Feedback for the author...
DISCLAIMER: This site is in no way affiliated with the Monkees or personal relations thereof. All fan fiction and fan art is intended for entertainment purposes only and no defamation of character is intended whatsoever. To break it down one more time: It's all just for fun, folks.
"Don’t Mention His Name, And His Name Will Pass On
- Part 3"
Title: Don’t Mention His Name, and His Name Will Pass On—Part 3 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 even better, but not well enough to avoid misunderstanding you.
Author's Note: There are tons of versions of “Streets of Laredo,” going back donkey’s years. Even though it’s an anachronism, for this story I’ve used my favorite: the one by Johnny Cash.
~DECEMBER 1963 ~
Once again, Mike found himself doing what he always seemed to be doing with his life: looking through a window. This time, however, it wasn’t a pawnshop or a coffeehouse, the Automat or a laundromat. It was a place that was way above his station: the FAO Schwarz toy store on Fifth Avenue.
The window display was extraordinary, even to someone as jaded and cynical as Mike. A nativity scene was spread out before him, with life-size stuffed animals serving for each of the holy characters. Some folks might call it blasphemous, but Mike grudgingly allowed himself to be charmed by it. He especially liked the koala bear decked out as Balthazar the Wise Man.
“Step aside, buddy.” A man in a thick winter coat (which made Mike feel even colder) pushed at his shoulder. “You’ve been hogging the view long enough. There’s kids here who want to look, too.”
Despite FAO Schwarz’s best efforts, nobody really appeared to be enjoying themselves. Not the throng of kids and parents that Mike was standing with gaping at the window display, not the people trudging up and down the streets, not the whole goddamn nation. He’d heard all about how New York did itself up to the nines for the holidays, but there was a mechanical quality to this year’s festivities, a hollow feel to the decorations. Even the carols piping in the air through church doors and over PA systems seemed to be sung more for form’s sake than with any real feeling. Mike had known some dismal Christmases in his time, but this one took the top prize.
All thanks to a few rifle shots fired one black afternoon in Dallas, just a month ago.
“Where were you?”—that was what everybody asked. Total strangers asked each other. Even some of Mike’s more chatty johns had asked him that, at rather awkward moments.
Strange thing was, amid the general crap atmosphere business had been on a definite uptick. It was as if the country’s overwhelming grief showed itself, at least in some people, in a need to be punished. And who better than Mr. Wool Hat to lay into ‘em, tell them it was their fault some nut killed President Kennedy, their filthy disgusting selves that made a good man die. Mike didn’t even want to attempt to figure what twist in the human psyche would lead people to seek out such treatment, but he wasn’t entirely immune to it himself. After all, the tragedy had struck on his home turf. Although he wasn’t in Texas now, hadn’t been for a long while, he did feel some guilt by association. Mud clings, and all that.
What the hell, though. Other people’s guilt was at least putting more cash in his pockets than he’d made thus far in his whole time in this city. He still didn’t have enough to buy back his cowboy suit and guitar, or move to a better flat than his condemned tenement, but he could now afford a one-way ticket on a Greyhound bus right straight outta here.
He never seemed to get around to buying that ticket.
If anyone asked—which no one ever did—he would say that transportation was nothing without means. So long as he lacked a guitar, he’d still be unable to make his living the way he wanted to, the way he was meant to. He might move to a different city, but he’d still end up in the same old state.
So he told himself, anyway. It wasn’t like there was any other reason to stick around here…
“Hi, Tex! Merry Christmas!”
Only by sheer force of will did Mike stop himself from turning to face the lone cheery voice. Instead his gaze in the window shifted to one of the shadowy areas of the nativity, the contrast marking out Peter’s reflection beside his own. It was the only smiling face in the whole crowd. Mike merely nodded.
A nod was enough for Peter. “How have you been, Tex? It’s great to see you again. Are you buying presents? Do you like the carols? Have you ever seen the toy displays before? They’re really neat—”
Mike gave up and laughed. “Peter… Peter, you are one of a kind.”
“I am?” The puzzled look Mike was slowly growing familiar with washed over Peter’s face. His lightly freckled cheeks were pink with cold. “Well, you’re really something, too.”
Oh, yeah. “Something” is what I really am.
“Hey, Tex? Are you doing anything tomorrow? Because I’m thinking, maybe—”
“Okay, what’s this next movie on your checklist?” On any normal day Mike would have delivered the question with a bite, but today he just couldn’t help it. He really was tickled, glad to find a little bit of sun peeking through the pervading gloom.
