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Authors: Christopher Bram

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BOOK: Hold Tight
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“Here ya fags, Mr. Krull. They was out of Luckies. Out of everything, these gobs buying anything that’s not nailed down. Hi, Miss Krull, ya still here?”

“She was just going.” Simon took Anna’s coat down from the peg and held it open for her. That was as close as he came to kissing her goodbye in the presence of others. “I will try not to be too late, dear.”

“We’ll have your dinner waiting for you in the oven, Papa.” It was what she always said, but saying it today in front of Alfred, with so much else on her mind and her father’s, was strangely exciting. She didn’t want to go. She wanted to be given her first task, so that her excitement could be given purpose, shape. Her father held her coat until she was snugly inside it. “Goodbye, Papa. Bye, Alfred.”

“See ya around,” said Alfred, pretending to tinker with a projector while he stole a look at the inches of calf between her bobby socks and skirt. Anna thought Alfred repulsive.

She went down the five steps to the door, gave her father a last look and opened the door. A couple sat necking on the step outside. A sailor and girl. They turned around, startled by the light and Anna. The sailor saw Anna and proudly smirked, unaware of how silly he looked with his neckerchief twisted over his shoulder and his mouth smeared with lipstick. The girl was sleepy-eyed, young and unashamed; she seemed to challenge Anna with her eyes.

“Excuse me,” Anna said sharply, pulling the door shut behind her, closing off the light and the whir of the projector. She gingerly stepped around the couple.

The town had filled up with servicemen this past month and one couldn’t go anywhere without falling over groping couples. New York was one big barnyard. Anna went up the aisle toward the curtain hung over the exit, trying to forget about sex, wanting to feel important with her secret future. Away from her father, she didn’t feel excited, only anxious.

Out in the balcony lobby stood two more sailors, talking and smoking cigarettes. Their uniforms made them look like black paper dolls. Anna noticed them notice her as she walked by. Could she do it, talk to male strangers? She had already walked past them and couldn’t turn back without appearing brazen, but she wanted to test herself. She paused at the top of the stairs that went down to the glass doors, foyer and daylight. She looked back at the two sailors; neither noticed she was still there.

Then she saw another sailor down below, giving his ticket to Bobby at the door before he came up the stairs, two steps at a time. He was very tall and his black wool coat made him look huge, so huge he frightened Anna. But she stood her ground, waited for him to see her. He looked at the gold ceiling, brass handrail, balding carpet, at everything but Anna. He had a child’s face and was grinning like an idiot.

His grin vanished when he saw her waiting for him.

Anna drew a deep breath and said, “Lovely day, sailor.”

The sailor snatched his cap off his head. A sheaf of blond hair fell on his brow. “Yes ma’m. Beautiful day, thank you.” He had a thick Southern accent.

“Yes. Well…” What next?

The sailor continued to walk past her, gawking, still clutching his cap in one hand. He was a hick, a complete innocent.

“Enjoy it!” said Anna.

“Ah will, ma’m. You enjoy it yourself.” And he returned his cap to his head and kept right on walking.

Anna breathed a sigh of relief as she went down the stairs. She
talk to them. It wasn’t her fault this sailor was too stupid to know how to take advantage of a friendly woman. Or, if he had rejected her because she wasn’t pretty enough, that didn’t hurt her the way it did when she had thought only of herself. The old anxieties were nothing but selfishness, and Anna had a higher purpose now.

She went out on Forty-second Street feeling pleased with the future. Things were happening; it was an exciting time. It was only right that things should happen with her.


Class, screwed his cap back on his head and loped across the balcony lobby. It was a nice surprise to have a stranger say hello. The North was supposed to be so unfriendly, yet that pudgy girl had greeted him just like any sane person on the streets of Beaumont, Texas.

Two sailors stood off to one side and watched Hank approach. One nudged the other; the other shook his head. Hank wondered what they were considering, but he didn’t want to have anything to do with them either. This was his first day of liberty after two months at sea and Hank was tired of Navy. It was his first time in New York City and he wanted everything to be new. He had spent all morning and the better part of the afternoon riding the trolleys up and down this human beehive, getting a crick in his neck. There was something wonderfully unnatural about a place where buildings dwarfed the tallest elm tree. The city looked straight out of the planet Mongo in the funny papers.

