illustrated by quaedam
Les was late because, God damn them, they'd switched the room again without proper notice, and he'd arrived seven minutes ahead of the scheduled conversation to find an empty table. Finding a secretary who knew anything took him another five minutes, and when she told him they were the next wing over and three flights up, he clenched his fist to keep from shouting in disappointment and anger. Any other attorney, client, or whole man in the whole building could have gotten there in five minutes with three to spare, and probably some of the women too. Nobody else would have had a problem.
His pace was a careful balance between moving fast and staying slow enough that he didn't turn his walk into a comic hobble, as he knew from years of interactions with unkind passers-by that it was apparently funny to see a cripple hustle, and God damn it, he wasn't giving anyone here more of a reason to think he was a joke than they already had. Balancing his satchel of papers under his right arm, he gripped the head of his cane so tight he could feel where the cracks in the old wood left impressions in his left palm. Down the hall he went, ignoring everyone he passed, trying not to think about the faces they might make behind his back, mockery or pity, they were two sides of the same coin, he had no time for it, he had to keep moving, damn it all, damn everything. The ancient elevator was at the far end of the hall and would deposit him another hall's length from where he needed to be, but he was damned if he was going to give them all comedy show as he lurched his way up seventy-two steps, not counting landings, damn the architects, damn his superiors, damn gravity.
Eighteen minutes after four, he pulled back the handle of the door to the room and slipped into the chair nearest the door. Of the dozen or so suited men around the table at the room's center, only Sanders turned to look at him, and the look in his eyes wasn't anger, but disappointment. Les gave a nod of apology, then sat as still as he could, not even bringing out a pen or a pad for notes. Instead, he focused on accomplishing three things, to declining degrees of success: listening to the deposition already in progress, steadying his breathing, ignoring the pain shooting up his left leg.
The quartet of tables in the center formed a hollow square, making a conference sort of setup, though this was no roundtable discussion; there were sides. On the one to which Les belonged sat eleven men in neat dark suits, some of the United States Justice Department's finest, all of whom had been personally vetted by Senator McCarthy's closest associates for this work. They weren't the cream of the crop -- those were needed elsewhere, for bigger HUAC concerns -- but these weren't simple pencil-pushers either. By technical status and seniority, every one of them outranked Les.
From this group, a man about Les' age leaned forward -- one of the young ones the Virginia Attorney General's office had sent over, pinch-faced and bespectacled. "Reminding you that you're currently giving sworn testimony, Mr. Golovin, would you care to elaborate on your earlier statement regarding subversive activity at your place of employment?"
The other side of the confrontation belonged to one man who was as different from his interrogators as a hummingbird from a handful of grey mice. His version of their drab attire was a yellow-and-red plaid jacket over a light cream shirt, and his beige panama hat sat on the table next to him, far from where it might cover the white-blond of his wispy hair. He was a smallish man, compact in all dimensions, and when he sat all the way back in the plain metal chair they'd provided him, only the balls of his feet touched the ground. "I'm looking for other ways to say 'none', boys, but they just aren't coming to me." The file had listed his place of birth as Charleston, South Carolina, and Les could hear it in his pleasant, lilting voice.
The looks of pique on the committee members' faces might have been amusing had this all not been so deadly serious. "We have here," said Brenner, Sanders' right-hand man, "a sheet with eyewitness reports of known subversives who have patronized the café you--"
"Last I heard," interrupted Golovin, whose sweet smile softened what would otherwise have been a sharp profile, "the point of a free country is that you can buy your coffee and listen to your music where you please, and that you can sell that coffee and play that music for somebody without anybody interrogating anybody about political preferences first. Or are you fellows Soviets? Because if you are, I--"
"Don't get cute," growled Sanders, who had a voice like thunder and had never, in the six years Les had worked under him, been afraid to use it. He pulled Brenner's sheet toward him and pointed to the top line. "November 8 of last year, three Negros with known communist sympathies were arrested coming out of your establishment--"
"Is liking music while being colored a federal crime now?" Golovin folded his arms and looked smug. In another context, that might have gotten him at least a chuckle; here, no one was laughing.
"Out of your establishment," Sanders repeated, his voice long past empty of patience, "and admitted, during questioning, to having met there several times in the past and to having had there discussions of subversive socialist plots to undermine the United States government, using illegal recreational narcotics, and engaging in promiscuous and homosexual activity."
Though Les did not know the man before him, his stomach still turned to stone as Golovin had the temerity to roll his eyes. "And what did you charge them with, knowing how to have a good time?"
The veins in Sanders' forehead were large enough that Les could see them from across the room, and he expected smoke to start pouring out his boss' nostrils any minute now. People brought before panels like this were supposed to be cowed and terrified; Golovin was neither. "I've changed my mind about this interview. I'm thinking perhaps we should bring your co-owners," Sanders scanned the sheet, "a Mr. and Mrs. Chinoff in here to speak with us instead?"
The smile on Golovin's face went from defiant to vicious in an instant, and though he didn't change his expression more than a hair's breadth, everyone in the room could see that Sanders had scored a hit. "You know," said Golovin, placing his hand atop the crown of his hat, "when I was a little boy I learned about something called the American Dream. It was the one that said no matter what you were born as, you could grow up to be whatever you wanted. It was why people came here from all over the world, why my parents came here, why the Chinoffs came here: you'd get to start over, open up a little shop, learn the language, make some money, be American. You'd pay your taxes and put out the flag every morning, and the government would be proud of you, and might even treat you you belonged. You can't squeeze blood from a stone, gentlemen, and this stone's had enough. Good afternoon." He rose and donned his hat in one smooth gesture that Les envied.
