Saturday, December 24, 1932
First Night of Chanukah
With hats pulled tight around their heads and hands shoved deep in their coat pockets, pedestrians bustled up and down Lexington Avenue. Joshua pulled his Burberry scarf around his nose and mouth to guard against the biting wind and stepped out of Bloomingdale's into the rush of people.
Set apart from the horde, a number of casual strollers admired the Christmas display in the store's windows. One mannequin dressed in holiday attire held up a newspaper bearing the photo of the newly elected president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt would take office at the beginning of March 1933. In the meantime, the country held its breath, waiting and praying for an end to the dark days of the past three years.
Joshua stuffed his mother's Chanukah gift into the pocket of his watch coat. Someone would snatch the half-dollar earrings if given the chance. The first night of Chanukah began at sunset, just as Shabbat ended. The Jewish papers were again full of advertisements for chocolates and toy trinkets. The movement to sell Chanukah as an alternative to Christmas in a "Look at all the gifts; eight days of gifts!" enthusiasm found its stride when Joshua was in his late youth. As a boy, Joshua had known only a few families who marked it; his own had done it without the blessings and focused on chocolate, candles, and dreidel-spinning. He had preferred exchanging secular Christmas gifts with his school friends. However, his mother had started taking in lodgers. Now children lived in the house again, so Chanukah had been revived at home, for the first time with the full complement of blessings, singing, and food.
After growing up secular, Joshua had reclaimed some of his Jewish identity during the War, a result of not wanting to die without knowing his heritage. He had no particular desire to keep kosher or acknowledge Shabbat beyond lighting candles and eating challah bread and drinking wine, but he also no longer felt that exchanging Christmas presents with his friends was appropriate.
Joshua's shoulders thrust back of their own accord, his hips and feet snapped themselves into a perfect line, and he schooled his face against expressing the turmoil that grabbed him in response to that shout. Joshua saw them on the streets sometimes, the men in his unit. Some of them were missing legs; Isaac Schwartz, he'd lost an eye; Benjamin Bakker, his left foot. "Hey, Captain," they'd call. "Remember me?"
It had only been fourteen years. Of course he remembered them. He remembered every single one, including those who were no longer there to call to him. Especially those men.
It was Isaac. He gave Joshua a lopsided smile--the result of his facial injury--and held an apple out. "Best one, Captain," he said. "Picked it just for you."
As Joshua approached, men at identical plywood stands loaded down with apples tried to lure him away, but Joshua kept his focus on Isaac. "Here." Joshua handed him a dime and received the apple. He tucked it into his empty pocket. "Thank you." He reached out to shake Isaac's hand, but Isaac saluted instead. He had been handsome once. It wasn't his eye that took away his beauty, but the hard times that followed. With the old familiar guilt inside him, Joshua returned the gesture.
"It's good to see you again, Captain."
"Take care of yourself," Joshua said. He turned toward the subway entrance, eager to get away.
He almost wished they'd ask him for something, but they never did. He could give them money. He had money: more than they had, at least. What he couldn't do was return their smiles or pretend to be as delighted to see them as they were to see him. He would wave, call them by name to show he remembered, and walk on as he heard them say to his back, "Great man. Best captain a fellow could hope for."
Joshua hadn't come out unscathed. A bullet nicking the back of his leg had gifted him with a limp. Most days he could hide it, but when he felt tired, or the rain came down, he needed his cane.
His family lost their fortune in April 1932 when Samuel Insull's company collapsed. Joshua hadn't realized that his parents, Chicago natives, had had so much money tied up in the utility magnate's empire. On the heels of that blow, his father lost his job at Columbia University, but found another teaching philosophy at Harvard. He moved up to Cambridge in June, promising to send money. He hadn't sent anything, not even a note. The good thing, the saving grace, was that they owned their house. It had been Joshua's idea to convert it into a boarding house. He had moved out of his Washington Square Park apartment to help with it.
