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"Don’t Mention His Name, And His Name Will Pass On
- Part 2"
Title: Don’t Mention His Name, and His Name Will Pass On—Part 2 of 8
Author: Virginia Plain
Genre/Pairing: Mike/Peter (TV, but I did cheat and slip in one real-life guy)
Rating: overall NC-17 (this part PG-13)
Warnings: slash, language, angst, sleaze
Disclaimer: This story is purely the result of my imagination (which should probably worry me), and not at all any claim to ownership of these TV characters or their real-life counterparts.
Summary: This chapter—getting to know you.
~SEPTEMBER 1963 ~
“Those leaves of brown came tumbling down, I remember, in September…”
Mike tried to chase away memories of that corny old song his ma used to love, but it was preferable to anything he was hearing now. Having nothing better to do, and in increasingly urgent need of an alternative, he’d taken a stroll way off his patch down to MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village. The sounds spilling out from the clubs and coffeehouses confirmed what he’d already suspected: another three months gone and still New Yorkers were all into folk and jazz. The only glint of encouragement was the lack of Broadway… Then again, Broadway had never been much of a factor in the Village anyway. It was still irritatingly alive and well in Midtown, so no real hope there either.
Despite the fact that he still lacked a real job, a proper stage costume, or an instrument, he’d had no choice but to try and crack this scene yet again. His living situation was becoming more precarious as the year dragged on. Squatting in a condemned tenement on the Upper West Side had been no picnic in the summer, though it beat living in a parking lot. No electricity, no AC, no heat, but at least the water hadn’t been disconnected yet. Come winter, that might not even matter—the pipes would probably freeze. He only had a few more months to get something sorted out.
Assuming the building wasn’t knocked down altogether before then. You could never tell. Municipal bureaucracy being what it was, the tenement site could sit idle forever then suddenly you might come home one day to find you had no home, courtesy of the wrecking ball. It wasn’t like you got advance notice, since as far as the city was officially concerned nobody lived in those places anyway. Nor was it a theoretical pitfall: Mike was already on his third such flat.
It had been a real sucker punch, that first time. He’d already been rattled, having just lost his guitar and not yet being quite used to the life or its many varied experiences. To shamble home after untold hours of useless standing around on 42nd Street, only to find that his few remaining possessions had been reduced to a pile of rubble… The temptation to just roll over and quit was strong. But he was not going to let this fucked-up zoo of a city beat him. He would endure. Within twenty-four hours he’d found another tenement doomed to slow death by civic decree, and the cycle began again.
The thought of having to do it all over again a fourth time, though… No, he had to get some money. If he couldn’t get it by capitalizing on his assets, as it were, then he’d just have to face the almost equal humiliation of trying once more to play his music for these stuck-up folkie assholes who hated it. Surely one of the basket places had house instruments to loan out. Surely just one of these Village snobs would lend him a guitar, just for one set—
“Out of the way, man,” some bearded beatnik guy shoved past him. “You think you own the sidewalk?”
I hate this town...
Suddenly the jangling sound of a banjo cut through the impenetrable wall of folkiness. Mike’s ears tuned in at once. God, he hadn’t heard a banjo since—well, since before New York. And he’d never heard it played like this: urgent, even breathless… if a non-wind instrument could be said to have breath. The song wasn’t folk, and it wasn’t country either. He couldn’t classify it at all; it was its own thing. All he could tell was that it got your foot tapping and that, to his surprise, he kind of liked it.
He followed those jangling rolls and drones down the street, trying to find the source. As he got closer, he started to wonder if the damn song had any lyrics at all. Nobody was singing or—wait, what the hell is that?! Whistling? Somebody was whistling along with the banjo. Not weak, hollow whistling, either, but strong and sure, rising and falling in perfect accompaniment. Somebody really knew how to put their lips together and blow…
Eventually Mike found himself in front of a coffeehouse, no different from the others. He snorted at the name of the place: Say What? read the rainbow letters above the door. How pretentious could you get!