Seething and shocked, the other men stood, and Brenner slapped the table. "You can't just--"
"I came voluntarily, and I'm leaving voluntarily." Golovin straightened his jacket with quick, tense jerks. "And if you call in the Chinoffs, the most you will accomplish is inconveniencing a pair of elderly naturalized American citizens who haven't seen Russia since before your first World War, and who pose about as much danger to national security as does my left ear. If you do decide to waste your time that way, though, be sure to ask for Zadie's pirozhki recipe; it's the best information you'll get out of either of them." With one last bitter smile, he nodded to the committee and stormed out the door, not paying Les so much as a glance as he passed. Golovin was either incredibly smart or incredibly lucky; if they'd had the slightest shred of concrete evidence, he would have been in handcuffs before he'd left the building. He'd called their bluff and won.
The ill mood Golovin left behind him didn't make Les' reckoning with Sanders any easier. As everyone else grabbed their papers and grumbled amongst themselves, Les pulled himself upright and walked over to his immediate boss, nudging his way upstream as the angry committee members filed out. Sanders leveled his stern gaze at Les, and Les pulled himself as far upright as his spine would take him. "I'm sorry, sir. No one told me about the room change."
Sanders frowned and set his jaw. "I had the girl call down to your desk."
Les patted his satchel by way of explanation. "I was with Deputy Attorney General Kleiberg all morning, sir." Sanders was a tall, thick man who'd been a captain on the front lines in the European theater, and Les called him 'sir' in deference to both his time in the service and his authority over Les. "I came straight from there."
The answer placated Sanders somewhat, as the red in his cheeks softened to a less furious pink. "Well, it didn't matter anyway. The more invincible they think they are, the more fun it is to catch them red-handed."
That was meant to be a pun, and so Les smiled long enough to let Sanders know that he'd gotten it. "And we have more information on him that's not in the file?"
"No." Sanders shook his head and started out of the room, leaving Les struggling to keep a pace anything close to Sanders' long-legged, authoritarian stride. "Do some digging."
It was useless to point out that investigating was not part of Les' standard job description, or that the Justice Department had, Les knew for a fact, literally hundreds of more promising leads in terms of tying US citizens to subversive activities, or that there were several things on Les' plate that wouldn't be excused if he didn't do them just because Sanders wanted the most junior attorney on his staff tasked with orchestrating his retaliation against the man who'd just made the committee look like a clutch of fools. Les couldn't help wondering if Sanders wouldn't have been better served by offering a mouth like that a job, but that was entirely not Les' to suggest.
He didn't know if Sanders was accommodating Les' foot or his own growing age, but one way or another, Les was grateful when Sanders stopped in front of the elevator instead of starting off down the stairs; he bit his lower lip and breathed through his nose so as not to gasp. "Mouthy queers, read one book and they think they know how the world works," Sanders grumbled, folding his arms across his meaty chest. "A Jew too, did you see?"
"I did," Les lied. He hadn't seen much of Golovin's file, owing both to his other work and to how he'd spent what would otherwise have been his prep time racing at his excruciating turtle's pace halfway across the building. He knew the man's first name started with a P, but couldn't swear to much more than that. This was supposed to have been a routine fishing expedition, a little cage-rattling before letting another insignificant shiftless liberal back out into the world, the kind they did all the time. Golovin could have slipped right by unremembered, that idiot, if he hadn't opened his damned mouth.
"Of course, I have the greatest respect for Hebrews. Shrewd people. My daughter-in-law's family used to be Jews." When the elevator doors opened, Sanders stepped inside, and Les followed, grateful for the hip-high handrail that let him lean without making too much of a show of how he needed it. "Presbyterians now. Isn't that true of your family too, Mitchell?"
Les nodded as he tried to speed up the elevator's descent by sheer force of will. "Presbyterians, yes. Used to be Jews, no."
Sanders laughed at that, louder than was strictly called for. Despite his big grin, every inch of his body looked still as keyed-up as it had during the meeting. Though Les himself wasn't sold on the concept of God, Presbyterian or not, he prayed anyway that the doors might open soon and that he might get out of Sanders' way before something he said became the spark that ignited the dynamite of Sanders' temper. "My son still doesn't let her take the checkbook out shopping, though," Sanders said, his smile fading. "Some things are just in the blood."
The elevator gave its last little lurch as it settled, and Les hung back, letting Sanders get out first and indicate in which direction he was heading, then choosing the opposite way. "I'll get on this, sir," Les promised, nodding after Sanders before starting his slow retreat. At least Sanders had gone for the front of the building and left clear the most direct route back to Les' own office; all other paths took at least twice as long.
By the time he reached the door ten minutes later, his entire left leg was throbbing, and it took every ounce of his strength not to favor it walking any more than he already did. Margery, the girl who managed Les and three other junior attorneys, looked up as he came in to the central area. "Oh, Mr. Mitchell," she said, rising and walking over to him, "by the time they came to tell me they'd moved the room, I didn't know where you were--"
"It's fine." Les gave her his bravest smile and hoped she couldn't see through it. "These things happen. Not your fault."
She nodded and gave him one of her bright smiles. She was a pretty enough girl, with her nut-brown hair and her round face and figure, and he knew she was a little sweet on him from the way the other attorneys teased her about doting on him, but she deserved so much better. "Want me to get you some coffee?" Bright blue eyes peeked out at him from behind black-rimmed glasses.
"Maybe in a little bit," he said, and then he remembered to add, "thank you."
"Just say the word." Ever the thoughtful one, she opened the door to Les' office for him and shut it behind him; he would have resented the gesture from anyone else, but Margery meant so well by it that he couldn't take offense. She was a fine girl and she'd make some man a fine wife someday. That man just wouldn't be Les Mitchell.
He'd thought about it, of course: just courting her, marrying her, settling. It wouldn't be too bad of a match; she wouldn't have to work anymore, and he'd both look respectable to the higher-ups and have someone to fix meals for him. Maybe if he liked her any less, he'd just close his eyes and do it. But there were things about him worse than his being a cripple, and he wasn't about to put a girl as great as Margery through being stuck until death did her part with a man like that.
