Axel’s room was just exactly what Tommy’d guessed it would be: rented by the week to a bachelor who didn’t allow himself any comforts lest it seemed, even to himself, like he cared for his own wellbeing. The metal bedstead held an old mattress and only the one pillow, the hanging lightbulb was dusty and bare, and the window blind was faded. The only personal object in the room was the framed photo on the highboy: Andy, no doubt. Looked just like Axel but with a bright smile.
“Hey, thanks for letting me stay, man,” Tommy said. “Hate being alone at home when Lucy takes her mother to Peg Leg Bates’.”
“Sure. We might have gone to yours, though, if you wanted company. There’s not much here.” Axel glanced around his room like it only just occurred to him that it was a dump, not fit for a man to live in.
“No, there isn’t.” Tommy gave it to Axel straight, held his gaze for a long moment. He could see that Axel got the message: can’t be ten feet tall, living in a place like this.
But Tommy didn’t press the point. His family’s absence was just a handy excuse – the aim of the evening’s outing had been to get Axel out of his current gloom. Charlie Malick had been riding him extra hard, throwing his weight around and acting like Axel was still on his gang. At least he didn’t summon Axel to accompany him behind the empty wagons when they knocked off for lunch anymore – Malick had a rat’s sense in gauging how far to push. And for all his tough talk, Axel didn’t seem the type to call a man out for an honest settling of accounts, not that you could count on Malick to fight fair. So Axel took it and took it, and it shrank him. He’d squeeze his hook or the handle of his truck till his knuckles turned flour-white. Tommy had spent the evening drinking and making jokes and watching Axel flex his fist, working the stiffness of anger out of it.
Tommy smiled his brightest smile, one to match the dead boy’s smile in the photograph, and said: “At least you’ve got coffee. And a second mug, maybe?”
Axel pretended that he did, said “oh yeah, somewhere around here,” and Tommy laughed though the man’s existence wasn’t really all that amusing. In the end, Axel went down the hall to the bathroom, rinsed out his shaving glass, and added it to the tin mug on the tiny round table, while Tommy made the coffee.
They sat and drank, their knees bumping under the table, and Axel brought the conversation around to Malick again. Worrying at a sore tooth.
Tommy allowed his feelings on the subject of Malick to show clearly for once. “He’s a canker, that man.”
Axel’s look was almost startled and then relieved when Tommy didn’t dress it up in a smile and a shrug. “Boy, he hates you,” Axel said.
“He doesn’t like ‘guys like me.’ Plenty like him around.” Tommy took in Axel’s expression, Axel’s hands tight around his empty mug, and he threw down an ace to see where it would land: “He likes you, though.”
Axel’s spine went flagpole-straight. “Hey, what’s that supposed to mean?” He was looking at Tommy like Tommy was his enemy.
Tommy leaned back as far as his chair would let him. “Nothing. Nothing, man. I didn’t mean nothing by it.”
He stood, gestured for Axel’s mug, went to the door with that and his coffee– and soap-stained glass.
His elbow already on the door handle, Tommy turned back – Axel’s head was down, his hands hanging between his knees, clutching each other like drowning men. Tommy thought back to Axel’s first day at the yard. How Malick had looked at Axel, like a cat when a mouse owes it a favor. Malick jerking his head for Axel to follow him when the siren blew for lunch. Them ambling away over the farthest occupied track, out of sight behind some cattle wagons. Tommy didn’t go to his favorite spot on the waterfront that day, he stayed and ate his lunch with some of the guys from his gang, so he’d know for sure. And sure as sure gets, back they came after a quarter-hour: Malick clapping Axel on the shoulder like a hearty fellow, the knees of Axel’s pants white with railway dust.
Axel’s face, pale and rigid then, and pale and rigid now.
Tommy told him in all seriousness: “Don’t you worry yourself about Malick. He bullies those he hates and those he likes, just the same. Maybe there’s no difference to a cat like Malick. One day, he’ll prod at the wrong man, one of the guys he’s been pushing around far longer than you, and that one will see to him. Only thing to worry about then is, what’s the next guy in Malick’s place gonna be like.”
Axel looked at him like he was a preacher offering manna and the key to heaven’s gates on a street corner.
“You think so?” he asked with such hope, Tommy hurt under the ribs to hear it.
He smiled. “Oh yes. I’ve seen it before. Only so far you can push a man.”
“Guess I’m not a man yet, then,” Axel said with a crooked smile.
“You’re getting there. There’s some that can’t even imagine the possibility,” Tommy replied, and winked at his friend, and went off to rinse out their improvised coffee set.
