The coughing starts in the middle of the orchestra bit. One minute, Dean’s holding nonchalantly to the mic stand, waiting with mock exasperation for his partner to finish conducting the pianist in a tinkling interlude. The next, he’s buried his mouth in the crook of his elbow. He coughs once, twice, certain he’s cleared it. Jerry’s watching him. Dean raises an eyebrow – Go on – and they swing back into the act. The audience is none the wiser. Dean coughs again in the middle of his second verse; Jerry covers it by screeching at the pianist: “When’s the last time you dusted these keys?”
Dean makes it to the end of his verse and steps back to let Jerry sing. Dean’s sweating, loosens his tie. He clamps his handkerchief over his mouth and hacks, hoping it’s quiet enough. One of the trombonists glances at him; Dean waves his hand, shoves the handkerchief back in his pocket. Then he turns to his partner. The song’s almost over, and Dean strolls to the microphone, clears his throat, and joins Jerry for the final line. Thankfully, his voice bears out. The audience claps and whistles. Dean feels Jerry’s hand on the small of his back. He responds with his own on the nape of Jerry’s neck, stroking lightly. Then they move apart, the orchestra strikes up for a big finish. The boys fall in step and, in perfect unison, dance offstage.
Hidden in the wings, Jerry looks at Dean. “You’re sick,” he says simply.
“Dry throat, that’s all,” Dean says. A dancer hurries past, and he catches her arm. “Sorry, honey,” he says, and favours her with a charming grin. “Could you grab me a glass of water real quick?”
“Sure, Dino.” She beams and disappears into the shadows.
Dean turns back to Jerry; there’s an odd expression on his face.
“What?” Dean asks.
Jerry shakes his head. He reaches out his long fingers and touches Dean’s forehead, strokes his cheek.
“You are sick,” he says. His fingers linger on Dean’s jaw.
“I’ll be fine,” Dean says, but Jerry’s hand is still on him. Dean tilts his head, watches the Adam’s apple in Jerry’s scrawny neck bob.
The tick-tack of high heels approaches, and Jerry snatches back his hand. Dean wonders at this but turns to the dancer as she reappears. “Thanks,” he says, winking. She flushes, touches his arm. Dean watches her walk away and thinks maybe he’ll see her later. Then he’s coughing again.
“Jeez, Paul.” Jerry thumps his back. “Think you can do the next show?”
Dean shrugs him off. “I’m fine,” he manages, and then drains the cold glass. He sets it on the floor and takes Jerry’s arm. “C’mon.”
They run onstage; probably the audience didn’t notice the musical interlude was longer than usual. Jerry thanks them, hopes they’ll come to see the show again. Both men take their final bow, and then they’re backstage once more.
“You can’t go out.” Jerry’s touching him again, hands on his head. “You’re burning up!”
“What’s this?” Dick has joined them. He studies Dean closely.
“Dean’s sick,” Jerry says. “I’ll let ’em know we can’t do the next show.”
“What, are you crazy?” Dean shakes his head, won’t admit how it makes the room spin. “Just gimme an aspirin, an upper, something. I’ll do the next show.”
“You sure, Dean?” Dick frowns. “You look a little pale.”
“Just get me an aspirin, will ya?”
Dick throws up his hands – he knows when he’s been beat – and hurries off to get the pills. Jerry, however, stands firm.
“Jer, trust me, all right?”
“I do, Paul, but—”
“Then listen.” Gently, he holds Jerry’s neck. “I’ll be all right. Just lemme do the show, and then we’ll see how I feel for tomorrow. Okay?”
Jerry peers into his face. “You really think you’re not sick?”
“Naw, just a sore throat, a headache. I’ll be fine after an aspirin.”
Something twinkles in Jerry’s eyes, something Dean knows he should be able to read. Maybe I really am sick, he thinks.
“Okay, Paul.” Jerry smiles. “I trust you.”
Dean takes two aspirin, washes them down with a gulp of water, though he might as well not bother for all the good it does; his throat scratches and burns, and he won’t speak before the next show. When it’s time, and the band strikes up, and Jerry steps out to introduce his partner, Dean throws back two more pills, swallows them dry.
Somehow, he makes it. They dance off to thunderous applause and wait a moment in the wings to catch their breaths. Dean doubles over, panting, wheezing, coughing into his handkerchief. Jerry touches his back; Dean can feel his hand tremble.
“Jesus Christ, Paul.”
He waves him away. “Fine, fine, let’s just get out there.”
They run out, they bow. Jerry begins to speak, to close off the act. Dean hangs back, handkerchief at the ready. He holds in the worst of it, clears his throat intermittently against the back of his hand. His head swims; he can barely hear how his partner ends the show, just sees him point from himself to Dean, look over his shoulder. Hurry up, for Christ’s sake. Suddenly, he thinks he’s going to faint.