The doors and windows were all open, no doubt trying to let in some of the fresher night air. Mike spied some ceiling fans, but they probably weren’t accomplishing much more than pushing the smoke around. From what he could see, the interior of the club looked the same as most of the folkie joints around here: ornate dark wood everywhere, tiny little round tables and flimsy little wire chairs, knockoff “artsy” paintings on the walls, those little porcelain coffeepots dotting every flat surface. And the patrons, of course, were all done up in beatnik sweaters and berets and goatees, pulling on cigarettes both regular and non-standard brands, all wrapped up in their own posing. And there in a corner was the live entertainment, sandy head bent over a five-string, nimble fingers plucking away…
Mike would have felt no less pole-axed than if it were Marilyn Monroe. Was that really Peter, the dopey, weepy kid who’d solicited him to watch a Disney movie months ago? Mike tried not to dwell on that encounter, but some remnant had stayed with him. Yet he could not remember at all any hint that Peter was a musician.
He nudged closer to the window, trying to confirm or dispel the illusion. No, that was really Peter. Still in regular clothes, regular short haircut with the top locks still falling in his eyes… still nothing special, but a more welcome sight than Mike cared to admit. He could finally say there was one friendly face in the Village, a place that had otherwise completely shut him out.
With a flourish, Peter brought the song to a close. Mike now heard something else he’d never heard in his abortive musical career: applause. He would have sworn the beatnik audiences were incapable of it, yet here they were clapping for a guy who didn’t even sing. I can sing, he thought with resentment. I can play damn well, too. Why couldn’t I make it here, and he can?
“Thanks, everyone,” Peter’s deep voice floated out the window. “I’m supposed to pass a basket around now, but I don’t have one. So I have to use my banjo. If you like what I’ve done, could you please help me out so I can buy a basket some day? If you put silver in it, it’ll go ‘clink-clink,’ but—oh!—if you put in folding money, I will go ‘swishhh’…”
If he makes any money spewing that stupid load of horseshit, I will eat my hat.
Mike heard a lot of clinks and swishes over the next several minutes. He watched as the open-back banjo made its way around the room and finally returned to Peter, who glanced down at his takings and beamed a grateful smile at the crowd.
Mike turned away from the Say What, resolved to head on back to 42nd Street. There was no point asking anyone to loan him a guitar, or fighting yet again for a crummy ten-minute set. He’d never make it here. If being funny and silly and nice was what it took to win over this crowd, then he would definitely never make it—
“Hi, Tex! Is that really you?”
Tex? Who in the—oh, yeah, that was the name I gave him.
“How are you doing, Tex? I don’t remember ever seeing you around here before!”
Shit. Mike’s brain told him to keep on walking, but his feet shuffled to a stop. He looked up to see Peter standing beside him in the street, banjo case in hand. The troubadour image was a total mismatch for the boyish, lightly freckled face smiling brightly at him.
“Uh… hey there. It’s, uh… John, ain’t it?”
“Peter. Did you see the set?” Peter gushed on. “Do you like music? You should have come in! Do you play? Do you—”
“Whoa, whoa. I was just, you know, happening to walk by.” Lame, but the best he could come up with. Nobody just “walked by” a place more than a mile from their usual stomping grounds.
“Oh. Well, you still should have come in. It’s fun!”
Fun? Fun being rejected and spat on and mocked and shunned and ridiculed? Oh, yeah, that’s just a real laugh riot that I can’t wait to put myself through again. The resentment was roiling up once more… yet none of the negative miasma he associated with the Village was coming from Peter. All he could hear from Peter was plain, simple enjoyment—and utter faith in Mike’s own half-assed explanation for hanging around where he wasn’t wanted.
Peter was still smiling at him, just as guileless as Mike recalled from their first acquaintance. “I was going to see a movie tomorrow,” he said. “Do you want to come? My treat.” He pointed at his banjo case, stuffed with more cash in one night than Mike had earned in the last two weeks.
Every instinct in Mike screamed at him to tell Peter to fuck off. What did the kid think, that Mike had been waiting around these last three months for Peter to grace him with his presence? He was lucky Mike remembered him at all. The way faces and bodies passed through his life, why should he bother with some kid. Some nice, stupid kid...
