When a black man and a white man bust out of a chain gang together, only one thing’s for sure: provided they both live (which they only did thanks to whatever scruples that Sheriff Muller had) and go up before a judge who’s something less than a complete bigot (Cullen suspects that Muller pulled some strings there too), and get the same number of years added onto their time, the white man’ll still walk free first. Joker would say them’s just the facts of life.
Cullen walks through the rusting gates, into the glare of a noonday sun, a small bag with a clean shirt, a razor, a lighter and tobacco pouch, and some loose change in his hand. Even if it weren’t the only car waiting outside the prison gates, he’d guess that’s Joker come to pick him up.
To call that car a jalopy don’t come close to describing it. Could be that’s the only kind-a car a man not long out himself could get. Would be that Joker’d come for him in a rusted-out tin can, a dig and a favor wrapped up tight into one bundle.
“Damn, Joker, you go back to that farmstead and sweet-talk that woman into lettin’ you boost her car after all?” Cullen says by way of greeting as he climbs up onto the front seat.
Jackson looks like he might roll his eyes if he weren’t a man full-grown. “You keep runnin’ your mouth and you can walk away from this joint.”
Cullen grins and pulls the door shut. “Where we headed?”
Jackson puts the car into gear. The motor don’t catch till the second try. “North,” is all he says.
He don’t elaborate, don’t say Cullen was right all those years ago. Not that Cullen expected it. He’s content to lean his head against the cracked and worn backseat and close his eyes, warm wind whipping his face through the open window, while Jackson drives.
A black man and a white man, fresh out of prison, riding in the front seat of a car together, are better off avoiding the main roads used by police and other churchgoing folk. Even if they out clean, even if their car ain’t stolen. So night catches them still south of the Ohio River, and they ain’t got enough money between them for a room, nor would any motel or boarding house in those parts take them both, in one room or in two.
Jackson pulls over into a copse of beeches with a stream burbling nearby and fetches some cans of beans out of a canvas bag in the backseat, while Cullen gets a little fire going.
“Better’n a roasted frog, anyway,” he jokes as he maneuvers an open can on the fire by holding it between two sticks, and Jackson pretends that he don’t find that remark the least bit funny.
They sleep sitting up in the car that night, and in the morning Jackson cusses up a storm when he realizes he lost his razor. Cullen rubs his sore neck and lets Jackson carry on for a while before he opens his prison bag and pulls his razor out.
“Here, man, quit your hollerin’. Just mind you don’t cut yourself: could be nickin’ yourself with my razor’d be ‘gainst the law.”
Jackson stares at him like he’s trying to decide whether to punch him. When he snatches the razor out of Cullen’s hand, his fingers connect with Cullen’s skin.
“Funny guy. Just keep runnin’ your damn mouth,” he mutters as he heads to the stream. “See what happens.”
That phrase keeps running around and around in Cullen’s head, like a heat-maddened swallow flying in circles. See what happens, see what happens.
When Jackson comes back, clean-shaven and free of nicks or cuts, Cullen looks at him in the early morning light, golden and slanting, and decides – though it feels wrong, not because it’s a man, but because it’s a white man – that John Jackson is the most beautiful man Cullen’s ever clapped eyes on.
They’d seen each other, on and off, since being captured. They’d even spoken some, joked some, argued some, careful-like, so neither Joker’s people nor Cullen’s people would notice, so the guards wouldn’t notice. Nothing beautiful can exist within a prison’s walls. So this ain’t the first time the thought’s crossed Cullen’s mind, but it is the first time he lets it stay with him.
Cullen puts out his hand, knowing what he does, wondering idly what’s about to happen, and runs his fingers down Jackson’s smooth cheek, from cheekbone down to his jaw. He might’ve caressed a child like that, or a willing woman.
Jackson jerks away from him, like a cut snake, drops the razor in the dirt, and grabs ahold of Cullen’s wrist. His grip is punishing, but Cullen more than half expected it.
“Easy, Joker,” he says softly, like he’s calming a spooked horse. “Easy.”
“Easy! The hell you doin’?”