“It’s not a cartoon. It’s a good movie… but I guess you should know, something does get killed in it.”
“Really,” Mike laughed again. “Hell, Peter, Merry Christmas to you, too.” He almost said it’s a date, but caught himself in time. “Same place, same time? I might see if I can swing it. But don’t wait on me.”
He should leave now, the same as he’d done the other two times they’d met. Shouldn’t let Peter think they were steady pals, that Mike was doing anything other than granting an occasional favor.
Ten minutes later, he was still there. Standing with a bunch of families, and with a smiling Peter, on a cold day looking at giant, wise koala bears. When the melody of “Joy to the World” boomed out over the joyless crowd from some PA system somewhere, he heard himself humming along.
He watched his own face in the window, a grin stretching from ear to ear when he also heard strong, sure whistling beside him.
The Yearling—yep, Mike knew that one, too. But he’d only seen it once before, deciding it was really too close to home to suit the impressionable young ones. Not so much because it featured another dead animal, or another boy having to kill a beloved pet, but because the boy’s family situation was almost as fucked up as his own. The mother, especially. What kind of ma was this Orry chick? She couldn’t even spare a thought for her kid until after he ran away from home…
Peter gripped the arms of his seat during the deer-killing climax. Mike prepared himself for another dash to the restroom, but the need never arose. He could hear Peter crying softly, yet the storm passed as the film moved on to resolving its real conflict between mother and son. That seemed to upset Peter far less. Mike hoped Peter didn’t notice that he himself was a trifle less stoic beyond that point.
“You seemed to do all right back there,” Mike said over lunch at the Automat afterwards. He’d refused to let Peter pay for him this time, not when he finally had some money of his own.
“I think I did, actually.” Peter looked surprised at himself. “You were pretty quiet, though. I mean, you’re always kind of quiet, but… well, I just hope it wasn’t too much of a drag for you.”
“I’m fine.” And that is that, his stone face declared.
Peter looked around the restaurant, full of other patrons and strung with colored lights, sprigs of holly, and messages of seasonal goodwill. “What should we do now?”
This is not a date! The old scruples rushed back, overriding the holiday spirit that had lulled him into dropping his guard. He didn’t want Peter seeing him as vulnerable, couldn’t let Peter think…
“Don’t know what you should do,” he rose from his chair, “but I gotta move. Busy man, and all.”
“Tex, it’s three days before Christmas. Can’t you take a break, just once?”
Mike looked down at him, speechless. Peter was starting to call him on his excuses and evasions. He hadn’t anticipated that. And he definitely didn’t anticipate Peter’s next bombshell.
“Do you want to come back to my place?”
“Christ on a crutch, Peter!” Mike dropped back in his chair, wind truly knocked out of him. “Don’t go saying stuff like that, not when you can’t mean it.”
The puzzled look was back. “But I do mean it. I wouldn’t invite you if I didn’t want you to be there.”
“You don’t get it! When most people hear someone ask if they wanna come back to their place, they have… expectations. They think you’re making a promise, and it could get ugly for you when they find out you’re not gonna follow through.”
“Oh. Okay. Do you want to go back to your place instead?”
Hell, no! Yeah, that would go down a treat. “Well, Peter, welcome to my spacious abode on the worst block of the Upper West Side. Observe the beautiful cracked windows covered with ‘X’s in wide white tape. Feel the comfort of my climate control system, which at this moment consists of every blanket I can find or steal. Read by the light of my stolen candles, because I am a monk who thinks electricity is evil. And please don’t hesitate to avail yourself of the facilities, even though the pipes are frozen. How do I keep clean without running water, you ask? Oh, there are ways for someone as creative as me…”
“Don’t say that, either,” Mike almost hollered. Only his awareness of the other diners around them kept his voice at a reasonable level. “That’s almost as bad. You’re lucky you’re saying this shit to me. ‘Cause if you say the wrong thing to the wrong guy, then...” He cut himself off, sickened at the possibilities. “Just try to be more careful, for God’s sake.”
“Uh… okay. I guess I’ll be heading home. Are you sure you won’t come?”
Damn, he’s done it again! No, Peter, I won’t “come.” Because you’re too young, you’re too nice, I’m too far gone, and that’s not what you meant anyway…
Desperate, he played his last move. “Didn’t you say you have a roommate?”