From the locked desk drawer, Les pulled out a half-empty bottle of scotch and a glass bottle of pills. They hadn't worked alone in years, and barely worked now with the booze, but that wasn't something he was about to tell his doctor. Mitchell, Leslie R., as needed, for pain, said the typewritten label. He tapped out three into his hand before tossing them in his mouth and washing them down with two swallows. Maybe he'd just stopped believing they'd make him feel better. Well, then the reason they weren't working was his own damn fault. He considered a fourth, then put both bottles back in the desk before he could give in to that temptation.
That settled, he took off his hat and jacket, opened Golovin's file, and spread what he had out on his desk. All told, he didn't have much to go on: a quick sheet of biographical information on one Golovin, Piotr Vasiliy, age 33; a few arrest reports, all for misdemeanor and nuisance crimes; a half-dozen police reports containing mentions of subversive activity connected to a place called Ava's Café, whose address was listed as both Golovin's place of employment and his place of residence. There were no surveillance records, felony rap sheets, or material of any kind to suggest this man was of particular interest to HUAC or the DOJ. Les pinched the bridge of his nose. That idiot could have just disappeared if he hadn't been so keen to make a show of himself. Les didn't like the guy and thought what he was saying was optimistic bullshit at best, but being stupid wasn't a crime enough to deserve the hell Sanders could rain down on him. Damn radicals, always needing to make a show of themselves, never thinking about the consequences for themselves or others.
As the pills didn't kick in but the scotch did, Les rested his forehead in the palm of his hand and started thinking about what the hell he was going to do about any of this.
Everything was going well, and he was even feeling good about his disguise, right up to the moment when Golovin sat down in the empty seat across the table from Les. "Well, hello," Golovin said, his fingers perched like spider's legs around the lip of a martini glass. "Haven't seen you here before."
Les hadn't been sure which approach to take: remain stone sober to keep full control over his tongue, or get drunk and hope that took the edge of his nervousness. Two scotch-and-sodas later, he'd landed somewhere in the uncomfortable middle. "I ... haven't been here before," he said, trying to sound casual even though his palms were dripping sweat. He used the time it took to take a drink to cover how he needed a deep, steadying breath. He'd reminded himself over and over on the way here that in the room, Les had been wearing the same anonymous grey suit and hat as had all the other government employees, and Golovin hadn't so much as glanced his direction the whole time; there was no reason he'd be remembered. Golovin's coming to sit with him unasked, however, shook his faith in this conviction. "Heard it was a good place for a drink."
"You heard right." Golovin smirked and took a sip from his glass. "And the music's not half bad either."
Les glanced over to the stage, where until a few minutes ago, Golovin had been seated behind the piano, playing a lot and singing a little. Jazz had always sounded to Les like noise, but though he may not have liked all the sounds coming through the speaker system, he had to admit the man making them had talent. "You were making ... you played nice music. Up there. Just now." He fought the urge to brush back his hair, which he'd let grow out for a week and left uncombed as per how he'd seen Golovin wear in earlier. He slicked it back with pomade when he was at the office, but as everything around him kept reminding him, he wasn't at the office now.
Golovin laughed, making his face brighten in a way that Les hadn't seen at the DOJ building, though he had no trouble imagining why not. "Oh, a fan!" The sound of his amusement softened him in tandem with the café's soft lights, and Les wondered how he hadn't registered before just how attractive the man was. "Fans get to call me Peter. And you are...?"
He'd been so caught up in making his appearance and manner believable that he hadn't put thought into the more personal parts of pretending to be someone else, and thus all he could think to answer was, "Leslie. Les to everyone." He waited for some flicker of recognition from Golovin, some hint that he'd just blown his whole cover, but Golovin only smiled. "I don't have fans."
"Handsome man like you should have at least one. I volunteer." Golovin took another sip of his martini, smirking at Les over the rim.
Two train-car thoughts knocked into Les' head in rapid succession: first, that Sanders' dig about Golovin's being a homosexual hadn't such a shot-in-the-dark insult; and second, that being attractive was much easier when all Les had to do was sit down and let the table cover both leg and cane. Neither of those left him with much of an idea about conversation, though, so he settled himself by writing off Golovin's comment as insincere flattery and went back to what he imagined someone who wasn't undercover for the US Attorney's office would say. "Nice place."
"It isn't much, but it's home. Literally." Golovin pointed toward the ceiling. "Two flights up to my apartment. Makes for a great commute."
"It would." Damn, this was impossibly awkward; how did any real people have conversations like this? Les knew intellectually that it must happen, that people went out for dinner and drinks together all the time, but the worse Les had realized he was at conversation, the fewer efforts he'd made to find opportunities to practice. Sure, he could make small talk on sports and politics and the weather with his colleagues, but those didn't seem the kind of things people in places like this tended to discuss.
Golovin leaned forward, resting his elbow on the table and bracing his chin in his hand. He had a sweet little face, with features so delicate they wouldn't have been far out of place on a woman, though whatever demure daintiness he might have been able to affect was destroyed utterly by the way one side of his mouth curled up in a wicked smile. "You're not a man of many words, are you?" he asked as he traced drops of condensation from Les' drink into little swirls on the tabletop.
Les shrugged and watched the way Golovin's pale, nimble fingers moved. "When I have something to say."
That made Golovin laugh, and he lay his hand over Les' own with no weight, only contact and warmth. "Good thing I've got a soft spot for the strong, silent type," Golovin said, and before Les could quite process the length of the gesture, Golovin pushed back from the table and stood. "I'm back on soon, but stay after the show and maybe we can talk some more? Or I can do the talking and you can just listen, whatever suits you."
"Maybe," said Les, because it was the only response that seemed even in the same telephone exchange as appropriate.
"Maybe's better than no." Golovin winked and walked off, and though Les stared at him, ready to avert his eyes at a moment's notice, Golovin never looked back as he weaved his way through the tables and back up to the raised performance area. He had a sort of strut to him that made him look taller than he was; he and Les had never been standing at the same time, so it was hard to judge, but he didn't seem much tinier than Les, who'd stopped maddeningly shy of five feet, eight inches. To look at him, though, he seemed to take up the whole room just by breathing.
