looks the same to me, but you tell me after seeing him, OK?”
Cade smiled and nodded, then made his way into the room.
He sat down, squeezed Brian’s hand, hopeful as ever, and when there was no meaningful response, tried hard not to be disappointed. There was always tomorrow.
Cade had a lot to tell Brian today: about his talk with Mr. Collins, about plans now underway to reorganize the committee of town leaders to keep the park as a park and fix it up, about how several potential investors in the new development had called the paper to throw their support, and money, into saving the park. About how the developers were reevaluating their plans. About how there was going to be a follow-up article about Brian.
Cade didn’t tell him there would be an article about himself. He was still embarrassed about that, and only agreed when Mr. Collins had told him everything else depended on that, that the readers wanted to know who this kid was who’d caused a run on all the Kleenex for sale in town.
He also told him that almost all the calls to the paper had been supportive of Brian and ‘Jared’s’ friendship, and wanted to know more about that, too. Mr. Collins wanted to meet ‘Jared’. Hah! That wasn’t about to happen. But Mr. Collins hadn’t given up yet.
It was finally time to go. Cade squeezed Brian’s hand one last time.
And felt something. It wasn’t much, it was hardly anything at all. Maybe it was simply a twitch. But he felt it.
He squeezed once, twice, three times, then waited.
+ + + + +
Six months passed. A lot happened in that time.
With public sentiment running against them following Cade’s piece in the paper, the developers abandoned the park project. The newspaper, well aware of the opinions of the leading citizens in town, adopted a position strongly in favor of bringing the park back to what it had been before. Work had started, and it had taken less time than anyone could imagine for it to resume its place as a center of town leisure activities, a place where people of all persuasions met and associated in harmony. It was again the pride of the community.
The article about Cade had played to a great audience. It was duly noted that he was the star quarterback of the freshman football team and was likely to be starting at that position as a sophomore on the varsity team next year. It told how he was taking mostly AP courses and was a leader of his year’s students; how all his classmates looked up to him, how he was one of the most popular kids in school. He’d asked his mom if he could stay home sick the day the article ran. She had had none of it, and the teasing had been fierce.
A bond issue to establish earmarked funds for park maintenance and security had been widely supported and passed a general referendum. Citizens were asked to supply their own time and skills in working on restoring the park, and substantial changes had quickly occurred. By the end of the summer, most of the necessary work had been done, and people were again using the facilities there.
More work was scheduled for the spring.
But best of all, in Cade’s opinion, was a warm day in August. He and Chris escorted Brian to the park, and it was officially renamed. The ceremony was well attended; it seemed that most of the town was there. Brian was asked to say a few words. His speaking ability was almost all the way back to normal by then, and he was able to stand for a few minutes without help.
“I’m not much of a public speaker,” he had said, “but I’m glad I’m getting this opportunity. I want to thank everyone for naming this park after me. The Brian Baldwin Friendship Park. It's difficult to comprehend. But the real honor, for me, is the word following my name, because that’s what I’ll always think the name represents. I can’t speak very long, but here’s what I want to say.”
He stopped, cleared his throat, and looked at Cade, sitting behind him on the dais before again facing the crowd. “When I was lying in that coma, I don’t remember much, and nothing at all of the beginning. But, after a while, I remember being a little more aware. My thoughts were all random, and scattered, pictures of things that made no sense, things floating around in my mind, everything disjointed. I had no control of anything. I was existing, and there really wasn’t much ‘me’ there.
“But as time passed, there became this one constant, this one thing I could begin to focus on. It began to be my lifeline.”
He stopped and wiped his eyes. His voice had been threatening to break on him; he needed the pause.
“It took a long, long time, but that constant remained with me, and, eventually, I began to recognize it for what it was. Comprehension, awareness was returning, and I’ll always, always know it was because I had that focal point. It would have been so easy to just let go, to not try to focus on anything at all, to just let everything in my mind float farther and farther apart until there was nothing holding it all together, until there was nothing left.
“But there was something to focus on, and as I got stronger, I came to realize it was a voice, a presence. I wasn’t alone. My best friend was with me, next to me, talking to me, touching me.”
He stopped again, a longer pause this time. Then he said, “I’m here today because of my best friend, because of his love for me, because of his friendship. So including the word Friendship in the name of this park is perfect.”
Brian had tears in his eyes at that point. Cade had them, too. He waited till the applause had died down, then stepped up to Brian and hugged him, and afterwards helped him down from the podium. Cade thought that would be the end of it, and was surprised and embarrassed when the crowd, encouraged by the master of ceremonies, Mr. Collins, insisted he speak, too. He hadn’t been prepared to say anything, but in the end, he had to.
He fidgeted a bit, trying to figure out what to say, and then, in the end, said, “Thank you all. I wasn’t expecting to have to talk today and really don’t have anything to say. I can only speak about what I’m feeling right now.
“This is a wonderful day. I’d like to think it represents a change for the better for this town and those of us lucky enough to live here. There are a lot of awfully good people living here. Today, what you see around you in this park is here because you good people are getting involved. Your work and contributions are making this hapen.” He spread his arms out to encompass the entire park.
“That’s about all I have to say, although I don’t want to leave without thanking Mr. Collins for letting me have my say in the paper, or for all my teachers, from kindergarten on, and especially for my parents. Their love more than anything has made me who I am. But I’m only here because of Brian. This is Brian’s day, Brian’s park, our park, and I’m ready to simply enjoy being here.”
He was looking at the crowd as he spoke, and saw his football coach among them, waving at him.
“Oh, and just two more quick things: first, I’ve been talking to Coach Snyder and have it on good authority the Warriors are going to kick some butt on the field this year. He tells me there’s this new kid, up from the JV squad, who’s going to start at QB this year, and while the kid isn’t much good and might hold the team back some, the rest of the team is really good. Coach is looking for an exciting year. Come out and watch. Your cheering really helps us.
“And second, Brian”—he turned to look at his friend, now sitting behind him on one of the chairs on the dais, before again speaking into the microphone—“having you back and getting stronger every day is the very best thing of all.”
There was a lot of clapping, and Cade blushed, but then was able to escape.
Brian was tired and so the two boys took him home. He was still embarrassed by the wheelchair he needed, but his therapist had assured him that he’d soon be out of it for good as long as he kept working as hard as he had been in his physical-therapy sessions.
Cade left soon after getting Brian back home. Chris stayed. Cade knew that it would be that way now, but it didn’t bother him. Brian was still his best friend, and that wouldn’t change. Cade had gotten to know Chris well in the last six months, really liked him and thought he was perfect for Brian. The two of them not only seemed to have personalities that fit, but looked really good together, too.
And their spending some time alone together worked well for him. When he’d become sort of famous at school after the article had run in the paper, he’d met some people he hadn’t known before. A lot of girls seemed to think he was hot, all of a sudden, which he wasn’t sure he was ready for, and didn’t even really enjoy all that much. But there was this one girl. . . .
So Brian had Chris now, and the two of them spent some time alone, but that was okay. It gave him time to get to know Angela better.
As always, my sincere thanks to my editors. You do a marvelous and mostly unsung job.
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