Things were tight, even with the house full, and for a while Joshua found himself playing the role of the heavy, knocking on doors and saying, "Pay up or get out." Most of those tenants tried to argue with him, got high and mighty because they were just like his family--the money was gone but not the attitude. These were the ones diving off buildings. Sometimes Joshua worried that his younger brother Asher would be like that, except that Asher seemed oblivious to their change in state. Despite being almost thirty years old, Asher still lived at home. He was as cocky as ever, and Joshua had stopped thinking that it was an act so their mother wouldn't worry. It seemed more like willful ignorance.
They had family dinner every night and for a small fee added on to the price of the room, the lodgers could join them. Asher acted like life was a game, and in a way Joshua was jealous of that. His mother had paraded him around in his uniform once he got back. She was putting him up as marriageable material. A lot of the fellows were going around in their uniforms picking up wide-eyed girls who wanted to hear heroic stories. Joshua discovered that if he pretended to care about a girl, he could buy himself "recovery" time between her and the next one. His mother thought he was healing his broken heart. He saw it as a reprieve from wearing the mask that only he and a select few other men could see. It wasn't until he lived in his own apartment that he was able to keep the company he wanted. His landlady didn't allow a man to take a woman into his rooms, but she wouldn't bat an eye at another man.
Moving back home, he'd had to put the mask back on. It was why he was thankful for the little spot on Fifty-Third. A quiet drink, a nice sit-down with the fellows, and Flo singing--that was his idea of a good evening.
It was early yet, not quite two in the afternoon, but the club would be open, even on Christmas Eve. He could go in for a quick drink and be home in time for candle lighting at four. Bypassing the subway entrance, he headed west toward Park Avenue, crossed over it and Madison, and turned down Fifth. From there, it was less than five minutes' walk. Shorty's Club was unmarked on the outside, no different from the brownstones bracketing it. Inside, it was a decadent paradise with a touch of class. Joshua knocked and whispered the password (a farce--anyone could get in if he showed enough cash) and slipped inside. It was dark, lit only by the candles on the tables, plus a gaslight over the bar and the spotlight on the stage. He signaled to Johnny for a glass of his usual and took his table against the wall a few feet from the stage. Sometimes someone sat down beside him, and a hand might wander where it shouldn't, and a soft voice asked him to buy her a drink, or a deeper voice requested the time. Sometimes he went along with it. Depended on the hand. The girls figured out after a while that as ratios went, they'd have a better chance with someone else.
He nodded at one of the regulars. Another lay slumped over his table, face buried in his arm. Joshua usually came into the club feeling a tired kind of good, but he didn't feel it now. Flo hadn't slid her rich voice into "How About Me" yet, even though she perched on her stool next to the piano with her knee up just enough to make the slit in her dress fall a little and give the men a hint of smooth caramel-colored leg.
When Johnny brought Joshua's drink, he held on to the glass until their fingers touched. Joshua let the connection linger a bit before pulling away.
"All right, darling?" Johnny asked. He bent to wipe the table with the towel tucked into his apron string.
"Yeah," Joshua said. He could have told Johnny the truth. Johnny was a good egg. However, if he told him that he felt empty, Johnny would probably just welcome him to the party.
Halfway through his first glass, he figured it out. Every day for as long as Joshua had come to the club, there had been a man on the corner of Fifty-Sixth and Fifth across from Childs Restaurant playing a battered guitar with aplomb, smiling and nodding at people as he belted out "Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue." Because of his tendency to sing this song, Joshua had nicknamed him "Blue." Sometimes, Blue couldn't be seen through the crowd of people rushing past, but Joshua always heard him. Whenever he bought one of the pancakes that Childs made fresh in their window, he lingered at their picnic tables to listen while he ate. On those occasions, he made sure to give Blue a dime. Blue didn't stop singing, but he'd smile with his brown eyes, and Joshua would walk away feeling warm.
Today Blue was not there. Joshua could blame it on the early hour. Or the holiday. Maybe Blue had family to celebrate with. Still, having his routine interfered with was odd; acknowledging that Blue was part of that routine, when he rarely thought about him otherwise, was more strange.