It being summertime and the city baking even at night, they stripped down to their briefs before sleep. Axel went to lower the blind before they turned out the light, but Tommy asked for it to stay halfway up. He loved to hear the constant rushing of the city, see the streetlights and headlights reflected on the walls and ceiling before he slept, and the sunlight coming in when he woke. Axel indulged him with a bemused shake of the head.
When Tommy fell asleep, they lay with their backs pressed up against each other, so they could share the sole pillow. But when he woke sometime in the small hours, no cars passing down below and no footsteps echoing up the canyon of tenements, he was flat on his back, his mouth dry from sleeping with it open, and Axel was still pressed close, only now Tommy could feel Axel’s breath on his bare shoulder, Axel’s body solid next to him.
Axel was breathing rapidly, twitching as if in a bad dream, then he rolled over to face the wall so abruptly he made the bedsprings ping. Tommy had felt his reason for pressing so close and his reason for turning away. He licked his dry lips and said: “Axel.”
Axel lay as stiff as a log, his hands tucked into his armpits, and seemed to be holding his breath.
Tommy rolled toward him, the mattress sagging with metallic complaint under him, and inhaled the scent of Axel’s hair pomade. He was so close, the small hairs on the back of Axel’s neck tickled his nostrils. He laid his hand on Axel’s arm, the bicep clenched hard. “Axel, breathe. It’s alright.”
Not waiting for a reply, Tommy slipped his hand over Axel’s body, brushed it without lingering over his front to where he was stiff and wanting in his briefs. Axel’s shame enclosed him like a carapace but he made no attempt to stop Tommy’s hand from covering its source.
Axel twitched from the top of his head all the way down to his feet, and Tommy got a faceful of hair. He closed his eyes and kept his hand loose but there.
“Easy, man,” he whispered. “Don’t everything need to be a struggle.”
“I don’t…” Axel was panting as with night terrors. “I’m not like that.”
“You want I should leave you alone?”
Tommy’s hand still there, but he lifted it a little. His whole body was as rigid as Axel felt in his half-embrace. He kept his eyes closed and breathed in Axel’s hair, Axel’s skin, waiting for this friendship to end.
Axel pulled his hand out of his armpit, and Tommy braced himself for a blow. But the only contact of skin on skin was that Axel covered Tommy’s hand with his and brought it down so it covered him fully, and pressed it there, Axel’s hand trembling.
Tommy nuzzled the back of his neck, lifted his head off the pillow to lip at the curve where neck met shoulder. Axel was breathing fast through his nose and arched into the touch, so Tommy pressed his mouth to Axel’s neck, grazed the damp skin with his teeth, ran his tongue over the thudding pulse. And when Tommy slipped his hand out from under Axel’s and inside the placket on Axel’s briefs, Axel reached behind him and cupped the back of Tommy’s neck to keep him close.
They moved together, though it was a tossup which one was leading: was Tommy following the rhythm of Axel’s hips or leading him along with his tight fist. Tommy got hard himself in no time, pressed close as they were, and though neither had shucked their briefs, Axel must have felt it. The hitch in Axel’s breathing filled Tommy with so much tenderness for the man he held in his hand. Axel’s small cries when Tommy pressed close and impelled Axel on with the roll of his thighs and hips aligned with Axel’s, lit a fire in Tommy he hadn’t felt in a long time.
Tommy whispered in his ear “it’s alright, man, I’ve got you,” and tugged on him hard enough to make Axel shake and press his free palm flat on the wall and push back, rutting himself on Tommy’s hand, Tommy’s body urging him on. The bed singing off-key under them, Axel held in a shout and bucked in Tommy’s fist, his chewed-short nails brutal on the back of Tommy’s neck.
Tommy stroked him through it, and finally stilled and took his hand away with a familiar regret. Friendships could end like this as well.
And sure enough, Axel roused himself from where he lay, motionless except for the rapid rise and fall of his chest, rolled over and on top of Tommy, and pressed Tommy’s arms back like they were in a street fight. The mattress sagged deep under their combined weight.
“What’d you do that for? Huh?” Axel demanded, his voice ragged. The light from a streetlamp showed Tommy only half of Axel’s long, handsome face, looking mad as hell and terrified all at once.
Tommy made no attempt to defend himself. “You know why, man. You know. Need, want – it’s all the same.”
“Everything’s easy for you, huh.” Axel lashed himself as well as Tommy with his words. “This why you wanted to stay here tonight?”
Tommy did want to thump some sense into him then, but he kept his voice gentle. “I wanted to make sure my good friend didn’t do himself an injury if he was alone. Sometimes the Good Lord sends something precious, and I do not turn it away.”
