September 1976 (the present)
“Wanna get a burger?”
Hutch smiled and reached for his jacket. After eight hours on the streets and two more going over paperwork, his partner still wasn’t ready to run away from him screaming. After they'd tracked down and questioned three reluctant witnesses to a convenience store shooting, reviewed the grizzly photos of a hooker's bruises that were colorful enough to give the NBC peacock a run for its money, and waded through the tongue-twisting jargon of an autopsy report, his partner still wanted to hang out. Go figure. But the feeling was mutual.
After all these years, Hutch had found that the best cure for a stressful day was listening to one of Starsky’s tall tales, watching him enjoy a juicy burger, beating him at a game of cards. There was only one thing he might trade it all for, but he’d set that craving aside long ago. And now there was Abbie -- sweet, innocent Abigail Crabtree who looked at him as if he could do no wrong.
They walked down two flights of stairs arguing about where to go eat. A spirited give and take. “Fat Freddy’s got closed down last week for health violations” “Captain Clancy’s has a new waitress that Huggy swears is a former porn stahr.”
“Let’s try that new place that just opened up on Third,” Hutch suggested. “Abbie wouldn't like it if she found I was getting served by a porn star.”
Starsky laughed. “Abbie's a nice girl, Hutch. Maybe a little too nice to be hanging around a couple of clowns like us.”
“Now you're sounding like Captain Dobey,” Hutch retorted, his comment coming off too defensive for his own comfort.
“Perish the thought,” Starsky shot back, nonplussed.
They made their way through the main lobby filled with uniforms dutifully escorting sour-faced detainees, civilians filling out forms, and clerks secluded behind glass-windowed partitions. The faces all blended together, as if Hutch flipped an internal switch that automatically caused his usually sharp powers of observation to shut down the minute he clocked out. Self-preservation, he supposed.
But he wasn't blind. For some reason, he found himself being drawn to a man getting up from one of the booking desks. Somewhere in his fifties, time and grooming habits hadn't been kind to him. His black hair was thinning and arranged in a greasy comb-over. The rumpled, over-sized uniform-style jacket he wore made him look like a bellhop at the Bates Motel. And his eyes - his eyes were as small and dark as a gargoyle’s.
Hutch stopped suddenly and felt a cold chill go down his spine. He watched the man head toward the main door, his lazy gate practically a stroll. Starsky bumped into Hutch’s shoulder but before he could say anything, Hutch turned and made beeline to the booking desk.
“Hey, Frank,” Hutch addressed the officer.
“Hi ya, Hutch,” the officer responded. He put down the report he'd just signed off on. “The full moon sure brings out all the strange ones.”
“Sure does,” Hutch echoed, commiserating as one colleague to another, hoping he didn't sound as shaken as he felt. “Who was that, by the way?” He nodded to the door that was just closing behind the greasy bellhop.
“Arthur Solkin,” said Frank, briefly consulting the file in front of him. “Got pulled in for petty theft and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.” He gave a little shiver. “A real creep. Gave the Hotel Bremen as his permanent address. As I recall, that place isn’t fit for rats. Why? Have you run into him before?”
Hutch turned the name - Arthur Solkin, Artie - over in his mind. The memories it churned up were as dark as the sediment at the bottom of a murky pond. “N. . . no,” he fumbled.
“Hey, Hutch,” Starsky had come up to stand behind him, inadvertently forming both a physical and psychic wall. Hutch felt his partner’s hand on his shoulder, his eyes obviously following Hutch’s own line of vision. “What's up with that greaseball?”
“Nothing,” Hutch shook his shoulder slightly, dislodged the hand. “Nothing. Just thought I'd seen him somewhere before.”
Starsky waited a beat, then started toward the door. “Come on, let's go get something to eat. I'm starved.”
Hutch, meanwhile, had lost his appetite.
Ken Hutchinson's stomach grumbled, twisting itself into a painful knot. He hadn’t eaten since lunch the previous day and it was now early evening. The thought of Jenny, the Hutchinson family housekeeper, and her homemade potato soup - thick and warm and topped with a sprinkling of green onion - practically made him salivate. He should have planned this better. He hadn’t realized there was such a distance between towns. He had underestimated how far he’d be walking and how cold the wind could feel. He’d stuffed sixty dollars and some odd change in the pocket of his jeans. Even though there were thousands more in a bank account his name, he couldn’t get to any of it. He was underage and besides, it had been set aside for his college fund. Not that he ever intended on going to college. That was his parents’ plan for his life, not his.