Funny how he had never connected Blue's unabashed delivery of that frustratingly catchy song to his own good mood. Flo asked "Why Was I Born?" from the stage. Joshua drained the brandy at his fingertips.
He caught Johnny looking at him, so Joshua got up and went over to the bar to stand beside him. He bumped against Johnny's hip, and Johnny reached over to touch his waist. "Twenty minutes," Johnny said. Then he pulled his hand away, and he acted like Joshua wasn't beside him. Joshua slid past, and signaled to Shorty for another drink, violating his one-drink rule. He blamed it on his mood. On Blue not being there and throwing him off.
He and Johnny had a thing. He wasn't sure what to call it. They were friends for sure, had dabbled at something more, but it hadn't worked out. But Johnny was willing and pliable, and Joshua supposed he was the same. Johnny didn't care about money or anything that went along with it. He never talked about the Crash or the War or Joshua's family losing their money or Johnny's family kicking him out after he got arrested for "perversion," caught red-assed when a suspicious landlord called the police after noticing that he never had female visitors but that men went through his apartment like it had a revolving door. Discretion was not one of Johnny's strong points.
Sometimes Joshua thought about asking Johnny to keep his eye out for work, since Johnny surely got wind of opportunities given the diverse clientele at the club. Joshua had a master's degree in history from Columbia University and worked as a tutor, but his students were dropping. He was down to two. The kind of work Johnny might find for him would undoubtedly be different, but as long as it wasn't too physical or illegal, Joshua was open to almost anything. His mother needed him to help her run the house, though, which was a job in itself. With his new drink, Joshua went back to his table to wait for Johnny to finish.
"Sing us something sweet, pretty little whore." Joshua turned and saw the man who had been sleeping now on his feet, swaying.
Flo stopped singing as soon as the jibe was thrown out. It was true that actresses, singers, and prostitutes--women in lipstick--were regarded as one and the same, but that didn't mean a person could go around hurling insults. There was a second of silence. Then she asked, "What did you say?" And the word was shouted again, this time with a mocking laugh behind it. Flo sauntered off the stage down to the man's table, picked up his drink, and tossed it in his face. She walked right past him out the door. For another minute, no one moved.
Shorty came out from behind the bar and grabbed the man. "Come back when you know how to treat a lady," he said as he tossed him out.
Flo returned five minutes later in a different dress. She sashayed back to the stage and sang "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" as if nothing had happened. After, she came and sat down across from Joshua.
"You shouldn't have to put up with that," he said.
"Seems to me I didn't."
"I meant it shouldn't happen."
She shrugged. "Honey, that's life."
Joshua ignored his budget even more to buy her a drink. "So, Captain," she said, "you ever had chocolate in bed?"
It took him a few seconds to figure out what she was talking about. "No, ma'am." He drawled it out, not serious. There had been some whisperings that Flo did this--not that she was a whore, God no, but that if she liked a fellow well enough, she might take him up to her room--so he wasn't too surprised when she squeezed his hand there on the table.
"No, not you. You're a friend of Mr. Porter, I think," she said, meaning Cole, who had a wife he didn't sleep with and men that he did, if rumors were believed. Flo sat back and looked at him as if he were an object of curiosity.
Joshua smiled, trying to cast off the feeling that he was being read. He looked down at the shadows the candle flame cast across the table. "Never heard it put that way before."
"Well, there you are," Flo said. She patted his hand and got up, taking her glass with her as she returned to the stage. Joshua noticed Johnny standing near the door that led to the back staircase. Leaving his glass on the table, he pushed a dollar under it, pulled his coat on, and got up.
Going up the stairs, he kept his hand on Johnny's back, just above his waistband. Johnny's trousers were too big, held up by suspenders and gapping at his waist. Joshua slipped his fingers in and rubbed the small of Johnny's back.