“I’m sorry,” Peter said more quietly, more subdued. “I shouldn’t have assumed. I mean, we only did it once and you don’t really have any reason to remember that. You’re probably a busy guy. I’d ask my roommate to go, but he has to be in Brooklyn tomorrow.”
Roommate. “He.” Mike filed away this information—and the unexpected, unwelcome blip of displeasure it stirred—for future reference.
“Anyway,” Peter’s smile dimmed, “never mind. Sorry. Have a good night, Tex.” He hefted his banjo case more securely into his arms and started to walk away.
Mike cleared his throat. “Well, hold on there. I was just… wondering what traumatic flick you had in mind this time. Who gets killed in this one?”
“Oh, nobody!” It was just too damn easy to get the kid beaming again, almost painfully easy. “It’s still hard to watch, but not like that. It’s a cartoon.”
“A cartoon that’s hard to watch, huh?” Mike hated to admit it, but he was intrigued. Still, he couldn’t let Peter think he was at his beck and call, or that he had nothing better to do than spend time with him. Otherwise it sounded too much like… like a date.
“But it’s a nice cartoon, too,” Peter said. “I never really know how to feel when I watch it. Parts of it make me really sad, but other parts are happy.”
Stop, stop. I don’t wanna know the inner workings of your heart, kid.
“Same theater as before? Same time?”
Peter nodded eagerly.
“Well,” Mike lied, “you’re right about one thing. I am a busy man.” Peter’s face fell. “But maybe I might be able to set some time aside. I might turn up. But if I don’t, then don’t go waiting for me.”
“Thanks, Tex! It’ll be fun!”
I am completely fucked, Mike thought.
Mike had seen Dumbo before. Many, many times before. It was a rite of passage for each one of his vast brood of little brothers and sisters, all of whom depended on big brother Mike to take them to the theater and reassure them that the little elephant with big ears might have a bad time of it, but he’d make out just fine in the end when he learned to fly.
Now here he was in a tatty, second-run New York movie house filling his same old role of moral support. Peter really was taking it hard. Mike heard the telltale choking breaths every time smarmy crows and bitchy elephants picked on Dumbo. He felt Peter wince at each lash of the whip inflicted on Dumbo’s mother, saw Peter cover his face with his hands as Dumbo was forced to join the clowns and live as a joke. During the scene where Dumbo saw his mother in a cage, Mike and Peter both happened to reach for the popcorn at the same time. Mike felt a teardrop splash on his hand.
On the whole, though, Peter held up much better than he had with Old Yeller. There were no emergency trips to the restroom this time. Once the worst parts of the story were over, Mike felt he could relax and even enjoy it. The whole idea of going off with the circus was something he could relate to. It wasn’t so very different from his own decision to leave Texas behind…
“Oh, thank goodness,” he heard Peter whisper at the end, when a happy, successful Dumbo was reunited with his mother.
As they left the theater, Peter offered to take Mike to lunch. Though nothing had been said about Mike making this outing in his professional capacity, Peter had already covered the tickets and refreshments. To pay for his lunch on top of that… it was all getting to be too much like a date again, but on the other hand Mike had no idea where his next meal would be coming from. Without too many twists of his arm, he agreed.
“Great!” Peter all but skipped down the sidewalk at his side. “Let’s go to the Automat.”
Mike nearly backed out right then. True, the Automat chain was very affordable: a full meal for less than a dollar. He’d been a steady customer there during his first few months in the city, when he’d still been semi-respectable. But after he’d been forced to pawn his possessions and take to the streets, even a buck for a meal was out of his league. Not only that, but Peter was leading him toward one particular Automat: the one on Times Square. Mike tried to limit his visits to Times Square to evening business hours. Maybe it was irrational, but he didn’t want to be seen eating there during the day by strangers he might end up fucking at night.
“Okay,” he said, trying not to show his reluctance.
They managed to claim a table despite the busy lunch crowd. Mike held it while Peter went off to change some dollars for nickels. Peter returned and dropped a handful of nickels in Mike’s palm, then held the table himself while Mike ambled off to the wall of little glass windows behind which sat plates of food, glorious food. I sure seem to spend a lot of time looking through windows. So much to choose from, such a rare bounty! Finally he settled on steak and potatoes, the closest thing he could find to the meals he’d known back home. Of course it was bland Yankee steak, he thought as he dropped his nickels down the slot, but a starving man won’t dispute the quality of a crumb.
