Les was late because, God damn them, they'd switched the room again without proper notice, and he'd arrived seven minutes ahead of the scheduled conversation to find an empty table. Finding a secretary who knew anything took him another five minutes, and when she told him they were the next wing over and three flights up, he clenched his fist to keep from shouting in disappointment and anger. Any other attorney, client, or whole man in the whole building could have gotten there in five minutes with three to spare, and probably some of the women too. Nobody else would have had a problem.
His pace was a careful balance between moving fast and staying slow enough that he didn't turn his walk into a comic hobble, as he knew from years of interactions with unkind passers-by that it was apparently funny to see a cripple hustle, and God damn it, he wasn't giving anyone here more of a reason to think he was a joke than they already had. Balancing his satchel of papers under his right arm, he gripped the head of his cane so tight he could feel where the cracks in the old wood left impressions in his left palm. Down the hall he went, ignoring everyone he passed, trying not to think about the faces they might make behind his back, mockery or pity, they were two sides of the same coin, he had no time for it, he had to keep moving, damn it all, damn everything. The ancient elevator was at the far end of the hall and would deposit him another hall's length from where he needed to be, but he was damned if he was going to give them all comedy show as he lurched his way up seventy-two steps, not counting landings, damn the architects, damn his superiors, damn gravity.
Eighteen minutes after four, he pulled back the handle of the door to the room and slipped into the chair nearest the door. Of the dozen or so suited men around the table at the room's center, only Sanders turned to look at him, and the look in his eyes wasn't anger, but disappointment. Les gave a nod of apology, then sat as still as he could, not even bringing out a pen or a pad for notes. Instead, he focused on accomplishing three things, to declining degrees of success: listening to the deposition already in progress, steadying his breathing, ignoring the pain shooting up his left leg.
The quartet of tables in the center formed a hollow square, making a conference sort of setup, though this was no roundtable discussion; there were sides. On the one to which Les belonged sat eleven men in neat dark suits, some of the United States Justice Department's finest, all of whom had been personally vetted by Senator McCarthy's closest associates for this work. They weren't the cream of the crop -- those were needed elsewhere, for bigger HUAC concerns -- but these weren't simple pencil-pushers either. By technical status and seniority, every one of them outranked Les.
From this group, a man about Les' age leaned forward -- one of the young ones the Virginia Attorney General's office had sent over, pinch-faced and bespectacled. "Reminding you that you're currently giving sworn testimony, Mr. Golovin, would you care to elaborate on your earlier statement regarding subversive activity at your place of employment?"
The other side of the confrontation belonged to one man who was as different from his interrogators as a hummingbird from a handful of grey mice. His version of their drab attire was a yellow-and-red plaid jacket over a light cream shirt, and his beige panama hat sat on the table next to him, far from where it might cover the white-blond of his wispy hair. He was a smallish man, compact in all dimensions, and when he sat all the way back in the plain metal chair they'd provided him, only the balls of his feet touched the ground. "I'm looking for other ways to say 'none', boys, but they just aren't coming to me." The file had listed his place of birth as Charleston, South Carolina, and Les could hear it in his pleasant, lilting voice.
The looks of pique on the committee members' faces might have been amusing had this all not been so deadly serious. "We have here," said Brenner, Sanders' right-hand man, "a sheet with eyewitness reports of known subversives who have patronized the café you--"
"Last I heard," interrupted Golovin, whose sweet smile softened what would otherwise have been a sharp profile, "the point of a free country is that you can buy your coffee and listen to your music where you please, and that you can sell that coffee and play that music for somebody without anybody interrogating anybody about political preferences first. Or are you fellows Soviets? Because if you are, I--"
"Don't get cute," growled Sanders, who had a voice like thunder and had never, in the six years Les had worked under him, been afraid to use it. He pulled Brenner's sheet toward him and pointed to the top line. "November 8 of last year, three Negros with known communist sympathies were arrested coming out of your establishment--"
"Is liking music while being colored a federal crime now?" Golovin folded his arms and looked smug. In another context, that might have gotten him at least a chuckle; here, no one was laughing.
"Out of your establishment," Sanders repeated, his voice long past empty of patience, "and admitted, during questioning, to having met there several times in the past and to having had there discussions of subversive socialist plots to undermine the United States government, using illegal recreational narcotics, and engaging in promiscuous and homosexual activity."
Though Les did not know the man before him, his stomach still turned to stone as Golovin had the temerity to roll his eyes. "And what did you charge them with, knowing how to have a good time?"
The veins in Sanders' forehead were large enough that Les could see them from across the room, and he expected smoke to start pouring out his boss' nostrils any minute now. People brought before panels like this were supposed to be cowed and terrified; Golovin was neither. "I've changed my mind about this interview. I'm thinking perhaps we should bring your co-owners," Sanders scanned the sheet, "a Mr. and Mrs. Chinoff in here to speak with us instead?"
The smile on Golovin's face went from defiant to vicious in an instant, and though he didn't change his expression more than a hair's breadth, everyone in the room could see that Sanders had scored a hit. "You know," said Golovin, placing his hand atop the crown of his hat, "when I was a little boy I learned about something called the American Dream. It was the one that said no matter what you were born as, you could grow up to be whatever you wanted. It was why people came here from all over the world, why my parents came here, why the Chinoffs came here: you'd get to start over, open up a little shop, learn the language, make some money, be American. You'd pay your taxes and put out the flag every morning, and the government would be proud of you, and might even treat you you belonged. You can't squeeze blood from a stone, gentlemen, and this stone's had enough. Good afternoon." He rose and donned his hat in one smooth gesture that Les envied.
Seething and shocked, the other men stood, and Brenner slapped the table. "You can't just--"
"I came voluntarily, and I'm leaving voluntarily." Golovin straightened his jacket with quick, tense jerks. "And if you call in the Chinoffs, the most you will accomplish is inconveniencing a pair of elderly naturalized American citizens who haven't seen Russia since before your first World War, and who pose about as much danger to national security as does my left ear. If you do decide to waste your time that way, though, be sure to ask for Zadie's pirozhki recipe; it's the best information you'll get out of either of them." With one last bitter smile, he nodded to the committee and stormed out the door, not paying Les so much as a glance as he passed. Golovin was either incredibly smart or incredibly lucky; if they'd had the slightest shred of concrete evidence, he would have been in handcuffs before he'd left the building. He'd called their bluff and won.
The ill mood Golovin left behind him didn't make Les' reckoning with Sanders any easier. As everyone else grabbed their papers and grumbled amongst themselves, Les pulled himself upright and walked over to his immediate boss, nudging his way upstream as the angry committee members filed out. Sanders leveled his stern gaze at Les, and Les pulled himself as far upright as his spine would take him. "I'm sorry, sir. No one told me about the room change."
Sanders frowned and set his jaw. "I had the girl call down to your desk."
Les patted his satchel by way of explanation. "I was with Deputy Attorney General Kleiberg all morning, sir." Sanders was a tall, thick man who'd been a captain on the front lines in the European theater, and Les called him 'sir' in deference to both his time in the service and his authority over Les. "I came straight from there."
The answer placated Sanders somewhat, as the red in his cheeks softened to a less furious pink. "Well, it didn't matter anyway. The more invincible they think they are, the more fun it is to catch them red-handed."
That was meant to be a pun, and so Les smiled long enough to let Sanders know that he'd gotten it. "And we have more information on him that's not in the file?"
"No." Sanders shook his head and started out of the room, leaving Les struggling to keep a pace anything close to Sanders' long-legged, authoritarian stride. "Do some digging."
It was useless to point out that investigating was not part of Les' standard job description, or that the Justice Department had, Les knew for a fact, literally hundreds of more promising leads in terms of tying US citizens to subversive activities, or that there were several things on Les' plate that wouldn't be excused if he didn't do them just because Sanders wanted the most junior attorney on his staff tasked with orchestrating his retaliation against the man who'd just made the committee look like a clutch of fools. Les couldn't help wondering if Sanders wouldn't have been better served by offering a mouth like that a job, but that was entirely not Les' to suggest.
He didn't know if Sanders was accommodating Les' foot or his own growing age, but one way or another, Les was grateful when Sanders stopped in front of the elevator instead of starting off down the stairs; he bit his lower lip and breathed through his nose so as not to gasp. "Mouthy queers, read one book and they think they know how the world works," Sanders grumbled, folding his arms across his meaty chest. "A Jew too, did you see?"
"I did," Les lied. He hadn't seen much of Golovin's file, owing both to his other work and to how he'd spent what would otherwise have been his prep time racing at his excruciating turtle's pace halfway across the building. He knew the man's first name started with a P, but couldn't swear to much more than that. This was supposed to have been a routine fishing expedition, a little cage-rattling before letting another insignificant shiftless liberal back out into the world, the kind they did all the time. Golovin could have slipped right by unremembered, that idiot, if he hadn't opened his damned mouth.
"Of course, I have the greatest respect for Hebrews. Shrewd people. My daughter-in-law's family used to be Jews." When the elevator doors opened, Sanders stepped inside, and Les followed, grateful for the hip-high handrail that let him lean without making too much of a show of how he needed it. "Presbyterians now. Isn't that true of your family too, Mitchell?"
Les nodded as he tried to speed up the elevator's descent by sheer force of will. "Presbyterians, yes. Used to be Jews, no."
Sanders laughed at that, louder than was strictly called for. Despite his big grin, every inch of his body looked still as keyed-up as it had during the meeting. Though Les himself wasn't sold on the concept of God, Presbyterian or not, he prayed anyway that the doors might open soon and that he might get out of Sanders' way before something he said became the spark that ignited the dynamite of Sanders' temper. "My son still doesn't let her take the checkbook out shopping, though," Sanders said, his smile fading. "Some things are just in the blood."
The elevator gave its last little lurch as it settled, and Les hung back, letting Sanders get out first and indicate in which direction he was heading, then choosing the opposite way. "I'll get on this, sir," Les promised, nodding after Sanders before starting his slow retreat. At least Sanders had gone for the front of the building and left clear the most direct route back to Les' own office; all other paths took at least twice as long.
By the time he reached the door ten minutes later, his entire left leg was throbbing, and it took every ounce of his strength not to favor it walking any more than he already did. Margery, the girl who managed Les and three other junior attorneys, looked up as he came in to the central area. "Oh, Mr. Mitchell," she said, rising and walking over to him, "by the time they came to tell me they'd moved the room, I didn't know where you were--"
"It's fine." Les gave her his bravest smile and hoped she couldn't see through it. "These things happen. Not your fault."
She nodded and gave him one of her bright smiles. She was a pretty enough girl, with her nut-brown hair and her round face and figure, and he knew she was a little sweet on him from the way the other attorneys teased her about doting on him, but she deserved so much better. "Want me to get you some coffee?" Bright blue eyes peeked out at him from behind black-rimmed glasses.
"Maybe in a little bit," he said, and then he remembered to add, "thank you."
"Just say the word." Ever the thoughtful one, she opened the door to Les' office for him and shut it behind him; he would have resented the gesture from anyone else, but Margery meant so well by it that he couldn't take offense. She was a fine girl and she'd make some man a fine wife someday. That man just wouldn't be Les Mitchell.
He'd thought about it, of course: just courting her, marrying her, settling. It wouldn't be too bad of a match; she wouldn't have to work anymore, and he'd both look respectable to the higher-ups and have someone to fix meals for him. Maybe if he liked her any less, he'd just close his eyes and do it. But there were things about him worse than his being a cripple, and he wasn't about to put a girl as great as Margery through being stuck until death did her part with a man like that.
From the locked desk drawer, Les pulled out a half-empty bottle of scotch and a glass bottle of pills. They hadn't worked alone in years, and barely worked now with the booze, but that wasn't something he was about to tell his doctor. Mitchell, Leslie R., as needed, for pain, said the typewritten label. He tapped out three into his hand before tossing them in his mouth and washing them down with two swallows. Maybe he'd just stopped believing they'd make him feel better. Well, then the reason they weren't working was his own damn fault. He considered a fourth, then put both bottles back in the desk before he could give in to that temptation.
