Phillip Coulson is a man of few words, and one of those is not sentiment. There are three lies in that sentence, can you spot them?
“Don’t touch me”, he spat out, Cold angry words to act as weapons when he could defend himself no other way.
The man was unperturbed, his expression still inexplicably calm. His hand continued to reach out to examine the boy’s shin.
“I said get away,” the boy wildly twisted away, an animalistic cry escaped his mouth a mixture of pain and fear. “I don’t want some dirty fag touching me.”
The man just laughed, “And I don’t want some ignorant little kid who no one wanted bleeding in my yard.”
The kid gulped and finally stilled.
“See, not nice is it kid.” He took his sunglasses, popping them neatly in his pocket, “You want some ice for that or what?”
Phil looked up at the man and could only nod; he was too tired for anything else. Even the fiercest animals will give up the fight when he has failed to escape the snare.
Phil thought they were belabouring the point by making him sit in from of the window. The crack of centre of the pane made the view of the lake splintered and disjointed. Phil had seen a picture of a stained glass window like that in one of the books he’d seen in a public library somewhere north from here. They’d even left the stones where they’d landed, glass and rock fragments mashed into the carpet like a Petrological crime scene.
Petrology, Phil thought, ignoring the pain from his left shin, the study of the composition, origin, structure and formation of rocks. He remembered that from an encyclopaedia, he tried to concentrate on the memory of yellowing paper under his fingers and blurring ink, not the shame and pain burning through him.
“Here,” a gentle voice said, pressing a tea towel full of ice on his leg, “that should take the swelling down.”
Phil looked up at the gentle face of the black man pressing the improvised hold compress into his frozen hands. Petrification, Phil thought detachedly, the process of fossilization in which dissolved minerals replace organic matter or the state of being stunned or paralyzed with fear.
Phil was capable of fearing blacks with the ease of someone who had never met one and had never had his views challenged.
“Don’t sorry son, it’s not contagious,” said the man with a self depreciating smile, waving his fingers in front of Phil’s frozen visage “it won’t rub off on you.”
“Makes me look like a veritable saint,” Snorted a voice in the doorway. Phil looked up to see the first man leaning against the door, watching Phil with an unreadable expression. “I mean if there’s a circle of hell reserved for faggots, then the one for black fags must be something else altogether.”
“The second” Phil muttered, not thinking. There was a beat of silence and he looked up embarrassed at the two sets of surprised eyes looking at him, “Sorry, I just...”
That elicited a small smile from the black man, “It’s okay kid, you don’t know any better,” he turned to his friend with a gently reprimanding air, “I think we’ve embarrassed him enough now, Canton.”
That just elicited another snort, “He broke our window, sorry for not being too concerned. You’d think it was the 1920’s the way people....”
His partner ignored this tirade in favour of looking back at Phil.
“It wasn’t just me who broke your window.” He blurted when the silence became too oppressive.
“We know that.”
“So you can’t just blame me.”
Canton laughed, “But we’re, how did you put it ‘dirty fags’, so we must deserve it. After all...”
“I’m sorry,” Phil shouted, trying to get up, but the pain was too much, “Please just, I needed to get along with them so I can get the money, that’s all, please.”
Distantly he realised he was crying and wiped the moisture away angrily. The two men just watched him. Finally Canton reached down to pick up a bucket of water and a rag from the floor. Phil deftly caught the cloth as it was thrown to him, “come with me,” the man said, more gently this time. Feeling deflated, Phil followed at a slower pace.
Phil knew how to clean; he’d certainly done enough of it back at the orphanage. For a moment he was back there, the cruel stench of bleach and the taunting sounds of the other children playing in the tiny patch courtyard filling his minds. He scrubbed at the paving angrily trying to dispel the memories as the stain of his blood own disappeared from the stone under the sodden rag.
They’d given him a new pair of pants after bandaging his leg; the one’s he’d been wearing were soaked with blood from the cut on his leg. Canton sat with him silently, looking out to the lake with a detached expression.
“What’s your name kid?” he asked suddenly.
“Phil.” He replied shortly with a particularly violent push of the rag.
“Just Phil?” was the reply in the same neutral tone.
“Just Phil,” he agreed shortly. They had never told him his surname, and he had never asked.
There was a slight twitch of a smile on the man’s face, it was only brief but Phil spotted it. When your survival had depended on the transitory emotions of others you learnt to read the signs pretty fast, and Phil was nothing but a fast learner.
“And I’m Canton Everett Delaware III, well Phil, where you from?”
Phil shrugged “Doesn’t matter I’m not going back.”
If he expected this man to push for an answer he was surprised, his reply only merited a small shrug, “So where you headed then?”
There was really no answer to that, “I liked the sound of it”
There really was no answer that made more sense than that. He’d stared up at the map in the bus terminal after wandering the streets of Salt Lake City for a week, reading the exotic names; Ogden, Nampa, Orem, Logan. To him they were as far away as places in fairy tales, and, with his funds, just as distant.
