Beug left the doorman's uniform on the tiny bed in his room at the Dartinglook, left his key on the desk -- his way of quitting this awful dump -- and set out in his navy whites again, only slightly better bankrolled than heíd been before. He intended to check his duffel at Union Station and, as reluctant as he was to return home -- doubting he could fit this new self into his old place -- he now worried about scrounging up enough fare for the late evening train headed south out of Chicago.
En route to Union Station, he passed the Berghoff where the early theater crowd collected. Beug eyed them suspiciously. Among them, an older man affecting a bright red bowtie and kerchief stood alone, meeting his gaze -- practically staring him down.
Beug looked away from the man, whose hat carried an extraordinarily wide brim. Young women in smart dresses passed on the arms of young men -- one with an empty sleeve pinned up on his shoulder, still smiling at bright prospects -- all of them seemingly oblivious to the sailor and the pouf. No one paid any mind to the man with the jeweled eye of a peacock feather in his hatband. As for Beug, he was now a dime-a-dozen post-war squid and might as well be invisible. When his eyes wandered back, the fairy still looked straight at him through the cloud of an ethereally held cigarette, smiling with almost-pursed lips.
"Excuse me, sailor," he said with the subtlest lisp -- just a little extra air in each word, "My girl has stood me up, and I have an extra ticket. Would you care to go to the show?"
Beug flushed and his eyes darted to the curb. He shook his head, mumbling an apology. The effeminacy of this man repulsed him but, feeling somehow beholden, Beug didnít want to hurt the old flitís feelings. He wondered if this fellow figured him for a fairy, or if he had a thing for sailors, or if he was just being nice.
"Iím just on my way to get a train ticket," Beug told him, nodding back at the duffel on his shoulder.
"Oh dear," said the fairy, putting on a dry face that seemed near tears, thus fulfilling the sailorís worst fears. "I was so looking for a gay time. I hear itís an excellent show, but I donít dare go by myself." Even though heíd declined, Beug still stood there, feeling bad for the affectionate old pansy and softening by the second -- though the man was hardly the burly kind Beug would have preferred. It seemed an unlikely combination: a sweet, older man wearing an open old fur coat and the sailor who, in reality, had just seen his eighteenth birthday and had slept in the same uniform since theyíd shipped him by train from New York to Chicago, give or take a night of hustling at the Dartinglook.
And though Beug didnít know, exactly, how flits spoke in code, he inadvertently replied in a way that confirmed the other manís suspicions: "Donít mean to be a drag," he mumbled, "Itís just -- "
"Please," said the older man, interpreting Beugís reluctance as a request for a higher bid, "I wasnít able to serve, myself -- they just wouldnít take me. Let an old patriot do his share. I can get you dinner, if thatís what you want, then weíll see the show." Here the old flit scanned the crowd around them. "If you need a place to stay, Iíve got a comfortable sofa and a hot shower. Then, Iíll give you a ride myself -- early enough to make a morning train."
Dinner! Beugís belly gurgled at the idea. A hot shower -- the Dartinglook had been a cold-watered wonder -- Beugís mother held great sway in a bathtub full of hot water, and because of her influence, so did he -- but a little hot water pounding his back and shoulders in addition to a meal was just enough to keep him standing there. He stared beyond his would-be patron at the beautiful pictures in the windows of the Berghoff, mostly ducks and wildlife, done in different shades of honey-colored wood. Other fellows had told him how perfect strangers would offer a sailor or soldier a bed or a meal, and this put his mind at ease. Heíd never been to a real theater, either. The man had offered everything but train-fare and had been eminently kind, and so he set down his duffel and relented.
He nodded as he looked at the pictures in wood, noting how flatly and perfectly the seams fit together, then looked up and found a complete change had overcome the fairyís face. As tearful as it had been a moment ago, now there was a show of thrill and delight -- something like an old widowís mischievous pleasure in pulling one over on the county tax assessor.
"My name is John Thomas," said the fairy, "But, please, none of that Mr. Thomas cra-ap." The way he said crap gave the word two syllables. "Call me John."
"You know thatís a British name for -- " Beug began to say, keeping his hands in his coat pockets.
