Hooray for Hollywood
If Tom had stopped to think about the risks of arguing with a Japanese machine gun emplacement, he might not have rescued the downed flier. He wouldn’t have received a purple heart and an oak leaf cluster to keep his silver star company. He certainly wouldn’t have gotten a message from the same flier at the officer’s transport barracks the next spring, letting him know there was an empty seat available on a transport to Seattle if he hurried. Tom hurried.
During April, perfect flying weather was both unpredictable and rare enough in Alaska that the Army Air Corp would put up every plane that needed to be elsewhere on very short notice. Tom had barely settled into the last free seat before they were taxiing for take off. He quickly realized what his fellow passengers seemed to already know: from the noises, this airplane was headed stateside because it needed more help than the Alaskan repair facilities could provide. Like the other passengers, he closed his eyes, but not to pray. He had parted ways with the God of his Portuguese mother a long time ago. Instead Tom settled for imagining the most distracting vision he could think of, the as-yet unmet but beautiful man he intended both to love and to leave before he had to report to his new unit for duty.
Perhaps that was the real reason why Tom took almost an hour to realize that he knew the lieutenant j.g. slumped deep into the bucket seat across the aisle, seemingly trying to sleep. Tom could comfort himself with the excuse that riding in this decrepit C-47 military transport was like being rolled in an ashcan over cobblestones down a hill, only louder and with intermittent jackhammer assaults. But the rough flight wasn’t enough of an excuse. After all, a man was never supposed to forget his first, even if that first had been about thirteen years old.
Well, to be fair, they’d both been thirteen. Tom wondered if his former conquest would recognize him. One way to find out; Tom coughed, very loudly. The eyelids opened and long lashes swept up over expressive blue eyes. What a pity the craggy face around the eyes was still as ugly as a career major’s ass.
Those eyes quickly flicked from Tom’s face to his shoulders to his chest and back again, in the military version of cruising with which Tom had grown all too familiar these past four years. A voice, much lower and richer than he remembered, bellowed over the racket of the props, “Do I know you, sir?”
Tom easily translated this back into a civilian’s, “Hey, I know you!” He felt, rather than heard, the second lieutenant on his left start awake from his own efforts at sleep. Before the kid could complain, Tom half-hollered at him from the lordly eminence of his own captain’s bars, “Would you be willing to swap seats across the aisle? As it turns out, the naval lieutenant is an old friend of mine from civvy street. I’d hate to keep you awake with our noise for the rest of the flight.”
Recognizing an order when he heard one, the artillery lieutenant shuffled around and managed to switch seats without either man being thrown against the metal walls or floors. When he’d settled, Tom’s one-time friend nodded acknowledgement to the second lieutenant and then leaned almost onto Tom’s shoulder, where he could lower his voice to something like normal conversational levels and still be heard. After months of deprivation in the Aleutians, having another man so close, especially one who’d once joined naked flesh with his own, made Tom’s skin warm. With a skill honed by much practice, he ignored the warmth and asked, “Thornton S. Vaughn, right?”
“Still just Stan. Tom Tibbetts. Tommy? Thomas?”
“Anything but Tibbetts, please. Tom.”
“Good Lord, it’s been, what, about seventeen or eighteen years?”
Their eyes met without words. A military transport flying out of Alaska was hardly the place to discuss being wrenched away from an unsuitable friend at fifteen. Just as well that neither Tom’s lobsterman father nor the senior Vaughn, who’d been something financial in Manhattan, had caught on to exactly how inappropriate their friendship had become. Still, Tom was glad to hear his twin suspicions confirmed, that Mr. Vaughn had lied about where Stan had been shipped off to and that his own Pa had intercepted Stan’s letters. Stan had been a good-natured kid, if a homely one, and a delightful introduction to the rich pleasures of perversion. It was nice to hear that Stan apparently hadn’t regretted—
Stan apparently still didn’t regret. A broad smile was spreading across the sun-weathered face. “I suppose Father and Mother must have asked the school to censor my mail. How have you kept all this time? What have you been doing?”
Better if Stan immediately understood exactly what Tom had been doing. Turning his face away from the direct line of sight of the other passengers, Tom decided that Dietrich was his proper muse in this touchy situation. He pursed his lips just a little, donned a world-weary expression, half-lowered his eyelids, and let his voice go smoky. “All sorts of things, Stan,” he husked with the appropriate suggestive glance. Relenting, he added more briskly, “I’ve been in Hollywood, working first as a dancer and then as a dancer-choreographer.”
Stan’s smile didn’t dim a watt. “Funny, your uniform claims you’re a ground-pounder.”
Tom bridled. “My temporary military service branch is properly named the infantry, Lieutenant Vaughn. My civilian career is choreography.” Although, given the years and opportunities he was sacrificing to the war—his low-key dread at losing the security of his studio contract was tediously familiar. Tom squashed the feeling flat.
“Aye-aye, Captain, sir. Message received.” Stan shifted his legs, obviously trying to get comfortable in the new seat and obviously failing. Good jeepers, he’d grown tall in the intervening years. Of course, they’d met back when Stan had just been exiled by his father to his family’s summer home to “get past” a vicious and sustained bout of rheumatic fever. That had been in February of ‘22, and Tom was still amazed the so-called cure of Maine winter weather hadn’t killed the kid, as puny as Stan had been. Instead—Stan shifted his legs again, and Tom cautiously let his eyes drift down. Yes, even given his handicapped start, Stan seemed to have raced to a magnificent finish in the manhood derby.
Tom shrugged mentally and shoved the glimpse away. “What about you?” This time he employed the voice he’d mostly stuck with the past four years, a voice he’d once used to studio executives and functionaries, the one that was ever-so-manly-and-butch.
“Oh, college, Europe, Manhattan, Europe, some playing around with writing. Then the war.”
Assessing sailors was no longer an adjunct to Tom’s favorite recreation, but he’d maintained a professional interest. He scouted the uniform again. “Sea duty, I see.”
“Yes.” Stan hesitated, and then added, “Given what I'd watched in Europe, I volunteered early, thinking I’d end up fighting the Nazis. I was your typical half-naïve, half-useless gentleman-ranker. But at Pearl—” He trailed off.
Men who’d been in real battles usually didn’t want to talk about them. Tom merely nodded, and drawled, “I get you. My number was drawn in the peacetime draft back in ’40. Then I missed my opportunity to say something obvious enough to the examiners to be waived for being visibly, ah, artistic.”
Instinctively, Tom glanced around before continuing. No, no senior officers around to notice any indiscretion. All five passengers were friends or friends-of-friends of the aircrew, hitching unofficial rides on this unscheduled flight to gain some much-valued forward time on their travel orders. The other three passengers still had eyes shut, trying either to sleep or to pretend they were anywhere else but aboard this levitating ashcan.
“If my draft board was feeling difficult, my classification board was just obnoxious. They gifted me to the infantry. But a while after basic the infantry shipped me to O.C.S. and made me a ninety-day wonder like you.” Since no one else seemed to be paying attention, Tom indulged in a little eyelash fluttering. “I suppose they couldn’t think of what else to do with me.”
Stan chuckled. Tom couldn’t hear it in the din, but he recognized the gesture. “So the Army made you what you are today.” He leaned a bit closer. “Traditionally, shouldn’t that have been the Navy’s job?”
“Fresh.” Tom felt himself smile as he added, “Well, where else would the classification tests slot someone who’d spent a good part of his youth hauling around lobster pots off the coast of Maine? After all, my regiment was originally supposed to be deployed to the deserts of North Africa.”
This time, they both laughed. While they were still sharing the joke, their plane changed headings and altitude and the engines grew, if possible, even louder. After a few more exchanges that now had to be shouted resulted in glares from the other passengers, they gave up on conversation. Still, Tom admitted to himself it was pleasant, for a change, to spend the long hours pressing a shoulder against a man who had neither illusions about nor hostility towards him.
When they got off onto the tarmac in Seattle, Stan said, still half-shouting, probably from sheer habit, “Now what?”
“I have a transport officer to beard, and I’m sure you do, too. If I’ve gained enough time, I may rent a room.” Tom hesitated, and then asked, “Do you want to meet this evening for dinner?”
“Sure. Any ideas as to where?”
“I’ve been told about a nice, safe place for collecting seafood down by the docks.” To Tom’s mild regrets, Stan didn’t seem to get the pun. Given that, and Stan’s rather butch demeanor even now when they were alone, Tom decided Stan had straightened out as an adult. Well, it had been too much to hope for, that Stan would be enough In The Know that they could go cruising together. Although they’d gone far as kids, there’d been only the usual chance that Stan would grow up Terribly Floral; from all that Tom had heard, the psychoanalysts didn’t know what they were talking about that way. Good enough for Tom that Stan seemed to have turned out bohemian. He would be safe and friendly company for dinner, if not for later in the evening. Tom was dog-tired of playing the manly combat officer and would enjoy the opportunity to camp it up for a bit.
Dinner that night was almost like being back in Hollywood. The setting was dubious, the scotch was dire, the salmon was superb, and Stan kept up a slightly high-brow version of the sort of chatter with which Tom had whiled away time during many an anticipatory nightclub dinner. He could close his eyes and pretend he was rendezvousing with a scriptwriter, an amusing thought.
“What are you smiling about?’
“I was picturing you at Everest Studios, making up dialogue for ape-men and gun molls.”
The blue eyes narrowed in mock-consternation and the voice climbed to a falsetto. “Jeeze, Louie, is it true dere’s wild gorillas in dis jungle?”
Tom lowered his own voice and growled, “Dat’s ape-type wild gorillas, you dim-bulb, not gangsters who’ve downed too much hooch.” Raising both his eyebrows and his pitch, he added, “Let’s not keep this up or we’ll be under contract to write B movie scripts before you can so much as blink.”
“It would be a change of pace from Alaska.”
“How typical that you would be patrolling off some bleak, mountainous, boggy, not-to-be-named island, probably not far from the bleak, mountainous, boggy, not-to-be-named island on which I was stuck for months, and yet we’d never heard a word of each other.”
“That’s war for you, all right,” Stan said, in the comfortably ironic tones of a man wielding a valid cliché.
Tom found he was narrowing his eyes rather dreamily. Probably it was only the result of an amazing amount of deprivation – even Tom had realized he couldn’t afford to screw around on a small island when he had troops under his direct command – but Stan was looking a good deal better than he had at first glance on the plane. The trip by air, due to an overly-efficient transport officer and a bizarre shift in his orders, had only gained Tom seven hours of informal leave. Promptly at midnight, he had to be at the King Street Railway Station to start the next leg of his journey. But he hadn’t known that when he’d seized the chance to rent a rare vacant room in the seafront boarding hotel—
“I remember that look. You’re hatching some scheme.” Stan’s voice was both amused and alarmed.
“Absolutely correct, Lieutenant. Although I’ll have you know, my little schemes were well thought of in certain quarters while we were recapturing Attu.” Realizing he was about to discuss his all-too-assertive role in last year’s Aleutian campaign, Tom hastily added, “Not to mention during this too, too tedious winter. My current scheme to obtain numerous lovely autographed pin-ups from some former acquaintances in Hollywood via mail, for example—”
Stan grinned, which made the small laugh lines at the corners of his eyes stand out. “I have to say, Tom, when you act like this, all I can think of is Garbo as the Russian Commissar in Ninotchka: militant, funny as hell, but still looking like a million bu—”
He’d broken off, but not because he’d meant to. Tom had abruptly reached out and curled three fingers into the loop of Stan’s loosened uniform tie. With a slow, relentless pressure he pulled Stan towards him across the tabletop as he said, voice low and husky, “That’s it, dear. If you’re comparing little me to Greta Garbo you’ve obviously been out in the boonies way too long. Time for you to come along with Tommy Temptress.”
Just before their lips would have met, he let go and stood up. Freed, Stan fell back into his seat, his eyes wide as he yanked at his tie, trying to loosen it enough to take a deep breath. Then he said, shaking his head, “By God, for all that you’re so far from Maine, you really haven’t changed a bit.” But he was also unfolding his length from the red leatherette bench as he said the words, so Tom merely smiled at him without bothering to veil the feral hunger in his eyes.
Tom was wise to the ways of temporary landladies. He’d examined from his window the fire escape that led to his abode and found to his pleasure that it looked unlatched, the final ladder already half-lowered, easy to coax down from below. Upon reaching the back alley, he merely pointed up. Stan assessed the situation, ran, jumped, and snagged the bottom rung of the half-lowered ladder. His height made the initial leap simple. Tom watched with approval as the rungs rattled quietly down, recently oiled. Obviously he wasn’t the first resident to want his guests to come and go unannounced. Stan used his arms to haul himself up the first three rungs, muscles bunching underneath his uniform shirt, and then swarmed up the rest of the way with proper, nautical deftness. He paused to make sure that Tom had followed in his turn, and then dutifully hauled up the ladder behind them.
Tom had left his window cracked open, so it was the work of a minute for them both to clamber inside. Stan shut the sash behind them, turned around, and Tom struck without warning in best infantry style. Two minutes later Stan was propped up against the wall next to the window, eyes wide as he looked down at Tom, big fingers pressing back hard on the tea-roses printed on the wallpaper, trying not to make any noises that might alert the neighbors. Tom wasn’t above taking advantage of that touch of peril; in fact, he relished the extra measure of control their need for discretion gave him. Strong against him, straining slightly back against the faded flowers, smelling of over-bleached military laundry and sweat, Stan was all the men Tom had walked away from for the last twenty-six months. But the salty-smooth hardness suckled in Tom’s mouth was Stan’s own, and that mouthful was an old friend who’d made good. Delicious: adult Stan did indeed have a cock worthy of the skill honed by years in Hollywood.
One large hand hovered uncertainly over Tom’s nape and then, granted permission by an approving murmur and a deft twist of Tom’s tongue, settled into the loose curls of hair. The fingers stroked. They seemed to be trembling a little. Stan’s eyelids closed, his hips began to thrust and Tom granted him some time to enjoy the rhythm before he slid his mouth away and rose to his feet. Stan’s straight, brown hair was now damp with perspiration, but there was a broad smile on his face. On Stan, Tom decided, the expression was rather sweet, even if it did make him homelier than ever.
But that was getting sappy. “Look at you. How craggy you’ve become. I feel so all-American: it’s like blowing Abraham Lincoln.”
Stan’s eyes opened, his eyebrows raised, and the smile widened into a grin. “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the show?”
“Enough to be ready for a final bang, if one not quite so loud. The bed creaks dreadfully, but the storage chest is sturdy enough.” Tom had undone his shoes and web-belt as he was speaking. He had no objection to pants and shorts around ankles when someone else would do the post-coital pressing, but he still had military business tonight. Snapping a crease into his trousers, he draped them over the brass rail of the bedstead’s footboard, and then added his boxers as well.
“So it’s true all you dogfaces wear dirt-brown or mud-green right down to the skin,” Stan said from where he still leaned against the wall, slowly working himself in his fist.
“Ah-ah!” Tom said, raising an admonishing finger. He left Stan to decide if he was being reproved for the inter-services jab or the self-administered pleasure, but in any case Stan left off, stood up, and removed his trousers. After a moment of consideration, he kept going and stripped to the buff. It was true that his shirt-tails might have gotten in the way, but Stan’s nakedness might also be due to vanity. Unclad, Stan was still no beauty but he’d kept in superb shape, and there was a promise of endurance and vigor in his lanky, lightly-furred musculature that was definitely appealing.
Tom, after putting away the cornhusker’s lotion, walked around him, surveying. “Yum. Tennis? Squash? Surely not golf.”
Stan snorted, and then asked, “Come on, Tom, I’ve changed that much? Swimming and sailing, mostly, then the navy.”
His protest was valid. “You’re right, that was snide. Sorry, dear.” With a feeling of relaxed, pleasurable munificence, Tom draped himself over the chest and braced. “Don’t be afraid to push me off my feet if the height difference is a problem. This pseudo-colonial fright can take more than my weight.”
“But shouldn’t I also use some—”
Tom pointedly cleared his throat.
“—fine, it’s your ass.”
“That it is. So start slow.”
Tom stayed hard enough that he didn’t even bother to pump himself as Stan worked into him. Nostalgia was a wonderful thing. Besides, as long as his fast had been, Tom wanted to feel every iota of sensation, even the pain of once-again unaccustomed stretching.
“Oh fuck.” Stan’s deep voice was quiet, low, and ragged.
“Oh yes.” It came out almost a croon. “Come on, Stan. Make it rough.”
Stan did. Something – Europe, New York, the navy? - had enriched his vocabulary. Tom would have been charmed by the intermittent, muttered obscenities if he hadn’t been too busy thrusting back as hard as he was being thrust into.
Nice as it would have been to linger, they’d both been out in the cold for too long. Soon Stan was trying to pound him right through the trunk as Stan came, an experience elemental enough that Tom felt himself starting to peak even though he was being ground against strap leather. At least this way he’d only have the chest to clean. Then his thoughts tore away like unanchored tents in an Aleutian squall as Tom spent. Stan was breathing hard in his ear, hips still working. But his hands were now gentle on Tom’s upper arms as a groan escaped Tom’s best efforts at silence.
Afterwards, Tom waited, half-wary. Right after the heat broke was a chancy time with a lot of mannish types, when they’d suddenly decide they had to reaffirm they were real men at the expense of their more effeminate partners. Tom’d had a few fights in his time.
But Stan was still Stan. He asked, “Will you be okay if I slide out now?”
“All right,” Stan said, and suited his action to his words.
Tom straightened up, grimaced, and checked the wristwatch he hadn’t bothered to take off. “Good: enough time left for me to take a hot bath before I have to head for the station.” He reached up and ran a quick forefinger across Stan’s lips. “It’s still going to be a long, achy ride. And thank you for that.”
Stan half-smiled, and then asked, in mock-surprise, “Your landlady lets you take baths after ten? Can I have your room?”
