by Jim Grimsley
On Monday morning they changed the movies in the quarter movie booths.
There were fifteen booths at the back on the men's side, in a dark room behind the
curtains, and each of the booths had a door, but in fact if you walked behind the booths
you could easily go from one to the other, and Mac and Newell changed the movies that way,
before the store opened. Some of the films were still doing pretty well, so Mac said those
could stay, especially the one with the carpenter and the guy on the back of the truck,
and the one about the two guys on the couch, entitled The Biggest He Ever Had. So
far Newell had not watched any of the movies beginning to end, but that morning he became
curious, and he noticed, as they moved from the men's section to the other one, that most
of the movies were about men being with men, and there were only a few booths showing
movies that had women in them. He had never noticed this outside the curtains. Newell
knelt at the side of each of the movie players, removed three bolts, and opened the hinged
back cover, and Mac held the new movie while Newell unthreaded the old loop from the
projector, closed it in its case, then took the new one and threaded it through the
rollers with exactly enough slack to please Mac, who supervised, pointing and directing
without even bending to look at the machine.
"We got to get some of these new machines,"
Mac said, watching Newell struggle with one of the projectors, "I keep telling
"The owner," Mac said, hitching up his pants
and taking a long drag on his cigarette, and shambled to the front of the store with the
exhale swirling around his head.
Newell watched one of the new movies before the store
opened, a short subject in which a man dressed like a lumberjack caught another man
looking at him in the woods, and then came up to him and grabbed him, and then the frame
stopped for Newell to drop in another quarter, and then the lumberjack pulled the other
man, who looked a little shabby, like a tramp, pulled him down onto a log, and they
straddled the log facing each other, the shabby man staring at the arrogant lumberjack,
and then the lumberjack took the belt out of his hands and looped it around the other
man's neck and pulled him violently forward and then the movie stopped and the screen went
dark and Newell fumbled for another quarter and quickly dropped it and the image blurred
and came to focus, the lumberjack unbuttoning his red flannel shirt with his belt around
the shabby man's neck, pulling him forward, and the man raising his hands, helpless, to
run them inside the red flannel shirt along the lumberjack's body, and glimpses of the
body, the layer of hard muscle cut with shadow, the two men pressing against each other,
then the whirring sound, the light dying in the screen, while Newell held the next quarter
ready and slid it into the slot. The scene changed when the screen lit again, and the
lumberjack was naked to the waist and the shabby man was running his hands up and down the
lumberjack man's crotch, up and down, and Newell knew he had seen pictures of this in the
magazines but this, the moving image, even this one as blurry and out of focus as it was,
this one showed him something. The shabby man pressed his pale fingers against the denim,
fumbling for the zipper and opening it, scene changing, the lumberjack jerking forward
with the belt, bringing down the shabby man to where the man could taste him, and then the
screen went dark and was fed and came on again and now the first man was rocking his hips
into the shabby man's face, they were both straddling the log and moving as easily with
each other as though the shaggy bark of the tree were a comfortable cushion, two bodies
moving together, scenes cut jaggedly into one another, and suddenly both men were kneeling
on the ground, with the lumberjack behind the shabby man, with all their clothes thrown
onto the grass and the lumberjack spitting into his palm, and then the screen went dark
again, then the lumberjack was fucking the shabby man, and Newell made a short, sharp
laugh, only a moment or so, at the sight, but at the same time he felt a tingling in the
tip of his tongue and around the rim of his lips. He caught the salty, peppery smell of
the booth as the first man leaned over the other one, and his body was one long thumping
motion driving in and out of the shabby man, they were coiled together on top of their
clothes with the log in the background, the lumberjack saying words that caused him to
sneer, as if he were being cruel, or trying to present that he was being cruel, and after
the screen went dark and Newell slipped the last coin in the slot, the last loop revealed
the lumberjack collapsing over the shabby one and then some footage that embarrassed
Newell of the two cocks shooting stuff and dripping stuff and then the film was over and
Newell went back to the cash register in a daze.
Mac greeted him by saying, very simply, "I'll
fire you if I catch you looking at them movies all day."
"Yes sir," Newell answered, and his eyes
focused on the cash register as he took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of last night;
dose of carpet cleaner.
But he had never seen anything like that movie before,
and all day he was seeing it in his head, the man unbuttoning his red flannel shirt and
wrapping his belt around the shabby man; neck, pulling him forward so viciously, accusing
him of something with these gestures, and the shabby man so willing to let this happen, to
run his hands over the bare skin, the broad shoulders, images that would rise up in
Newell's head so vividly he might have been standing in the booth with the next quarter in
his hand. A few customers came in and bought magazines, Some of them with women on them
and some not, and as usual the men buying the magazines laid their money on the counter
and looked down or away or up, while Newell slid the bright-colored magazines into a bag
and felt, himself, embarrassed as much as anyone, because he was sure everyone could tell
he was thinking about this movie, about these two men and what he had seen them do to each
other. For it had become as vivid to him as if it had happened inside the little box with
the screen on top of it, happened only this morning at the moment when he started to
watch. it gave him something to daydream about, while he was making change.