Jackson’s got his other fist wrapped around the front of Cullen’s shirt now, and he’s trembling like he can’t decide whether to drag Cullen closer, get in his face, or shove him away. “The hell you playin’ at, boy?”
It’s that boy that decides Cullen. He grabs Jackson’s wrist with his free hand, so they’re gripping each other, wrist by wrist, and yanks hard, overbalancing them both.
They land in the dirt, Jackson mostly on top, looking stunned and even madder than before. Cullen may be lying on his back underneath, but he knows how to take a punch, how to roll with one and under a man’s weight coming at him. He locks his wrist so if Jackson tries to pull away, he’ll be doing damage to them both.
Jackson struggles for a bit, then stops. His eyes are wide as a deer’s when he looks at Cullen’s face under him. “Cullen. What are you doin’?” he asks, softer now, sounding almost scared.
A white man scared of him and unable to beat him. Cullen inhales and exhales slowly, like the thought smells of fresh-baked cookies, and lifts his head off the ground, slowly, so Jackson can see him coming.
“Don’t worry, Joker. I ain’t gon’ harm you.”
And he presses his cheek against Jackson’s. He ain’t used the razor in a day, and his stubble rasps against the other man’s smooth skin. Jackson’s breath is loud in his ear. Cullen holds still for a moment, two, three, closes his eyes and breathes calmly, and feels the soft skin, the warm breath on his neck, the weight of Jackson’s body on his thighs. A bird calls from a beech tree, and Cullen opens his eyes and lays his head back on the ground.
Jackson is staring at him, nostrils wide, but no other sign of anger on his face or in his voice. “You gone crazy in the big house? Can’t wait to get to a cathouse or something?”
Cullen can’t help the laugh escaping him – Joker sounds so concerned for his wellbeing – though he knows laughing will get him killed as easy as anything. “Can’t afford a cathouse. Two of us together couldn’t afford it.”
He lets go of Jackson’s wrist, and Jackson lets go in turn, like he forgot he was holding Cullen captive while being held himself, and springs upright, up and off Cullen’s body. “Don’t you got a wife somewhere?”
Cullen puts his hands behind his head, like the dirt is a soft bed. His palms are warm from Jackson’s smooth skin, and he presses them against the back of his neck and his short hair.
“She divorced me after the extra years they piled on us both. She long gone, and my kid with her.” That last part hurts, but he don’t let that knife twist in his belly, waiting for what Jackson will say next.
Jackson wipes his hands roughly against his pants legs, like he just got done with a dirty task he’s well shot of. “Well I ain’t no queer, so don’t get any ideas in that fool head of yours,” he snaps before he turns and stalks off to the car.
Predictable, but Cullen’ll take it. No blood got spilled, Jackson didn’t pull out any of that Charlie Potatoes with a gal on his arm nonsense, and ‘predictable’ can be something to lean on.
Cullen gets up slowly, picks up his razor and knocks the short hairs clumped with dirt from it, kicks dirt over the embers of their fire, and follows Jackson to the car. No point in dragging on that chain now.
“I have one room, and I have two rooms,” she says. “Kitchen between.”
Jackson puts on a smile, the one he must’ve used on the gals once upon a time. “Jiminy, ma’am, that sounds swell, but we’re still lookin’ for work. We’ll take the one room with the stove and the sink, if you’d be so kind.” They can only afford that because they sold that busted ol’ jalopy as soon as they rolled into town.
She looks sour at the loss of the extra rent money, so Jackson adds: “We might talk about the two rooms in a couple months, provided they’re still available.”
“Room with a sink. We either ridin’ high on the hog or back in jail,” Cullen whispers in his ear as they climb the stairs behind their new landlady.
Jackson briefly turns and glares, but doesn’t tell him to shut up. That’s petered out over the days of driving down backroads and the nights of sleeping in the car.
They find work eventually – slaughter houses and canning factories ain’t too particular about ex-cons, especially if they can cut their wages a bit for the privilege of employing them at all – but they never do revisit the issue of how many rooms they inhabit. The landlady finds other tenants for the two rooms with the kitchen, and Jackson never raises the issue with Cullen.