Peter went for the spaghetti, and they talked a bit about the film between mouthfuls.
“So, what do you think?” Mike asked, more to hold up his end of the conversation than out of any real interest. “This idea of your pa’s working for you? You think you’re getting tougher watching this stuff?”
“Maybe. I still kind of lost it today… sorry about that. But it’s hard to say. I need to see some other movies, then I’ll know for sure.”
“Aw, come on. Get real. You make it sound like you got a checklist to run through.”
“I do,” Peter replied seriously. At Mike’s dubious look, he dropped his head and fell silent. He twirled the same strands of spaghetti around his fork for several minutes. “That was my nickname in school.”
“Dumbo. That’s what they called me. Because I have big ears, or because I’m not too bright. Or both, probably. I guess it still fits.”
Mike nearly snapped his fork in half.
Okay, Peter did have big ears—the short hair did him no favors in that respect—and he did seem to be in a different brain space from most folks, but Mike did not accept empirical fact as a reason to mock someone over their sorest spots. Well, unless the someone was an adult who was paying Mike to do that. But not when the someone was a kid who didn’t want it or like it. Besides, I always thought Dumbo was kinda cute. For an elephant.
“You all ought to be ashamed of yourselves,” he recalled Timothy Q. Mouse lecturing the smarmy crows in the movie. “A bunch of big guys like you, picking on a poor little orphan like him… Have your fun! Laugh at him! Kick him now that he's down! Go on! We don't care…”
That had been Mike’s role back home: protector and defender of the vulnerable. A large family with little money wasn’t a happy combination, and Mike had found himself the de facto man of the house. He did the chores and changed the diapers and took the temperatures—not only the man of the house, but a sort of deputy to his tired ma. He was the one who had to tend to his many siblings’ owies, wipe their noses, pack their lunches. The one the school nurse or principal called out of class whenever they got sick or misbehaved. The one who kept the bullies at bay. The one who told them everything would be okay, even when he didn’t have the faintest idea how that could ever possibly be true.
Eighteen years of that life, and Mike had hit a wall. He’d just got fed up with living for everyone else; it was time to live for himself. He’d become a man, and he’d make his own way playing his guitar. But not in Texas, where nobody would ever hear him. It would have to be in the Big Apple, the center of the world. Like the practical sort he was, he’d spent the next year taking every odd job he could find—even a stint in the oil fields that was almost as bad as hustling—to build up enough funds for his journey. By the time he turned nineteen, he’d saved enough to buy his beautiful cowboy suit and a one-way ticket on a Greyhound bus. Like the man he was, he’d struck out on his own. And like the selfish coward he was, he’d snuck out of the house during the night leaving nothing behind but a brash note to his ma and his little brothers and sisters saying they’d hear of him again when his name was in lights…
“Anyway,” Peter sighed, “it doesn’t matter so much now. It was a long time ago.”
“Can’t be that long,” Mike said, glad to be drawn out of his memories. “How old are you, anyway?”
“Me?” As if Mike were speaking to anyone else around here. “Seventeen.”
Mike had guessed the first time they met that Peter was only a couple years younger, despite his apparent innocence. And so he was. Of age, Mike automatically calculated. It was his job to know stuff like that: seventeen was the age of consent in New York—and Texas, for that matter. Not that his job itself was exactly in line with the law… Anyway, Mike’s view of when a boy became a man was colored by his own life. He’d made the decision to strike out on his own at eighteen, and no matter what the law said he believed eighteen was the true age when a person really began to know their own mind.
“Well, don’t sweat it,” he said. “People are just plain cruel, ‘cause they can be. It’s an easy habit to fall into.” Ain’t that the truth. “Heck, my own school principal used to say I was the best argument for legal birth control.”
“That’s terrible! Why would anyone say something like that?”
“Like I said, ‘cause they can. Or who knows, maybe they just don’t like my face.”