That settled, he took off his hat and jacket, opened Golovin's file, and spread what he had out on his desk. All told, he didn't have much to go on: a quick sheet of biographical information on one Golovin, Piotr Vasiliy, age 33; a few arrest reports, all for misdemeanor and nuisance crimes; a half-dozen police reports containing mentions of subversive activity connected to a place called Ava's Café, whose address was listed as both Golovin's place of employment and his place of residence. There were no surveillance records, felony rap sheets, or material of any kind to suggest this man was of particular interest to HUAC or the DOJ. Les pinched the bridge of his nose. That idiot could have just disappeared if he hadn't been so keen to make a show of himself. Les didn't like the guy and thought what he was saying was optimistic bullshit at best, but being stupid wasn't a crime enough to deserve the hell Sanders could rain down on him. Damn radicals, always needing to make a show of themselves, never thinking about the consequences for themselves or others.
As the pills didn't kick in but the scotch did, Les rested his forehead in the palm of his hand and started thinking about what the hell he was going to do about any of this.
Everything was going well, and he was even feeling good about his disguise, right up to the moment when Golovin sat down in the empty seat across the table from Les. "Well, hello," Golovin said, his fingers perched like spider's legs around the lip of a martini glass. "Haven't seen you here before."
Les hadn't been sure which approach to take: remain stone sober to keep full control over his tongue, or get drunk and hope that took the edge of his nervousness. Two scotch-and-sodas later, he'd landed somewhere in the uncomfortable middle. "I ... haven't been here before," he said, trying to sound casual even though his palms were dripping sweat. He used the time it took to take a drink to cover how he needed a deep, steadying breath. He'd reminded himself over and over on the way here that in the room, Les had been wearing the same anonymous grey suit and hat as had all the other government employees, and Golovin hadn't so much as glanced his direction the whole time; there was no reason he'd be remembered. Golovin's coming to sit with him unasked, however, shook his faith in this conviction. "Heard it was a good place for a drink."
"You heard right." Golovin smirked and took a sip from his glass. "And the music's not half bad either."
Les glanced over to the stage, where until a few minutes ago, Golovin had been seated behind the piano, playing a lot and singing a little. Jazz had always sounded to Les like noise, but though he may not have liked all the sounds coming through the speaker system, he had to admit the man making them had talent. "You were making ... you played nice music. Up there. Just now." He fought the urge to brush back his hair, which he'd let grow out for a week and left uncombed as per how he'd seen Golovin wear in earlier. He slicked it back with pomade when he was at the office, but as everything around him kept reminding him, he wasn't at the office now.
Golovin laughed, making his face brighten in a way that Les hadn't seen at the DOJ building, though he had no trouble imagining why not. "Oh, a fan!" The sound of his amusement softened him in tandem with the café's soft lights, and Les wondered how he hadn't registered before just how attractive the man was. "Fans get to call me Peter. And you are...?"
He'd been so caught up in making his appearance and manner believable that he hadn't put thought into the more personal parts of pretending to be someone else, and thus all he could think to answer was, "Leslie. Les to everyone." He waited for some flicker of recognition from Golovin, some hint that he'd just blown his whole cover, but Golovin only smiled. "I don't have fans."
"Handsome man like you should have at least one. I volunteer." Golovin took another sip of his martini, smirking at Les over the rim.
Two train-car thoughts knocked into Les' head in rapid succession: first, that Sanders' dig about Golovin's being a homosexual hadn't such a shot-in-the-dark insult; and second, that being attractive was much easier when all Les had to do was sit down and let the table cover both leg and cane. Neither of those left him with much of an idea about conversation, though, so he settled himself by writing off Golovin's comment as insincere flattery and went back to what he imagined someone who wasn't undercover for the US Attorney's office would say. "Nice place."
"It isn't much, but it's home. Literally." Golovin pointed toward the ceiling. "Two flights up to my apartment. Makes for a great commute."
"It would." Damn, this was impossibly awkward; how did any real people have conversations like this? Les knew intellectually that it must happen, that people went out for dinner and drinks together all the time, but the worse Les had realized he was at conversation, the fewer efforts he'd made to find opportunities to practice. Sure, he could make small talk on sports and politics and the weather with his colleagues, but those didn't seem the kind of things people in places like this tended to discuss.
Golovin leaned forward, resting his elbow on the table and bracing his chin in his hand. He had a sweet little face, with features so delicate they wouldn't have been far out of place on a woman, though whatever demure daintiness he might have been able to affect was destroyed utterly by the way one side of his mouth curled up in a wicked smile. "You're not a man of many words, are you?" he asked as he traced drops of condensation from Les' drink into little swirls on the tabletop.
Les shrugged and watched the way Golovin's pale, nimble fingers moved. "When I have something to say."
That made Golovin laugh, and he lay his hand over Les' own with no weight, only contact and warmth. "Good thing I've got a soft spot for the strong, silent type," Golovin said, and before Les could quite process the length of the gesture, Golovin pushed back from the table and stood. "I'm back on soon, but stay after the show and maybe we can talk some more? Or I can do the talking and you can just listen, whatever suits you."
"Maybe," said Les, because it was the only response that seemed even in the same telephone exchange as appropriate.
"Maybe's better than no." Golovin winked and walked off, and though Les stared at him, ready to avert his eyes at a moment's notice, Golovin never looked back as he weaved his way through the tables and back up to the raised performance area. He had a sort of strut to him that made him look taller than he was; he and Les had never been standing at the same time, so it was hard to judge, but he didn't seem much tinier than Les, who'd stopped maddeningly shy of five feet, eight inches. To look at him, though, he seemed to take up the whole room just by breathing.
As Golovin took his seat behind the piano and started bantering with the audience again, a hand reached down over Les' shoulder to the table, making Les jump. The hand, which set down a bowl of thick beef stew with three large slices of crusty bread sticking out of it, turned out to belong to a little old man with wispy white hair and a face so wrinkled his eyes nearly disappeared behind curtains of skin. "Petya says, you are a man who needs to eat," said the man, his words clear to Les despite the thick Russian accent that cushioned them. The man's wrinkled brow furrowed even deeper, creating great canyons as he looked Les up and down. "Eh, is not wrong. Eat."
"Oh, I--" Les looked from the man to the soup to the man again, who was staring back at him with an expression that meant skepticism in any language. "...Thank you?"
The old man snorted and turned away, wiping his hands on his apron as he retreated toward the bar where an old woman stood behind it, watching his progress. Given that the general youth of the establishment's patronage was enough to make Les himself feel old at twenty-eight, there was no mistaking the identity of the only two senior citizens in the room. Wanting to be polite, Les sopped up some of the stew and took a bite, and it was so good he wound up finishing the whole thing. He hadn't been quoted a price, but wasn't presumptuous enough to think that had been on the house, so he put a dollar bill between the cup and the saucer, and when the old woman came by later to clear his dishes away, she took the money without comment.
Les didn't stay for the last song; maybe might have been better than no, but it wasn't the same as yes. He slipped out during the stage banter between Golovin talked with his bass player and drummer about would be their final number for the evening. The streets were dark and mostly empty at that hour, but he still slipped down a dark alley and walked the length of two city blocks to another, busier, more respectable street before trying to hail a cab.
He shold have gone home, but instead he had the taxi take him down by the water and drop him five plausibly deniable blocks away from the corner where all the rent boys hung out. One of the more familiar faces spotted him coming -- he cut a distinctive profile, he knew, and he hated himself for it -- and wandered over, hands in the back pockets of his tight, cuffed jeans, white undershirt sticking to his skin in the muggy evening breeze off the river. "Up for it?" he asked, licking the butt end of his cigarette before sticking it into the corner of his mouth. Les didn't know his name or where he came from.
"I am," said Les, and together they went inside the run-down old hotel there, the one that charged by the hour, the one all the boys used for their business. Five minutes later, Les was sitting in the room's one chair while the boy knelt before him and sucked at his cock.
Ten minutes after that, it was clear Les should never have come; he was tired and full of stew and still too anxious from walking into the café in the first place, and his foot hurt so bad the pain reached nearly to his hip, and though the boy did as good of a job as he ever did, damn his ugly broken body, Les' cock stayed soft. "Look," said Les, and he pushed the boy away; his cock fell from the boy's mouth with a sad slick flop, making no effort to stand up for itself, as it were. "Just take the money and we'll call it a night."
The boy shrugged and wiped his mouth, then stood and grabbed the bills Les had placed on the table. "Fine." He stuffed the bills down the front of his pants, then lit a cigarette from the pack he'd rolled into his sleeve. He offered Les one, a gesture so polite that Les didn't refuse, and they sat there together for a minute in silence as the room filled with grey smoke.
"You know," said Les, "there are better opportunities for young men like yourself who--"
"Whatever, pops." The boy rolled his eyes and stood. "The fuck is it with you gasbags who pay for blowjobs with sermons? Not like your lives are so perfect neither, or you wouldn't be here."
"You're young and strong; the armed forces would--"
The boy laughed. "The army? That's worse than telling me to find Jesus. At least Jesus only makes you get up early once a week." Catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror, the boy pulled a comb out of his back pocket, ran it under the tap, and slicked back his brown hair. "You get it up again, you know where to find me." He fired off a quick, sloppy salute before seeing himself out the door, leaving Les with his limp dick and the long, unhappy task ahead of returning home alone.
He knew he shouldn't go back; he knew he shouldn't have gone in the first place, even, which was why that next Monday at work, he told no one about what had happened. He expected Sanders to ask, but the weekend's rest seemed to have taken all the fight out of him, and though he came into Les' office first thing with several cases to discuss, subject of the mouthy subversive Jew never came up. Les, who knew when to leave well enough alone, kept his mouth shut.
Thus, he should have considered the matter closed and declared his strange, pseudo-undercover night at the café a one-time fit of madness, not to be replicated. He should not have gone back that following weekend, both Friday and Saturday nights, and he should absolutely have not spoken with Golovin on both of those occasions long enough to stop thinking of him as a case file and start thinking of him as Peter. Moreover, he should emphatically have not spent the entire next week unable to focus on anything except the thought of his next visit.
The crown jewel in that list of things Les should not have done, though, was accept Peter's invitation to come upstairs after the café closed that next Friday. "Some of us night owls aren't ready to shut down just yet," Peter said, nodding to where a dozen or so young men and women were filing up the thin flight of stairs half-hidden behind the bar, laughing and touching one another as they went. "You game?"
"Yes," said Les without thinking. The rational part of Les' brain demanded an explanation for his quick agreement, and he pacified it by reasoning if that anything subversive did take place in that establishment, it'd be after hours and out of public view, and wasn't observing subversive activity what he'd come for, after all? Fortified by his quest for justice and two fingers of scotch, he took the edge of the table in hand and stood -- though he stopped and grew self-conscious as he saw Peter's eyes flicker down to where Les' fingers curled over the head of his cane. "I, uh." Les licked his dry lips. "I'm not great with stairs."
Peter shrugged. "And I can't swim." And then, as though that were some sort of sufficient explanation, he led Les over to the stairs, where, despite Les' voiced concerns about slowing the process down, he insisted Les go first and never complained once about having to follow behind all the way up the steep, narrow stairway.
What he found at the top of the stairs was a small apartment, one which (like Les' own) combined living room, dining room, and kitchen space into a single area. The young people who'd come up before him were draped across couches and chairs -- and sometimes across one another -- with drinks in hand and grins on their faces. There was one small spot left at the end of one of the couches, so Les slipped into it before the issue of finding him a seat became a problem worthy of directing everyone's attention to him. All things considered, he'd rather be invisible to this crowd, not because they didn't seem like nice people, but because he fit in here about as well as Peter had at the DOJ's panel.
