It was raining. I’m not the superstitious sort, not really predisposed to take the weather as a sign, but it didn’t help my mood any. It was the kind of day that made you want to sit by a coffee shop window and drink black joe while you watch people scurry around with their umbrellas, watch them duck into the shop and shake out their hair or the hems of their coats and leave wet footprints on the way to your table where they slap down a soaked newspaper and grin at you from under their newsboy cap.
Well, not really, but it wasn’t like I had a choice.
“Could you have found a few more puddles to jump in?” I asked, and Weekly peered at me from over his turned-up collar, like he wasn’t sure if I was serious. Other patrons glared at us—him for shaking water all over them, and me for knowing him, apparently. My coffee cup was in imminent danger from the puddle spreading out from the gummy pile of newsprint he’d dropped on the table, so I picked it up to take a sip. I felt colder just looking at him.
“Aw, fiddlesticks,” he said when he tried to open the paper. Seems he’d meant to show me something but hadn’t thought quite that far ahead. I sipped my coffee and waited while he searched his bomber jacket, muttering to himself. The musky smell that wafted up from him was worse for his dampness, and a lady at the next table leaned away. “Ah ha!”
The limp paper he slapped onto the table – in the middle of the puddle he’d made already, promptly ruining it – was a headline he’d torn out, apparently for safekeeping. I picked it up between thumb and forefinger, scowling as rainwater dripped onto the table.
LOCAL WAR HERO RETURNS, it said, and Weekly sat staring at me, vaguely triumphant, waiting for a reaction. I didn’t know which one to give. “It’d help if I had the whole story for this,” I said dryly. “Particularly the name of the soldier.”
He deflated, and I saw him glance toward the ruined paper.
“Nevermind,” I said. “I’ll buy my own copy. Why’d you want to show me?”
"They gave him a blue ticket," Weekly said, with a nervous twitch and glance over his shoulder, like he thought someone might be listening to him. "Can't get his VA benefits, having trouble getting a job because places keep wanting to see his discharge papers before they'll hire him."
Blue tickets were the name given to military discharges that were neither honorable nor dishonorable. They were given to soldiers the military wanted out of its hair without the trouble of a court martial and without the expense of benefits – a coward’s way out, in my way of thinking, and generally reserved for two categories of men: those who were black, and those who preferred the company of their own kind. And some who were both. Why Weekly thought I’d be interested in the story – interested enough that he’d run out in the rain, despite his aversion to water – I couldn’t imagine.
“It ain’t right,” he mumbled, more subdued than I’d seen him yet.
“Ain’t seen many things in this job that are.” I looked at his sad face beneath the brim of his cap and sighed. I was going to regret this. Hell, I already did. “What do you think I could do about it?”
He brightened a little at that, looking up at me, wild-eyed. “I don’t know, maybe you know someone who could get him his benefits back? Get his discharge changed to honorable? He was a friend of my father's, and I thought...”
I frowned. Not likely, but I could ask a few questions, do some poking around, see what poked back. “We’ll see,” I said, and left a dime on the table to pay for my coffee. A generous tip, as much as a second cup, but the waitress deserved it and more for cleaning up Weekly’s mess.
I stopped at a newsstand on my way home and picked up my own paper, finding the headline easily on page five. Not much of a story, then. It did have a small picture of the man, Arlie Davis, wearing his officer’s uniform and looking severe. His eagle’s beak gave him a distinguished profile, I thought, and the white feathers on his head stood out in comparison to his dress blues. The story was vague, but it gave a list of his accomplishments and didn't mention the color of his discharge papers at all. It hinted at his neighbors, though, and my knowledge and a little guesswork led my gut straight to 36th Avenue, not far from Central.
A mangy old cat in a cardboard box told me he knew who Davis was, but asked for a nickel before he’d give me any information. I took pity on him and gave him my last quarter; might put some food and coffee in him. His yellow eyes went wide and he stammered, “Brothers. Sometimes he goes down to Brothers on Thirty-eighth. Don’t bother going ’til after dark, and watch who sees you come in and who sees you leave.”
I thanked him and stuffed my hands into my coat, headed down the street to buy myself another cup of coffee and watch the door of Brothers, to see who else didn’t want to be seen going in or out. Most of the patrons had fur or feathers about as dark as mine, and I waited until the street lamps were reflected in the puddles until I joined them, collar carefully turned up and hat carelessly pulled down.
I don’t know what I’d been expecting, but it wasn’t the low lights, heavy incense, and floor-seating that greeted me, nor the tall, broad-shouldered lady in a sequined dress with a strong, square snout. Other ladies dressed similarly seemed to be the only women in the place; the patrons were all men, lounging on the floor cushions, smoking and drinking and talking in murmurs while a crooner on stage sang in a smoky voice over a sorrowful piano.
“Take a seat, honey,” the hostess said in a husky voice that matched her snout but not her eyelashes, and I sat. My target, if I could call him such a thing, was already in a far corner near the stage. I recognized him even in casual clothes, even sitting next to a bulky black bear and a sleek brown otter. I hadn’t seen him come in, but he looked animated, smiling, relaxed. He was a different bird entirely than the grim soldier I’d seen in the newspaper picture.
“You ain’t exactly the type I expected to see here,” a voice said above my left shoulder, and I remembered where I’d heard it before a split second before I looked up into a long, horsey face.
“To be fair,” I drawled, “neither are you.”
