In June 2015, Knoxzine shared an excerpt from Jordan Nasser‘s funny and charming book, Home is a Fire. Nasser, a former Knoxvillian, is back this holiday season with the sequel, The Fire Went Wild. This second installment moves along with the same great energy and appeal as its predecessor.
While this is a gentle story about the love between two men, it is also a meaningful story about friendship and courage with an outstanding cast of secondary characters.
Nasser will be taking a break from his globe trotting and returning home to Knoxville in mid-December. Knoxzine will keep you posted if Nasser hosts any book reading/signing events.
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The Fire Went Wild
WHISPERS IN THE WIND
Christmas break was over before we knew it. Luke and I had been pretty much inseparable since we reconnected, so I thought I should spend a bit of quality time with Mom and Uncle Barry before the first day of school. I didn’t want them to think I was ignoring them.
“Honey?” Mom called up the stairs to me as I was running around, trying to get ready for my first day. I’d spent so little time at home, lately, that being in my old room was actually kind of fun. I was running through my typical “what do I wear?” challenge, with different outfits laid out on the bed.
“Are you eating breakfast with us?” she asked. “Barry wants egg whites. Any requests from you?”
“Anything!” I yelled back. “Be down in a minute!”
I went for the standard Southern conservative uniform: chinos and a button down, but instead of loafers I reached for my beat up checkerboard Vans. Always the rebel.
Mom was in the kitchen in her familiar pink bathrobe making egg white omelettes. I gave her a kiss on the cheek, grabbed the two finished plates, added a few slices of cantaloupe to each and walked into the dining room with them. Barry was already sitting at the table in his dressing gown, reading the Parkville Post and drinking his coffee.
He put his paper down and pushed his reading glasses further up his nose. “Hello, Dolly. How’d you sleep?” he asked, then leaned in and followed up in a whispered voice. “You haven’t been home in forever, so I assume things are going well with your beau?” He winked at me, and I just nodded.
“All good,” I answered, smiling. “What’s up with the egg whites? You’re a grits and bacon kind of guy.”
“Sequins, darling. They magnify everything. I’m about to pop out of my favorite frock if I don’t get this ass under control. I can’t take the seams out any further. It’s egg whites, cottage cheese and low carbs for the foreseeable future.”
“And no alcohol, of course,” I said, mockingly, as I picked up my fork.
“I’m trying to lose weight, not kill myself, Derek. No need for extremes.”
Mom walked in with her plate and sat down. “What are y’all gabbing about? Anything in the paper?”
“Oh, just Mayor Tazewell at it, again,” said Barry, changing the subject. He and Mom never talked about their private lives out loud. I still wasn’t even sure what she knew about her own brother’s other world, actually. “It seems the warning bells from the volunteer fire brigade woke him up at 3am. It was a false alarm, so he’s trying to pass some ridiculous sound ordinance. That dog won’t hunt. Pass that coffee, will ya, Audrey?”
“Isn’t he a member of the Bears’ Club?” I asked my uncle.
The Bears’ Club was Parkville’s oldest and most exclusive gentlemen’s club, but I had recently discovered it was a haven for closeted homosexuals, cross dressers and the straight men who enjoyed their company. Uncle Barry was The Supreme Grizzly and star drag performer, also known as “Beret.”
Mom handed me the coffee pot and I refilled Barry’s cup while we continued eating and catching up. I wasn’t nervous about starting the new semester, but I just wanted to get going, so I ate fast, cleared my plate and grabbed my bag.
“Have a good day, honey!” Mom yelled after me.
“Break a leg!” said Barry.
We’d had a mild winter, and there wasn’t any snow to speak of, but it was a cold morning. I started up my trusty old car, Willie Nelson, nicknamed after the infamous “Honk if you love Willie Nelson” bumper sticker that Mom had placed there years ago. I set the radio to the local pop station to wake me up, and we were on the road again.
“Happy New Year, Miss Mabel. How was your holiday?” I asked as I walked into the first floor office of Parkville High School.
“You mean my Christmas?” she answered. “All you ‘politically correct’ bozos are afraid to say that word, isn’t that right, Derek Walter?”
“My Christmas was the same as it always is,” she continued, without even looking up from her computer, her reading glasses dangling on the tip of her nose. “I ate too much, people gave me useless gifts and I ended up with way too many fruit cakes. Bammy’s back in her office waitin’ for ya. She’s asked me three times if you done come in yet. Do me a favor and get back there, pronto, before she asks me again? I got things to do.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I pushed past the swinging half-door and made my way down the hall.
“Caffeine, Miss Talbot?” I asked, leaning in to Bammy’s office with a couple of to-go cups in hand.
“Derek! How did you know I needed coffee?” she said as she came out from around her desk to give me a hug.
“Uh, because you always do?” I smiled as I handed her a cup and took a seat opposite her desk.
“So, I haven’t seen you since New Year’s Eve,” she started. “How’s the happy couple? No regrets?”
