A week had passed since Dixie had started student teaching. The first day she had come home to a beautiful bouquet of daisies from her sweet friend Sadie. The rest of the week was a blur as she acclimated to hours full of energetic children, learning the ropes of teaching, and getting used to a new routine.
Now she was bouncing along a country road in her blue Chevy headed to her favorite spot on the river. School was over and there were a few hours of sunlight left to squeeze some enjoyment out of. The breeze pouring in the open windows played with her hair, tossing it every which way. Belting out the words to a favorite country tune, she was enjoying the freedom of a few moments to herself.
Of course she could go home to relax, but conversations with her mother had been tense of late. As usual, she didn’t know why. Besides, the weather was luxurious and the sunshine seemed to call her to the river. So, after tossing her guitar in the back of her truck she had headed out.
As she rounded a corner of the dusty road, it curved to a place where the King of Rivers, the Mississippi, wrapped itself in lazy swirls along the bank beside her. The sunlight dappled its surface and winked through the trunks of the trees. Hair blowing, fingers drumming, music blaring, the details of life seemed to slip from her mind.
Suddenly, her attention was caught by a tall, slim figure up ahead. Dixie strained her eyes against the glare of the afternoon. Dressed in jeans and a red and white striped t-shirt, a young woman was walking along the right shoulder of the dusty road.
It wasn’t Dixie’s habit to give strangers a lift, but in this somewhat isolated area it was rather warm to be walking very far. Where could she be headed? There wasn’t much out here along the river. Just a few spread out houses and some cotton fields scattered along the back roads.
In a few seconds she had made up her mind to offer a ride. Surely there wasn’t much of a risk.
The figure grew closer. Dixie pulled alongside, slowing to a stop. Looking through the passenger window their eyes met. Her heart skipped a beat. What she had assumed was a young woman, in actuality, was a young man.
Dixie scrambled to regain her composure. “Hey, ya want a ride?”
A tentative smile lightened the young man’s sensitive face. “Sure, I’d be happy for a lift.”
“Well, hop on in. Where ya headed?”
Opening the creaky passenger side door, he swung a small satchel up on the seat and slid in. With a quick glance Dixie took in his appearance as he got settled. Tall and almost willowy, it was understandable she had mistaken him for a girl. His features were delicate, the cleft in his chin and turned-up nose almost pretty. His light brown hair, while somewhat short for a girl, was rather long for a boy. His perfectly shaped eyebrows framed beautiful blue eyes. Was that eyeliner he was wearing?
Her mind was spinning to keep up with the discordant information it was gathering.
“I’m heading to County Road 12, if ya don’t mind taking me that far.”
“Seriously? It would have taken you a few hours to walk all the way over there.”
“I know, but I don’t have a car, and I need to get to a friend’s house.”
What was it in his tone that disarmed her? Sorrow? Despair? Casting a sidelong glance she noticed his hands tremble as he fiddled with his bag, his brows knit together.
“I’m glad I happened along then!”
“Me too, it’s too hot t’ be walking that far.”
“My name’s Dixie. What’s yours?”
“I’m Kenny McNab.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Kenny.”
He seemed to relax, just a bit. “Thanks, I’m glad to meet you, too. And thanks for giving me a ride.” He paused, then continued. “I was gettin’ real discouraged walking along.” He paused again. “Sometimes life just ain’t fair. I’m glad you stopped.”
“Well, I’m happy to help.” Should she probe any deeper? She didn’t have to wait long to find out that probing wasn’t necessary.
“My dad kicked me out of the house. I’m hopin’ I can stay with my friend, Robbie. I don’t think his parents will care none.”
There was a brief silence before Dixie asked, “Do you think you and your dad can work things out, Kenny?” Dixie fished around for something useful to say, but came up short.
“Naw. He’s a drunk, and I’m tired a gettin’ my tail whooped. I guess it’s time to realize he just don’t like me.”
Dixie shifted uncomfortably, casting the young man a sidelong glance. “I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry things are so bad between you. But I’m sure he likes you. Every parent loves their kids. Maybe he’s just... just in a bad place himself, you know?”
Kenny shook his head slowly, eyes down, hands resting in his lap, almost in resolution. “Naw, he don’t like me. He said so; said he don’t want no gay son.”
Dixie’s heart squeezed and she felt tears sting her eyes as his words gouged her emotions. She was way outside her comfort zone on this one. What had she gotten herself into? She wasn’t prepared for this conversation. This was the Mississippi Delta, deep in Baptist land, for goodness sake! She had never, as far as she knew, had a conversation with a gay person before.