“Yeah. Sometimes we play the coffeehouses together. Not a lot. Our styles aren’t really the same—”
“Well, it might be on the awkward side if I’m standing around the place with you two.”
“Oh, no, don’t worry about that. He’s not home today. He has a holiday gig in the Bronx.”
“How in all heck can you afford this?” Mike cast a critical eye at the three-story brick row house with its mansard roof and dormer windows, in a little side lane off Bleecker Street.
“It’s not just us. There’s, like, twenty people living here. More or less.” Peter laughed quietly. “We only rent the garret. The rest is… well, that’s everyone else.”
Shaking his head, Mike followed Peter through the heavy front door and up the stairs. Most of the rooms they passed on each floor were open, with sights and sounds and smells spilling out from them. He saw colored lights and candles, inhaled a whiff of paints and non-standard brand cigarettes, heard someone either speaking in tongues or reciting “poetry.” I hate these people. It was the beatnik crowd again, the ones who didn’t want him around and would probably boot him out onto the street if they emerged from their self-absorbed hazes long enough to notice he was there.
Annoyed, he glanced at Peter ahead of him on the stairs and found his eyes at exactly the level of Peter’s ass. He also noticed for the first time that Peter was wearing jeans today, instead of his usual shapeless chinos. He should wear jeans more often…
Mike shook his head again, now annoyed with himself. What the hell was the matter with him? He had better self-control than that. Must be the non-standard cigarette smoke getting to his head. Or Peter’s innocent innuendo was taking its toll. Or The Yearling had left him feeling a little squishy and needy. Maybe his recent busy spell had led him to hit the same wall as he had in Texas: fed up with working for other people’s pleasure, wanting to finally have a little sugar of his own.
Or maybe he was just so damn alone in this world that even pleasant, nothing-special Peter was revving his engine just by virtue of being the only warm body nearby. Yeah, that was probably it.
They finally reached the top landing. Peter stood on his toes to feel above the frame of the garret door, denim stretching tighter over his rear. All too soon he was flat on his feet again, having retrieved a key from its unimaginative hiding place, and set about unlocking the door. In a gentlemanly display that made Mike feel squishy again, he propped it open to let Mike enter first. “Watch your head, Tex. We’re under the roof, and you’re taller than either of us. Have a seat—but watch out with the couch, too. It isn’t in the best shape.”
Mike stepped inside and understood at once what Peter was referring to. The couch was some horrid old puke-yellow thing that should probably be cleaned, then burned. Naked springs poked up with wicked tips through the upholstery on the far right cushion. He gingerly lowered himself onto the left and surveyed his surroundings.
Old stuff. Second-hand stuff. A rickety table in the corner almost sagged under the weight of a cast-metal lamp, newspapers and magazines, dog-eared books, empty takeout cartons, a record player that might have been considered state of the art in 1929, and stacks of LPs and 45s.
The wall behind the table, Mike noticed, was not a real wall, but a partition patched together to allow for a makeshift second room. An alcove, really. Through the opening into this alcove, he glimpsed the corner of a beat-up mattress resting directly on the floor.
“Two guys, one bed?” He pushed away the stirrings of displeasure this observation roused in him.
“Yeah, we take it in turns on the couch. This is my week.” Peter smiled ruefully when Mike raised a skeptical eyebrow at the naked springs. “It’s not so bad, really. I just put my head up the other end.”
Holy hell, did Peter really have no idea how suggestive everything he said was? Head up the other end. Christ. No idea how much it was costing Mike to be a good, responsible big-brotherly saint instead of the almost-twenty-year-old, frustrated horndog his brain and his dick seemed to want him to be today?
“I have to go to the bathroom.”
Nope. Peter really had no idea. “Peter, that ain’t exactly news deserving a press release.”
“I know, but—you know, twenty people in a house with one bathroom. I might have to wait in line. Will you be all right here alone while I’m gone?”
“Not gonna rob the place, if that’s what you think.”
“Why would I think that? I’ll be back in a few.”
Mike waited less than a few before he got up and started exploring. His first move was to the room’s tiny radiator which, if its knocking and hissing was anything to go by, actually seemed to be working. With a sigh of relief he held his cold hands over it, let the warmth soak into his body that had been freezing far too long. He also allowed himself a small grin at the sorriest-looking excuse for a Christmas tree he had ever seen on the floor next to the radiator. It was one of those artificial deals, at most two feet tall, with a single drooping strand of feeble lights and a few clomps of tinsel dangling from its twigs.