“When we climb back down, I’ll take you around front and introduce you before I head for the bathroom.”
Stan nodded, hesitated, and then asked, “Will you give me your address? I’d hate to lose track of you again.”
He eyed Stan, and then gave in. Years before the war, Tom had developed a strict rule against any long-term sex affairs. But Stan wasn’t a casual pick-up, either, even if he’d filled the role this one time. “I don’t know where I’ll be for long, but I’ll give you a drop-address. It belongs to a middle-aged actor whose very close friend is off tormenting the Italians, so it’s quite safe. The actor’s whiling away his war selling bonds and keeping members of the Hollywood Men’s Club in touch with each other.”
Did Stan brighten a little? Well, one problem with Tom’s having informally left his hometown young was no mail from relatives. A childhood friend could take up some slack. Feeling quite content with this successful conclusion to yet another little scheme, Tom abruptly leaned forward and planted a smacking kiss on the end of Stan’s nose, which made the man smile again. All right, the expression really was sweet, and no one was around to see all this icky sentimentality.
Stan started to say something more, but instead turned away and picked up his underwear. Then he turned back, eyes sardonic. “Tom, do you have anything in the way of a rag or a washcloth around here?”
And so much for hearts and flowers. Just as well.
The slow ride down the coast, with detours into the Central Valley, certainly was long and achy, but the train was a troop transport and the scenery was nice. The view outside the window for the first leg of the trip was pleasant, too. Tom amused himself composing a letter to a friend full of rapturous descriptions of sundry marines that would be taken by the censor as tributes to the coastal ranges. Then he tried to decide who, among all the available personnel, could be classified as 1-F for fairy. When that amusement paled, he settled for reading. He’d taken the habit up seriously for the sake of additional insulation during basic training, and had found it surprisingly addictive. Moby Dick, for example, was turning out to be unexpectedly interesting.
Since his movements, by immutable military custom, were supposed to be a Desperate Secret, there was no one to meet him at Union Station in Los Angeles. Most of Tom’s friends were scattered to the four winds anyhow, in the various branches of the services or with the U.S.O. on tours. With some difficulty, he collared a taxi after a satisfying stare-down with an Army Air Corp captain who’d argued about who should be dropped off first. Honestly, some of these flyboys were much too full of themselves. They’d done an amazing job amid the ridiculous weather conditions in the Aleutians, though. Deciding to unbend, Tom condescended to give the captain some tips about the best clubs around the Southland for meeting would-be starlets, and they parted on much warmer terms than they’d begun.
The cabby left him off in front of a small mission-styled office building on Vine, with a sign out front reading, “J. Lollyman & Co., Personal Representation.” Tom checked the address against his hand-written orders, sighed, and hiked up the red tile steps. Inside the telephone switchboard girl was busy with her plugs and cords, and the receptionist was typing like a machine gun. Three bored-looking showgirls and a pair of bewildered but entertained sailors were parked in the chairs scattered around the Turkish-patterned rug. Both the sailors scrambled to their feet as Tom entered, but he waved them back and went to interrupt the receptionist.
“Captain Thomas Tibbetts, reporting as ordered.”
She looked up and asked, “Could you please have a seat, Captain Tibbetts? Mrs. Lollyman will be right with you.”
There were no seats left, and Mrs. Lollyman would take at least an hour in Tom’s jaundiced opinion. But the army had raised even his already high, Hollywood-trained threshold for bureaucratic delay. Tom nodded, and was about to go back outside for a fresh breath of the familiar Los Angeles soup, when the door to the inner office flew open.
“Sue, is that Tibbetts so-and-so here from the army—oh, no.” The buxom middle-aged redhead stopped in mid spate. “Please, tell me I’m dreaming.”
Tom smiled. “Hello, Lolly.”
“Oh. My. God. Tom Thomas, your actual last name cannot possibly be Tibbetts.”
Tom allowed himself to wince visibly. “Please. I beg you.”
She smacked herself in the bosom. Her pearls rattled. “It is you. Get inside this office right now, you b—egger.”
Aware of the puzzled attention of both the girls and the sailors, Tom marched, rather than sauntered, into Lolly’s den. She slammed the door behind him, eyed him up and down, and announced, “I may kill myself.”
Tom frowned. “I know this color isn’t terribly good on me, but I swapped five fox-trot lessons to a quartermaster with a stores corporal who could tailor—”
“Not that, you horrible man. I’m supposed to be coordinating a war-bond tour of several fancy-shmancy electronics plants, a place that makes earmuffs or something, a women’s college, and a couple of studios. So I ask the military for good-looking, high-brow Alaskan war heroes to get all the girls involved salivating and reaching for their pocketbooks. What do I get instead? A poet who looks like his pregnant mother was terrified by Pike’s Peak, and you, the ex-Queen of Hollywood.”
Tom drew himself up. “I am, at most, an exiled Rose Princess. Your client Nicky Andrews, on the other hand—” When this didn’t seem to be helping, he switched tactics and added, “Oh, calm down Lolly. I’ve spent the last three and a half years in the infantry. Believe you me, I can do butch.”
She snorted and went over to the office’s bar. “What do you want to drink?”
“Would that shelf run to a decent g&t?”
“Sure, this is Hollywood. I can do gin.” She poured, stirred, came over to give Tom his drink, and kissed him on the cheek. “Sit down, would you? I’ll get a crick in my neck.”
He picked a tapestry armchair and sat. “So how long is this tour, anyway? I wasn’t thrilled to lose the leave I was hoping to wangle before I was shipped off to disconcert some new bunch of boys. One grows desperate.”
“What, where have you been that you couldn’t find company, Siberia?”
“No, a teensy-weensy island somewhere far off Alaska, repple-deppled – sorry, reassigned – into commanding a company guarding soggy permafrost.” Tom sighed, rolling his eyes. “Lolly, my original orders were to rejoin my old regiment in Hawaii, a favor for which I practically had to beg on bended knees. Then in Seattle, I’m suddenly diverted here. I’m still hoping to finish my trip before my regiment disappears into the Pacific. But I am rapidly giving up any hopes of meeting a bronzed young Hawaiian war-worker who enjoys surfing, tropical fruits, and pale, newly-arrived army officers.”
“Calm down, will you? Given that you’ll be running around Southern California instead, I’m sure you can find some friends. Just not in the war plants, please. I don’t want to hear about it.”
“Then undergraduates are all right?”
“Don’t start with me, Tommy.” She glared at him and then turned the glare onto the manila folders on top of her otherwise pristine mahogany desktop. “And what’s with all the medals, anyhow? You could get killed that way.”
Tom squirmed. He felt the gesture coming, but couldn’t quite stop it. This was the first time his army life and Hollywood had really collided, and the sensation was surprisingly uncomfortable. “It wasn’t actually my fault. To do the job right, I had to lead from the front.” He could tell by her expression Lolly wasn’t buying his excuse. “Well, the boys certainly wouldn’t let someone like me lead from behind, now would they?”
Without a word, Lolly turned her eyes up and reached for the second folder. “At least I won’t have problems between you and this other guy, unless you two suddenly want to replay the Army-Navy game, ha-ha. You would not believe the mug on him.”
Tom closed his eyes and started counting to a hundred by sevens.
“But he’s got the Navy Cross and his poetry’s big news in the little magazines, so maybe the co-eds will give him a break—why are your eyes closed?”
He heard, rather than saw, the intercom on Lolly’s desk squawk, “Mrs. Lollyman, Lieutenant Vaughn is back from the hairdresser you sent him to.”
“Send him in. Tom Thomas, why are your eyes closed? The last time I saw you do that, I had to listen to Nicky Andrews whine for three months after you walked out on him.”
"Thanks for the reminder, Lolly." Nicky had been Tom’s final, disastrous proof of how stupid his romantic impulses were. If he refused to watch, perhaps this situation wouldn't get any worse.
Eyes still squeezed shut, he heard the door open. Tom gave up in time to see Stan look around the office, spot Tom, and smile radiantly. “Tom!”
“Maybe I can just get him to smile a lot,” Lolly half-muttered, “since it helps with the looks. A little.”
Tom sighed with audible feeling. “You caught another transport, didn’t you?”
“No, I rode rear-seat with an old girlfriend who’s ferrying planes. That was lucky; troop trains take forever these days, the way they zigzag them around.”
Lolly was critically assessing Stan’s hair from close range. “The cut didn’t help much, though.” She wrapped her pearls around a forefinger. “You’ll have to keep talking. You have a good voice.” Turning to Tom, she added, tone grim, “That’ll keep you quiet, an extra added bonus.”
Stan looked bemused. “But Tom has a lovely voice.”
The forefinger collected another loop of necklace. “No, Lieutenant, the captain does not have a lovely voice. He has a voice or maybe, just maybe, a nice voice.” She whirled and pointed her free forefinger at Tom. “What did you do to him?”
Tom shrugged. “We’re boyhood chums. I was hired to teach him how to swim back in Maine, and, well—it’s a long story.”
“Okay, I will kill myself.” She turned back to Stan. “He is a hero. You are a hero. You are not heroes together.” The forefinger had switched to waggling back and forth. “This is not the Iliad or something; this is heroism Hollywood-style. Think John Wayne.”
Stan made a gagging noise. Wayne was not well thought of by combat personnel.
“Lolly,” Tom said, “leave him alone. He’s been on a ship for months. Right now you’re probably reminding him of his Executive Officer, but in drag, and I’m sure it’s confusing him.”
Without warning, Stan burst into laughter. Tom looked at Lolly, Lolly looked at Tom. They both shrugged.
“I want to move to Hollywood,” Stan managed to get out.
Both Tom and Lolly looked at him. Lolly said it first. “Oh no you don’t.” Her voice was grim. “You’ll see.”
She turned back to Tom. “You are already scheduled to swing through Everest Studios to tell the staff and crews about how much our men in uniform love the movies and appreciate war bonds. When they find out who you really are, Captain Thomas Tibbetts,” her voice was dulcet, “they’re going to want photo opportunities. Lots and lots of photo opportunities. Better dig out all your fancy ribbons, guys.”
Two weeks later, Stan asked Tom, “Okay, we’re about done with this tour. What am I supposed to be seeing?” He’d just disentangled himself from three dancers, supposedly dressed as Barbary Coast showgirls, who’d lingered after the lunch-time war bond rally. One of the hoofers had slipped Stan a phone number. Since the man shortage didn’t seem that desperate around Los Angeles, the voice and medals must really do Stan some good. He’d been fairly well received by the co-eds, too.
Tom looked back down to the signed glossies he was sorting into his briefcase. “Seeing where? Oh, seeing about Hollywood?”
“So far, it’s been kind of fun, even better than the plant down by Long Beach with all the cute girls who made anti-submarine gizmos.”
“Hmm.” Tom glanced around warily. “Well, come along as we chat. We’re supposed to have a picture taken with an executive or three before we leave.”
Tom had taken it upon himself to steer them across the lot of his old studio after the rally was over since he knew their assigned guide to be an incorrigible name-dropper and a hideous bore. As they emerged from the soundstage to join a flow of male extras dressed in out-of-date tropical-weight army uniforms complete with the wrong helmets, Tom said, “You’ll notice that, in exchange for your peeking at some cleavage up close and some second-string stars at middle-distance, this studio will now obtain the seeming imprimatur of a combat hero for their war-time tripe.”
Stan snorted, and Tom continued, “Shut up, dear. You asked, so don’t interrupt me. I’m merely telling you what publicity will tell the press.” He’d handed the briefcase to Stan, so he could emphasize points with his hands. “As well, I, who was one of those used as a visible sacrifice in the columns so that certain young men in front of the camera could continue their civilian careers unimpeded, will now be displayed as a proud product of a system that may or may not condescend to welcome me back after years away from dancing.”
“I wondered why you were so obsessive about those stretches and movement exercises in the mornings. It couldn’t be for the sake of your figure. The army’s taken good care of that.”
Out of recently resumed habit, Tom fluttered eyelashes at the compliment, but refused to be diverted. “Nothing ever happens around here for only one reason, unless that reason’s power or money. No different from any other company town, I suppose, but it certainly upsets the art-for-art’s-sake types to realize they work on an assembly line.”
Stan shrugged. “Why should a guy necessarily be treated any better just because he produces symphonies rather than cellophane? Factory workers don’t deserve the crap they get, either.” He snorted. “The way this world works, I suppose we’re lucky to be paid for our stuff at all.” The grin that suddenly blossomed was wry. “Of course that’s great coming from me, my trust fund, and my twenty-dollar sonnets.”
Tom stopped, turned. “I thought you wrote free-verse, saucy sailor-boy.”
The tenor of Stan’s grin shifted slightly towards uncertainty. Oopsy. Those last three words must have come out a tad more suggestive than Tom intended, although the slip was Stan’s own fault. Tom had deferred to hard-learned common sense and stuck to brief encounters with his own kind, leaving Stan to sample the ladies of the Southland. But Lolly had them sharing hotel rooms. And even though they’d been pretending to be the bestest butch buddies, naval underwear was absolutely delightful.
Still, all common sense aside, Stan was proving as charming a companion as he had been when they were both kids. It wasn’t nice to treat one’s friends like so many fast snacks at the studio commissary.
Stan had glanced away, flushing, his expression now a bit diffident.
On the other hand, a girl should never disdain a good, old-fashioned home-cooked meal, or so the advice columnists claimed—
It was a vision to distract himself with while waiting in the plush outer office for the half an hour the coordinated schedules of Julian Weinstein, Bill Thorpe, and D.J. Stone had to spare for them. Stan was leafing through this month’s movie magazines, obviously intrigued by their distinctive way of abusing the English language. Every now and then as he read, his lips moved, seemingly savoring the sounds of particularly over-wrought sentences. Tom smiled. Those moving lips inspired Tom’s own intriguing thoughts of abuse.
Back when he’d been the strong and lanky lobsterman-to-be and Stan had been his frail and sensitive rich-kid pal, exploiting Stan in certain ways had seemed natural enough to both of them. But now their roles were reversed. These days, Tom knew that if he wanted to follow some of his natural inclinations, he had to keep to members of his own community. You needed a he-man very drunk indeed to have him submit in some of the ways Tom enjoyed, and he disdained such sloppy tactics. Resolutely, he shifted his attention to the less stirring subject of National Geographic’s discourse about “The Greek Way.” They didn’t share Tom’s take on the subject, of course.
When they were finally let into Julian Weinstein’s office, Tom was not surprised to find that even three executives, two photographers, a secretary, a flock of yes-men, and Stan and he didn’t manage to crowd the room. Weinstein was a vicious fighter and liked a large arena to battle in. As he’d climbed to Head of Production in the twenties, the man had been primarily responsible for making Everest one of the Big Six studios, and he hadn’t mellowed in the two decades since. So there was plenty of vacant space on the deep-pile carpeting for Tom and Stan to occupy concurrently and consecutively while shaking hands, smiling, grinning, frowning thoughtfully, and looking intent for various cameras. Tom drew the line at visible gratitude for executive acknowledgement, though, and gave the photographer who suggested that particular shot a cool stare that made the man clear his throat and settle for a nice smile.
During Stan’s solo shoot, Tom was surprised to find himself talking to Julian Weinstein rather than some flunky junior enough to speak with studio crew, and former studio crew at that.
“Thomas,” Weinstein said. He flipped open a thin gold case without offering it to Tom, took out a cigarette, and placed it between his lips. Resigned, Tom pulled out the lighter he always carried in this town even though he didn’t smoke. Weinstein took two puffs and blew smoke towards the ceiling, but his eyes had stayed on Tom. They were slightly hooded, hard to read. After a long silence that Tom didn’t fill – at least he knew better than to fall for that trick – Weinstein continued, “So I understand you have two weeks of leave before you ship out.”
Funny, no one at the replacement depots in either Alaska or Seattle had bothered to share such an understanding with Tom. He nodded in a way that might have been taken for acknowledgement.
“Have you heard John Stacey had a heart attack? He’s gone.”
“No.” Tom felt a sharp pang that he didn’t allow to show. Their brief liaison hadn’t survived Stacey’s condescending bed-gift of a small choreography assignment, and Tom’s subsequent success on his own terms. But Tom admired – had admired - Stacey’s skills as a choreographer.
“Too bad, especially the timing.” Weinstein shrugged. “He’d finished the notes for a big project we have going into production and started working with the dancers, but wasn’t anywhere near done. None of the bodies we’ve brought in to replace him really know what’s going on. We may have to push the starting date for shooting back.”
Tom made a sympathetic noise. A problem but nothing major—wait. Surely Weinstein couldn’t mean—
Weinstein blew more smoke, and then nodded thoughtfully to himself. “It would be useful if you could help us out. You know his notational system, right?”
“I could drop by and help the new choreographer interpret his notes, yes.”
“We thought you might do a bit more than help. Finish up a few numbers, brief the dance coach we’ve brought in on what you’ve figured, assist his replacement, whatever you can do in a fortnight. We’ll give you a co-credit and take some more pictures. It’ll make for a nice little article in the trade magazines.”
Weinstein making this proposition was like killing a blackfly with a howitzer. Tom felt blank. “I’m—not sure what the Army will think about pictures of one of their field officers rearranging a rehearsal line of tapping hoofers.”
“Not tap, some Latin crap. You’re half-Latin, right? The movie’s all about South of the Border. Anyhow, we told some of our military friends that you were irreplaceable in this situation although we didn’t say it was because of the close working relationship you’d had with Stacey in the past. I suppose we could make that clear to the Army if you think it would help.” And there was the steel hook in the studio bait.
Stan, who’d come to join Tom, narrowed his eyes and cleared his throat. Somehow the noise came out sounding perilously like a growl. Tom reached out to touch his elbow in warning and said, pleased his words sounded indifferent, “Oh, that won’t be necessary, Mr. Weinstein. I’m happy to do John Stacey a favor, even posthumously. I owe him a lot.”
