By John Yager
This is the forty-fifth chapter of an ongoing series. Thanks again for all your comments on this series. With this chapter we come to a major shift in the narrative as Rob Ballinger completes his college education and enters the next phase of his life.
I always appreciate hearing from you and try to answer all messages promptly. If I am slow at times it is only because of the pressure of work or my somewhat demanding travel schedule.
Andrew has continued to give much needed proofing and editorial help, for which I am sincerely grateful. I could not post chapters as quickly as I've been doing without his invaluable assistance.
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It has always seemed odd the me how some small, unexpected thing, an object perhaps, or music, or a odor, can bring long forgotten events tumbling back into my mind. Memories can be triggered by the most trivial thing.
For Proust it was a small, sweet cake, which brought back a flood of remembrances of his childhood. For me it is often the scent of a flower garden on an early summer day.
At about nine in the morning of Tuesday, the sixth of June, 1972, I walked into my parents' garden in Spring River, Mississippi, and was overwhelmed by a sudden sense of loss. The fragrance of the flowers and freshly mown lawn stuck me so powerfully that I sat alone on a stone bench and cried. No tears came but my chest heaved with an overwhelming sadness and I knew more clearly at that moment than I had allowed myself to know before, that a turning point had occurred in my life and there was no going back.
A few days earlier I had said goodbye to Steve and Daniel and Sammy. We knew that our diverse plans would no allow us to be together again until the following Christmas, at the very earliest. Christmas was over six months off.
The four of us had known the separation had to come. We'd steeled ourselves for it. On our last night together, fittingly spent at Roger Bardwell's house, we'd made love slowly, gently, as if we were suddenly aware of our own fragility. Then we had released ourselves and each other from our vows. I am certain that not one of us had had sexual contact with anyone outside our little group of four since we'd agreed to that strange faithfulness in Gulfport, in March, 1969. For over three years we had been faithful. Many marriages last less time than that.
Now we were going our different ways and we knew it would be unfair to try to hold each other to our bond. We knew we'd always love each other and we hoped there'd be times when we could be together again. But separate ways would lead to new relationships and we were realistic.
Part of my sudden sadness that Tuesday morning was because of leaving Daniel and Sammy and Steve. But I had prepared myself for that separation and it wasn't the only cause. On some other level I was saying goodbye to my to the childhood innocence and untroubled youth. I was an adult now and had assumed responsibility for myself.
I would soon be leaving my family and that, too, hung over me. Even during my four years at Oxford, I knew my parents were never all that far away.
I also realized I was leaving Mississippi. It's a maligned state, more perhaps in those days than now, but I'm sure for anyone who was not bred and born and raised there, it would be impossible to understand my overwhelming sense of loss.
I sat there for a while, letting my mind wander back to my own childhood and my teenage years. I couldn't help think of all the people who'd been a part of my life, some for a long time, some for shorter periods. All had had an influence on me, had in some sense made me what I had become.
My family, even my brother Ted, were central to my understanding of the world. Conscientiously or unconscientiously, they had molded me, given me a sense of self worth and of responsibility. My father had taught me the meaning and importance of work. My mother had taught me to nurture and love and honor others. Collectively they had taught me curacy.
>From Rick Carlson I had learned how to love.
>From Joyce Lynn I had learned how to be a friend.
From Ted Tucker I had learned that I was loved by God and that I could love him in return.
There were many others.
There were certainly Sunny and Daniel and Steve, but the lessons they and I learned together were too complex for labels or words.
There were many professors and coaches and staff at the University of Mississippi from whom I learned to love learning and to respect my own body and to care passionately about the marvels of life. First among them was Roger Bardwell,
who'd opened doors and pointed me to wonders I had never known existed.
It was Roger who became my patron and a friend. It was Roger who suggested and schemed and finally pushed me out the door of my little world into one so vast that if I had a dozen lives I could not properly explore it.
"Is the pollen bothering you, Rob?" my mother asked as I came back into the house. My eyes were red. I had put an end to speculations and decided to face the day.
"Maybe, mom," I lied.
"Rick Carlson called."
I stopped at the door and turned to look at her.
"Am I supposed to call him back?"
"No, dear, he's coming over and he said that you should grab towel. He didn't say that you should to take your swimming suit but I guess you probably should. I think he's expecting the two of you to drive out to his uncle's cabin or something.
My feet were frozen to the floor. I couldn't move.
"When did he say he'd be here?" I finally managed to say.
"I think he was coming right away."
I got my feet unglued and ran up to my room. I tossed a towel and my bathing suit and some suntan oil into a gym bag and headed back down. I didn't have long to wait.
I'd seen Rick regularly over the last four years but all our meetings had been in the company of his wife Debbie and others of our families and friend. In the first year after their marriage both Rick and I had been careful to keep the promise we'd made to Ted Tucker. We had avoided being alone together.
By the end of that first year I had begun my relationship, first with Steve Chapman, and then with the foursome of Steve, Sammy Hill, Daniel Lipscomb and myself.