As Golovin took his seat behind the piano and started bantering with the audience again, a hand reached down over Les' shoulder to the table, making Les jump. The hand, which set down a bowl of thick beef stew with three large slices of crusty bread sticking out of it, turned out to belong to a little old man with wispy white hair and a face so wrinkled his eyes nearly disappeared behind curtains of skin. "Petya says, you are a man who needs to eat," said the man, his words clear to Les despite the thick Russian accent that cushioned them. The man's wrinkled brow furrowed even deeper, creating great canyons as he looked Les up and down. "Eh, is not wrong. Eat."
"Oh, I--" Les looked from the man to the soup to the man again, who was staring back at him with an expression that meant skepticism in any language. "...Thank you?"
The old man snorted and turned away, wiping his hands on his apron as he retreated toward the bar where an old woman stood behind it, watching his progress. Given that the general youth of the establishment's patronage was enough to make Les himself feel old at twenty-eight, there was no mistaking the identity of the only two senior citizens in the room. Wanting to be polite, Les sopped up some of the stew and took a bite, and it was so good he wound up finishing the whole thing. He hadn't been quoted a price, but wasn't presumptuous enough to think that had been on the house, so he put a dollar bill between the cup and the saucer, and when the old woman came by later to clear his dishes away, she took the money without comment.
Les didn't stay for the last song; maybe might have been better than no, but it wasn't the same as yes. He slipped out during the stage banter between Golovin talked with his bass player and drummer about would be their final number for the evening. The streets were dark and mostly empty at that hour, but he still slipped down a dark alley and walked the length of two city blocks to another, busier, more respectable street before trying to hail a cab.
He shold have gone home, but instead he had the taxi take him down by the water and drop him five plausibly deniable blocks away from the corner where all the rent boys hung out. One of the more familiar faces spotted him coming -- he cut a distinctive profile, he knew, and he hated himself for it -- and wandered over, hands in the back pockets of his tight, cuffed jeans, white undershirt sticking to his skin in the muggy evening breeze off the river. "Up for it?" he asked, licking the butt end of his cigarette before sticking it into the corner of his mouth. Les didn't know his name or where he came from.
"I am," said Les, and together they went inside the run-down old hotel there, the one that charged by the hour, the one all the boys used for their business. Five minutes later, Les was sitting in the room's one chair while the boy knelt before him and sucked at his cock.
Ten minutes after that, it was clear Les should never have come; he was tired and full of stew and still too anxious from walking into the café in the first place, and his foot hurt so bad the pain reached nearly to his hip, and though the boy did as good of a job as he ever did, damn his ugly broken body, Les' cock stayed soft. "Look," said Les, and he pushed the boy away; his cock fell from the boy's mouth with a sad slick flop, making no effort to stand up for itself, as it were. "Just take the money and we'll call it a night."
The boy shrugged and wiped his mouth, then stood and grabbed the bills Les had placed on the table. "Fine." He stuffed the bills down the front of his pants, then lit a cigarette from the pack he'd rolled into his sleeve. He offered Les one, a gesture so polite that Les didn't refuse, and they sat there together for a minute in silence as the room filled with grey smoke.
"You know," said Les, "there are better opportunities for young men like yourself who--"
"Whatever, pops." The boy rolled his eyes and stood. "The fuck is it with you gasbags who pay for blowjobs with sermons? Not like your lives are so perfect neither, or you wouldn't be here."
"You're young and strong; the armed forces would--"
The boy laughed. "The army? That's worse than telling me to find Jesus. At least Jesus only makes you get up early once a week." Catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror, the boy pulled a comb out of his back pocket, ran it under the tap, and slicked back his brown hair. "You get it up again, you know where to find me." He fired off a quick, sloppy salute before seeing himself out the door, leaving Les with his limp dick and the long, unhappy task ahead of returning home alone.
He knew he shouldn't go back; he knew he shouldn't have gone in the first place, even, which was why that next Monday at work, he told no one about what had happened. He expected Sanders to ask, but the weekend's rest seemed to have taken all the fight out of him, and though he came into Les' office first thing with several cases to discuss, subject of the mouthy subversive Jew never came up. Les, who knew when to leave well enough alone, kept his mouth shut.
Thus, he should have considered the matter closed and declared his strange, pseudo-undercover night at the café a one-time fit of madness, not to be replicated. He should not have gone back that following weekend, both Friday and Saturday nights, and he should absolutely have not spoken with Golovin on both of those occasions long enough to stop thinking of him as a case file and start thinking of him as Peter. Moreover, he should emphatically have not spent the entire next week unable to focus on anything except the thought of his next visit.
The crown jewel in that list of things Les should not have done, though, was accept Peter's invitation to come upstairs after the café closed that next Friday. "Some of us night owls aren't ready to shut down just yet," Peter said, nodding to where a dozen or so young men and women were filing up the thin flight of stairs half-hidden behind the bar, laughing and touching one another as they went. "You game?"
"Yes," said Les without thinking. The rational part of Les' brain demanded an explanation for his quick agreement, and he pacified it by reasoning if that anything subversive did take place in that establishment, it'd be after hours and out of public view, and wasn't observing subversive activity what he'd come for, after all? Fortified by his quest for justice and two fingers of scotch, he took the edge of the table in hand and stood -- though he stopped and grew self-conscious as he saw Peter's eyes flicker down to where Les' fingers curled over the head of his cane. "I, uh." Les licked his dry lips. "I'm not great with stairs."
Peter shrugged. "And I can't swim." And then, as though that were some sort of sufficient explanation, he led Les over to the stairs, where, despite Les' voiced concerns about slowing the process down, he insisted Les go first and never complained once about having to follow behind all the way up the steep, narrow stairway.
What he found at the top of the stairs was a small apartment, one which (like Les' own) combined living room, dining room, and kitchen space into a single area. The young people who'd come up before him were draped across couches and chairs -- and sometimes across one another -- with drinks in hand and grins on their faces. There was one small spot left at the end of one of the couches, so Les slipped into it before the issue of finding him a seat became a problem worthy of directing everyone's attention to him. All things considered, he'd rather be invisible to this crowd, not because they didn't seem like nice people, but because he fit in here about as well as Peter had at the DOJ's panel.