Speaking of Peter, as soon as he'd made sure Les was settled, he went over to an old record player in the corner and flipped on an album of loud, brassy jazz, the kind that hurt Les' ears and jut sounded like noise to him. But everyone in the room cheered his decision, so Les forced a smile as well. He was in the lion's den now; he had to roar with the rest of them or risk being eaten.
Seated, Les commenced his semi-authorized observations. He recognized a few members of the crowd from files that had come across his desk -- no high-profile subversives here, but a few who'd raised red flags, and anyway Les had a good memory for faces. They were all young and were all beautiful, even though not one of them had a face that'd fit in on the cover of a magazine. About a third of them were definitely Negro, though there were a few more that might have qualified, or might just have been Greek or Italian or some other thing like that. Even not counting those he wasn't sure about, Les had never been in a room with that many coloreds before.
He was sitting next to one, in fact, and as the man turned toward him, Les was struck with how handsome he was: strong jaw, soft lips, brown skin light enough not to mask a spray of dark freckles across his nose and cheeks. Les recongized him from the stage -- the bass player, whom Les had only seen from a distance before now. He had the largest hands Les had ever seen, strong and corded musician's hands, and between the two fingers he pinched a hand-rolled lit cigarette. "Good evening," he said, and his voice was so deep and sweet that it soothed Les' rattled nerves back from the point of fracture. "Peter'd told us you might be coming."
"Oh, I, he--" Les frowned. "He did?"
That won a laugh louder than just the man's, and Les looked up to see two more people watching their exchange: one was a heavily pregnant white woman on the bass player's other side, and the other was Peter, who'd pulled up a chair and was sitting in it backwards, straddling the wooden back. "My friends Jubal and Ella," said Peter, winking at Les as he pointed to the man and the woman in turn. "And they know your name already. Can I get you something else to drink?"
Despite worrying it might appear rude, Les didn't dare -- he was undercover, and he needed to keep his reins tight. "I'm all right," he said, and he added, "thank you."
"That's good. Alcohol dulls the mind." Jubal laughed and extended his hand toward Les.
It took Les a second to realize that he was being offered the cigarette held there, and though Les wasn't a regular smoker himself, he had no objections to the occasional habit. Besides, it was polite. "Thank you," he said again, taking it. The tobacco smelled sweet, but Les didn't want to appear suspicious by examining it too closely, so he brought the cigarette to his lips and inhaled.
After that, the evening got strange.
Les kept the cigarette, because Jubal didn't ask for it back, and because he liked the way the smoke made heavy clouds as it slipped from out his lungs. The noise from the stereo didn't quit, but after a while it began to lose its bite, such that when one record ran out and Peter put another on, Les didn't really find cause to complain. Everything, in fact, seemed to grow quiet and far away, but instead of becoming anxious about that distance, Les felt better than he could remember ever having felt before. He thought long and hard about this, and the conclusion he came to startled him so much he couldn't quite process the information: his leg didn't hurt.
This was more even than the way it hadn't hurt when he'd started taking the most recent round of pain medication; those didn't take the pain away, just dulled it until it was a bearable ache. The pain was gone. The foot that had twisted on him even before he'd been born, the one that had disappointed his father by rendering his only son a cripple, the one that had made the army physician laugh in his face when he'd shown up to enlist and join the fight in Europe -- for the first time in his entire life, so long as he could remember, it didn't hurt. He flexed and pointed his foot, and it had no greater range of motion than it ever did, but the motion was not accompanied by bursts of agony all the way up to his waist. As an experiment, he took his cane and pressed its base against his shoe just above his toes, and was more than a little surprised to find that he could still feel the pressure there. Everything was as it always was, except the pain was gone.
Les turned to Jubal to ask if the same thing had happened to him, but he couldn't, because Jubal had become Peter, and Peter had his arm draped across the back of the couch, just behind Les' shoulders. "How you doing, handsome?"
Coming up with the words he wanted to use proved more difficult than Les was used to; for instance, he didn't know how to articulate how nice it was not to be in pain anymore, but he was fairly certain he had every word he'd need should he decide to inform Peter that his lips would look amazing wrapped around Les' cock. The thought that he might say such a thing horrified him, but the horror didn't mean he could stop thinking it. Instead, he dragged himself toward a neutral middle ground simple enough that he could use small words for it: "What time is it?"
"Nearly one," said Peter, holding his wrist so Les could read his watch, though Les suspected something was wrong with it, on account of how slow the hands were moving. "Are you out past your bedtime?"
"A little," Les admitted, and then he cringed at how childish that sounded. "Just ... early to bed, early to rise."
"Ah, you and Zadie." Peter pointed toward a door at the far end of the small room, one Les hadn't noticed until now, and as Peter made the gesture, he moved so that their legs pressed together. "Bubbe's probably still awake in there, reading one of her mystery novels, but he's out like a light the second the front doors close, and up with the sun the next day. Makes me tired just thinking about it." Peter had lovely hands, Les noticed again, and they were so easy to notice because one of them was perched on Les' knee in a way that might almost have been friendly, had his slender fingers not fit along the curve of Les' thigh, down where mere friends didn't go.
From the other couch, there was a clatter as someone knocked over a metal plate, and everyone laughed at the clumsiness. "They're loud," said Les. The cigarette he'd been given earlier had long since gone to ash; he wished he had another, if only to give himself something to do with his hands.
"They are. And you're not. So I reckon I'll have to get a little closer to hear you." Peter nodded and leaned in, letting his hand slide up Les' thigh as he did, and Les' brain set alight with the mad thought that he wanted Peter to keep going, to wrap his hand around Les' cock and jerk him off right there, in front of the whole room, just make him come all over his nice grey trousers. He never had thoughts like that -- or he did, he had to admit, but they were only fleeting points of madness he could wrangle in with only a moment's worth of effort, not monsters like these that wouldn't be kept down. As his brain pinballed around for an answer, a new and possibly relevant question struck: what had been in that cigarette anyway?
Les swallowed and licked his lips. "I don't have much to say."
"I doubt that very much," said Peter, whose sweet little mouth wore a smile that was positively wicked.
Before Les could think of a response to that, though, Jubal and Ella appeared by the couch, arm in arm. "All right, the three of us have got to get some rest," said Ella, patting her belly; Les noticed she wore a wedding band. "We're heading out."
Peter made a noise of disappointment as he stood, but he was still smiling; he put a hand on Ella's stomach right beneath hers, feeling the contours of her body with what Les deemed scandalous frankness. Jubal just smiled as he did it, though, and kept smiling as Peter leaned in to kiss her on the lips -- not a quick fraternal peck, but a long kiss with open mouths and shared breath. At last, Peter pulled back and bent down to plant a noisy kiss on her belly, right through her dress. "You behave," he said, pointing to her stomach. "And you behave too," he added, straightening and walking over to face Jubal. "You're late again and I'll fire you."
Jubal laughed. "You wouldn't dare. You'd miss me too much." As though to punctuate the sentiment, he tilted Peter's chin upward and bent down to kiss him too, in much the same way Peter'd kissed Ella just before, except where that first kiss had been gentle, this one was playful and rough, full of grins and teeth. Les couldn't stop staring. He could hear his own pulse drum inside his ears.
"Son of a bitch, I would," Peter sighed, and he reached around to give Jubal a big, clumsy goose. "Get out of here."
"Will do. Nice meeting you," said Jubal, and he and Ella both waved good-bye at Les before heading over to the stairs, hand in hand.
The wheels in Les' head turned as he watched them go, and they were still turning as Peter sat back down next to him, not as close as they'd been before, but maybe that was for the best. The last minute had raised so many issues in Les' mind, and he picked what he felt was the simplest one of the bunch to address. "Does, ah...." Les frowned, trying to compile the sentence from spare parts. "Does her husband know she's ... here?"
Peter frowned at him a moment before breaking into soft laughter. "He should have; he was standing right there." He pointed to where Jubal had been moments before. "They live in Maryland, so they had to come to DC to make it legal. You ... don't have anything against miscegenation, now, do you?"
Les thought this might be a strange time to bring up that he, in fact, did -- not, he told himself when no one was listening in, because of the kind of antipathy to coloreds that his family and co-workers had no bones about expressing. No, he'd met several Negros and Orientals in his time, and they'd seemed to him no better or worse than the whites he'd seen in their same situations. Even so, the idea of mixing races seemed to him less immoral and more ungainly. ...At least, it had until moments previous, as he now had to admit that both Jubal and Ella were very attractive people, made even more so by having Peter between them. "Oh, no, I ... so that's his baby?"
"We're mostly sure," said Peter with a laugh that put all sorts of wicked, persistent images into Les' head. "And he'll be its daddy regardless, which I know some people don't understand, but we're sort of a strange family of our own here. Most of us don't have the best relationships with our blood kin, after all." Peter's fingers traced up and down Les' thigh as he talked, making concentration even more difficult than it had been previously.
"Mine don't know I'm here," Les said, which the absolute truth. He had five older sisters, all but one married by now, and his widowed mother in declining health, and not one of them would have approved of his being in a place like this. Truth be told, he didn't much approve of his being in a place like this, except that he was here anyway, comfortable and blissful and more turned on than he could remember having been in a long time.
Peter smiled and twined Les' fingers with his own. "Then it's a good thing we've all got one another."
Les meant to pull his hand away from Peter's touch, but when he checked, he hadn't budged. He'd already gone well above and beyond the call of espionage; he'd get no points for seduction. The good, rational thing to do would be to make his excuses, pick up, and leave, and that was exactly what he'd do as soon as he could stop staring at Peter's lips. "And you've, ah--" Les gestured lamely with his free hand, hoping it would get across what he meant -- not because he didn't have the words, but because he did, and they were all far too vulgar for him to feel comfortable speaking. "With them ... both?"
"Guilty as charged, from time to time," said Peter, and for a moment Les saw something behind his joking smile, some awareness of why saying that to Les in particular had its own sort of meaning. But Les blinked and it was gone, and Peter was only as charming as he ever was, turned toward Les on the couch as though they were the only people in the room, or maybe even the world. "You don't have anything against that either, I take it, freom the way you were looking."
Blood flushed into Les' cheeks, and he turned away, trying to disappear beneath the collar of his jacket. "Wasn't looking," he lied in a half-hearted mumble.
"Oh, sugar, it's all right. If I didn't want you to look, I would've done it somewhere else." Peter's laugh was effervescent, but it wasn't unkind. "I don't have much to hide. Or, well, I do have much to hide, according to all the good and decent people in the world; I just don't usually bother hiding it."
"Why not?" asked Les, who -- to his great shame -- seemed to have lost the ability to control his impulse to ask stupid questions.
Peter ran his thumb across the back of Les' knuckles as he talked. "Because I'm not embarrassed and I'm not hurting anyone. In fact, I like to think I help people. In fact, unless I miss my guess, you're feeling better yourself." He lifted their joined hands so he could point to a spot between Les' eyebrows, and Les startled himself by not only allowing the touch, but leaning into it. "You've had a little knot there every time I've seen you, and it's gone now."
Of course Les had known Peter'd been looking at him the times he'd come before, but it made him self-conscious to think that Peter had been looking. Les' illusion of functional invisibility got him through most days; here, it had been shattered, and he wasn't sure how to handle himself beyond that. "I, um. I do. Thank you."
"Does it pain you a lot?" asked Peter, and now he was certainly talking about Les' leg, which was a shock in and of itself. Everyone looked at his leg, especially when they thought he was't looking at them, but no one talked about it except for doctors, and in his experience even they were more inclined to talk around the matter. Les' mother had made it clear from an early age, with everything she said and did: his twisted foot was an embarrassment, one that reflected poorly both on Les as an individual and the Mitchell family as a whole, and the only way to minimize the damage God had done was to discuss the matter as little as possible.
"Some." Les considered his answer and shook his head. "Always. All the time."
Peter nodded and kept stroking Les' hand. "And now?"
