Thomas Addison Baker. That's what it says on my birth certificate, and what my mom called me when I was little, and before she passed away. My Dad called me Tommy after that, at least until he went to prison, and I asked my new guardian, Uncle Kenny, to call me Tommy as well. Uncle Kenny lived in a very small town out in Mississippi, and there was quite a buzz with the local gossipers over what exactly was the circumstance surrounding my arrival. From day one I was an outcast, and I drew into myself. Uncle Kenny tried to help, but he was busy with work, and I spent a lot of time alone.
When I was 10 years old, though, I found out I'd be heading back to Texas. Uncle Kenny told me over dinner one night that my father was dying, and had asked to see me. I felt a deep ache inside myself, which I hadn't expected. When he went away to prison, I had felt the burning anger for a long time, and I guess I still had some of it inside, but he was still my Daddy. We made the long, quiet trip in Uncle Kenny's old pickup, and pulled into the jail's parking lot at dusk. I idly wondered if we'd have to come back in the morning, but Uncle Kenny just rapped on the door a few times, then waited until a nice young lady came and let us in. Uncle Kenny kept a hand on my shoulder as we walked down the long hallway, and my head was on a swivel as I looked left and right, through the bars of the jail cells. They were almost completely empty, and the few occupants that I did see looked clean and neat. The woman stopped in front of one door about half way down and turned to face us. When we caught up, I looked in the door she indicated, and felt my head start to spin.
The man in the cell was my Daddy. Every bad thought I'd had about him suddenly sprouted guilty flames and burned into ashes. He was a sick man, and it was so obvious that even a 10 year old could see his discomfort. His hair was scraggly and unwashed. His face was a bright, bright red, and his eyes looked ... wrong. They looked almost oily, and his pupils were a little too dilated. He coughed hard a few times, into a cloth in his hand, and tried to focus his eyesight on us.
"I brought him to see you, like you asked," Uncle Kenny said, then he squeezed my shoulder once and turned away. I could hear his shuffling gait receding down the hall behind us. The nurse's gaze followed him, then she gave me a quick grin and said she'd give us some privacy.
"Tommy ... it's ... God, son, but it's good to see you."
I flushed and stammered a bit, but managed to tell him that it was good to see him, too. He laughed, or tried to, and the sound was discordant and ... wrong somehow. It quickly dissolved into another coughing fit, and the cloth came back up to his lips as he tried to regain control of his breathing.
"Lung Cancer ... or so they say," he managed to squeak out. I didn't know how to respond, so I didn't say anything, and just watched him. My heart was aching, and I could feel the hot sting of tears at the corners of my eyes.
"Son ... I'm not long for this world, and I wanted to see you one more time before I ... well ... while I still could."
"I ... I dunno what to say..."
I had to bite down hard on my emotions, because a great valley of grief was filling up with tears deep inside me, and was threatening to overflow at any minute. My Daddy smiled at me, and winked once. This was more like I remembered him. Daddy would always give me a wink when times were bad, or hard, and it was his way of letting me know that he loved me, despite everything else that was going on. I blinked a few times, then managed to wink back.
"Son ... I wish I had more to give you, or that I hadn't ... well ... you shoulda had a better Daddy than me, Tommy. You deserved better..."
"No..." I managed to whisper, squinching my eyes shut tight.
"Tommy ... I want you to promise me something ... can you do that? Can you make me a promise?"
I blinked furiously, and ran the back of my sleeve under my nose with s snuffling sound. I managed a nod, and watched as tears started to roll down his red cheeks.
"Son ... don't be like I was. Don't throw your life away like I did. It's just not worth it. I missed out on so much ... I missed out on so many precious minutes with you ... with your Momma ... I just missed out on so much LIFE ... and it's not worth it ... Hold your temper, boy. Always. Don't ever be the one getting into fights, or arguments ... life's too goddamned short for all that nonsense! You find you a girl, and you love her with all you've got, and the rest of the world can go to hell. That's what a real man would do, Tommy. That's what I want you to promise me. Can ... can you do that?"