“Gratitude is an excellent habit to cultivate.” Harsh as a March breeze off the Pemaquid light.
Stan cleared his throat again, although softly this time. When he spoke his voice was redolent of eastern ivy. “I’m sorry to interrupt, Mr. Weinstein, but the photographers wanted one last round with both Captain Tibbetts and me.”
Weinstein blew more smoke and studied Stan. Then he took the cigarette from between his lips and waved it at the two of them. “No, feel free. The captain and I are done for now, Lieutenant.”
For the rest of the photo session Tom kept smiling, and Stan at least kept his council, but Tom knew neither of them was entirely hiding their tension. Weinstein and Thorpe ignored the strained atmosphere, but Tom noticed D.J. Stone look up from his huddle of flacks and narrow his eyes, probably at some clue in everyone’s postures obvious only to himself. So Tom wasn’t really surprised, when they finally left Weinstein’s office, to find that Stone and his flanking squad were lurking in ambush by the water fountain halfway down the corridor.
Stone barked, “Thomas. Get over here a minute.” With the practiced skill of a reconnaissance platoon, Mr. Stone’s assistants surged forward, cut Stan off with excuses, and herded Tom towards the water fountain. Stan shrugged, smiled ruefully at Tom, and veered towards the men’s room, probably in an effort to shake off his interceptors. Resigned, Tom nodded greetings to Stone. But he kept his expression flat.
Stone removed the cigar from his mouth, regarded it, and sighed. “Julian always overdoes it. I wish he’d leave these matters to me.”
In a gesture Tom had learned from Stan’s family, he stared down his nose at Stone for a moment before choosing to unbend. By all accounts, D.J. Stone, the head of Publicity, closely resembled a starving coyote, which was climbing very high up the evolutionary ladder for a senior studio executive. “His tactics worked, Mr. Stone. He’s getting what he wanted.”
“Wonderful, brilliant, a pissed-off choreographer who knows how to use a rifle. Look, some of us have heard of the word carrot around here, as opposed to stick. Do this job well, don’t fuss about credit, and I’ll make sure you get a lock-clause renewal of your contract that’ll bring you back into the studio for two years when this war mess is over and give you a shot at reestablishing your reputation. You’re with Angelo Gerello’s agency, right?”
“Yes.” Tom pursed his lips for a moment, but he felt compelled to admit, “That’s a fair deal, Mr. Stone.” Annoying, but true.
“Then remember who did you this little favor. Fix up this choreography mess, go back to the army, stay in shape, and don’t get killed. I’ll be able to use that fancy fruit salad of yours in publicity after the war, but you won’t need any more of it. So keep out of trouble.”
Tom knew the proper response to this out-of-his-hands request. “Your mouth to God’s ears—”
“Okay, I get the picture. For right now, then, just make sure you and Boris-Karloff-in-the-bathroom show up at the Trocadero this evening so my boys can get plenty of pix showing off what Don Juans you both are.”
“We will.” Tom took a deep breath. Counter-assault time. “By the way, could you possibly clear me with studio security to visit Charlotte Harvey on her set this Tuesday? She’s an old friend who’ll autograph a few eight by ten glossies for me.”
Stone hoisted eyebrows, with the air of a man who was waiting to hear something rational. “You want pin-ups of Charlotte Harvey, Miss Operetta of 1935?”
“The senior officers go gaga over her. You’d be amazed what I can coax out a Corp of Engineers Major in exchange for one of her head shots signed with love and kisses.”
That sort of horse-trade Stone obviously understood. “And, boy, does she love signing for soldiers. It makes her real happy, in fact. So, sure. But for now, get lost. You look mad enough to nail someone to the wall, a pain in the ass that I don’t need.”
Tom’s lips twitched. Stone, catching this, gave him a pointed look that Tom condescended to ignore. A minute or two later, Stan came out of the bathroom still looking a bit harried. He started to ask something, stopped himself, and, at Tom’s waved hand, headed towards the exit.
Stan put off his questions until they were standing by the curb outside the famous wrought-iron gates waiting for a studio car to arrive. “Okay, that was confusing. Why were those fellows acting like they owned you?”
“I was under contract, Stan.” Stan nodded, obviously still waiting. Not everyone, Tom reminded himself, had been in the studio system since turning twenty-one. “In this town, you either have a contract with a studio or you don’t. If you have a contract, you belong to them like a sergeant belongs to the Army. You do pretty much anything they say and, in return, they give you work, fame, and money. Lots and lots of money, usually, which is what’s different from the military. But if you don’t have a contract—” Tom made a throat-cutting gesture, “You’re cattle. Piecemeal work, no guarantees, no protection, and the first time something goes wrong, you’re the blue-plate special in the studio commissary.” He shrugged. “I was under contract. I very much want to be under contract again.”
Stan seemed to chew this over. “Tom, am I mistaken, or did that Weinstein fellow threaten to tell the Army you’re a homosexual if you didn’t do what he wanted?”
“That’s right, darling. I admit, some of the executives have difficulties telling the difference between ‘my employees’ and ‘my dogs’, and are the kind of men who kick their dogs.”
Stan’s expression grew stern and distant, and for a moment it was easy to see where the pretty decorations on his ribbon bar had come from. “I see. Now I get why I don’t want to move to Hollywood.”
“You still don’t get it.” Tom sighed. “Amazingly, all my rolling around in the Aleutian mud seems to have somehow registered. He was much politer to me than men of his sort usually are. That was how he’d treat a film editor or writer, a normal sort who was married, owned a pure-bred Airedale, and played tennis. Our transaction, by local standards, was rather nice.”
At least the studio had bothered to move their prisoners into good quarters. They had a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the first time Tom had entered the place as anything other than a guest of a guest. Their swanky lodgings had sounded fun as a one night pay-off for speaking at a studio bond rally, but Tom only shook his head when an inquiry at the front desk produced the fact that their stay had been extended by two weeks. Stan raised eyebrows, but didn’t say anything until he and Tom had followed the bellboy through the palms and hibiscus to their new quarters. Then he looked around at the expensive mish-mash of tropical and mission-style furnishings and his lips quirked. “This is a lot better than the transport depot.”
“Much too much so. Something’s going on I don’t understand, and that makes me uneasy.”
“I think I have part of the information you want.” Tom raised his eyebrows, and Stan smiled, but without his usual charm. “As it turned out, Mr. William Thorpe and I are fellow alumni. Also, he knows my older brother Oliver, who’s now the senior family member at our bank. Thorpe ambushed me in the men’s room.” Once again, Stan’s voice went nasal. “ ‘First Farmer’s and Apothecary’s, right?’” The prep accent disappeared again. “Hell of an opening to have to respond to with your dick in your hand.”
Tom had coped with worse, but that was neither here nor there. “He was willing to talk?”
“To a point. Mr. Weinstein has budgeted a lot of money for this particular picture. They’re trying to garner points with someone in the government who requested that the studio push the hemispheric Good Neighbor Policy hard.”
Tom pursed his lips. “So he doesn’t want to run behind schedule. Although that doesn’t explain why choreography, in particular, would matter as much as it seemingly does.”
“I got the feeling a woman was involved, does that help? Thorpe made some crack about my watching my step.”
Tom nodded. “I agree, that sounds like a woman’s involved. Where’s that folder the studio driver gave us?”
“Still on the coffee table where you left it.”
Tom gave Stan a touch of his best Bette Davis glare, and went to retrieve the list he wanted. “Hmm. Lucky me. The then-assistant choreographer and I were actually on good terms back before I went for a soldier. I think it’s time for Tommy to telephone.”
Stan grinned. “Which is my cue to go for a swim, an option here even in April. Hooray for Hollywood.”
“What, you’re actually going to use the outdoor pool for swimming? Well, don’t splash too much or you’ll upset all the lovelies who are sunbathing in hopes of attracting executive admiration. Unless you’d like to garner some attention yourself?”
Stan flipped off a very unmilitary salute and went to change.
When he returned from his swim, swathed in a terrycloth robe and with a towel around his neck, Tom asked him, “How are your nerves?”
“Depends on how many Zeros have been reported headed for Los Angeles.”
“Up to unexpected company, I mean? My soon-to-be fellow choreographer is joining us on Studio Publicity’s mandated nightclubbing expedition and bringing along a friend.” Stan looked bemused and Tom waggled a finger. “Now, now, mustn’t make rude assumptions about gender, dear. Peggy Jolette is quite gifted in all the ways that would earn her a twelve-gun salute from a boatload of sailors and I’m sure your date will be equally talented. You won’t suffer for our professional chit-chat, I assure you.”
“Well, I suppose the proposed schedule beats another evening of bookstore-followed-by-bar. I’m tired of being pumped for tales of Paris, or the war, or Paris before the war by co-eds, even cute co-eds.”
“Then get your dancing shoes on. You still dance?” It had been a lot of years since Stan had graced the social dancing classes Tom’s Ma had taught in the summers.
“You’ll have to wait and see.”
The answer was yes, Tom decided about ten that evening at the Trocadero. Even under Tom’s critical eye, Stan moved across the dance floor very well for an amateur. If he’d had to work with the man on, say, a costume picture, something nice could have been done in the way of a Viennese waltz to show off all that height—
“Interesting. Your latest conquest?” The amused alto voice broke into his preoccupation.
“Alas, no, he’s all the man he appears to be.” That slight shading of the truth tripped easily off Tom’s tongue.
“Uh-oh.” Peggy grinned like a Dead-End Kid. “Then we may have to pry off Rita with a crowbar when this dance is over. You said your lieutenant was a nice guy, so I brought along a single friend who truly loves a sailor.”
“Don’t we all? Except for you, it seems.”
“You should be grateful to see your service capture this particular rocky isle. I will allow you to admire the battle trophy at close proximity.” Complacently, Peggy extended and tilted her left hand to show off the diamond to best effect.
“Ice of a size I’ve previously seen only in glaciers, my dear. Did he run you down or did you catch him?”
“A mutual collision, thanks. Which is why I’m glad to hear from you, aside from being sick of studio noises about Latin Serenade. I haven’t had a nice night on the dance floor since Kevin shipped out to Europe.”
“I’ll admit, it has been pleasant doing something with my feet that doesn’t in the least resemble close-order drill. But I’m afraid I’m about to make even more noise of the sort you detest.”
“Not unless you sound like one of Mr. Weinstein’s henchmen, you’re not.” Her smile at Tom’s raised eyebrows was sour. “So, no one else has shared the good news?”
Tom raised one hand. “Wait, let me guess. Let’s-call-it-love has finally come to Julian Weinstein?”
In turn, Peggy’s hair-flip was wonderfully world-weary. “Worse. He has a favorite eighteen year old niece. She, in turn, loves The Dance.”
“Jesus H. bald-headed Christ. Poor Stacey.” Remembering the studio photographers just in time, Tom didn’t press the back of his upraised hand to his forehead.
“Yeah, he’d earned that heart-attack. What a Hollywood way to go.”
Tom sighed deeply. “I was expecting deep-laid plots and instead I get a Hal Roach production. How bad is she?”
“Not bad for Hollywood. She takes orders and works hard at her dancing, not bad for nepotism. I don’t have any problems. You won’t have any problems and neither did Stacey, that way at least.”
Putting together what Peggy was hinting with Bill Thorpe’s tip-off, Tom asked, “As long as we put blindfolds on the accompanist and, say, one quarter of the chorus boys?”
“Maybe a third. She definitely has the looks. She also has the can-do attitude. If she were the marines and the male sex Japan, we’d be in Tokyo by now.”
Tom just shook his head and reached for his Pineapple Luau.
Still, Peggy was right. It was good to get back on the dance floor. He danced with Peggy, he danced with Rita, and he danced with a few other old acquaintances. Too bad Tom couldn’t dance with Stan but neither of them was thirteen and in a dancing class together anymore. Unless God reached down and either turned L.A. into an 1850’s mining camp or else made European folk dances all the rage in Hollywood – the first of the two miracles was more likely – Tom would have to settle for using his imagination to provide the heat that was so much a part of good social dancing.
Around eleven, Peggy said, “Bedtime for me, especially since we’re going to start sorting out Latin Serenade tomorrow. Tom, do you want to share a taxi and ride along to my place first? Then I could run upstairs and get Mr. Stacey’s notes before I send you on your way.”
“Aw, square-johns,” Rita said in a husky voice that Tom had wanted to steal the minute he’d heard her say hello. She turned to Stan, placed one red-tipped forefinger thoughtfully under her chin, and said, “I know a really fun place with a great late show. Keep a girl company?”
My, my, at least someone looked to have a nice night ahead of him. “Go ahead, Stan. Have a good time.”
“Don’t mind us old-‘uns,” Peggy chimed in, smiling.
“All right,” Stan said, his own smile a bit mordant. “Mustn’t dilute the reputation of the Navy, I suppose.”
“Goody,” Rita breathed.
In the cab, Tom said, “She really does love a sailor, doesn’t she?”
“Jealous?” Peggy had cranked down the window and then snuggled back a bit further into her mink. For Hollywood, the night was cool, which made it positively balmy for any normal location.
“My dearest, darling infant. Me, jealous of another man for staying out late with a temporary and willing companion? That would be like Cagney envying Raft’s ability to play the tough guy.”
“It’s still not too late to go over to the Flamingo. I’ll even keep you company until you find company of your own if you want. Given the circumstances, Kevin wouldn’t mind.”
“No, no, no. You’re right about tomorrow. I really should tackle Mr. Stacey’s notes before we both tackle the mess. A nice g&t and my feet up on the furniture while I sort out some overly romantic rhumba will be fine for Tommy Tired.”
In fact, Tom was frowning over the notes for a mish-mash of cantina dancing when Stan came in around two.
Stan was swaying a little as he took off his hat and spun it towards the coat rack. He missed. “That’s one hell of a party going on out by the pool.”
“Did they try and draft you?”
“Yes, but I’ve already had enough fruity drinks tonight to last me a lifetime, no offense.”
“None taken. I consume without admiring them. They’re awful, for the most part, but becoming terribly fashionable in this town. You’re back early.”
“Miss Rita found us a club a little rougher than I was in the mood for.”
Tom raised eyebrows. “You were able to drag her away?”
“No,” Stan had unbuttoned his uniform coat and was starting on his shirt. “She’d linked up with an old friend who’s now in the Army Air Corp. Better than the plain old navy, it seems. A dashing, handsome Clark Gable knock-off. Wild blue yonder, nuts.” With exquisite care he hung both shirt and coat up on the back of a chair. They promptly slipped off and onto the floor. Stan frowned.
“Leave them, Stan. If you try again you’ll probably fall over. You’re three sheets to the wind, sailor-boy.”
“Four, more like.” Stan folded down onto the couch next to Tom and added his feet to the coffee table. He turned his frown towards his shoes.
Tom sighed, rather enjoying his dramatic interpretation of tolerant exasperation. Leaning forward, he untied Stan’s shoelaces, removed shoes and socks, and placed them neatly on the floor where they belonged. While Stan intently regarded his newly liberated toes and then wiggled them at some length, Tom picked back up the pages he’d been studying. If he changed the cantina dance from this odd group tango to—
That was when Stan asked, “Tom, may I fuck you again?”
Tom felt his head snap to one side as if he’d heard a sniper’s round pass his ear. So he forced himself to pause and purse his lips before he parted them to observe, “You’re drunk, Stan.”
“Yup, and sloppy with it, I’d imagine.”
“I see. Was Miss Rita really as forward as all that before she abandoned you?”
Stan seemed to be trying to find words without success. Failing, he pressed his lips together, looked stubborn, and then opened his mouth to say, “I just want to—” His big hand drew something vague in the air. “I’m drunk.” He ran the hand through his hair, disordering it, and looked frustrated.
Tom tried closing his eyes and counting, but he could still somehow see projected against the inside of his eyelids Stan in his undershirt. His friend had fabulous shoulders, wonderful biceps. This temptation absolutely wasn’t fair, even before a very familiar hand landed on his thigh.
“I’m being fresh now,” Stan announced. The hand deployed upwards into dangerous terrain.
“And you thought it only right to warn me?” Tom opened his eyes. “Okay, Big Boy. I’ve always been a sucker for a classic set-up. Let’s see how well you do as a couch-bound seducer.”
He anticipated the rough strokes, surprisingly deft for all the drink, and even the not-quite awkward embrace as Stan undid Tom’s fly. But Stan’s sudden slide off the couch and onto his knees did take Tom by surprise, and the eager way Stan practically dive-bombed onto his target made fire snap through Tom’s veins. As Stan pulled him in through parted lips, Tom growled, “All right, you’re well along towards earning your ride. But let me give you a few pointers.”
Stan was still a fast learner. Only vivid memories of Seattle gave Tom the strength to call a time out long enough to get them both undressed, prepared, and into bed.
Alcohol may have slowed Stan but it hadn’t incapacitated him, and Tom was past worrying about taking advantage. He yanked Stan on top of him and hooked his legs up over Stan’s shoulders. God, sometimes he loved being a dancer. Stan’s face was intent above him, and one lock of hair had drooped down over his forehead. Without thinking Tom reached towards the errant lock but Stan had found his target and drove into Tom hard. Sans coaching, Stan shifted his angle of attack, gauging Tom’s expressions until he seemed to like what he saw. Then Stan’s hips settled into a rhythm. It was rough, vigorous, relentless, near-perfect.
Tom luxuriated, if one could call so active a dance luxuriating. Between them he worked himself, feeling the delight blossom on his own face, for once not minding if his true feelings showed. Stan suddenly smiled a response, reached up with one hand, grabbed Tom’s right ankle, and forced Tom’s leg back a bit more. Stan’s next drive forward made Tom’s eyes almost roll back into his head.