Speaking of Peter, as soon as he'd made sure Les was settled, he went over to an old record player in the corner and flipped on an album of loud, brassy jazz, the kind that hurt Les' ears and jut sounded like noise to him. But everyone in the room cheered his decision, so Les forced a smile as well. He was in the lion's den now; he had to roar with the rest of them or risk being eaten.
Seated, Les commenced his semi-authorized observations. He recognized a few members of the crowd from files that had come across his desk -- no high-profile subversives here, but a few who'd raised red flags, and anyway Les had a good memory for faces. They were all young and were all beautiful, even though not one of them had a face that'd fit in on the cover of a magazine. About a third of them were definitely Negro, though there were a few more that might have qualified, or might just have been Greek or Italian or some other thing like that. Even not counting those he wasn't sure about, Les had never been in a room with that many coloreds before.
He was sitting next to one, in fact, and as the man turned toward him, Les was struck with how handsome he was: strong jaw, soft lips, brown skin light enough not to mask a spray of dark freckles across his nose and cheeks. Les recongized him from the stage -- the bass player, whom Les had only seen from a distance before now. He had the largest hands Les had ever seen, strong and corded musician's hands, and between the two fingers he pinched a hand-rolled lit cigarette. "Good evening," he said, and his voice was so deep and sweet that it soothed Les' rattled nerves back from the point of fracture. "Peter'd told us you might be coming."
"Oh, I, he--" Les frowned. "He did?"
That won a laugh louder than just the man's, and Les looked up to see two more people watching their exchange: one was a heavily pregnant white woman on the bass player's other side, and the other was Peter, who'd pulled up a chair and was sitting in it backwards, straddling the wooden back. "My friends Jubal and Ella," said Peter, winking at Les as he pointed to the man and the woman in turn. "And they know your name already. Can I get you something else to drink?"
Despite worrying it might appear rude, Les didn't dare -- he was undercover, and he needed to keep his reins tight. "I'm all right," he said, and he added, "thank you."
"That's good. Alcohol dulls the mind." Jubal laughed and extended his hand toward Les.
It took Les a second to realize that he was being offered the cigarette held there, and though Les wasn't a regular smoker himself, he had no objections to the occasional habit. Besides, it was polite. "Thank you," he said again, taking it. The tobacco smelled sweet, but Les didn't want to appear suspicious by examining it too closely, so he brought the cigarette to his lips and inhaled.
After that, the evening got strange.
Les kept the cigarette, because Jubal didn't ask for it back, and because he liked the way the smoke made heavy clouds as it slipped from out his lungs. The noise from the stereo didn't quit, but after a while it began to lose its bite, such that when one record ran out and Peter put another on, Les didn't really find cause to complain. Everything, in fact, seemed to grow quiet and far away, but instead of becoming anxious about that distance, Les felt better than he could remember ever having felt before. He thought long and hard about this, and the conclusion he came to startled him so much he couldn't quite process the information: his leg didn't hurt.
This was more even than the way it hadn't hurt when he'd started taking the most recent round of pain medication; those didn't take the pain away, just dulled it until it was a bearable ache. The pain was gone. The foot that had twisted on him even before he'd been born, the one that had disappointed his father by rendering his only son a cripple, the one that had made the army physician laugh in his face when he'd shown up to enlist and join the fight in Europe -- for the first time in his entire life, so long as he could remember, it didn't hurt. He flexed and pointed his foot, and it had no greater range of motion than it ever did, but the motion was not accompanied by bursts of agony all the way up to his waist. As an experiment, he took his cane and pressed its base against his shoe just above his toes, and was more than a little surprised to find that he could still feel the pressure there. Everything was as it always was, except the pain was gone.
Les turned to Jubal to ask if the same thing had happened to him, but he couldn't, because Jubal had become Peter, and Peter had his arm draped across the back of the couch, just behind Les' shoulders. "How you doing, handsome?"
Coming up with the words he wanted to use proved more difficult than Les was used to; for instance, he didn't know how to articulate how nice it was not to be in pain anymore, but he was fairly certain he had every word he'd need should he decide to inform Peter that his lips would look amazing wrapped around Les' cock. The thought that he might say such a thing horrified him, but the horror didn't mean he could stop thinking it. Instead, he dragged himself toward a neutral middle ground simple enough that he could use small words for it: "What time is it?"
"Nearly one," said Peter, holding his wrist so Les could read his watch, though Les suspected something was wrong with it, on account of how slow the hands were moving. "Are you out past your bedtime?"
"A little," Les admitted, and then he cringed at how childish that sounded. "Just ... early to bed, early to rise."
"Ah, you and Zadie." Peter pointed toward a door at the far end of the small room, one Les hadn't noticed until now, and as Peter made the gesture, he moved so that their legs pressed together. "Bubbe's probably still awake in there, reading one of her mystery novels, but he's out like a light the second the front doors close, and up with the sun the next day. Makes me tired just thinking about it." Peter had lovely hands, Les noticed again, and they were so easy to notice because one of them was perched on Les' knee in a way that might almost have been friendly, had his slender fingers not fit along the curve of Les' thigh, down where mere friends didn't go.
From the other couch, there was a clatter as someone knocked over a metal plate, and everyone laughed at the clumsiness. "They're loud," said Les. The cigarette he'd been given earlier had long since gone to ash; he wished he had another, if only to give himself something to do with his hands.
"They are. And you're not. So I reckon I'll have to get a little closer to hear you." Peter nodded and leaned in, letting his hand slide up Les' thigh as he did, and Les' brain set alight with the mad thought that he wanted Peter to keep going, to wrap his hand around Les' cock and jerk him off right there, in front of the whole room, just make him come all over his nice grey trousers. He never had thoughts like that -- or he did, he had to admit, but they were only fleeting points of madness he could wrangle in with only a moment's worth of effort, not monsters like these that wouldn't be kept down. As his brain pinballed around for an answer, a new and possibly relevant question struck: what had been in that cigarette anyway?
