The drive from Great Falls to Helena, and then on to Butte wasn’t much of a strain on Eli. Four lanes, a divided highway, and for some reason very little truck traffic. The land was flat with mountains in the distance and it would have been monotonous if he had been traveling alone. But he had five passengers now and the lively chatter made the time fly.
After two and a half hours behind the wheel Eli pulled off the highway in Butte, Montana, for gas and to give his passengers a bathroom break. Richard would take over and drive them down to Idaho Falls where they would stop for lunch. If everything went well they would be in Salt Lake City by late afternoon.
The land was flat alongside the highway with the occasional fold of rocky hillside encroaching but never quite bisecting the roadway. Richard was a calm driver, but now that Eli was a passenger he could gaze at the scenery. They were about an hour out of Butte when Richard said “Uh oh.”
Ahead through the windshield Eli could see a collection of small trucks and cars along the side of the road and one police car with lights flashing.
“Looks like an accident,” Richard said.
The Highway Patrol car was sitting in the slow lane and the officer in his green uniform was waving them down. Richard looked in the rear view mirror to make sure anyone following had slowed down as well. He rolled down the window as the officer approached.
“You need to pull over to the shoulder until we get the roadway cleaned off,” the officer said. “Might be a few minutes but don’t wander far from your vehicle.”
Up in the distance Eli could see a white car sitting in the road facing the wrong way, or at least what was left of it. The big truck on the shoulder must have been involved in the accident because there was a gathering of people around it.
“Can we go see what happened?” Tony asked from the back.
“Officer said to stay close…but it seems everyone else is up there, go ahead,” Richard said. “I could do with a stretch myself.”
Tony and Eli were the only ones who walked up the shoulder towards the crowd at the front of the truck, and then the smell hit them.
“Whoa, what is that stink?” Tony asked.
“Cows it seems, that’s a livestock hauler,” Eli said.
But through the slats on the truck he could see the animals, and they weren’t cows at all, they were buffalo. For the second time in several days Eli was struck by the sight of the animal. These were in captivity and didn’t look very happy about it.
The driver of the truck was standing there looking at the damage done to the side of his truck. It didn’t look too bad but the car was a mess. Eli and Tony arrived at the little group on the side of the road and stood there listening.
“Just coming down from Dixon,” the driver was saying. “Picked up this load of animals first thing this morning. The run is timed so these poor creatures are going to need food and water when I unload.”
“Where are you going?” Eli asked.
“Salt Lake City…well, Syracuse, Utah. They’re going to join the free range herd there in Antelope State Park. All of them are females so I guess the rangers are looking to expand the herd.”
Eli smiled, relieved that nothing bad was going to happen to these animals. He didn’t know there were any buffalo that far south. He would have to tell Mathias since he had mentioned the animal as a sacred creature.
The driver of the car explained that he was just passing the truck when he got distracted by the cargo. “I took my eyes off the road for one second, it was a dumb mistake.” One that was sure to cost him a lot of money.
A tow truck arrived to remove the car and they swept the highway. The Highway Patrol car moved and the officer began to motion the cars on through. Richard was back behind the wheel and Eli got one final glance at the buffalo before they moved on.
“Is it buffalo or bison?” Tony asked.
“Both, I think,” Eli said. “I’m sure they have some scientific name but I don’t know it. What an ancient creature, they were here long before people arrived.”
“Exactly when did the Indian tribes arrive?”
“My people came into Arizona and New Mexico about a thousand years ago, but the Pueblo clans were there first. I guess there were migrations before that, but I don’t know the facts about that.”
“That must have been a long walk…makes me tired just thinking about it,” Tony said. “My ancestors came by ship a few hundred years ago and then moved west.”
“We all got here somehow,” Eli said.
Richard pulled off the highway onto Business 15 in Idaho Falls looking for a place to eat lunch. After a couple of stoplights Frank pointed at a sign, Smitty’s Pancake and Steakhouse.
“Something for everyone,” Frank said, and Richard pulled into the parking lot.
The lunchtime crowd kept them waiting for fifteen minutes, but that only proved that the food was probably good if the place was crowded. Their orders were mixed, but Eli and Tony opted for the breakfast menu figuring pancakes were good at any meal.