“None, with Luke,” I said. “He’s amazing.” I fidgeted a bit and took a deep breath. “But I really dodged a bullet with David, didn’t I? Thanks for not telling me what an awful beast he was, but in the future, can you and Kit just pull me aside and be brutally honest with me, please? No more of this we don’t talk about it, we’re polite Southerners thing, okay? Because I know y’all had to be whispering some serious shit behind my back.”
“All with love, Derek,” she assured me, giggling, as she sat back down in her swivel chair. “All with love. I’m sorry. Really I am. We just couldn’t. It seemed like you had made up your mind. And he did put on a pretty good show in public. We were just as convinced as you were. That whole Sleeping with the Enemy thing was a shocker, though.” She raised her eyebrows and let out a small, uncomfortable laugh. “But that’s all over. Movin’ on!”
“And moving up,” I said. “Tell me more about Michael? I liked him, actually. We didn’t really talk about anything deep the other night. I was a little too busy hanging on to Luke. But he seems like a cool guy. What’s his story? He said you two met at a school board meeting? Sounds sexy,” I teased as I sipped my coffee.
“Oh, shut your mouth,” she said. “Not all of us have hook up apps we can lean on.”
She didn’t answer. Her gaze drifted towards the wall and back, like she was suddenly lost in thought. I hadn’t seen her worked up over a guy in years, so I was enjoying this.
“Well,” she started, “yes, I met him at the last school board meeting at the beginning of December. I didn’t want to tell you, in case it didn’t work out. The board hired him as an external financial advisor. Very ‘sexy,’ I know. There have been some problems with the budget in the last few quarters, and I guess we screwed up a few things, so we thought it best to bring in some outside help. Anyway, he walked in and I just, well, I just smiled. I could feel myself acting like a nervous girl, and that was strange to me. Normally, I just walk up to a guy I like, knock him right down and drag him off to a corner, but there was something sweet about him that made me feel girly, you know? Like I was soft. I couldn’t take my eyes off him during his presentation, and when the meeting was over and I was grabbing my coat, he just tagged along and walked me to my car. The next thing I know, I said yes to a dinner date. I thought to myself, ‘What am I doing?’ This is a guy my mother would actually approve of!” she continued. “We went out to dinner, and he was such a gentleman. We really had a nice time. He told me about his life. He came from nothing, Derek. His mom was a single mother and she gave him up when he was a baby. He was raised in the foster care system, and he bounced around quite a bit as a kid, mainly in North Parkville.”
North Parkville was the decidedly rougher part of town, where those of us who lived out west rarely ventured.
“Eventually, one family asked to keep him, and he was raised by an older couple whose child had died at birth. He was their ‘replacement’ kid, and he said he had a happy enough life. He worked at his foster parents’ grocery store and saved his money and went to the University of Tennessee, like us, but I guess we all ran in different circles. Plus, he’s a few years younger than we are, so we just missed him. But I’m glad he found me now.” She smiled, brightly.
“Bammy,” I said, reaching out for her hand, “I am so happy for you, my friend. I’m looking forward to getting to know him better. Why don’t you bring him to the Firelight on Friday and we can all catch up without the New Year’s hoopla? Unfortunately right now, I have to go prepare for my first classroom full of kids, so I need to run. Duty calls, right?”
“Tell me about it,” she said. “Principal Bellman was rarely here last semester. Let’s hope he decides to work a bit more this school year. I don’t think I can run this show on my own.”
“Oh, we know you can, Miss Talbot,” I said. “We have faith in you.”
Besides my Introduction to Acting and Advanced Acting classes, I also taught two Speech and Communications courses and held reign over a one-hour study hall. My planning period was scheduled after lunch, so if I was creative with my time, I could actually take a two hour break in the day before returning for my last class. That proved awfully convenient, considering I had the hots for the football/track coach, and he just happened to be my secret boyfriend. Insert winking smiley emoticon here.
Luke and I had been pretty careful since his slow “coming out.” Our close friends knew, of course, and his dad was working on coming around to the situation, but we were extremely careful at school. If I spent the night at his place, which was a few nights a week, we made sure to arrive separately, at staggered times. I usually made a coffee run in the morning, anyway. He spent most of his time at school down near the track field or the football stadium, while I was wandering around the liberal arts wing, so we didn’t bump into each other as often as you would think. He did teach a health class on the main campus, but as you can imagine, it was quite a joke, so it didn’t take up very much of his time.
When the sexual education segment of the syllabus was announced, in fact, a few parents threatened the school board, and as usual the board caved to their demands. So sex ed at Parkville High was reduced to a two day discussion in the final semester of a student’s senior year health class. Freshmen, sophomores and juniors were barred from the discussion, and by the time students were seniors, most of them had already taken health, so very few kids were instructed in anything at all. And the closeted gay kids? Well, it was all pretty useless to them. Due to all the ridiculous compromises, basic anatomy was covered, but the topic of contraception (and homosexuality) was to be avoided at all costs, and the pro-abstinence lecture consisted of the following speech: “Hi kids. This is sex ed. Basically, don’t do it. Any questions?” Following that, the teachers were instructed to go into excruciatingly gory details about every sexually transmitted disease known to man, as well as some that only prospered in the animal kingdom. The end.
