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Heaven Helps the Man

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Ren's out and living hard, still in the sticks of where-the-hell-is Bomont. Out of high school, now, diploma finally in hand, and he feels free. He never thought it'd be possible out in the back of beyond, but there it is: Life is better than it was before.

Ren's still disappointed about a number of things, of course. He never did make the gymnastics team; they didn't need some punk-ass skinny-tied kid who went for thrills on the high bar. He never joined any extracurricular, in fact, no prom committee or anything. And he never did get the principal to apologize to him, beyond the handshake that went with the diploma.

And Ren's disappointed because that diploma didn't change much. Stay in school, the posters shout, but why? For an empty-worded night and a walk across the stage? Ren's still working at Andy's mill. The diploma did get him a raise, ten more cents on the dollar, but the work's the same. Lift the flour, shovel the sawdust, Andy likes you so do whatever needs doing.

Ren can see himself doing the same thing when he's forty and beer-bellied.

Once he had a nightmare about it, and Ethel came in before his aunt and uncle could wake up. "Ren," she said, and "I won't let you," once he explained. "You were cut out for better things. You're a big-city kid. We'll move back one day, won't we?"

But Ren isn't sure anymore, that's the thing. He's not even sure he's a big-city kid anymore, because the last time he crossed state lines to the dance hall, he got excited about it. A sawdust-floored smoky country hall in a one-horse town, and Ren got excited, because at least they let you dance there.

Ariel's long gone, up north. Some city, some college, somewhere far from Texas. She hardly said goodbye to Ren when she left. The challenge's over, he knows. College offers better chances at rebellion, for a girl who hasn't changed much at all.

Ren thought about college for awhile. For about a month. Then he went in to his counselor at Bomont High, and heard that it was far too late to apply anywhere. "Middle of your senior year?" said the counselor with a hardly-hidden smile. "You'd be lucky to get into the community college two towns over."

He didn't apply. What would the use be? It'd just cut down on his hours at the mill, on his take-home, and he needs every cent. Ethel found new jobs, small ones; church secretary, part-time librarian -- those won't do much to support a family, even a family of two. Ren can never begrudge her the small jobs when it's his fault she lost the bigger ones. It just means he needs all his pay.

Every week, most of goes to loving Uncle Wes, for room and board, and what could be fairer? Family, but you know how money is nowadays, he always says. Then there's Ren's weekly few bucks for a dance or a drink, smokes, maybe a forbidden tape, or car repairs -- always something. And if there's any left over, it goes in the bank, but there's rarely anything.

This adds up to no more chances and no more hope. Couldn't repeal the law, couldn't keep Ariel, couldn't get into college, couldn't change jobs. About the only thing left on Ren's list is hanging out with the guys and getting old. He thinks he can about handle both of those.

Willard's working at one of the auto places along Main. He's not supposed to touch the cars, but by now he's not bad at mopping up oil or grease left by one of the mechanics. And Woody's out on the north forty, they joke; someone's farm over by the school needed an odd-job hired man. Woody plows the ground, fixes the tractor, digs out the rocks. He's got dirty hands and no time, but plenty of pay and still-growing muscles.

Ren's headed out tonight with Willard and Woody and a few of the other guys who didn't go anywhere either. Not much today -- it's a Saturday night, that means up in time for church tomorrow -- but they'll wind up smoking their Marlboros, drinking their Buds, talking about the trains and girls that've passed them by.

Nobody's surprised when they wind up by the Yearbook. They head inside where they can't be seen, and as Ren gets drunker, he gets quieter. Starts tracing letters, phrases, with a damp finger. "Carillon tones," he murmurs at last, but nobody hears him because Willard's cheering Bickle on. "Stand in front of the train, you can make it, Ariel always lived," Willard's yelling, partly drunk but mostly just not thinking.

"What would your mama say, Willard?" asks Woody, not really joking. "That was Ariel. We normal people aren't supposed to stand in front of trains."

It whistles as it goes by.

. . . and we make out like crazy. Ren remembers Ariel saying that. He doesn't remember it happening much. Ariel would've been glad, was always eager, but Ren was always interested in reading the walls. All those books he'd never read, and would never get the chance to. Slaughterhouse Five was about the last chance he got before they went back to Tom Sawyer.

It gets later, and a couple of the guys -- Garvin, Jeter -- drift off, pleading church in the morning. Ren's not ready to go yet, though. Maybe he'll stay. Maybe he'll dance. Maybe this is the night he'll challenge the train.

Finally he's alone with Willard and Woody, and then at length Willard leaves because his mama'll worry if he gets in too late. It's just Ren and Woody, and Ren's no longer so nervous about looking like an idiot. So he stops tracing letters so surreptitiously, and gets up and turns to the wall. It's late and dark, but by the light of his cigarette and a few matches from his book, he can make some words out.

