“Are You Lonesome Tonight?”
New York City, 1927
eft, right, left. Left, left, right, right, hop. Step forward, step back, hop, tip hat, blow the lady a kiss.
The steps were easy enough, the routine so committed to memory that Eddie could let a dozen other things swim through his mind without missing a beat.
He tossed his cane in the air and let it twirl. Light bounced off the polished silver shaft of it as the audience murmured appreciatively. Eddie caught it deftly, bowed a little, and moved his feet to the left, right, right, left, left, hop. He grinned at Marian, who stretched her arms above her head with grace, betraying her ballet training. Then she shuffled over to him, evidence of her years spent on the vaudeville circuit. She sang her lines in her trademark style, which sounded a bit like a goose honking, and the audience roared with laughter. She smiled and winked at him, and he grinned back and sang the end of the song. Left, right, forward, together, a flourish from the horn section of the orchestra. Then there were deep bows before the curtain fell. Applause erupted throughout the James Theater. Eddie and Marian did their goofy curtain call before retreating backstage.
Thus ended Eddie Cotton and Marian France’s act in
Le Tumulte de Broadway
, more informally Jimmy Blanchard’s Doozies of 1927, the variety act that was competing with George White and Flo Ziegfeld for ticket dollars and popularity. The song-and-dance team of Cotton and France was among the more popular acts. They were a comedy duo who told jokes, danced their way through physical comedy, and sang funny songs in funny voices. That year, they preceded the Doozy Dolls, fourteen barely-dressed chorines hired more for their looks than their dancing or singing skills.
While the Dolls paraded around on stage, Eddie walked back to his dressing room, Marian trailing behind him. She was already pulling off her shoes, and she padded past Eddie in stockinged feet. “I cannot wait to get out of here tonight,” she said.
“Hot date?” Eddie asked.
“Hardly.” Marian rolled her eyes, and then paused near the door of her dressing room. “I’m exhausted and my tootsies are killing me. I’d cut my feet off if it didn’t mean Mr. Blanchard would fire me.” She looked at Eddie, who chuckled. “What about you?”
“Nothing planned for tonight. Figure I’ll just go home and sleep so we can do all this again tomorrow.”
Marian smiled and kissed his cheek. “Good night, Eddie.” Then she retreated into her dressing room and slammed her door in his face.
Eddie went to his room to change. He wasn’t the least bit tired. No, his ailment was much worse: he was horny.
His restlessness had been building for days, starting as an itch and progressing to an all-out yearning, an uneasiness that wouldn’t be quenched by Eddie pushing his needs aside.
He considered his options as he changed out of his costume and slid into a pair of brown trousers and a white cotton shirt. He could go home and forget about it. He could keep his regular appointment with his right hand. Or he could find someone who would help him take the edge off.
He washed the stage makeup off his face and examined his reflection in the mirror. He hadn’t shaved in a couple of days, something Mr. Blanchard had taken exception to before showtime that day. The stubble looked like bronze dust on his otherwise pale jaw. His eyes looked tired. Eddie let his fingers dance over the black powder he kept on hand for the occasions when Blanchard wanted him to do blackface—thankfully, rare these days—and then dusted some over his eyes. He liked the effect, which created rings around his eyes and made him look a little less rosy and innocent, as he tended to present in his normal life. He grabbed his fedora from the shelf in the corner and plopped it on his head. He pulled the brim down so it hid his eyes. He thought himself hard to recognize as he posed in the mirror, his eyes hidden, his chin shadowed.
Mind made up, he slipped out of his dressing room and then out of the stage door, onto 41st Street. The cool spring air bit his exposed skin, but he liked it, liked the contrast to the sweltering lights of the stage. He adjusted the brim of his hat and walked.
He fingered the money clip in his pocket, tried to remember how much cash he had on hand. Behind him, he could hear a roar of applause from one of the theaters, though whether it was from the Doozies or one of the productions in the four other theaters nearby, Eddie couldn’t tell. It didn’t much matter. He was about to leave that world—the dancers, the lights, the laughter, the applause, the cute little families out for a night of entertainment—to go to a much darker place.