"And now?" Despite his best attempts at stoicism, a little giggle bubbled up and lifted the sides of Les' mouth. "And now, don't tell me what was in that cigarette. Deal?"
"Cross my heart," said Peter, except instead of crossing his own, he reached around from behind Les' far shoulder and drew a broad X over the general area of Les' heart. Doing so tugged them close by necessity, close enough that one of Peter's legs crossed over Les' good one, leaving Peter more in Les' lap than anyone Les hadn't paid for had ever been. "You're very sweet, you know. A gentle soul. I could tell it from the first time I saw you."
That sent a cold little spike through Les' stomach, the thought that the first time Peter had seen Les hadn't been the first time Les had seen Peter. "There are ... things you don't know about me," said Les, shutting his eyes.
Peter squeezed his hand. "And there are things you don't know about me. But if you stick around long enough, we may be able to find some out together. Seem fair?"
It seemed more than fair to Les, but it also seemed more than dangerous, and his anxiety overcame his sense of contentment. "I ... should go." He shifted and flexed his foot, and nearly wept to feel that the constant ache of malformed muscles had started to creep back in. "It's late. I should get home."
He'd half-expected Peter to try and hold him back, but to his surprise, Peter sat up with him and gave Les the nudge he needed to get upright; not all of Les' body parts were performing to their full potential. "Of course. Come on, I'll show you how to get out after hours and help call you a cab. Just ... promise me something first?"
"What?" Les licked his dry lips.
"You'll come back and let me get to know some of those things I don't know." Peter leaned in toward Les in a way that Les thought was meant to help them both stand, and thus he was surprised when instead, Peter pressed his lips to Les' and caught him in a full, wet kiss. Les was so startled and so eager to do whatever he needed to do to make sure that Peter didn't stop that he didn't have time to worry about whether or not he was handling his first kiss correctly. Of course he'd been with the rent boys before, but for all the lovely things they did with their mouths, not one had ever offered this, and Les hadn't asked. Peter tasted like alcohol and smoke, and when he put his arms around Les, Les leaned into them so far that they would up back against the back of the sofa, losing all the ground they'd gained.
Peter took one of Les' hands and put it on Peter's hip, then wrapped one arm around Les' neck and slipped his other around Les' waist, in the gap between jacket and shirt. He was even slighter than he looked, Les could feel, slender beneath the showy clothes he wore whenever he performed, whether that was on a café stage or in front of a HUAC-appointed committee. As they kissed, Peter made no real noise other than the occasional soft sigh, which Les enjoyed right up until he realized he could make Peter sigh by pressing his hand against Peter's hip, and then he enjoyed the sound even more.
Les lost all sense of time while there in Peter's arms, their mouths moving together. He was hard, he knew, and he could feel how hard Peter was from the way Peter was pressing up against Les' thigh, but neither of these things carried any real sense of urgency. If someone had asked him then and there to choose how to spend the rest of his life, he would have been hard-pressed to come up with a fate better than this one. Peter was warm and soft, and what was more, he seemed to want Les as much as Les wanted him. Of all the subversive ideas he'd come into contact with that evening, this was the most revolutionary.
At last, Peter withdrew from the kiss and presed ther foreheads together. "Downstairs to the cab or upstairs with me? Your call."
Jesus in the desert hadn't been tempted so thoroughly. It was only a lifetime of self-denial and propriety that gave Les the strength to say, "I ... still should go."
As before, Peter made no coercive efforts to keep Les there; he helped Les stand and retrieved his cane from where it'd been knocked beneath the couch, then let Les set the pace all the way down. The café was strange like this, so empty and dark, silent enough that he could hear every one of his uneven footsteps. Peter showed him to the side door, one he said couldn't be opened from the outside, but before he pressed the door open, he drew Les in for one last lingering kiss. "Don't be stranger, now," Peter whispered against Les' lips, and Les, despite every bit of good sense he possessed, knew he'd be back soon and would think of nothing but Peter until then.
That Tuesday he took an early, long lunch and took a cab down to the café, arriving just before twelve. A few young people occupied tables or kept up their perches at the bar, but the second he walked in, Mr. Chinoff (Peter had said is first name was Zadie? was that Russian?) looked past all of them and straight to Les. Even though he'd been taking a table to himself every evening he'd been in, to do so in the face of a coming lunch crowd seemed rude, so Les made his way to the much emptier bar and gritted his teeth as he hoisted himself up onto the high stool at the end nearest to the stage. There was no sign of Peter or Mrs. Chinoff. Mr. Chinoff gave him a withering glare, but Les didn't back down, and presently Chinoff left the griddle and walked over to Les' seat. "You want food?"
"I do," said Les, who was glad Chinoff hadn't asked him why he was here, because Les didn't rightly know. "Is that all right?"
Chinoff looked him up and down, then shrugged. "What do you want for food?"
Today was just teeming with difficult questions. "...Soup would be fine?" said Les, trying for a statement but constructing a question anyway.
It seemed to be, because Chinoff returned after a moment with a bowl of thick potato soup and half of a roast-beef sandwich, the kind Les had taken to making his dinner on the evenings he'd come to the café. Instead of leaving Les to his meal, though, Chinoff folded his arms atop the bar and regarded Les with a clear sizing-up frown. Disquieted by the scrutiny, Les decided both to try small talk and to ignore how he was perhaps the worst person in the world at making small talk. "Peter says I should try your pierogis," he said between bites of soup-soaked bread.
Chinoff arched one furry white eyebrow. "Pirozhki?"
"Yes. Those." Small talk having obviously failed, Les stuck a spoonful of soup into his mouth and quietly cursed the assumptions handed down to him via his maternal grandmother's Polish ancestry. At least eating Chinoff's cooking was no hardship; were the café closer to work and not on the list of suspected subversive gathering places, he'd lunch there every day.
Still wearing his deep frown, Chinoff drummed his fingers on the bar. "Petya still is asleep."
"Still asl--" Les looked at his watch, filled as he was with sudden doubts about his own grasp of time. "It's noon."
That, at least, won a small smile from Chinoff's thin lips. "Like my wife. Sleeps like owls."
Les shook his head as he stirred his thick soup around. "Some of us have real jobs," he muttered beneath his breath, and he was a little startled when Chinoff chuckled. "Oh, no, I didn't mean--"
"Is truth," said Chinoff, whose smile lingered for a moment before it settled into a more serious expression. He took glasses from the sink as he spoke, one by one, and wiped them dry before setting them back on the shelves behind him. "Petya says your father fought for Jews in Germany, and died there."
Les had indeed made reference to that, though in passing, and he hadn't expected Peter to remember that, much less to consider it worth telling others. "He ... did, yes." Les looked down at his lunch, feeling his appetite ebb. "I tried to enlist near the end of the war, but...."
Chinoff waved his hand, clearing the air of the unspoken end of that sentence. "He says you have a quick mind. A practical mind. Petya is an artist, also like my wife. He says beautiful things, believes beautiful things. Believes the world is good world and the people in it, good people. Trusts people. Sees beautiful things. Never does dishes." With a wry smile, Chinoff pulled the plug and drained the sudsy water from the sink.
"Not very practical," said Les, who took another bite before he could be accused of playing with his food.
"But necessary." Chinoff peered at Les over the tops of his wire-framed glasses, which looked to be held together with a bit of tape and a few good prayers. "You want to know why I do not like communists?"
Of all the sentences Les had expected in his life to hear spoken with a Russian accent, that hadn't made the list. "Um, no." Les cleared his throat. "I mean yes. No, I don't know. Yes, I'd like to know."
"No room for artists. Not practical. Cannot be measured in money, cannot be made equal." Chinoff sighed and looked upward, in the direction where, unseen, Bubbe and Peter slept. "But artists I live with disagree, so maybe I am wrong. Not so bad, to think a wrong, harmless thing. Not a reason to go to jail."
Les took a deep breath and let it out through pursed lips. He should never have come here in the daytime; his disguise was thinnest when it was dressed in his work clothes, and Chinoff's foggy blue eyes could see right through it. His stomach twisted into a knot, taking the last bit of his appetite with it, and Les pulled two dollars out of his billfold, more than the price of the meal. "Don't ... tell Peter I was here," he said, reaching for his cane.
"Why not?" asked Chinoff, his mouth turned downward into a frown of honest confusion.
"Because--" Les took a short, heavy breath and let it out in a puff. "Because I'm not coming back."
Chinoff peered down at the half-eaten meal Les was leaving behind. "Was it the soup?"
"No, it wasn't, it--" He'd been an idiot to come in the first place, and he'd been a greater idiot to come back, and now he was the greatest idiot of all, letting himself find a reason he didn't want to go. "It was good. But I don't belong here." Les sighed and rubbed the head of his cane with his thumb. "I want to. But I don't. It's not ... a good idea. For you. For any of you."
Chinoff looked at Les then, and really looked, training his keen glacial stare right on Les' face. He was smaller than Les, but under his scrutiny, Les felt no larger than a gnat. Les had seen this expression before, in issues of National Geographic at the library, where mother bears stared down photographers who looked to be threatening their cubs. Les had two choices -- run or stand his ground -- and he chose to remain in place, leaning on his cane for support. It would have been easier just to take that opportunity and make his exit, perhaps, but Leslie Mitchell had never been a man to do things the easy way.
At last, Chinoff broke eye contact and, as though nothing out of the ordinary had transpired between them just then, went back to his tasks. "Pirozhki are work. Too much work to sell. I only make them for family." He ran a rag over the top of the bar and continued, without looking up, "Come for dinner."
Les ran through the small list of Russian words he knew, trying to see if something that sounded like 'dinner' might have some different meaning to Chinoff. "...Tonight?"
"As you like. But no pirozhki until Sunday." Chinoff swept a hand around, indicating the bar and everything in it that needed to be attended to. "Some of us have real jobs."
Despite his misgivings about his own reactions to the whole situation, that made Les laugh. "Thank you, Mr. Chinoff, but I--"
"Zadie," Chinoff interrupted. "No one says 'Mr. Chinoff' but salesmen and government men."
If this did turn out to be some odd setup on the Chinoffs' part, some strange counter-sting, it was at least the friendliest enemy action Les had ever encountered -- and in the face of it, he was powerless. "...What time Sunday?"
"When owls wake up." Chinoff -- Zadie, so many important things to remember -- shook his head with a smile. "...Also Sunday breakfast, if you stay from Saturday night."
Les kept all look of surprise off his face through a colossal effort. "Sunday evening will be fine. Thank you. For ... well, thank you." Sensing that staying any longer would be both overstaying his welcome and delving dangerously into the territory where Les might say something stupid, he turned on his heel and made the quickest exit he could from the café.
When he got back to the office, only Margery asked where he'd been, and he told her he'd been visiting his mother, which was something he did often enough to make the lie sound plausible. Back behind his desk, he shut the door and pulled out his pain pills, holding the dark brown bottle up to the light and seeing the way the small tablets inside looked in silhouette. He didn't want them; he wanted the cigarettes, the ones whose contents he couldn't just yet bring himself to name, even if he had no real illusions about what had been rolled inside the paper.
What the hell did he think he was doing anyway? This wasn't information-gathering, not anymore; this was the worst set of decisions he'd ever made in his life. And the surest sign that he'd lost his entire damned mind was how of all the things Zadie had said and implied during their conversation, the part that troubled Les the most was how casual Zadie had been about the idea that Peter might have Les stay the night. As if Peter had done that before. As if Peter did that all the time. As if that were nothing special at all.
Les tossed back twice the prescribed dosage of pain pills and sat at his desk, staring at pages without reading the words on them, listening to his own breath, waiting for something to give.
If pressed, Les could probably have calculated how long he and Peter had been sitting there, raising voices and making emphatic gestures at one another, but he'd lost all practical sense of time, and knew only that it had been quite a while. "Valuing hard work and accomplishment," he said, poking a finger into Peter's chest, which might have been a far fiercer gesture had Peter's legs not been stretched comfortably across Les' lap. "Hard work! Not rewarding laziness!"