Opposite the alcove and radiator wall, the mansard roof sloped down. A large dormer window bathed in late afternoon winter sunlight made for the illusion of more space. Mike grinned again when he saw that Peter and his roommate had stuffed this extra space with more of their junk, including a crooked short bookshelf on top of which rested… a nativity scene. It was a cheap little plastic thing, far from FAO Schwarz, but then Mike forgot it when his eye was caught by something much more momentous.
A banjo case was propped up against the right side of the little shelf. But that wasn’t what stopped Mike’s breath. On the left, resting upright against the shelf, straight and true, was… a guitar case.
guitar guitar guitar guitar
Manners, propriety, rules of hospitality—all of it be damned. Mike almost tore open the case and gazed with near-lust upon the six-string, spruce-top, sweet Spanish beauty revealed in all its battered glory. Second-hand, like everything else in this loft of warmth and light, but pure perfection in his eyes. With almost trembling hands, he reached out to touch. Before he knew it, the whole instrument was in his arms. He cradled it to his chest, carrying it like a sleeping infant back to the couch.
Hesitantly, as if disarming a time bomb, his left hand sought out the frets while his right began to pluck tentatively at the strings. Thumb down, fingers up. The thing was in perfect tune. And so was he. He actually remembered!
Oh, baby. The things I can do with you. His right hand sped up, experience and muscle memory driving him on. Ream after ream of lyrics from his old repertoire raced through his mind, desperate to escape the tight little cage he’d locked them in for ages. I'll sing you a true song of Billy the Kid… Deep within my heart lies a melody, a song of old San Antone… There's blood on the saddle and blood on the ground… My love is a rider, wild horses he breaks…
As I walked out on the streets… Mike slowed his hands and his heart. No rushing through this song. It was one of his favorites, and his fingers were determined to savor every tone he could steal from Peter’s guitar as he picked out the chords of the timeless ballad—
“Hey, I didn’t know you were home.” Peter burst back in with his typical bright smile. “When did you get—oh, Tex! I’m sorry, I thought it was him.”
Mike was too lost in his own joy to process that statement. “Good Lord, it’s been so long since I held a guitar in my hands, I was almost afraid I forgot how to play.”
“Um, Tex, that’s—”
“Lucky for me it’s like riding a bike. You don’t forget.”
“That’s really great, Tex, but—”
“Not a top of the line piece,” Mike said, surveying the dulled finish, “but you keep it in tune. Strings are all up to snuff, too.” He was still strumming the well-remembered song. “Yeah, you take good care of it.” He started humming the melody aloud, getting lost again.
“But I don’t—it’s not—” Peter paused as he took notice of the song. “That’s… hey, that’s ‘The Ballad of Sherman Wu’! Somebody just did that at the Say What a couple weeks ago! How neat is that!”
Mike’s fingers slipped. “Ballad of—what the hell, Sherman Wu—who?”
“Sherman Wu. It’s about this Chinese guy who isn’t allowed in some place because he’s Chinese. It’s a protest song.”
“Protest song? This is ‘Streets of Laredo.’ Famous cowboy song, older than dirt.”
“No, it’s ‘The Ballad of Sherman Wu.’”
“I’m telling ya, it’s ‘Streets of Laredo.’”
“It’s ‘Sherman Wu’—here’s how it goes.” Peter cleared his throat, suddenly looking like he’d stepped in a cowpie. He turned his face away from Mike as he started to sing:
“As I roved out on the streets of Northwestern,
I spied a young freshman dejected and blue,
I said, ‘Young man, why are you dejected?’
He said, ‘I'm Chinese and I can't join Psi U!’”
Well, Peter shouldn’t go planning a career in the opera. No wonder Mike had only ever heard him whistle. His speaking voice was quite deep and resonant, but his singing voice was wobbly and nervous. Sincere, though. Warm. It wasn’t terrible to listen to, just odd. But the quality of pitch wasn’t nearly as much of a concern to Mike as the screwy lyrics he’d just heard.
“Kindly tell me,” he said, “what dumbass decided to mess with a classic song, so I can go kill him.”
Peter looked insulted. “It was Pete Seeger, actually.”