Les swallowed and licked his lips. "I don't have much to say."
"I doubt that very much," said Peter, whose sweet little mouth wore a smile that was positively wicked.
Before Les could think of a response to that, though, Jubal and Ella appeared by the couch, arm in arm. "All right, the three of us have got to get some rest," said Ella, patting her belly; Les noticed she wore a wedding band. "We're heading out."
Peter made a noise of disappointment as he stood, but he was still smiling; he put a hand on Ella's stomach right beneath hers, feeling the contours of her body with what Les deemed scandalous frankness. Jubal just smiled as he did it, though, and kept smiling as Peter leaned in to kiss her on the lips -- not a quick fraternal peck, but a long kiss with open mouths and shared breath. At last, Peter pulled back and bent down to plant a noisy kiss on her belly, right through her dress. "You behave," he said, pointing to her stomach. "And you behave too," he added, straightening and walking over to face Jubal. "You're late again and I'll fire you."
Jubal laughed. "You wouldn't dare. You'd miss me too much." As though to punctuate the sentiment, he tilted Peter's chin upward and bent down to kiss him too, in much the same way Peter'd kissed Ella just before, except where that first kiss had been gentle, this one was playful and rough, full of grins and teeth. Les couldn't stop staring. He could hear his own pulse drum inside his ears.
"Son of a bitch, I would," Peter sighed, and he reached around to give Jubal a big, clumsy goose. "Get out of here."
"Will do. Nice meeting you," said Jubal, and he and Ella both waved good-bye at Les before heading over to the stairs, hand in hand.
The wheels in Les' head turned as he watched them go, and they were still turning as Peter sat back down next to him, not as close as they'd been before, but maybe that was for the best. The last minute had raised so many issues in Les' mind, and he picked what he felt was the simplest one of the bunch to address. "Does, ah...." Les frowned, trying to compile the sentence from spare parts. "Does her husband know she's ... here?"
Peter frowned at him a moment before breaking into soft laughter. "He should have; he was standing right there." He pointed to where Jubal had been moments before. "They live in Maryland, so they had to come to DC to make it legal. You ... don't have anything against miscegenation, now, do you?"
Les thought this might be a strange time to bring up that he, in fact, did -- not, he told himself when no one was listening in, because of the kind of antipathy to coloreds that his family and co-workers had no bones about expressing. No, he'd met several Negros and Orientals in his time, and they'd seemed to him no better or worse than the whites he'd seen in their same situations. Even so, the idea of mixing races seemed to him less immoral and more ungainly. ...At least, it had until moments previous, as he now had to admit that both Jubal and Ella were very attractive people, made even more so by having Peter between them. "Oh, no, I ... so that's his baby?"
"We're mostly sure," said Peter with a laugh that put all sorts of wicked, persistent images into Les' head. "And he'll be its daddy regardless, which I know some people don't understand, but we're sort of a strange family of our own here. Most of us don't have the best relationships with our blood kin, after all." Peter's fingers traced up and down Les' thigh as he talked, making concentration even more difficult than it had been previously.
"Mine don't know I'm here," Les said, which the absolute truth. He had five older sisters, all but one married by now, and his widowed mother in declining health, and not one of them would have approved of his being in a place like this. Truth be told, he didn't much approve of his being in a place like this, except that he was here anyway, comfortable and blissful and more turned on than he could remember having been in a long time.
Peter smiled and twined Les' fingers with his own. "Then it's a good thing we've all got one another."
Les meant to pull his hand away from Peter's touch, but when he checked, he hadn't budged. He'd already gone well above and beyond the call of espionage; he'd get no points for seduction. The good, rational thing to do would be to make his excuses, pick up, and leave, and that was exactly what he'd do as soon as he could stop staring at Peter's lips. "And you've, ah--" Les gestured lamely with his free hand, hoping it would get across what he meant -- not because he didn't have the words, but because he did, and they were all far too vulgar for him to feel comfortable speaking. "With them ... both?"
"Guilty as charged, from time to time," said Peter, and for a moment Les saw something behind his joking smile, some awareness of why saying that to Les in particular had its own sort of meaning. But Les blinked and it was gone, and Peter was only as charming as he ever was, turned toward Les on the couch as though they were the only people in the room, or maybe even the world. "You don't have anything against that either, I take it, freom the way you were looking."
Blood flushed into Les' cheeks, and he turned away, trying to disappear beneath the collar of his jacket. "Wasn't looking," he lied in a half-hearted mumble.
"Oh, sugar, it's all right. If I didn't want you to look, I would've done it somewhere else." Peter's laugh was effervescent, but it wasn't unkind. "I don't have much to hide. Or, well, I do have much to hide, according to all the good and decent people in the world; I just don't usually bother hiding it."
"Why not?" asked Les, who -- to his great shame -- seemed to have lost the ability to control his impulse to ask stupid questions.
Peter ran his thumb across the back of Les' knuckles as he talked. "Because I'm not embarrassed and I'm not hurting anyone. In fact, I like to think I help people. In fact, unless I miss my guess, you're feeling better yourself." He lifted their joined hands so he could point to a spot between Les' eyebrows, and Les startled himself by not only allowing the touch, but leaning into it. "You've had a little knot there every time I've seen you, and it's gone now."
Of course Les had known Peter'd been looking at him the times he'd come before, but it made him self-conscious to think that Peter had been looking. Les' illusion of functional invisibility got him through most days; here, it had been shattered, and he wasn't sure how to handle himself beyond that. "I, um. I do. Thank you."
"Does it pain you a lot?" asked Peter, and now he was certainly talking about Les' leg, which was a shock in and of itself. Everyone looked at his leg, especially when they thought he was't looking at them, but no one talked about it except for doctors, and in his experience even they were more inclined to talk around the matter. Les' mother had made it clear from an early age, with everything she said and did: his twisted foot was an embarrassment, one that reflected poorly both on Les as an individual and the Mitchell family as a whole, and the only way to minimize the damage God had done was to discuss the matter as little as possible.