He walked east. The lights of Times Square seemed to fade as he left them behind, and then he was standing on one side of Sixth Avenue, the elevated train platform separating him from Bryant Park. He pulled the brim of his hat down a little farther and looked around. There was a man standing against a pillar, the train platform above casting striped shadows over his body. He was tall and thin with an elegant stance. A cigarette dangled from his long fingers, and he would occasionally lift it up to his lips and take a drag. He wore a dark coat and had a bright red scarf tied around his neck.
, Eddie thought.
Maybe this will be easier than I expected
He approached slowly. Julian was looking at something in the distance, but he turned his head when Eddie got close. There was something wary in his eyes. Eddie lifted his hat so Julian could see his face, and something like relief showed over those delicate features before a wide grin spread across Julian’s face.
“Dearest Edward. Funny meeting you here.”
“How are you, Julian?”
“Marvelous.” He took a long drag from his cigarette before dropping it and smothering it with the tip of his shoe. “You looking for something?”
Julian nodded. “There’s a new boy in my employ. He fancies himself my apprentice. He’s over by the library. I can fetch him, if you like.”
“I don’t want a boy,” Eddie said.
Julian smiled. “I know, darling. I was just offering.” He reached over and stroked Eddie’s arm.
Up close, Eddie could see the makeup caked on Julian’s face, designed to make him look much younger than he really was. Eddie had known Julian for a while, but had never been able to ascertain his actual age. If he had to guess, he’d put Julian in his late thirties. Under the makeup, Eddie knew, there were crow’s feet and frown lines. Strands of silver ran through his body hair, though the hair on his head was, of course, bleached blond.
Eddie looked at the aging fairy and saw that he was tired and underdressed for the weather. “You want a warm place to sleep tonight, Julian?”
“I would, yes,” Julian said quietly.
Eddie crooked his finger so that Julian would follow. Julian pushed off the pillar and fell into step next to Eddie, who walked back toward Times Square along 40th Street.
“Dinner?” Eddie asked.
“No, darling, I already ate. An older gentleman named Roberto takes me to Sardi’s every Thursday and buys me dinner just for the pleasure of watching me eat.”
Eddie glanced at Julian. He could imagine that watching him eat would be quite a pleasure. He thought Julian beautiful, but of course couldn’t say that. Men were not beautiful. Julian would probably joke that he was something else, but Eddie thought him a man in all the ways that counted, in all the ways that he needed to ease the tension and longing that had built up in his body.
“You’re still at the Knickerbocker?” Julian asked.
“Yes. I’d prefer to go in through the Broadway entrance.” Which was not through the main lobby where everyone could see what Eddie was up to.
“Of course.” Julian fiddled with his scarf. “Fancy digs or not, my usual fee still applies. Don’t stiff me.” Julian paused and then chuckled. “Well, not monetarily, anyway.”
Later, as Eddie lay awake in bed, contemplating the décor in his relatively modest room with Julian sound asleep and snoring softly beside him, he reflected on how he felt physically satisfied but empty at the same time.
The loneliness was familiar, was a comfort in its way. The knowledge that Julian would be gone in a few hours, that this room and its silence would be waiting for Eddie after the noise of the theater the next night, that life would carry on as it had been, these were all things he could trust and rely on, and a thousand days played out before him in his mind, days of the same. Eddie liked routine, thrived within the confines of it, but could he really go so long without change?
Julian stirred in his sleep. Eddie shuffled over in the bed and pulled the quilt up to his chin, careful not to let their bodies touch.
He chastised himself for his own fear of change. He glanced over at Julian’s sleeping form and let himself imagine what it would be like if they forged some kind of partnership. He’d met other men like himself over the years, men who lived together or had some kind of permanent relationship. He even knew a few husbands. Having worked in the theater for a number of years, he encountered homosexual men almost daily, and often they acknowledged each other without much fanfare, which was just as well. Eddie wanted people to notice him for his dancing or his comedic chops; he didn’t want them to notice after whom he lusted.
