08 January 2020

[Ellis Millsaps] - Son of a Preacher Man, Ch 9; Pt II: Clifford Fleming

*Read Part I of Chapter 9 here 

If I explained it well enough, you now know that Clifford lived in a trailer which faced my house across a city street. Well I didn't say it faced the street rather than the highway but it did. It sat on a lot owned by Clifford’s grandmother Fleming on which her house also sat and did face the highway. Steps cut into a steep bank led to the highway from her house and Mrs. Fleming’s store directly across the road. Her store was smaller than Clifford's trailer but it had gas pumps and was crammed to the ceiling with general merchandise.

 In the trailer Clifford lived with his mother  Annette, his younger sister Kathleen and sometimes his father, Gil, who tended to work out of town jobs and come home occasionally, but he was for a short while manager of the Pinecrest Inn across the highway from Holly Springs Elementary, and Clifford, Kathleen and I got to use its swimming pool one summer.

 Clifford's mother didn't work at a paying job during the seven years I lived there, but she was a pleasant and outgoing woman, active in the community and seemingly always president of the PTA. Twelve years after my family moved away from Holly Springs she became the first female elected Clerk of the Superior Court in Cherokee County.

 I've strongly implied above that Clifford was gay. I don't know that. As  a matter of fact I didn't then believe that homosexuality in fact existed. In school among the outlaws I heard talk of queers.( “Gay” then met outgoingly happy.) It was said among the outlaws that one Harold Orr, son of the then Sheriff of Cherokee County, was a queer and he must have been. I thought of this talk as something of a low brow parlor game because I could not believe that such a thing could be. It was like snipe hunting or ghosts in the graveyard.  It was inconceivable to me that a male would want to be in close contact with another's penis, suck it that is. I don't think any of we elementary school students conceived of other potential sexual acts between males.

I’m not sure when I came to believe that queers actually existed-- probably sometime after I learned of menstruation in ninth grade PE class. In high school I surely believed that queers existed but I didn't think I actually knew any, but of course I did. Three classmates turned openly homosexual after leaving home and high school. Looking back now I can see it. They were to varying degrees ”sissy” had no girlfriend but hung out with girls. As to females being homosexual, I don't recall anyone in my youth ever mentioning the possibility. We saw nothing of these subjects on TV.

So it is with hindsight that I say Clifford must have been gay. Baseball was the only sport he played, He played it all year although he was utterly inept at it. He definitely wasn't going in for the rough physical contact of football and at twelve he couldn't throw a basketball as high as the goal.

 Clifford was a gentle soul. He went through a phase where he would crawl under the bed whenever an ambulance siren went down the highway. At 12 he always wore slip on shoes because he hadn't learned to tie shoes and  no matter what he always went inside at five o’clock to watch “Popeye Club.”

Clifford and I played a lot together, baseball with the girls and younger children and enacting cowboy fantasies of my invention. Often he would get angry with me-- I was bossy and made the rules for every game-- and say “You're the meanest boy in the world Ellis Millsaps. I'm never going to play with you again!”  Then he would stomp off out of sight but would invariably return within ten minutes doing something like walking with his arms outstretched to his side, making a sputtering noise and saying ”Look at me. I'm an airplane.”

 I hung Clifford once. We were in the backyard behind the trailer playing cowboys. I hung a rope from a pine tree limb, stood him on a milk crate, draped the rope over his shoulder and kicked the crate out from under him.

 I caught him in mid-air -- although he was as tall as me he was as light as a feather and also as soft -- and we rolled on the ground laughing.

 The next day I got in trouble for that, a stern reprimand from both our mothers. It turned out the rope had made or red mark on his shoulder that Annette saw while putting him in his pajamas.

Assuming I'm correct in my conjecture that Clifford was gay, I can't imagine him ever leaving the closet. Clifford having sex with a female is inconceivable to me.

 Today I have no fond memories of Neil, fantasy auto draft and smoking in the woods aside, but whenever I think of Clifford it is with affection.

 After I began this chapter it occurred to me that Google would know something about Clifford’s mother. I found her obituary. She died three years ago survived by her daughter Kathy and the daughter’s children, but not by a son. There were no Fleming grandchildren.