He's moving away from the copied-out section, toward the town kids' writing, when he feels Woody's eyes on him. "There's a flashlight," Woody finally says. He goes to a corner -- looks like an old fusebox, Ren's never seen it before -- and pulls it out. "Flashlight and a pen in there. You want this?"

"A pen?" Ren laughs, a little self-consciously. Takes the flashlight. "Always figured it was a bring-your-own thing, huh? Ariel always said. . . ." Ariel always said I couldn't write in the Yearbook. I wasn't a townie, I still tasted like the big city, it wasn't my thing like it was hers.

"Can anyone write in this?" Ren asks after a second, shining the light on that first verse of the poem he saw so long ago, not even a year ago, and yet another life.

Woody seems a little surprised. "Sure." He crosses again, pulls out some kind of fat marker. "You have a poem to write?"

Sure, Ren thinks. Sure. How for nearly a year I still felt like I didn't fit, and I really could've written in here all along. Ariel just wanted to imagine that I still tasted like the city. Just like I wanted to imagine I couldn't see Cranston's fingerprints everywhere I went on her body.

"No," Ren finally says. "I guess I don't have anything. Not tonight." He turns the flashlight in his hands, sets it down on its base. It's a finger of light pointing to the old room's rafters. "You have music? I just -- I just wanna listen to something tonight. I'm tired of all my old tapes and I've just gotta hear something."

Woody nods, then. Ren can't tell it from looking at him, but all the shadows he casts bow and flicker. "Got a few sandwiches with me, I think."

"Sandwiches?" Ren drags a cassette player from another corner of the room. This tape deck is one of the Yearbook's secrets he knows about; Ariel was always quick to drag it out, quick to want that evil music of thumping rhythm, heavy bass.

"`S what we call the good tapes around here. The ones hardest to get." Woody shrugs. He pops one in the cassette player, turns it on softly. Something pours out, and it's not a song Ren'd choose to hear. "Handel," Woody supplies. "They put on one or two of those songs. Then --" he fast-forwards --"it's our music. And the last track's theirs again. Sandwiches, see?"

Ren grins; he likes the idea. "Your parents'd never know there's devils inside those angels."

"There's devils inside everything," Woody answers, and hits play. "That's the point."

The music's still Handel, Ren guesses. Mozart maybe. Whatever, it's still nothing he'd pick. Then he realizes those violin sounds are starting to come together, there's a real beat to them. Da-da, da-da-dada, da-da, da-da. Ren's standing, and he can't resist a little twirl. Just one, and then an easy step out, and it's like a real song's starting.

"This's Annie Lennox," Woody says, and Ren watches his teeth gleam white in the flashlight. "'Walking on Broken Glass,' it's called."

"I like it," Ren says, watching his own feet to make sure they don't spin off on him. "Chick music?"

"Nah. It's just been so long since you've heard anything but your old Men At Work and Willard's country." Woody stands too, waves a hand in the flashlight's beam and smiles again. He's disturbing the dust caught in the light, just to watch it swirl and eddy.

"Walkin' on, walkin' on broken glass," someone sings on the tape deck. Annie Lennox, Ren guesses, but he doesn't care much anymore because he's got such an itch to dance. To dance by himself, the wild leaps, the runs and jumps he hasn't dared for so long. Not since Ariel found him that time at the mill. Not since he came to the Yearbook for the first time.

"Dance," Woody says, almost offers. Woody sets his beer down; it sloshes, pretty full. "You're dying to, I can see it. I never saw you but that one time at the prom."

"I gave Willard lessons." Ren crushes his cigarette with one boot. Stops it from twisting into a dance move.

"That was Willard. And I never saw 'em anyway."

"I'm not sure if I know how anymore. It's been seriously long." A final swallow of beer, because Ren can tell he's going to do it, he can tell and it's so close he can practically feel his muscles jump. A real workout, a real chance to spin and kick like he used to. He sets the bottle down on a windowsill.

"You don't forget," Woody says insistently, and that's all the excuse Ren needs because he's off.

One quick spin and then another as the song dies. The next one on is pumping and loud, exactly what Ren would've chosen himself. Strangely familiar, he's heard it before somewhere. Ren flies out the door on a kick, hears Woody crash out behind him. Don't worry, I didn't fall, Ren says silently, not just those few feet down. But he's too busy to say that, too busy with a handspring on the gravel and a somersault over the tracks. They're cold iron and he feels them freeze on his back as he goes over. But that's gone too, all that's left is the joy of the dance, the sheer tensile pleasure of working everything out. Every muscle, every problem, every strained discussion, every cramp -- all gone. Ren moves so fast he's left them all behind, and oh, he feels gloriously free now. It's like nothing else when you're moving, and the window light rushes past in bars.