Warm brown eyes studied him. “I don’t get that at all.”
Oh, great. There was no mistaking that soft, sappy look: the kid was crushing on him. Mike knew all the signs. Without having too high an opinion of himself, he could even understand why. He probably represented something exotic to Peter, the lure of the unknown and different, and all that crap. He should have recognized it when they saw Old Yeller, in the restroom when Peter had asked him: “Can we do this again sometime?” He should have killed it then, definitely should have picked up on it when Peter had greeted him with such delight in the Village last night. After all, how many ballads in the whole back catalogue of country songs told of gullible young guys blinkered by whores?
Did Peter even know what Mike was? That first time, Mike never could make up his mind if Peter really understood what kind of world he was stumbling into. Now, he highly doubted it. “I was told I could pay someone to watch a movie with me, that’s all…” Now, Mike was growing more and more certain that Peter had been set up by some random asshole with a questionable sense of humor who thought it would be fun to screw over a green kid. There was no shortage of such assholes, not around here.
If Peter truly didn’t know… then Mike would have to tell him. It was the honorable thing to do. Let Peter make up his own mind as to whether Mike was worth his time and regard. If Peter made the right decision to head for the hills, Mike’s life would be no different than before. They’d only talked twice in three months, for Chrissake. And it wasn’t like anything would have happened, anyway. Peter was seventeen, too young by the Law of Michael if not by the Law of New York, on the wrong side of that line Mike would never cross.
“Uh, Peter… listen, there’s something I gotta—”
“Well, well! The one and only Mr. W. H. Wool Hat himself chooses to grace us with his presence in this high-class establishment. What happened, man? You finally learn how to use a knife and fork?”
Mike gritted his teeth. He knew that voice anywhere: a particularly peevish, grating fellow member of the guild who was known on the streets (for reasons best left to the imagination) as “Ginger Snaps.”
Ginger hated Mike. Actually he hated everyone he considered unfair competition in their narrow but fiercely contested field. Mike thought it was stupid; he wasn’t taking any tricks away from Ginger, because they didn’t offer the same things. Some wanted to dominate; those went to Ginger. Others wanted to be dominated; they were Mike’s bread and butter. Even so, Ginger took every opportunity to express his resentment. Mike could usually send him off with his tail between his legs, but he didn’t want to stir up that sort of shit with Peter around.
Peter was gaping at the sight of Ginger standing there, all clashing plaids and stripes, balancing a plate heaped with macaroni and cheese. Peter turned to Mike, his face baffled. “What—”
“Who’s this?” Ginger asked Mike. “Friend of yours? I didn’t think that was possible.”
Damn, this is all I need. “Hardly even know him,” Mike replied neutrally.
“But we just saw a movie!” Peter protested, naked hurt in his eyes.
Ginger laughed unpleasantly. “Now that’s just too sweet.” He shifted his plate to one hand, scratching his chin with the other. “So, not a friend. A student?”
Mike merely raised an enigmatic eyebrow and sipped at his coffee.
“Oh, be that way,” Ginger sniffed. He turned to Peter, looking him over with amused curiosity. “How long you been doing the rounds? Must be pretty new, or I’d know about you. Change the hair, maybe, and you’ll do all right—wait, no, don’t change the hair. That’s my claim to fame.” He patted his own slicked-down auburn coiffure. “I should probably also give you a word of advice not to listen to this loser”—he flicked a thumb in Mike’s direction—“but it’ll make my life easier if you do. The human stomach pump, this one.”
“That’s mean!” Peter gasped. “Why would you say that about him—”
“Just the truth, baby. I could teach you how to keep them happy and satisfied, but you won’t learn anything from ol’ Wool Hat except how to incite a riot. Only reason he hasn’t been tossed in the clink for ticking off the wrong guy is that even Rikers Island won’t have him. He’d give the place a bad name!”
“Clear on out, Ginger,” Mike said, low and dangerous, “before you get declared a public health hazard. Something that should’ve been done a long time ago, in my opinion.”
Ginger clicked his tongue. He moved away but deliberately bumped his arm against Mike, spilling his plate. Mike was left with a lapful of macaroni and cheese.