Rick had met Steve when he visited Oxford for a football game during the fall of 1968. Steve knew Rick and I had been lovers during our senior year in high school and Rick knew Steve and I had become intimate. While they were civil with each other, even friendly, it was understandable that neither of them wanted to continue regular contact.
That, of course, was before our Spring Break at Gulfport and the development of the Foursome. Over our remaining three college years I continued to see Rick a few times a year in social situations, I never told him about the nature of my relationship with Sammy and Daniel, other than to refer to them as close friends. I instinctively knew he'd not approve of the foursome so I just didn't talk about it.
Rick knew Steve and I had remained together but I'm sure he assumed our relationship was as a couple.
After that first year following Rick's marriage to Deb, I guess he and I were free, under the terms of our promise to Ted Tucker, to see each other alone. It had never happened and I assumed that was because Rick and Deb had formed a solid relationship and he didn't want to do anything to dishonor it our jeopardize it. I also hoped he saw my relationship with Steve as important to me and that I would not want to be unfaithful to him. I had prepared myself to tell Rick about the Foursome if he ever made a sexual approach and to let him know that I'd committed myself to faithfulness within that group.
Now Rick was coming by and had told my mother he was taking me to his uncle's cabin for a swim. I suspected that could only mean one thing. The cabin had been the scene of many of my most passionate times with Rick. Maybe I was misreading his intentions but it seemed odd that he'd want us to go there, unless it was to resume some sort of sexual relationship. How did I feel about that? My head was spinning at the thought and I could hardly formulate the question, let alone, honestly say how I felt.
I'd just that morning sensed that I had crossed some sort of invisible line between youth and adulthood. Suddenly, with a simple message from Rick, passed along by my mother of all people, I found myself in the throws of very immature confusion.
When Rick pulled up in front of the house I was standing on the porch waiting for him. I didn't give him time to get out of the car, but hurried down to join him.
"Hi, partner," Rick grinned. "I guess you got my message."
"Yeah," I said, looking over at him, "I got it, but wasn't sure what it meant."
"You didn't, huh?" He turned toward me and smiled again, his eyes moving down from my fact and over my body. "I guess it means more or less whatever you want it to mean."
I have to admit I'd been looking him over, too. Rick had ended up playing guard during most of his football career at Mississippi State and he looked muscular and bulked. He was wearing training shorts which were hiked up around his huge legs and his white T-shirt was stretched over his massive chest and arms. He had to out weigh me by at least fifty pounds. At my peek, before the injury which had taken me out of football, I had weighted less than 220 and by the summer of 1972, I'd succeeded in bringing my weight down to a very fit 175. I guessed at that moment Rick weighed at least 225 and probably a little more.
"That attitude could lead to some misunderstandings," I said.
"So how's Steve," Rick said, ignoring my comment and cutting to the quick of the matter.
"He's good. He was accepted for law school at Vanderbilt," I said, omitting that he'd be living with Daniel Lipscomb.
"So do you guys still have something going?"
I didn't answer for several minutes, trying to think through my response. I realized what Rick was really asking and I didn't know what I felt free to say. At that moment the thought of sex with Rick was almost overwhelming. I wanted him, of course, but I also recognized that for him and me to resume any sort of intimate relationship would complicate both our lives. I would only be in Spring River a few days but I knew the implications of even one encounter. I knew my own heart and I knew I could easily be hurt again, just as I'd been hurt when Rick married Deb four years earlier. I also knew Rick was a sensitive guy and what he might be wanting at the moment could lead him into a real crisis of guilt.
"I still love him, Rick," I said after a very long pause. Perhaps the pause said more than my words.
"Sure," Rick fired back. "What I meant was are you guys still trying to be faithful."
He wouldn't let go.
Again, I took my time trying to put my thoughts in order.
"We agreed that wouldn't be very realistic," I finally said. It was true but I knew by saying it, I was opening a dangerous door. Then, before Rick could say anything more, I asked, "so how are you and Deb doing?"
"Good," he said, looking over at me again and smiling. We were approaching the last filling station on the edge of town, an old building which served as a sort of general store. "Do you want to stop for cokes or snacks?"
"I guess that depends," I said. "How long do you plan on us being at the cabin?"
"That's up to you," he said. "Deb went with her mom to Jackson to see a sick aunt. They won't be back `till tomorrow so I've got all day - and all night."
"Well then," I said, sensing that the dangerous door had just swung open a few more inches, "maybe we should get some food."
Rick pulled into the station parking lot and we both climbed out. While he went in and pilled some things into a bag, I went to the old pay phone on the outside of the building and called home.
"We may be gone over night," I told my mother.
"I wondered what Rick had in mind," she said. "Did you take everything you need?"
"I'll be okay," I said and quickly ended the call.
Inside I took a carton of eggs from the cooler and added them to Rick's bag. He smiled and said, "how about bacon and some juice?"
"Yeah," I said and we were on our way again. That door I'd been envisioning had been opened as wide as it would go.
"So you and Debbie are doing well," I said as we pulled away, trying to get us back to the conversation we'd been having.
"Yeah, Rob, real well," he said. "There's just a couple of problems I want to talk to you about."
"Sure, Rick, anything I can do to help?"
