Lower Levels of Heaven


A Story in The Human Calculus




On another of those icy winter days in his home town, the lake ice-rimmed, the streets slick with a veneer of black ice, the snow crusted over with its own melted and refrozen self, icicles hanging from the power lines and the eaves and the edges of the windows; ice from the edges of everything, ice from his mother’s heart; for once Barry Holmes felt warm as toast.


He was someplace else.


*  *  *  *


Everyone just called it “The Table.”


The Table was in the Student Union, in Lonnie’s Lower Level Café and Grill, the hamburger joint in the basement.


The present incarnation of Lonnie’s – it had been moved and remodeled many times in sixty years –was dark, with dim, low hanging Tiffany lamps over the center of the warm dark wooden tables, the walls lined with fake dark red brick. The floors were deep mahogany wooden strips, the booths along the walls were of the same dark wood. The only real brightness to the place was from the cafeteria-style serving area off to one side and the occasional flare of smoke and flash of flame from the grill.


The Table was at the far end of the room, stuffed in a corner of an alcove. So the whole place was a series of dim lights in a dark sea, passing ships in the vast reaches of a lonely dark ocean. To enter this place was to be pulled to the lights, to the ships, to safety; to the warmth of The Table.


The Table had been there for over a generation, an enduring tradition passed down through the years until it had become such an accepted feature it seemed unlikely it would ever disappear despite it’s completely unofficial status. It was truly a remarkable place, one of those places that will never be documented in the annals of Gay History or Gay Culture, or even the University, though it deserved it.


It was the center of the gay community.


A regular bunch of members, guys, lesbians, the dedicated activists of GSA and those who just liked The Table would be there every day. From about 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Tuesday nights, it was host to an ever-changing cast of friendly queers, as class times and work schedules and the press of the day moved one out and another in. It thrived too through the longer cycles of semesters and summer sessions, graduations and matriculations, as these events moved entire cadre in and out.


It had started as the only place for gay students to gather back in the seventies, when successive administrations fought tooth and nail to prevent the formation of GSA or any other support for the queer and out. And a generation of straight students had learned the tradition, you don’t sit at that table, it’s for the queers. Society having moved on, nowadays to a second generation the same words conveyed a much more accepting attitude, “that’s their place, leave it alone.”  Still, there was a certain stigma.


The present crew didn’t know all of its illustrious history, the founders had been lost in time, but they did know it was a venerable tradition.


It had its moments of drama and gossip and spite and pettiness, yet it was a fun, friendly place, one of those spontaneous institutions that amplified the positive sweetness, gentility, love of its denizens, and inculcated its values into those who happened upon it – if sweetness and acceptance and gentle love were what they sought. A seat at The Table was, after all, a process of self-selection. New people came, met others, stayed, or left. Everyone could sit but only those who found fulfillment around its ring would return.


It became a refuge, a home, a School of its own, tucked away in the bowels of this big, impersonal, Southern university, tolerant nowadays to be sure, but not especially welcoming.


Through it all The Table never changed, it merely tilted a little one way or another, for all the rotation of its visitors.


*  *  *  *


Barry started his freshman year of college with a course in advanced and partial differential equations, another in Fourier transforms, and a class he liked the title of “Topics in Algebra”.


When anyone asked what Math he was taking, unless they were math majors Barry just said “Algebra,” or “college Algebra,” or “the course is called Topics in Algebra.”   And everyone figured it was simpleton algebra for those who were unable to handle the real thing, instead of a third-year upper division course for Math majors.


Everything he said was true. Not only did Barry not want to stand out, he didn’t want others to feel bad, lessened by comparison with him in any way.


Math had always been important to him, he had always been so bored in math classes because he instantly understood how things worked, rarely needed an explanation and then would sit for forty-nine more minutes, and often for two more classes, while the slowest of the slowest were carefully dragged along so they wouldn’t get lost.


Now, his were all Junior or Senior level courses for Math majors. He expected to finish his degree in less than three years. He had raced through the lower division courses when he was in High School, when his mathematics potential was identified and he was shunted into a special school, and a program of self-study, finishing the high school curriculum in twelve weeks and then they signed him up to the college math classes and he had access because University High was at a university, right there on campus.


Math was important for many reasons, not least because he had used for protecting himself. Even from his earliest days he was handling the pain of his life fractionally, dividing it up into smaller packets, canceling the numerators of pain with the denominators of his tiny reservoir of happy memories.


Now he was working human calculus, though he hadn’t called it that until recently; plumbing the limits and boundaries of people and the precise measurements of the area available for the containment of pain; fine tuning his knowledge of the variations and differentials of behavior and the probabilities of people.


