Jack didn’t smoke on the fire escape anymore. David had nagged him about it for months on end with no success; but all it took was one brief mention from his mother how the smoke would sometimes drift through the window for Jack to dutifully transfer his activities elsewhere. He smoked under the escape after that, down in the street- well technically it was the street, though no carriages or bicycles ever passed through the shadowy enclave where Jack lurked every night and indulged his taste for fake Bull Durhams.
It’s there that David knew where to look for him- every night, without fail, even if the sales had been bad and he needed to stay out later to try and get rid of one last paper. David wasn’t in the newsboy business anymore- his father had a new job then, with the trolley workers of all people, and he and Les had trooped dutifully back to school- but he could hear the calls of the newsboys out his window every afternoon, struggling through grammar and arithmetic and old dead poets who didn’t matter to his life all that much. He wouldn’t tell the others, but he didn’t mind the poets so much. There was a rhythm to the words that almost reminded him of the beats and inflection of the headlines, with ink staining his fingers just the same from his schoolbooks and his newspapers, the same smell of cheap paper that crackles when pages are turned and rips too easily, and then he had to pay for a new one. Being a newsboy paid better.
“Hey Davey.” Jack cupped a hand around the end of his cigarette, and a glow briefly lit up his palm before he held it to the tip and shook the match until it went out. “How’s the folks?”
“As usual.” It had been raining, and the streets beneath his feet were muddy; the dirt clung to his heels as he ducked under the railing. “They’re entertaining a friend of Sarah’s. Some boy from the patent office.” He paused for a moment to catalogue Jack’s reaction, but there was very little to take note of. David still didn’t know what had ended up happening between Jack and his sister; he’d tried asking her once, but all he’d gotten was a shrug and a “Well he’s nice, I suppose.” It made sense to him. Sarah wanted a family and a life settled here in New York; Jack Kelley, for all his charms (and he had many) would never give her that, and So-and-so from the patent office could. Neither of them seemed too upset about it.
“I brought a book.” he announced, reaching into his vest. He had a teacher at school who had taken a liking to him- said his writing had a “cultivated” quality to it, whatever that meant- and he’d taken to slipping David books that the school would never let him teach. “My generation will never understand it,” he’d said, pressing the book into David’s hand, “but I think yours’ might. Give it a chance.” It was a little leather-bound volume, slim and bordered with gold trim. David had never heard of the author, Walter Something, but from the way his teacher had hastily straightened up and walked away when another aide came by, he could guess that he wasn’t supposed to have it. He knew Jack would never admit it, but he liked hearing about David’s schoolwork, and the forbidden books slipped under desks and passed behind backs. “It’s poetry.”
An undignified snort. “Yeah?”
David rolled his eyes. “Yeah.” He could have asked why Jack kept showing up if the book’s contents were such a waste of time, but he knew very well that all he would get was a smart answer and maybe a wink. Jack Kelly was someone who prided himself on never being caught without an answer. David flipped the cover open. “It’s called Leaves of Grass. Apparently my teachers wouldn’t appreciate it.”
That earned him a grin. “Sounds interesting.”
David flipped to a random page and cleared his throat. “For him I sing; I raise the present on the past, as some perennial tree out of its roots, the present on the past. With time and space I him dilate and fuse the immortal laws, to make himself by them the law unto himself.”
“A law unto himself, huh?” The cigarettes was finished; Jack dropped it, and ground it into the mud beneath him. “I like this guy.”
“You would.” David grins; Jack grins back. Ignoring the sudden quickened pace of his heartbeat, David flipped to a different page. “From pent-up aching rivers, from that of myself without which I were nothing; from what I am determin'd to make illustrious, even if I stand sole among men-” He paused, eyes widening.
Jack leaned forward, trying to see over his shoulder. “Is that it?”
“No, it’s just-” David took a deep breath. He could certainly see now why the book wasn’t being taught in his classrooms. “From- from my own voice resonant, singing the phallus, Singing the song of procreation, Singing the need of superb children and therein superb grown people, Singing the- the muscular urge and the blending, Singing the bedfellow's song-” He had to stop then, and took a deep breath. Jack was leaning even closer now, a hand on his shoulder to keep his balance; it was making it spectacularly difficult to concentrate on the words on the page. “O resistless yearning! O for any and each the body correlative attracting! O for you whoever you are your correlative body! O it, more than all else, you delighting! From the hungry gnaw that eats me night and day, from native moments, from bashful pains, singing them, seeking something yet unfound though I have diligently sought it many a long year, singing the true song of the soul fitful at random-” He had to stop then; his voice had risen with the cadence of the poem, and his breathing was coming in bursts. Jack was still at his back, hand on his shoulder, and- if he wasn’t imagine it- no, he definitely wasn’t imagining that. Wonderful.