Their routine is simple. They eat breakfast and head out to work. In the evenings, they have a wash in the sink, and Cullen cooks their dinner. (“I was right about you. A fine old lady you make,” Jackson says one Sunday night while potatoes and a treat, Polish sausages, sizzle on the stove. “Keep talkin’, Joker, and I’mma eat all this myself,” Cullen replies, but the exchange takes place with smiles instead of scowls.) They sleep in the sole bed as chaste as monks. On Sunday afternoons, they get plenty of hot water and have a proper wash, stripped naked and standing in the tin washbowl set up before the stove, and every Sunday they argue over who gets to go first.
One spring Sunday, with warm air and warm water conspiring to do him good, Cullen turns his head and catches Jackson staring at him. Jackson’s expression looks more taken aback by what he’s seeing than by being caught looking.
“Whassa matter, Joker? You ain’t never seen a man in his most natural state before?”
“Not like you, I ain’t.” Jackson goes to say something else, catches himself, licks his lips, and says it anyway. “Turn all the way around.”
Cullen does, his prick before him hard as a clothes peg. He’s got soap on his hands and washes his armpits while watching Jackson stare at him, round-eyed.
Finally it’s all too much.
“Jesus, man, it’s a prick. What you think it’s gon’ do, talk to you?”
He drops his soapy hand and wraps it around his prick. Strokes it once, from base to tip, a little white appearing at the tip.
“See, it don’t talk none.”
He doesn’t know why he said that, or what he’s doing, but it’s too late to stop now. They been looking away and pretending nothing is there, in that room with them, for months already, and Cullen never did find his way to a cathouse.
“Do that again.”
Cullen looks up from his prick to Jackson’s open, hungry face, and something turns to iron in his spine. He lets go of himself, juts out his jaw. “Don’t order me around. You want it done, do it yourself.”
Jackson takes a half step toward him before he catches himself and stops, looking unbalanced in mid-step.
“What if… What if we both did it?”
Cullen raises an eyebrow, expecting to be treated like a boy again any second, but Jackson is looking at the floor, his hands shaking as he unzips himself, takes himself out, and goddamn if he ain’t as hard and red as a white man’s prick can get (the warm water has an effect on Jackson too, when he bathes, though he thinks Cullen never noticed).
Cullen starts to say something, doesn’t. Whatever it was, it would come out harsher than he means it, angrier than he wants. He’s still a bit angry, at Jackson for not looking at him steady, instead darting his eyes from floor to Cullen’s body and back again, at himself for taking himself in hand again and jacking, fast and hard, at the both of them for jacking and breathing heavy as one yet staying a yard apart. He’s been mad his whole natural life, and that makes his grip tighter now, makes his blood run warmer, makes the look on Jackson’s face when he finds his release the sweeter.
Cullen laughs, feeling like his whole body is singing, from the top of his head to the tips of his toes. He’s kneeling on the bed between Johnny Jackson’s pale legs and pushing his finger as deep as it’ll go into the man’s pale ass.
“What you think, Joker, petroleum jelly just appear on its own when it’s needed?”
He pushes, pushes, and Johnny’s long back jerks, his forearms tense as he grips his pillow, and his backside twitches, as if afraid Cullen will remove his finger and leave him in a predicament.
Cullen keeps talking, still on the subject of the open jar of petroleum jelly sitting on the windowsill. “It don’t need to be bought, or brought back here from the pharmacy, or the money for it set aside after you keep goin’ on about how we need to get us some? That what you think? It here when you want it here?”
He twists his finger, does it again and again, like he’s drilling, and Johnny lets out a high noise, almost like a girl singing scales.
Cullen withdraws, reaches into the jar, and rubs more jelly between his fingers. He’s so hard, he hurts, and they ain’t here to play games.
