It always ends with a flood, the sudden sharp feeling of being plunged underwater, and Aubrey jolts awake, lungs heaving, unable to breathe until he hears F.E. stir on the threadbare cot below him.
When he's not onstage, F.E. is tall and quiet, his presence a constant reassurance, and even in his sleep he never moves without a purpose. Aubrey calms himself by imagining the things F.E. is marching towards in his sleep: replaying a routine, rehearsing a new scene. Marching towards Broadway, towards history.
F.E. always takes the bottom bunk if they're lucky enough to get two beds in whatever cheap hostel the manager's found for them. Otherwise his daddy-long legs will knock against the railing all night long. If they wind up sandwiched in a room with some of the other performers on the circuit they'll alternate between one of the rickety beds and whatever passes for seating, or sometimes F.E. will just stand himself up against the wall and get in a few minutes that way until Aubrey takes pity on him and scolds him to trade him for the bed.
F.E.'s like a horse, he can sleep standing up, he can sleep anywhere. Once Aubrey found him humming away in a coat closet. But Aubrey, he has hard times, even when it's a rare night when they have a room to themselves and F.E.'s snoozing softly next to him, so close Aubrey can almost see the faint sheen of sweat beading F.E.'s neck like a halo that fell down too far and got stuck.
But Aubrey, he has hard times.
He wakes just as his father is reaching for him, looming over him with his white-gloved hands and a cold stare from here to Jericho. Or he wakes just as his mother is turning towards him, her eyes trying to tell him something unfathomable and wild and sad just as his father's first blow lands against her cheek.
Or he wakes against the raucous laughter of men in the saloon below stairs while the headboard in his mother's rooms thuds against the wall, and he's back in his twelve-year-old body, clutching the bedsheets and wishing he were man enough to go in there and fix things, man enough to go downstairs and order all the men—the waiting men with their greasy hands and their hard dead eyes and their conspicuously pale bands of skin on their left ring fingers—out of his house.
Or he wakes to his mother's wide-eyed glance at the door as she shoves a penny in his hand and tells him to make himself scarce and don't come back til dark, and he runs out of the building with the dust of Main Street trailing him up to Lafayette and the widow Jonas who always sits her blackberry pies on the first-floor windowsill to cool.
Or he wakes to the piano creaking away in the saloon, and his father's rough voice scratching out, "The cat come back the very next day, thought he was a goner but the cat come back for he wouldn’t stay away," while Aubrey clenches his fist and drums it silently against his thigh along time to the bass notes, wishing he could slip on those white gloves and just squeeze, just once, one time, and the bass seems to get louder and louder, vibrating against his skull til it's all he can feel and hear and breathe —
Sometimes he wakes to the sound of F.E. shifting quietly on the bunk below or the bed across the room, or sometimes on the skinny mattress next to him. More than once he's waked to F.E. murmuring, "Hey, hush now," and sliding a hand over his shoulder, warm and steady. He's helped Aubrey with his stage paint enough times for Aubrey to know just how sure his hands are, even when they're gloved in white.
More than once Aubrey's wanted to roll over and curl into him. Once, when they were both still students, and still had the luxury of separate beds every night of the world, Aubrey had awakened in the middle of the night and knew F.E. was too far away for anything good.
Only when he just dragged himself over into F.E.'s cot, instead of all the things he wanted to do, he found he couldn't stop shaking, shaking and sniffling like a little scared bird F.E. was holding in his palm. And F.E. just said, "Shush, it's gonna be all right," and stayed awake with him til Aubrey fell asleep again, feeling warm and safe.
And then they never talked about it, and sometimes Aubrey wakes because as far as he can travel he's never far enough away from West Tennessee and those cotton fields and those old antebellum houses beyond the railroad tracks, and the look in his mother's eyes when he and F.E. got their acceptance letters from Fisk, that look that said she knew he'd never be back, never.
Except every night he's back there looking out over the flat empty streets and the drab barren fields and the farmers whose eyes he never looks into, and the sting of shame and humiliation and anger that floods him: Aubrey Lyles, your bastard hometown son, the comeback cat, appearing onstage one night only in Jackson, TN—every night of the world.
Aubrey tried to tell him, once. Even though he didn't need to.