“Saucy-boy,” he managed to get out before the first surge stole speech from him. Stan’s reply was a deep chuckle, but there was a sweetness to it that made Tom smile back even as the world roared around him and he spent. After a glorious interval, he managed to add, “And now you’re going to get what you deserve.” With practiced control he clamped down hard, and Stan’s eyes went wide. Now Tom chuckled, hoping it sounded as evil as he felt. Then he proceeded to reduce Stan to smoldering wreckage.
Afterwards, Stan muttered something against Tom’s neck. He must have stuck to rum with his fruit throughout the evening: his breath wasn’t too dire. “What?”
“—godda clean up or the maids. Uh. Sleepy.”
“I bet. Come on, you. Off.” Tom rolled Stan over onto his back. Carefully, he got out of the bed and then headed for the bathroom. Stan eventually shambled after him, lurching into the shower when Tom was done, somehow managing not to destroy either himself or the fixtures in the process. By the time Stan finished cleaning up, Tom had returned to the bedroom, inspected the sheets, and then, satisfied, climbed into bed. He was setting the alarm clock to a disgustingly early hour when Stan returned and startled Tom by climbing into the same bed.
Well, the bed was crowded but, to tell the truth—to tell the truth Tom had always liked sleeping with company. “Nothing. Go to sleep.”
The next morning wasn’t nearly as much fun, but in the rush to get ready and out the door, there wasn’t time for talk. Then having Stan lingering to play secretary, assistant, and general go-fetch boy was helpful enough to nix raising any difficult issues. After that, Tom and Peggy were both too busy losing their minds for idle chit-chat with anyone.
Around one, Peggy set aside the remains of a chicken salad on rye and announced, “I have the dancers for the cantina scene coming in around two.” She pitched her voice high to carry over the noise of the pounding piano, dancing feet, and pointed commentary from the coach.
“Jesus jumpin’. Stan, do you have those particular notes?”
Stan took the pencil from between his teeth, said, “Yup,” picked up two sheets of paper, and passed them over.
Tom looked and shook his head. “Not a group tango. Sorry, Stacey, wherever you are, but absolutely not tango en masse in a waterfront cantina somewhere in Latin America.”
Peggy merely rolled her eyes. “I do hope you’re not expecting me to argue with you.”
“I’d rather be ridiculous by using some variant on a passogira, which would at least fit both this blocking and score. It’s a sex-separated dance from which the dancers eventually break out into mixed-sex pairs, so our stars can switch to a tango for their solo if they truly, truly must. But best of all, even an ape could learn the steps in five minutes.”
Around three, Tom scowled at two of his eight male dancers and announced, “You do not seem to be apes.” One of the dancers, a rather perky blond, looked confused but his neighbor in the choreography, a piece of work named John, smirked. Tom considered him before raising his voice to announce, “All right, boys and girls, take ten.”
The coach, who had joined the hoofers to learn the unfamiliar steps, began to stomp and whirl to unheard music, accompanied by the confused-but-willing blond. Peggy came over to Tom. “Problem?”
“One normal numbskull, but one mystery.”
“John? No secret there. Look.” Peggy nodded her head towards the dancer, who’d crossed the practice room’s floor to chat with one of the female dancers. The girl was a ravishing brunette who had earlier picked up her own steps quickly—ah.
“The much-valued niece, I assume?”
“Her name’s Susannah. Recently he’s her special friend. They’re supposed to be dating on a lot of the evenings she’s busy elsewhere. And every so often I think the two of them do date, if you catch my drift.”
“I get you. He’s not just her beard; he’s one of her boyfriends to boot.” Tom sighed. “So John believes he’s on the Weinstein road to success. He probably already sees his name in lights, which is why he dares to feel above this all. Still, there must be some subtle way to bludgeon, badger, blackmail—” an idea clicked into place “—or shame him into not wasting my time.” He raised his voice. “Stan, would you come here for a second?”
Stan bookmarked his page, got up from his folding chair, and sauntered over. “More coffee?”
“No, I need your help. Do you remember learning the passogira?”
“Oh boy, do I? Your mother told my parents about that dance competition I won at your parish’s Pentecost festival when we were both fifteen, thinking they’d be pleased. It’s when they first realized I’d been slumming. So I never forgot. In fact, when I danced it in the Azores a few years back, I won another prize. The local ladies were quite impressed.”
“Really? I always thought your brother Oliver had—” Tom shook his head. “But that’s neither here nor there. Right now, I need you to partner someone who’s a little difficult.”
“Difficult rather than having difficulties, I see.” Stan started unbuttoning his shirt. “Okay, I’ll do my best. I can’t promise much.”
“That’s fine. Just do whatever you normally do, which is exactly what I want.”
Stan paused with his fingers on the third button. “Again, I believe I get your drift. Teach a lesson, the way I normally do. Aye aye, sir.”
During the next run-through John was impossible but the blond seemed to have finally gotten the steps through his head and into his feet. Tom waved him away and gestured for Stan to take his place. John remained impossible but Stan was adequate. Too bad his ugly lankiness had ruined a possibly decent chorus boy. Even so, Tom certainly wouldn’t mind having him on tap for a western dancehall scene. Suddenly, John interrupted Tom’s ruminations by coming to an abrupt halt and planting his hands on his hips. “Oh, this is all too much.”
Without missing a step, Stan reached out and grabbed the dancer’s arm, dragging him back into a turn. “Didn’t hear the choreographer say stop.”
Tom slowly smiled, and watched John be yanked, and then stumble, through the steps for several more bars before he called out, “Stop!”
Stan hadn’t loosened his grip. He shook John hard. “I’ve forced sailors back to work who’ve just been splattered with the stuffing of their friend’s skulls and bowels, or watched men’s skins burn blacker than pigs at a barbeque. What’s your story, son?”
John said nothing. He’d gone rather pale.
Tom finished strolling over to the pair. “Now, Stan.” Stan let go of his grip and backed up a few steps, his eyes still cold and watchful. Tom lowered his voice to a level where the dancers around them couldn’t hear. “I know he’s a wee bit blunt, John, but Stan’s right. Our boys overseas do love their movie musicals, especially after a hard month or two of death, destruction, and physical agony. So let’s get back to work, shall we,” Tom let the whip-crack sound in his voice, “and quit fucking around?” Tom raised his voice. “Again, please, gentlemen!”
This time, John did much better. Satisfied, Tom waved Stan away, and left the male hoofers to the dancing coach. He went over to Peggy and waited for her to finish jotting down a note. When she was done, she looked up and said, “Well, you’ve made an enemy.”
“Who cares? By the time I’m back – if I do get back – his friend will have seen through him and moved on.”
“She may not need that long,” Peggy said dryly. She nodded past Tom. He turned in time to see the lovely brunette say something to Stan, her face earnest, before she put her hand on Stan’s shoulder.
“Look, Stan, ask for an extension on your leave and go visit your family.”
Stan’s face stayed stubborn. “You didn’t visit yours.”
“My mother’s dead.”
“Well, better if mine doesn’t see me. Oliver wrote. She’s upset because she had to winter in Manhattan.” Stan ran both hands through his hair.
Tom frowned. Stan’s mother had been a famously beautiful society debutant in her day, and had never forgiven her youngest son his looks. Nor had she ever bothered to hide her cool distaste. The bitch.
Perhaps it was for the best that, before Tom could share his opinion, the phone rang.
Scooping it up hastily, Stan listened for almost half a minute, and then said, “No, I don’t think so, thank you.” Without another word, he hung up the phone, his expression harried. Then he told Tom, “That was Susannah again. I dated her once and told her flat out it would be the only time. Doesn’t she know how to take no for an answer?”
“She’s a Weinstein. Of course she doesn’t.”
“What if I give her what she seems to want? She’ll get tired of me soon enough.”
“Maybe. You’re a lot more, ah, gilt-edged than what usually crosses her path. Peggy told me Rita said Miss Weinstein was asking around about your family.”
“Christ. And if I keep saying no, or upset her, or annoy her, and she runs to her uncle, do you think he’ll talk to the Army about you?”
“Possibly.” Stan glared at him. “Okay, probably yes.”
“Jesus Christ. This is Hollywood. Hasn’t the girl ever run into any movie stars?”
“I’m sure she has. I’d imagine that’s one reason she’s chasing you.”
Stan took another turn up and down the tiny living room of their bungalow. The last light from the setting sun was still sifting through the windows. Earlier that afternoon, Peggy and Tom had agreed they’d done all they could together with Latin Serenade; nice to have been able to knock off so early. Abruptly, Stan stopped and said, “I could confess to being a fairy.”
Tom sighed, rolling his eyes upwards. “Stan, dear, you are not the very model of a modern homosexual. Not by a long shot.”
Stan stood arms akimbo. “Why the hell not? I’ve slept with you.”
Tom shrugged. “You’d be surprised who’s slept with me, really you would.”
“Don’t even bother trying to tell me you’ve screwed all and sundry, especially in this town. You’ve always been too picky for that, no matter what you pretend.” Stan snorted. “Not to mention, I’ve screwed other guys, too.”
Tom had felt his eyes narrow with Stan’s first sentence. The third one made his eyes narrow further.
Oblivious, Stan continued. “Back in the school they shipped me off to, now that guy was a bastard. Wish I could lock him and Weinstein up in a jail cell together in Morocco. Then there was an English writer in Paris and this kid in Spain.”
“You were in Spain?” What other little details had Stan left out?
“Don’t remind the military. I really don’t need a reputation as a premature antifascist, translation communist, following me around. Never mind the fact that, after Catalonia, I’d sooner French-kiss a Jap than a Stalinist. Besides, I was only helping crew a gun-runner—oh, never mind. Take it from me, I’m plenty fruity.”
“So is her friend John and that doesn’t seem to have stopped her. She’s a dancer and, believe you me, they’re even more flexible than American poets in Paris.” Feeling his patience slipping, Tom started counting. Seven, fourteen, twenty-one, twenty eight—
“Yes, but she wouldn’t expect a fairy to marry her.”
The last bit of slang sparked Tom’s temper. “Stan. First, she very well might if her tastes run that way. Second, you are not a dyed-in-the-wool homosexual. All tourist trips aside, you neither talk, walk, act, think, nor socialize like you’re lavender.” Tom snorted. “You don’t even fuck like it. Drop your trousers, bend over, and eagerly present your asshole to my cock, and I might, just might, be convinced that you’re the greatest actor since—a certain local I know. Otherwise, no.”
Stan’s chin firmed. “What, drop ‘em the way I wanted to back when we were both fifteen, you mean?”
Before Tom could retort, the telephone rang. Stan went to answer, but said before he picked it up, “We’re not done with this, Tom.”
Tom’s tone was gentle. “If you’re going to answer that, I’m afraid we are.”
Looking frustrated, Stan scooped up the receiver. Then he barked, “Hello?”
Even on the other side of the room, Tom could guess who was speaking. After a fairly long stretch, Stan held out the phone. “For you. Mrs. Lollyman.”
Tom took the receiver. “Lolly. What is it?”
“You sure know how to find trouble, don’t you? Never mind. Since Angelo Gerello’s out of town irritating the Italians, I’ll do his work for him. Call it payback for finishing my bond tour before you decided to go loco.”
“Lolly. Slow down. Remember, I’m a dancer and we need words of one syllable.”
“Okay. My source tells me Weinstein wants Stan and you at his next big do. One name of two syllables in that sentence; you’ll just have to cope.”
Tom made a cocked-pistol gesture at Stan who raised his eyebrows. “Let me repeat back. Some minion of Mr. Stone called you—”
“No names, not on sources!”
“Fine. Santa’s bestest elf called you and said that Julian Weinstein was going to invite us to this week’s dinner party.” Tom considered. “Frig.”
“Either you’re getting way too good at butch, or a certain young lady likes your pal Abra-Stan Lincoln.”
“The latter. You’ve seen Stan’s personnel file.”
“Sure, he’s rich, blue-blooded, heroic, artistic and looks like the ass-end of a very long mule. She must need glasses. Expensive, tasteful glasses.”
Tom felt himself frown. Certain facts one freely admits to oneself were annoying when pointed out by others.
“In any case, you better both find dates for Saturday evening and find them fast. Lucky for you, Mr. Weinstein never sends out his invitations before Friday, just to make sure the recipients have to rearrange their schedules for him. Good luck finding a date in the next twenty-four hours he won’t consider breakable. I have a call on my other phone.”
“Goodbye to you, too, Lolly.” She’d already hung up. So did Tom.
Stan, who’d obviously been listening, shook his head, looking harassed. “Now Susannah’s finagled her uncle into playing match-maker. We’re reporting back to duty next Tuesday, for Christ’s sake. What does she hope to accomplish by then?”
“Enough to ask her uncle to secure you some shore-side assignment, I’d imagine. San Diego’s supposed to be quite nice,” Tom said absently. Then, noticing the metaphorical thundercloud gathering above Stan’s head, he added, “But pipe down and give me a moment to think. I need someone to help us past whatever little ambush she’s plotting. Who do I know Weinstein won’t cross? Who’s still in town for that matter—ah, of course.”
Tom picked up the phone and dialed, then waited while it rang, making calming gestures with his free hand. When the phone was picked up on the other end, he asked, “Sid? I was afraid I’d find you answering your own phone. Is Frank okay?” Putting one hand over the receiver, Tom told Stan, “His houseboy’s American Japanese, and interned.”
As Tom returned to listening, Stan’s expression went from startled through grim to thoughtful, all of which were better than thunderous. Tom clucked. “Well, give him my best regards the next time you visit. Were you able to take title on his family’s house before the authorities sold it at auction?”
“Yes. That’s something, I suppose.” Sid Beck’s familiar, rich voice was weary. “But I’m sure you didn’t call to hear me sing the blues, dear boy. What do you need?”
Tom shook his head. “You know me too well, Sid. A favor, but not a nasty one. You’ll get to meet a pleasant and heroic naval lieutenant and annoy Julian Weinstein all at the same time. Have you sent out the rest of the invitations for the little dinner party you’re holding this Saturday?”
Smiling, Tom had to hold the receiver away from his ear as the huge laughter pealed out. He gestured thumbs-up to Stan. Sid said, “Very well, my dear, I’ll expect the two of you at my house this Saturday at five. I’m sure you remember the way. But now I’m off to find out the story behind this all.”
“I can tell you—”
“What, and lose me a chance to check with my spy ring what the other plots and ploys are going on around town? No, no, beauteous. You can tell me over dinner how much of the story I piece together is confabulated and why.”
Tom knew better than to argue. “Thank you, Sid.”
Sid said, voice serious, “You’re very welcome. I enjoy a distraction, these days.”
When Tom had hung up, he said, “Good. If we’re having dinner with Sidney Beck, not even Julian Weinstein will expect us to cancel. Sid’s built up quite the reserve of favors over the years.” He noticed Stan’s expression. “What?”
“Sidney Beck? The movie star? The radio broadcaster? The funniest of funny men?”
“Yes,” Tom said warily. “That’s Sid.”
“He’s a genius.” Stan’s expression could only be called reverent.
Tom stared for a moment and then shook his head. Luxury, glamour, and sex appeal had bounced, but now comedy had finally knocked down his shields enough to let Hollywood spear Stan.
As the taxi headed up into the hills above Hollywood that Saturday evening, Stan was gushing. Usually this sort of performance would be enough for Tom to drop an acquaintance like a hot rock. Perhaps it was because this was the first time Stan had given way to typical movie fan behavior that Tom could hear him out tolerantly.
“Anchors Aloft, do you remember when we saw that together in Damariscotta, Tom?”
“Why, yes I do.”
“I still laugh every time I think about the part with the bosun’s chair and the blimp. And Lord of the Manor. I saw that at boarding school, just when I was about ready to shoot—” Stan shook his head. “Anyhow, brilliant. Sheer beauty in motion.”
Tom eyed Stan. “Yes, I remember the movie too. But I didn’t meet Sid until around the time he stopped making movies and started broadcasting. My agent introduced us.”
“The dinner gong scene. Jeepers.”
“Hey, we’re here,” the taxi driver interrupted Stan.
Tom said, “You can pull up into the driveway. Sid won’t mind.”
They were bowed into the house by a small man with a European accent, probably some refugee, if Stan knew Sid. Their host himself came bustling down the stairs, though, and Tom stepped forwards to shake his hand and say, “Hello, Sid.” The hair was whiter, the lines on the broad face were a bit deeper, the eyes seemed somehow more worn, but the smile was the same.
“Old boy, your handclasp might as well be that of Heracles. And not one, but two silver stars? To win one medal may be regarded as a misfortune—to win two seems like carelessness. Alas, war has made a man of you at last.”
“That’s right. Go ahead. Break my heart, you brute.” Tom gestured at Stan. “Sid, Stan Vaughn. I warn you, he’s a fan. Stan, the one and only Sidney Beck. Two would be too many.”
Sid beamed. “The writer, the hero, the beleaguered romantic. Come along, young man. I have a select few who are aching to ask you all the questions about poetry and Paris you have answered so many times before.”
Peggy and Stan were amusing the rest of the dinner guests with a demonstration of Latin Serenade’s bastard passogira in the living room when Sid finally got Tom cornered on the terrace for one of his infamous little chats.
Tom tried making shooing-away gestures, but they didn’t work. Sid said, “A charming gentleman, your friend. How long have you known him?”
“Since we were both kids. Sid—”
“I wouldn’t have taken him for a poet at all.” Sid struck a languorous pose with an invisible book in his hand. “He must be of the Whitmanesque, rather than the Wildean school.” He suddenly straightened, thrust his chin out, and tucked a massive hand between the buttons of his shirt. “I hear America honking, the varied racket I hear.”
“Sid,” Tom pressed his lips together to quash the smile that was threatening to break free, “stop it. Stan’s an old pal. And he’s not a member of the Men’s Club. So, for two different reasons, he’s off my ration card.”
“Really? Well, I’m sure he’s enjoyed Hollywood then. The movies, the girls, the nightclubs, the girls, the beautiful women, the girls.”
