Cornelius and Barnaby worked tirelessly, day after day for pennies at Horace Vandergelder’s small feed store. They never complained and never tutted when they were pushed to exhaustion (though Cornelius was working up his confidence to ask for a raise, much to Barnaby’s dismay that he may get in trouble). On this particular day, with the sun shining down as it always did in bright Yonkers, Cornelius stood polishing the banister. Barnaby was struggling to pull a large bag of seed from one corner to the other, puffing as he did.
“Hey, Barnbs?” Barnaby stopped what he to glance over at his taller friend, blowing the blonde hair from his face.
“What is it?” He asked, desperate to finish moving this heavy bag before Mr. Vandergelder shouted at him for slacking off again.
“I wish I could court someone.” Cornelius sighed a love-sick sigh and stopped his job, staring into the shiny banister with saddened eyes. Barnaby couldn’t help but shake his head.
“Yeah, you only tell me every other day.” After moving the bag a few more inches, he decided to give up and instead approached his friend, giving him a reassuring pat on the shoulder.
“There ain’t nobody in Yonkers for us! You can’t court somebody who doesn’t exist.” There was certainly nobody for Barnaby, that was for sure. Well, he could think of one person but that was off limits and he knew it.
“I know but…” Cornelius sighed dramatically again, taking a seat on the stairs.
“I wish I could at least practise. So then when I meet the love of my life, I won’t make no mistakes.” The smaller man couldn’t help but laugh at his idealism and sat beside him.
“Well why don’t you ask Ms. Dolly Levi?” Dolly could fix anything, nothing seemed to stop her.
“I suppose. But where am I going to get the time to practise when I’m in work all the time?” Just as he seemed to sink deeper into himself, Barnaby got an idea. An…odd one for sure, but it could work.
“Use me!” He jumped up, exclaiming as if his idea was earth shattering. Cornelius looked up at him with pure confusion.
“We both work together. You can practise courting with me! And it’s not weird because we’re best friends so people won’t look at us funny.” Barnaby knew he was suggesting something crazy and bit his bottom lip in anticipation. The slow realisation on Cornelius’ face of ‘holy cow this could work!’ made a grin appear. Soon he had also jumped up and pulled his shorter friend into a small hug.
“Why, ain’t you a genius? What would I do without you, Barnaby?” He gave him a nuggie and the younger boy couldn’t help but blush at the compliment. They began to laugh but were soon interrupted with the bell of the door ringing and Barnaby sliding away from Cornelius. Thankfully it was only Mr. Vandergelder and his tiny niece Ermengarde. They were arguing with each other, not uncommon as the man courting her didn’t see eye to eye with her uncle, and she had tears running down her face per the norm.
“But uncle! It’s not fair! It’s the biggest festival this town has! I have to go with Ambrose!” She tugged at his jacket for him to bat her away with a newspaper, a scowl on his face never changing.
“I’ve told you no. He’s not in his right mind, and an ‘artist’ is not a proper job!” He stepped forward throughout his shop and soon tripped over a stray bag of feed, snapping immediately at this small inconvenience.
“Hackl! Move this now!” Cornelius ran over with a nod and began to pull it out of the way whilst a weepy girl followed Horace.
“I hate you!” She gave him a weak shove and ran up the stairs past Barnaby, pushing him out of the way to her room and slamming the door on the way up. This just received a grunt and an eye roll from Horace.
“I’m going to my study to do my finances. Cornelius is in charge.” He said to Barnaby and soon headed upstairs himself. Barnaby soon relayed the message to his friend, and it wasn’t long until an old farmer had wandered in. The taller man ushered him to the side and they began talking business; something Cornelius was surprisingly good at. After all, he had watched Mr. Vandergelder do it for so long it was like a second language to him. Barnaby soon found himself with nothing to do. He stacked and restacked a few cans, staring out the window and wishing he could join the couples frolicking in the grass outside.
“Psssst.” Barnaby snapped out of his daze, blinking and shaking his head.
“Psssst!” This time he glanced around, knowing he heard the second that second time.
“Up here, dummy!” He looked up the stairs to see Ermengarde with her head poking out of the door, gesturing for him. Barnaby glanced around for a second (just to check she meant him) and quietly went upstairs, hoping Cornelius was too distracted with the customer. Ermengarde grabbed him and pulled him into her room, shutting the door behind her. She stood only in her underwear, with her underskirt and undershirt arranged neatly on her body. Barnaby immediately averted his gaze, choosing instead to stare at the slightly creepy wall full of collection dolls.