Ren's gone far down the tracks with his leaps and spins, so far he can't even hear the music anymore. But the beat's still there, the pulse driving him hard, showing in his neck and the moves of his feet.

Then he's whisking back, launching himself up the small ladder. He doesn't care about splinters now as he's flipping up, a leg on the lowest step, then his hands on the rail, and up-and-over, feet kicking high to make him balance there, upside-down.

Ren still can't hear the music. Because it's over, he realizes. The song's done, and I guess it's time for me to finish too --

But Woody's there, and the look in his eyes is better than any applause he could give. Ren flips over again, sits on the rail. He's panting. "Haven't danced for a while."

"You can't tell," says Woody very gravely, and then laughs. "You didn't pull out any of that at the prom."

"No," Ren agrees, and then his own stupid little chuckle. "You want -- you want to -- "

"You couldn't teach me that," Woody disagrees, "that's for love of it. Bet there's no names, even, for half of what you did. You can tell it's what you love to do, and that's the only way you can work it out."

"C'mere," Ren grins, still out of breath and wishing he hadn't finished his beer. "Feel what it does to me. You'd be fine with all those farm muscles, but feel my pulse." He offers a hand, palm-up.

Woody takes it, but probably not in the way Ren meant, because within the next second he's stepped into Ren and they're kissing.

It's not something Ren has a lot of experience with. Kissing in general, even, because no matter what stories he used to tell, Chicago's girls were never all that forward. And with Ariel, he kept feeling -- judged. Like he wasn't better than Cranston? Still, it made him self-conscious around her, knowing she'd been through it all already and he never had.

But now this. It wasn't judging -- Woody probably couldn't, anyway, exactly have experience in this. But for Ren, it was even newer, more frightening, than kissing Ariel. Ren'd known when to stop before. Apply to repeal the law, sure, that's one thing. That's legal, and even Reverend Moore was behind that by the end. But this is like throwing an illegal dance right in the sanctuary, with all the lights on and beer and pot everywhere. There's a limit to anyone's rebellion. This is pure danger, just waiting for God and the police to come and discover them --

But it's good danger, the kind that makes the hair on Ren's arms stand up, the kind that makes him feel like he's nothing but balls. Maybe that's why he likes it so much. Or maybe it's just because it's Woody, quiet calm Woody who's always there.

Ren's still sweaty, and Woody's hand circled around his wrist slips. Ren's hand on Woody's other arm slides, pulls him closer, and it's just like dancing, just like rebelling. And the wonderful, perfect movement Ren thought he'd never find with anyone else.

When they break apart, Ren almost falls back over the railing. That's Ren, Ren with all the grace and speed, who nearly goes tumbling down.

"Give a guy a big enough surprise, huh." Ren tries to make a laugh out of it, but it's not happening. He remembers the first time he met Woody. It was the school cafeteria, and Ren'd just found out about the dancing law; Woody's first words to him were "The whole damn town." No dancing allowed in the whole damn town. No rebelling. None of that pure wild sweet feeling.

"Yeah," Woody smiles nervously. "I'm sorry. I mean, damn. That was -- you're just -- "

"Can I ask when?" Ren slips off the porch railing. Woody's arm is still on the rail, half-blocking Ren. But he uses some of that grace to go inside the Yearbook, feeling helpless. "I mean, what is this?" Heading back over to his beer, which he remembers -- damn -- he just emptied.

"Look, you remember when you met Cranston? He was ragging on you about your necktie." Woody follows Ren, watching the shadows they cast on the Yearbook's writing. He hands his mostly-full beer back to Ren. "You remember what he said? `I thought only pansies wore neckties.'"

"Yeah. Yeah, I guess -- but you mean, you thought so too -- ?" Ren takes a pretty good swig of Woody's beer.

"No. `Cause you remember what you said after that? `I thought only assholes used the word pansy,' remember?" Woody kicks the floor, pretty half-heartedly. "I guess I shouldn't've assumed, but -- you know - "

"Nobody but a faggot'd stick up for pansies in Bomont." It's another thing Ren should've been watching in this damn one-horse town -- but how could he've known on his second day? He rubs his arms, trying to smooth down the hair that's gone haywire.

"No!" Woody's denying it, but they both know it's not worth the breath. "Aw, hell, I guess. But Ren, you've gotta believe I didn't know, I mean, about you, until you and Ariel -- and by then, it was -- too late, I guess."

Ren's staring at Woody's borrowed beer bottle, fiddling with it. "Too late for what?" He drains it.

"For me. I guess." Woody's work boots scuff along the floor again. "I'd better go, huh? Just -- remember to put the flashlight back."