"If you start out at the bottom of a twenty-foot hole and you work as hard as you can for your whole life, at the end of it, you're still going to be at the bottom of a twenty-foot hole!" Peter poked Les right back. "That ain't lazy; that's having the odds stacked so far against you that you're doomed before you begin."
He'd lasted nearly a month, and that only because one weekend he'd been at his sister Lena's in Baltimore, and another weekend it'd been his turn to accompany his mother to church that Sunday morning, meaning that he hadn't come near the café either of those Saturday nights, much less stayed past closing and wandered upstairs after. Thus, he'd been so good: he'd had his drinks and he'd smoked the reefer (and there was no sense anymore in lying to himself about what it was) and he'd enjoyed in silence how much better his foot felt, and sometimes (in fact, every time) he and Peter had wound up together on the couch, mouths and bodies tangled together, though never so entwined that Les couldn't disengage and retreat to the streetcorner where one could hail a taxi no matter the hour.
Tonight, though, Peter had mentioned Marx. Les himself had never read any Marx, but he'd heard enough people talking about it to know what garbage it was, and when he'd overheard Peter speaking well of the man's ideas to James, one of the irregulars in the band, Les had known he couldn't keep silent. He was still deep undercover, to be sure, but that didn't mean he had to sacrifice everything he believed. "America isn't full of holes," Les said -- or shouted; he didn't have a good grip on his volume -- as he plucked the cigarette from Peter's fingers with an angry jerk.
Peter snorted. "America is nothing but holes. Somebody just paved a freeway right over them so the white people wouldn't have to see." Everyone else in the room was listening to the conversation -- argument, really -- but not one of them had contributed even a peep in recent memory. Les didn't know if the little smiles they wore meant they thought he or Peter was making the better points, but he hoped at least some of them could see the wisdom in what he was saying.
"You're white!" Les exclaimed, and the words came out in a puff of thick smoke.
"You ever met a white Jew?" asked Peter, snatching the cigarette back as everyone else in the room laughed. "You think there's anywhere in America that wouldn't use that to put me on the colored side of a 'whites only' line?"
That shut Les right up, and instead of responding straightaway, he reached for his whiskey -- which had been on the rocks earlier, but somewhere in the course of the rambling political argument the ice had disappeared -- and took a long sip. "...I won't argue the constitutionality of Jim Crow--"
"Magnanimous! Thank you, massuh," said Peter, laying on his thickest Southern accent and rolling his eyes.
From the loveseat on the other side of the coffee table, Jubal stretched across with one of his long legs and gave Peter a gentle kick in the side of his thigh. "Are you two done yet, or is this just going to keep going until one of you is speaking German and the other's doing a one-man minstrel show?"
"I was arguing," Peter said, pointing at Jubal with such drunken ferocity that he nearly tipped himself off the couch and caused Les to grab him against that possibility, "as a member of a once-enslaved people myself, against the continued disenfranchisement of the Negro race in America! And--" Peter stopped and frowned at Les. "To be fair, so was he. All right, we're done. I think we're done. Are we done?"
Les screwed up his mouth. "...The Negro is statistically more likely to support communist--"
Peter clapped a hand straight over the lower half of Les' face. "We're done," he promised the room, and to make good on that he leaned in and kissed Les full on the mouth. The room applauded.
Some time later, as Peter walked Les down the stairs and toward the café's back exit, Les stopped at the bottom landing and leaned against the wall. "...Are you mad?" he asked, searching Peter's face for some sign that Les had overstepped his bounds, making himself an unwelcome stranger in this strange land.
"Mad?" Peter looked hard at him, frowning in genuine confusion as he took the opportunity to lean up against Les, pressing their bodies together; he wrapped his arms around Les' waist beneath his jacket, and Les reciprocated with the hand that wasn't holding his cane.
Les shrugged. "Because of fighting earlier."
Peter chuckled and kissed Les on the nose. "We weren't fighting. We were debating. There's a world of difference." Peter snuggled even closer to Les, working a knee between Les' legs; lit only by the bulb at the top of the stairwell and the light pollution from the windows outside, his features were soft, and he was even more beautiful. "Debate keeps things interesting. And you, Leslie, sugar, are very interesting."
Shaking his head, Les scoffed. "You are the only person in the world who thinks that."
"I," Peter said, punctuating his sentence midway with a kiss on the corner of Les' mouth, "am the only one who counts."
To Les' eternal chagrin, Peter was right -- despite Les' best efforts, almost every thought he'd had over the past two months had been about, around, or near Peter. The downside, of course, was the crushing guilt he felt every time he thought about how Peter's entire understanding of Les as a person was based on an astonishing set of lies. But it was nearly offset by the upside, which was the way Peter looked when he was about to kiss Les, the way he looked right now as he leaned in and pressed their mouths to one another.
Kissing Peter was as addictive as any drug he'd ever heard or read about, which was why every time they reached this point in the evening, it was harder and harder for Les to go. He was strong, though, and thus every time he managed to push Peter away just enough that their lips could no longer touch, that he could no longer quite smell the alcohol on Peter's breath. "I have to go."
Peter stuck out his lower lip in an exaggerated pout. "You don't have to."
"Yes, I do." Les shut his eyes and touched their foreheads to one another. "I'm sorry."
"Sunday dinner, then?" Peter asked, giving a little hopeful bounce on the balls of his feet as he floated the suggestion. Zadie had obviously gotten Peter's hopes up with the idea, and Peter wasn't letting it go anytime soon, especially not after Les' first attempt to join the Chinoff household had instead involved Les' showing up to a dark café and seeing a note on the door apologizing to potential patrons for being closed on account of a sudden illness. Les hadn't gotten a chance to return until the following Thursday, only to learn that Bubbe had been rushed to the hospital after falling and injuring her hip. I wish I'd known, Les had said, as he'd grown fond of the friendly old woman during his evenings at the café, and Peter had only responded,How would I have gotten in touch with you?
Les stroked back Peter's longish bangs from his forehead; a year ago, Les would have regarded such a need for a haircut as sinfully sloppy grooming, but now he found it charming. "I can't. Not this Sunday."
Peter sighed, long and loud, even though a smile still lingered on his lovely mouth. "Now what," he asked, stroking Les' throat just above where the collar of his shirt hit, "could possibly be more important than dinner with me?"
Hell, Les theorized, must be something like this.
He'd literally lost count of everyone at his niece's fifth birthday party, nor could he swear to how many of the individuals who'd converged upon the house's two-acre backyard were related to him. Little Megan's father was in advertising, and he, Les' fourth sister Anne, and their three children lived in a lovely, sprawling house in Bethesda, which had been transformed for the duration into ground zero for festivities. He was a Baptist and staunch teetotaler as well, so Les didn't even have a beer to console him through his troubles. Instead, he sipped lemonade as he sat in the shade of the two-car garage, using the excuse of his leg's paining him to keep from having to mingle.
Before he'd gone off to war, Les' father had charged Les with being the man of the house, though even at the time, Les had known it was more pity assignment than actual expectation. He'd screwed up his courage with adolescent fervor, though, and sworn that no matter what, he'd make sure they were taken care of.
That had been a joke, of course: four of his sisters had married men that Les loathed on a deep, visceral level, and the fifth, Lena, didn't seem inclined to marry anyone, which Les regarded as the result of an equivalent failing on his part. His mother had never remarried either, and once Les had left the house after high school, she had moved in with his eldest sister, Ellen, and her All-American bank manager husband. They were successful and happy, and Ellen was big as a house with her fifth child, and all his married sisters were happily wed to successful men in households full of children, and his mother loved being a grandmother to them all, and it all seemed, Les realized as he surveyed the backyard landscape, to have happened entirely without his advice or consent.
He felt a drip on his shoulder and looked up from his lawn chair to see Lena behind him, holding a tall plastic tumbler of iced tea that sweated in the afternoon heat. "Did you get enough to eat?"
Lena was closest to him in age, and she actually hadn't been his favorite while they were growing up -- that had been Michelle, his mousy third sister, who'd gotten married to the brutish radio station owner Rudy when Les was twelve and ceased to have any time for her brother -- but as all other immediate family members had wandered off to foster their own families, the bachelor and bachelorette siblings had gravitated toward one another by default. "I did, yes," said Les, who hadn't actually, but didn't want to brave the crowds all the way back to the picnic tables by the house. "You made the potato salad? It was good."
"Bought it at the deli," said Lena, lifting a finger to her lips, and Les smiled. "I meant to make something myself, but Dr. Clarkson's had me staying late nearly every night this week." Lena was secretary, office manager, and all-around minder of Dr. Everett Clarkson, podiatrist, another man Les didn't care for, not least because he blamed Lena's lack of a husband on the absurd hours she worked for him.
"Well, it was good anyway." Les lifted his glass above his head and clinked it with hers. "Other than that, how have you been?"
"Same as ever. Yourself?"
How had he been? That was a strange question, and one he wasn't quite prepared to answer, at least as far as his sister was concerned. Met a man who's also a communist, have taken to smoking reefer, think about committing sodomy almost every waking moment of my day -- so, depending on how you look at it, about to hit rock bottom or the best I've ever been. "Good. I've been good. Busy. But good." He sighed and repositioned his leg, wishing he had some of that reefer now; the metal frame of the lawn chair hit the back of his thigh at an odd angle, making comfortable sitting impossible.
Lena watched as he settled himself, frowning. "Have you been to the doctor lately?"
Les pushed his lips together and took a deep, steadying breath. "The doctor's not going to tell me anything I don't know already."
"You cann't know that," said Lena. "One of the magazines that arrived at Dr. Clarkson's the other day, it was talking all about new braces and treatments for adults who've been crippled by polio as children--"
"Polio. I never had polio."
"That doesn't mean it can't help."
"No, it just means it's probably not going to."
"I'll get you a copy of the magazine. I saved it. You can read through it."
Some things in the world were impossible, and arguing with Lena when she got hold of some idea was on that list. "All right. I'll read through it." In a way, though, he was grateful for her efforts, as she was the only family member who still treated Les' twisted leg as though it were something that might not have doomed him for life. He'd worn a heavy brace to bed every night until he was nine, at which point the doctor had told his parents that continuing that kind of therapy as Les got taller would likely just make the problem worse, and his parents had responded by giving up on the dream that their broken boy might one day walk straight. His other sisters had followed his parents' lead, until Les' lack of mobility had become something no one talked about and everyone stared at, especially their caveman husbands who treated him like less of a man for it.
Lena smiled and patted him on the shoulder. "I just want to make you feel better. I know how much it hurts."
No, she didn't know how much it hurt, but that was because the only thing Les worked harder at than walking was keeping a straight face while he did. "I'm fine."
"It's still something you should look into."
Les frowned up at her. "Do you want me to start up again about how you'd be better off married than working full-time and living alone?"
"We're not talking about me. And this is completely different. Too many pills aren't good for you," said Lena, who saw Les often enough that he no longer bothered to hide his painkiller-taking from her.
"Don't worry, I've cut way back," he promised, feeling good that for once he could tell her the truth about something. "I'm trying something new now. Something natural."
This time, when Bubbe's bad knee failed her and she collapsed, cutting her head on the side of the bar, Les was there, and he rode in the ambulance with her and Zadie all the way to the hospital. She kept laughing and saying things to Zadie in Russian, but Zadie's worried expression didn't abate, and he gripped her wrinkled hand with fierce strength. "He worries," she said, speaking to Les while pointing to Zadie.
"I worry," Les said, and that just made Bubbe laugh more, the sound quiet but defiant.
He wound up in the waiting room with Zadie as Bubbe was wheeled in to be checked out. The waiting room at night was quiet; Les was used to being there during the day, for scheduled appointments during regular clinic hours, and the stillness was alien to him. "I was thirteen in Russia when I met her," said Zadie, staring at the gold band on his left ringfinger as he spoke with slow, measured precision. "She is sixteen then, and she is not a beauty. So I say so to her."