Of course. One of the gods of the folkie pantheon. Why should that surprise him? Peter played at the coffeehouses, lived in the Village, breathed the same air as all the folkie snobs who’d rejected Mike and his music without ever bothering to learn about either. How could he have believed, even for a minute, that he’d finally found someone different—
“So how does it go?”
Once again Mike’s normally deft fingers caught on the strings. “What?”
“Your song. The—uh… Boulevards of Laredo. How does it go?”
“You really wanna know?”
He couldn’t explain why, but Mike felt his life might never be the same depending on Peter’s answer.
“Yeah.” Peter smiled, and Mike was gone. “I really want to.”
“Well, then…” He bit back the smile he felt tugging at the corners of his own mouth. “Sit yourself down and learn something today.”
Peter started to move to the couch, but then he must have remembered the exposed springs. Instead, he lowered himself, cross-legged, onto the floor at Mike’s feet. Mike looked down at that eager face, those big brown eyes, gazing up at him as if he were Jesus on the Mount. Mike felt twenty feet tall.
“As I walked out on the streets of Laredo,
As I walked out on Laredo one day…”
Peter was listening closely, he could tell. Hanging on every syllable, every chord.
“…I spied a young cowboy all wrapped in white linen,
Wrapped in white linen as cold as the clay.”
In an instant, Peter’s gaze went from rapt to troubled. Mike paused. “What’s wrong?”
“Well, he’s dying. And yeah, he’s dead at the end. But he’s still kicking at this point. In fact he starts talking to the singer in the next verse, as you’ll hear if you quit your own yapping.”
“Sorry,” Peter murmured, but the troubled expression remained.
Mike took up the song again, the lines he hadn’t sung in ages rising instinctively to his lips.
“‘I can see by your outfit that you are a cowboy.’
These words he did say as I boldly walked by...”
Didn’t that sound a mite strange these days, he thought. It wasn’t so very different from the lines his tricks used when seeking his services. “I can see by the chip on your shoulder that you know how to hurt me”—that was basically what they told him with their eyes, if not their words, as they walked by. What if he’d managed to hold onto his beautiful star-spangled cowboy suit? Imagine if he’d tried hustling in that getup. I can see by your outfit, indeed.
Without quite realizing, he reached the end of the second verse.
“… ‘I'm shot in the breast and I know I must die.’”
A soft intake of breath pulled him out of his musings. He glanced down at Peter—and immediately stopped playing. “Whoa, now. It’s just a song. Don’t take it to heart.” Stupid advice! If a song didn’t touch your heart, what was the whole point?
“I’m sorry. I just… it reminded me…” Peter gulped a couple times, tears streaming down his cheeks. “The President… shot… He didn’t deserve that. Nobody does. It was so awful…”
This wasn’t the grief or guilt Mike had seen and heard so much of lately. Peter didn’t ask where Mike was when the fatal shots rang out. He wasn’t turning the tragedy into a means to an end. He didn’t say a word about how he wanted it to make him feel, or what he wanted someone else to do about it. Just plain, honest sadness and pain over a senseless loss.
Suddenly, for the first time since the assassination, Mike found himself wondering how his gaggle of little brothers and sisters had got the news, how they’d taken it. They must have been in school. Teacher had probably stepped out of the classroom for a minute, then stepped back in and told all those bright little faces their president was dead, murdered, no reason, nothing. Their big innocent eyes probably filled with tears, just like Peter’s.
And their big brother Mike wasn’t waiting for them at home to give them a hug and tell them everything would be okay, that sometimes bad stuff happened and you shouldn’t let it get you down…
“I guess I didn’t think. I should have.” Mike set the guitar aside. “Well, anyway, now you know how ‘Streets of Laredo’ goes. So… uh, let’s not hear no more of this Sherman Wu hooey, okay?”
“No. No, please, play the rest of it.” Peter wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “I’ll be okay. I want to hear it all, really. I like it.”
Well, damn. Who’da thought? Maybe Peter’s nutty plan to watch sad movies till he didn’t get upset anymore was really working. “Courage” might be too strong a word, but whatever the right word was, Peter did seem to have more of it. It wasn’t obvious, it wasn’t constant, but Mike knew it was there.
“All right. Suppose I can oblige.” He lifted the guitar and resumed accompanying
“‘It was once in the saddle, I used to go dashing.