“Yes, he’s had a few nights out on his own. So have I. It’s been a good leave.”
“Ah, the return of Tommy Tear-about for a limited engagement. That reminds me. James King told me about a gorgeous young friend of his—”
Tom raised both hands. “I’m afraid I’m shipping out Tuesday. So’s Stan, for that matter.”
“And you’ll be entirely busy between now and then? Pity.” Sid shook his head, looking doleful. “Nigel Cole will be disappointed. He probably would have wanted Will to meet Mr. Vaughn, who’s seemingly all the rage in literary circles these days. What do you think of his poet—?”
Hastily, Tom interrupted again. “And how is Will? I wrote, but I don’t think the reply has caught up with me.”
“Now doing well enough to complain about English military hospital food, which sounds to be even farther from ambrosia than English civilian domestic food. I believe Nigel was caught smuggling in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to him and nearly scared a nursing sister to death. Given his appearance, she probably thought Nigel was a left-over Victorian poisoner, rather than a U.S.O. entertainer.” Sid’s expression turned dreamy. “Looks can certainly be deceiving.”
Tom craned desperately about for a distraction, and was relieved to spot his host’s dogs trotting towards them across the lawn. “Fifi and Mimi are out.”
Sid clucked. “Heinrich indulges them.”
Since the two dogs were both enormous pure-bred bullmastiffs, Heinrich was only being tactful in Tom’s opinion. Both dogs came up the terrace stairs to inspect the guest. Once they’d been properly introduced, Tom had some difficulties persuading Mimi he was not the love of her life. When she’d finally plopped heavily down on his feet, he said, knowing the words were coming out sounding harassed, “You know, Sid, most of we girls prefer something a bit more refined in the way of a canine. Like a poodle.”
Sid, who was caressing the head of Fifi as she sat decorously next to him with her tail thumping slowly on the tiles of the terrace, said “After a while it becomes tedious dallying only with beautiful clichés. Don’t you agree, dear heart?” He tugged gently on Fifi’s ear and her tongue lolled. “You never did tell me what you think of Stan’s poems.”
Knowing himself vanquished, Tom saluted the victor middle finger raised high. Sid laughed, huge and booming. Even the dogs seemed to smile.
As they left, Sid pulled Tom to one side and pressed three small books into his unwilling hands. “For you, my dear, to enlighten your benighted mind.”
“Where did you get these?”
“I called a bookstore and had some of Stan’s thin volumes sent over after your and my little telephone conversation Thursday. Really rather pleasant reading for modern poetry. Of course, knowing an author always adds a touch of the piquant to perusing his work.” Sid raised both hands. “No, don’t thank me. I know how well such reading is suited to your military avocation. We also serve who only sit and wait.”
Tom, who’d been about to hand the books back, stopped. “Angelo’s in M.I., Sid, stuck back in the boondocks interrogating Italian fascists. He’ll be okay. Really.”
Sid’s face went still. “Do you think so?” Then mastering himself, Sid pressed one hand to his chest. “I see that you do. Off you go, then, my valiant Tommy Theban. Both your companion and your chariot await.”
Realizing at the taxi door that he was still clutching the books, Tom hastily stowed them in his greatcoat pocket.
“What was that all about?” Stan asked.
“Don’t ask me,” Tom said, and shrugged. “Sidney Beck’s not known to all and sundry as Uncle Sid for nothing. I think he took a shine to you.”
Stan smiled, barely visible in the dim of the taxi. “I liked him, too. One more name on the tolerable list for this town.”
“It’s true; some of us can be decent, at least on alternate Saturdays. But almost everyone who succeeds in the studio system has a touch of predator in him somewhere, Stan.”
For a block or two they traveled in silence before Stan said, “There must be more to a city this big than just Hollywood. I wonder what?”
“Well.” Tom considered. “I suppose we have two days on our own, my squid-like pal, to find that out. Let me make some calls.”
On Sunday they went sailing on a fishing smack out of San Pedro. It was the first time Tom had helped sail even the smallest of ships since he’d coaxed himself a berth on the yacht that had removed him from Maine to Manhattan many years ago. He found himself ridiculously pleased that the old skills hadn’t completely abandoned him. Ropes and hawsers, the wake peeling away from both sides of the bow, wind, waves, and sun-speckled water; the day was full of good material Tom knew he’d use to build memories with when he was back with the blood and bullets again.
Neither he nor Stan said much during the long ride back to Hollywood. At one point, after they’d dropped off two other passengers along Santa Monica Boulevard, Stan said, “Thanks, Tom. I needed the reminder. It would be awful, to get to hate the sea.”
“Humph. You should have joined the army then. Not a problem for your life after the war if you learn to detest mud and olive-green.”
Abruptly Stan reached over and mussed Tom’s hair. Tom stared at him balefully while raking fingers in a vain effort to set matters aright, before giving up and saying, “All right, Stan, just for that we’re eating Mexican tonight.”
“But no fruity drinks?”
On Monday, Tom took Stan around Los Angeles and they played tourist together. China Town and Olivera Street, hot dog stands shaped like dogs and ice cream parlors built inside concrete boxes of ice cream with spoons stuck into them, the Griffith Park Observatory and the happily maniacal architecture of the houses high up in the canyons: they goggled, admired, laughed, and wise-cracked their way across the Southland.
As the dinner hour approached, Tom asked, “Chinese tonight?”
“Nope,” Stan said. He’d tucked his hands behind his head and stretched out as much as a man of his height could in a taxi.
“Well, we could eat bad Italian, or good Italian, or go to Lawry’s for some ration-stamp-devouring prime rib.”
“Nope, nope, nope.”
“Okay, what’s your brilliant idea, Lieutenant?”
“Room service.” Stan smiled in a way that made his intentions quite clear—to Tom, at least.
Tom gave him a glance – very Katherine Hepburn - shot a second, warier glance at their driver, and settled for sighing with drama. He couldn’t be blunt with Stan in a taxi, not without an unpleasant visit from the M.P.s, the Shore Patrol, or both. Stan was taking unfair advantage and Tom would have to make that clear. Three encounters would be two too many when it came to dallying with someone who was showing signs of wanting more.
But Tom’s intentions were badly short-circuited when they got back to their bungalow. He opened the door and stepped inside, saying firmly, “Stan, you’ve got to get a grip on yourself.” Then he turned on the lights. Then he paused.
She chose tragic appeal and did it rather well. “Captain Thomas?” Her voice was subdued, her eyes bright. Really, the kid was wasted dancing. She needed close-ups for best effect. “Couldn’t you leave us alone to talk, if only for a few minutes?”
Stan, to give him credit, didn’t retreat. He stepped around Tom and said, “Suzie, what the hell are we going to talk about that we haven’t discussed already?”
Her chin went up, her lips trembled almost imperceptibly. Tom was torn between admiration and irritation. Since this was Hollywood, he let neither feeling show. Instead he said, voice cool, “Well, whatever Miss Weinstein – pardon me, Miss Williams – wants to say, the Polo Lounge is still open for her to say it in. I haven’t been in there since the place used to be El Jardin, so you can find out for me if they ruined it.” If Stan and Susannah’s meeting was public, that would limit her tactical options.
Silently, Stan got up and hunted around until he found Susannah’s sable wrap. It was on Tom’s bed, probably in a case of mistaken identity on her part. Stan draped the wrap around her shoulders with a remote courtesy that made her stare pleadingly around, first up at him, and then over towards Tom. Tom shook his head at her in sympathetic exasperation. That was not only the safest gesture but the closest to expressing his feelings, if he disregarded his urge to strangle the self-centered would-be Helena. Even for Hollywood, this was all getting to be a bit much.
After three hours, Tom gave up on Moby Dick and went to bed. What they were doing was none of his business: Stan was his friend, not his boyfriend. Using the discipline he’d learned as a youth in Maine and rediscovered in the Aleutians, Tom rolled over and forced himself to sleep. It was only Stan shifting the covers that woke him.
He half-expected Stan to try starting something. But instead, Stan just lay next to him without speaking, his cool skin gradually warming against Tom’s. Finally, Stan said, “Okay, I think I got through to her this time.”
“You persuaded her you’re not interested?”
“Yeah. I told a whole long story about the girl I met in Paris after leaving Spain, the one I’m madly in love with, the one now in the French underground, her life in constant peril. Just what is it about Paris? Eventually Suzie believed me, maybe because that let her make one hell of a renunciation speech.”
“Good thinking, and how very Casablanca of you. Gets them every time, darling.”
“Not every time. Thank God she wasn’t the sort who plays for keeps, someone like your friend Peggy. Then it would have been rough all the way around. But with Suzie sheer drama won out where reason had failed.”
For a minute or so there was silence. Then Tom asked, “You had a brilliant idea earlier?”
Stan snorted. “Yeah. I had a brilliant idea. Emphasis on had.”
“Poor, weary Stan.” Tom let himself smile, not caring if it was indulgent. The lights were out, Stan couldn’t see, and Tom had already decided to bend his own rules. “Okay, then, roll onto your back and shift those shorts. Tommy’s too tired to tango anyhow.”
There was a lot to be said for giving head in the dark. Much could be hidden and even more ignored. When Tom spoke a second time, to tell Stan to shut up and hold still, no one had to be offended by the fierce expression Tom knew he was wearing, no one had to worry about how Stan should be reacting. And when Tom was done, he didn’t have to pull away and play indifferent. Truth be told, with Stan’s seed still bitter on his tongue, Tom wanted to caress, to devour, to possess.
In the dark, he settled for a nip on Stan’s thigh that could easily be explained away to his friend. Stan, still shuddering slightly, gasped in a way that wasn’t all surprise. Then Tom did bite, just hard enough to leave a souvenir for Stan to remember him by, something to prove to Stan’s fellows he’d had a good leave. Teeth marks were so wonderfully non-committal about gender.
“Jesus,” Stan said. “Tom. I want to—taste you. May I—”
Tom wouldn’t let Stan beg, not for that. His friend didn’t need any more confusion, not when he was heading back to his so-very-manly sea-surrounded steel-walled world. But he didn’t need to be obsessing about something he thought he wanted, either.
“Sure, Stan. Sure.” Tom sat up next to Stan. Reaching out unerringly in the dark, he found Stan’s broad shoulder, his firm neck, the fine, straight hair thick on the back of his head. Obediently, following Tom’s guidance, Stan slid down across Tom’s body. If the search was awkward, the discovery was not. This time Tom let Stan’s mouth take him to the finish. It was dark. No one would see.
Stan had to leave first the next morning. When the bell hop went out with his duffle bag he hesitated at the door, then grinned reluctantly when Tom winked and blew him a kiss.
“Write,” Stan said.
“I will.” Tom waved Stan on his way.
When it was Tom’s own turn to leave, he also hesitated for a minute, then unzipped his bag and added the poetry books he’d left out on the bedside table. They’d been gifts from Sid, after all, and Tom had to admit to being curious. The Infantry had coped with the dance exercises. It could deal with a little poetry. In any case, chances were that, given where Tom expected to end up, he wouldn’t have long to worry about any repercussions.
Tom spent a lot of time with Stan’s poetry over the next six months. The three small hardbacks, together with Tom’s armed services editions of Melville’s Typee and Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind soon grew tattered, their covers bent, page-corners rounded, and paper mud-stained from obsessive reading and re-reading. He perused his books with a passion he’d never have believed possible during his dancing days and clubbing nights back in Hollywood.
The five books were all the reading matter he’d thrown into his field pack before his company was ferried to the beaches of Leyte in October. If Tom had thought things through he’d have brought along more printed company for those first violent weeks. He’d already learned on Attu that surviving meant living from problem to problem, diverting any left-over urges to think deeply towards matters that had nothing to do with warfare. Reading gave him something to brood over that didn’t conjure up blood or battles.
The hardest thoughts to ignore were the ones about himself. Tom was changing again under the hammer-blows of war, unwillingly, irrevocably. Once Tom had spiced up his speech with irony and ornamentation just to seem sophisticated, to attract admiring eyes. Now his life was ironic and his words went unadorned. Once his dancing had warned normal men that Tom was effete, uninterested in raw power, not part of their pack. But dancing had, all unknown to Tom, honed skills the same sort of men respected. Now some hard part of him could watch soldiers streaming across chaos, ignore the shells and bullets as he’d once ignored hot lights and screaming assistant directors, and coolly sort out who needed to move where to do the most damage.
He could bend men to his will. He could watch them fail and fall without his own nerve breaking. He could order them to kill and be obeyed. Even his senior sergeants spoke to him with an easy terseness that reflected their confidence in his abilities. If Tom wept silently, eyes wide open and lips pressed thin, the night after he’d first had a cave of hold-outs cleared with flame-throwers, the tears had to be his own business and not dramatic expression of a sort he’d once admired. There were many more caves filled with many more men who would be happy to see Tom’s men die. He had to hold firm in his miscast part, finish this job before he could walk off the set, no matter how he felt about growing to fit this alien role.
Tom still had moments when he wanted nothing more than to shriek at his ex-mill workers and former auto mechanics, “Why are you asking me what to do? I’m just a faggot choreographer!” That was when he’d somehow find time to open the covers of Rake the Sand Over, Spindrift, or The Alchemist’s Heaven and let Stan distract him. Hollywood seemed a million miles away, but Stan’s world, to Tom’s surprise, did not.
Often dark, sometimes coolly sardonic, occasionally unabashedly romantic, filled with humor high and low, Stan’s poetry wasn’t what Tom had expected. Maybe, given the time he’d spent with the author, he should have anticipated what he read. Maybe Tom should also have anticipated that he’d meet someone he recognized in Stan’s pages: himself. Several of Stan’s poems described Tom, a Tom that Stan had known before Hollywood and war split Tom in two. Tom’s relief at this seemingly long-cherished portrait was much deeper than he ever would have expected, a relief so sharp that it made him feel afraid. Infatuated errors and misplaced confidences had taught him not to trust what he saw mirrored back in other men’s eyes.
Maybe that was why, months later in December, when Stan opened his eyes and tried to sit up on his hospital cot, Tom merely asked softly, “Lobster?”
“The tail that grabs, the claws that snap. Also good with butter.” Stan’s voice sounded better than Stan looked, not that Stan ever looked like much. “What, you don’t like it as a metaphorical nickname? Coon cat was too obvious, I thought, for that particular poem.”
“Stan, I never thought to feature in a poem, even as a lobster. Let alone a Maine coon cat.” Cautiously Tom peered about. The cots adjacent to Stan’s were empty and Tom refused to wonder why. He’d just use the privacy the vacancy offered. “Although that still doesn’t mean you won’t get yours for calling me a bug some day, sailor-boy. In the meantime, what are you doing in an army hospital? I just about fainted like Miss Melly when I spotted your name on the roster I was checking for two of my men. Is the navy farming out its casualties now?”
“I survive an entire battle out in the gulf without a scratch and then get shot twice by a god-damned left-over sniper while accompanying dispatches inland. What are you guys, on vacation?” Stan lowered his voice. “I was supposed to be negotiating on the sly for certain recreational supplies for my ship.”
“Which is also why I’m here at Division HQ, although the supplies I’m after are more hostile than hospitable. Let me hear your list, if you remember what’s on it, and I’ll see what I can do. Hedy Lamarr’s still loitering around my pin-up collection and I’d hate for her to feel neglected.”
“Thanks.” Stan cleared his throat. “Tom?”
There was a hesitation to the way Stan said his name that told Tom what he was about to be asked. He made sure his response was brisk. “Losing part of an ear has probably done nothing for your looks, but they weren’t much to begin with. No one will bother to faint, though, and the over-all effect is much more attractive than spattered brains, as you should already know without my telling you.”
Stan grinned weakly. “Thanks again, Tom.”
“Oh, don’t start. I’ll just go all non-regulation. When will you be sprung?”
“Two more days, according to the night orderly. Seems the arm’s no big deal. He’s not supposed to have medical opinions, but he owes me five bucks. Pinochle.”
“Takes one to know one. At least you hold out some hope of me going back to my ship with my supplies, even if it’s on top of them.” He scanned Tom’s field jacket. “And now I can ask you exactly what company you’re with and where, since there’s no censor here to draw nice black lines all over your reply.”
“I’ll trade you for the equally censorable name and current location of your ship, which, I might point out, I’ll need for delivery.”
“Deal.” Stan stretched out the arm that wasn’t bandaged and they shook hands.
Resisting an impulse to not let go, Tom instead made a production of leaning forward to hear Stan’s shopping list and address, and then whispered his own unit in Stan’s ear with melodramatic relish. Then he straightened and said, “Alas, I must fly. My boys are in the next ward over, and they deserve their visit from the Old Man.”
“Not to mention a couple of Esquire pin-ups.”
“You know me too well. Although one’s more the pulp and Popular Science type. We can’t all be poets.”
Stan smiled in a way indicating that either Tom’s caressing last sentence hadn’t come out right or had come out entirely too well, depending on your point of view. Tom got up hastily before he weakened to the point of movie-musical clichés, a yielding that, between males, was not just tasteless but a court-martial offense. All army officer once again, he strode to the twin doors of the ward and pushed one open.
Although he knew better, he paused and looked back. Stan, the bastard, grinned at him and flicked the tip of his tongue against his upper lip. Tom’s pulse picked up, kicked into high gear by the danger of the gesture. All right, not entirely from the danger of the gesture.
That danger, or so Tom told himself, was why, when he returned late the next evening while Stan was sleeping, he left the delivery details with the night orderly. Tom’s own hunger to see Stan again had nothing to do with the decision. No, Tom’s restraint was merely a matter of discipline, a discipline that Stan seemed to sadly lack.