“You can look I don’t care. But don’t be no peeping Tom!” She placed her foot on a chair and tightened the laces on her shoe.
“Uh… Do you need something miss?” Barnaby had never really talked to her before and wondered what this was all about. She turned to him and in a hushed whisper explained.
“Look- The annual Pumpkin Festival is tonight, right?” He nodded, letting his eyes settle back on her face, afraid to look anywhere else.
“And Mr. Vandergelder said you can’t go.” She rolled her eyes at his statement, hands placed on her hips.
“Yes, well. I’ve decided I am going. And I need your help to sneak me out. And get me dressed.” She moved over to her dresser and handed him a corset. He simply stared down at it in his hands like it was a foreign object he’d never seen before.
“Gosh, you’re useless. My maid usually helps me but she’s out of town this week. Just tighten it until I say stop, okay?” She did most of the work herself, slipping it on and managing to lace it up loose enough that all Barnaby had to do was pull. He did his best and tied it in a shaky double loop knot, feeling somewhat proud that he had managed that. He then helped her shimmy into her dress – a frilly auburn piece, fastening it at the back for her. Once she had finished messing with her hair in the mirror, she turned to him with a smile.
“Thank you, Barnaby. But the worst is yet to come.” The grandfather clock soon chimed downstairs which signalled the end of the work day for the boys. Ermengarde pushed him out of her room just as Horace exited his study. Before he had the time to question why he was upstairs, he was instead greeted with a babbling excited Cornelius who had just made his first sale.
“And then he asked for a tractor to rent! And I said sure but it’ll cost you extra, and…” Horace was pulled along by Cornelius and Ermengarde peeked out of the door.
“Go to the back window.” She whispered and gave her best discreet wink – looking more like a nervous twitch – before Barnaby nodded and grabbed his hat and jacket.
“You seem quick to leave Tucker. Off somewhere?” Horace asked, seemingly just to move the conversation away from Cornelius. The younger man sweated, glancing out of the door with desperation.
“Well actually I wanted to go to the Pumpkin Festival tonight!” He spat out as a cover, scratching the back of his head. Horace scowled, taking a few steps closer to the door.
“I don’t think so. You didn’t mop today.” Cornelius looked between the two with an arched brow, as it didn’t sound like his friend to not do his duties.
“Oh? I must have forgot. I’ll do it tomorrow I promise sir!” Barnaby opened the door only for Horace to slam his hand on it, shutting it as the bell rang out throughout the shop.
“You can stay late. You have no need to go to this ‘festival’ anyway. Hackl, you can go, since you made a sale.” And with that, Horace left and dropped the keys on the table for them to lock up. Barnaby groaned once he’d seen him turn the street and put his head in his hands.
“Oh no, I need to leave!” Cornelius grabbed his younger friend gently by the collar, pulling him back.
“Hey, what’s the rush? And how come you didn’t do your work? That ain’t like you!” Barnaby turned to him and looked at him with pleading eyes.
“Ermengarde needed help dressing – not in that way! She’s sneaking out to the Pumpkin Festival and is sneaking out of the back window as we speak. Which is where Mr. Vandergelder is headed right at this moment! She’s going to get caught!” Barnaby paced for a few seconds, wringing his hat in his hands before stopping.
“Cornelius! You must stop him. I can head round the other way and get her out of here before he sees. We’ll meet back out front in ten minutes, got it?” Cornelius wanted to ask a million questions, but with the look of pleading on his face he simply nodded. With that, Cornelius used his asset of long legs to his advantage and ran out of the shop, shouting Mr. Vandergelder’s name like a lost child. Barnaby hurriedly made his way to the back window where he could see a pair of legs waving out of the window.
“Ermengarde! You’ll have to jump!” A grunt was heard from inside as her legs kicked a few times.
“Are you crazy? It’s a second-floor window? I’ll break my ankles!” Barnaby gulped as he heard Horace’s voice just around the corner, sounding unamused as Cornelius babbled on about the farmer and the tractor again.
“Tucker, I do not have time for this. Tell somebody who cares.” Barnaby let out a worried groan and whispered up again.