So he kept his little secret tucked away in the hidden corners of the city.
Julian stirred again. He woke and looked at Eddie. “You’re awake.”
“Such heavy thoughts you must have to be wearing such a serious expression.” Julian leaned over and ran a hand down Eddie’s chest. “Maybe I can help unburden you.”
Eddie sighed. He gently moved Julian’s hand back to the other side of the bed. “Thanks, but not right now.”
Julian rolled onto his back. “You should know, I might have to move.”
“I adore you, you know that I do. I’m always glad when you wander over to the park. But I’m not sure how much longer you’ll be able to find me there. Some club on Sixth didn’t pay off their local law enforcement, so a raiding party got themselves worked up into a good frenzy a couple of days ago. They came to the park and arrested everyone who wasn’t dressed like he was on the way to a funeral.”
“No, I was visiting with a gentleman at the Hotel Astor, but my dear friend Jesse told me all about it. You’ll know Jesse, of course. He’s the fellow with the proclivity for violet.”
Eddie had no idea to whom Julian referred, but he nodded.
“Not that I haven’t been arrested before,” Julian added.
“So where are you moving to?”
“I don’t know yet, darling. And it may not even be a problem. But should you come to the park looking for something, you may not find it there for much longer.” Julian rubbed a hand over his face. “Can I leave word for you somewhere?”
That seemed like a terrible idea. “No. I’ll find you, I’m sure.” But even if he didn’t, Eddie was surprised that the prospect of not seeing Julian again was not too dire.
And what did that say about Eddie?
“Maybe I should go,” Julian said, sitting up.
In the moonlight streaming through the window, Julian appeared to be an entirely different creature, less an effeminate affectation and more an actual man in his late thirties, a man who worked for a living, who had dreams deferred and given up on, who had come here tonight to do a job. Eddie wondered how much of Julian was real and how much was an act. As a rule, Eddie had long been fascinated by the fairy men who occupied the streets of New York, the queens who talked like women and dressed like them sometimes, too. He had never found them especially attractive—in fact, looking at a fairy sometimes brought shame, because Eddie, behind all other things, was a man who lusted after men the way he was supposed to lust after women. But here was Julian, thin and willowy, but with short blond hair on his head, and long limbs and broad shoulders. He had a pattern of blond hair on his flat chest that was unrelentingly masculine, and a large cock, of course, which was part of his appeal to Eddie just to begin with.
And Eddie found himself lusting again.
“You don’t have to go,” he told Julian, and he reached over and ran a hand over Julian’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be mean, I just have a reputation . . .”
“I understand, darling. Of course I understand. I didn’t mean to imply . . .”
“I just . . .”
Eddie frowned. “I need to keep my job. I’ve worked so hard.”
“I need to keep mine, too.”
Eddie sighed. “If you have to leave the park, I will find you. Or you can find me. I go to the club at the Astor sometimes.”
“Where the sailors hang out.”
Julian smirked. “I suppose that you are a man of sophistication. You like the trade. The big brawny men, the soldiers of fortune.”
Eddie couldn’t deny that. “I like to look at them, yes.”
“And fuck them. I like to, too.”
Eddie sighed. It was hard to believe he was having this conversation.
“But you don’t want me to find you,” Julian said. “It doesn’t matter, I just thought . . . well, I figured you liked me.”
“I do like you, Julian.” Or Julian was a good companion for tonight. For any night. He had a working knowledge of men’s bodies that could not be rivaled, and he could make Eddie forget his problems and his loneliness.
But was there anything more lonely than lying in bed next to a man who would take your money and leave in the morning?
Eddie sat up and pulled his legs up to his chest. He knew, too, that part of Julian’s seeming affection now was borne of the fact that, when their encounters were over, Eddie didn’t beat the shit out of Julian. In the thin white light that flooded the room, Eddie could see the bruises on Julian’s torso from the last john who’d felt the need to prove his masculinity by pounding his fists into the effete object of his affection. Eddie wasn’t sure if he should feel reassured by that, if it was a good thing that he made Julian feel safe.