Stan’s absence didn’t solve the problems caused by his heedlessness. Had there been a time when Tom felt clever for having encouraged Stan to write? After losing a short, sharp struggle with himself, he’d taken to keeping Stan’s latest letters, the ones written after he’d left the hospital, bundled up in his breast pocket, which was stupid. If the next left-over sniper got Tom, what would Graves Registration make of Stan’s words? Any particular thin sheet of standard-issue paper held nothing that couldn’t get past a military censor, but Tom could trace the pattern across the correspondence easily enough and assumed others could too.
Tom was being propositioned again as surely as Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine was ever wooed by English Henry, although Everest would never turn Stan’s perverse amorous ambitions into a bad historical movie with out-of-period belly-dancers. Tom meant his own letters to be guarded, but it was hard to guard against a friend who made you laugh and sent you poems for your opinion. As the months rolled by, every so often Tom had to check he was still wearing olive-drab green in order to remind himself he was an officer and a gentleman, not a femme fatale.
When Stan showed up again early in March, Tom was busy verbally skinning two errant non-coms. “Your little jungle-juice-inspired joy-ride may have made you both happy last night, but you have no idea what the army can do with a stolen half-ton, an abducted water-buffalo, and your sorry asses this grim morning after—”
With the steam-rollered expression of a man who wasn’t sure why he was obeying the order he’d just been given, Tom’s clerk knocked, popped his head around the Quonset divider, and said, “Captain? There’s a Lieutenant Vaughn from the navy here to see you.”
Mustn’t slip. Tom took a deep breath, released it, and let himself grin. “Give him some of the good coffee and ask him to wait.” Tom turned his attention back to his men and allowed his eyes to go cold as an Aleutian January. “I’m not finished with my current company just yet.”
When he’d sent the non-coms on their way, minus about a pound of pot-roast and a chevron each, he leaned his chair back against the wall and steepled his fingers. Stan sauntered in, a smile on his face, before drawing up and saluting. The crookedly-pinned purple ribbon on his bar now had a bronze oak leaf riding on it. And, as Tom had surmised, the missing earlobe didn’t help Stan’s looks. He had no right to make Tom’s breath catch.
Realizing that he was glaring, Tom returned the requisite salute and said, “Stan.” The name came out more reproving than indifferent and Tom made a face. The front legs of his chair hit the wooden floor with a thud. “Oh, never mind. Sit down, you clown.”
Stan did. “Can you get Thursday evening off, or are you standing whatever you foot-slogging types call watch?”
“Am I dumb enough to commit myself without an explanation?”
“Guess not. The jungle drums claim your battalion is shipping out again. Since my fellow officers were quite grateful for your help with those supplies, you’re invited to our movie night. A little bash will follow, thrown by a couple of my seniors.”
“Movie—” Tom rolled his eyes up towards the corrugated iron ceiling. “Do I know this particular film, by any chance?”
“ ‘When daylight is dimming in my ciudad / Down south of the border —’ ”
Stan’s baritone was pleasant, but Tom still clapped both hands over his ears. “Stop, stop, I absolutely don’t care if that song was Edwards and Schulman.” Realizing he was coming perilously close to sounding like his old Hollywood self, he uncovered his ears and added, “When it comes to that kind of tripe, I’m spleeny.” Now his vocabulary was retreating towards Maine, but that was safer than fairyland. “You’re inviting me to attend a showing of Latin Serenade?”
“With bash on shore to follow,” Stan said patiently, provocatively.
Tom was reminding himself of all the reasons why loitering around Stan was a stupid idea when the door opened and Lt. Colonel Baker charged in. Stan and Tom were on their feet before the Colonel could finish swinging his head from side to side and start talking.
“At ease,” Baker said. Stan blinked, a not-infrequent reaction to first hearing that high tenor emerging from the bullish body. But Tom knew from experience to respond in accordance with the impression given by the body, not the voice. Baker gave Stan the military once-over with a pause at the ribbon-bar, half-smiled, and said, “Introduce us, Captain.”
“Sir, may I present Lieutenant Vaughn, a very old friend of mine. Lieutenant Vaughn, my C.O., Lieutenant Colonel Baker.”
“What are you doing so far from the sea, Lieutenant?” Corps HQ, where Tom’s company had just been rotated for R&R, was right on the coast but might as well have been a thousand miles inland as far as an Infantry colonel was concerned.
“I’ve come to invite Tom – the Captain – to join me and a few of my fellow officers for a movie on Thursday, sir.”
“Good. He doesn’t get around enough. Lieutenant Carson will do fine as OOD that night.” Baker’s small eyes turned towards Tom and grew stern. “Now, if you’re quite through socializing, Tibbetts?”
“Yes, sir.” Behind Baker’s back, Stan grinned and held up first ten fingers and then six. Tom risked a quick glare, and then put his gaze back where it belonged, on Baker’s face. To his surprise and exasperation, Baker’s lips were minutely twitching. “The Lieutenant was just leaving, sir.”
Stan walked two fingers in the air towards the door, a broad expression of fake inquiry on his face. Tom’s eyes narrowed.
Baker barked without turning, “I need the Captain’s full attention, Lieutenant.” Stan stiffened. “Dismissed.” Stan was out the door almost before the word was finished. Baker smiled. “Nice young man. Good to see you’re actually human, Tibbetts. I was beginning to wonder why a fine lady like Miss Charlotte Harvey would give you the time of day. Now sit down, and let’s get these IDP files sorted out.”
One of Tom’s most frequent and earnest requests of the Higher Being he no longer believed in was that his Colonel would never find out exactly how human Tom was.
On Thursday at sixteen hundred hours, Tom was not surprised to be picked up by Stan at the wheel of a jeep. Strictly speaking, they should have had an enlisted man as driver, which would have put paid to any overtures by Stan en route. By this point in Stan’s letter-writing, though, Tom wouldn’t have been surprised by anything from flowers and a box of chocolate bars to another overt and illegal proposition. But Stan was demure enough on the way, if any navy lieutenant out with free time and an old friend could ever be called demure. Tom wouldn’t take bets.
To Tom’s surprise, Latin Serenade was being shown on the former fruit dock where Stan’s ship was moored, rather than on board. Seemingly, the movie would be projected against the newly whitewashed wall of the old inspector’s building. Sailors were milling around, chattering and swapping cigarettes, or claiming dock space for seating, as three of their number carefully set up a large film projector in the last of the twilight. He looked inquiringly at Stan.
“If we show a film off the ship, we can keep the smoking lamp lit. You may have heard rumors of the presence of a fair amount of combustible material on board certain types of naval vessels? Also, the atmosphere’s a lot more informal on the dock. So the guys enjoy this set-up, even if the shore patrol hates it.” Stan nodded towards a cluster of sailors wearing arm-bands and helmets at the head of the dock.
“Where’s officer country?”
“Up front to the far right, on that bench. Rank hath its privileges. Should be fairly crowded tonight. Like you said back in Hollywood, we military men love our musicals.”
Tom’s prophecy was fulfilled. To his critical eyes, Latin Serenade was nothing special. But the sailors started making noise when the first titles went up and continued their animated commentary throughout the entire film, quieting only to catch the songs and listen raptly to any words coming from female lips. Whenever the camera cut to the swirling skirts or long legs of the dancers, the sailors cheered. Tom was pleased, though, that they gradually grew quiet during his passogira-tango mish-mash, apparently caught up by the heat of the dance without consciously comprehending the story written by its choreography. When the dance finally ended in a kiss, the groans and whistles of enthusiasm must have carried right across the bay. The rest of the movie was something of an anti-climax to Tom, but it kept the boys happy. Tom settled down to studying them and then the screen, back and forth, taking the chance to note what about the dances got through to them and what didn’t.
After the show, he and Stan joined the short line of sailors clutching shore passes that was forming in front of the squad of shore patrolmen. From the way the enlisted ranks saluted Stan promptly, one or two with grins, Tom could tell he was well thought of by his men. Not necessarily the best of signs, for an officer to be so generally beloved. He cocked a sardonic eyebrow at Stan, who grinned sheepishly in reply.
He and Stan were among the first off the dock and they’d promptly headed through the port’s streets towards the bar district. Tom had dug his hands deep into his pockets, using this military taboo to prevent breaking a greater one by illustrating choreographic points with his usual dramatic gestures. “—Peggy really was right about holding that dip during the tango, but I’m glad she took my suggestion about extending for another measure. Say what you will about Alan Charning, no one gets quite the same body-line in an extension, not even Astaire.” Absently he freed a hand to return the wavering salutes of some sailors heading back towards their ships from various patio bars.
“Tom, I need to ask you for a favor, an important one.”
Catching the serious note in Stan’s voice, Tom turned towards him, examined Stan’s expression, and then drew him off to one side of the street next to a burned-out building. “Whatever you need, of course.”
Stan took a folded-up wad of papers from his pocket, unfolded it, shuffled the first three sheets to the bottom of the pile, and then handed the pages silently to Tom.
Tom glanced at what he was holding, read in the faint light spilling out from the mercado across the street, and then felt his eyebrows go up. Without a word, he went on to the next page and read again. He looked up at Stan.
“Poems I couldn’t send through the mail. Copies of them, I mean.” Stan’s voice was quiet.
Tom shook his head. “Stan, forget the mail. You couldn’t even publish these, not with your name on them.”
“If I start worrying beforehand about what I can and can’t publish, I’m dead as a poet. Someday, probably after I’m safely gone, some sleazy little press will take a chance. Olympia?” Stan shrugged. “Whomever. I don’t know. But after they’ve been printed the poems will at least have a shot at survival.” He nodded towards the papers in Tom’s hands. “Except for these. My other poems like this, the ones about girls, are safe back home in the U.S.”
“Where they’re safe only as long as your hypothetical heirs don’t burn them all after your hypothetical death.”
“In my new will you’re literary executor, and Mr. Beck’s next in line after you. Safe enough, since my brother Oliver’s a great respecter of legal forms.”
True, Sid was the fixer of fixers. Preserving explicit poetry, even explicitly homosexual poetry, would be a snap for him. Tom didn’t waste time demurring. “You have the originals of these poems hidden in your gear?”
“Yes, but if something happens to the ship—” Stan closed his eyes, opened them. “Poets start young. Sometimes we stop young, too. These are good, the first really good stuff I’ve written in three, maybe four years. I can’t stand the idea of losing them and it’s gnawing at me. Crazy, I know, but when I saw you watching your dance number in the movie tonight, I knew you’d understand. Back in Hollywood, I couldn’t be sure.”
Tom flushed; he felt himself doing it. “That dance was Stacey’s, to be fair, or Peggy’s. No sense getting possessive.”
“Bullshit. I watched while you squeezed that diamond out of crap.” For a moment their eyes met and held.
Tom was the first to look away. “All right, yes. Mine, mine, mine. But I can’t constantly switch roles back and forth from choreographer to soldier, Stan, not and keep going. So I’m trying to maintain some distance from dancing.” Gravely, Stan reached over and punched Tom in the upper arm, once. The parody of pal consoling pal was so perfect that Tom knew he was the only one on the crowded street who would recognize the joke. Reluctantly, he smiled. “I admit, I do understand your fears.” He started to fold the pages of handwritten poetry back up.
“Careful. The top three are on the same sort of topics as the ones I’ve been mailing to you, safe as houses. And they’re all in my handwriting so if anyone finds them you can claim you had no idea what you were keeping for me. But I wanted you to know.”
“I’ll wad them into one of your letter envelopes and then seal it into something bigger.” Tom reshuffled the pages before he put them away. “You realize the chances now are much greater for me to die than you, given the job you boys did cleaning out the gulf a few months back?”
Stan shrugged again. “One of these crazy kamikazes could plow a plane into us tomorrow. Or a recruit could drop a paint bucket on my head from up on the instruments mast. The odds are pretty good that you and I won’t get killed simultaneously. Good enough, anyhow, for me to get my mind back onto business. I keep having these stupid nightmares about everything burning like at Pearl, all my books—”
Those reflections weren’t going anywhere good. Tom sighed, with deliberate and obvious patience. “And that’s quite enough of that, Lieutenant. I have your poems now, and you know I’m able to figure out how to smuggle them stateside safely. So shut up and soldier, soldier.”
Stan drew himself up and saluted. “Aye aye, sir.”
“Or, instead of shutting up, at least warn me about what I’m up against this evening. Did your chief engineer really start to ask me about Ginger Roger’s breasts before the film titles and a hundred horny sailors interrupted him?”
“Did he use the word breasts? Boy, he really is on his best behavior tonight. Usually he’d say tits.”
“Two drink limit at the party tonight, neither of them mixed,” Tom said to himself, before he tugged Stan back into the flow of human traffic.
By the time the gathering at the bar was over, Tom was glad he’d stuck to his resolve. Good as he’d become at playing the manly man these past five years, he’d needed all his wits about him when the conversation turned to Hollywood. It was nerve-racking but necessary to convert his amiable indifference towards female dancers and actresses into the experienced, predatory assessment that Stan’s shipmates expected. Almost two hours of eager queries about actual bust measurements, feminine willingness to yield, and one-on-one encounters on and off the dance floor left Tom with a dry throat and a mild headache. But he knew he’d also earned a reputation as a hell of a guy, a real dog who knew how to take proper advantage of working with the world’s sexiest women.
At 2300 hours, he was able to excuse himself with the claim that he was due back at CHQ at midnight. In fact he was free until 0800 the next morning, but there wasn’t a rural beauty queen’s chance in Hollywood that Tom was going to keep up the Don Juan routine one more second than he had to. He caught Stan’s eye and jerked his head towards the door.
Outside the street was dark since the last of the legitimate stores had shut down for the night, leaving the full moon, the bars and the few surviving streetlamps as the only sources of illumination. Far off in the distance there was a faint sound of machine gun fire. Both men paused in the shadows just past the bar and listened before moving on.
“No air raid sirens tonight. Is someone crazy enough to be running a live-fire exercise?” Stan said, voice low. By now, the few remaining sailors out on the street were likely to be drunk enough to not notice – or to notice in the wrong way – an officer’s insignia. Easier to avoid attracting their attention than waste time on trouble.
Tom shrugged, even though it must have been almost invisible in the dark. “Who knows? Another Jap hold-out maybe. In any case, the fuss isn’t in the direction we’re heading. Same jeep back to camp?”
“Yup, with me improperly driving once again. That’s why I wasn’t drinking. But you’ll have to navigate or I’ll get us lost in the dark.”
“And shot by some nervous patrol,” Stan agreed, voice wry. His footsteps sounded for another few seconds before he said, “This evening wasn’t at all what I was hoping for. They’re usually not that bad.”
“Hollywood glamour plus depravation, Stan. Didn’t they ever pump you about French girls, oo-la-la?”
“Sure, right after I joined the ship, fresh from the Aleutians—right. Okay, I was stupid expecting anything else.”
“Not really. You’ve just gotten used to them as men, not boys.”
Stan touched his elbow. “Here, through these alleys. Short-cut to the motor pool, but watch out for the MPs and holder-uppers.”
Tom gestured acknowledgement and then continued, “My tales out of school this evening will do both our reputations good. Now they have an image of the two of us screwing our way across the Southland firmly in place.”
“I guess the picture’s even kind of true. In a manner of speaking.” Stan snorted. “Although now I’m sorry I wasted all that time chasing the co-eds when I could have been screwing with you.”
Tom stopped. So did Stan. Tom asked, voice firm, “You said M.P.s?”
“Yup. And Shore Patrol, checking for alley-rats and whores.”
“Then be quiet. Dark alleys full of M.P.s are all together too dangerous for such provocation.”
Stan was still for a few seconds before he said, “At least I am provoking. At least there’s that.”
For the rest of the walk, and on most of the ride back, they kept the talk to subjects that they could have discussed in any officer’s club. But even as Tom’s eyes flicked back and forth as they drove, constantly watching the shadows and the road for minute signs of trouble, the back of his mind was mulling over Stan’s last sentences. Tom had checked the rifle holstered along his side of the jeep before they left the harbor, of course, but he reached out and touched the butt again for reassurance before he said, “No trouble, Stan, but there’ll be a wide spot next to the road just over this hill, beneath some palms, to the right. Solid dirt and no mines. Pull over and stop.”
Without asking questions, Stan steered the jeep off the road and killed the lights and motor.
Tom put a hand on Stan’s upper arm, listening. He scanned the brush and fields around them. “We don’t have long, I’m afraid. This isn’t safe.” He turned, and used both hands to seize the face next to him, faintly illuminated by the moonlight. Then he pulled Stan’s lips down to meet his own.
They hadn't kissed. Not once. Tom usually didn’t kiss unless he was in the throes of infatuation. But Stan deserved at least as much acknowledgment as the two or three men Tom had deluded himself about down through the years, the ones with whom he’d thought he might have something special. After all, what he had with Stan really was something special, even if it was only friendship.
Also, typical of the more refined kind of normal guy, Stan knew how to kiss. Tom was tempted to linger and see what would happen. But lingering, on any number of levels, wasn’t how to survive. Tom pulled back and said, “When I say provocation, I mean provocation. Quit underestimating yourself, would you?”
“Tom.” The one word was raw and full of yearning.
“Get this buggy going, Stan. Lots of folks around wandering here who’d enjoy killing guys like us, some of them patrolling in jeeps just like our own.”
When they were safely back on the road and driving again, Tom asked, “What were you hoping for?”
“From this evening? Truly?”
There was a pause before Stan replied. “Just to see you. Anything else would have been a bonus.”
Tom sighed. “Sailor-boy, you’re heading for big trouble.”
Stan’s voice was darkly amused. “Sweetheart, I’m writing you poems that border on pornographic. I’m already in trouble.”
Tom felt weary. But the words still had to be said. “It’s a long way to Tokyo, lover. We’ve all learned how ready the Japs aren’t to give up. That also means my superiors aren’t promoting a useful frontline captain into one more useless behind-the-lines major. You’re speaking with a walking – sorry, riding – dead man.”
“Pretty likely, yeah. Your career’s at least as dangerous as being in the French Resistance in occupied Paris.”