Softly, as her mind spun and insides churned, the word “listen” swept over her.
Up ahead was a convenient dirt patch on the left-hand side of the road near the river. Slowing down she pulled over and eased her truck to a stop. Turning to Kenny she said, “Let’s get out and sit by the river, and you can tell me your story. It seems you need to talk, and I need to listen.”
Kenny climbed out of the truck and followed Dixie to the river’s edge. The water sang and soothed. Dixie wished its ancient melody held an answer.
As they moved under the arms of a giant spreading oak, Dixie frantically searched through her mind. What had she grown up hearing church men say about homosexuality? Mostly it had been hushed whispers of condemnation and disdain. On occasion, there was a strong sermon about the ills of our country and sins of sexual perversion. Had her youth leader taught about it in his many lessons on purity? She couldn’t seem to recall. College friends were just crass.
All that surfaced in her mind were angry, harsh words. Gay people were twisted, fallen, sinful; weren’t they? That’s all she could remember hearing. How could she be so unprepared? Homosexuality wasn’t a topic of regular conversation in her household or among her friends. Not beyond the snide comments or stiff theorizing. In concept, she had a position on the issue, but, confronted with flesh and blood, it all seemed academic.
She looked at the young man beside her. No doubt he was different. But he was human. Why is it we always seek to turn people who are different into something less than human? The idea flitted through her mind, begging further thought.
She knew what the Bible said about the practice of homosexuality, and she believed it. But what did the Bible say about homosexuals. What she knew about a lifestyle and what she saw in this person left her feeling incomplete.
Unflappable and armed with an opinion in most situations, Dixie felt out of her element now. Contrary to her nature she decided to listen.
With awkward movements they settled themselves on the sandy bank under the shelter of the gnarled oak. A stranger pair would have been hard to find in the county.
Compassion nudged Dixie forward. “So, what happened last night to make your father so mad, Kenny?”
Leaning his back against the oak tree, arms wrapped around his bent knees, the young man looked up into the canopy overhead. Sunlight dappled his face. A tear slipped from the corner of one eye.
Coming back to reality, he shrugged. “I’m different. He can’t stand that I’m different. My mom left us when I was little. I hardly remember her. Sometimes my aunt would take me to church but my dad never went much.” A deep sigh filled his lungs and he kept going. “He says it’s unnatural, being gay. It goes against God and it’s wrong.” Turning to face Dixie with anguish in his eyes Kenny continued, “I don’t know if it’s wrong or not but it’s how I am. I’m tired of feeling lonely... and bad.”
“God loves you Kenny, whether He approves of you being gay I think is something you and He will have to work out, but I’m certain He loves you.”
His eyes flashed to her face. “I know God loves me. I’m not worried about Him loving me.”
The unspoken accusation hung in the air. It wasn’t God’s love in question. It was everyone else’s.
What had been intended as a relaxing country drive had taken a detour. Her heart was in upheaval. For a while, Kenny just talked. Talked about the isolation of being different in high school, talked about the ache of being abandoned by a mom he’d never known, talked about disappointing his dad. The words rolled out joining the dark river, getting lost in the waves.
“What will you do now?”
Again a deep sigh, as if every pain could be expelled with a breath. “I guess stay with my friend Robbie until I get a job, and can rent my own place.”
Spurred on by the moment, Dixie blurted, “Why don’t you come home and have dinner with my family. Maybe my dad knows of a job in town. I can drop you at your friend’s after we eat.”
“I’d like that. It’s nice to have someone to talk to ... and I am getting hungry.”
They climbed back into the pickup, Dixie turned around, and, together, they headed in the direction they’d come from.
Banging through the screen door Dixie called out, “Anybody home?”
“In here,” called her mother from the dining room. Sharon Lee emerged, carrying a stack of linens she must have been in the process of putting away. In a split second Dixie took in her mother’s perfectly styled short, sandy hair, matching diamond earrings and necklace, manicured nails, and pressed slacks. Her mother’s slender eyebrow arched as she, in turn, took in the young man standing in her kitchen.
“Mother.” Dixie cleared her throat, her heart hammered in her chest. “This is Kenny. He’s had a rough night. I brought him home for dinner. I hope you don’t mind.”
For a moment Dixie felt a pang of guilt, her mother’s inscrutable face disguised her thoughts well, but Dixie knew the wheels of her mind must be spinning, just as her own had been a short while earlier. She should have given her parents a warning. In that brief moment her mother grabbed tight to composure and evenly said, “Of course dear, your friends are always welcome.”