"Some." Les considered his answer and shook his head. "Always. All the time."
Peter nodded and kept stroking Les' hand. "And now?"
"And now?" Despite his best attempts at stoicism, a little giggle bubbled up and lifted the sides of Les' mouth. "And now, don't tell me what was in that cigarette. Deal?"
"Cross my heart," said Peter, except instead of crossing his own, he reached around from behind Les' far shoulder and drew a broad X over the general area of Les' heart. Doing so tugged them close by necessity, close enough that one of Peter's legs crossed over Les' good one, leaving Peter more in Les' lap than anyone Les hadn't paid for had ever been. "You're very sweet, you know. A gentle soul. I could tell it from the first time I saw you."
That sent a cold little spike through Les' stomach, the thought that the first time Peter had seen Les hadn't been the first time Les had seen Peter. "There are ... things you don't know about me," said Les, shutting his eyes.
Peter squeezed his hand. "And there are things you don't know about me. But if you stick around long enough, we may be able to find some out together. Seem fair?"
It seemed more than fair to Les, but it also seemed more than dangerous, and his anxiety overcame his sense of contentment. "I ... should go." He shifted and flexed his foot, and nearly wept to feel that the constant ache of malformed muscles had started to creep back in. "It's late. I should get home."
He'd half-expected Peter to try and hold him back, but to his surprise, Peter sat up with him and gave Les the nudge he needed to get upright; not all of Les' body parts were performing to their full potential. "Of course. Come on, I'll show you how to get out after hours and help call you a cab. Just ... promise me something first?"
"What?" Les licked his dry lips.
"You'll come back and let me get to know some of those things I don't know." Peter leaned in toward Les in a way that Les thought was meant to help them both stand, and thus he was surprised when instead, Peter pressed his lips to Les' and caught him in a full, wet kiss. Les was so startled and so eager to do whatever he needed to do to make sure that Peter didn't stop that he didn't have time to worry about whether or not he was handling his first kiss correctly. Of course he'd been with the rent boys before, but for all the lovely things they did with their mouths, not one had ever offered this, and Les hadn't asked. Peter tasted like alcohol and smoke, and when he put his arms around Les, Les leaned into them so far that they would up back against the back of the sofa, losing all the ground they'd gained.
Peter took one of Les' hands and put it on Peter's hip, then wrapped one arm around Les' neck and slipped his other around Les' waist, in the gap between jacket and shirt. He was even slighter than he looked, Les could feel, slender beneath the showy clothes he wore whenever he performed, whether that was on a café stage or in front of a HUAC-appointed committee. As they kissed, Peter made no real noise other than the occasional soft sigh, which Les enjoyed right up until he realized he could make Peter sigh by pressing his hand against Peter's hip, and then he enjoyed the sound even more.
Les lost all sense of time while there in Peter's arms, their mouths moving together. He was hard, he knew, and he could feel how hard Peter was from the way Peter was pressing up against Les' thigh, but neither of these things carried any real sense of urgency. If someone had asked him then and there to choose how to spend the rest of his life, he would have been hard-pressed to come up with a fate better than this one. Peter was warm and soft, and what was more, he seemed to want Les as much as Les wanted him. Of all the subversive ideas he'd come into contact with that evening, this was the most revolutionary.
At last, Peter withdrew from the kiss and presed ther foreheads together. "Downstairs to the cab or upstairs with me? Your call."
Jesus in the desert hadn't been tempted so thoroughly. It was only a lifetime of self-denial and propriety that gave Les the strength to say, "I ... still should go."
As before, Peter made no coercive efforts to keep Les there; he helped Les stand and retrieved his cane from where it'd been knocked beneath the couch, then let Les set the pace all the way down. The café was strange like this, so empty and dark, silent enough that he could hear every one of his uneven footsteps. Peter showed him to the side door, one he said couldn't be opened from the outside, but before he pressed the door open, he drew Les in for one last lingering kiss. "Don't be stranger, now," Peter whispered against Les' lips, and Les, despite every bit of good sense he possessed, knew he'd be back soon and would think of nothing but Peter until then.
That Tuesday he took an early, long lunch and took a cab down to the café, arriving just before twelve. A few young people occupied tables or kept up their perches at the bar, but the second he walked in, Mr. Chinoff (Peter had said is first name was Zadie? was that Russian?) looked past all of them and straight to Les. Even though he'd been taking a table to himself every evening he'd been in, to do so in the face of a coming lunch crowd seemed rude, so Les made his way to the much emptier bar and gritted his teeth as he hoisted himself up onto the high stool at the end nearest to the stage. There was no sign of Peter or Mrs. Chinoff. Mr. Chinoff gave him a withering glare, but Les didn't back down, and presently Chinoff left the griddle and walked over to Les' seat. "You want food?"
"I do," said Les, who was glad Chinoff hadn't asked him why he was here, because Les didn't rightly know. "Is that all right?"
Chinoff looked him up and down, then shrugged. "What do you want for food?"
Today was just teeming with difficult questions. "...Soup would be fine?" said Les, trying for a statement but constructing a question anyway.
It seemed to be, because Chinoff returned after a moment with a bowl of thick potato soup and half of a roast-beef sandwich, the kind Les had taken to making his dinner on the evenings he'd come to the café. Instead of leaving Les to his meal, though, Chinoff folded his arms atop the bar and regarded Les with a clear sizing-up frown. Disquieted by the scrutiny, Les decided both to try small talk and to ignore how he was perhaps the worst person in the world at making small talk. "Peter says I should try your pierogis," he said between bites of soup-soaked bread.
Chinoff arched one furry white eyebrow. "Pirozhki?"
"Yes. Those." Small talk having obviously failed, Les stuck a spoonful of soup into his mouth and quietly cursed the assumptions handed down to him via his maternal grandmother's Polish ancestry. At least eating Chinoff's cooking was no hardship; were the café closer to work and not on the list of suspected subversive gathering places, he'd lunch there every day.