"Not yet," Johnny said. He tugged Joshua's hand out as he opened the door to one of the rooms. Joshua followed him in and glanced around, took in the couch, a sideboard set with bourbon in a crystal decanter and two glasses. A small table with chairs on either side was positioned beneath the window. Johnny pulled away, stripped his suspenders down his arms. He pulled a tin of oil from his trouser pocket and let them fall. "Come on," he said. "Don't have much time before I have to get downstairs again." He opened the tin and began preparing himself as he bent forward over the back of the couch.
Joshua opened his trousers, focusing on the small of Johnny's back, pale and smooth below the hem of his shirt. When Johnny reached backward for his wrists, Joshua allowed himself to be tugged forward to place his hands on Johnny's hips. In moments, his troubled thoughts drifted away, replaced with warmth and heat as he leaned over Johnny, his chest to Johnny's back, and pressed into him. He moved his hips as Johnny sighed and went slack beneath him.
"Forgot how big you are," Johnny said.
To Joshua's haze-muddled ears, it sounded like he was underwater. For a moment, he remembered Jones, who had drowned crossing a river in France, swept away by the current. His shouts still echoed in Joshua's dreams. Joshua squeezed Johnny's hips, using the pressure to push the memory away and fall into the safety of nothing again. "You say that every time. I might start getting a big head."
"Why not? You've already got a big--"
The door crashed open, probably helped by a boot, and swallowed the rest of Johnny's sentence.
Joshua's pleasant feeling disappeared, swept away by tight fear. He couldn't be arrested. Could not be. It would ruin his family's reputation, and if he were put into the workhouse, what would they do? He didn't dare turn around, praying instead that whoever was at the door would leave. "I... I have money," he said. "I can pay if you'll just go...." Quite a few fellows had gotten out of shackles by greasing a cop's palm. Joshua wasn't above it, not when he knew the stakes. He kept his grip on Johnny's arms, tight like he couldn't let go--he was scared to try in case it proved true. Meanwhile, Johnny had gone rigid beneath him. Looking down at the tensed shoulders, Joshua felt a sliver of guilt breaking through the fear. The workhouse would be worse for Johnny than for Joshua. It was a small miracle that Johnny had come out the first time unscathed. A second time might undo him. Joshua wanted to say something that would give him some relief, but couldn't do anything with the prospect of his own future staring him down. If anything, he squeezed Johnny's arms tighter.
"Captain?" The voice that had shouted before now sounded uncertain, almost frightened. Joshua raised his head. He didn't have to turn around to see the man it belonged to in order to recognize him; Corporal Lewis had shouted in his ear often enough in the trenches to earn a permanent place in Joshua's memory. Lewis had been frightened then too, but brave and precise as well. He went over the top of the trench more than once to drag back men trying to desert. He believed in rules, followed them as closely as he followed the tattered Bible he kept with him. With Lewis finding him, Joshua was fucked; that was the short of it. Lewis would never accept a bribe. The only way out of this was through the courts. He held on to Johnny a moment longer, grasping for his unashamed life as it crumbled away. Finally unable to put off the inevitable, he fitted a mask of confidence onto his face and turned to his former subordinate.
"If you're going to arrest me, Corporal, wait until I've finished, would you?" He used his most commanding voice and hoped it would have the same effect here as it had in the trenches.
Johnny began to rise up from his bent position over the back of the couch. Joshua petted his arms and soothed him back down. Johnny looked warily over his shoulder toward the corporal and then at Joshua. He squeezed his buttocks tighter around Joshua, pulling him deeper inside him, as if signaling his agreement to go along with whatever Joshua had in mind. Joshua had nothing in mind outside of asserting a long-forgotten authority. He could only pray that it would be enough. His hips snapped forward of their own volition until he was spent and soft as his mind raced, searching for options to get both himself and Johnny out of the situation with their names untarnished. Joshua reached completion after what seemed like interminable minutes.