The inside of the theater was as big as a circus tent, but the movie looked the same as movies in Beaumont, only taller. This was another one about the boy from the radio who talked through his nose. Hank almost turned around and went back out again, only he’d paid his four bits and there was no harm in staying long enough to see what happened. He stood at the back of the balcony, behind the partition, took off his bulky pea coat and draped it over the partition. There were plenty of empty seats up here for the matinee, but theater seats never gave Hank enough room for his lanky legs. He tugged at the scratchy dress blues that pulled too tight across his butt and wondered if the guys had been only ragging him about this place. It was just a big old movie theater.

There was a sudden smell of cologne, sweet and boozey. Then the smell faded. Hank looked left and right. He saw the back of a man sliding off to the right. The pointy crown of the man’s half-lit hat was turning, as though he’d been looking at Hank.

Hank glanced back at the movie—Henry Aldrich was getting scolded by his mother—then looked around the sloping balcony. Someone got up, walked up the aisle, then sat down again. So many Yankees wore those funny shoulders that Hank wasn’t certain which were men and which were women in this light. He looked up at the staggered windows of the projection booth and the beam of light that occasionally twitched inside itself.

The smell of cologne returned, and hung there. Hank waited a moment. When he turned around, he found himself looking down on the spotless brim of a hat. The man stood only a foot away. Like most people, he was shorter than Hank.

The man looked up, his face slowly appearing beneath his hat. He had a smooth, friendly face and a red bow tie. “You’re standing improperly,” he whispered.

“Beg pardon?” said Hank. “Sir?”

“If you want to meet people, you should stand with your hands behind you.”

The man sounded so well-meaning and knowledgeable Hank automatically took his big hands off the partition and placed them at his back in parade rest.

“And you’re quite tall. You should hold them a little lower.”

“Like this?”

“Let me see.” The man stepped up behind Hank and pressed his crotch into Hank’s hands.

The wool was ribbed and baggy. Hank cupped his hands around a loose bundle inside before he realized what he was doing. His heart began to race.

The man lightly cleared his throat. “Uh, you interested?”

Hank let go and spun around. He looked, then snatched the man’s hat off his head so he could see him better. Strands of light from the movie flickered in the brilliantined hair while the man anxiously reached for his hat. He wasn’t so old, maybe thirty, and not at all effeminate. Hank let him take the hat back, then reached down to feel the man’s crotch from the front.

“Oh? Oh.” The man pulled his brim back over his eyes, glanced around, reached down and touched Hank, tweaked him through the cloth. “I see,” he whispered. “I don’t suppose you have a place where we can go?”

Hank closed his eyes and shook his head. It felt so damn good to touch and be touched again. The cologne wasn’t so strong once you got used to it.

“I live with my mother, you understand. But I have some friends downtown with a room we can use.” He removed his hand and used it to take Hank’s hand, rubbing a smooth thumb across the wide, hard palm. “Do you mind going downtown?”

“Hell, no!” Hank cried and pulled loose to grab his coat.

“Shhh, please. Discretion.” But the man was smiling to himself as he nervously glanced around and nodded at the curtain over the exit.

Hank followed him out to the balcony lobby, where the two sailors still waited. “What did I tell you?” said one. “Trade.”

The man didn’t look at Hank, walked quickly, trying to keep a step or two ahead of him. So even in the big city people were shy about this. Hank buttoned up his coat so he wouldn’t show. He buried his eager hands in his coat pockets to stop himself from grabbing the man’s arm or slapping him on the ass, he was so happy. His shipmates hadn’t been teasing him when they joked about this movie house, laughing over why they wouldn’t want to go there and why Hank might.

Out on the street it was almost spring, but a city kind of spring, just temperature. The other side of Forty-second Street was deeper in shadow now than it had been when Hank went inside, and the penny arcade there looked brighter. Gangs of sailors charged up and down the sidewalks, hooting and elbowing each other over every girl they saw, not understanding how much fun they could’ve had with themselves. Hank had understood since he was fourteen. Thumbing around the country or working at a C.C.C. camp, he had met plenty of others who understood, too. There had to be others on the
but living on a destroyer was worse than living in Beaumont. You had to live with them afterwards, which could get sticky if they started feeling guilty or, worse, all moony and calf-eyed. It should be as natural as eating, but people were funny and Hank did his best to get along with them. Most of his shipmates thought Hank was only joshing them or playing the dumb hick when he told them what he liked.