The evening and nights were busy, especially in the
movie booths, and Newell heard murmurings and gurglings and whispered voices from that
direction, and he realized he had heard this noise before but had not been aware of what
it was. When the store closed, he balanced out the cash drawer in front of Mac, and it
counted out to the penny as usual, but today Mac had mostly left him alone to run the cash
register, and so the old man was particularly pleased with himself for having hired
Newell. "I knew you was a kid with a brain. Most kids don't have a goddamn lick of
"I know" Newell sighed.
Mac was counting the stacks of quarters from the movie
machines, with the change boxes stacked beside him. "That movie you was watching made
a lot of money today. People must like it."
Newell shrugged. "It seemed like it was all right
"Maybe you have an eye for this stuff. What do
"Maybe I do."
Mac handed him a roll of quarters and said, "Go
back there and look at the rest of them."
"I ain't watching the ones with the women in
"Well, shit, I already knew that."
"All right," Newell said, and turned and
headed to the movie booths, while Mac leaned his chair back on two legs, his pants hiked
up past the top of his socks and his bald white legs shining in the light.
By the time Newell came out again, Sophia had arrived
and started to clean. He had seen her before, an older woman with a big-boned body, cheeks
sunken, mouth mostly toothless, given to wearing wigs and old party dresses while she
cleaned the store. She sometimes spoke softly to Mac but ignored Newell, and tonight he
hardly saw her as she emptied the waste cans and sprayed the front of the display case
with glass cleaner. He had stopped after four of the movies, as much as Mac's roll of
quarters would pay for, and he had seen things he never thought of seeing before. Two of
the movies were very bad, featuring thin, pale, unattractive people fumbling with each
other and stripping off their clothes, when Newell would have preferred they keep them on;
and he watched these two movies dutifully. But the third movie was about a carpenter with
a very hairy torso, a short man with black hair and a mustache and a solid, thick, carved
body, bronze skin, brown eyes, who met a younger, taller man at his worksite and took the
young man back to his truck and allowed the younger man to begin to touch him. They took
off their clothes. The nakedness of the younger man was beautiful, lanky and lean, and the
nakedness of the carpenter was astonishing, he had a very large penis and it dangled
loosely and seductively along his rounded thigh, jiggling when he walked, and he ran his
hands along it. The gesture struck Newell, the display of the length of it, and the movie
went on but Newell stayed stuck there, at that moment, until he noticed what they were
doing on screen now that the carpenter was grabbing the younger kid pretty roughly and
making him straddle the ladder that hung down from the back of the truck, and then
straddling the ladder behind him, and this all reminded Newell of the other movie, the
tree trunk and the two men facing each other across it, and the carpenter pushed himself
inside the lanky fellow who made a face for the camera like something strange was
happening inside him, and they moved together like that on the ladder, and everything
seemed to go fine for them. He watched that one all the way to the end and then decided to
watch one more before he headed home.
The next movie was called Night Crawler, according
to the sign on the door, and a picture above the words, torn out of one of the magazines,
showed a man in shadow back to the camera, hat pulled low over his eyes, a room of
indeterminate size and shape, and the movie began exactly in that way, with the camera
panning the room full of phantoms, then lingering on the bare back of the man, the curve
of his deltoid, and then the man turned around and there was Rod the Rock, facing the
camera, and Newell; breath left him and his heart began to thud against his ribs. He was
grateful for the pause when he needed to put in another quarter because he could stand
there, hardly able to believe it, before the image appeared, lagged, shook, steadied
itself and became Rod the Rock again. He was playing with himself, exactly the way he had
done in the pictures, and he was looking at the camera while he did, and he was big and
getting bigger, and then he was looking through the camera into the center of Newell, and
moving in perfect time, and Newell got hard in his pants and pressed himself against the
movie machine, and Rod the Rock drew him closer, posing that body, showing it this way and
that in the light, and running his hand up and down, the limberness of it, the slick
motion up and down, and the self-satisfied look on Rod's face, the certainty that the
sight of him was pleasing to Newell. Quarter after quarter he watched until he hadn't any
more quarters, and he stood there with the whole tape, which he had seen through nearly
twice before the money ran out, contained in his mind. But he refused to touch himself in
the movie booth, which seemed dirty to him, in some way. He waited till his excitement
died down and headed to the cash register intending to ask for more quarters, until he saw
the look on Mac's face, the expectancy
"What did you think?" Mac asked, "which
ones did you watch?"
So Newell told him that the first two movies had ugly
people in them and that nobody would want to watch them, and then he said the carpenter
movie was pretty good, and then he said, "But I really like Night Crawler. That's
the really good one."
Mac chuckled and said, "That one's been playing
for six months and it's steady money every week. People like that guy or something. I
don't know what it is."
Sophia had begun cleaning the store, running the
vacuum along the carpet between the racks of magazines, wearing her favorite black wig, or
at least the one that Mac claimed was her favorite, a big twisty high-combed number that
made her look like a country music queen; she had wrapped a rag partway around her head,
as she did sometimes to indicate she was on duty. She wore a white polyester one-piece
pantsuit with flared bottoms and attractive white sandals, flats. Mac caught Newell
staring at her, so Newell asked, "How old is she?"
"I don't know" Raising his voice over the
vacuum, he asked, "How old are you, Miss Sophia?"
