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Authors: Christopher Bram

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BOOK: Hold Tight
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“Was there something else, Mr. Zeitlin?”

“No, sir. Nothing. I’ll be going now.”

Erich rode uptown to the Sloane House, to change into civilian clothes, then rode the subway down to Fourteenth Street. The additional trip and the act of changing clothes made this visit feel strangely important to him, as if he intended to accomplish something different from earlier visits. Keeping Fayette’s mental capability a secret, Erich had realized he was protecting Fayette. Walking up the stairs to the street, Erich realized he wanted to tell Fayette more than was safe. He wanted to warn him.

Erich did not know where the urge had come from. As soon as he acknowledged it, he felt it had been at the back of his thoughts for the past two days, ever since he heard Fayette and the houseboy make love. He wasn’t sure why the sex act should seem crucial. Making love with the streetwalker he met the same night—a green Midwestern girl who found Jews exotic—Erich felt a peculiar kinship with Fayette, as if sex were sex, and hearing a man fornicate made you his brother. No, hearing that should repel you, even when it was with a woman, especially if you disliked the man. But Erich did not dislike Fayette. Listening in on him and the houseboy, he had not been repelled or morally sickened, only embarrassed by his own superfluity. For so long Erich had tried to detach himself from this wrong by thinking of the man as an idiot or a pervert. But he had discovered Fayette’s intelligence, and the man’s “perversion” had not sounded nearly as disgusting as its reputation. No longer protected from him by the names, Erich saw Fayette plain. His conscience would not shut up. Like Erich, Fayette was a foreigner in any country, only he didn’t know it, yet.

Approaching the square, Erich noticed the black Ford pulled up on the curb, the low sun reflected in a bronze oval stretched over the fender. There was a man slumped behind the wheel, as if taking a nap, and Erich saw the open eyes in the sideview mirror—Sullivan’s partner from the other night. Erich walked past without either of them acknowledging the other. He was surprised they were still watching the house. They had their hands full following Rice. Crossing the square littered with slats and cabbage leaves from the day’s market, Erich could feel the FBI watching him. He stepped into the shadow of the house, walked up the steps and rang the bell. His complicity sickened him, but warning Fayette did not feel quite right either. It might only cause the sailor to desert, which would send him to prison for certain. He had to be careful not to sacrifice Fayette just to soothe his own conscience. At the same time, he had to take care not to let carefulness cause him to do nothing. Erich knew he was so accustomed to guilt that inaction came much too easily to him. An American would behave differently.

The door was opened. It was Fayette.

He was dressed in freshly laundered whites and wore his cap, as if all set to report back to his ship. But he looked surprised to see Erich, unpleasantly so.

“You,” he whispered. “Yes?”

He stepped back when Erich quickly stepped inside and closed the door. He was looking sideways at Erich, one blue eye half-hidden behind his nose. He seemed mistrustful. Or maybe he was ashamed of what Erich had heard the other night. The idea of shame disturbed Erich. It made Fayette more human than ever.

“I came to pick up the things from the other night. Is it safe to go up to your room?”

Fayette rocked on his heels, like a guilty child. “Yeah, sure,” he said, then turned and started up the stairs.

Erich followed, knowing he should be deliberating over what to tell Fayette, but unable to think of anything except that the seat of the pants creasing and uncreasing in front of him covered an anatomy he had heard sodomized.

Up in the room, they closed the door. Erich moved the chair to the corner and stood on it. He was too short to reach the paper lantern, so he had to ask Fayette to take it down.

“Oh, you’ll be pleased to know we’re acting on your discovery. Commander Mason said to say you did well.”

“Yeah?” Fayette passed him the lantern and microphone and stepped down. “Good. Does that mean I’ll be getting out of here anytime soon?”

“They want you to remain here a little longer, Hank. Until they verify that this man is a spy.” Erich used Fayette’s first name deliberately, to suggest trust, but it sounded as condescending and phony as Mason’s constant use of it. “I’m sorry they’ve left you in the dark these past two days, Fayette.” He began to wrap the cord around the mike.

Fayette stood at the door and folded his arms. “So who was listening to me Tuesday night? You or the G-man?” He spoke angrily.

“Uh, I was.”

“Guess I gave you quite an earful. Me and the
nigger
.”