Here at this University he felt for the first time – even though he had gone to an advanced high school a year early and finished in two years, and been surrounded by many other smart kids and befriended by the very best – he felt that here his classmates for the first time were not a threat to him, and he could allow himself to show his intelligence, to raise his hand, to ask questions, to offer the answers that popped unbidden into his agile mind. He didn’t have to hide his test grades, and there were hardly any who thought him strange for being smart.


In high school being small and young and probably queer was a real problem and he had to work at protective coloration, he learned to wear large and shapeless colorless sweaters which he picked up at Goodwill, and to show the jocks – for even University High had some – and even the run of the mill nerds who were older and bolder and bigger than him, the appropriate deference. He had become an expert at balancing carefully, stepping carefully, avoiding all possible attention and he had succeeded in hiding there.


At sixteen he looked fourteen, and it was more difficult to hide on a college campus with students four, five, ten years older than he. It took a bit for him to realize that even here some were jealous of his abilities.


Still, the consequences and difficulties of functioning here were so different!  He had professors who invited him to see them during office hours; he was doing independent studies and got some work-study money by working on research projects with the astronomy grad students—who were far more geeky than he!  It was so heady, some days he reeled with the intensity of all the changes, all the goodness that was flowing around him.


*  *  *  *



Barry, thinking as a mathematician and integrating his physics class into the problem, came to envision imaginary rotations of The Table imparting a sort of virtual gyroscopic stability, an inertia of evenness brought about by the rotational force of its constantly changing membership. So when it got a little out of balance it had this way of righting itself, tipped to the side, it came up level, came up even every time. Barry liked that idea. It was mathematically sound.


Barry liked when things were even and balanced and made sense.


And things like The Table, round things, were mathematically very interesting, especially when you tried to find starting and ending points. His mind these days followed the circumference of The Table, somehow endlessly surprised when, as he knew he would, he found himself back where he had started, nowhere remarkable, yet a unique point, the same point, on The Table, time and again.


And of course rotating circles were the genesis of the trigonometric functions, triangles were interesting too. This place seemed, well, tangential to everything in Barry’s life.


It was beyond doubt the nicest place Barry had ever been.


It was nicer than Tom Bates’ house. His father had been a doctor when Barry was in Junior High and he’d slept over there once or twice, it was all full of beautiful things that Barry had hardly ever imagined a home could have; and Barry understood he didn’t belong there.


It was nicer even than Dave Thompson’s house, full of secret tears and fears and shared confidences and silent acceptances and food. If Dave could come to The Table that would be even better, but that was impossible, Dave wasn’t even gay and was a thousand miles away, though Barry knew there’d be a seat at The Table if he wanted one. As Dave had cared for Barry without caring that he was gay, The Table would not care if Dave was gay. The Table was that kind of place.


Barry missed Dave very much.


It didn’t have Dave but it was even better than Dave’s safe house, and the food was somehow just as good as the tuna salad on toast that Dave had used to nurture Barry’s tortured soul and body through high school; the kind of food that nurtured his heart.


*  *  *  *


Barry’s life was complex. Not so many sixteens are in college, even fewer are living in a dorm, on their own at that age. In fact, he was the only one on the whole campus as far as he knew.


Of course, his age sparked a lot of curiosity and this he didn’t know how to handle. Especially in classes like Freshman English and Introductory Sociology. He learned to hide in those classes, to not look smart, he quickly balanced out the joy of his math courses with the drudgery and camouflage he needed for his freshman life. It was hard, he didn’t look like he belonged but he was making it work somehow.


The hardest had been getting his mother to agree to let him leave town. She had not been happy, had not reveled in his success.


He could remember those moments of dread, when he had to tell her, not of his failures but of his successes and bear her sarcasm and anger and disdain, her accusations. He thought so much of himself; he was better than his family, better than his brothers and sisters, better than her, was he?  He couldn’t be satisfied with a good, decent Catholic upbringing? He had to go to a heathen school, a school for smart kids, anything else, what she had had, what his brothers and sisters had had, that was beneath him, was it?


He knew better than to protest. He did not understand her own frustrated ambition that his choices needled. Barry wasn’t the only bright one in his family, not the only one who had wanted to escape. His mother was a coal miner’s daughter, literally, and had found the tiny, sharp, narrow, poverty stricken valley of the rare land where anthracite abounds to be a more effective prison than bars. Why should Barry be free if she could not be?


His sister Kate had helped, she had been a subtle intercessor, blocking the assaults, keeping them from getting out of control, helping him hide the successes, diminish the attacks. She had played on mother’s vanity, pointed out that there would be newspaper articles in which she would be praised for raising such a bright boy.


He had suffered her resentments, waited her out, thwarted her desire that he go to the university or the Catholic College in the city, but the last thing Barry wanted to do was stay in that cold, old, dead place.


Barry had been amazed, but he had offers from a dozen colleges, all of them wanted him and all had been willing to pay all of his expenses. Harvard, Princeton, had offered.