“It’s the only option! Quickly, your uncle is coming!” They both heard the gravel footsteps from the corner and she gulped, letting herself fall from the window and miraculously, Barnaby caught her. They saw the shoe of Horace as he rounded the corner and they ran the other way, missing him by seconds. He put her down and grabbed her arm, tugging her back around to the front of the shop where Cornelius was sat on the porch. Barnaby gave him thumbs up and he locked up the store, not bothering to mop up. He decided he’d come in early tomorrow to do it instead.
“Thank you so much Barnaby! I have to get going now, Ambrose is meeting me outside the bakery and he’ll be there any minute!” Standing on her tip toes, she gave Barnaby a friendly peck on the cheek and ran off, her brown hair bouncing in the distance. He then put on his hat and smiled to Cornelius, getting ready to set off.
“You off home?” Cornelius asked. Barnaby shrugged, shoving his hands into his pockets.
“I guess?” There were a few moments of silence before Cornelius spoke up, looking jittery.
“You know how you said before, about me practising…courting, with you?” Barnaby nodded. “Well we could do that now. I’ll take you to the Pumpkin Festival! Maybe if you’re good I’ll treat you to ice cream.” He joked and nudged Barnaby in his side, who chuckled in response. Though on the inside he was a nervous wreck.
“Sure! Sure. Yep. That sounds great! I look a mess though. I ain’t got no nice clothes to change into.” In response, the older man shrugged and linked arms with him.
“You look fine. I ain’t no fancy gentleman like Mr. Ambrose and Miss. Ermengarde anyway.” He accepted the link and let Cornelius talk his ear off about the sale he made all the way to the festival.
Once they had finally made it to the festival, they were in awe at it. Though it was something they had attended every year, this year seemed to be even better and more decorated than the last. Of course, it was no question that the quality would improve now that Dolly Levi herself was in charge of the committee. She only ever gave 'one hundred and ten percent' as she would often say, which confused Barnaby as he thought you could only have a hundred percent and no more. Regardless, the large field was now decorated with stalls of food and games and even a merry-go-round situated in the middle of it, with a large ferris wheel framing the picture. There were lanterns lit to give the area a cosy feel, and children ran around on the grass chasing each other whilst their parents looked onwards with a smile. A live band had been set up near the performance area where a stage had been built just for this occasion. Barnaby squeezed Cornelius' arm and they entered the fair, giving a nod to a few people who recognised from the shop.
"Wow. You can sure tell this has 'Dolly Levi' all over it." Barnaby remarked, and Cornelius nodded in agreement.
"It sure is beautiful though. I didn't even know Yonkers could look so wonderful!" Barnaby laughed and glanced up at his friend, catching his eye for a moment before looking away distractedly.
"Oh! Look! A hoop toss game!" He didn't have much money to spend - neither of them did really with the small wage they were on - but Barnaby was a sucker for these games (even though he knew they were rigged). He payed for three hoops and gave each one a toss, his tongue stuck out in concentration and one eye scrunched up to help with aim. It must not have helped much as all three hoops missed. The last one spun on the spike for a second before bouncing off. The game operator mumbled a gruff 'Bad luck' and Barnaby backed off with a defeated look in his eyes. Joining Cornelius, the older man couldn't stand to see his friend like that. Slapping his money on the counter, he proclaimed,
"Three hoops please!" The operator threw the three hoops at him and he tried his best to aim - but missing all three just like Barnaby before. Glancing back, he furrowed his brows and bought another set of rings. Missed again. When he began reaching into his pocket for more change, Barnaby tugged at his arm.
"C'mon. It's rigged! Let's just go. I didn't even want a stupid toy anyway." Even though his heart said otherwise. Cornelius sighed and linked back up with Barnaby, still buying an extra set of rings as he was determined to win this just to prove the operator wrong. With a deep breath, he threw his first one. It clanked against the spike and landed on the floor. The second one was centimetres closer but it still missed. With the third one, he gave himself a second of composure before he threw it. It circled the top of the spike before sliding on it. With a gasp, he grabbed his friend and shook him.
"I did it! Barnbs I did it!" They jumped up and down and embraced, grinning at each other. When they pulled away, eye contact remained for a second too long and the operator cleared his throat.
"Pick a toy, fellas." The emphasis on fellas made Barnaby shrink back into his shell, pointing at a teddy that had a bowtie and glasses on. He had to remind himself that Cornelius was only with him because he was practising for taking a lady out. And nothing more. The man took the teddy down and threw it to them; Barnaby immediately hugged it to his chest.