Turning to Kenny, she put her impeccable manners to good use. Offering her hand she said, “Kenny, I’m Sharon Lee. It’s so very nice to meet you. Can I get you a drink? Some lemonade? Water?”
Self-consciously Kenny shook her offered hand. “Yes’m, I’d really like some water. And it’s nice t’ meet you, too.”
Dixie cringed. He was gay, and he was as country and backward as the day was long. That would be two strikes against him in her mother’s book.
Handing Kenny his glass of water, Sharon said, “Kenny, why don’t you go sit in the family room for a bit while we get dinner together. There are some nice magazines on the coffee table in there. Dixie’s father will be home in a minute, and I’ll send him in to sit with you.”
Obediently, glass in hand, Kenny headed in the direction pointed out to him. Sharon whirled on her daughter. “Dixie Lee, who is that young man?” she hissed.
“Mother, I’m honestly not sure. I came across him out on Old River Road.” She lowered her voice, her face animated. “I swear, I thought he was a girl. It’s an isolated stretch, and I stopped to offer what I thought was a young woman a ride. He was kicked out of his house by his dad last night and was trying to get to a friend’s house. He told me some of his story. Mother, I felt bad for him. So,” she finished helplessly, “I brought him home for dinner.”
Her mother closed her eyes, shook her head, and sighed. “Dixie, you’d bring home every stray you found if I let you.” Dixie had no idea what she meant. Sharon scrutinized her daughter, after a moment she asked, “was he wearing nail polish?”
Dixie suppressed a chuckle. “And eyeliner. Mother, he’s gay.”
If it was possible, her mother’s upright posture straightened even more. “Gay?!” Her voice was a loud whisper. “Of course he is,” she said almost to herself, the pieces fitting into place. “Why in heaven’s name did you bring a gay man here, Dixie? What were you thinking? Did you not consider your father’s reputation in this community?”
Dixie jutted her jaw. “Daddy spends time with all kinds of people. He counsels couples getting divorced. He helps teens addicted to drugs. What does Daddy’s reputation have to do with anything? He has a reputation for helping people. I just felt bad for Kenny. I know it’s awkward.” Her words trailed off. And then she jabbed out one more sentence. “But if you had heard his story, you would feel sorry for him, too.”
“I don’t know about that, Dixie. Gay? Did you think bringing him home was a good idea? Why didn’t you just take him to his friend’s house?”
Dixie shrugged. “I don’t know, mother. Truly, I don’t know. I suppose I was curious. And, like I said, I felt sorry for him.”
“Well, it can’t be helped now. After dinner take him to his friend’s and then leave it alone. Don’t get involved, Dixie. Your father will be home any minute. Help me get dinner on the table.”
Her father got home right after the chicken casserole, steamed broccoli, and Waldorf salad were set out on the immaculately-laid kitchen table. A quick explanation, and he was sent in to meet Kenny and bring him to the kitchen for dinner.
The meal was tense. The mood Dixie had been caught up in down by the river had evaporated. Sitting in her family’s kitchen, Kenny seemed out of place. Though her parents tried to make polite small talk, they had each one sunk into a pensive mood. Dixie couldn’t help but wonder if she had made things worse for Kenny by bringing him home with her.
On the drive to Robbie’s house, Dixie apologized. “Kenny, I’m sorry dinner was awkward. I hope we didn’t make you uncomfortable.”
Tears swimming in his eyes Kenny shook his head. “No. No, y’all didn’t make me feel bad at all. Your parents are real nice. It’s just... just,” he faltered looking for words, “it just seemed like a fairytale. I wish I got parents and a house that nice.”
Pain stabbed her heart again. How often had she taken those things for granted when other people longed to walk in her shoes. They rode the rest of the way in silence, lost in thoughts unknown to each other.
Several minutes later, as the golden day was fading orange, Dixie pulled up to a double wide trailer. Turning to shake Dixie’s hand, Kenny smiled. “Thanks, Dixie, for everything; for dinner, for the ride, for listening. I ’preciate it.”
Dixie smiled back, hardly knowing what to say. “I hope things work out for you, Kenny.” As he turned to slide out of the truck she stopped him. “Can I have your number? I’d like to keep in touch and see how you’re doing. And maybe you’d like to come to church and have Sunday lunch with us sometime.” The words were out of her mouth before she even knew what she was saying, shocking her own ears.
He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. “Sure, I’d like that,” he said, his voice eager. They exchanged numbers, and Dixie pulled away as the shadows deepened, hiding Kenny from sight.