Georgia, July 1979
“I’m starving,” said Justin. “And it’s getting dark.” It was also starting to rain.
“I know, but I was hoping that we could get into Florida before we stopped for the night.”
Brian had been uneasy since they left Atlanta. They’d stopped for gas south of Macon and Brian had gotten a bad vibe there. They were in the Deep South now and strangers, especially Northerners who seemed a little off, did not benefit from Southern hospitality. They were far from Atlanta and Brian remembered all too well some of the stories Emmett had told him about how faggots were received in the rural South.
“Then could we at least get something to eat? Anything?” Justin asked.
“Okay. We’ll look for something.”
Brian turned off the highway, following the ubiquitous sign for “Gas – Food – Lodging.” But the town it led them hardly earned the name. It was more like a crossroads, with a small store, a gas station, and a ramshackle motel. Brian pulled up to the pump. An old man meandered out into the rain and leaned into the window.
“Put in $2 of regular. Is there a place to eat nearby?”
The old man narrowed his eyes at the two strangers. Something about the way he looked at them made Justin sink down in the seat and pull his sweatshirt up around his face.
“Café at the motel is closed. You can get breakfast there in the morning. Folks don’t eat so late around here.”
“We’re on our way to Florida,” Brian said.
“You still got a ways to go. I got some food inside. It ain’t much, but I eat it.”
Brian followed the man into the station and came out with a paper sack. The old man pumped the gas. The rain was coming down harder.
Brian handed the bag to Justin. “Not much. A couple of bags of chips, a package of cookies, two cans of Coke. It’ll have to last us until morning.”
“Are we going to stay here for the night?”
Brian stared at the rain pummeling the windshield. “We might as well. The weather stinks and I’m tired.” He looked over at the motel. “Not too promising, but I’ve slept worse places.”
“It’s fine, Brian. As long as we’re together.”
Brian left Justin in the car while he went into the motel office and rang the bell. Another old man shambled out. Apparently in this town all the young people had gotten their asses somewhere closer to civilization. He signed the register – it didn’t look like there were any other guests, which wasn’t a surprise – and handed over $8. The old man gave him a key. “Number 6.”
“Thanks. The man at the gas station said there’s a café. What time is breakfast?”
“Whenever anybody shows up.”
Brian started to laugh until he realized the guy wasn’t joking. Maybe they’d skip breakfast.
The room was, as expected, not worth the $8. But there was a bed, a bathroom with a drippy faucet, a television set with broken rabbit ears, and a rusty fan in the place of air conditioning. Brian turned on the fan. It lurched and turned slowly, kicking up a breeze that couldn’t be felt more than a foot away.
“I take back what I said before. Any place in the Quad was better than this.”
“We’ll laugh about it… eventually,” said Justin. “I think I’ll take a shower and try and cool off.”
“I’d think twice about taking a shower in there. You don’t know what the fuck might crawl out of that drain.”
There was a rumble of thunder. Shit, thought Brian. Let’s hope this place doesn’t leak.
Brian tried the television, turning the antennas back and forth, but all he got was snow and static. “The entertainment system is out,” he called out to Justin. Then he heard the shower go on. Maybe it would be nice to cool off a little. Then he checked the bed. The sheets looked relatively clean, but he stripped off the bedspread – there was no telling what might be on it. The last he wanted was to get bitten by… something.
He opened the window, hoping that the rain might cool things off, but the humidity was stifling.
Brian opened a bag of chips and popped the top of the Coke can. Nice dinner, but it was better than nothing. And in this heat it was probably just as well that they didn’t eat any cooked food in this place. He’d already decided that they’d skip breakfast.
That’s when there was a knock on the door. “Hey! You! Open up!”
A shudder went through Brian. He knew immediately that stopping here had been a grave mistake.
He went to the door. Luckily, he’d chained it. “Who is it?”
“I’m not opening this door until I know who you are. I’m not a total idiot!”
“You B. Kenny?” said the voice. Then he heard the old man who had checked him in, mumbling something.
“Who wants to know?”
“It’s the sheriff. Open this door!”
“Why? What’s the problem?”
Then the old man spoke. “Open up, Mr. Kenny. We need to check your ID.”
It’s a fucking scam, thought Brian. But there was nothing else to do but open the door.
Brian almost laughed when he saw the sheriff. Instead of the typical big, beer-bellyed redneck, the sheriff looked more like Barney Fife – short and scrawny, like an overgrown chicken. He and the motel owner were both drenched as the rain was still coming down hard. But Brian noted that the sheriff was armed. Not that he would take out his pistol and use it, but it was there like a silent threat.
“I already showed you my driver’s license. What more ID do you need?” Brian asked.
The two men glanced around the room. “Where is she?”
She? What the hell? “What are you talking about?”
“Henry at the gas station,” said the sheriff. “He saw that girl in your car. The blonde. How old is she? Underage?”
“Henry must be senile,” said Brian. “Because there’s no girl.”
They looked toward the bathroom. The sound of the water in the shower stopped. The sheriff strode to the door and pounded on it. “Come on out here, honey! We need to see your ID!”
Brian began to feel the panic rising. “Don’t come out! You guys have no right to come in here and question me… or my… friend!”
“I got the right to do whatever I need to do, mister,” the sheriff huffed. “You come out of there, honey! Or your boyfriend is gonna end up in the slammer!”
There was a long pause and then the door opened. Justin stepped out, wearing only his shorts and holding a towel, his long blond hair dripping down into his eyes. “What’s the matter?”
“Jesus H. Christ!” cried the sheriff. “It’s a goddamn boy!” He turned furiously on Brian. “A little faggot! You brung a faggot in here!”
“We are traveling to Florida,” said Brian, trying desperately to remain calm. “We aren’t bothering anyone. If you want to see Justin’s ID, you can see it.”
“I don’t want to see his goddamn ID!” the sheriff fumed. “Jesus H. Christ!”
Brian swallowed. Counter-attack, but use your head, Kinney. Nothing rash.
“If you want to arrest two tourists for staying in this motel room, which I pre-paid for in cash, then do it. But I’ll call my lawyer and make a stink they’ll hear all the way to Atlanta!”
The motel owner tugged at the sheriff’s arm. “Let’s get out of here, Jeff. I don’t want this kind of trouble.”
“Faggots are against the law in this part of the country!” the sheriff insisted.
“How do you know I’m a faggot?” said Justin. “Just by looking at me?”
“Justin, shut up,” Brian urged. “Please!”
But Justin was defiant. “No! This is bullshit! We didn’t do anything!”
“Listen,” said Brian, putting himself between Justin and the sheriff. “We’ll leave immediately. We didn’t do anything and you have no proof that we did. But if you arrest us…”
“Brian is a famous writer! This will be in all the newspapers and you’ll look like jerks!” said Justin.
“Justin, I said for you to shut up! Now!” Brian thundered.
But the sheriff backed away in confusion. He looked at the motel owner, who shook his head.
“All right then,” said the sheriff. “Pack up and get your faggot asses out of this county! Out of this state! And don’t you never come back here!”
“Don’t worry,” said Brian. “We’re already gone.”