"Right. Enough of the games, I'm hungry! All I can smell is popcorn and pie and cotton candy... My stomach is growling." Cornelius said and they followed their noses to where all the food stalls were. Cornelius bought himself a large slice of pumpkin pie whilst Barnaby settled on a candied apple. 'It's healthy!' he explained, which made Cornelius snicker and reply with 'So is pumpkin! It's a vegetable.' They soon took a seat near the stage but far enough away that they weren't near any of the dancers. Cornelius took a bit of his pie and Barnaby nibbled on a piece of the melted toffee. They were enjoying the warm weather and lively music when a shadow covered them. Looking up was a familiar face in a bright red dress and enormous hat.
"Mr. Hackl, Mr. Tucker, what a surprise! I'm amazed Horace let you out of the store to come here. You know what he's like with festivals. Say, have you seen him around? I invited him to come but you know what he's like, such a grump." She grinned and winked to them, sitting on Barnaby's free side and letting her feather boa slide down to the floor.
"Evening, Ms. Levi." Cornelius said as he wiped his mouth of crumbs. Barnaby laughed as he watched him, his gaze lingering. Dolly cleared her throat, as if to remind them that she too was now here.
"Oh! Hi Ms. Levi. Lovely event! It's astounding. Not many pumpkins though... And I haven't seen Mr. Vandergelder at all. Though Ermengarde and Ambrose are here." Dolly nodded and smiled.
"I know. I've spoken to that young girl already. Always getting herself into trouble, isn't she? And dragging others into it." She eyed up Barnaby and he looked away, playing with a daisy in the grass.
"Well. Anyway. I must get going. The singer hasn't arrived yet and she's up next. And I'm determined to make Mr. Vandergelder come and enjoy himself. Maybe even get him to dance. Ohoho! Imagine. Right." She stood up and dusted herself off, wrapping her feather boa around her shoulders. She then picked up Barnaby's teddy, giving it a hug and deciding to put it in a safe place for him in case he lost it.
"You two boys have a nice night. Enjoy it. Be yourselves." She aimed that last statement to Barnaby, winking subtly at him and taking off, chasing a man with a tray of champagne glasses. Cornelius wiped his hands on his slacks.
"She's a weird lady, isn't she?" Barnaby ignored his statement, instead taking her words to heart. He stood up and threw the rest of his toffee apple into a bin nearby.
"Cornelius Hackl. Would you like to dance?" Cornelius burst into laughter as Barnaby bowed to him, holding out his hands.
"Fellas don't dance with each other, Barnbs, you know that!" Barnaby sighed but didn't let this deter him.
"But I thought I wasn't a fella tonight Cornelius? I'm a lady! And you is supposed to dance with a lady. Though I guess you'd be asking me in this situation..." He let out a jittery laugh and Cornelius stood up, humouring him. He took his hand and led him to the grassy area where the other couples were dancing. As they joined the floor, a few scoffs were heard and even some people moved away. Barnaby hesitated - the world didn't seem ready for this. His hands hovered over Cornelius' shoulders when just above them, he saw Dolly giving him her smile of 'You're doing fine'. With a deep breath, he placed his hands on his shoulders and Cornelius' hands went on Barnaby's waist. They had never danced before, but this wasn't dancing and more so swaying. Soon the people around them seemed to ignore the two man dancing together and let their own conversations continue. After the song ended, a female entered the stage with her band (who Barnaby could assume was the singer who was late). She started singing a soft love ballad as the boys swayed together.
"This is nice." Barnaby said, letting himself be brave and rest his head against Cornelius' chest. Cornelius smiled and led them as they danced.
"Sure is. You make a good broad, Barnaby. Why, I might just catch myself fallin' for ya." Barnaby's heart stopped and he pulled away slightly, looking up at his friend. Barnaby wanted to tell him so badly about his feelings, but he was so scared of being dismissed. Called disgusting - sent away for being a pervert. He ain't ever heard of nobody like him except in a book he found in the library. In the book the man fell in love with his friend and they lived happily ever after without any prejudice. Something Barnaby only dreamed of. As the girl's sweet and sultry voice sang out, Barnaby sighed.
"Cornelius? I can tell you anything, right?" The taller man nodded, letting out a hum that Barnaby felt in his chest.
"Well. I'm...different." Cornelius laughed and arched a brow at his friend.
