Iowa weather could be cruel and March tended to be tempestuous. Midway through the month the mercury had only managed to climb above 45 once and most days had begun in the teens and barely crept to the thirties, but tomorrow the forecasters predicted a low above freezing and come next Thursday the forecast called for fifties. Joe was skeptically optimistic about next week’s forecast as his three years in Iowa had taught him not to put too much steed in the prognostications of weatherman Joe Winters. ‘Hey,’ he thought, ‘at least we haven’t had any tornadoes touch down.’
Today’s March fourteenth freezing fog would no doubt dissipate under the predicted forty degree high but for now pea-soup reigned. Three years spent in Iowa had conditioned the Kleen boys, fourth grader Atticus and second grader Patrick, to expect to cycle from home to to Nixon Elementary with their father Joe but the early morning fog that rolled in late stymied that plan. “Guys!” Joe declared, looking out the broad expanse of picture window that dominated the first floor family room. “Fog’s rolled in. Can’t see the farmhouse so it looks like we’ll be hoofing it.”
“You said we were riding!” Patrick objected.
“I did, but we’re not. Can you see the farmhouse?”
Patrick, seven weeks shy of his eighth birthday, pressed his nose against the plate glass and squinted, his desire to see the white farmhouse he knew lay a tenth of a mile northward expressing itself with his answer of, “Yeah. I think so.”
Cedar Rapids’ two-mile distance bus policy had surprised the Kleens as both Joe and Misty had expected a school busing limit of one mile. Upon learning that living 1.95 miles from Nixon excluded them from free busing Joe opted to ride or walk the boys to school and then continue on to Northtowne Cycling and Fitness where he worked rather than pay an annual thousand dollar bus fee.
Northtowne, like many snowbelt cycling shops, tended to have a very busy season between May and August and be super slow from Christmas through Saint Patrick’s Day. Joe, after investing a lot of time volunteering at Nixon during the boys’ first two years as Bobcats, had become certified to substitute teach, a circumstance that fit well with the bike shop’s cyclical labor needs. The 2000/2001 school year marked a return to the classroom for Joe after a dozen year hiatus and he enjoyed working with Nixon’s staff members and getting to know the student body.
“Wow,” Joe replied, shaking his head at Patrick’s self-serving subterfuge, “as grandma would say, ‘Where do you expect to go when you die?’ What’s the rule?”
“If we can’t see the farmhouse then we can’t ride our bikes,” Atticus said dejectedly.
“Correct!” Joe exclaims. “You think I like walking any better than you? I still have to trudge to work after I leave. I’d much rather ride but it’s just not safe, even cutting through neighborhoods. Come on! Get your stuff and get moving or else you’ll be late for chorus.”
Both Atticus and Patrick were in their third years at Nixon Elementary and Hank Meyer, the third, fourth and fifth grade music teacher, headed the Bobcat Choir for students in fourth and fifth grade. Atticus, whose favorite activities included reading, drawing and singing, asked to join the Bobcat Choir and the Kleens, after confirming that Joe and Patrick could spend the before school hour in the library reading, had been happy to oblige. Choir rehearsal, with its twice a week, one hour before school obligation, had been easy to accommodate.
Joe tended to substitute in Nixon’s “Specials” classrooms, art, music and Phys-ed, as well as the school’s special ed classrooms, and he’d come to know Hank Meyer fairly well, enjoying both his droll sarcasm and dedication to his students. During the boys’ first year at Nixon Joe had been exiting the school after volunteering with some students who needed extra attention with reading when Hank expressed his appreciation for Joe’s volunteer work.
“Ah,” Joe said, “glad to do it. And reading’s close to my heart. My dyslexia wasn’t diagnosed until I turned ten so working with struggling readers is especially dear to me.”
“You’re dyslexic?” Hank asked. “I’ve never known anyone who was dyslexic before.”
“Well,” Joe replied, elongating the word, “we’re kinda like homosexuals; we’re everywhere, people just don’t know it.”
Hank’s face had paled as his smile dimmed but his cordiality remained. “Well, thank you so much for what you do. We all really appreciate it.”
Later that month Joe had mentioned the incident to special education teacher Carmen Dixon who had responded with, “You did not! Joe, why? Hank works very hard to fly under the radar concerning his personal life and I don’t blame him. We are in Iowa after all.”
“Yeah,” Joe said shrugging, “eastern Iowa. This isn’t Steve King territory.”
“Well, just keep that to yourself, okay? Hank’s been discriminated against in the past and we don’t need to rile anybody up.”
“No worries, his secret’s safe with me, though why he thinks he has to keep it a secret is beyond me.”
“Good. Just do it,” Carmen responded.
Joe had been true to his word and over the ensuing years had come to enjoy and respect Hank even more. Grabbing his own daypack Joe rounded up the boys, exited their home and broke routine by heading straight for Council Street rather than winding through his neighborhood.
Council Street was fairly busy and, as it had no sidewalks until the Kleens traveled southward a half mile, Joe took point as they marched along facing traffic on the gravel shoulder that hugged the road. After less than five minutes a car passes from behind and then pulls off on the shoulder on the southbound lane. The driver’s window rolls down and Hank Meyer’s head appears.
“Hey, Joe, hey guys,” Hank declared, “foggy out here, I’d offer you a ride but my Miata only seats two. You want me to at least give Atticus a ride?”
Joe hesitated as he assessed the situation. Hank taking Atticus to choir practice would solve multiple issues simultaneously. First, it would ensure that Atticus arrived on time for choir practice and second it would allow Patrick and Joe to meander through neighborhoods, a far safer route in the heavy fog than on the shoulder of a busy road. Hank’s offer of assistance was a God-send and yet Joe hesitated. Why?
Why the hesitation in sending his ten-year-old son Atticus alone in a car with Hank without another adult present? Sure, a little hesitation concerning any one-on-one unsupervised travel with an adult and a ten-year-old was understandable, but the reason for Joe’s hesitation hit him like a nightstick poke to his solar plexus as Joe realized that his fear was heightened because Joe knew Hank was gay. The ingrained prejudice with which Joe had been inculcated from birth was creating a visceral fear for his son regarding his friend Hank, despite having known the man for three years. Joe’s face blushed with shame.
“Hey! Great!” Joe declared, scanning the road left and right before ushering his boys across the street, crossing to the passenger side of Hank’s car and opening the door for Atticus. As Atticus slipped off his backpack and climbed in Joe said, “Buckle-up, buddy. Hank? Thank you so much. I’ll feel a lot better with Patrick walking on these neighborhood sidewalks rather than along Council. Thanks again!”
“No problem,” Hank replied. “See you at school?”
“Yep. Have fun, guys,” Joe added feeling disappointed in himself.
As Hank drove off Joe remembered his conversation with Carmen Dixon, his insistence that prejudice against homosexuals was a thing of the past, that acceptance and equality ruled the land.
As Joe stifled a moan Patrick looked up to him. “Dad? Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m good. Thanks, buddy. Love you.”
“Love you too. Can we ride to school tomorrow?”
“Yeah. Probably. I would think so. Let’s get through today and we can worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.”
“Well, you’re the one who tells me to plan ahead.”
“Right you are. Eye on the ball, right, kiddo?”
“Right, Dadda,” Pat replies with a laugh.