She flicked her hair back casually, wrinkled her nose
and went on with the vacuuming. Mac laughed and Newell, embarrassed, said good night to
Mac and nodded to Sophia on his way out. He was struck by the strong, harsh bones of her
face and the pale fuzz on her chin. Her nose, thick and bulbous, shaded thin lips. Because
of the hairdo, which was falling as much as it was rising, Newell could not see her ears,
but the lobes hung down thick and fleshy, and long earrings hung down from the lobes and
tangled in the hair; and while she could have been a woman with any of those features,
Newell gaped at her in recognition, and then she bent over and he saw her cleavage, real
as far as the eye could see, and he was confused again. So he left the bookstore with
Sophia in his head, instead of Rod the Rock -- Sophia with the body of an old woman and
the face of an old man --and while he was walking away he could not remember whether he
had said good-bye to her.
But later he remembered the movies again, when he was
soaking in a tub of hot water, lying there with the lights out and only the streetlight
spilling in. He carried the movies with him while he let the tub drain, dried himself,
cleaned the tub, and tidied the room, all in the dark. He made his way across the room to
the bed, which he had already turned back. The feel of a quarter in his fingertips and the
smell of the booth, a strange blend of spices, vivid as he closed his eyes, so tired he
was sliding into sleep, and the motion of the carpenters body as he swung the ladder down
from the truck, as he jerked down the boy's shorts and made him naked, as he mounted the
ladder behind him, separate images, motion that repeated itself, while in a room
somewhere, maybe a room in the empty warehouses along the waterfront, Rod the Rock waited
alone, his back to the door. He had taken off most of his clothes in the heat and he was
just standing there, and Newell was outside in the corridor, he could hear Rod the Rock
breathing, maybe smell the smoke of his cigarette, and later his mouth would taste like a
cigarette, if Newell could only get into the room. He was tired, though, and, sleep
dragged him down into itself in spite of the movies, but he carried with him the shadow of
bodies moving, the knowledge that it was all about motion. In his dreams he would see
motion, rarely a face, only the parts of the body moving, all night, and he waked with a
throbbing erection in the morning and carried himself quickly to the bathroom. He felt as
though he had hardly slept at all.
For weeks it rained, a stretch of wet weather that the
local people appeared to be accustomed to, coming every year around this time, late July
and all through August. People shook out their umbrellas and spread them overhead with a
tired look, and everyone wore raincoats even in the heat. Newell kept his umbrella
standing in a big tomato can by the door and emptied the can every day, the water sickly
brown. He worked from morning till late at night, never questioning the hours, and soon he
had grown accustomed to the low-ceilinged rooms, the plywood shelving, the old plaster
walls painted a dull orange. What he did not know what concerned him, was the name of the
place, but even when he asked, Mac only grunted and stubbed out his latest cigarette in
the mound of dead butts in front of him. He had seen Mac open the checkbook once, when he
was writing a check to the man who kept the Coke machine stocked, but the checks said only
A&R Distributing, nothing about the bookstore at all. By then he had learned that Mac
didn't like to get particular where the business was concerned, and so he never asked what
A&R Distributing was.
At the entrance to the booths, Newell fashioned an
attractive display featuring photos and titles of all the movies. One morning, watching
the usual game of men choosing a movie, he noted that two of the men eyed each other and
moved into the movie booth section together. He wished he could guess which movie they
were going to see together and figured it would be the one about the housepainter who
comes in through the window and pulls down his white bib overalls to reveal a very large
paintbrush, and the man who lives in the room fondles the painter and later so does his
boyfriend, who comes back to the bedroom wearing a suit, and Newell had an instinct that
the two men would choose this movie, and suddenly all the rumblings and mutterings from
the movie section took on a new meaning.
The power of it awed him, that here was a thing, in
these magazines and in these movies, that would draw so many people, furtively, and yet
compel them in such a way. To go into the booths together. To do the same things in the
booths as they were watching on the screen. To move from booth to booth, partner to
Once Mac, who had ears for a different sound, walked
to the curtain at the entrance and said, "I don't hear no quarters falling into no
machines in there. I hear plenty else. You keep them quarters turning them movies, you
Back at the cash register he advised Newell, "You
got to get so you can hear every coin drop in the slot. Else they'll stay back there and
fuck all day and we won't make a dime."
The pay gave him a charge, every week, the same
extravagant stack of bills in cash, the same white envelope with the amount written in
cash, and Newell pocketed it and kept it in his room in his wallet that his Uncle Jarman
had given him, and he paid his bills out of it and had a lot left over, more than he had
ever imagined. So he had a phone put in his room and bought new shirts and colognes and a
gold chain like the one he had seen and then some nice leather shoes and then a shirt made
out of linen. The linen shirt, a soft lavender color with full sleeves and a narrow
collar, felt so extravagant to Newell that he hung it in his closet and felt terrified at
the prospect of wearing it, as though people would be staring at him and whispering, and
so a couple of times he put it on, and then felt self-conscious and took it off and hung
it up again.
One day while he was counting the rolls of quarters in
the safe below the cash register, a customer's shadow fell across him and he looked up at
the face of Henry Carlton, pale and round, a five-dollar bill thrust forward in his
stubby, hairy fingers. "Hey," Newell said as he straightened up, "you want
some change, I guess."
"I didn't know you worked here."
"I been working here since June. I never seen you
in here before."
"I haven't been in here lately."