He didn’t care for them, he needed someplace warm, and he knew one, he knew the South was his place, and it worked there because of Jack his beloved Jack was there to protect him if he needed. Jack had graduated this University the year before; was working in town, had no room for Barry in his tiny shared apartment – for just now the money to Mom had to be kept up – but would shoehorn him in during inter-session when the dorms were closed. Barry wouldn’t mind sleeping on the couch. It was clean and better and less crowded than a lot of places he’d slept.


The decision to take the scholarship here was more and more a good one.


And Jack had helped when he was in the Army and then in college and Mom always doted on him, he continued to send her money, a lever that could be used with care, to persuade her. Jack was at this University, told her he would stay after graduation in this town, get a job next year, make sure Barry was supervised properly, and above all would keep the money, Jack’s money, flowing to her.


Barry understood at some level that when he left it would be a matter of weeks before Kate finally set herself free and mother would be alone, and that was at least half the problem, his leaving was the end, all eight children would be gone even if Kate kept her plans a secret Mom would anticipate them, could see the end. And Barry in turn had done everything he could to turn mother away from her attacks on his sister, to mediate and round the sharp edges and divert her attention.


Her insanity might take over.


He would have to reckon with that. It would be his fault. She might not be able to be alone, but he could not bear to be with her, to be the only one there in that apartment, to suffer her insanity, so if she did go crazy it would be his fault but he would have to live with those consequences, he was clear he could not live with the alternative: exchanging his sanity for hers.


The disequality of sanities in the family would remain balanced but certainly not transposed!


He had a clear plan, he was going to escape, he had escaped; it had less to do with academics and prominence than it did with distance and living. He wanted the new, the uncharted, and most of all the far from his hometown. And ever farther from his Mother. And he wasn’t going back, ever.


Time and again he congratulated himself on the wisdom of leaving home, coming to the South where things were warm and his mother was far, far away. And he knew he was ready to change other things too.


Here and now he was gay and proud. Well, he probably was gay, and he saw the announcement about the meetings in the school paper, then the first week of classes he walked through the Student Union and saw all the organizations that were recruiting students, and he didn’t even hesitate, he just breathed a deep breath and walked up to the one with the GSA banner and got information about the meetings and the guy there told him about Lonnie’s and The Table and to just go down and introduce himself.


Well, that was a bit much for him to do, he wasn’t that brave, but he went to the first GSA meeting and did his best to blend in, as he always did, tried to be a shade of beige and merge with the walls so he wouldn’t draw attention – attention, his experience had shown, was a very dangerous thing – but suddenly three or four guys crowded around him asked him to go for something to eat afterwards and they ended up at The Table because he didn’t know how to say no, and thought he might hide better in the crowd.


That first time Barry knew he was going to like this place, the casual feeling of it, the dark warmth, the smoky grill and greasy hamburgers and the redolence of steamy pots of soup and sandwiches and fresh bread, the muted clash of pots and pans and forks and plates and conversation, none of it angry, accusing, or mean. It all soaked into his bones, his long deprived, cold self was coming awake in this warm place and time, the hard little rocks of pain he had carefully secreted away, pearl coated with the exudates of his few good memories, as an oyster would smooth the irritation of jagged edges, melted here.


This Table of warmth and light and love finally felt like home to him. Once he was at The Table, he had to come back, he knew from the first it was for him.


So every day between classes or after he was done for the day or when he wanted to study, he would by instinct, without thought, find his feet leading him there, drawing him to the warmth of The Table like a prehistoric boy to huddle with his family around a firepit for safety. Back in any event to his starting point, to his spot on the wheel, his set of ordered coordinates on the edge.


He was a smart kid, he knew he wouldn’t be here forever, he knew he was waiting for The Table to impart some rotational magic on him, to move him from his static state, to whirl him along with the gayness of its component parts; or perhaps he would hold on tightly, waiting for the energy to build and the centrifugal force would finally spin him off, onto his own unique trajectory into the unknown, as he thought it had for many before him. When he let go, when he was ready; or when the force outward over-balanced the force of his grip, the coefficient of friction of his life and he could hold on no longer. Not now, though now, he would cling, grip tightly, and ride the wheel until he was up to speed. It was all a matter of mathematics, of human calculus.


For he was maybe gay and kind of proud and a little bit out and he was pretty sure he was a virgin.


*  *  *  *


Auntie Abe was one of the regulars; really to many he was the leader of The Table.


Abe did not have call himself Mexican; he was Spanish, of a long and noble line, settled in what was now America, but his family had been there a long time, three hundred years. Abe was a man who held himself responsible for justice in his community, for saying what was proper, for keeping things in balance.


If Barry saw the table being righted through the power of mathematically defined forces, Abe was one of the forces. And Abe, had they discussed it, would have seen the situation differently – Abe would have seen himself as the one who kept the table balanced, he thought it was his job.