Les was startled into laughter by this admission. "And she married you?"
"She punched me," Zadie corrected, complete with demonstrative gesture, and Les laughed again. "And kicked. Nose broke twice. And I said, this is a girl who has passion. And then she was beautiful to me."
A lump of emotion calcified in Les' throat. "You two must have been through a lot together," he said.
Zadie shrugged. "Together, it might not feel like so much," he said, twisting the scuffed ring in fretful circles.
When the doctor came out half an hour later, he did so with a pleasant smile on his face, explaining that she'd need to take it easy for a week or so after, but save for a few bumps and bruises and a nasty gash across her forehead, she'd be fine. She was just waiting for some final bloodwork, he said, but when Les tried to follow Zadie back to see her, the doctor stopped Les. "I'm sorry, but family members only."
"Of course family!" Zadie grabbed Les' arm. "Is my son, is Mr. Leslie Chinoff."
Les' attempt at not showing surprise wasn't succeeding, and thus he was glad the doctor was more concerned with leafing through the pages on the clipboard in front of him. "Mrs. Chinoff said she had no children...."
Zadie blew a puff of air through pursed lips. "Old woman hits her head, you think she remembers everything? Bah. And you a doctor." With Les' good arm in tow, the two of them made their way down the hall at an shared glacial pace, leaving the baffled but compliant doctor to bring up the rear.
When Bubbe saw them, her entire face lit up beneath the bandage they'd wrapped around her forehead and curly silver hair. She spoke in Russian to Zadie, who first replied in Russian, then switched to English: "And our good son is here as well, my dear beautiful wife who forgets everything."
"Oh, Les, my son, of course," she said, opening her arms so Les could give her a hug. "The head, you know, is old."
"Well, I'm glad we have that settled," said the doctor, whose expression spoke of his continued skepticism, but who, to his credit, didn't push the issue. "I'll have a nurse bring you the rest of your things, Mrs. Chinoff, and then your husband and son can take you home, provided you come back in a week so we can take the stitches out."
"Stitches!" Zadie scowled at the bandage.
"Dva," said Bubbe, holding up a pair of fingers to indicate how few she'd had to endure. "I think I am ready to go home, yes."
The three of them together made a tottering trio, and at their shared snail's pace, they'd only made it as far as the waiting room when Peter rushed through the door, having stayed after to close down the café. He took one look at Bubbe and let out a cry that was equal parts surprise and relief, then took her face between his hands and kissed her twice on each cheek. She rolled her eyes and batted him away gently with her hand, all the while saying something in Russian that was clearly some variation on I'm fine, I'm fine. "You've got to work harder at this business of staying upright," Peter said, and she put a hand square in the middle of his face and pushed him away with an exaggerated scowl.
Zadie patted Les' arm. "All is well, thanks to our son."
"Son?" Peter cocked an eyebrow.
"I am now Leslie Chinoff," Les explained after looking around to make sure no medical staff might be listening in. "At least, so far as this hospital is concerned. They wouldn't let me in to see her otherwise."
"Changed it when we came to America," said Bubbe with a smile. "Used to be Dzhamgerchinov."
"Dzh--" Les began, but he tripped over his tongue before he'd even managed out the whole first syllable, which made the others laugh. "Chinoff is fine."
"Didn't know you had a little Russian in you, did you?" Peter smirked at his own dirty joke as they started moving again toward the front of the hospital, near the place the taxis congregated.
Les shrugged as he held the door for the others. "Not yet," he muttered beneath his breath as Peter walked past, and though he hadn't meant to be overheard, he took great satisfaction in how Peter's eyes nearly fell out of his head.
He made sure Bubbe was safe and secure in the taxi, then saw Zadie in after her, but when Peter gestured that Les should get in the front seat for the return trip, Les shook his head. "I should go my own way. It's late." Even without looking at his watch, he could tell it wasn't as late as he usually made his way home from the café, but worry and hospitals had pushed him sooner to the edge of exhaustion than usual.
Despite how they were far from alone, Peter placed his hand over Les' atop his cane and stepped close, closer than two casual acquaintances should have been, especially in a public place such as this. "Thank you," said Peter, squeezing Les' fingers with his own. "I wanted to leave sooner, but there were still people, and I--"
"It's okay." Les slipped his thumb over the back of Peter's hand and squeezed back as best he could while still remaining upright. "You couldn't have done anything. I didn't do anything. I mostly just sat around."
"You were there. That meant a lot." Peter glanced over to where hospital staff and patients were milling in and out of the entrance, then sighed as he stepped back and let go. "If you do not come over tomorrow night for dinner, I'm coming to find you. I will track you down. I'll use bloodhounds if necessary."
"I'll be there," Les promised, and he waved once more to Bubbe and Zadie before Peter got into the cab and it rolled off into the night.
Les took the next one straight home and tipped the driver far more than the fare because he didn't want to wait around for the change from his five-dollar bill, the smallest he'd had in his wallet. He hauled himself up the front walk of his building and the half-flight of stairs that got him to the door, but the walk down the hall drained the last of his reserves such that he went from entryway to bed without divesting himself of anything more than his shoes. The old mattress complained as he flopped face-down on it; it was as old as he was, probably, and in equivalent shape.
This was no life for him, or no pair of lives. Odds were the next time Bubbe fell, Les wouldn't be around. What if things were worse this time -- would it be another week before he even knew something was wrong? Did she have someone free to take her to the hospital to get her stitches out? What if Zadie hurt himself as well and couldn't take care of her? He worked eighteen-hour days and didn't believe in vacations; he couldn't keep up that pace much longer.
The funny thought struck Les that his own mother was around the same age as both Chinoffs, but much frailer -- yet worries like this didn't keep him awake when he had them about her. She had her whole support network of married daughters, and had even mentioned during Les' last church excursion that Michelle and Rudy were thinking of moving their soon-to-be-four-child family into a larger house, one that would have more than enough room for Grandma Mitchell to come and live with them for a change. God forbid, but if anything went wrong, she was set.
A black phone sat on the nightstand by Les' bed; Sanders had insisted he get one hooked up, and had used it to ruin a great many of Les' Saturdays and holidays with the siren call of work. He'd never given the number to Peter. You never knew who was listening, and anyway, Peter could have used it better than bloodhounds to track Les down if he'd had a mind to. And then what would he have found?
With a grunt, Les pulled himself into proper position on the bed, paying the ache in his leg as little mind as he could. Every time he'd sworn he wouldn't go back, he should have listened to himself and kept his word. He'd go to dinner and make conversation and disappear right after and never return. He wasn't family; he was an infiltrator, a spy, a monster. He'd set out to find the wolves in sheep's clothing, and in the process, God damn him, he'd become the very thing he'd sought.
'Leslie Chinoff' just sounded ridiculous, anyway -- so ridiculous, in fact, that Les lulled himself to sleep thinking of the way it had sounded first on Zadie's lips, then from his own.
Zadie's pirozkhi were as amazing as advertised, though little like the pierogis Les' grandmother had made: they were larger and browner, for starters, baked instead of boiled, and filled with beef and vegetables instead of mashed potatoes. Les, who was not a big eater under most circumstances, managed down four and a half before finally giving up, a feat which impressed his dinner companions. "You live alone?" Bubbe asked as she refilled his glass of wine. "You cook?"
Les shook his head. "No, I ... reheat what's in cans. Mostly."
Zadie made a disgusted noise. "Men should cook. Women are no good at it. Too...." He trailed off and thought for a moment, then said some Russian word that made Bubbe punch him in the shoulder, setting the two of them off sniping at one another in rapid Russian.
"'Easily distracted', is the best translation, I think," said Peter, leaning over toward Les' side of the square table. Despite the spat going on three feet away from them, he wore a smile. "Of course, I don't cook either, and for much the same reason, so I don't know what that says about me."
"Says you are a good boy." Bubbe broke back into English and patted Peter's hand. "We make people love us, they cook for us."
"I've just never tried." Les shrugged. "I grew up with a mother and five older sisters. And now I don't even have a kitchen."
Zadie pointed to the clutch of appliances that took up one wall of the small apartment's common room, the smaller versions of their downstairs counterparts. "There. Now, a kitchen. Come over and I teach how to make pirozhki. Smart men can learn, no trouble."
As much as Les had assumed the impromptu adoption at the hospital had been only for the immediate concerns there, Zadie and Bubbe didn't seem to be backing down from it. He'd seen the way they'd looked at him before, and had no illusions about Zadie's former suspicions regarding Les' intentions, but when he'd arrived that evening for supper, all prior bad feelings had disappeared without a trace. Bubbe was moving a little slower than her usual bustling pace, and Zadie looked as though he hadn't spent much of the previous evening asleep, but they'd both greeted him at the door with undisguised joy and hugs. Les had assumed that Sunday dinner at the Chinoffs' would just be a more decorous version of the Saturday night group festivities, but the table had only been set for four, and only four had arrived.
"I--" Les sighed as he glanced over to the kitchen, figuring that a polite lie would be best for everyone. "I could do that. I suppose."
"Good!" Zadie clapped his hands together, announcing the deal sealed. He said something to Peter then in Russian, and Peter rolled his eyes and responded in kind without translating either statement for Les. Even without knowing the language, Les could hear that Peter's Russian was less fluid than Zadie and Bubbe's, his consonants different, his vowels more American.
After dinner, Bubbe made her apologies for being a bad host, but said that her head had started to pain her again. She kissed Les on both cheeks, then took Zadie's arm and started back toward the bedroom. "I'll be right back; don't go anywhere," said Peter, and he followed after them with a glass of water and a bottle of asprin, shutting the door to the bedroom behind him.
Left alone in the apartment, Les knew he should take the opportunity to leave with as little fuss as possible. Two things stopped him, though: first, he didn't know if he could escape fast enough to be out of the building by the time Peter came back out, which would leave him with a difficult-to-explain failed escape attempt on his hands; and two, the dishes from dinner were still out, and his mother would have given him no end of grief if he'd walked away and left a mess like that. As best as he could manage, he gathered the plates and utensils one-handed and ferried them to the sink, then leaned against the cabinet and scrubbed them all clean. It was good, mindless work and it kept him from thinking about how he'd probably just seen the old couple for the last time.
He was nearly finished wrapping up the leftover pirozhki in tinfoil when Peter emerged. "You didn't have to do that," he said, taking the bundle from Les and putting it in the refrigerator for him.
Les shrugged. "I wanted to. Is she okay?"
"She's fine. Just a little worn out." Peter took Les' hand. "Come sit down for a bit."
"I should go." Les glanced toward the door.
Peter squeezed his hand and stuck out his tongue. "You always say that. It's not even late yet this time. Can't I offer you a drink? Or a smoke?"
Just the drink, Les might have been able to refuse, but his leg still ached the way it always did, and the thought of missing one last chance to make that disappear seemed masochistic madness at best. "...I can stay a bit," he said, despite his better angels, and he limped over to the corner of the couch that had more or less become his default spot over the past several weeks. Peter joined him a minute later with a bottle of vodka, two glasses, his tin cigarette case, and his lighter. "One drink."
"Then I'll have to make it last," said Peter, pouring at least three fingers of vodka into each glass. He lit one of the cigarettes himself, then took it from his lips and guided it straight between Les'. "You don't have to rush off so soon all the time, you know. We like having you around. I like having you around."
Les took a deep drag from the cigarette and held the smoke in his lungs as long as he could, then sighed it back into the air. "I shouldn't--" But the list of things he shouldn't do overwhelmed him, so instead of speaking, he stretched his arm across the back of the couch and let Peter curl up to his chest.
"You have too much should and shouldn't." Peter placed his hand flat over Les' heart. "You shouldn't hurt other people and you should do what you want, and that's about all you, personally, need. You're a good man."