"It most certainly is," John interrupted, eyes wide as he drew himself up, then he tucked his chin in with a decorous nod. Then a pained smile flitted across his lips. "And your name is?"
John Thomas extended his hand, fingers down, and Beug reached out to shake it, finding unexpected strength in the fingers. "A southern gent! Your Christian name is Hulon?"
Beug searched him, incredulous, pleased. "Youíre familiar? Ever since I signed up for the Navy, folks want to know what kind of name I got."
"Iíve relatives in the south." John smiled. "But you donít sound like youíre from Olí Mississip. Maybe youíre from Kentucky?"
"A farm boy turned seaman -- how lucky for me!"
Once they finally made it inside, even though John Thomas had reservations, the blonde-mustachioed maitre dí -- something of a ruined old walrus on two legs -- was reluctant to seat them. He stuck out his hand, palm up, at Beugís face then lowered down, indicating his whole person and the large canvas duffel before raising it up again with a snap. The sailorís stale, rumpled uniform was clearly well past two-dayís wearing.
"Please, Olaf, my nephewís just got in -- here he is, straight off the train to see me. It couldnít be helped." John rolled his eyes for Beug as he slipped a couple bills toward the maitre dí.
The haggard old walrus with steeling blonde hair and puling blue eyes pretended to be insulted; he was either above bribery or above such a paltry sum.
"Very well," said John, eyeing Beug and clucking his tongue in a single tsk. He withdrew the bills to put them back in his pocket, but the maitre dí snatched them out of his hand before they could turn to go.
"All right!" Olaf thundered, "You eat downstairs! This way!" He sent them with a puny underling to the basement floor, which had a lower ceiling but, for all that, was just as inviting as the main floor.
"Itís cozier down here, anyway," said John, snuggling down into his chair. "That much closer to hell."
Beug laughed, "Thatís what they told us about the engine room."
Later that night, in the dark of the theater, the actors on stage seemed more real than life. Whether it was the brightness of the stage lights and the deep dark of the shadows or the exaggerated speech and gestures of the actors, Beug could not articulate the reasons. The three dimensions of the performance were used strikingly to create glaring contrasts -- there were times he held his breath and didnít realize it until the tension eased off. He would not remember the name of the play, but he would recall that, throughout its performance, he kept thinking, This is holy, without knowing what holy meant, exactly. And though their elbows touched in the narrow seats, John Thomas might as well be two states away for as singular and private as he felt.
After the show, John Thomas suggested cocktails, and Beug nodded, not caring if they had cocktails, but wanting to think and catch up with his feelings about the play. He interrupted John Thomas abruptly, demanding to know, "Do you go to the theater often?"
John Thomas shrugged. "Well, yes. As often as I can reasonably afford -- "
Beug nodded, warm and tense in his pea coat. "I would too."
"Oh dear. That was your first show?" John Thomas stopped to wave at a group of his curious friends. Just a little hello wave -- nothing they would dare interpret as an invitation to come and bother him and his new find. He caught Beugís nod, then said, "Never the sex, but all the cherries."
Beug, barely interested in understanding what was meant, turned to see what the waving was about. A group of flits -- none too different from John Thomas, but no two alike -- were obviously discussing him. One with a longish nose waved at him, and out of politeness Beug raised a hand, but John Thomas pulled at his shirt-tail suddenly and said, "Look -- this way -- that table in the cornerís opening up."
Beug blinked at him. "All right, then -- lead the way."
John Thomas had glared daggers past Beugís shoulder then, seeing that he had the sailorís attention, softened.
"You remind me of a pilot I once knew -- Sal -- my friend for a very long time."
Beug eased himself and his duffel bag through the crowd, and they sat together in the corner at a table full of dried condensation rings. "Howíd you meet him?"
"Oh, it was years ago. A terribly dull story." John waved for the busboy. "You donít want to hear it."
"You never know; I might." It seemed to Beug a very Sterns-like thing to say.
John Thomas lit up unexpectedly. "Oh, youíre worth the price of a ticket, arenít you?"
"I donít know what you mean." Beug leaned out of the busboyís way as the lithe young man wiped the table down. Was he eyeing Beug as he did it?