French Resistance? What? Oh, that ridiculous tale Stan had spun Suzie Weinstein about being in love with—
Realization hit. Tom closed his eyes. “Stan, you god-damned stupid son of a bitch.” And just why did those words have to come out sounding so caressing?
“Sounds about right.”
He had to be cured of this idiocy, now. “What the hell are you thinking? Dancer or no dancer, I’m not some perky male version of Ginger Rogers.” Tom peeled back every scrap of softness from his voice. “Get it through your head, Stan. It wasn’t kisses I wanted back in Hollywood. It was you on your knees, naked ass in the air, whimpering and begging for me to butt-fuck you harder.”
The jeep lurched, and then straightened. “Christ, Tom, would you please warn me next time? Rough enough driving an unfamiliar road in the dark without adding a hard-on to the mix.”
Tom reached out, almost blindly, and grabbed the butt of the rifle again, squeezing hard. Talk about your misfired round. “What is it going to take to get through that skull of yours how dumb you’re being? Stan, I may have to strangle you.”
“If the Japs don’t get me first. We’re carrying an awful lot of munitions on board.”
“You’d better not die. Scratch that right off your list.” Tom almost snarled in frustration at saying something so stupid and added, “Seems I want the god-damned kisses now, too, which is about the fastest way out there to ruin a good friendship.” Stan started to say something. “Shut up. Just shut up.”
They finished the drive to the encampment in silence. They barely even spoke when the sentries checked their papers. But before Tom got out of the jeep, he’d pulled himself together enough to remember who he was these days and how that meant he should treat Stan. There was a wad of poetry in his breast pocket to remind him something more important was at stake than Tom’s fears.
He sighed, making sure that it came out as dramatically as it would have in Hollywood, and spoke, voice lowered. “All right, all right, all right. Obviously you need a good harsh dose of reality about you-know-what to get the romantic nonsense out of your head. But war’s neither the time nor place for that.”
Stan didn’t move. He didn’t say a word. To be fair, if Tom had been in his place, he wouldn’t have either.
Tom grabbed the outside handle, swung out of the jeep, then leaned against the side of the passenger seat. “When this is over, when you’re ready, if you still want to, come to me in Hollywood. Then you’ll see.”
“I will.” Stan’s voice was very quiet. There was a pause. Tom wondered if he’d forgotten something. It certainly couldn’t be a goodnight kiss, not on a street in an army encampment. “You’ll still write, Tom?”
Oh, of course. That was what he’d forgotten. Stan at the railway station, fifteen and still forlorn even after Tom, who’d just covertly locked Stan’s new tutor into the men’s room, had promised to write.
“Be grateful that this time we’ll at least have each other’s addresses, and no one to intercept our letters,” Tom said snidely. “I don’t know about you, but military censors have nothing on my Pa.”
At least the last sound he heard from Stan before he walked away was genuine laughter.
From: Captain Thomas Tibbetts, U.S. Army
To: Lieutenant Thornton S. Vaughn, U.S.N.
“—as part of our housecleaning before we left, I had to confiscate three Japanese skulls that I found a squad had boiled clean to send home to their families. They claimed natives must have done the deed. I merely replied that, from what I’d read in Life, the natives must have gotten an idea from the marines and did they really want to do the same? I wasn’t surprised that inter-service prejudice succeeded where appeals to their good taste had failed—"
From: Lieutenant Thornton S. Vaughn, U.S.N.
To: Captain Thomas Tibbetts, U.S. Army
“—I’m sure you’ve already heard about the death of Peggy’s fiancé Kevin, in Germany. Sid also mentioned that Susannah Weinstein is marrying John, that punk dancer who gave you grief back in Hollywood. Not only do I mourn for Peggy’s sake, but justice seemed skewed by the paired events in a way words have difficulty capturing. We are Somewhere At Sea, literally and figuratively—”
From: Captain Thomas Tibbetts, U.S. Army
To: Lieutenant Thornton S. Vaughn, U.S.N.
“—so Peggy has moved to Manhattan to Forget, smart girl, and passed on to me her little pied a terre in West Hollywood. I will take her generosity as the act of faith in my survival she no doubt intends it to be. At least, housing crunch or no housing crunch, I’ll have a place to come home to after the war. Perhaps I’ll purchase that Airedale, a cherry-wood pipe, and some slippers with which to enjoy my solitude. Isn’t it amazing, the erosive effect that war has on one’s standards?”
From: Lieutenant Thornton S. Vaughn, U.S.N.
To: Captain Thomas Tibbetts, U.S. Army
“—army nurses, which caused a lot of chaos on the ship. By the time we’d transferred them, I could have used some nursing myself, if not precisely the type these ladies had to offer—”
From: Captain Thomas Tibbetts, U.S. Army
To: Lieutenant Thornton S. Vaughn, U.S.N.
“Upon your recommendation, I have tried the military edition of John Donne. My, my, my. Perhaps, upon consideration, you will be able publish your collected works during your lifetime. But no, probably not. I’d imagine those masculine, military themes of yours would still put off most readers. Better stick to writing about girls, Stan, the way Donne did. Socially unacceptable interests like theology or no, he’s seemingly still read—”
From: Lieutenant Thornton S. Vaughn, U.S.N.
To: Captain Thomas Tibbetts, U.S. Army
“—so don’t even bother trying to dissuade me, Tom. There’s no hope. Tonight I found myself dancing the passogira on deck. No one thought I was crazy, a tribute to what is normally expected of a poet, I suppose.
You may or may not get this letter promptly because we are involved with a high-priority transport project –did that sentence make it past the censor? - and will be busy for a while—”
From: Captain Thomas Tibbetts, U.S.A.
To: Lieutenant Thornton S. Vaughn, U.S.N.
“—starting to see the first replacements from Europe. They certainly are more efficient than our innocent lambs fresh out from Stateside, but often look like men who have put down three suitcases and are now expected to pick up a steamer trunk—”
From: Lieutenant Thornton S. Vaughn, U.S.N.
To: Captain Thomas Tibbetts, U.S.A.
“—back to our usual routine. On a darker note, we finally found our kamikaze. We survived; he, of course, did not. The pilot was thrown from his plane on impact and splashed [description of specific damages deleted by censor]. This kind of event only increases my eagerness to return to Paris and find Mimi. I think of her, yearn for her, dream about her. You of all men, friend Tom, will understand—”
From: Captain Thomas Tibbetts, U.S. Army
To: Lieutenant Thornton S. Vaughn, U.S.N.
“—nothing at all significant, so stop worrying. I wasn’t even sent from the field hospital further behind the lines. The upshot of all this idiocy was my receiving a second purple heart. Honestly, Stan, they’re giving them out with washing powder these days. Oh, Lord, and now I’m going to have to explain myself to Mr. Stone back in Hollywood!”
From: Lieutenant Thornton S. Vaughn, U.S.N.
To: Captain Thomas Tibbetts, U.S. Army
“—brother Oliver writes that he wants me to sit on the board of the family foundation. I suppose I’ll have to hear out his case. He’s always been good about the poetry, which somehow doesn’t surprise me. Do you remember that first summer when he took us all the way over to the state fair and stuffed us full of cotton candy, fried clams, popcorn, ice-cream, and pink lemonade, before putting us on the Tilt-a-Whirl to see what would happen next? I have a suspicion he likes committing his sins vicariously.
I’m looking forward to Hollywood even if it turns out like the Tilt-a-Whirl did—”
From: Captain Thomas Tibbetts, U.S. Army
To: Lieutenant Thornton S. Vaughn, U.S.N.
“—be sensible and not hang around Hollywood if more pragmatic and socially acceptable interests lead you elsewhere. I’d love visiting you in New York. Peggy’s getting along well there, too, or so she writes me—”
From: Lieutenant Thornton S. Vaughn, U.S.N.
To: Captain Thomas Tibbetts, U.S. Army
“—with all due respect, sir, shut up. Although I defer to your greater experience in most of these sorts of situations, and my luck’s been no better than yours until now, you’ve given me this one decision to call my own.
As to the reading, have you tried a guy called Evelyn Waugh? I think he’d amuse you. I’m not sure if a military edition of his latest work has been issued yet, but—”
From: Captain Thomas Tibbetts, U.S. Army
To: Lieutenant Thornton S. Vaughn, U.S.N.
“—find I’m really very tired of all the blood, of [two lines deleted by censor] Oh, well. Stan, I apologize for whining. Tommy Trooper soldiers on. But will this war ever, ever be over?”
From: Lieutenant Thornton S. Vaughn, U.S.N.
To: Captain Thomas Tibbetts, U.S. Army
“—passed through Nagasaki. I won’t even try to get what I saw past the censors.
Still, I’m glad they cut you loose so fast. You must have built up, what, about a million points towards your discharge? They’ll probably notice me, too, one of these days soon.
Say hello for me to the people I met back in Hollywood—”
Tom leaned back against the terrace rail, closed his eyes, tilted his face up to the sun, took a deep breath, and coughed harshly as the Los Angeles air tore at his throat.
Sidney Beck, standing next to him on the terrace, shook his head. “The haze here keeps getting worse. Too many trash incinerators, too much industry. Would you believe, when I first moved up into the Hollywood hills, I could see the sun set on the bay almost every day? I’m rather glad my trees have grown so tall that I’ve quit trying.”
Tom raised his eyebrows. “Sid, darling, you’re sounding positively antediluvian. I opened my eyes expecting to see long, white whiskers.” Actually, Sid was looking much better than when Tom saw him last, if possibly a bit more plump.
“Heavens, such vocabulary. Dear boy, who would have thought the military could be so educational? Some of the Italian terms Angelo came back knowing—well.”
Tom laughed. “He was keeping slightly different company than I was, Sid. My battle trophies run more along the lines of several scars, a meatball flag, and lots of rain tickets for dinners in places like Pittsburgh and Butte. Although I’d probably have to admire a great many home-permanents on young women and photos of drooling infants to collect my pork chops.”
“Don’t even try to pretend there’s no satisfaction in that.”
“I won’t. There is, even if I do intend to skip the pork chops, not to mention the women and children. But, otherwise,” Tom planted one hand on his hip and swept his other arm out in a grandiose gesture of casting away, “once again, I give myself over to grace and beauty. I will be happy never, ever to see another scrap of olive-green in my entire life. This girl’s done with the army.”
“Ah, but is the army quite done with you?” Sid shook his glass gently so that the ice cubes clinked against its sides. “Young Danny Swindon said you were a perfect brute to him last week.”
“Dan’s a brat who needs to figure out that his looks won’t last forever. Someday soon Lloyd will stop letting Dan tow him around by the dick. You know that.”
“Indeed I do, my dear. I never would have thought to say it to Danny, though, merely because he was so visibly embarrassing poor Lloyd at a community cocktail bash. And what was this I hear about those gatecrashers at Mr. Zimmerman’s pool party being forcibly ejected?”
Tom felt himself flush.
“My, my, you have moved to the adult’s table, haven’t you?” Sid’s expression was grave but his eyes were amused. “Now, how shall we address you there? Tommy Termagant? No, Tommy Tough? Perhaps Tom Thomas, sir, will do.”
“Oh, fuck you, Sid.”
“Thank you, beauteous, but I’m off the market these days. Now I live only for Angelo and weekends in Malibu. I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear my trousers rolled. Speaking of which—”
Tom considered stone-walling for about a second before he said, “Stan’s in Manhattan, last time that he wrote, visiting his brother and sisters.” Tom failed to mention Stan’s mother, a topic he didn’t consider acceptable in polite company.
“How nice to have family. Angelo’s third brother will be paroled from Sing-Sing next month.” The irony was light as a feather, and Tom grinned. “So, will I be dazzling my dinner guests again with a world-class poet any time soon?”
“I don’t know, Sid. That’s Stan’s choice and I won’t make it for him.” Sid only nodded. The words must have come out firm enough, then. “So, if you’re quite done playing Auntie Sid—”
“Hmm. I’d thought so, but perhaps not.” Sid’s eyes had slightly shifted. Shifting them back he added, smiling faintly, “The blue bedroom is currently unoccupied and the door locks.”
Tom raised his eyebrows and turned. Stan was coming out onto the terrace, escorted by Sid’s houseboy – butler, now - Frank.
For this of all scenes, Tom didn’t need any prompting from some actress. Once again, he planted a hand on his hip, and then surveyed Stan up and down. Good, Stan wasn’t trying to hide the missing earlobe. And Brooks Brothers was an excellent choice for a suit even if the style wasn’t quite right. That rep tie would have to go, though. Catching himself, Tom took a deep breath. “Hello, sailor.”
Stan’s face lit up like Times Square at New Year’s.
Then Tom strode forwards, plucked the offending tie up between forefinger and thumb, shook his head, and said, “Let’s settle this now, shall we? Sid, Stan and I are off to discuss his tie. Do you want to say anything to Sid before we go, Stan?”
Stan, whose expression had shifted from absolutely delighted through very amused to slightly alarmed, said, “Hello, Sid?”
“Goodbye, Stan,” Sid said, and laughed. It boomed out across the garden, abundant, infectious. Even Frank the butler joined in, hiding his amusement behind an upheld hand as Tom towed Stan back across the terrace, inside through the French doors to the living room, and up the main staircase.
Once they were upstairs, Tom locked the door, turned around, and held out one commanding hand. “The tie, please.”
Stan looked uncertain for a moment, then, shaking his head, removed the tie and handed it over.
Well, it was more expensive-looking at close range, but still no good for Stan. Tom shrugged, and threw the tie over his shoulder before he told Stan, “The rest of your clothes are much better, but they still have to go.” He folded his arms over his chest. Stan claimed he could give it up like what he called a fairy: here was his chance.
Comprehension dawned. Stan nodded with an eagerness that made Tom’s mouth go dry, and stripped. He wasn’t graceful; hopping around on one leg while removing the sock-garter on the other wouldn’t win him any points in that direction. But the willing spirit Stan’s haste showed had Tom stripping off his own clothes with focused, ruthless speed.
“All right, let me be your guide.” Tom was amazed how calm his own voice sounded. “Pull back the covers, lie down on your stomach,” Tom could have hidden his hunger, but Stan needed to remember what he was getting into, “and try to relax.”
The bedroom was properly stocked, of course; Sid was always a model host. Tom squeezed out lotion into his hands and warmed it between his palms contemplatively as he walked over and sat down on the bed next to Stan. He paused a moment to assess. From this angle, very nice indeed. Honestly, if men went around wearing bags over their heads, and tailors were shot for listening to their customers’ preferences rather than considering said customers’ best interests, Stan would have been beating off suitors with a club. Somehow, that thought was irritating. Tom reached over, parted the cheeks, and briskly worked a finger up Stan’s ass.
Stan puffed out a breath of air. “Good Lord, Tom, that was blunt.”
Tom pulled out his finger. “You’ll need the help, believe me. But you can still change your mind.”
“Then shift your hips.” He stuffed a pillow underneath Stan.
“Okay.” The hips wiggled. “Is this where I prove I’m plenty lavender by, um, presenting arms?” Stan really had no idea how to display himself in this position. Honestly, hadn’t Stan been bottom-man since he’d offered himself to Tom when they were both kids? Seemingly, no.
Tom opened his mouth to correct the posture, and then closed it. Probably a bottom-man’s display wasn’t knowledge that Stan was going to need after what was about to happen: he couldn’t see Stan trying this twice. But this one time was Stan’s choice. So Tom just said, “Remember, relax.”
“How the hell do I relax with a hard-on?”
Tom paused in straddling Stan and hiked eyebrows high. Then he said, “Not in front, sailor-boy, behind.” He’d parted the ass-cheeks again and knuckled Stan’s hole. He felt a slight yielding. “That’s it.” And now Tom was past offering alternatives and advice. Positioning himself, he pushed the head of his cock past the first resistance.
Stan didn’t say a word, but his whole body seemed to somehow thrum with shock. Delicious.
Tom pushed in deeper, enjoying the slightly moist heat and the rolling tightness of Stan’s ass first gripping at him, and then letting him pass. As he had so often imagined and never expected, Stan finally let out a deep, guttural noise, but not entirely of pain. Surprise? Pleasure? Both. Tom freed a hand to rub soothingly up and down Stan’s back, and then into the narrow gap between the sheet and Stan’s chest. His nipples were tight. His hair-dappled chest was heaving with his breath; he was shaking slightly.
Tom was in to the hilt, now. He could feel the caress of flesh all along his length. “Good?” The world was shrinking, brightening, centering on Stan.
Stan heaved in a great breath. “Yeah.” He let out the rest of the breath, shuddering, as Tom shifted, seeking the best position. “Tom. Please, Tom.”
“Please what?” Tom pulled his hips back, drove forwards. “This?”
“More.” The dark-haired head dipped a little, probably to hide one of the sweet smiles. “Please.”
Tom found himself smiling, too. Sweetly, ferally, both? Both. He leaned forwards, kissed a shoulder, licked, nipped. Then he shifted his weight back onto his knees and put a hand on each of Stan’s hips. “My pleasure, sailor-boy.” His first thrust slammed Stan forward hard into the pillow, but by the third or forth, Stan was pushing back to meet him. Tom had begun by intending to be gentle, but he’d underestimated his partner. Good, because he wanted everything Stan had to give and maybe a bit more.
And towards the end – ah, wonderful – Stan did whimper and beg Tom to ass-fuck him harder. Stan’s reward was Tom’s hand working his cock, deployed with all the forceful skill Tom could muster. But that didn’t last long: Stan went off like field artillery, with a tight-arched, clamping intensity that impressed even veteran Tom, enough so that Tom didn’t have to persecute Stan’s sore-tried rear for much longer. If Stan’s pleasure hadn't been enough, the way he took a few deep, shuddering breaths as Tom continued to ride him, laughed joyously, and then dutifully began working his hips again would have done the trick.
Afterwards, Stan started to shift away. “Shit, ow.”