They know each other by now, know each other’s skins, and mouths, and pricks, and hands, and smooth, strong thighs. They even know this, the finger pushed inside, Johnny’s only making noise ‘cause they ain’t never gone as far as they about to go. And it was Johnny’s idea, one night last week, after work yet not too tired for this, Cullen standing with his back to the wall and Johnny clinging to him like a goddamn vine. Johnny had his mouth pressed, wet and warm, to Cullen’s neck, his hand cradling the back of Cullen’s head, both of them trying to grip their pricks together and getting in each other’s way yet neither willing to give it up to the other. “I want,” Johnny panted, jerking, mouth to Cullen’s skin. “I want… want… fuck you.”
And Cullen withdrew his hand, let Johnny jack them both, so he could grip Johnny’s hips with both hands and bring their bodies even closer and press his mouth to Johnny’s ear. “Me first, man. Me first,” he whispered, and Johnny came all over them both, his whole body shaking.
He complained about it later, of course, said Cullen was crazy if he thought Johnny was gonna get on hands and knees for him, or on his back, like some girl. Like some queer. And Cullen nodded, and said of course, whatever you say, Joker. Whatever you want, Joker.
Now, on the bed, the jar on the windowsill and Johnny spread and waiting, Johnny Jackson’s none too patient about what he wants.
“Come on, man, what are you doin’? You playin’ tricks on me?” he says, querulous, twisting his neck to glance back over his shoulder without getting out of position.
Cullen wraps an arm around his waist, feels Johnny’s stomach muscles tighten, as he holds himself in his slick hand and starts pushing in, and Johnny twitches and starts panting again.
“This the kind of tricks you white folks play on each other?”
Cullen is panting too. Jesus, that feels good. It feels good. He closes his eyes and exhales, long and loud, when he’s all in, gripped tight, his sack touching Johnny’s, and that feels good too, Cullen never even imagined it.
He thrusts a few times, shallow, trying it out, and he knows already this ain’t gonna last long, and he’s gonna savor every goddamn moment of it. He plants his right knee on the mattress and his left foot on the floorboards, grips Johnny’s hips, and starts moving, sack slapping against sack. He’s watching Johnny, his ass (hard prick in him, stretching him), his long back, his hair curling at the nape, his flushed neck. Every time Cullen pushes in, Johnny’s shoulders gather tightly, the muscles knot along his arms and back, and Johnny pushes back, meeting him, taking him.
“That feel good?” Cullen asks, catching his breath.
Johnny says something into his pillow, lifts his head.
“You planned this, didn’t you?” he repeats, thrusting back, sounding almost calm and like he ain’t rutting against Cullen. “This is what you always wanted, ain’t it?”
Cullen knows him well by now, knows that he don’t just mean you wanted to fuck me first, but you wanted a white man under you, one who called you names, one who owed you his life. Even when no violence is present, offered or threatened, it lingers like a bad habit.
(Later, days later, for it’ll take them both a bit of time to screw up their courage again, Cullen will be the one on hands and knees, and it’ll terrify him when Johnny is all inside him and Johnny grabs ahold of Cullen’s shoulders, thumbs on the vulnerable patches of skin between collarbone and neck, and Johnny presses his lips to the back of Cullen’s neck and Johnny says, “I wanted you, all this time. You got any clue how that feels?” It’ll terrify Cullen how that makes his hard prick even harder, how tenderness can flay him in an instant.)
Now, before he knows this, Cullen still knows what Johnny means, and he laughs and thrusts, quick and hard, and says, inspiration seizing ahold of him: “Well, no kin of mine ever got their forty acres, but I guess I got something for myself after all.”
Johnny bucks and grips his pillow and spits: “You callin’ me a goddamn mule?”
“We-e-ell…” And he leans back, the better to see, the better to feel as he keeps fucking this man, this man under him. “You’re plenty stubborn (thrust), and you bray as loud as any (thrust thrust), and you like it when I ride you.”
Johnny starts to call him a son of a bitch again, but Cullen takes ahold of his prick, and Cullen thrusts hard, and Johnny ain’t got breath left for speaking. He bucks wildly as he spills over Cullen’s hand, and Cullen pulls Johnny back into his thrusts as it fills him to the brim and rips into him with sharp claws, and he thinks this may be what dying happy feels like as he spills inside Johnny, crying out to the ceiling, crying up unto heaven.