That Mongo skyscraper with the rounded corners stood at the far end of the street like a good idea. Hank’s man stood at the curb, signaling for a taxi. The traffic was all trucks and taxicabs, with a lone streetcar nosing along like an old catfish. Finally, a square-roofed taxi pulled over and the man opened the door and signaled Hank to get in. “West Street and Gansevoort,” he told the driver.

The man relaxed. He smiled at Hank, offered him a cigarette, then offered the driver one too. “I thought our homesick boy in blue deserved a home-cooked meal,” he told the driver. The men smoked cigarettes and talked about all the changes the war had brought about. The driver asked Hank all the usual civilian questions about home and ship and girlfriend. The man smirked to himself when Hank mentioned Mary Ellen, but he didn’t understand.

They drove along a waterfront, the low sun flashing gold on the dusty windshield between the high warehouses and higher ships. It looked just like the area around the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where the
was in drydock. Suddenly, there was a long stretch of sunlight, and Hank saw the rounded metal ridge of a ship lying on its side in the river. “Poor
,” sighed the driver and said it was sabotage. The man said carelessness and stupidity; the two began to argue about how much they could trust the newspapers. The driver mentioned a house that had been raided in Brooklyn, where there were Nazi spies and all kinds of sick goings-on, but how the newspapers had to hush it up because they’d caught a Massachusetts senator there. The man abruptly changed the subject by asking Hank if he had any brothers or sisters.

The driver let them out beneath a highway on stilts, in front of a yellow brick warehouse whose cranes were loading another zig-zag painted ship. The man watched the taxi pull away, took Hank by the arm and led him across the street, away from the river. “Almost there,” said the man. “How long has it been? Two months? Oh, but this should be good.”

“Hot damn,” said Hank.

They walked up a cobblestone side street, a long shed roof on one side, a snub-nosed truck parked on the other. Whatever the place was, it was closed for the day. Hank thought he smelled chickens. There was a stack of poultry crates against one wall, a few feathers caught in the slats.

“Not the nicest neighborhood,” the man admitted. “But what do we care, right?”

The street opened out on a square, a cobblestone bay where five or six streets met at odd angles. Two flatbed trucks were parked in the middle. The entire side of a tall warehouse across the way was painted with an advertisement for Coca Cola, the boy with the bottlecap hat wearing a small window in his eye. There were houses on their side of the square, three of them wedged together in the narrow corner. The man went up the steps of the white frame house that needed painting and rang the bell. Hank stood back and wondered what the man looked like without his overcoat, then without any clothes at all.

A little slot behind a tarnished grill opened in the door.

“Hello, Mrs. Bosch,” said the man. “Remember me?”

The slot closed and the door was opened by a horsefaced woman with a nose like a pickax. “Uf course I ree-member you. Mr. Jones? Or was it Smith? But come een, come een.” She spoke in a weird singsong as she ushered them inside and closed the door. She wore an apron over her flowered house dress and smelled of cooked cabbage. “And you breeng one uf our luflee service men. How happy for you.”

Hank was shocked to find a woman here. The women back home knew nothing about such things, which was only right. But Yankees were strange and this woman was foreign. Hank had never seen an uglier woman. She and the man weren’t friends, but she seemed to know what they were here for.

“And you are smart to come earleee.” Her voice went up at the end of each sentence. “There is another couple before you, but I think they are looking for courage and will let you go in front of them.”

She took their coats and hats and hung them on a rack. The man hiked his trousers and winked at Hank. He looked nice and slim.

The woman opened a door to the right of the narrow stairway and Hank heard a radio. The man stayed back but Hank leaned forward, so he could see what was in there. It looked like an old lady’s parlor, with a red-faced, bald man and a pale boy sitting side by side on a flowery sofa. They kept their hands to themselves, demurely folded in their laps.

BOOK: Hold Tight
11.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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