“Jack,” he hissed. “My parents are upstairs.”
“Not like they can hear us.” Jack started nosing at the back of his neck; David shuddered, pressing further against his chest. He was hard, god he was hard already- had been since he’d gotten into the poem- and Jack’s mouth was at his ear, teeth scraping at his earlobe, and there was so much pressure. It was like a boiler about to burst.
Jack roped an arm around his waist and pulled him further into the enclave- no chance of anyone seeing them there- and bit. That did it. David whirled around and grasped two handfuls of Jack’s shirt in his fists, kissing him hard enough to drive him against the wall. Jack didn’t mind- why would he? He’d been after this all along. The other boy’s shirt was gaping open at the collar, still damp from the rain he’d walked through to get there, and he smelled of rain and ink and paper. David yanked at the shirt, sending several buttons flying, and leaving him only half-covered, bare almost to the waist. Jack wouldn’t let that go without some sort of retort, of course; David’s vest was torn off before he even had a chance to notice, and his hands went immediately to the buttons of his shirt before those were ripped off too. His shirt ended up dangling from his waist, only hanging on by the virtue of being tucked into his trousers; he wasn’t taking those off. He may have been stripped from almost all of the limitations he’d had before, but standing naked practically in the street was one reservation he would hang on to. Not that it mattered much; Jack was already grasping at him through his trousers, and he bucked his hips against the feeling, hunting for more pressure, more friction. Jack grinned against his neck. “You like that, yeah?”
“That’s a stupid question.” David huffed in response; Jack knew very well what he liked. He was doing it already. A knee pushed between Jack’s legs provided the leverage he needed, and how the other boy was the one to gasp and roll his eyes back in his head as David pressed his tongue against his neck. That would shut him up. God, he l- no, not that, not yet- he liked Jack, he did, but sometimes he just wanted to shut him up. That was one of those times. Of course, it wasn’t so much of a problem when the only noises Jack was making were moans and gasps and grunts verging on the obscene. Obscene- that was a vocabulary word, there. These little “lessons” were benefiting them both, and not just because his head was falling back and his eyes fogging with lust and an overpowering need to push Jack harder against the wall and drive into him. The other boy was still pressed against his leg, panting hard, and David buried his face in Jack’s collarbone to keep from shouting as he finished. From the noises Jack was making- teeth in his ear again- he was doing the same thing.
David plucked at Jack’s collar. “I’ve wrecked your shirt.”
A shrug. “Happens sometimes.”
“Still, you need to wear that tomorrow.” They didn’t discuss money much, but David had been seeing Jack every day for months on end, always wearing the same shirt; he knew he didn’t have any others. “I could ask my mother to sew them back on. She’d do it. She likes you.”
Jack snorted. “You still have to explain the pants.” He pointed, and David looked downwards, colouring slightly. “Oh. Yeah.” He attempted a cheeky grin that he knew was a shadow of Jack’s best. “I tripped?”
“What, and fell on a girl?”
David shoved him lightly. “Very funny.” Jack was barely suppressing a snicker, and he couldn’t help it; he burst out laughing, and it only took a second for Jack to join him.
“It’s all right.” he said, after their guffaws had died down to chuckles. “I’ve sewed-”
“Sewn.” David corrected automatically.
“Yeah, whatever- sewn buttons back on before. No problem.” Another artless shrug. For such a casual gesture, Jack had perfected it. “’Sides, shouldn’t you be heading back in?”
David glanced upwards. The rain had stopped, and he could hear the faint sounds of plates clattering from his family’s tenement. No one was looking for him yet- with luck, he could slip in and change trousers without them noticing, and join the table again before someone took note of his absence. “I guess so. Same time tomorrow.”
“Same time.” Jack said agreeably. David looked back at his friend through the hair he’d let fall in his eyes. Impulsively, he drew him forward and kissed him. His mouth was warm, and tasted faintly of cigarettes and whatever hardboiled candy he’d been sucking on earlier in the day. Even after all that, it made his head spin. He released him, and Jack looked happy, if a little confused. “What was that for?”
“No reason.” David swung up on the railing. “See you tomorrow.”
“Hey, Dave-” Jack picked something up from the ground at his feet. “You forgot your book.”
David leaned forward, considering. His teacher probably wouldn’t ask for it back the day after loaning it; and the lodging house was awfully short on reading material. “You can hang onto it for now.”
A smile lit up Jack’s features, and any lingering doubt David might have had vanished. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” David paused for a moment to smile back, then ducked up and under the windowsill. Tomorrow was school- more arithmetic, more grammar, and more poetry that might have more influence on his life than his teachers supposed. And the next evening, Jack would be back again.