Richard refused Eli’s money and put the meals on his credit card. Then it was time to gas and go. It was still over three hours to Salt Lake City and the church people were expecting them around four o’clock. Eli would drive them into Ogden and then Richard would take over as they went looking for the church.
Eli listened to the idle chatter of his passengers as they travelled the miles through southern Idaho. The flat ribbon of highway kept his focus so he did not join the conversation, but he began to understand the relationship Richard had with his kids.
Marsha was so lucky to have such an accepting family. They talked about a trip the family had taken to Vancouver the summer before and the boat trip along the coast. Frank wondered if they would ever travel as a family again since his older brother was off at the university.
Tony had said little about his family except that they were accepting of his gay identity. Eli was glad to be behind the wheel so they wouldn’t expect him to talk, except he had some things he wanted to discuss with Tony. Maybe he could corner the boy later.
The mountainous regions of Idaho transitioned into the hills of northern Utah and everyone was looking forward to seeing the Great Salt Lake. Eli didn’t want to disappoint them but he knew there would be nothing to see from the highway. And then he realized he had come full circle.
They passed the exit for Perry as they headed into Brigham City. Eli remembered meeting Danny and Matt here…had it only been three days ago? The urgency to go home had evaporated but now it was back in his mind.
The drive from Salt Lake City to Flagstaff would take him an entire day and some of it would be back on Route 89 through the Navajo Nation. Eli suddenly felt the need to talk with his grandfather.
“Why don’t you pull into the next rest stop and I’ll take over,” Richard said.
Good, Eli’s mind was starting to wander, not a good thing when he was driving. The rest stop had bathrooms and everyone took advantage of the break before rearranging themselves in the wagon. Eli and Tony were in the back seat.
“I watched your face when you were driving,” Tony said. Eli realized he hadn’t even looked up in the mirror this time.
“Yeah, just thinking about the drive home.”
Tony reached over and took Eli’s hand. “What are you thinking now?”
“I’ll miss you,” Eli said. “This didn’t last long enough.”
Tony smiled. “I predict our friendship will last a long time even if we aren’t together. I’ll keep track of you.”
“That would be nice. So where are we staying tonight?”
“I don’t know, but probably at one of the sponsor’s homes. The church members who invited us here usually provide meals and a bed. Don’t worry, we’ll be together.”
Richard drove them through Ogden and forty minutes later they were entering Salt Lake City. Frank had the directions in his lap and gave his father notice that they would be taking the next exit off the highway.
It took them another quarter of an hour to reach East 600 Street and turn into the parking lot of the church. Richard was happy since they were right on time.
“Have you met these church members before?” Eli asked Richard as they got out of the wagon and stretched.
“Our reverend has met their reverend,” Richard said, “but I only spoke with him on the phone. I understand he’s a big supporter of the youth groups. I guess that’s why we’re here.”
Several people exited the church building and walked towards them…the welcoming committee.
Reverend Bradshaw and his wife led the way while another woman and several kids followed along behind. Eli watched as the groups came together like old friends. The Church gave them a common purpose and a genial outlook on life. The adults spoke with one another for a while and then Richard turned to share some information.
“Tony…Eli…Peter, this is Mrs. Tilden and her son’s Mark and Alan. You guys will bunk with them tonight after our dinner. I think we should have a rehearsal tomorrow morning and then they’ll take us on a little sightseeing trip before the evening performance.”
“Wonderful,” Peter said. “Will we get to see the lake?”
“If you’d like,” Mrs. Tilden said.
Mark stood quietly beside his mother and looked first at Eli and then Tony before his eyes settled on Peter. There was something in his eyes, and then Eli realized Tony was still holding his hand. Eli felt a squeeze and turned to see Tony smile. What was he trying to say with that look?
But Eli was distracted as Richard, Marsha and Frank dug their bags out of the wagon and carried them into the Reverend’s house. Mrs. Tilden suggested they all might like to clean up before dinner and said she would drive them to her house where they could get settled in. That was when Eli informed her that the wagon was his and that they could follow her over. But Peter grinned and slid into her car beside Mark.