Peeling himself from Johnny's body, he turned around. He faced his former subordinate with his cock hanging wet and half-limp out of his trousers. Corporal Lewis flicked his gaze downward, nervous, but gathered himself and snapped his focus back up to Joshua's face. Joshua pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket to clean himself before he buttoned up.
Joshua looked over to see Johnny standing up and tentatively flexing as if to remind his muscles what the upright position felt like. He pulled his trousers from the couch and began to dress too, keeping his face averted from Lewis's.
"Now look, Corporal," Joshua said, using Lewis's former title and not the "sergeant" his policeman's uniform afforded him. If he was to get out of this, Lewis needed to remember their relationship. He waited until Lewis looked at him before he continued, even though this meant that Lewis now had Johnny in his line of sight and was watching him dress--a circumstance that didn't seem to please either of them. "You can arrest me if you like, but I would appreciate it if you would leave my friend alone. We were all young once, and obviously he's just made a mistake." Despite his bravado, Joshua felt his cheeks heating as he spoke. Given the frequency with which he entered into these situations, he'd always known he would one day be caught. He hadn't expected to be bare-assed in front of one of his men, though.
He glanced at Johnny and saw that Johnny had finished dressing and stood with his hands clasped behind him like a schoolboy. Joshua had never seen him so silent.
"Get out," Lewis said. Joshua didn't know who he was talking to, and from the way Johnny dug his heel into the carpet, he guessed that Johnny was uncertain as well. "You," Lewis said, which wasn't a clarification, but he pointed at Johnny a second later, and Johnny darted out of the room without a glance at Joshua. He slipped past Lewis without touching him. Lewis came into the room and shut the door.
"I haven't paid him," Joshua said, "so you can't arrest him on prostitution or anything like that."
"No one's going to arrest him. We're here for the booze. Shorty knows the routine." Although the door was closed, Lewis remained where he had been. Joshua forced himself into movement and dragged his feet over to the wall, where he poured himself a drink from the sideboard.
"Are you going to arrest me for this?" He held the glass up without looking at Lewis.
"No," Lewis said from behind him. "If I did, I'd have to arrest every person in the city."
"Good." He made one for Lewis too, more out of a need to keep his back turned for a few seconds longer than any call toward manners. He put it on the table nearest to Lewis and stepped away.
"You look good," Joshua said. He gestured toward Lewis with a halfhearted wave. His confidence slipped down with the grimace that reached Lewis's mouth. "I don't mean.... Given the context in which we find ourselves, I hope you won't take anything inappropriate from that comment." The bourbon slid down his throat. It did nothing for him but gave him an excuse to stop speaking for a moment. "It's been a long time, is all I meant. I didn't know you'd joined the police. I'm not surprised." Protecting the men beside him had been second nature to Lewis in the trenches. "I imagine you're good at it."
"I enjoy it." Lewis didn't seem as locked into place as he had been. Joshua supposed this was a slight relief. "I knew," Lewis said. "I've known since Paris."
It took Joshua a moment to realize that Lewis wasn't talking about wanting to be a police officer. "You knew?" he asked.
"You remember? We had a few hours of leave, and a group of the fellas went to a bordello. You didn't go, even though they invited you, and we all knew you didn't have anyone waiting for you at home. That's when I started suspecting."
He remembered. He had gone to see Jean-Paul instead, a boy he'd met in a bakery on his first leave in Paris and returned to visit each leave afterward. "And the others? Did they suspect?"
Lewis shrugged. "I told them it was something to do with your religion. Jews having different views on sex than Christians."
A flutter of ruefulness touched Joshua's mood. He'd taken his share of anti-Semitism in the army, even as an officer. He pushed it away, as always. "I don't know that that's true. Seems to me that Christians are the ones hung up on sex."
"It stopped them from thinking you were an invert," Lewis said, as matter-of-fact as ever.
"And what do you think of me now, Corporal?" Joshua let a hint of challenge touch his tone.
Lewis straightened slightly. "I think that you led me through battle time after time and that I am alive because of your leadership and bravery. Sir."