"We sort of hope so."
"Hey, shoot. I was your best man, remember? I'll do anything I can."
"Let's wait until we get to the cabin, okay?"
"Sure," I said, and we slipped into silence as we drove on the last few miles.
I hadn't seen the cabin over the last four years and as we drove on memories came flooding back. We passed Avon and James and then a few miles south, turned right toward the river. The dirt road had been recently graded, probably to level the ruts after the inevitable spring floods. The fences which ran along both sides of the road looked new and there was a new gate at the end.
"It's not locked," Rick said and I got out and opened it, swinging it back so he could drive through and then closing and hooking it again behind us. An old mare wondered over and looked at us, wondering, I guess, if we'd brought her a treat. She looked dejected and snorted a little as I got back in the car.
We drove the last hundred yards, up over the flood control levy the Corps of Engineers had built in the 30s, and then down the angled path to the cabin.
"I guess if we ever had a really big flood, your uncle would loose the cabin," I said, thinking of the levy and how the cabin was built on the side toward the river.
"Yeah, in a real big one, it would probably end up in Vicksburg, but so far that's not happened."
"How long has he had it?"
"Ten or twelve years, but it's been here at least twice that long."
I unloaded our stuff while Rick unlocked the cabin door. The cabin smelled dank and stale. I wondered how long it had been since anyone had been there.
"We'd better air the place out," Rick said as he went to one side of the big room and I went to the other. We opened all the windows and Rick went to the cupboard and took out sheets and blankets and pillows. As he spread them over chairs on the screened porch to air, I went to the kitchen and checked out the refrigerator. I was pleased to find it cold and clean. I stored the milk and eggs and put the rest of our supplies on order.
When I came back into the living room Rick was setting on the sofa pulling off his white tennis shoes and socks. I went to one of the chairs facing him and did the same.
"So are we going for a swim?" I asked.
"Yeah, in a while," he said, "but I need to talk with you first."
"Sure, Rick," I said. I figured he was going to say something about us having sex. I had to admit I had very confused feelings about it and assumed he must as well.
"I guess I'd better just say it, Rob. If I don't, I'll never get it said."
"Yeah, that makes sense," I grinned.
"Well, first, I want you to know that I'm speaking for both Deb and me here."
"What" I said. Had my mind skipped something here? Surely he'd not talked with Deb about having sex with me.
"We've talked about it for months, Rob. We've prayed about it and over Easter we got in touch with Ted Tucker to discuss it with him."
"Yeah?" I said, still completely confused.
"Ted agrees with our decision, Rob."
"What are we talking about here, Rick?" I finally said.
"Deb and I want you to be the father of our child."
I sat there in stunned silence, not able to respond.
"I can't father a child, Rob," he said, looking down at the floor."
When I still didn't respond, Rick went on.
"Deb and I decided about eighteen months ago to go ahead and have a baby as soon as possible, even before we graduated if it worked out that way. She only needed seventeen more hours during her senior year and we figured if she got pregnant she could take a heavy load and finish at mid-year.
"I have a great job lined up, so we were feeling like it was time to give our folks the grandchild they are all clamoring for.
"We stopped being careful and figured nature would take its course, but nearly a year went by and nothing happened. Deb had her doctor check her out but they found nothing wrong, so in December I went down to Jackson and had all the tests at the University Hospital."
"And they said the problem is with you?"
"Yeah, I'm not producing any sperm."
"Aren't there treatments they could do?"
"No, nothing. I ejaculate, but I don't produce sperm."
"That's crazy, Rick."
"Well, not really. I had mumps when I was fifteen and that may have been the cause. It's also possible that I had some sports injury and didn't know it at the time."
"Oh, Rick," I said as I moved across the space between. I sat down in the sofa and put my arm around him, pulling him gently over against me.
"Yeah, it's a bummer," he sniffled and I realized he was crying.
After a while he seemed to take a deep breath and let out a low, slow sigh. "I know you'll need to thin about it, Rob," he said. "We want you to think about it, but we both want it to be you."
"Why did you decide to ask me, Rick?"
"Can you think of anyone else either Deb or I would want?"
"You've got brothers and cousins."
"Yeah, and they're a bunch of losers. Think about it, Rob, are you likely to ever have a child in the usual way?"
"No, probably not."
"I guess some people have said you and I look like brothers but I never thought so. We do have similar coloring and we are both athletic and I figure our kid would be a lot better off inheriting your brains to mine."
"I feel very honored you'd even ask," I said, still holding him against me. Then a further thought popped into my head. "I guess nobody but you and Deb and I would ever know."
"We've already decided we'd want you to be the baby's God Father. Everybody knows you and I were the best of friends in high school, so it would just seem natural."
"Thanks, Rick," I said, "I will think about it, but if you want me to do it, I guess I'll tell you now that I am inclined to say yes."
He rose up and looked at me, a big, happy grin on his face. "Thanks, Rob. I told Deb you'd not turn us down."
"It is kind of funny, though."
"I really figured you were going to make a move on me. I thought this was all about you and me having sex."
He grinned again and said, "why do you think I brought you to the cabin?"
To be continued.