Fighting is different from bickering. The latter’s their natural state of being. They almost never speak to each other without a taunt or a joke in it, words with some bite to ‘em – except sometimes, late at night, lying in their bed, one of them with his arm lying heavy over the other’s back or chest. (The first time Johnny fell asleep holding Cullen close, Cullen’d licked his prick, teased him till Johnny got all the way through swearing and demanding and instead begged him for more, then came almost as soon as Cullen sucked it, Johnny’s eyes riveted to the sight of his prick between Cullen’s lips. Cullen likes that memory.)
The fight happens when Cullen hears on the radio about the killing of Dr. King and experiences an impulse to travel to the man’s funeral.
Johnny turns sullen at the idea, though Cullen didn’t ask him to come with, or maybe that’s why.
“Ain’t safe for you to be hitchin’ South, and we ain’t got the money for a pleasure jaunt. And you’ll get laid off,” Johnny says with a kind of dark relish, like there’s no disputing that argument.
“There’ll be other jobs, Joker.”
The look on Johnny’s face tells him this is not a moment for that name, but it’s already out in the room, like a rat scurrying behind the stove.
“What do you want to go down there for anyway?” Johnny jabs, jabs with his words. “Southern hospitality? You never went on no marches.”
“We work twelve-hour days. We don’t live here, we live on the assembly line.” Cullen resents the tremble in his voice, his anger stoked by being forced to justify himself. “I didn’t hear you clamorin’ to go, neither.”
Johnny scoffs, feeling himself on solider ground. “Me? What for? When have those people ever stood up for someone like me? Huh? You tell me that. When’d they ever demand rights for the rest of us who are poor and wretched? Your Doctor King, and what’s he a doctor of anyway, your Doctor King and the rest of them ni–”
Cullen is in Johnny’s space before he is aware of his body moving. He is so close he can see the pupils of Johnny’s clear eyes blow. They are pressed chest to chest, and this is not a dance of sex they’re dancing, but of death, of bloody murder, of bodies swinging from ropes and broken by the sides of country roads.
“Don’t you fuckin’ say it,” Cullen says, his voice shaking now with something like an earthquake. “Not you. Not after all this time. You hear me?”
He is not afraid of Johnny. He is afraid of murdering Johnny if Johnny says another word.
Noah Cullen’s mama raised him not to swear, and he almost never does, not with the things that truly matter – he’ll take the Lord’s name in vain, but he don’t say “fuck” easily, not even while fucking. That alone, apart from his tone, apart from how he knows he must look in that moment, tells Johnny he should apologize, but Johnny can’t. Charlie Potatoes don’t apologize, ever, to anybody.
Johnny turns and walks out, slamming the door, and leaves Cullen in their room alone. Comes back near dawn, stinking of drink, his knuckles scraped and bloody. Cullen don’t ask questions or make any comment, and Johnny offers no explanation. They’re silent and wary of each other for a while after that, until the day Johnny tunes his portable radio to the sound of a speaker narrating the funeral procession. They both sit at the table where they eat and clean their shoes and play cards, and listen, unspeaking.
Most days, Cullen doesn’t notice age catching up with them so much. His eyes ain’t so good, and the men on the assembly line tease him for his new specs, while the younger women pretend to flirt with him, call him Teach and joke about polishing his apples. Johnny’s hip starts to give him trouble from time to time, but he turns it into a bitter joke, telling Cullen it’s Cullen’s fault his hip’s giving up, when they lie on their sides ‘stead of kneeling, pressed together chest to back, Johnny jacking himself with Cullen’s prick in him. (“Yeah, man, this all on me,” Cullen whispers in Johnny’s ear, holds Johnny’s arms and torso tight while Johnny’s breath catches, and allows himself to bite Johnny’s shoulder, just to see that patch of skin bloom red.)
Whenever Cullen passes their landlady on the stairs, he notices how her hair turns gray, how her lipstick bleeds into the creases around her mouth. She’s the mirror showing him the old age he mostly ignores in himself and Johnny.
One day, out of the blue, she tells Cullen about a parade happening that weekend.