Still wearing his deep frown, Chinoff drummed his fingers on the bar. "Petya still is asleep."
"Still asl--" Les looked at his watch, filled as he was with sudden doubts about his own grasp of time. "It's noon."
That, at least, won a small smile from Chinoff's thin lips. "Like my wife. Sleeps like owls."
Les shook his head as he stirred his thick soup around. "Some of us have real jobs," he muttered beneath his breath, and he was a little startled when Chinoff chuckled. "Oh, no, I didn't mean--"
"Is truth," said Chinoff, whose smile lingered for a moment before it settled into a more serious expression. He took glasses from the sink as he spoke, one by one, and wiped them dry before setting them back on the shelves behind him. "Petya says your father fought for Jews in Germany, and died there."
Les had indeed made reference to that, though in passing, and he hadn't expected Peter to remember that, much less to consider it worth telling others. "He ... did, yes." Les looked down at his lunch, feeling his appetite ebb. "I tried to enlist near the end of the war, but...."
Chinoff waved his hand, clearing the air of the unspoken end of that sentence. "He says you have a quick mind. A practical mind. Petya is an artist, also like my wife. He says beautiful things, believes beautiful things. Believes the world is good world and the people in it, good people. Trusts people. Sees beautiful things. Never does dishes." With a wry smile, Chinoff pulled the plug and drained the sudsy water from the sink.
"Not very practical," said Les, who took another bite before he could be accused of playing with his food.
"But necessary." Chinoff peered at Les over the tops of his wire-framed glasses, which looked to be held together with a bit of tape and a few good prayers. "You want to know why I do not like communists?"
Of all the sentences Les had expected in his life to hear spoken with a Russian accent, that hadn't made the list. "Um, no." Les cleared his throat. "I mean yes. No, I don't know. Yes, I'd like to know."
"No room for artists. Not practical. Cannot be measured in money, cannot be made equal." Chinoff sighed and looked upward, in the direction where, unseen, Bubbe and Peter slept. "But artists I live with disagree, so maybe I am wrong. Not so bad, to think a wrong, harmless thing. Not a reason to go to jail."
Les took a deep breath and let it out through pursed lips. He should never have come here in the daytime; his disguise was thinnest when it was dressed in his work clothes, and Chinoff's foggy blue eyes could see right through it. His stomach twisted into a knot, taking the last bit of his appetite with it, and Les pulled two dollars out of his billfold, more than the price of the meal. "Don't ... tell Peter I was here," he said, reaching for his cane.
"Why not?" asked Chinoff, his mouth turned downward into a frown of honest confusion.
"Because--" Les took a short, heavy breath and let it out in a puff. "Because I'm not coming back."
Chinoff peered down at the half-eaten meal Les was leaving behind. "Was it the soup?"
"No, it wasn't, it--" He'd been an idiot to come in the first place, and he'd been a greater idiot to come back, and now he was the greatest idiot of all, letting himself find a reason he didn't want to go. "It was good. But I don't belong here." Les sighed and rubbed the head of his cane with his thumb. "I want to. But I don't. It's not ... a good idea. For you. For any of you."
Chinoff looked at Les then, and really looked, training his keen glacial stare right on Les' face. He was smaller than Les, but under his scrutiny, Les felt no larger than a gnat. Les had seen this expression before, in issues of National Geographic at the library, where mother bears stared down photographers who looked to be threatening their cubs. Les had two choices -- run or stand his ground -- and he chose to remain in place, leaning on his cane for support. It would have been easier just to take that opportunity and make his exit, perhaps, but Leslie Mitchell had never been a man to do things the easy way.
At last, Chinoff broke eye contact and, as though nothing out of the ordinary had transpired between them just then, went back to his tasks. "Pirozhki are work. Too much work to sell. I only make them for family." He ran a rag over the top of the bar and continued, without looking up, "Come for dinner."
Les ran through the small list of Russian words he knew, trying to see if something that sounded like 'dinner' might have some different meaning to Chinoff. "...Tonight?"
"As you like. But no pirozhki until Sunday." Chinoff swept a hand around, indicating the bar and everything in it that needed to be attended to. "Some of us have real jobs."
Despite his misgivings about his own reactions to the whole situation, that made Les laugh. "Thank you, Mr. Chinoff, but I--"
"Zadie," Chinoff interrupted. "No one says 'Mr. Chinoff' but salesmen and government men."
If this did turn out to be some odd setup on the Chinoffs' part, some strange counter-sting, it was at least the friendliest enemy action Les had ever encountered -- and in the face of it, he was powerless. "...What time Sunday?"
"When owls wake up." Chinoff -- Zadie, so many important things to remember -- shook his head with a smile. "...Also Sunday breakfast, if you stay from Saturday night."
Les kept all look of surprise off his face through a colossal effort. "Sunday evening will be fine. Thank you. For ... well, thank you." Sensing that staying any longer would be both overstaying his welcome and delving dangerously into the territory where Les might say something stupid, he turned on his heel and made the quickest exit he could from the café.
When he got back to the office, only Margery asked where he'd been, and he told her he'd been visiting his mother, which was something he did often enough to make the lie sound plausible. Back behind his desk, he shut the door and pulled out his pain pills, holding the dark brown bottle up to the light and seeing the way the small tablets inside looked in silhouette. He didn't want them; he wanted the cigarettes, the ones whose contents he couldn't just yet bring himself to name, even if he had no real illusions about what had been rolled inside the paper.
What the hell did he think he was doing anyway? This wasn't information-gathering, not anymore; this was the worst set of decisions he'd ever made in his life. And the surest sign that he'd lost his entire damned mind was how of all the things Zadie had said and implied during their conversation, the part that troubled Les the most was how casual Zadie had been about the idea that Peter might have Les stay the night. As if Peter had done that before. As if Peter did that all the time. As if that were nothing special at all.
Les tossed back twice the prescribed dosage of pain pills and sat at his desk, staring at pages without reading the words on them, listening to his own breath, waiting for something to give.