Once in the saddle, I used to go gay—’”
He stopped once more. Peter was past tears now: hand over his mouth, clearly trying to hide a silly grin. The dimple in his cheek and the merry light in his drying eyes gave him away.
“It don’t mean what you think it means,” Mike told him sharply. “Remember, this is a real old tune. Words change over time. Anyone who heard it in the old days wouldn’t blink twice at that line.”
“It just sounded funny,” Peter said with an unapologetic chuckle.
“Whatever,” Mike huffed, but he didn’t really feel all that annoyed. He’d much rather see Peter laughing his ass off than sobbing his eyes out.
He picked up the melody again, the lyrics winding out of him like fine thread on a loom. As he sang the cowboy’s sorry tale, he was hit with a truth he’d never consciously considered before: this song could be about him. Wasn’t this his own story—a wasted life come to a dead stop in a town where he didn’t belong? Was this how he would end his days, his life’s blood spilling out of him on some cold dirty street, his last breath spent imploring strangers to mourn for him because nobody else would?
“‘Then beat the drum slowly, play the fife lowly.
Play the dead march as you carry me along.
Take me to the green valley, lay the sod over me,
I'm a young cowboy, and I know I've done wrong.’”
And he had. He knew. He’d done so much wrong, and he still was...
“‘Then go write a letter to my gray-haired mother,
And tell her the cowboy that she loved has gone.’”
Ma… He closed his eyes. Ma, what are you doing right now? How much do you hate me for cuttin’ out?
“‘But please not one word of the man who had killed me.
Don't mention his name, and his name will pass on...’”
A warm hand covered his own, stilling the strings. It was an outrageous breach of all the unwritten rules of musical fellowship, but when Mike’s eyes snapped back open he was too stunned to take offense. Stunned by the sight of Peter’s face, earnest and determined and haunted, more grown up than it had any right to be, and much too close to Mike’s own.
“What is it?” Peter whispered.
“What’s what?” Mike’s voice sounded ghostly to his own ears.
“Your name. Please, tell me your real name.”
“I—” Tell him. Go on. You know you can trust him. Just tell him.
Peter seemed even closer than he was only a minute before.
Mike backed up, hard.
“Like I said,” he managed to shrug, “it’s just a song. No need to carry on about it.”
The hand released him. He carefully avoided watching Peter as he started strumming again, but he heard the unmistakable sound of a body slumping dejectedly back to the floor.
“When thus he had spoken, the hot sun was setting…”
Wrong. All of it was wrong, so wrong. Favor or friend, lonesome or horny, crush or madness, truth or more lies. Get close, back up. Let in, push away. Talk, don’t talk—what was supposed to be right left him cold, and what he knew was wrong made him not want to be right.
But, ah, the resilience of youth. When he finally sneaked a peek at Peter again, he was relieved to see the brief cloud had passed. Peter was caught up once more in the song, gently nodding his head in time and intently studying Mike’s finger movements as Mike drew to the finish.
Fingers… caressing… coaxing… wooing sounds from Peter’s guitar… It took only a small leap of the mind to see himself playing Peter the same way. Peter was utterly entranced, served up at Mike’s feet. The horndog Mike had been fighting to keep at bay all afternoon awoke with a vengeance. He was grateful to have a large piece of wood across his front, to hide the other large piece of wood making its presence known in his pants. He’d spent so long faking an interest in keeping johns entertained that real desire was something he’d almost forgotten how to feel. That it was nice, plain, awkward Peter stirring this in him was beyond explanation. Peter, the things I could do to you… Is your guitar as close as I’ll ever get? I’m a pro, I should laugh at a green klutz like you. Instead—do you see what you’re doing to me, without even trying, when all you’re doing is just sitting there and listening? You’re the only one to ever listen…
Voice roughened with the ache of futile wanting, Mike crooned the narrator’s final elegy to the now-dead cowboy and his funeral held by the strangers who were his last tie to the earth.
“…He was a young cowboy, and he said he'd done wrong.”
The final chord lingered in the air, evaporating into the late afternoon winter sunlight shining through the dormer window. Mike lowered the guitar flat on his lap with a sigh, willing himself to simmer down. He tried to think only of the music, marveling at his own hands and what they had wrought.
“You don’t just sing or play that.” Peter’s voice was filled with awe. “It’s like you really live it.”
I do. For a few minutes there, I was really alive again.
“No wonder I never see you at the clubs. You’re too good for them.”