"You want the whole thing in quarters?"
Henry nodded and Newell counted them out. Henry
started to speak, then ducked his head and turned away, and Newell said, "Look at
that one about the artist model and the artist. Everybody is looking at that one."
"Thanks," Henry said, and slipped through
the curtains. Some other people were already in the booths and more people went in while
Henry was there, and Newell was steadily counting out quarters. People were buying
magazines, too, and Newell was recommending the new Rod and Rock magazine Chain of
Desire to a lot of people. They were asking about the movie but Mac never knew what
would be available. Traffic in the bookstore remained brisk in spite of the rain outside
that had been falling for such a long time, and Newell had forgotten about Henry when he
appeared again and asked Newell what time he got off, and so Newell agreed to meet him at
the Corral. When he did, he asked, "Well, did you like the movie?"
When Henry smiled his face relaxed and he became
suddenly very pleasant. "It was all right. There was this man in the booth watching
that movie you told me about, and I went in there with him, and honey, we had us a
time." He spoke quietly and matter-of-factly, and rolled his eyes a little as if to
show what a good time it had been, and it reminded Newell of the way Henry had walked off
into the shadows in the warehouses that night after they went dancing.
"But what did you do?"
"You mean exactly?" Henry giggled. The music
in the room had suddenly got soft, and Henry leaned close and told him, in detail, and
Newell sat there and tried to picture it. He made Henry repeat certain parts and explain.
Who had remembered to bring lubrication, for example. How did they have room for so much
in those little booths?
"The only problem is remembering to put in the
goddamn quarter," Henry said, and arranged a series of matches on the bar counter in
the shape of the letter x; and set fire to them, a flash of sulfur and flame. The letter
burned into the polished wood of the countertop, where many other people had also burned
their initials. The bartender, bobbing back and forth to the beat, came over to inspect
the handiwork and asked who that was for. Henry pointed to Newell, and the bartender said,
"Welcome to the brotherhood," dancing away again.
So then Newell went out often, with Henry, which
proved to be better than going by himself. Each time they went out, Newell felt something
stirring in himself, most acutely when he happened across the man who resembled Rod the
Rock, but at other times as well; he tasted the feeling and let it go, tasted it and let
it go, again and again, while Henry hung out in the bathrooms and sucked dick or handled
it or ogled it in the stalls half the night. Newell joined him one night, finally, and
watched Henry go down on a man in a business suit, a pallid fellow with a bald spot and a
surgically repaired lip, and Newell hardly got a look at his penis, though he had a pretty
good view of Henry's head bobbing up and down. Later he watched a shirtless cowboy with a
nice tan but a soft abdomen and slack shoulders open his zipper as though to show off, and
then another fellow, in a pair of very short cutoff blue jeans, wool socks, and hiking
boots, joined the first fellow and they stood in front of the urinal working their hands
along themselves in a way that Newell had always been taught was nasty, to be done only in
private and furtively. Here two men were standing in front of Newell in regular clothes in
a bathroom and grinning at each other and then trading hand jobs and smiling through the
whole thing, and Henry finishing his work on the balding fellow and giving the eye to a
flaccid redhead with white-blue eyes and a smattering of freckles across his cheeks and
tiny nose. Newell could hear Henry slurping in a most enthusiastic way, though the sound
left Newell a little queasy. Henry was there for the night but Newell took a break after a
while, getting air on the balcony upstairs, where a perfect stranger offered him a puff on
one of the funny cigarettes. He held the smoke in his lungs till his ears were ringing,
and when he let it out someone was shoving a bottle of poppers under his nose and his head
began to swim in circles.
Staggering down to the bathroom, he had the impression
that someone had recently been touching him along the hips, sliding hands along his hips,
and it occurred to i~im that this might have happened on the balcony, the bearded man
might have been squeezing Newell's hips with those ham-sized hands of his, and with the
rushing and roaring in his bead Newell could hardly be sure, but he thought somebody had
recently been touching him, only a moment ago in fact, and Newell had felt uncomfortable,
or maybe uncertain as to where he was, and he had pushed away from the man and started for
the stairs and forgot what had happened and then remembered it again, halfway down the
stairs heading to look for Henry.
Every time he went out with Henry he felt himself
being pushed a little further, and after a while he wondered how long it would be before
he let someone back him into one of those stalls in the bathroom, before he let somebody
get down on his knees in front of him, or else got down on his own knees, and looked up at
some stranger's face as Henry so often did, licking his tongue around his lips to moisten
them before reaching to unzip the stranger's jeans. But so far Newell only stood and
watched So far that was all he wanted to do.
Or did he want more? Or did he know what this wanting
was? This sheen of wanting that rippled across Henry's face in the bathroom at the Corral,
this hollow place to fill with something inside? And maybe this was why he traveled with
Henry, as much as anything could be, that his hunger remained so palpable? Newell followed
him and watched him and learned.
When Henry came to the bookstore during the day, he
would stay in the booths for a long time and then come out and tell Newell exactly what he
had done, and with whom, and often enough Newell could match Henry's description with
someone for whom he had made change. Henry liked to do almost everything you could do with
another man, including things he called rimming and going around the world, which had to
do with sticking his tongue into someone's butthole, and he described it graphically for
Newell one afternoon while Mac was upstairs with the girls.