"Course you are. In your own special way." Barnaby frowned, wishing his friend wasn't so dim at times.
"No, not good different. Bad different."
"Why? You committed a crime or something?"
"No, I... Cornelius. I don't like gals." Cornelius looked at him with confusion, blinking.
"Well, what do you like then?" Barnaby wasn't going to say it. There was silence for a few seconds.
"Yeah. Cornelius, I-" Once he realised what Barnaby meant, he pulled away like he'd been burnt severely. Barnaby stumbled backwards a few steps, looking towards him with betrayal.
"Barnaby, I can't- We're not- I'm not... I can't do this." Cornelius turned away from him and Barnaby grabbed his arm. Cornelius pulled away, shaking him off. The younger man felt his eyes become wet as he took another step back, before turning and running off before anyone could see his eyes leak. After all, boys weren't supposed to cry. But could he even be called that? He wasn't a man, he was a sinner.
"Cornelius. Hackl." The familiar voice boomed out and Cornelius looked up to see Dolly staring back at him with an un-amused look. The teddy bear he won sat in the crook of her arm. Why, she had half a mind to slap this oaf for hurting Barnaby, but kept herself calm.
"Ms. Levi, I can't..." She cut him off.
"He trusted you. He told you his deepest secret and you pushed him away like he was dirty. You should be ashamed. If you have half a mind you'd go and apologise right now." She shoved the bear to his chest and he grabbed it, looking at her with an open mouth. He scrambled to say something but had nothing to say. She pointed him in the direction where he ran off to and Cornelius turned on his heel, going to find him.
Barnaby sat on the floor against the ferris wheel ride. He wiped his eyes and hugged his knees to his chest. He knew this was going to happen. And he was stupid enough to take the risk of telling him. Why did he think he could trust him? Why did he think that, for that one second, the feelings were reciprocated? He groaned and rested his head against his knees, closing his eyes away from all of the bright lights surrounding him.
"Barnaby?" Barnbs?" He let out an irritated sigh at the voice he heard. Cornelius soon spotted him and approached him nervously. They both looked away for a few moments before Cornelius sat gently next to him (leaving enough space) and handed him back the bear he'd won. Barnaby took it without a thanks and hugged it tightly.
"Barnaby I'm sorry." He knew he had to say it. And he was, he genuinely was. What kind of a friend treats a friend like this? Dolly was right, he should be ashamed. He was.
"Cornelius, don't. You don't have to give me pity. I know I'm a freak and-and no good and I shouldn't be alive but I am. It's a horrible existence. Having these forbidden feelings and knowing I'll never be normal. I'll never get a chance to be courted or kiss or dance or be happy." Cornelius was quiet as he listened. Barnaby had bitterness in his voice and he clenched his fist. Cornelius placed a careful hand over his, helping him relax his hand again.
"I really am sorry. I panicked. You know I love you, no matter what, right?" Cornelius opened his arm up for Barnaby to crawl to, resting his head on the other's shoulder. They stayed there, cuddling and it seemed okay again.
"Barnaby, do you...like me? Like, in a more-than-friends way?" Barnaby was silent for a moment. Saying it out loud made it scary and he didn't know if he was brave enough for this. Instead he nodded his head slightly, refusing to look up at him. Cornelius sighed and pressed a kiss on the top of Barnaby's head.
"I've had more fun courting you than I've ever had talking to any woman in Yonkers." Barnaby had no clue was he was jabbering on about this time, but let him continue.
"And, and I don't think I've ever thought about men like... that. But, you ain't like most men Barnbs. We know everything about each other. But I learned something new about you today. And I guess I learned something new about myself too." The younger boy shifted his head, letting himself be eye level.
"What do you mean?" Cornelius was more of a risk taker than Barnaby, but Barnaby had taken so many risks today he thought he'd spare him of this last one. He pressed his lips to the other's quickly. It was nothing more than a touch; a whisper. As soon as it started it had finished. But it was enough. Barnaby reached for Cornelius' hand and entangled their fingers.
"This date isn't over yet. We haven't even ridden any of the rides." Barnaby joked and Cornelius stood up, lifting him up with him. They walked over to the ticket man and bought two tickets for the ferris wheel. Thankfully it was dark enough that no one would notice their hands entwined. They climbed into the little pod and cuddled up together, enjoying the view of the Pumpkin Festival as the band played sweet melodies out and the lamps flickered in the distance.