“Not at all.” Erich felt himself blushing. “You sounded as if you were enjoying yourself. As best you could. Under the circumstances.” When he looked up, he found Fayette staring at him curiously, the anger put aside.

“You don’t think I’m some kind of animal? For doing it with a colored?”

“No. You had no choice. You had to do it for us. Besides, I’m not American. Race doesn’t mean the same to me as it does to you.” Or rather, the
Negro
race, which apparently was what Fayette’s shame was about. He could still say “nigger,” although it rang false after what Erich had heard through the microphone he now packed into his briefcase. Feeling the sailor relax, Erich decided they needed to continue this conversation so he could gain Fayette’s trust before he decided exactly what to tell him. “Can I buy you a drink somewhere? What you did the other night calls for a celebration, don’t you think?”

“Maybe. I’d like that. I should get away from this stuff, even if it’s just for an hour. But I promised to go to a party tonight. With Juke. The colored boy.” He lowered his eyes. “Kind of to pay him back for the other night. That’s all. That’s why I’m done up in my dress whites like this.”

“Another time then.” But Erich wanted to do it tonight, before his nerve and good intentions changed.

“Sure. Only I really do need it tonight,” he admitted. It was as if they read each other’s thoughts. “Hey. All I got to do is show my face at this party. Then you and I could go somewhere for a beer. You mind coming along and cooling your heels for a half hour?”

“What about Juke?”

“Aw, Juke’s just Juke. He has no right to squawk. I don’t owe him anything. I don’t.”

Erich wondered what had happened since Tuesday, if anything. Whatever was going on between Fayette and the houseboy could hold for another night. This was more important. “Where’s this party being held?”

“Somewhere on the waterfront not too far from here. Starts before sunset, so it can’t be anything too wild. You mind, Erich?”

“Not at all. Let me take care of this first.” He went to the window and shook the cord loose, then reeled it in, wrapping it around his arm. All he was going to do was share a few facts disguised as suspicions with Fayette, just enough to put Fayette on his guard. It would be up to the sailor to choose his own course of action. Erich could alleviate his conscience without making himself fully responsible for any harm that came to the man. Besides, he did not know exactly what Fayette
could
do. “I’m finished here,” he said when the line was packed up with the mike.

“Before I forget, I got something I wanted to give you.” Fayette opened the top drawer of his dresser and passed Erich something. It was a book of matches, covered with blue zebra stripes and bearing the name “El Morocco” in tall, skinny letters. “Fell out of the spy’s pocket the other night. Maybe it’ll help find him.”

“Yes. This could prove helpful. Thanks,” said Erich and pocketed the matches, although they already knew Rice frequented this particular night club.

“I hope you people nail that bastard. What’s his name, anyway?”

“They want to keep that private, Hank. For legal reasons.”

“No skin off my nose. I never want to see the sonovabitch again in my life.”

“Hank!” The name was hollered from downstairs.

“That’ll be Juke. Must be time to go. I’ll tell him you’re coming with us.”

They went down the stairs, Erich wondering what he was getting himself into, not just with the party, but with his decision to unlock some of the secrets without unlocking all of them. It would be like plucking one apple from the base of a pyramid of apples, without causing an avalanche of apples.

The houseboy wasn’t waiting for them in the front hall, only the Bosch woman who was talking to a young colored girl in a white dress. Erich wondered what a girl was doing here.

“Where’d Juke go, Mrs. Bosch?”

The colored girl turned around, looked demure, then burst out laughing.

“Juke?”

“Aren’t I divine?” said the girl. She was the boy. His lips were painted bright red and he wore a wig in a snood. He turned once, flaring the dress. He lifted his knee and presented a white high heel. There was a glimpse of red toenail in the open-toe. “And you’re going to be Lena’s beautiful white sailor accompanying her to the ball,” he said, delicately slipping a brown hand with red fingernails inside Fayette’s arm.

Erich stared at Juke, trying to see the houseboy hidden inside the girl. He remembered the boy’s arm muscles and shoulders, but it was a long sleeve dress and the shoulders were padded, although there was probably less padding and more shoulder here than in most women’s dresses. The white gardenia pinned to his shoulder did not look inappropriate. And yet this was the boy who had been the man with Fayette. It was too confusing, like contemplating the sex life of a hydra.

Then the boy noticed Erich.