"No," and Ren looks up again. Woody's weirdly lit now that he's standing. Like a kid, when they stick flashlights under their chins to look spooky. Yellowy beams and deep shadows play across his face with the raise of an eyebrow, and Ren knows the dance of dark and light's gotta look the same on him.

But he's past caring about that, completely past the looks of the thing -- he's back next to Woody, like they've been a million times before. But as friends, before -- when he grabbed Chuck, when he taught him how to drive the tractor -- and now it's different. There's a thousand times more danger, but also the strange electric feeling flashing through Ren's nerves.

It overpowers him, kind of -- or at least he can't control his body for some reason. When Ren comes back to himself he's just kissed Woody, gripping his shoulders just to feel the tingling electricity between them. And he's nothing but nerves now, and Woody's smiling like always, and Ren just can't believe -- for once, he finds himself lucky --

An endless awkward time later, the flashlight's batteries are dead and every discarded beer bottle is a hazard in the dark. Ren's not bothered, because that dangerous ballsy feeling's still coursing through his veins, and God, he can't believe any of it. It's like a dream, but Woody's still here.

And: "I thought you'd be upset tonight," Woody says. By the clinking Ren can tell he's found more beer bottles, is probably trying to pick them up. "Thought you'd want to talk about Ariel."

"What about Ariel? Why tonight?" Ren feels the leg of his jeans -- beer's soaked up through the cuff, probably from when he knocked a few bottles earlier. "Shit," he adds eloquently. Then he realizes there's been a pause of a few moments. "Woody?"

"Thought you'd heard," Woody answers, slowly. "Didn't you hear Ariel went and got herself kicked out of that college up north?"

"Shit, no! Why?"

"Thought you would've heard. Reverend Moore said she's finding another school up there somewhere -- but for awhile they thought she might have to come back." There's another pause. "I'll have to bring back more batteries for this light here."

Ren finds it a little easier to breathe in Bomont after that.

It's not like it's going to be easy, ever. But he knows, now, that there's something he can do when he gets too upset. It's like slamming his fist through a wall -- he knows, he tried it when his father left -- but instead of painful, it's wonderful.

Not like it's all the time, either. But a few nights -- once or twice, when Willard's gone somewhere with Rusty -- then there's an opportunity. And when there's an opportunity, how can they miss the Yearbook?

A few months later, Ren's decided what he wants to write.

He found that song he danced to. He knew he knew it; he only had to search through a few of his old things, and it came up. Something called "Heaven Helps the Man" -- he used to listen to it all the time last year.

That's the song, he's decided.

He invested in a can of paint and a brush. No marker; he wants to show it's more special than that to him. It's funny, he thinks as he lays down the money, but he hasn't spent much in awhile. He's been saving, semi-consciously.

He's not quite sure what he's saving for, but that night, as he copies out lyrics by the light of a fading flashlight Woody holds, he gets an idea.

Running away will never make you free!

Nothing we sign is any kind of guarantee,

But I want to hold you now,

If you won't hold me down.

Heaven helps the man who fights his fear. . . .

Writing it changes things. When Ren comes back to visit, he wonders if anyone's been there since, read it since, thought about it since. He traces the letters like he used to trace Ariel's.

It's a year after his graduation before he's saved enough. When he has, Ethel's the first one to know.

He brings the money to her when Wes is out. It's crinkled ones and fives he's gotten in change, whole hundreds he's set aside from his month's paycheck, a little change spilling from his hands. It adds up to even more than he thought it would. "I've got the money for an apartment," Ren announces. "Enough to get away from Bomont, to get out of here. You won't have to put up with this from Uncle Wes and Aunt Lulu anymore. This -- we could move out. Not to Chicago, but somewhere else. A few towns away."

Ethel looks up from counting out where it's spilled on her bed. "Ren, honey. Don't worry about this. I know you want to leave, but I can't use this for an apartment."

"Don't you want to escape?" blurts Ren.

"I want you to escape." She straightens out a few bills, stacks a few coins. "Ren, you've given me this money, am I right? I'm using this how I want. It's enough to start you at the community college. It's not too late to apply for next year."

Ren goes back to the Yearbook with Woody the night before his first classes begin. For the first time, he notices writing more recent than his own -- but can't make it out. Night's begun falling sooner; the shadows are too deep on the walls.

Woody finds the flashlight, turns it on. It's brighter than ever with its new batteries.

Heaven helps the man who fights his fear. . . .

Love's the only thing that keeps me here.

You're the reason that I'm hanging on --

My heart's staying where my heart belongs.

Ren turns around, and the light from Woody's flashlight catches him full in the eyes. He's blinded, but smiling anyway.