The knot in Ken’s stomach twisted a little tighter with each buffet of the raw November wind that gusted across the highway. The lanky blond teen drew further into himself, stuffing his hands down deeper in his pockets. A car whooshed past him, swerving slightly. Up ahead he saw the lights of a small building, possibly a gas station or diner. He thought eagerly of filling his stomach, of finding a place to warm up and possibly even get a few hours of sleep. The motel in the last town didn’t give rooms to minors. The self-important manager had made that clear and Ken hadn’t wanted to argue. He didn’t want to chance him calling the police and reporting a transient teen.
He couldn’t go back home. He couldn’t look his parents with all their high hopes in the eyes, or listen to the minister with his vivid depictions of heaven and hell. He didn’t relish running into Matt Linden, the team’s best first baseman, again either. But most of all, he couldn't face himself. He dreaded seeing the golden blond hair and sky-blue eyes reflecting back in his mirror. His soft, appealing features did him no favors, especially when paired with his over-eager hormonal drive and natural curiosity. Not after what had happened a few days earlier.
Matt Linden was a well-built young man with head of rich, dark hair and a charismatic smile. Ken had enjoyed watching him in practice - maybe a little too much. The graceful way he moved, how he could pluck a ball out of the air seemed almost like magic trick. After practice a few days ago Ken and Matt had hung back in locker room talking. The coach had done the unusual by calling Matt out - saying his head wasn't in the game. Ken had felt something might be bothering Matt and just wanted to let him know he was available to listen.
Matt had proceeded to share with Ken that his parents were getting a divorce. He’d been pretty broken up about it. Although Ken felt terrible about Matt’s family situation, he’d also felt a deep satisfaction that Matt had trusted him enough to open up. To share something personal rather than just the typical teenage jibes. Ken had felt a powerful connection to his attractive teammate that caused a warmth to grow in the pit of his stomach as they sat side by side on the bench. Ken’s hand had strayed to Matt’s thigh. At the touch, blood had rushed uncontrolled to his groin, Too late he realized he’d made a horrifying mistake.
“What the fuck, Hutchinson?” Matt saw the stiff bulge in Ken’s uniform pants and had jumped up as if he’d been bitten by a snake.
Ken’s face had reddened. “I . . . I’m sorry,” He’d stammered. “I didn’t mean anything . . .”
“Keep away from me, you fag,” Matt had shouted as he pushed past him out of the room.
So much for personal connections. Ken could have just brushed it off as an awkward teenage moment. It might even have worked if he handled it right. His friends were always joking about how they got hard-ons if so much as a breeze blew. They boasted about their size and the speed with which they could jack off. They bragged about all the girls they were feeling up and even fucking - in the back seat of their parents’ cars or at the secluded spot in Carlyle Woods. Even an empty storeroom or underneath the bleachers would do. Sometimes it seemed like sex was all they thought about and everyone was doing it.
Ken's good looks drew more than his share of female interest. But Ken was different. He thought maybe he was sick, even. As much as he’d tried to go along with his buddies, somehow muscular legs and firm abs excited him even more than mini skirts and tight sweaters. But it was something he dared not talk about. Not to his friends and certainly not to his stern, straight-laced father.
But ‘unnatural’ feelings continued to plague him. When Ken had confided in his youth pastor about his confusion, his doubt, the man’s face had blanched. ‘Homosexuality is a sin,’ he’d announced awkwardly. He’d given him some scripture references and offered to pray for him. Nothing worked. The event with Matt was the last straw. Ken had to leave and find some way to fix himself.
Finally, a rusty, orange-red Chevy sedan pulled up on the road alongside him and it’s driver - a man who appeared to be in his mid-thirties, with thin dark hair and small eyes - rolled down the car window and leaned out. “You need a ride?” He asked.
Ken looked him over and considered his offer. It would be dark soon. Better to hitch a ride with a stranger than be stopped by a policeman with questions about why he was walking along a highway all alone. “If you could just drop me off at the nearest restaurant, I'd appreciate it,” said Ken.
“You bet. I'm getting a little hungry, myself.” The man pushed open the passenger side door. The Chevy's interior smelled foul, like a gym locker at the end of the year. The front seat was full of food wrappers and other assorted trash. Ken almost reconsidered, then brushed the refuse aside and he got in.
