Making up her mind she veered onto Broad and headed out of town. They didn’t speak as she took Levee Road to Old River Road. By the time the Mississippi was flashing between the trees the pair had relaxed their bodies, if not their minds. Kenny sat up straighter and was looking out the window. Yet the pain of the incident hung in the air between them. Dixie was horrified for Kenny; the humiliation of his mistreatment was worse than the physical blows. What had his attackers said to him? How had that happened? She wanted to ask him, but let him sit in silence instead.
She drove toward the dirt pull-off near the big oak by the river, where she and Kenny had first spoken. After a few quiet miles she eased her truck to the side of the road and shut off the engine. They both took deep breaths, struggling to shake free of the shock that had enfolded them. Dixie was shaken by the rage that had gripped her moments before and was now replaced by a desperate, hollow ache. She wondered what Kenny was feeling. She needed to know.
They both reached wordlessly for their doors. Dixie came around to help Kenny out. Before slamming the door shut she reached behind the seat and grabbed the wool blanket that her dad made her carry with her. Dixie held Kenny’s hand as they took their time crossing the dry grass to the soft earth beneath the oak’s spreading arms. She held his hand more for consolation, than a need to steady him. He eased himself down on the blanket Dixie spread over the soft earth and leaves, on the bank between large tree roots.
Settling beside her friend, Dixie rested her weary shoulders against the strength of the mighty oak’s trunk, and looked up to the dark branches overhead. Sunlight pierced through at intervals making patterns of gold. Kenny sat with his arms propped on his knees, head leaning forward. She knew his life hung in tatters, like the end of summer’s worn out leaves hung from the oak.
“Kenny.” His shoulders jumped at the sound of her voice. “Kenny, what happened? Who were those jerks? Why did they do that to you?”
Gently he leaned his slight frame against the broad trunk beside her. His face turned up to the sunlight, its fine features marred by another’s hate. Dixie had to look away.
“Why do you think, Dixie? Did you not recognize them from the race last night? ”
Of course, how could she have not seen it was them! He turned his head to look at her. She met his gaze. A tear escaped and traced its way down his battered face.
“I’m so weary of it all. I could just slip under that water and never come up again,” he whispered.
“Oh, Kenny, don’t say that!” Her intense eyes flashed compassion, fear, heartache, anger.
“I’m not welcome at home. I’m not welcome in town. And this morning Robbie’s parents told me I needed to find another place to live. I can’t get a job.” A choked sob stuck in his throat. “ What’s the point Dixie? I’m not wanted anywhere.”
“Why did they say you needed to leave their house?” Dixie wanted to know.
He sighed and rolled his head back and forth on the tree. “I don’t know exactly. Robbie and I have been friends for a long time, and they’ve known about me. I think they’re afraid Robbie and I are becoming... more... than friends.” His eyes flashed to hers in sincerity. “But that’s just not true. That’s not the way Robbie is.”
She touched his shoulder. “Kenny, I’m so sorry. So very sorry.”
They sat in silence, the keening of the river filling the space between them. A mockingbird sporadically declared his hope overhead. She wished they could wash themselves in the mighty waters of the river, purging their memories. Instead they sat still and let the deep water work its magic, pulling profound secrets and strong emotions from their hearts. How many minutes passed with their eyes locked on that muddy water tumbling?
A sob broke the trance. Her eyes shot to Kenny’s anguished face. “Dixie, I can’t even repeat the names they called me or the things they said. Why did God make me this way, if it’s so wrong? Why am I different? Am I so bad, so disgusting, no one can bear to be around me? I wish I could believe what you do about God. I wish I believed he could fix me.”
“Oh, Kenny! I don’t know how to answer your questions; they are too big for me to answer completely. I know God loves you. I believe he has a plan that’s best for you. But I think you’re going to have to trust him to work that out.” Her mind rushed to answer her friend’s anguish. “One thing I know to be true is that you don’t have to change to come to him, to be loved by him. If there’s changing that needs to happen, and we all have changes that need to be made in us, he’ll do the work. Right now don’t worry about being fixed, right now just be loved.”