He pulled his arm easily out of Axel’s grip and passed his fingertips lightly over Axel’s forehead, his cheek, his throat. Axel let him and leaned a little into the touch, before he roused himself and said, sounding truly afraid: “What about Lucy? She’s been so kind to me…”
Tommy allowed himself a smile then, knowing that Axel would hear it in his voice, see it in the half-light from the street. “Lucy knows that you miss that freedom, no matter how good you’re married. And she likes you.”
The fight went out of Axel, there being nothing left for his shame to hang its flag on. Axel’s shoulders sagged, his grip on Tommy loosened. He hung his head and murmured, like he’d forgotten he was still on top of Tommy: “I didn’t think… I didn’t know…”
He met Tommy’s eye, night vision and clarity of purpose both allowing him to see, and Axel nodded like he’d made a decision and pushed his hand under the covers, snagged Tommy’s waistband with his fingers and tugged it down.
Tommy caught his wrist. “Axel. Axel.”
Axel looked up from his self-appointed task, his terror returning.
“I’m good, man,” Tommy said as kindly as he could, though Axel had felt already what his, Axel’s, pleasure had wrought in Tommy. “I don’t ask anything from you. It wasn’t for that.”
“No, I just…” Axel closed his eyes and breathed and said all in a rush: “I never did it ‘cause I wanted to before. It was always having to or needing to, ‘cause I owed somebody.”
At that, Tommy’s heart thumped hard enough for him to feel it reverberate down his long bones, as Axel stripped off Tommy’s last preserve of decency and even pushed the bedcovers off, so the light coming in from the street polished Tommy till he glistened all over.
Tommy threw his head back on the pillow when he felt Axel begin. He wrapped his hands around the iron curlicues of the bedframe, Tommy’s sweaty palms sliding on the metal, for fear that he’d grab too much too fast and startle Axel out of his absorption. His skin prickled, enveloped in the oven-heat of summer, his every sense focused on Axel’s weight bent over him, the close, wet, jungle warmth of Axel’s mouth on him, the snuffle of Axel’s breath and the soft, saliva pop as Axel bent closer, took more.
Tommy hadn’t indulged in this in a long while, and never before with a white man. He opened his eyes when that crossed his mind, the streetlight letting him take in the sharp, chalky edge of Axel’s cheekbone, shadow pooling in the valley of his cheek. Axel’s lashes lowered in sentry over his eyes, the whole geography of Axel’s face moving smoothly in an upward and downward glide. Tommy let go of the headboard and took Axel’s face between his sweat-dampened hands. Axel’s eyes flew open, his motion stuttering a little, but Tommy held him and let his hips move as Axel had moved a moment before. Watched Axel watch him as Tommy took his fill of his desire, or perhaps gave his desire to Axel.
Axel’s eyes drifted shut again, and he bent his head within Tommy’s grasp, and matched Tommy’s motion with his own, Tommy’s body and Axel’s mouth gliding to meet each other. Gripping Axel’s hair between his fingers, Tommy felt it in his gut – Axel groaning at the tug, Axel pushing himself closer, so that Tommy pulled his hair more sharply and his throat worked audibly. Axel’s hands crept up, his fingers counting Tommy’s ribs, slipping over Tommy’s chest, clutching Tommy even closer than Axel’s mouth could take him. Tommy’s harsh breathing lapped the room’s walls like the sea against the pier, till Axel took everything Tommy could give him, and took, and swallowed, and took some more before Tommy released him and fell back into the bed’s soft, creaking embrace, his joy drained out of him and leaving him utterly at peace.
Above him, Axel knelt on the bed and wiped off his mouth, sweaty and trembling like an ill-used dray horse. He didn’t seem to have any more harsh words in him, but Tommy could see his constant inner storm gathering itself again.
“Come here,” Tommy said with a gesture to match, and after a long moment when he might have said or done anything, Axel lay down on top of Tommy, sweaty skin to sweaty skin, Tommy’s hand cradling the back of Axel’s head where it rested on Tommy’s chest. Tommy heard and felt him try to catch his breath, wrestle with the evil old shame that gnawed at him.
“Don’t get spun up, man,” Tommy said. He breathed deeply, so that the steady rise and fall of his chest would lift and anchor them both. “We’re all good. Tomorrow the sun’s going to beat down just as hot as today. You’ll see.”
Axel laughed a little at that, laughed as only the truly exhausted could laugh, and lay heavy in Tommy’s arms and let Tommy stroke his hair, his warm neck, his shoulders, knotted hard still and always.