Tom swatted Stan’s side gently. “Correct on both counts. Don’t move; you should know better. Leave the disembarking to the amphibious assault expert.” He worked out, rubbed a quick, possessive hand over Stan’s ass, and said, “Better than could be expected: no field casualties. I’ll clean us both up.”
When he came back out of the bathroom, Stan was starfish-sprawled across the bed, so relaxed Tom thought he might be asleep. But Stan asked, “What about the sheets?”
“Did I mention that Angelo returned from Italy several months back? I’m sure the memory lingers. We’ll be forgiven the sheets.”
Stan chuckled and stretched a little as Tom sat down beside him and went to work with a washcloth. But Stan kept his face turned away as he said, “I didn’t know how you’d react to my showing up like this. Some of your letters seemed to kind of—shove me away.”
Tom clucked. “Stan, as I’ve said before, there’s such a thing as taking modesty too far. My letters were the only place where I had enough distance to try and make you change your mind.” He reached out and squeezed the back of one hard thigh. “Your brute, physical reality is, in fact, dreadfully hard to resist. Roll over.”
When Stan’s face was visible, he was smiling again. Tom shook his head, and continued, “Our deal is skewed in my direction, Stan. I’ve gotten what I wanted. More than I expected. When this doesn’t work out, you’ll be the one left holding the bag.”
The smile was gone, but lingered in the eyes. “I like the contents.”
“I’m still not positive I’m convinced.” Tom heaved a sigh, indulging in the opportunity to get everything out of the gesture he could. “Granted, enjoying being sodomized by a guy like me is considered very, very fairy.” He got up and went over to the laundry hamper. “But I’m betting you could do perfectly well with the ladies alone. In fact, I’m not sure that wouldn’t be your better option, especially given that you seem to like long contracts. This so-called gay life is rough, and could get rougher, the way folks are behaving these days.”
“I’m giving up girls.” Stan’s chin firmed.
Tom rolled his eyes up, considered making a few choice remarks based on past experience, and then changed the subject. Later, when Stan wasn’t giddy with release, was the time to tackle such issues. “What made you suddenly show up? I thought you were visiting with your brother.”
“Oliver’s fine, and he has the bank to worry about. Besides, he got what he wanted out of me. He saw I’m okay, and I agreed I’d sit in on the Foundation Board’s quarterly meetings. So when you wrote that you had an appointment at the studio next week and might be back to work soon, I caught a DC-3. Are they going to add you to the production schedule at Everest?”
Tom didn’t bother trying to find a guest bathrobe before he went to lean against the French window and look out over the garden. As Sid had said, his trees had grown tall. “I don’t know. Probably. But this town is rotten-ripe, Stan. I’m not sure if I want to stay here, or what I want to do if I don’t.”
Stan, who’d put on his boxers and was reaching for his trousers, paused. “I could take you to Europe—”
Tom smiled, but made sure his expression was stern before he turned back around. “Get this straight, Sailor. You’re not keeping company with Nell Gwynne. While I have no objection to letting you enrich a ticket or a hotel room now and then, I’m a working boy. As long as we keep company I’ll pay my share, thank you.” He shook his head. “Speaking of work, how’s the poetry? You haven’t sent me anything for a while.”
The relaxation of Stan’s mouth was a pleasure to see. “Comes slower, these days, but it comes.”
“How very mature of you.” Tom hesitated. “Look, Stan, I don’t want any of this getting in the way of your work. Your real work, I mean, not the trash-hauling job we’ve both been laboring at for the past few years.”
For a moment, Stan looked uncertain, and then his eyebrows knit slightly. Tom blinked. He hadn't seen that particular expression in years, but he still recognized it. Stan was trying to scheme.
Stan cleared his throat. Fast-talking had never been one of his skills. “No. No, it won’t affect my work. So far the, um, new situation is helping me write, correct?”
“Yes,” Tom said, wondering where Stan thought he was going. “But you know there’s no guarantee that any of this will last. In fact, based on my past history – and what you’ve told me about yours, Stan –
“Yes, but that’s the beauty of it, Tom.” Stan interrupted, his expression suddenly eager. He got up. “You’ve read some poetry now, so you know. What’s about the most common poetical theme?”
“Love? Death? Is this Twenty Questions?”
“Yes, yes, and no. Love and death, Tom. Heartbreak.”
Now Tom could see where this was going. It was—
“Heartbreak. Think of all the poetry inspired by heartbreak, anger, loss. So, by betting on our affair, I cover every horse on the track.”
This ploy of Stan’s was absolutely—
“No matter what happens, I’ll get poetry out of it.” Stan stopped in front of Tom, folded his arms across his chest, and smiled his triumph. As usual with him, the smile was unmistakably, inarguably, sweet.
And Stan’s ploy was absolutely darling. Feeble, but darling.
Tom shook his head, amazed. “Holy lifting, Sam. Did you know that when you smile, you’re almost attractive?” Stan went still. “Which is rather unfair, dear, given that you’re also bright, talented, of strong character, and dead lucky.”
Stan tilted his head. After a moment, he said, “You’ve never once lied to me, Tom, never, ever flattered me. I’ve always been able to take your words at face value. So I guess that compliment must be true.” His face was grave, his eyes amused. “Although you sometimes leave out details. What about high-born and rich?”
Rolling his eyes, Tom said, “Did I or didn’t I say dead lucky? Don’t those traits fall under dead lucky?”
Grinning, now, Stan shook his head. “Christ, Tommy, I do love—” Hearing his own words, Stan suddenly looked like he wished he’d bitten his own tongue off.
For just a second, Tom felt a familiar feeling the past couple of years had finally taught him to recognize as fear. It was Tom’s usual response to Stan’s interrupted words. How many guys had Tom walked away from, down through the years, for trying too hard, wanting too much? For that matter, in retrospect, how about the two guys who’d strong-armed Tom off after seeing a certain look in Tom’s eyes? Tom took a deep breath. So, he was afraid. Fine. Either he had learned now how to deal with that, or he hadn't.
“Stan. If either of us says anything else on this topic right now, something’s going to get fucked up. Since the only things around here I want fucked right now is either you or possibly me, don’t say another word except to answer one of two questions. First, what do you want for dinner? And second, one more time before we get cleaned up, thank our host, and leave?”
The smile was back. “Can I defer the first question until after I answer the second one?”
“Certainly. Although, by that request, you’ve already answered both, sailor-boy.” Tom narrowed his eyes. “We’re starting with seafood, I do believe.” He reached over, hooked one hand into the naval underwear Stan had yet to replace with civilian shorts, and yanked down.
The next few days, Tom was preoccupied enough that he didn’t worry when the studio telephoned and rescheduled his appointment. With the benefit of hindsight, he should have worried. When he called the afternoon before the meeting and found his appointment had been shifted to Julian Weinstein’s office, he pursed his lips and did worry. His next call was to Gerello, Meyer, and Greene.
“I am going to be interested in seeing just what stunt Weinstein is trying to pull off this time. You already have a contract, signed and waiting.” Tom’s agent, Angelo Gerello, was grayer and more polished than when Tom had first met him, but no less alarming. Still, his eyes were easier to meet since Tom had returned from the Pacific. At least Angelo didn’t laugh before he bulldozed his enemies, and at least the ammunition he used wasn’t fatal. “Are you sure you do not want a shyster?”
“What, start by giving away the strength of our reinforcements? I don’t think so. Good enough that you, yourself, are taking care of my little business. That should send up a flare for the Powers that Be.”
Angelo nodded approval. They were both seated in Julian Weinstein’s office, waiting. The wait should have been intimidating, Tom supposed, but it really didn’t hold up against crouching inside an LCI that was crashing through waves on its way to an amphibious assault. Besides, Angelo had lit his cigar and was surveying the office with the weary complacency of a veteran boxer who’d seen the insides of such rings a hundred times before.
Without warning, the side door opened. Weinstein came in, followed by D.J. Stone and a harried-looking stenographer. Tom hoisted his eyebrows at Mr. Weinstein. All this fire-power for little Tommy Tucker? The look Weinstein shot him in return was frosty. “Thomas, I only have fifteen minutes. Some goddamned union rep wants a chunk of my time.” And of his ass, Weinstein’s tone implied. Tom hoped whoever it was would get a healthy piece of meat. But Weinstein was probably too toxic for that.
Tom nodded and Gerello removed and smiled coldly at his cigar. Stone sat down in an armchair close to the window with an air of studied neutrality, his face blank. No hope there, but no hindrance either. Tom felt his skin prickle in a now familiar mixture of dread, anticipation, and eagerness to deal with danger and have done. Let the games begin.
There was one file-folder centered on the vast, otherwise-naked expanse of the ebony desktop. Weinstein flipped it open with a forefinger. “So, you’re keeping company with Thornton Vaughn, the poet.” Weinstein flipped the folder shut. “He’s a Commie.”
“Bullshit.” Tom hadn’t known he was going to say that before he did, but at least the word had come out polite. He’d still better elaborate, though. “Smuggling guns in for the Spanish Loyalists hardly translates into an undue fondness for our Soviet allies.”
“That’s not how the F.B.I. sees matters. Once a parlor-pink, always a parlor-pink. Mr. Hoover knows these things.”
Tom didn’t need Gerello’s cough to tell him to swallow the crack he yearned to make about Mr. J. Edgar Hoover’s knowledge of pink. Certain observations just weren’t made in mixed company. Instead he said, still polite, “I’m not quite sure what any of this has to do with my contract, Mr. Weinstein.” That was a lie. Tom had heard rumors about what was happening to political lefties at other studios. His contract—he felt like enemy artillery had found range on the company ammo dump.
“We don’t bother with a morals clause in the contracts of you behind-the-scenes artsy types – talk about a waste of time – but the new round includes patriotism clauses.” Tom was mildly surprised he was actually getting an explanation. His contract’s lock-in must have been really formidable. “We can’t have anyone with the studio right now who might be a political liability. Relationships with Washington are delicate.” Given the anti-trust case against the Hollywood studios currently moving through the courts? Why, yes they were. “The poet or your contract, Thomas. Choose.”
There was no choice. That was what kept Tom quiet: his amazement at himself. Any scruples aside, when the alternatives were the security and creative opportunities Tom had enjoyed for years, and a chance to illicitly loiter with Stan for some uncertain period, there was no choice. Seemingly, sometime during the past few days, he’d lost the last remaining chunks of his mind.
In retrospect, the silence didn’t last more than a few seconds before Gerello said, voice thoughtful, “My client and Mr. Vaughn, the war hero and respected literary man, are well known to be boyhood chums. So perhaps your objection should have been expressed before my client signed his latest contract.”
Weinstein glanced over at Stone, looking faintly sour. “The studio’s offer was overly hasty. We’ve only recently realized there might be reason for concern.”
Aha. Tom would be willing to bet Weinstein’s new nephew-in-law, Suzie’s obnoxious John, had been telling tales out of school. The former chorus boy had better be careful. He only had so much credit with Weinstein to squander, and revenge was a high-risk, low-return investment in Hollywood.
Weinstein flipped the folder open again. “This is not to say we aren’t willing to take into account your past services, Thomas, both to this studio and to this country. Our present schedule is busy. There are a lot of choreography assignments to be handed out. If you play ball, some can come your way, under a different name, of course. If you’re neither contracted nor credited, nothing or no one associated with your name can cause us problems—”
Gerello’s eyebrows went down. “No.”
All at once, Tom was fed up. And, since he’d seemingly gone crazy, he might as well indulge the feeling. “Mr. Gerello and I agree, Mr. Weinstein. If you want to tear up my contract, you’ll need to find a legal way to guarantee I keep my credit. Also, if I’m working piece-meal, it should be for a standard consultant’s fee, and I’ll need a nailed-down number of assignments.”
Tom smiled, but he knew his eyes stayed flat. “In return, you can take me off the studio’s official roster, so everyone knows I only work for, rather than belong to, Everest Studio. That will let you stop worrying about—Washington.” He made sure his tone was as bland as it would be talking to a behind-the-lines Brigadier. “I know I’m being a touch too easy about this. Security, as we’ve all learned in the past half-decade, doesn’t come cheap. But I’d hate to think of the catfight that would ensue if my chum’s older brother, Mr. Oliver Vaughn of First Farmer’s and Apothecary’s, thought his family’s name was being dragged through the mud by a film studio.”
A momentary silence fell. Weinstein’s face was still, but his eyes shifted minutely. Stone glanced briefly at Weinstein with the satisfied expression of a coyote discovering that the miniature poodle who’d just snapped at him was outside, not inside, a house’s sliding-glass doors. Gerello took a puff from his cigar and looked meditatively at the ceiling.
Tom turned to him. “But I’ll leave the details to you, Angelo. You’re always the best at wielding the knife with precision—while editing legal points, I mean.”
“My pleasure.” His scar shifted slightly as Gerello deployed his alarming version of a smile. “Come and have dinner with us next week. Both of you. Saturday.”
Tom nodded, and Gerello turned back to business, his face going blank, his eyes cold. “Gentlemen. As my oldest brother likes to say, let us now reason together. My client’s existing contract with this studio clearly states—”
That was the last Tom heard before he’d hiked out of range, across what seemed like a mile of plush carpeting to the door. He left Weinstein’s office feeling curiously hollow. Tom had been under contract in one role or another, effectively Everest’s body and soul, since 1932. But then his eyes lit on Stan, who was sprawled out in a well-padded Danish modern chair in the reception room, paging through a copy of the New Yorker.
Stan looked up and raised both eyebrows in inquiry.
“Well, that’s it, lover.” Stan looked alarmed, and Tom realized he’d just used a sexual endearment to another man right out loud in public. But, to hell with it. He no longer belonged to Everest. He was a free man, or at least as free as he could ever be as a homosexual under U.S. law. So he certainly wasn’t going to chain himself to dumb fears about what might or might not happen with Stan anymore. And the man part of free man, Tom now knew, was no longer in question. Letting himself smile at Stan, Tom crooked a finger. “Come along.”
Obediently, Stan put the magazine down and unfolded himself from his chair. With an instinct the rich were probably born with, he waited until they were away from the executive offices to ask, “What happened?”
“The studio’s breaking my contract.”
“What? Why?” Before Tom could answer, Stan said, his voice rough, “Is it—you know, because of me?”
“Oddly enough, not really. You were just an excuse. I’d started changing even before we met again, which was bound to earn me enemies eventually. Forcible and yet floral men are not popular. In this case, John the chorus boy, via your old friend Suzie, seems to have been poking at Weinstein.” Tom blinked. “I wonder if he’d said something about us to her, and she felt insulted?”
Stan tilted his head. “I’m still back on me as excuse, here.”
Tom found he was smiling indulgently. “By any chance, was that young Spanish man you – befriended - a communist?”
“It was Loyalist Spain. Sure he was a Red, some kind of Trotskyite.” Stan’s tone had been growing defensive, but suddenly it turned sad. “After the Stalinist purges, he wasn’t anything at all. Except dead.”
“I’d be willing to bet that your adventure into gunrunning was his idea, though.” Really, Stan did have a bad tendency to let his Very Good Friends embroil him in their schemes. He needed to be taken in hand by someone a bit more sensible, someone who knew what he was worth.
“He reminded me of—” Stan started to say more, cut himself off, and then asked, “Tom, with no contract, how will you live?”
Tom shook his head. “I don’t know. Angelo will somehow get me some cash and a few jobs out of all this. Weinstein might think he has grounds to break my current contract without penalty, but he’d have to court publicity he doesn’t want in order to do that. And Angelo hates even an unimportant type like me having his contract broken without warning. It sets a bad example.”
They both fell silent as they passed two accountants discussing regional theater returns, and then Tom resumed, “I would have thought I would be crushed, but instead I feel like I did after Ma died and I left Maine and the lobster boats behind.”
Tom pushed open the main door to the studio street, and they went outside. All around them, the factory bustled while men and women costumed to enact America’s dreams hurried to punch their timecards and do their jobs. Tom returned a wave from a couple of top-hatted and tail-coated dancers and said, “Stan, let’s blow this joint so I can go see what else there is to see.”
“Hollywood, California, the U.S., everywhere. As someone keeps pointing out to me, there’s more to life than the movies.” He looked sideways at Stan and smiled. “I hear Paris is nice in the spring-time.”
Stan shook his head in exasperation. “What the hell is it about Paris? You’d think there wasn’t another place left to visit in all of Europe. London, Copenhagen, Florence, even Barcelona, what remains of them—”
His travelogue took them out the gate. They were about to look for a red-car when Tom spotted the guy selling maps. “Stan, wait.”
Tom pulled out his wallet, and handed over a dollar to the vendor, who looked bemused and then drifted away towards two middle-aged ladies from back east who were loitering by Everest’s gates in hopes of spotting a movie star. “Here we go, Stan. Map to the Homes and Haunts of the Hollywood Stars. When I first arrived in town, I wanted one desperately but was too proud to buy it. No Tommy Tourist, I. I was going to be in the pictures.” Carefully, he took the map and tucked it inside his suit jacket. “There. Now I have something to go with my Japanese battle flag.”
Grinning, Stan slowly nodded his head. “I get you. Yesterday, Tommy Trawler, Tommy Terpsichore, Tommy Trooper. Tomorrow, who knows? But what about today?”
“Why, Tommy Temptress, my dear, as you should well know.” Tom laughed. “Take one last, long look at the glamorous girls of the Southland, Stan, and consider saying goodbye to all that for right now. If I’m taking my chances working piece-meal, I’ll need a roommate to help with the expenses, especially if I intend to travel. Still interested in giving me a try?”
Stan stopped abruptly, and then smiled, shaking his head. “Son of a bitch,” he said softly. “After all these years, I’m finally going to get my shot at a happy ending. Hooray for Hollywood.”
“No, Stan. Forget about Hollywood, would you? You’re the one who convinced me that your hopes were better than my fears, not some movie. This is real life. Hooray for you.”
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