“Bon appetit,” Ginger smirked as he glided out of the restaurant.
“Goddamn it,” Mike muttered, scooping up piles of soggy noodles and tossing them onto his half-finished steak. This was his only pair of pants! He knew what that meant: a humiliating hour in a laundromat, wrapped in a blanket and sitting on a bench, after sweet-talking some ancient dear into letting him add his clothes to her load at no charge.
And what the hell had Peter thought of that scene? If he didn’t know what Mike was before, thanks to Ginger he had to know now. Even if it was for the best, Mike regretted that it had gone down this way.
Peter had sprung into action with a handful of napkins. He was on his knees next to Mike, trying to wipe away the staining mess... with his hand sometimes getting a little too close to places it shouldn’t. Was it deliberate? Was it just accidental? Peter, do you really know what this is all about?
Peter bunched up the last napkin and set it down on the table. He resumed his seat with a frown. Mike forced himself to keep quiet and wait for judgment to be passed.
“What a jerk.”
It was the first remotely impolite thing Mike had heard Peter say. It didn’t sound right coming from him at all. “Takes all sorts,” Mike shrugged, still wondering what he was in for.
“Why does he call you Wool Hat?”
Mike pointed at his ragged green headgear. “What about this is a mystery to you?”
“I didn’t mean—yeah, I get that it’s a hat. But he wasn’t just saying it was a hat. He was… it sounded like he said it to hurt.”
He really doesn’t know. Now what am I supposed to do?
“Is it like you were saying, just because he can?”
“Peter…” Mike scrambled desperately for the right thing to say, but ended up blurting out: “What the fuck are you doing here?”
“Um… eating lunch?”
“Not here. I mean, in New York. This is one mean, crazy town, and frankly you fit in about as well as a sausage in a synagogue.” Pot, meet kettle. “I just wonder what you get out of it.”
“I like it here. You can do your own thing. There’s so much different stuff going on, and nobody’s out to keep you down. If you make it, great. If you don’t, everybody still looks out for you, shares their stuff and helps you out.”
Was he really describing the same New York that had given Mike nothing but the back of its hand? The same place that offered only condemned tenements and sketchy movie houses and jerks like Ginger? Peter wasn’t just innocent, he was downright delusional.
Or, he’s getting out of this city what he brings to it. Just like at the coffeehouse last night. Peter had brought his own thing, but he’d also brought a smiling face and willing trust, and the audiences that were always frozen to Mike had thawed before his eyes. What had Mike brought to New York? Exactly what he was getting out of it: suspicion, contempt, hostility, resentment.
“How about you?” Peter asked. “Why are you here?”
Part of him really wanted to answer the question. If he told someone about his life back home, why he’d left it, how he felt about the mess he’d made of things… No, if he talked about all that, Peter might get the idea that he saw him as some kind of confidante, that they were closer than they really were. Than they should be.
“Are you from Texas?”
“Shoot, what gave me away?” Mike snapped. “Ya know, I was trying so hard to keep it a secret.”
“But you’re in New York,” Peter persisted in his simple way.
“Yeah, I am. And I been wastin’ enough time chewing the fat here. I got my own stuff to do, so let’s call this a day, okay?”
Outside the Automat, Mike hesitated. He was trying to think of the nearest laundromat, but in the same instant he came to a different decision.
He just couldn’t see Peter again. That was all there was to it. If they were going to be… friends… then Peter should know what Mike really was. Yet despite practically being hit over the head with a sledgehammer in the obnoxious form of Ginger Snaps, Peter still didn’t get it. So they couldn’t be friends. Or anything else.
It was no loss. Peter was nothing special. Just a nice guy—no, a nice kid. Niceness was a novelty in Mike’s life, that was all. It reminded Mike that he was capable of niceness, too, sometimes. In his own cruel way.
“Tex? Are you okay? Did I—”
“It’s been a time and all,” Mike cut him off. “Leave it at that. Now go on home.”
Not even Dumbo had looked so bewildered and hurt. Even if it was the right thing to do, Mike couldn’t quite bring himself to deliver the killing blow.
“And don’t talk to strangers,” the big brother in him added with a wink.