“Did you see that?” Tony asked when they were finally alone in the wagon.
“He looked at us holding hands and then zoomed right in on Peter. I think he’s one of us.”
Eli nodded. “No doubt Peter finds him attractive. You think he’s gay?”
“Perhaps but Peter needs company and Mark knows I have you.”
“This could prove interesting.”
The Tilden house wasn’t far from the church and sat on a large lot across from a park filled with trees and a baseball field. Eli pulled the wagon up beside the garage and set the brake. The back yard was short on grass and big on plantings, including the large vegetable garden which took up half the space.
The interior of the house was large and comfortable even as Eli noticed that Mrs. Tilden seemed to favor antique furniture, and there was lots of that. She got busy in the kitchen while Mark showed them down the hallway to the bedrooms.
“Tony and Eli get the guest room…Peter can have the spare bed in my room,” Mark said. “I think mom would like us all to shower and get ready, the dinner starts at seven.”
“Thank you,” Tony said, and he pulled Eli into the guest room, shutting the door behind them.
“Lucky Peter,” Eli said.
“You think? I doubt if anything will happen, Peter isn’t that kind of guy.”
Eli shrugged. “I guess we have our own bathroom,” he said, pointing at the door on the far side of the room. “This is a nice house.”
“You live on a ranch, what’s that like?” Tony asked.
“A lot like this, my mother is into decorating everything southwestern style. Lots of color, Navajo rugs and the things my father likes. So you ready to shower?”
For the second time today they stood under the spray together. Eli had to admit that it was sexy, but he wasn’t about to tease Tony. They washed, embraced and exited the shower to get dressed. And just about the time they were done there was a polite knock on the door.
Peter came in and sat on one of the beds. “Mark is taking his shower,” he explained.
“He seems like a nice guy,” Eli said.
“He’s a serious musician,” Peter blurted out. “He has hundreds of CD’s and almost all of them are classical music. That’s kinda freaky.”
“You don’t understand it, that’s all,” Tony said.
“He has a tuxedo for concerts. Oh yeah…and he’s gay, but only his parents and the people at church know. He says it would be too difficult to be out at school.”
“Don’t I know that,” Eli said.
“I don’t have to tell you that the gay world is filled with different kinds of people,” Tony said. “We have to respect his abilities…maybe he’s a very good musician.”
“Yeah, Mark says his mother wants him to play for us after dinner.” Peter smiled. “I guess we’ll find out how good he is.”
“Neither of my parents knows I’m gay,” Eli said. “I’m not sure what I could tell them. Mark is lucky, you guys are lucky.”
“They won’t know until you feel secure enough in your own skin to tell them,” Tony said. “Give it time.”
Mr. Tilden arrived home from work in time to drive them all back to the church. The dinner was an interesting affair. Eli knew all about pot luck suppers from some of the family gatherings, but these church folk did it up right. There was more food than the thirty or so people who attended could possibly eat, and every bit of it was good.
Husbands and wives, children and grandparents attended the welcoming meal. The cast were treated like celebrities, and although the nature of the gay youth group was known by one and all there was no sign of dissent. That was one feature Eli quickly understood as he looked around the room. No one had a negative thought towards the gay kids.
Maybe this was the way all Unitarians acted, or at least the way these two church groups responded to the kids in their congregations. Eli had only been aware of the negative reactions of the mainstream Christian churches to gay issues since it was always in the news. And then Reverend Bradshaw stood up to speak.
“I’d like to welcome our brothers and sisters from Canada. They have come a long way to bring us a message of hope and understanding. It seems fitting that they should sit at our table and share the bounty.
“In the past few years we have dedicated ourselves to meeting the needs of our children in every way we can. Our offspring have been just as diverse in their reaction to these changes. Inviting Calgary Unitarian’s youth group here for a performance of their play was something our young people wanted to do and we all agreed it was important.
“Faith has brought us all under one roof and I give thanks every day for the divine inspiration that brought us all here. The collective wisdom that resides in our church has allowed us to give support to our young people and speak to their needs.
“I have read the play Marsha Timms has written and found it inspiring. I will admit there are some things in it perhaps only this younger generation will recognize, but that is the point…it is about them. Marsha’s words reveal a very close insider look at her family and their acceptance of her choices in life.