“Helps to have a good piece,” Mike tried to brush off the compliment. “And you sure got one here.”
“I—um, actually that’s what I was trying to tell you earlier: it’s not mine. It’s my roommate’s.”
Mike stared down at the guitar resting on his throbbing crotch. He mechanically counted off to himself each one of its nineteen frets. By the time he reached number seventeen, his far from little problem had subsided. Decent again, he wordlessly handed the guitar over to Peter.
“He doesn’t really like anyone else playing it,” Peter said, replacing the instrument in its case and returning it to stand against the little shelf. “But don’t worry. I won’t tell.”
“Yeah—uh, no harm meant.” Wait a minute, something didn’t make sense here. “How’s
he off playing a gig with no guitar?”
“He plays piano, too. So do I, but we don’t have one. If a club has one, though—we just take the jobs we can get, you know?”
Oh, yeah. Do I ever know.
“I don’t have a guitar. Just the banjo. I’m saving up for one—a guitar, I mean, not another banjo—but it’ll take a while. The good ones are kind of expensive.”
I know that, too. Mike just sat there uselessly on that torture device of a couch, trying not to feel like a kid who’d had his candy stolen.
Before he was even aware of it, a pair of warm, full lips brushed against his cheek.
He looked up to find Peter’s face mere inches from his own. “What was that for?” he asked carefully.
“You just looked kind of down.” Peter blushed. “That’s what my mother does. When I’m down, I mean.” He dropped back onto the floor and appeared to struggle with summoning up his usual bright smile. “So what are you doing for Christmas, Tex?”
None of your business. Don’t ask me to spend it with you. Don’t ask me to spend Christmas in your nice house and your cozy garret with its nice big window and your nice banjo and your buddy’s nice guitar—
“Nothin’ special.” Mike leaned back into the couch. “You gonna watch sappy Christmas movies?”
—and don’t ask me to spend the day with your nice little Christmas tree and nativity scene and your nice full lips and everything else that’s so nice and safe in your life—
—but—if you really want me to—if you really, really want—
“Me? I’m going home to see my family.”
Going home for Christmas. Not here for Christmas. Leaving me for Christmas.
It took Mike a minute to identify the sensation, but then he remembered: it was the same dazed, empty way he’d reacted that day he’d come home to find his first condemned tenement demolished to a pile of rubble. A wall of futility he could only bang his head against, railing at the arbitrary spitefulness of life. As soon as something was within his reach, it was taken away. Again.
He blinked once, twice, then quickly donned his stone-faced armor.
“It’s not really a long trip,” Peter chattered on. “Just to Connecticut. I can’t drive there on my own, but I can take the train.”
“Great. Have a fuckin’ ball.” Damn you, Peter. What did I say about making promises you can’t keep?
“What—Tex, are you okay? Did I—because if—I didn’t mean—”
“Well, maybe you should figure out what you really do mean before you waste my time again. I gotta go.” He lurched up from the couch and stalked past Peter to the door. “Merry fuckin’ Christmas.”
Hating both of them at that moment, Mike got the hell out of there. A warm, deep, and possibly pained voice may have called after him, but his armor could be soundproof when he chose to make it so.
Christmas came and went. No jobs for him; apparently people were too busy trying to be virtuous for just one day in the year. Nothing to do… He wandered around the relatively deserted streets, aimless. He passed by FAO Schwarz again. He took one look at the prices in the windows and kept on walking.
He thought of how, back home, he’d been charged with the task of stretching the family’s few spare bucks to buy Christmas presents for all his little brothers and sisters. Being the practical sort, he’d always bought them the gifts all kids hated but that they really needed: socks and underwear. He’d tried to make up for it by slipping in a Hershey bar for each of them. They might forgive him some day.
And every now and then he thought of a cozy, walkup, guitar-equipped garret in a Greenwich Village row house. Every now and then his feet started heading down Fifth Avenue toward Washington Square Park, toward Bleecker Street… but then he’d remember there was nobody home, because some people kept in touch with their families and were too nice to spare a thought for lone wolves like him.
Five days later, Mike turned twenty.
He marked the milestone by going to see a new movie. One that he wanted to see, starring his hero, John Wayne. By every fair estimate, McLintock! was a good film: plenty of action and laughs, with men who were men and women who were Maureen O’Hara. The hero standing up for what was right. It was the way a Western should be.
But, somehow, it just wasn’t the same.