Our paths did cross at lunch, however, so that was our time to catch up. We started meeting rather regularly, usually with Bammy, so we weren’t just the two of us. We’d sit at the teachers’ table in the lunchroom and trade stories about the students, our fellow teachers, local politics, sports, you name it.
Occasionally Luke and I would have lunch off campus, and I’d jump in his car and we’d take off, staying away well into my planning period. On warmer days we would go running at the lake, other days we would spend an hour and a half in his bedroom, fulfilling every last one of our fantasies. Let me tell you, he was getting really good at that Tarzan yell.
The first week of the new semester breezed by rather smoothly, without any major incidents. Luke pulled the Jeep into the school parking lot, and I reminded myself to pull my hand away from his knee. After so many years of being open and free in New York City, adjusting to playing this game of hiding and lying for Luke’s sake had actually made me a bit nervous. We’d just gone for a run and a quick bite to eat during our lunch break, and we were a little winded, our cheeks rosy and pink from the exercise. As we walked towards the school, I noticed a group of students watching us while they were hanging out in front, getting a little winter sun.
“I’m not crazy, but they are definitely staring at us, right?” Luke said, trying to be casual as we surveyed the gawking kids. I didn’t want to feed his growing paranoia, but in this case he was correct. However, a bit of calculated misdirection on my part felt like the better choice.
“Babe, you’re hot as hell,” I said, not lying. “If they’re not staring at you, something’s wrong with them.”
“Lookin’ good, Coach Walcott, Mr. Walter.” Jett Winthrop gave a sly smirk and a nod of his forehead to Luke as we walked by them and headed towards the glass double door entrance. Surrounded by pretty girls and adoring hangers-on, Jett was a junior whose athletic star was on the rise at Parkville. He had it all: blond, good looks, a healthy bank account and a fancy car. Unfortunately, he was also a snarky little shit, and Luke had dated his mom, Amber, in high school.
“Cute couple,” we heard him mumble under his breath, and the girls started to giggle.
Luke started to slow down his pace. I could see his body tense up. “Luke,” I whispered. “Keep walking. Do not feed that fire.”
He clenched his jaw tight and pulled open the glass door, taking my advice and ignoring the words he had just heard.
Crap. Was it starting already? We had tried so hard to play it cool. Had someone told? Or did Jett just make a lucky guess?
I pulled Willie into Mom’s driveway after school. Her car was parked in front of mine and the back door was wide open. There were a few bags of groceries remaining on the seat, so I grabbed the rest of them, shut the door and walked in the house. Mom was in the kitchen placing a paper grocery bag on the counter. She refused to get the plastic bags because you couldn’t recycle them, and she could always figure out a second or third use for the paper ones. She considered it her part towards helping the environment. “Ooh, thanks, sweetie. Just set those up here and I’ll put them away. How was school?” She brushed her hair away from her eyes and flashed me a smile.
“Hey, all good,” I lied and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. “What’s up with all the groceries?”
I had to hold back my complaint. I didn’t eat those things anymore, but she was doing her best and she loved me. It was just easier to say, “Thanks, Mom. Cool. What’s for dinner?”
“Barry’s cooking tonight,” she said, warily. “He wants to put something on the grill. You know he’s on this high protein, low carb thing. I can’t figure it out. I just eat whatever, you know?”
We put away the rest of the groceries and then she stopped and just looked at me, as she often does when she’s about to ask a serious question and she wants a straight answer.
“Now that that’s done,” she said, leaning back against the counter, “tell me the truth. What’s going on? I had a funny feeling today, and I just need you to tell me I’m wrong.”
I smiled, furrowed my brow and shook my head. There was no sense hiding anything from her. Mom had Spidey sense, and when it tingled, she was often right.
“It’s really nothing to worry about,” I said. “Things with Luke are great. I haven’t heard a word from David, and I don’t expect to. The only thing that could have possibly given you a funny feeling is the school. We are really going out of our way to keep our relationship under wraps, but I don’t know how long we can keep it quiet, and I guess I’m a little worried about what will happen when it all comes out. Literally.”
“Well, any fool can look at the two of you and see you’re in love,” she said.
“Yeah, probably,” I said, nodding. “But let’s hope that Southern sensibility kicks in and people just start looking the other way. Because if they don’t, we’re about to stir up a hornet’s nest.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jordan Nasser left his dream job behind and took the opportunity to re-examine his life—an experience he highly recommends if you ever have the chance. A graduate of the University of Tennessee, he was raised in the South before moving to New York City. He currently lives and writes in Stockholm, Sweden and Nice, France.
In his debut novel, Home Is a Fire, he drew upon his experiences as a gay man in the South. Outstanding reviews placed the book on the top ten rated LGBT fiction list. That story continues in his second novel, The Fire Went Wild.