"But doesn't it stink?"
Henry rolled his eyes. "That smell is heaven on
earth, honey.You don't know what you're talking about."
"You're making this up. Nobody would do
"I'm not making anything up." Henry always
spoke mildly, regardless of what he was describing or the effect the description had on
Newell. "It's fun. You'll see. You'll end up with your tongue up somebody; asshole
one of these days. We all do."
"Do you brush your teeth afterward or
"Don't be stupid."
"I mean it. It sounds so gross. I would have to
brush my teeth a hundred times."
Henry shook his head and shivered. "You'll find
He stood there with his mild white face like a moon
and his pale, lumpy body leaning against the booth where the tallest of the dildoes stood,
and he looked Newell up and down for a moment, as though he wanted to talk about something
else, then thought better of it and instead said good afternoon.
One night they were wandering in the warehouses again,
and Henry wanted Newell to stay and watch him, at least, this time. They wandered for a
long time through the shadows and at first it seemed there were not so many men, and then
they came to the maze, a place where low walls and partitions had been built, nearer the
street than the river, but with the upper floors torn up and the whole setting open to the
night sky, the haze of streetlight and the faint shimmering of one or two bright stars.
The sky so different from Pastel, walking at night in the field near the trailer park,
made him homesick for the first time that he could remember. A place where he could see
the stars, where the sky was black. Henry coughed, patted Newell on the back, handed him a
cigarette. They wandered into the narrowing space. Newell moved in a haze again, and
followed Henry and saw other men sliding past them. Henry rounded a bend of the maze and
Newell followed into a space where a man was already waiting, standing there, thick at the
hips and soft-waisted, slope-shouldered, with jowls and thinning hair, the kind of man
Henry went crazy for, and so Henry moved toward him and they started to touch each other,
and Henry looked back to make sure Newell was standing there, and Newell grinned and felt
the pleasant rush of the drug through his head, and Henry looked back at him as the man in
front of him was unzipping his pants and reaching inside, and Newell stood there and
watched for a while, till Henry forgot about him, and then wandered farther, doubling back
and taking another turn, another turn, a long narrow strip and then a room where something
was happening and he stood in the shadow as a witness.
In the space stood the white-faced man dressed all in
black, a black suit and black sweater, catching the little light there was and shimmering,
and with him was Rod the Rock, the man Newell thought of as Rod the Rock, especially now
as he stood in the fall of streetlight, in a place where he was framed against the open
dock and the Jefferson Bridge ablaze with light, his skin gleaming and bare, someone else
in front of him, someone dripping wet and pushing back his hair as though he had climbed
out of the river only a moment ago. Running his hand up and down Rod the Rock's chest,
hair sliding between his fingers, and then the man with no face slumping against one of
the support posts, leaning there while the two men in front of him twined round each
other, Rod the Rock reaching for the man, scooping his body close. Other people stopped to
watch, but Newell stayed hidden in the shadows, while the man devoured Rod the Rock, mouth
to mouth, taking control of him as if with a poison or a drug, Rod slumping against the
hard blonde and letting himself be backed against a wall, and then slapped, sharply,
across the face, and then slapped again, and then kissed, and more of this for a long
time, until they disappeared into a corner of the room that looked like a shadow Newell
waited for them to appear again but they never did.
He dreamed that night that he had seen the man rising
out of the river dripping with water, walking toward the shadows of the warehouses,
walking into the shadows and vanishing, and then seeing it again, the man rising out of
the river, climbing up the side of the dock like a spider, crossing the twilit space,
empty now, where ships once loaded and unloaded. In the morning he felt vaguely queasy,
and was glad to go to work and do the usual things. He changed the movie display and put
out different pictures of the new Bruno movie. People would think it was a different movie
and see it again. The night before, the shadows moving through it, had left a haze on him,
but hardly any more than that.
He picked up the newspaper that Mac had already read
and leafed through it, reading about a prayer vigil in hope for world ecology on the
square, and then about a party given by newlywed Louisa Huntington-McIvey, a pleasant
luncheon to honor the governor's wife on her birthday, at the stately Huntington home on
Chalmette Avenue, and a few pages further, a picture of Rod the Rock, or of the man Newell
had come to call Rod the Rock in his mind, only the caption under the picture read Herman
Lebeaux, and the story was about his murder, that he had been found dead in a house on
Chocowinity Street, the cause of death and motive unknown. Newell folded the paper and
laid it down. His heart was racing and he wondered if he would dare to read the article
again. In his mind he was seeing the blond man backing Rod -- backing Herman Lebeaux, as
it turned out -- against a wall, slapping him sharply, slapping him again, and Herman's
face thrown into shadow so that his expression could not be read at all.
It was as though he had seen the crime himself, as
though he had watched as casually as the man with no face, and when he did pick up the
newspaper and read the tiny article again, including the cryptic phrase that police were
investigating the murder scene, his hands were trembling and he felt as though he was
going to be sick. He stared at the picture, the same face that he had seen in the bars,
the same strong jaw and muscular neck, the same short-cropped hair, but wearing a shirt
and tie. Maybe it wasn't the same man after all? But no, Newell recognized the face, he
had stared at it often enough. So he was distracted by the thought of this crime all day,
and that evening for the first time his cash register came up thirty-nine cents short, and
Mac blinked at him in surprise, and said, "You feeling all right?"