“I have made no secret of my past personal feelings as a former Baptist minister towards the gay community.” And here the Reverend shook his head. “Perhaps the salt air in our city cleared those negative thoughts from my head.” That brought smiles from some of the adults around the dinner tables.
“I was lost, but now am found, as the hymn goes…and I have many of you wonderful people here tonight to thank for that awakening. You also gave me an inside look at the spiritual wisdom of this church, and that changed my life. But wisdom serves no purpose if it is not passed on to younger generations.
“In my case I would say that it was the youth of this congregation that enlightened me, and the wisdom of their parents that allows me to stand here tonight. I won’t go into any theological differences I may have had with you except to say that the knowledge and the love I feel here are very real…and for that we should give thanks.”
The Reverend bowed his head for a moment and Eli felt the silence around the room. It seems everyone was reflecting on what they had just heard. If Bradshaw had been a Baptist then his little speech had been a far cry from the days when he stood behind a pulpit. It only made Eli wonder what had brought the man into the fold of the Unitarians.
A small black piano was sitting in a corner of the church hall and this was the instrument Mark approached once the dinner was finished. There were smiles around the room and Eli figured these people had heard the boy play before so perhaps he was good.
A lot of music had flowed through Eli’s ears over the years but he had never felt an attraction to classical music until now. Whatever piece Mark had chosen began softly and his audience grew quiet in anticipation as the notes rose in intensity. Mark’s fingers flew across he keys revealing a skill that must have been honed with years of practice.
For almost ten minutes the people in that room sat spellbound by the music and the musician. Eli was sitting only ten feet away and he could see that Mark played most of the piece with his eyes closed, his mind consumed by the music he was creating. And then in a whirl of notes the piece ended with a flourish and the silence pressed in on all sides.
Peter was the first to begin clapping and everyone quickly joined in appreciation of what they had just witnessed. Mark smiled and stood up, taking a well-deserved bow. But rather than play anything else he returned to his seat at the table beside Peter.
Mrs. Bradshaw served tea and cake while the group reshuffled and the youth group managed to assemble at one of the tables. Mark was still smiling after all the accolades he received for his music and he settled in a chair across from Eli.
“Peter tells me you’re from Arizona and not part of the Calgary group,” Mark said. “How did you end up with them?”
“Their van broke down and I stopped to help,” Eli said. “Now I’m glad I did.”
“He’s our Good Samaritan,” Tony said. “I know a little bit about classical music and that wasn’t anything I’ve ever heard before.”
“I suppose you’d call it modern classical, an Italian composer named Einaudi. I found his music on YouTube and it blew me away.”
“You’ve been playing a long time, haven’t you?” Eli asked.
“About twelve years, but I’ve only had lessons for about half that time. I started fooling around on the piano when I was four or five, but the lessons had to wait until my hands grew big enough.” Mark held up his hands and Eli could see how long and slender those fingers were.
“I hope you plan to become a concert pianist,” Tony said.
“That’s the dream, but I believe that each of us is given a gift and how we use it is what determines if we are worthy as human beings.”
It was just ten o’clock when the dinner ended and the guests began to leave for their homes. Richard had arranged for the cast to meet in the church hall at ten in the morning for a little read through, assuring them it would be a quick and painless rehearsal. Then they would have most of the day to tour the city and relax.
Mr. Tilden drove them all back to the house, but before he went inside Eli thought to look in the wagon at his phone and see if there were any messages. Tony joined him in the front seat as Eli lifted the phone and groaned when he saw there were three text messages waiting for him.
“Call me…Miguel,” each of them said and Eli became worried. He hit the speed dial and listened to the ring.
“Eli…where you been?”
“I went out to dinner,” Eli replied.
“Your parents will be back on Sunday afternoon instead of Monday,” Miguel said. “I think they are expecting to see you here.”
“I’m sure they are,” Eli replied. “Sorry to be away so long, Miguel. I’ve been having fun.”
Miguel laughed. “You needed a vacation. How is the wagon holding up?”
“Everything is fine, but I’ll run it through the car wash before I get there. Thank you for the warning…I’ll see you Sunday.”