"Never mind me, dear. My tongueís a little too free, Iím afraid," John Thomas replied, patently ignoring the busboy, who'd left nodding to himself. Then called after, "Weíll need a clean ashtray, garÁon." He offered a cigarette.
Beug shook his head. "Thanks. But whereís he now? Your pilot?" Probably the Pacific, he thought.
"Donít know. One day the letters just stopped coming. Probably Iím a war widow -- I really donít know." He shook his smoke-wreathed head sadly and exhaled another cloud of smoke. "They donít send our kind those sorry little telegrams, do they?"
"Geez. No. They donít." He thought of his old sea-daddy, Sterns, and wanted to talk about him, but really didnít want to put him into that category: one more sob-tale of loss. How many stories could there be? Everyone thought theirs was the story. Well, he would keep Sterns to himself, to keep him from getting lost completely among all the others -- he didnít want his old comrade-in-arms to be just another war statistic. As a result, John Thomas ended up doing most of the talking, and at closing time, he wrapped his arm around Beugís, so the sailor escorted him home.
There, John Thomas wheedled his way into Beugís pants. Surprised in that first moment when the flit unbuttoned the top button of his fly, the sailor thought, What the hell, and sat back on the couch while John Thomas sucked him, thinking, Costs me nothing and makes him happy. John Thomas had been nice enough, took care of him, and, while he wouldnít have chosen John Thomas as a sex pal, he knew how to jolly a cock. And after Beug shot hard, two, three, four -- who knew how many, for Beug was a hearty young swain -- John Thomas looked up with doey eyes, asking, "Would you sleep with me? Would you mind sleeping in my bed? Just tonight?"
So Beug slept with an arm flung around John Thomas, his front to the queenís back, like spoons in a silver chest. In the night, when he woke with a stiff one, he pawed John Thomas awake and took him -- John lying on his back, knees over Beugís shoulders. And when John Thomas pled for a kiss, Beug thought what the hell, and laid one on him. A manly kiss, pressing his stubbly chin against John Thomasís. And they slept again until morning.
A delightfully hot shower and one breakfast later, and Beug positively itched to leave.
"Youíve been a very sweet boy," said John Thomas sadly. "I donít think Sal wouldíve minded at all." He was cleaned up too. A ring of keys jingled in his hands. "Here, come with me."
Beug really wanted to leave, but he hefted his duffel bag and followed John Thomas down into the basement of the building -- to a kind of storage cellar. "I want you to have this, because youíve been sweet, and I doubt Iíll see you again. You GI-types canít sit still." John Thomas paused, feeling his way in through a dark doorway. "I was saving it -- but if heís not coming back, you might as well have it, Hulon. He managed to Ďrequisitioní it from a group of soldiers. Good lord, I canít believe what it mustíve taken to get it here."
Beug frowned at the formal sound of his given name, but then John Thomas turned on the light, giving the hulking shadows shape and color. Amongst the wooden cages of old lamps and trunks, off to one side, there it was: a German war bike, complete with swastika on the tank.
"A motorcycle?" asked Beug, unable to refrain from walking up and touching it.
"Of course," said John Thomas.
Beugís fingertips slid from the cool metal of the gas tank. "Some dead Jerryís bikeÖ I donít have that kind of money."
"I know, dear." John Thomas smiled sweetly. "No one does."
And so they took it outside by the service elevator, and Beug rubbed the dust and cobwebs away with the cuffs of his sleeves while John looked on, beaming from where he leaned against a brick alley wall.
"Here -- the key," John Thomas said.
Suddenly, Beug felt it was time to go. The duffel slung from his left shoulder to his right hip, Beug straddled the machine -- it seemed to have gas in it -- and started it up with a low roar. He looked up, delighted.
John beamed falsely at him and gave a quick little wave. "Oh, now, take that damned thing out of here!" But he looked as if someone was using his blood-pump as a pincushion.
Grinning, Beug beckoned John Thomas closer, hugged the relieved queen tightly, then kissed him on the lips, and said goodbye.
With a couple of false starts -- easing out the clutch gently this time -- Beug headed out.
John Thomas watched him recede down the alley and turn the corner, feeling as if he'd just released a falcon into flight.
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