"Yes sir. I don't know what happened."
"Thirty-nine cents ain't no big deal, but you
always come out to the penny. And you been acting funny since I got downstairs."
After work, with the streetlights coming on and the
streets filling with people, and the late October wind bringing a sharp chill, he walked
down Chocowinity Street till he came to the address noted in the newspaper, an apartment
house with the same ornamental ironwork on the balconies, the same closed shutters on the
windows facing the streets, the same locked gate leading to a private courtyard, as most
of the other houses on the street. Only the street number identified the house as the
scene of the crime reported in the newspaper. Newell walked home, but when he climbed the
stairs and faced his own doorway he could not bear to go inside, so he climbed down to the
street again and visited Miss Kimbro instead.
He had come to find her every bit as odd as time
passed, in terms of the richness of her oddities, as she had seemed when he first met her.
The bookstore, for one thing, puzzled him, because he knew from his own job that a
bookstore needed to make money, even one like Miss Kimbro's, and he hardly ever saw
customers inside her store, and hardly ever saw Miss Kimbro doing any of the work that he
himself did in the course of his own job, like unpacking boxes of magazines and pricing
them and checking inventory and restocking the shelves. Today she was standing behind her
counter with the big orange cat beside her, and she was reading an old novel with yellowed
pages. She offered him a cup of tea without saying a word or putting down the novel, which
she carried one-handed to the china teapot. The tea was like most of the tea she served
him, hot, with milk and sugar in it, so that it tasted rich and creamy, and he liked it
but was still becoming accustomed to the idea of tea that was hot when you drank it. She
had already added the milk and sugar, handing him the cup while she kept reading the book.
He stood there and presently picked up a book himself, James Joyce, and he read several
words of the first page but they didn't seem to be in the right order, and he read them
again and they still seemed that way, and so he put the book down and sipped his tea.
'That's a hard book," she said.
''I guess it is."
"How's your job going?" She kept the book
raised in front of her face so that he could not see her lips move.
"Fine. I like it."
"You must make plenty money, working the hours
like you do. You get that phone in your room?"
"Yes ma'am." He knew she was watching him,
so finally he pulled out the scrap of paper from his shirt, the newspaper article that he
had cut out and folded carefully and put there. "Did you see this?"
"In the paper? I don't read the paper, it's a
bunch of mess." She picked up the clipping and read it and looked at him. 'What about
it -- did you know him?"
The money he was earning worried him even as he spent
it. He bought new sheets and pillowcases and towels, a down comforter and a big electric
heater, he bought curtains for the windows and then bought paint and painted the room a
soft, bright yellow He bought new clothes, many pieces of which he was embarrassed to
wear, the shoes too fine for his feet, the shirts too soft. He sent money orders for fifty
dollars at a time to Flora and when he called, she gushed over him like he had really made
something of himself. "It's just a great bookstore," he answered one Sunday
afternoon when she asked him how he was making all that money selling books. "We got
people in and out the doors all day and all night."
"Well, I swan."
"I tell you what, Gramma, you and Jesse ought to
come down here. I can buy me a rollaway bed and you and him can sleep in my bed. You ought
"I'd love to get down there one of these
days," Flora answered, but in a noncommittal way.
He had tea with Miss Kimbro every so often, and she
sometimes took the occasion to remark on what a fine job he had done, turning that room
upstairs into a showplace. "You got it looking so nice up there, I ought to throw you
out and double the rent on the next fellow" she remarked, and from her expression it
would have been hard to decide whether she was serious.
"I been looking at a rug," Newell said.
"Yes ma'am. I got my eye on a nice braided one
down at Stearne's. You know where that is?"
She picked a bit of lint off her sweater and wrapped
it tight against her The damp December winds cut to the bone, and the puny gas heaters
were hardly enough to keep a room warm. "You ever read anything else about that
The memory flooded back, the night in the hunting
ground, and Newell was startled that he had let it slip so far away. "No, I never
read anything else."
"There was a little bit in the paper today. 'The
police are continuing the investigation into the murder of Herman Lebeaux, but there are
no leads." She laid the paper in his hand and he studied the article. Some murders
remained unsolved and people wanted somebody to investigate why there were so many People
were worried, a commission ought to be appointed, and among the cases was the death of Mr.
Lebeaux, found beaten and hanged on Chocowinity Street.
"Don't look like they're going to find any
"No, it doesn't," Miss Kimbro agreed. The
topic had made her moody and she was quiet for a while. When she spoke again, what she
said was "You could get a nice used Oriental rug, but I wouldn't buy it at
So he became disturbed again, but that night, like
many others, he waited in his room till nearly midnight, then dressed and went out
walking. He had bought a used leather jacket at a thrift store on Beale, the leather cut
the wind and the lining kept him snug, along with a pair of soft leather gloves. Odd, that
the feeling of the leather would please his hands so much, a clean caress. He roamed the
bars most often without Henry now, and he often felt as though he were on the verge of
something. In the disco that night, a man asked him to dance, a handsome man in
good-quality trousers and a starched shirt, a sweater tied around his shoulders, and
Newell started to say no because he knew this man would not like him, but the song was
something he liked, let me run let me run let me run, a long low moaning woman's voice,
and a beat that coursed through him, so he let the man lead him onto the floor and soon he
was moving among the others, thankful for the music. When the song changed, the man kept
dancing, and they stayed on the floor till late, the floor crowded by then, bodies pulsing
against one another. Newell could feel it in himself, the change that was coming, that he
was nearly ready now that something would happen soon. So he kept dancing that night, till
the beat was one long wave passing through his bones. When the man finally got tired he
tried to lead Newell to the bar but Newell got his jacket instead and headed outside, and
he never saw that man again.