Les' insides twisted. "I'm ... I'm really not."
"You are. I don't know why you think otherwise." Peter tugged Les' tie loose, and Les surprised himself by allowing it. "All right, so you're a little bit of a fascist and a little bit of a bigot, but I don't think it's so much because of anything you believe as what you've been told and never had the chance to have proved wrong."
"I'm not a fascist." Les frowned.
Peter patted his chest. "You are a little, sugar, and you know what? It's okay. Because you're a fascist with everyone's best interests at heart. And believe me, this is strange for me to say, but it's almost sweet. Sort of ... motherly fascism. Authoritarian not like you want to exterminate all Jews and homosexuals and social deviants, but authoritarian like you're the mother duck quacking as hard as you can to make all your little ducklings walk in a straight American line."
This statement needed alcohol to process, and Les took a large, burning swallow of his allotted vodka before saying, "You're making fun of me."
"Only because I like you so much." Peter plucked the cigarette from Les' fingers and took a drag, then put it straight back between Les' lips.
Les tucked it into the corner of his mouth. "Well ... you're a communist."
Peter laughed and reached up to ruffle his fingers through Les' short-cropped hair. "There, you said it. Do you feel better?"
Les considered the question. "Yes." He thought another moment and sighed. "...No. Because it means can't be here."
"Oh, sugar, if communism is contageous, you're infected already. Besides, I'm not even a very good communist. I own a business and have a job that makes a profit. I've never actually cast a ballot for a Socialist candidate. I think Marx was an antisemite. I just feel there's some good ideas there that deserve to be thought about and read and talked about. And I think we should be able to think about and read and talk about things without getting into trouble over it. That, plus some reefer, sodomy, miscegenation, and the devil's music is about as subversive as this South Carolina boy gets."
Peter's plain-spoken confession, earned without much subterfuge or any coersion, almost made Les laugh both for how easily it had come and for how toothless it had been, especially compared to what Sanders had no doubt suspected. He should write up a report to the DOJ recommending employees adopt these new, quite effective interrogation techniques. He might get a medal. Or twenty years to life. "Not for me," he said, stroking Peter's back. "For you."
"Leaving me for my own good? That's a new one." Peter sound calm, but his fingers gripped the dark material of Les' loosened tie.
"You don't--" Les wanted to blame his lack of words on the reefer and the vodka, but he knew his inability to articulate the situation would have been even worse if he'd tried it cold sober. Screwing up all his courage, he began a confession of his own: "I'm not who you think I am."
Peter shook his head. "I know who you are."
Les tossed back the rest of his vodka in another mighty swallow and pushed Peter away from him, both so he could put the glass back on the coffee table and so he could look Peter in the eye; he was a coward and a fool and maybe even a fascist and a bigot, but the least he could do was try to be honest about it. "I'm really not."
Peter leaned in and took Les' face between his hands, staring him down with those clear blue eyes. "...You really thought I wouldn't recognize you, huh?" The statement was so casual that it took Les a moment to process, at which time the implications hit him like a dropped piano, and he felt the blood drain from his face. "Now, don't get spooked," Peter said, and when Les tried to pull back, Peter held him in place. "I didn't tell anybody. Zadie knows something like the truth, but he figured it out on his own. I didn't say anything to anyone else."
The tables had turned on Les so fast, his brain coughed up the irrational worry that his life might even be in danger. He had failed on so many levels to accomplish anything but working his way into trouble. Real, competent government spies, so far as Les knew, weren't in the habit of taking old people to hospitals or sticking around to clean up after Sunday dinner. Peter brushed his thumb across Les' cheek. "You been telling on me?" he asked, his Southern drawl stretching every word out to its edges.
"I was supposed to. But no." Les shook his head, realizing that made him sound more noble than he actually was. "There's ... really nothing to tell. But sometimes even that's not enough."
"Oh, sugar, you're not the first suit I've had come knocking on my door, and you probably won't be the last. But that's not going to stop me living the way I want to." Peter leaned in and pressed another light kiss to Les' lips. "And I want to be with you. I have since I met you, so much so that all my friends teased me about how sweet I was on you. So much so, even, that Zadie and Bubbe started teasing me, and that's its own kind of mortifying. But I don't care. You're sweet and stubborn and a little crazy, and determined, and gentle, and handsome as hell on top of all that. And I want it all."
For all he'd prided himself on paying attention to the goings-on at the café, Les had completely missed that anyone else might have noticed their relationship beyond its obvious physical dimension -- which made him wonder what else he'd missed, focused so hard on one thing that he'd neglected all others. "I've never...."
He didn't know what he expected from that -- shock, maybe, or perhaps pity -- but Peter just kissed him again, pushing Les back toward the arm of the sofa as he did, until Peter was more on top of him than not. "I want to," he said against Les' mouth. "And I'll be gentle."
His hands trembling, Les shut his eyes. "I won't turn you in."
"I haven't been worried about that in a long while." Peter kissed him again, this time deeper and wetter, and Les felt himself falling forward into the kiss. "But what I am worried about is, if I let you go now, I'm afraid I'll never see you again."
"I can't," said Les, though even as he protested, he put his arms on Peter's hips and held him in place. "I've got obligations. A job. My family. And if I stay ... I don't think I'll ever go back to them."
"But do they make you happy?"
It was such a simple question that it left Les utterly at sea. He swallowed hard. "...What does that have to do with anything?"
Peter looked at him for a moment, just looked, before rolling his eyes and sitting up on the couch. "Come on," he said, taking Les' hands and pulling him into a sitting position. "Upstairs. Right now. Consider this an object lesson in what happy has to do with anything." Les opened his mouth to form some sort of protest, but Peter kissed him quiet again; it was distressing how skilled he was getting at doing that. "You know you want to. I know you want to. Stop teasing us both and come to bed with me. Give me a night. If you want to go tomorrow, go. Disappear. But give me this."
"I shouldn't," Les said one last time, but he was already pulling himself forward into Peter's arms, falling into a kiss so all-encompassing in its intensity that he didn't have to explain or protest any longer, not for his own benefit or for anyone else's. He let Peter help him stand and gather his cane, a clumsy series of gestures made all the sweeter for how Peter didn't stop kissing him to do any of it.
Peter tugged him back toward the stairwell, and Les went with him, breaking from the embrace when it became prohibitive with regards to his getting up the stairs. "You first," said Peter, swatting Les' behind, and Les at last understood why Peter sent him up the stairs first all the time.
Peter's room was a twin-sized bed with about two feet of space on all sides around it, its walls lined with bookshelves, instrument cases, and tall bureaus. The floor was covered with discarded articles of clothing, books, papers, a few plates, and some other objects Les couldn't identify on sight, making the small space seem even smaller. Despite having no prior tolerance for messiness, Les fell in love with it on sight. He put himself in the one place in the room where he didn't feel in danger of breaking anything, which was the unmade bed.
He expected Peter to follow him there, but Peter just stood by, looking down at him with a wicked smile. "Not much room in here, so ... we're going to have to get close."
"Close is...." Les rested his cane against the bedside table, which wasn't a table at all, but a stack of milk crates. "Close is all right."
"I'll be gentle," Peter promised again, kicking off his shoes just outside the door before shutting it behind him.
Something about the tone of his voice gave Les pause, and though his brain was still a bit foggy, he ran over in his head the conversation they'd had before. "Oh," he said when he hit upon the miscommunication, "I'm, ah, not a virgin. I've just never kissed anyone before. Or had sex lying down in a bed. With someone I expected to see the next morning. ...And didn't pay first."
Peter folded his arms across his chest and smirked. "So what are you saying, Leslie?" His name sounded so beautiful in Peter's lazy southern drawl that Les, who'd always hated his full name (and honestly hadn't though much of the diminutive), was considering changing his opinion on the matter.
"I'm saying," said Les, leaning back against the pillows piled against the headboard, "that gentle isn't a concern."
He'd expected Peter to come lay down next to him, to mirror their positions; what he hadn't forseen was what Peter did instead, which was kneel down at the end of the bed and pull off Les' shoes and socks. Despite how the reefer had relaxed him, Les tensed at the prospect of having his leg exposed, and he drew in a sharp breath. "Hey," said Peter, stroking Les' calf just at the point where the normal flesh beneath his knee became patchy and twisted, "it's okay."
"You don't want to see that."
"You don't know what I don't want to see," said Peter, and he punctuated his sentence with a kiss right atop Les' bent, withered ankle. He didn't stop there, though; he kept kissing all the way down to Les' toes, over the parts of Les' body that Les himself never wanted to look at, that he tried not to touch even while getting dressed or showering. The gesture wasn't even so much erotic as matter-of-fact, affectionate for how nonchalant it was. Peter caught Les' big toe between his teeth and bit down lightly, then laughed as Les' reflexive response to being tickled like that nearly wound up with his getting kicked in the face. "Easy there." In all his life, Les had never had someone touch that part of him with anything but clinical interest, and certainly never had someone laugh over it.
After another moment of this, Peter straightened up and grabbed the hem of the light cardigan he'd been wearing, then pulled it and the t-shirt beneath it off. He was as handsome under his clothes as Les would have imagined, pale and lean, and perhaps a bit thicker around the middle than Les had assumed. Les could see white-gold hair all over Peter's chest and arms, barely visible in the dim light from the room's one lamp. Peter stayed like that for a moment, letting Les get a good look at him, before bending forward and kissing him again.
As their mouths moved against one another, Peter went for the buttons of Les' shirt and undid them with his nimble musician's fingers, leaving Les' chest bare. Peter grabbed Les around his waist and sat him up just long enough to push all clothing off Les' arms, leaving them both naked from the waist up. "Look at you," Peter grinned, running his fingers through the thick, dark fur on Les' chest, following its contours all the way down the line that crossed Les' navel and disappeared beneath the buckle of his belt. "So, Mr. Not-A-Virgin, how do you like it?" Peter hooked one finger under the leather strap of Les' belt and began to slide it loose.
That wasn't a question Les had been posed before; usually rentboys were more amenable to nonverbal instructions. "Usually just ... sitting up. With him using his mouth."
"Ever fucked anyone?" Peter kissed Les' clothed erection through his pants.
Les shut his eyes, thinking back to the one disastrous time he'd gotten it in his head that real masculinity needed to assert itself through penetration. He'd managed to kneel for nearly ten full seconds before collapsing back atop the hotel bed, in too much pain to maintain the position, much less his erection. Given how many failures and catastrophes he'd endured in his various illicit sexual encounters, it was surprising he hadn't given up entirely long before now. "Not ... successfully," he admitted. "It's hard to stay where I need to."
"You have a problem, I have a solution," said Peter, who unzipped Les' trousers and pulled them, underpants and all, over Les' hips and down his legs. That done, he folded both articles of clothing and placed them atop a low bookshelf, then unfastened his own pants and let them remain on the floor where they fell. His cock hung pale and thick between his legs, encircled at the root from a patch of golden hair, and Les wondered for a moment why it looked so strange before becoming aware of how he'd never seen a circumcised penis before. Well, there was a first time for everything.
Looking far more comfortable naked than Les supposed he himself ever would be, Peter sat on the side of the bed and kissed Les for a minute, then pulled out a shoebox from inside one of the bedside milk crates. Out came a little unlabeled metal tube, and when Peter squeezed some of the clear jelly inside it onto his hands, Les could smell a strong musk. "Just lie back," Peter said, and he kissed Les on the tip of his nose. "If you're going to be gone in the morning, I want to make this count."
Les didn't know what to say to that, so he closed his mouth and nodded. However, as Peter climbed astride Les' thighs, the bed gave a creak Les was sure could be heard through the floor. "Shouldn't we...?" He hit the mattress hard with the heel of his hand, making the springs beneath rattle. "Isn't that loud?"