His companion stayed quiet as Phil finishes scrubbing, only a brown tinge left on the pavement now. For that Phil is glad, his leg hurts and his is tired. Finally he’s finished the stones almost dry in the mid afternoon sun.
“What are you going to do?” He asks Canton, the silence making him bold. The man shrugs, “I don’t know, Why would I want to punish someone whose been punished enough.”
“I don’t want your charity,” Phil muttered. To his surprise this just made Canton laugh.
“That was not my intention; I just used to know a kid like you.”
Curiosity got the better of him and Phil asked, “Who?”
Canton Everett Delaware III moved to Silencio Point during the election in ’72. Gabe had just laughed at him as they packed the boxes from their tiny flat into the car, complaining that they would have to do more than leave the state if they were to escape Nixon’s face on the news. Canton had kissed him there in the parking lot, emboldened by the joy of leaving Washington forever. He’d been offered a job on Nixon’s election security staff, nothing complicated the letter had said but Canton had a feeling that the President just wanted to keep an eye on him. His reply was a firm thanks but no thanks.
The flyer had came in the post in the January, a picture of a beautiful blue lake emblazoned on the front, as tranquil as its name.
“Nice place to raise the kids” Gabe had joked when he’d brought it up. They’d been talking about moving for a while, the apartment was too small and the Mormon couple downstairs always glared at them, their equally Mormon children became louder and louder through the floor boards.
“Where do you think it came from,” he’d asked as they lay in bed, reading the flyer for the hundredth time.
Gabe had just looked at him, Canton shook his head “Like he has time to send retail advice to everyone he meets.”
Gabe laughed, “I’m just saying what you were thinking.”
So they’d moved out. It took then nearly a month to travel across the States, taking their time watching the beauty of the west unfold in front of them, golden with promise. They had a perfect house overlooking the lake. There was finally enough room for all of Gabe’s comics and memorabilia so he was happy, and therefore Canton was too.
That first night they switched the tiny television they had strapped to the top of the car all the way from Washington and watched Nixon tear McGovern apart during a debate on the economy. Neither of them was surprised when Nixon won that year. They framed the flyer in the sitting room, and, when no one was looking, Canton would touch it, just for luck.
Phil returned a week later to return the pants, sheepish on the door step. He’d been working at the dry goods store, in the hope of saving up enough for a one way ticket to Provo and from there, who knows. He ignored the other boys when they asked what had happened when they had abandoned him, wounded, to run away after they smashed the window. The job necessitated him to get along with the other boys, or they would start asking awkward questions. He was quiet at work, working hard trying to convince the owner he was worth trusting despite his young age.
Canton wasn’t there when Phil knocked.
“He’s gone down to the lake,” the other man explained. Phil wasn’t sure how to address him.
“I’m Gabe,” he said, as is sensing Phil’s inner turmoil. “Do you want a drink while you wait?”
Phil wasn’t even sure if he did want to wait, but he nodded anyway. As Gabe went into the kitchen, Phil’s eyes were drawn to the table. Abandoned on the surface was an old comic book.
The cover was emblazoned with a picture of a man in a tight blue and red costume, a shield razed in a heroic pose. The title revealed the man to be Captain America. Phil was sure he had heard the name before. Tentatively, he picked it up and glanced at the first page. He was four pages in and totally engrossed when Gabe came back in,
“Oh, sorry that’s mine,” he said with a self depreciating laugh, “What must you think of a grown man reading comics.”
Phil put it down quickly, embarrassed at being caught.
“I’ve got quite a collection now,” Gabe carried on placing a glass of ice water in front of Phil, sensing Phil didn’t know what to say.
“Umm, I’ve never read comics before,” he admitted. They had never held with comics in the orphanage, books had been scant as it was.
“These aren’t just any comics,” Gabe smiled holding the comic reverently. “This is historical documentation”
He chucked kindly at Phil, whose perplexed expression was more obvious than he thought, “You’ve read Dante but never come across Captain America, and I worry about our education system.”
Phil wanted to explain he had never been to school. His education was piecemeal; his school was the books he could scrounge from the public libraries he had visited on his travels.
He didn’t though, instead he asked about who Captain America was. Gabe smiled and explained, obviously enjoying a captive audience. Phil’s had his first ever lesson that day, sitting in the golden glow of Gabe and Canton’s house.
His teacher’s enthusiasm for the subject was infectious and by the time Canton came home he found his husband and the young boy sitting on the study together sharing the adventures of Captain America. Canton just smiled.
“...and that’s my god-father there,” Gabe pointed at the illustration of the Howling Commandoes on the comic there where sharing. “Gabe Jones, one of the first black men to be honoured by the US military.” He told Phil proudly, smiling down at him.
Phil smiled for the first time in a long time, catching Canton’s unusually fond expression. “I could get used to this”, the traitorous voice in the back of his head said.
The first lie. Philip Coulson is a man of many words. He just keeps them locked up for those willing to hear.