“Dixie, I honestly don’t know how to do that. I don’t even have anywhere to sleep. I don’t know how to feel loved by God.”
A bitter resentment welled up in Dixie. She knew beyond any doubt that she could never take Kenny home with her. Which of course is what she wanted to do. She should be able to offer him a safe place to heal. How could she help him?
In frustration she buried her head in her hands. “I don’t know what to do.”
“It’s okay Dix. Sometimes there are no answers.” It was his turn to touch her shoulder. “I just want to be seen for who I am. That’s all. Thanks for seeing me.”
Her emotions refused to be contained anymore, tears poured down her face. She asked herself if seeing really was enough. Looking him in the face she said, “Of course I see you. I’m glad to be your friend.”
The sun had reached its zenith and was moving across the afternoon. She needed to feed Kenny and get him settled somewhere. Dixie slapped her forehead. “Oh my gosh! I’m so stupid!”She jumped to her feet. “Come on Kenny I know exactly what to do with you!”
He looked at her from his one good eye, the other was swelling shut. “What do you mean?”
“Mr. McAllister! Joe. He’ll take care of you.” She was feeling hopeful again. Like she could sing. “I’m sure he’ll give you a place to stay.” This was perfect!
Kenny shook his head. “I don’t know. He was nice, and I like him, but does he know... what I am?”
“A person? I’m pretty sure he picked up on that.” Dixie couldn’t keep the laughter out of her voice.
“No, you know what I mean Dixie. Gay. Does he know I’m gay?”
Kenny recognized that determined toss of her hair. “Yes, actually, he does. And he said to bring you over for a visit any time.” With gentleness she added, “Kenny, he really is a kind man. He cares about you.”
Kenny focused his eyes across the river, thinking, weary. “Maybe it’d be best if I just leave town. Maybe go to a bigger place like Jackson or Memphis. I know there are more people like me there. I won’t stand out so much.”
Dixie’s heart jumped. She knew that was the wrong answer. Who knew what would happen to Kenny in a city. He was a country boy with few skills, even less friends, and no money. He screamed ‘vulnerable.’ No, he should not leave. She was certain of that.
“Kenny, you’re in no condition to go anywhere at the moment. Please, come with me to Joe’s, just for tonight. If you like it,” she hoped he would, “you can stay.”
There was little reason to argue with her. He was bone tired, and out of ideas. A bed and some cold water sounded wonderful. And he had liked Joe. “Okay, I’ll go.”
“Alright. Give me your hand and I’ll help you up.”
She reached out her hand to his. It was soft, yet strong in her own. There was no doubt that the reality of who Kenny was made her uncomfortable. Her understanding of male and female, of gender roles, of attraction, was deeply challenged by him. These ideas were innate to her experience and upbringing. To avoid disregarding everything she understood, without rejecting the things she did not, would take a careful reordering of thoughts. Grace and truth, she would need to weigh it all against grace and truth. But right now she needed to get him somewhere safe. Because just as certainly as Kenny made her uncomfortable, was the certainty that she cared deeply for him.
Kenny stood with a grunt, his left arm held tight around his middle. She reached up to smooth his disheveled hair. He took her hand. “Dixie, I was wrong, I do feel loved. God didn’t have to send you to me, but he did.” He choked on his words. “He must love me to do that.”
“He’s loved you all along. But I think I’m the one who received the gift.” She touched his cheek. “Come on, buddy. Let’s get you some pain medicine and some food.”
She scooped up the blanket and they moved at the same slow pace back towards the truck, across the scrubby grass. She had settled what to do with Kenny, but in the back of her mind she knew that was just the tip of the iceberg. When she got home, no doubt, there would be hell to pay. She wouldn’t think of that just now.