--I listened, and felt the words cut straight to the heart of me. I knew what he said was true ... because I had lived the other side of it. All those wasted minutes, hours, days, and even years ... time when I should have had my Daddy with me. And I swore then, to him and to myself, that I'd never be that man. That I'd never do the things he'd done. I'd walk away from trouble, and let the rest of the world do what it wanted. For fifteen years I kept that promise.
Being a pacifist isn't the best way to make friends in a small country town. When the other boys would play one of their rough games, I always demurred. When the inevitable bullies made their appearances, looking for fresh prey, I was the one deferring, backing down, and running away. I knew that I had the right of it, and my promise to my Daddy was always on my mind. I didn't want to be him, and I didn't want from my life what he got out of his. I was going to focus on the good things, and ignore the bad, and get the very most I could out of life.
One particularly ornery bully was named Paul Gatlin. He was the terror of the local high school, and we were pretty sure even the teachers were scared of him. He was a large mountain-grown boy, with thick corded arms, a wicked year-long sunburn, and a temper that burned instantly red-hot. The first day he and I crossed paths, he knew he had found a new 'friend'. I was walking home when I felt something hit me in the back, and it hurt. I turned to see, and there stood Paul, with a small stone in one hand. With a wicked grin he threw the stone my way, catching me in the stomach before I could react. I stumbled back a few steps and dropped my bag, clutching my hand to my stomach. I looked back up at Paul, who spread his arms wide, inviting me to do something about it. I took a deep breath and remembered the promise to my Daddy. I didn't need to waste any time on this. I picked up my bag, turned the other cheek, and started to walk away.
"You're YELLA, Baker! You hear me?!? YELLA!"
--Unfortunately, the name stuck.
It never came to actual blows from Paul, or anyone else. Instead it was just constant derision. I don't want to make it sound like it was easy, because it wasn't, but I let it all roll off as best I could. When my lunch got thrown on the ground, I went without that day. When I got shoved into a locker, I just stood there for a moment, got my bearings, and went on my way. I never stood up one single time, and was perversely proud of that fact. Time passed, and I eventually grew up, and started to look an awful lot like the last photo I had of Daddy.
Becky Harris shocked me one day, plopping down onto the bench across from where I sat, eating lunch. Becky was one of the cutest girls in town, and every boy watched on the days when she wore a skirt to school. She was very quiet, but didn't seem shy ... just withdrawn. So her making a move to sit with "Yella" Baker was somewhat of a mystery. She leaned over with a smile and winked at me.
" ... Hi, Becky. What's up?"
She looked me up and down, with an unreadable expression on her face.
"Tommy, are you gay?"
I dropped my fork and gawked at her.
"I mean it, Tommy ... are you gay? You've never had a girlfriend that anyone can remember. Hell, nobody can even remember you being interested in anyone ... so..."
I felt a flush creeping across my cheeks. I spoke before I realized what I was saying.
"Sure ... how would YOU react if "Yella" Baker said he was interested in YOU?"
She sat back just a tad in her seat and eyed me, her pretty head cocked slightly to one side.
"I don't know any "Yella" Baker ... but I do know a TOMMY Baker ... and if he were interested in me? Well, hell, I'd probably just have to invite him out to a movie this Friday."
--Then with another wink, she was gone, leaving my head spinning.
Uncle Kenny told me there was someone for everyone, and I was starting to think my someone was Becky. She and I clicked from the beginning, though I can't for the life of me imagine why or how ... it just was. We were inseparable after that first date, and I knew then what the other half of my Daddy's advice was all about. I focused everything completely on her, and I reveled in the feelings that she brought me. To absolutely nobody's surprise, we were engaged the summer after graduation. I landed a job at the paper mill, and she took a job as a teacher at the elementary school. By the end of the year, we were married, and started planning for a family.