Then the crowd is cheering. Jerry beckons. On legs like leaden jelly, he fairly staggers downstage, hoping no one notices. No one, that is, except Jerry, who notices everything, always. It’s a little scary, just how much he notices. Scary, but exciting too, Dean thinks. Electric. Right now, though, he’s the furthest thing from excited.
Whatever it is, Jer, whatever you want, do it quick.
He’s holding out his hand, smiling. Dean smiles back, takes the proffered hand. They shake. Then that glint returns to Jerry’s eye, and Dean finally realises what it means. He wonders how he could have ever doubted.
Yanking his arm, Jerry lunges. He grabs his face with his free hand and slams his mouth into Dean’s. Their lips and teeth mash and scrape together. Dean’s knees buckle, as they must to sell the bit, but in his sickly fugue it’s more real now that it has been before. Christ, Jer, he thinks, I’ll fall! His ears ring with the screaming delight of the crowd, and in the midst of his delirium – I gotta push him off or pull away that’s the bit that’s the act push him off and wipe my mouth – he feels the kiss shift and deepen and holy shit he throws Jerry off him, all but staggers upstage, wiping his mouth and staring bug-eyed at his partner.
Jerry’s skipping away, swinging his arms in girlish glee. He swoons into Dick’s waiting arms. The audience eats it up, and once Dean’s recovered enough, he and Jerry wish them a good night, hope to see them again, and run offstage.
In the dressing room, Jerry is practically vibrating. He bounces and zigzags and spins like a dynamo, face flushed, chest heaving. Dean wipes his mouth, his face, his mouth again, trying not to think about what Jerry just did. As he takes off his tux, he starts coughing again, hides it in the crook of his elbow. He takes another aspirin as Dick walks through the door, holding a large ceramic mug.
“Can’t believe you made it,” he says, slapping Dean on the back. He turns to Jerry. “No way he can do tomorrow’s shows.”
“I’m with you,” he says, calming down enough to regard his partner with serious concern.
“We gotta contract,” Dean wheezes.
“Who cares? We do another show like that, I’m gonna be back to a single!” He touches Dean’s shoulder. “I’ll get us out of it.”
“You let the Jew handle that,” he says proudly.
Dean shakes his head. This kid, nine years younger, skinny and gangling, but so sure of himself in matters of business. How did he get like that? They look at each other, Dean already stripped to his waist, Jerry still dressed but his bow tie lost and his shirt open at the neck. Jerry reaches out to touch his face, press the back of his hand to his forehead. He stays silent, but Dean sees real fear in his eyes.
He wants to reassure him but can’t think what to say.
Then the kid smiles. “You’re shvitzing,” he declares, winks at Dick, and then he’s gone.
“Here.” Dick holds out the mug. Dean takes it; it’s warm and smells of lemons. “Should help your throat, but looks like you may need something a little stronger.”
Dean thanks him, sips the sweet and sour drink. It goes a little way to soothing the burn in his throat. He moans softly.
“Nice, huh? Just honey and lemon in water, but works wonders.” Dean leans against the desk, lights a cigarette. Then he chuckles. “Boy, Jerry almost knocked you over at the end there.”
“Hm.” Dean sips again, sets down the mug. “Sometimes I wish he’d warn me.”
“Warn you?” Dick looks incredulous. “I figured even when you improvise, you always know.”
“Well…” Dean thinks about this. He leans back, sniffs mightily, spits into a tissue. “Yeah,” he agrees. “We know. I can’t explain it.” He pauses. “But sometimes we just… throw things in. You think I knew he was gonna kiss me the first time?”
Dick laughs. “Oh, yeah, I can see that conversation right now.”
Dean shakes his head. “Right? Asking my permission for that? No. Jerry just did it.” He shrugs. “I don’t mind. But sometimes…” He struggles for the words, coughs into his handkerchief. Picking up the mug again, he says, “I know when he’s gonna do it. But not… how he’s gonna do it. I don’t know if that makes sense.” He sips slowly.
Then Dick giggles. The fella giggles.
“What? What’d I say?”
“Dino, did…” But he’s gone, collapsed into unrestrained glee.
“Dick, what—” Dean’s throat contracts; he coughs and hacks into his handkerchief, so hard and so long he worries he might rupture something. When it passes, he checks the white cotton, convinced he’ll find blood. It’s clean. He stuffs it away and looks back at Dick, who’s barely under control.
“Well? Wanna share it?”
“Dino, did” – he swallows laughter – “did Jerry put his tongue in your mouth?”