“My name’s Artie. What's yours?”
“Where’re ya headed?” Artie’s asked.
“South,” Ken said simply. The question was innocuous enough and he didn't mean to be purposefully vague, but at the moment it was all he knew.
Artie didn't seem to mind Ken’s vagueness or take any offense that Ken wasn't a big talker. He seemed happy to talk enough for the both of them. “I'm just traveling through, myself,” Artie said. “Came up from Indiana, but - man - this place is too cold for me.” He demonstrated with a little shiver. “Are you hungry? I sure am. Been on the road for hours.”
“I could eat,” Ken agreed.
A few miles up the road Artie pulled into the parking lot of a family-style diner. Inside, color prints depicting Minnesota lake country decorated the walls and a chalkboard advertised the specials of the day - homemade meatloaf and lemon meringue pie. Since it was well past the dinner hour, they had the place practically to themselves. Artie ordered a meatloaf special from the tired but friendly waitress who pulled an order pad from her ketchup-stained apron, and Ken settled on a turkey sandwich. As hungry as he was, nothing on the laminated menu looked particularly appealing. Maybe the pain in his gut wasn't just from hunger.
Artie continued to chat amiably as he ate, smiling as if he hadn’t a care in the world. He said he’d come up to visit a friend but was now on his way to Minneapolis, and from there - who knew? Somewhere warmer, for sure. Somewhere with opportunity.
Ken didn’t find Artie a particularly appealing character, but he’d never met anyone as free-wheeling as he seemed to be. Maybe the rumpled clothes and bad haircut were just part of the price one paid for freedom, he mused. It must be nice not having to live up to anyone else’s expectations. No pressures. No one to disappoint. Ken had no desire to own a big, fancy house, wear a suit and tie or be cooped up in an office all day like his father. But he was young, he’d been reminded time and again. Everyone seemed so sure he’d change his mind somewhere down the line.
“What about you, Ken? You on your way to visit someone?” Artie wiped his mouth inelegantly with a small, paper napkin.
Ken shook his head and swallowed down a bite of his sandwich - bland turkey on dry white bread, slathered with mayonnaise then topped with a tomato that hadn’t seen a garden in weeks. “I’m going down to Iowa.”
He’d been thinking through a plan for the last few hours as Artie had chattered away and his declaration now made it official. He’d head to the heart of farm country where it should be easy to find work despite his age. Housing, too. He wasn’t afraid of hard work. Thanks to time spent with his grandfather before the family farm was sold, he knew his way around a tractor. In fact, he loved working outdoors. The heady smell of manure, the richness of dirt on his hands satisfied rather than repelled him. Being around plants and animals gave him a sense of peace and fulfillment. He loved nurturing living things, seeing them grow as a result of his care. And a cow or corn stalk never questioned his grades or his plans for the future - never mind his sexuality. They never made him feel less than he was. They just were. So why couldn’t he be who and what he was?
“Iowa, aye?” Artie eyed him up and for the first time the man’s easy perusal made Ken uneasy. But he didn’t seem like much of a threat and, besides, Ken knew he could handle himself. If there was one thing that about himself in which he was confident, it was his strength and athletic ability. His cherubic good looks, on the other hand, had always been a double-edged sword.
“Do you know anyone in Iowa?” Artie questions turned more pressing, even as he carefully kept the conversation light.
Ken didn’t know how much personal information he should give this stranger. He didn’t think it wise for Artie to know exactly how alone he was. That he was miles from home and no one - not even his parents - knew where he was. “My cousin,” he said awkwardly. He’d always been a bad liar.
The waitress came back around and asked if either of them wanted dessert. Ken shook his head but Artie ordered two pieces of chocolate cake. “My treat,” he added, smiling broadly. When the waitress came around again and tore the check from her paper pad, Ken paid her from the money in his pocket. He included a generous tip even though he had no idea how long his money would need to last.
Artie tossed a few coins on the table. “Look kid. I was planning on getting a room around here for tonight and I wouldn’t mind sharing. We could split the cost if you’re running low.”
Artie made it sound like he was doing Ken a favor, but Ken didn’t miss the fact that the favor was going both ways. He thought about turning him down, but the shed he’d stayed in the night before had been so cold he’d gotten little sleep. It was only for one night. What could it hurt? In the morning they’d go their separate ways and Ken would never have to see Artie Solkin again.