He had become used to the territory by now, though
parts of it made him nervous. To reach the hunting ground, he had to walk through streets
that were altogether empty at night, where the buildings were mostly deserted. Some of the
streets were pitch dark, the lights broken or shot out; one night he had seen a car stop
underneath one of the high lamps and aim something upward and fire, a couple of shots to
find the range and then the light went dark, just like that, as the car sped away. He
walked with his hands in his pockets staring resolutely ahead, and when he reached Elyseum
he allowed himself to trot across the street.
He had explored the abandoned riverfront a long way in
the dark, and some of it he had visited by day, so that he knew it better now. The
entrance he liked best was the one marked "13" on the wide, broad doors of the
loading dock, because you could get to the big open rooms from there, and the places where
men fucked within sight of the river, almost out in the open; but you could turn another
way and find a labyrinth of what had once been offices, not the place where he had watched
Herman Lebeaux vanish but another place like it, and men congregated in the smaller spaces
here. He headed there tonight, and by now it no longer surprised him to find men, even in
the December cold, because that was part of the attraction, after all, to be here under
all weather, all circumstances, all hours of the day and night. He found the spot he
usually liked, hidden in the back of one of the rooms, and he waited till somebody brought
somebody else into the room, he could see only the shadow of the bodies, a single mass,
but he could hear them, he could hear the two men admiring each other, showing themselves
to each other, and he could hear their hands on each others' clothes, he could hear them
kissing, he could hear everything that happened after that. He could hear how the desire
changed the sound of their voices, so that they began by speaking in deliberate whispers
and ended with sounds that could not be made into words at all. Sounds that hardly seemed
human, and yet he had learned that nearly anybody could make them, given the chance.
He was falling toward that place in himself, he could
feel his descent. The process was compounded by the movies he watched at the bookstore,
the dreams he made up to stimulate himself in the dark. Now that he was used to the
bookstore he could feel the furtiveness of the customers, their awe as they entered their
perusing of the magazines as if they simply happened to be glancing in that direction, and
then the hand drawn downward slowly to touch one of the covers to turn the magazine to
lean whether the photographs on the back promised more. A certain look on the face
indicated whether the man would buy or not, a certain slackness came to the jaw and a
keenness to the eye. The grip of the hand on the magazine would change. Men chose their
movies with the same silence, the same fixedness, and Newell could feel them, late into
the night sometimes, drifting from booth to booth the same way bodies drifted back and
forth in the warehouses along the riverfront.
But he had never gone back to the booths. He had
stopped buying magazines for himself. He felt himself drifting nearer and nearer a place
in himself that would open out like a flower and cause the rest of him to be transformed,
but the pictures and the movies were no longer what he wanted.
He had begun to want something, and he had begun to
fear what it might be. In his bed at night he had begun to crave a thing beside him, with
him, not quite a person but a force, something that could at once protect him and consume
him, and though it made no sense this was what he felt. He had the image of himself
devoured within a great darkness that wrapped around him like the strongest arms.
When he studied Mac he wondered what the old man was
like when he climbed the stairs, when Dixie or Starla or one of the other girls met him
and took him into a room for a long, careful massage. He wondered what sounds Mac made,
what his body looked like, moving with the flow of pleasure through his nerves. By now
Newell had seen enough pictures, enough movies, so that he could imagine almost anything,
even Mac's white, soft body, his thin legs and flat ass.
"This business will make you think about fucking
all the time," Mac said one day, "to where you can't even stand it, to where you
don't even want to think about a naked woman," but that same day he crept up the back
steps to the massage rooms and disappeared for an hour and a half.
Miss Kimbro said to Newell one Sunday, during tea,
while he was licking a buttery biscuit crumb off the tip of his finger, "You do know
that I like women, don't you?"
"You like them?"
"Oh yes. I like them very much." She had
flushed a bit and seemed suddenly younger.
"Well, I did see you with a woman in here, once.
"Oh, you're telling a fib."
"You had her shoved against the back wall, and
you had your hands all over her. This nice-looking woman."
She blinked, then shrugged.
"Did you always like women?"
"Oh, yes. Even when I had a husband. He was a
very nice man, for a man, but he couldn't do anything about me."
A customer called her away and he sat with his teacup
cradled in his palms, the warm china along his skin. He liked that he could smell her when
she walked away, a hint of sweat with a sweetness to it, her flowery deodorant dissolving
into the air. He wondered what it would be like to be a woman and to kiss her. He wondered
what it would be like to desire her, but he could hardly imagine such a state.
Upstairs, alone, he spoke to himself in a quiet voice,
and even though he was alone the words unsettled him: "I like men. Did you know I
like men?" He said them aloud a couple of times and sat on the new chair he had
bought, beside the window where he could watch the street below.