“Is supposed to be nice,” she says, sorting through the day’s mail, less like she’s avoiding Cullen’s eye than like she’s too busy to look at him. “Very bright, very cheerful. I thought you two might like go.”
Then she pulls out the one letter addressed to either of them – Cullen can tell at a glance what it is: Johnny’s behind on his union dues, again – hands it to Cullen with a level look and a firm nod, and bustles off.
“You think she’s known all along?” Johnny asks him later that night, in bed.
“I think not much escapes her,” Cullen replies, watching the headlights of a passing car slice across the ceiling like twin searchlights. “Anyway, you wan’ go?”
Johnny snorts. “What for? Ain’t no place there for men like us. What we got in common with them? Pride, my bohunk ass.”
Cullen turns his head on the pillow to look at Johnny, eyebrows raised.
“Don’t,” Johnny says after a moment. “Do not even think about makin’ a joke.”
Cullen smiles and lets it go.
On their day off, they find themselves putting on clean shirts and their best coats, and taking a walk downtown. It’s curiosity, pure and simple.
The parade is indeed as bright and cheerful as their landlady promised. It reminds Cullen of the Catholic saints-days’ processions some of the white folks in his town used to put on when he was a boy. His mama always claimed Catholics were the devil, but little Noah Cullen loved the sight of the floats, the brightly painted statues, the candles burning in broad daylight. He knew his mama would take his late pa’s belt to him for sneaking out to watch, but it was worth it. When they’d carry the statue of Mary past him, in her red robe and blue cloak, he could really believe she was the queen of heaven.
There’s a young man made up like a girl, dressed in bright colors – blue, yellow, red, pink – being driven in a slow-moving convertible, and he looks like the queen of heaven too. Cullen can’t claim he understands or much likes everything he sees, but he supposes it’s preferable to not seeing it, not being able to see it. For himself, he’s content to sit on a bench a little way away, next to Johnny, and watch.
Johnny’s struggling to light a cigarette in the breeze, finally manages, hunched inside his greatcoat like a spy in a movie.
“That’s a swell car,” he says of the convertible in which the queen of heaven rides, inhales a lungful of smoke, then plucks the cigarette from his lips and puts it to Cullen’s.
Cullen has to remind himself to grip the cigarette with his lips, or it’ll fall and burn a hole in his coat. “What you doin’?” he says out of the corner of his mouth.
Johnny looks away from the convertible, frowns at Cullen’s expression. “What?”
Cullen takes the cigarette from his lips carefully, like a relic. “You never given me a cigarette from your mouth before.”
The frown deepens. “What are you talkin’ about? We share cigarettes all the time.”
“No, I light one and give it to you, or you give me a pull off-a yours when I ask for one. You ain’t never lit one for me before.”
Not even when they’re alone, let alone in the street, with other people around. Not that anyone’s looking at two old men on a bench, what with all the brightly dressed young ‘uns around. They cannot begin to imagine how strange it is for these two men to be together, sitting on a bench.
Johnny stares at Cullen a moment longer before he shakes his head and pulls another cigarette from his pack.
“You really are turnin’ into an old lady, you know that?” he mutters as he lights up. He avoids Cullen’s eye as he smokes, hollowing his cheeks to inhale deep, and watches the parade like he’s considering picking a fight with it.
Cullen watches Johnny’s profile, the jaw getting a little heavy, the lines around the mouth and eyes, and takes a precious drag on the cigarette he was given before it burns itself out. He stubs it out under his shoe and stands up.
“Let’s walk. I want a beer.”
He holds out his arm for Johnny to grab so he can hoist himself upright, since the stubborn ass won’t use a cane. Cullen does so without looking, a habit, but Johnny doesn’t take ahold of his arm at once.
Cullen glances down at Johnny sitting motionless on the bench, his eyes on the parade.
“You’re draggin’ on the chain, man,” Cullen says softly.
Johnny glances heavenward before he takes ahold of Cullen’s wrist and inner elbow and starts pulling himself upright with effort.
“Runnin’ your damn mouth,” he grumbles, and Cullen smiles, holding his arm stiff and steady for Johnny to hold on to.