“Good man…adios, Eli.” And Miguel hung up.
Shit…tomorrow was Saturday. It was a six hour trip from Yuma to Flagstaff and Eli faced almost eight hours on the road. He would have to leave in the morning to make sure he was there on Sunday. Tony would be disappointed, but Eli knew he would have to leave at the crack of dawn tomorrow just to make sure he beat his parents home.
He could call his father and say he wanted to stay on with his friend for a few more days but that would cause a bunch of issues. He wasn’t in Phoenix and his parents had no idea he was off driving around. Knowing his mother she would want to stop off in Phoenix to see him on some pretext or another because they were going right through town on the way home.
“I have to go home,” Eli said, turning to look at Tony.
Tony nodded. “I figured that…at least you had a warning.”
“Yeah, Miguel is good for that. He doesn’t want any problems around the ranch, and I come under the category of a problem if my parents find out about this.”
“When do you have to leave?”
“First thing in the morning…I’m sorry, Tony.”
“We have nothing to be sorry about…let’s not go there.”
Eli smiled. Yes, there were no regrets between them. He followed Tony into the house and down the hall towards their bedroom. Peter and Mark had already shut their door and were probably getting ready for bed.
It was the most fulfilling night of sleep that Eli could remember because he slept in Tony’s arms. There was something calming about this shared level of affection. Beyond the normal adolescent sexual urges Eli felt like Tony had taken him to another level of desire.
There was something here, some message Eli was trying to grasp. Ever since Michael had instilled this belief that he was gay, Eli had been focused on finding answers without even knowing the questions he ought to be asking.
He awoke with the dawn and with a new sense of purpose. He had miles to travel and yet now he knew where he was going. Tony woke as Eli slid from the bed.
“Are you going?” Tony asked.
“After I shower…can we shower together one last time?”
“There are no last times, Eli, only firsts. We don’t know what the future holds.”
They stood under the cascade of water in a silent embrace. It should have been a sad emotional moment, but Eli felt elated. There was something about Tony that banished any bad feelings he might have, and the words they shared the night before came tumbling back into Eli’s mind.
“Lives intersect for a reason,” Tony had said. “Somewhere out there is the person you’re looking for and he doesn’t even know it.”
“You mean I already know the person I’m meant to love?” Eli asked.
“Perhaps you haven’t met, but I think you have. Once you stop worrying about how you are going to find this person and just open your heart to the possibilities he will see who you are.”
Tony had snuggled closer. “I find my wisdom from the people in my church, at least for the moment. But I’m not looking for a partner to share my life because I think it’s too soon. Just knowing other people like myself gives me confidence. I don’t think I could learn that anywhere else.
“You began a journey of exploration the moment you pulled out on the highway and I think it’s time for you to stop and think about all you’ve seen. You need to share that knowledge with someone you trust, someone wiser who can help you shape all those things into the answers you’ve been after. I don’t know who it will be, but I bet you have an idea.”
An idea…yes he did, but it was going to be hard. Eli and Tony got dressed and walked out through the silent house to the front door. No one else was awake as they stepped into the yard and across the grass to the driveway. Eli opened the door and slid his bag into the back.
He had taken a dozen photos of the group these past two days, but he wanted one more. Tony smiled as Eli pulled out his camera.
“One for the road?” Tony asked.
“I never got one with just the two of us,” Eli said.
He set the timer and they stood back side by side until the shutter tripped. Eli closed the camera and tossed it on the front seat. A final hug, a brief kiss and he slid in behind the wheel.
“I hope your play goes well this evening,” Eli said.
“It will if I remember all my lines. At least we’ll have a receptive audience,” Tony said. “You take it easy on the way home and don’t forget to email me when you can.”
“I will and…Thank you, Tony.”
“Hmm, did I do something I need to take credit for?”
“You made me your friend…you made me happy.”
“Then I should be thanking you because I feel the same way,” Tony said. “You think about coming to Calgary when you get the chance.”
“I will. My best to Richard and the group. My love to you.”
Tony leaned in the window and they kissed once again. Eli started the wagon and backed down the driveway to the street. A final wave and Tony turned back towards the house.