He dressed carefully, imitating styles he had seen on
the streets and in the bars. He wore a tight white T-shirt with straps, tight jeans and a
flannel shirt. He inspected himself in the mirror and thought he had nice shoulders, nice
arms. He combed his hair the way his barber Chris had taught him. He touched behind his
ears with the cologne that smelled like clover when it's cut, and he stuffed some bills in
his pocket and locked his door. He thought he was good-looking, he carried that with him
down the steps, and he ought to know by now.
He avoided places where he would have found Henry,
visiting a couple of bars he had never seen before, then spent the late part of the
evening in a bar called Blacksmiths, on Telemachus Place. Men had been coming up to
him tonight and talking to him, he had been talking to them, he felt easy about it and he
wondered what the change was about, though he had his suspicions. In Blacksmith's he had
been sitting alone for a while when a man approached him and started talking to him, and
something about the moment made Newell aware of the man in a particular way, as though
taking his scent. This man had a strong face with a heavy shadow of beard, and his hair
was mixed black and gray, cut close to his head. He had a thick body, wide round
shoulders, the backs of his hands hairy and brown from sun, firm veins standing out. He
was as old as Jesse, Flora's boyfriend, or maybe a few years younger than that, but his
body was hard and lean, and he eased next to Newell at the bar to speak to him in deep
whispers, drawing closer as he spoke. What stuff he said! "You're about the prettiest
thing in this bar. You got the prettiest mouth. Do you know how pretty you are? I come
into town looking for something just like you. Can't believe there's a handsome thing like
you sitting in here all by yourself. Can't believe you don't belong to one of these men in
here, can't believe somebody doesn't already own you body and soul. I'd be the one to take
care of you if I lived around here. You know that, don't you? You feel that about me. But
I'm trapped. You know what I mean. I'm trapped in a life I can't escape. I have a wife and
kids and my wife suspects that this is what I really am, I mean this, here, this man in
front of you, thinking about what a beautiful thing you are, and my wife suspects this,
and I've had to hide it from her for all these years. It makes me crazy to want you like
this, in front of all these men. Don't you want to come with me? I want to take you
somewhere. Don't you have somewhere we can go? I can get us a room. I want to be with you.
This is crazy, the way this feels. Do you want another drink?" They drank another
drink and another and Newell stopped drinking after that, and listened, kept the man
close, felt himself wanting to get up from the stool to go with the man, while the night
deepened and the bar filled with men. His name was Jerry Thibodeaux and he was an
offshoreman home for a few days. His wife wanted him to stay home and kiss her ass but he
had to go out. His wife probably knew exactly where he was but he had no choice, he had to
find out if there was somebody waiting, and now he knew. By now he was pressed close
against Newell and when he talked he sometimes leaned in so that his lips brushed against
Newell's ear. The sensation was transfixing, worse than any alcohol, and when Newell laid
his hands on Jerry's chest, Jerry sagged against him and sighed and Newell felt a force
binding them, and when he moved his hands Jerry's eyes glazed, the power of it, all that
power flowing in Newell's hands.
He had come to the point, and now he moved. They would
not go anywhere, they would stay here, and he fixed on this immediately and knew it was
the right choice, though he was only choosing by instinct. He unbuttoned Jerry's flannel
shirt and slid his hands inside to ease it open, and it was like a movie as he moved, one
of the good ones, his hands easing open the shirt, the tight shot of the hard brown body,
the corded stomach, the thick, hairy chest, and then Jerry gripping him hard at the back
and Newell relaxing, like it was being filmed and he knew what to do. He knew it really
was a movie now because a space was clearing around them at the bar, as Newell opened
Jerry's shirt and reached his hands in Jerry's pants: the movie was about the hard, lean
older man and his need for the tender, choice young one in front of him, and Newell saw
the scenes in his head, everything coming together, the man's ginger kisses and then
Newell descending along his body, sliding down his pants, taking his soft tender tongue of
meat inside, kissing it till it grew and everybody was watching, and in the middle of the
action Newell saw himself as though he were one of the people standing and watching, and
he was amazed to see how much he had learned on the job at the bookstore, because he
copied the blow job perfectly. Jerry was sagging back against the bar with his hips going
up and down, that tension so perfect, so urgent, the cock rigid in Newell's mouth, Newell
moving on it, now slow now fast, people watching and some of them starting to grope each
other but most simply rapt at the live action. Only when Newell had to swallow the stuff,
or try to, did he falter, choking some and pulling back, then drying his mouth afterward
with a napkin the bartender handed him, with Jerry pulling himself back together while
some other men moved affectionately close to him and ran their hands along his body the
bartender brought Newell a drink on the house. Newell washed away the peppery taste in his
mouth, still smelling the mans crotch indescribably warm and yeasty. He sipped the
drink but felt his head clear, completely sober.
They would talk about the kid who gave the blow job at
the bar last night, did you see that? They were still staring at him to see what he would
Jerry was surrounded by his own admirers now, and
Newell walked away without saying good-bye, without responding to anybody, neither to the
man who groped him fore and aft nor the man who tried to stick his tongue in Newell's
mouth. He pushed them away and carried his drink to the door. He walked outside, rubbing a
hard spot of dried semen from the corner of his mouth, sipping the liquor and walking to
the river walk, where he listened to the ship's horns till nearly morning.