Abe was naturally inclined to take Barry under wing; he did that with all the cute young boys and Barry was cuter and younger than most. But Barry kept his distance. Barry was leery of anyone who seemed too interested in him, and Abe was too interested. Barry liked to hide.


Abe, like the others saw Barry through lenses Barry himself didn’t possess. Barry was not going to blend in, be his beige, camouflaged self here, even if he didn’t realize it… he had no idea being sixteen and small and slim and having nearly flawless pale soft skin and deep, wide clear brown eyes and rounded buns and hips that wriggled a little when he walked could be attractive; to the extent that he saw them at all he saw all those things as disadvantages. But he could not hide in this place, any more than he could in his classes, could not hide his differences.


Abe at first had labeled him “hands off”– everyone had assumed the boy was pretending to be a student, was really a gay high school boy like the others that occasionally turned up and who were always carefully shielded by this little group whether they wanted to be or not, before being sent on their way. But he kept coming every day and he had books and was doing homework and eventually they verified he had a meal card and a dorm room; then that he was really sixteen as he said.


Abe saw depth. He expected pain, all the gay kids had pain, but there was more here, and he could read it in the eyes, read it in the shapeless drab clothes, the air of poverty and deprivation and neediness and hunger that hung about the boy.


But he could also see much more. Despite the naiveté you didn’t get into college at that age without a lot of brains. The sense of exhilaration the boy carried and the rare peeks of power and presence that seemed so out of line with that naiveté and fragility and poverty and pain – he was a walking contradiction. Bit by bit he teased the story out then called a like minded friend over in Administration who did what he should not do, looked into the boy’s records and told Abe the rest. At least, what was on file.


Abe was impressed. Smart didn’t cover this boy; he had done a pretty job of hiding his brilliance so far, at The Table. But he saw a glimpse of the pain in that file, too. Abe knew that Barry had a lot to learn and do and some of it was bound to hurt. Learning always hurts.


*  *  *  *


Barry didn’t have money, but he didn’t think he needed it. He was richer than he had ever been. The scholarships covered everything essential like food – as much food as he wanted, as much as he could eat, day after day after day, for the first time ever! – and his dorm room and tuition and supplies but beyond that he had hardly any money. To Barry, though, to have all those things felt already like being rich, he didn’t need a lot more. A huge library, a beautiful warm campus, bountiful food on a reliable schedule, a clean bed, and his oldest brother Jack just seven miles away, these were a fair definition of heaven. Money wasn’t important.


He still served Mass, religiously. He went to the Newman Center just off campus, served Sunday masses there when needed, and sometimes he attended other events; he didn’t make a point of maybe being gay there, but he didn’t actually hide it either. He was religious in his religiosity, but knew there was a problem with his maybe being gay and maybe being Catholic.


He might go to hell; he still had to deal with that piece of being gay and being Barry, but for the moment at least he had the freedom, for the first time ever, to be Barry. How good could it be?


He thought, with a giggle, that he lived in a Barycentric construct; wondered if he could apply some mathematical rigor to it all.


*  *  *  *


If his budget was tight, he didn’t need much. He only had to find enough to cover his clothes from the Salvation Army store a few blocks off campus, the rare food he ate outside the Union, and incidentals. Transportation was his bike; shipped a week before he flew down and Jack had fixed it up with new tires and to his delight had repainted it.


He had promised himself that he would not be a burden on Jack, would have his own life and had, amazingly, been able to convince Jack that he needed to strike his own friendships and life on campus. Jack was his guardian. Jack would protect him.


Even good things can be overwhelming. And there were the little drawbacks, the little ways he had to hide himself still.


He saw his brother on the occasional weekend, he had not yet figured out how to tell Jack he was gay, well, probably gay, so he had not attempted it, and thus he did have to keep his new found social life compartmented. He declined Jack’s invitation to have lunch at Lonnie’s one Saturday with some apprehension, and they settled for an off-campus lunch. But he knew that this would become an issue eventually.


So in some ways he was sad, he could not really share his wide-eyed wonder with his brother, he realized he had to keep his shell around to slip over his head like that cassock and surplice he wore as an altar boy, when Jack was around, and that was the first little chill he felt, he could not love his brother as freely as he wanted to. And that was painful, he had so looked forward to having Jack in his life, but it was to be on a limited, careful basis, the opposite of what he wanted.


No way he could risk losing Jack, he wouldn’t take that chance. He still had plenty of balancing to do. He had to save up good things, because he knew one day there would be bad things, there was always hell to pay, even if you had had a taste of heaven. So he stored it up, against the day he would need it to cancel out in some part whatever hell he was led to.


But for now it was warm warm warm, and hell seemed far away and perhaps not so bad after all.


Was it any wonder that Barry felt hell was irrelevant here in the lower levels of heaven?