“Meester Zeitlin?” said Mrs. Bosch. “What’re you doing here?” But when Erich didn’t answer, only continued to stare at Juke’s eyelashes, she said, “Yes. Doesn’t he make the prettiest gurrl? I let him fix up one of my old dresses, but everything else is his.” She plumped up his snood, smoothed out his shoulders. “He has worked so long for me he now has my good taste.”

Juke’s made-up eyes shifted from Erich to Fayette.

“Juke. Are those earrings of mine you are wearing? Who told you to wear my good mother-of-pearl? I gif you an inch and you take a mile!”

Fayette, too, stared at the boy, his tongue poking the inside of his cheek. “What kind of party is this, anyway?”

“A drag ball, darling. Isn’t the dress a big enough hint?” Juke sneered at Fayette, angrily. He pointed an unladylike thumb at Erich. “Why’s
he
with you?”

“Yes, Meester Zeitlin. Why today? We don’t see you except on Mondays,” said Mrs. Bosch with a wink so quick it looked like a twitch.

“Haven’t you noticed?” said Juke. “He comes by all the time now. To see his boyfriend.”

“Not my boyfriend,” said Fayette. “Just a friend. He’s coming with us to this party, Juke. If it’s okay with you.”

“What if I say he’s not invited?”

“Then
I’m
not coming.”

Fayette and the houseboy stared at each other.

“He thinks you are Hank’s boyfriend?” The Bosch woman was giggling. “That is very funny, Meester Zeitlin.”

“It’s all right, Fayette. I have other things to take care of.” Erich did not want to involve himself in a lovers’ quarrel, if that’s what this was, and he did not want to attend a transvestite ball. “We can talk some other time.”

Juke turned on him. “What’s the matter, bookkeeper? Not man enough for a few drag queens?” The boy was crazy. He insulted Erich for giving in.

“Not at all. Mr. Fayette gave me the impression this was a casual gathering. If it’s a fancy dress affair, I’m not suitably dressed.”

“Mrs. Bosch be happy to let you wear one of hers,” said the boy.

The Bosch woman howled, laughing so hard she had to pull her handkerchief out of the front of her blouse and cover her mouth. “Eef only your boss could see…!”

“Pay no attention, Erich. Come along. There’s gonna be regular guys there. Like me.” Fayette turned away from the others and whispered, “Ten minutes won’t kill us.”

Erich felt Fayette wanted him there for protection against Juke. “Thank you, but I don’t want to be a fifth wheel.”

“You won’t be. It’s not like me and Juke are a couple or anything, just because he’s dressed up as a girl. We’re just some guys going to a party.”

Juke looked at Fayette. He nervously tapped the spike of one high heel against the floor. He chewed on his lip, before he remembered the lipstick.

A car horn honked out front.

“Oh, shit. That’s the taxi I phoned for. Okay, you want to bring the bookkeeper, bring the bookkeeper. Bring the garbage man and a full-piece orchestra for all I care. Let’s get going.”

“See? I told you Juke’d come around.”

Erich still didn’t want to go, but with everyone heading for the door he did not know how to get out of this.

“You be careful with those earrings!” Mrs. Bosch shouted behind them. “You lose one, Juke, and I strengle you!”

There was a yellow taxicab with red fenders waiting out front. Juke hobbled down the steps and across the cobblestones, gradually gaining enough momentum to walk gracefully in heels. By then, he had reached the cab. He stood at the door without opening it.

Erich understood first and opened it for him.

“Thank you, Erich, darling,” said Juke, sounding like a lady. “You
did
say your name is Erich?”

Seeing the black Ford still parked across the square, Erich wondered what Sullivan would think when he heard Mason’s assistant had gone off with the sailor and a Negro transvestite. Luckily, Juke looked like a real woman, at least to white eyes.

“We won’t stay long, I promise,” Fayette whispered as he stepped in.

Erich climbed in beside him, pulled the door shut and they were off.

“Pier 44, darling,” Juke told the driver. “I am so pleased you thought to bring your friend, Hank. For a girl to arrive with a man on each arm suggests she’s very much in demand.”

The driver said nothing, but studied them in his rearview mirror, unaware that this trio were even more peculiar than they seemed. Erich felt as if there were actually four of them in the backseat: himself, Fayette, Juke in drag, and the real Juke.

They had gone less than a mile when the taxi pulled to the curb.

BOOK: Hold Tight
8.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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