Peter laughed and bent forward to kiss Les' belly. "One, it's nothing they haven't heard before. Two, if they can sleep through the parties, they can sleep through anything." With a smirk, Peter flicked his tongue over the tip of Les' cock, making Les jerk and shiver. "And three, well, maybe we'll be inspirational."
"Inspir--" Les' eyes went wide. "They're old!"
That made Peter laugh so hard he nearly lost his balance, and he saved himself from falling off the side of the bed only be grabbing hold of Les' hip. "And still very much in love, and one day, barring catastrophe, I'll be that old too. And the day I get too old for sex is probably the day you should just take me out back and shoot me. Besides," he added, flicking at the few silver hairs that hid amongst the dark ones on Les' lower belly, "you're not such a kid yourself."
"I'm four years younger than you are! I just ... went grey early." Les narrowed his gaze at Peter. "Why, how old did you think I am?"
"Honestly? A young-looking forty." With his mischevious smile in full force, Peter wrapped his warm, slick hand around Les' cock, and whatever insult Peter might have felt from being mistaken for a man a dozen years his senior washed away by a tide of sensation. "You realize," he said, his tone still conversational as his hand travelled up and down Les' erection, "I don't know your birthday, or where you live, or where you were born, or where you grew up, or much of anything about your family, or even your real last name."
"Mitchell," said Les, who wasn't up for much more information-providing than that at the moment, on account of having been rendered nearly insensible with the twin forces of reefer and arousal. "Les Mitchell."
"Les Mitchell," Peter repeated -- then he wrinkled up his nose in a sour expression and shook his head. "I like Les Chinoff better."
It was the most absurd conversation Les could ever remember having had in his life, and he'd been through law school. "Why ... are we talking?"
"Because you're cute like this," Peter said, but he grinned and tighened his grip on Les' cock, stroking him until Les could feel his orgasm's nearing, just a few more strokes -- and then he stopped at just the wrong point, leaving Les hard and aching. Before Les could register a complaint, though, Peter scooted up until his knees were on either side of Les' waist. He reached back and stroked Les' erection a few more times, and then, with maddening slowness, lowered himself onto it, until he'd taken Les' cock to the root inside him.
Everything Les had ever learned about sex had told him that moving in and out was the correct procedure, which was why he didn't understand at first as Peter just spread his knees and sat there a moment, taking soft, shallow breaths through his mouth. "Well, you're not small," said Peter, his voice mostly air. "God, you feel good, though. This good for you?"
It was emphatically good, so far beyond good that Les didn't have words for it, and all he could do was nod. Peter was amazing, hot and tight around Les' cock even without the benefit of friction -- but what made Les' brain short out was seeing Peter's reaction. Peter was fully hard now, and that cock he'd felt through clothing, the one he'd seen as Peter got undressed, now stuck straight out from Peter's body, its tip leaving a slick pool of precome against Les' belly. Les had been sucked by boys before, and some had been quite talented, but not one of them had been more interested in his work than an average bank teller or grocery clerk might have been about the minutiae of their own professions. To the best of his knowledge, Les had never actually turned someone on before, and to see it happen right before his eyes was quite a marvel.
"I've wanted to have you like this for a long time," said Peter, petting Les' chest with one hand while he stroked his erection with the other. "I don't usually have to wait this long, either. You'd just better be glad you're worth the wait."
Les wanted to say something smart right back at him, but he was having a difficult time remembering where he'd left the language part of his brain, and when he opened his mouth, nothing came out but heavy, ragged gasps he almost couldn't believe had started inside his body. He could find no leverage where he was that didn't involve putting pressure on his bad leg, and just because the limb wasn't paining him didn't mean he could put it to work for him any way he wanted. He was at the mercy of the slow rise and fall of Peter's hips. The flushed smirk on Peter's face as he rode Les nice and deep made Les' own breath quicken. He grabbed at Peter's thighs, hard enough to leave little red marks where his fingertips dug in, which made Peter grin wide enough to show teeth. "You don't get to come first," Peter told him. "Not until after I do." His hand moved up and down the length of his cock at a faster pace than Peter's hips did, but still not fast enough for Les' taste. "Think you can hold on that long?"
"No," Les gasped. He wanted to, of course, but he coud feel that familiar heavy tightness in his balls that he didn't know if he could keep down.
Peter laughed and reached for Les' hand, twining their fingers together and using that connection for leverage as he sped up his pace until every thrust was a heavy metal squeak. "Then you'd better make me do it first."
Never before had Les received such a lovely challenge. He tightened his grip on Peter's hand, just to make sure no one fell over, and grabbed Peter's cock with his other. He'd touched the rentboys' cocks before, from time to time, if they were of the type to bother getting undressed, but he'd never actually held one like this, foreskin or no. It was still slick from the lubrication left on Peter's hand, warm and stiff. When Les made a circle of his fingers and began to slide it up and down, Peter bit his lip and sighed. "You're a natural." The bed's creaking protests picked up the pace as Peter moved faster, fucking Les' hand while fucking himself on Les' cock, looking as though he'd just about died and gone to heaven.
Peter didn't give any clue that he was close to orgasm, and thus it was a surprise to Les when Peter slammed down hard on Les' cock and thick ropes of come shot out across Les' chest. Peter let his head fall back so that Les could see all the handsome lines of his throat and chest as he gasped heaving loud breaths. "Fuck, fuck," Peter laughed as he calmed down again. "Oh, fuck, sugar, Leslie, yes."
Les' amazement at the sight atop him was overwritten quickly by his own cock's starting to throb its need at him again. "Peter," he said, his voice equal parts threat and plea.
"Hold on tight." Grinning ear to ear, Peter gripped both of Les' hands hard and began riding him in earnest. He slammed his body down on Les' again and again, grinning as his softening cock slapped against Les' belly every time, making the bed protest so loud that Les wouldn't have been surprised if people three streets over had heard what they were getting up to. He wanted to hold out and make this last, but he'd already been so close to the edge for so long that barely a minute later, he cried out and came deep inside Peter, thrusting his hips up from the bed as he did and not caring what else that entailed. He'd have it out with the lower third of his body later; his penis needed him now.
At last Les' body stilled, and with a sigh and a few grunts, Peter pulled himself off Les' cock and collapsed next to him, covering Les' mouth with kisses. The bed was small enough already, but it could have been half the size and Les wouldn't have noticed, they were pressed against one another so tightly. "Oh," said Les against Peter's mouth, not because everything had begun to make sense, but because it all seemed at last to be going that way.
Peter laughed and kissed the tip of Les' nose before rolling away to grab a towel out from the collection of items strewn across the floor. "Happy?" he asked, running the material over Les' chest to mop up the cooling, sticky remnants of semen left there.
It was a difficult question. On the one hand, as fantastic as it had been, having sex with Peter hadn't magically scared all his troubles away. He was still expected to show up at work in twelve hours, looking pressed and ready to go and not like he'd been fucking his boyfriend all last night (and that was another question there, what were they to one another anyway?), and if he didn't have time to swing by his house beforehand, which he wouldn't, he'd have to hope that Peter had given his pants at least a half-decent fold before placing them above the fray. He couldn't so much as hint to anyone in his old life that any of this had taken place, and he didn't know how or even if he'd come clean to all the people he'd met here about who and what he'd been before. He had committed no fewer than a half-dozen crimes tonight of varying degrees of severity, some of which might have landed him jail time and all of which would have gotten him fired without a second thought.
But on the other hand, nothing before in Les' life had ever left him with the feeling that maybe, despite the fact that all the world's problems both great and small still existed, everything might one day be all right.
"Working on it," Les said, which was as honest as he could be about it, and Peter kissed him again, which helped make his answer all the more clear.
"A safari, really?" Sanders sat on the plushest chair in Les' office, watching Les pack files into brown cardboard boxes without once volunteering to help. "What gave you that idea?"
"I've always wanted to go to Africa," said Les, and it wasn't a lie. So much of what he'd told everyone had been the absolute truth: he wanted to see the world, he needed a fresh start, doctors had told him that travel might be good for his health, he'd ended the lease on his apartment, he'd given most of his belongings to friends and family, he'd reduced his wardrobe to what could be fit in three large suitcase, he'd bought a one-way ticket on a flight to Morocco that left at the end of the month. It wasn't the whole story, but it was enough, and no one he was leaving behind needed to know any different.
The greatest evidence Les had that he was doing the right thing had come from how his relatives and co-workers had all been surprised, but not one of them had tried to stop him. His work had re-arranged his obligations so fast that two weeks' notice might as well have been two days'. Margery had given him a hug and a blank book that he could use as a travel journal, which she'd told him she'd taken up a collection for but which no one else seemed to know about, and that had been the extent of the office's tangible well wishes. Even his immediate family members hadn't bothered giving any concrete reasons why Les would be missed, what their lives would lack once he was no longer around, how his absence would affect their day-to-day happenings. His mother had given him a kiss the last time he'd taken her to church, and Lena had said she'd make him dinner, then kept rescheduling on account of work until Les had just let her off the hook with the promise that it'd been the thought that'd counted.
Sanders tapped the end of his cigarette in the ashtray Les had started keeping on his desk, the one that had appeared to accompany the smoking habit Les had cultivated of late. "Well, when you come back, if you need a recommendation, you should always feel free to call."
"Thank you, sir," said Les, who knew he never would. He'd been planning and weighing this disappearance for months now, but the truth was that he'd been right their first night together when he'd said to Peter that if he went that far, he'd never go back. Quitting his job and walking away were formalities, inevitabilities.
If anything, the hardest part about preparing to leave had been working under the impression that 'Bubbe' and 'Zadie' were the Chinoffs' real Christian names. Peter's file, he'd just signed out, taken home, and tossed whole into the building's incinerator, assuming he'd be long gone before anyone noticed its absence. Despite every spelling variation Les tried on all three Russian names, though, the girl at the records office told him with perfect patience that she couldn't find that person listed in the archives and couldn't process a request that didn't have a full, correct name attached to it. He'd started wondering if he'd hallucinated the old couple entirely, then met that afternoon with an attorney by the name of Rosenberg, who'd mentioned in passing that his family was planning on celebrating his Bubbe's ninetieth birthday that weekend. Was that a common first name where his family had come from, Les had asked, and the man had laughed at Les and said, no, it was just what he called his grandma.
Truth be told, Les had always wondered why the café had been called Ava's.
The request for Ava Chinoff's file went through with no issues, and a quick glance at the first sheet inside told Les that the other one he wanted belonged to Ivan Chinoff. After having made such a complicated scene of getting hold of them, Les knew he couldn't just disappear them wholesale the same way he'd done with Peter's, so he'd spent a very late night in the office extracting every bit of circumstantial incriminating evidence from the few reports collected through the years, meaning that anyone who went looking for their files in the future would find clean histories appropriate to an old couple who'd never so much as incurred parking tickets, who'd spent so many years working on their piece of the American dream.
Les put the last of the government's paperwork in the box, then tucked his remaining personal effects into a briefcase he'd brought for just this purpose. He had no pills to take home, because he'd thrown that bottle away weeks ago. His three suitcases were waiting half-unpacked at the foot of Peter's bed, and atop the dresser by the door was a new brown leather wallet with driver's license and social security card inside, both in the name of Leslie Ivan Chinoff. Sometimes it paid to know a criminal element or two. "Thank you again, sir," said Les, extending his hand. The plane would take off for Morocco in four days with an empty aisle seat, and he didn't expect anyone would notice or raise much of an alarm even if they did.
Sanders took it and gave it a firm, professional shake. "Good luck with your travels."
In his head, Les had composed several parting shots, brilliant statements about the nature of freedom, cutting remarks hinting as to the real reason he was leaving, articulate arguments demolishing the idea that what Sanders and his type were doing was helping their cause at all -- but in the end, it was easier just to pick up his things and walk away. The better to disappear you with, my dear, he thought, and he heard the words so clearly in Peter's voice that he couldn't help smiling he stepped out the door to his office and left Leslie Mitchell's life behind for good.