He snorted and helped himself to the cushion beside me, leaning his elbows on the low table with its incense burner and tiny mood-lit candle. He wasn’t dressed much nicer than I remembered seeing him in the Line, but his hair was combed a little better and he wasn’t wearing his hat. His leather jacket was dotted with raindrops, his mane dripping onto his neck.
“Long way from home, aren’t you?”
He shrugged and looked around... a bit warily, I thought. “Don’t come down here much. Folks back home’d probably wonder what I was doing out in the big city if I made the trip more than every few months. Every now and then’s to be expected, though. Doesn’t raise any suspicions.”
And that’s about when it clicked. It wasn’t just that everyone in the bar was black or brown, not just that they were all male except the hostesses – and maybe I took a closer look at them too – but they were all especially friendly. I can’t deny that despite a lifelong motto of live and let live, my first reaction was to spit out my drink and get up and run before one of them thought I was looking for a date.
My horse friend must have seen the revelation in my face, because he laughed bitterly and shook his head. “Don’t worry,” he said wryly. “I won’t leave so much as a freckle on you.”
I relaxed and mumbled a lame apology into my glass. He just snorted again, and this time the sound made Davis glance over at us. I’ve been told I have the look of law enforcement on me, and it must not have washed off in the rain, because the old eagle stiffened and the bear beside him put a protective hand on his knee. The gesture made me wonder how I hadn’t realized the kind of place I was in before.
“Old fool,” the horse muttered, seeing Davis. “They’d have probably overlooked everything if he hadn’t been so dead set on staying with that man of his. If it were me, I’d still have my bars and stars. Nobody’s worth that much.”
But I saw the way he spoke to the bear, the way the other man leaned down to speak to him, and felt a curious tightness in my chest. I thought about all the things I would have done to stay with Alma, if I could have. All the things I’d still do to get her back, if I had the chance, and I finished my drink.
My companion didn’t say much else for a while, and a hostess brought me another drink to replace the first. We listened to the singer, and the horse watched the crowd – probably looking for a more likely target than me, since it was pretty clear I wasn’t going to be the type to go home or anywhere else with him – until at one point, Davis excused himself from his table. Since the bear didn’t get up to follow him, I figured he was just going to use the john, and thought it’d probably be a good idea to do the same.
He looked a little nervous when I stepped up to the urinal next to his, and foolishly the first thing out of my mouth was, “Don’t worry, I’m not like that.”
He chuckled dryly, a hoarse little noise, and shook his head. “None of us are, son, if the wrong person’s asking.”
“Except you were, weren’t you?” I lowered my voice, trying to make it sympathetic. “Saw the story on you in the paper, heard the rest of it from a friend. He asked me to look into it, wanted to know if there was any way to get your honorable status back. I hear there’s a lot of badness goes with a blue ticket.”
Davis nodded, still with that sharp, wry smile. “There is.” He shook himself off, zipped up his pants. “But not any way out I plan on taking.” He glanced toward the sink but didn’t make a move yet. “I’d have to see a head doctor, renounce Orson and everything I feel for him. Never see him again, never set foot in a place like this.” He shrugged and finally turned on the tap to wash his hands as I zipped up myself.
“Brothers isn’t just a name to me,” he said over the sound of the running water. “Might sound foolish to a lot of people, some of them sitting at that table with me, but it does me good not to have to hide anymore – not any more than normal, I guess. Felt like that officer’s collar was turning into a noose. If I’d stayed, maybe it would have.”
He moved aside so I could have the sink, and I looked up to see our reflections in the mirror – two black-and-white faces, his eyes golden where mine were green. More alike than I would have thought at first.
“At least I didn’t get court-martialed,” he said gently, and dried his hands on the towel before handing it to me. “Don’t worry for me, son, and tell your friend it’s all right. Some prices are worth paying for love.”
He left the bathroom ahead of me, and I stood there for a minute, dumb as a newt, drying my hands over and over. When I finally went back out into the lounge, my companion was still at the table, still alone, and he seemed a bit surprised when he looked up at me.
“Figured you’d cut out the back,” he said, and I shrugged.
“Good music, good drinks,” I answered. “Wanted to see the end of the act.”
He took my answer for what it was and didn’t press me. We didn’t speak much, but later into the night, after Davis and his Orson had already left, the old warbird giving me a subtle nod on the way out, he finally stood up.
“Better be goin’ if I’m gonna make it back to the Line,” he said as he stretched, and I stood with him and walked out onto the street. I remembered what the cat had told me, how he’d said to be careful of who saw me leave, and presumably with whom, but I just stuck my hands in my coat pockets. I’d worry about that later.
“Was nice seein’ you again,” I said, and held out my hand to shake. He looked at it distrustingly; after all, the last time we’d said our goodbyes, I’d had a gun muzzle pressed to his belly. I wouldn’t have shaken my hand either.
“You too,” he finally said as I turned to go, and I paused to look back at him. He was smiling a bit.
“You know, I don’t think I ever caught your name.”
There was that snort again, but this time his eyes lit up in his long, bony face. “Name’s Beau,” he drawled, “but my friends call me Beauty.”
That shook a laugh out of me, loud enough that a couple – a man and a woman, I noticed, and realized I’d never before thought of a couple being anything else – exiting the diner across the street looked up in surprise.
“Well now,” I grinned, and he smiled back. “Ain’t that somethin’.”