They were performing in a troupe out of Cleveland and the manager had stacked them all atop a rowdy Irish saloon that kept the corn whisky flowing and the piano top up all night long. It reminded Aubrey so much of his days as a child that his hands had been trembling before he'd even dragged his suitcase up the back stairs, three pitiful flights to their cramped lodging in what could have passed for servants' quarters two generations previous. Aubrey, he was used to that kind of cramped, they all were; but the combination of shame and noise that accompanied him up those stairs just about undid him in that moment—would have, but for F.E. suddenly at his back, saying, "Hey, good evenin', Mr. Peck," in that gentle way.
Ordinarily, unless they were rehearsing, F.E. only called him by his stage name as a joke between themselves. Now, though, Aubrey knew right away—with what felt like the inherent kinship that allowed the two of them to finish each other's sentences so well onstage and off— that this particular moment was F.E.'s way of reminding him that even offstage they were professionals, or at least tried their best to be.
It was easier, though. For F.E. It was always easier—not less urgent, for they both wore their bitterness on the outside. But Aubrey wore his like a weight slung across his shoulders; F.E. wore his like an overcoat. F.E.'s was well-tailored, dignified—but it cast a long shadow.
But Aubrey was grateful for that. His was hard enough for the two of them to manage together, sometimes; and that was even without the nightly jeers, the slurs landing like lashes when they walked down the street, the uppity stage hands who refused to let them use the regular dressing rooms, the bristling from certain crowds whenever they came out to do their act. And, in the beginning, the annoyed stage managers smuggling them out back with coats thrown over their heads after their performances dropped too many truths cutting too close to home.
They had learned. They had improved. Now, for the most part, whenever they came out wearing blackface their audiences expected it: they howled, roared, laughed as though they were in on the joke. As if they could ever be. Sometimes Aubrey missed, bitterly, those earlier days when he felt the expurgation of all his anger twice nightly onto white folks who lined up to pay for the experience. For the most part, they were safer now. But Aubrey was tireder, and the reminders of home along with the reminders of what they faced outside were all getting to be too much for him.
He'd thought, for one small moment when he felt F.E.'s hand pressed against his back: Here, this might be it. This might be the moment when I finally lose my last vestige of self-control, and reveal my last secret.
Instead he had only straightened, responded, "How' do, Mr. Jenkins!" and trudged the rest of the way up the stairs.
He lay awake for much of the night, unable to shake the memories stirred by the noises and laughter, the songs wafting up from downstairs:
Why are you single; why live alone?
Have you no babies; have you no home?
His mother had always loved to wear white. Aubrey had memories of her sitting at the piano plunking out a tune one note at a time, dressed in her favorite white muslin. She didn't really play but she would never give up her piano, even when hard times came calling. Her gentlemen callers—her euphemism, no one else's—enjoyed it too much. "White is a nice fresh spring day," she used to tell him. "It feels like starting all over again."
Of course, she never wore white anywhere except in the house. Eventually, Aubrey understood why.
But try as he might, when Aubrey closed his eyes, he never saw his mother in white. He saw, always, his father's looming white gloves reaching for him, his throat tightening all over again just at the memory. His father's white gloves were never pure white; they were always caked in grime and mud and sometimes blood.
White was a stain waiting to happen. White was violence. White was the lie his mother told herself about her own life.
The next night they were in their dressing room before the performance, and just as always F.E. was standing over Aubrey, leaning down, his face masked in black and concentration as he smudged the burnt cork over Aubrey's face. His hands were uncovered, but that evening, those dreams and those saloon songs still in his mind, all Aubrey could think was: not him. This is not him.
Aubrey reached up and gripped F.E.'s wrist. F.E. startled, stilled, but didn't pull away; just gazed down at him with that long-sighted stare that sank right into him.
Aubrey looked back at him for a moment, unable to speak over the roaring in his ears. Then he stammered out, "F.E., you know...you know I..."
F.E. waited a moment. "What do I know, Aubrey?"
Aubrey closed his eyes and tried again. "You know you're the only person," he said, keeping his eyes squeezed tight, "I'd ever let get this close. With those white gloves—I let you touch my face and my neck. I let you touch me with those white gloves—and, and I—"
He felt F.E. shift and move, and then suddenly F.E.'s voice was closer, soothing. "Shh. Hey, now. I know, Aubrey. I know."
Aubrey cracked his eyes open, and F.E. had set the facepaint on the dresser and crouched down to Aubrey's level where he sat before the dressing room mirror. On the opposite side of the room the other mirror, tall and dusty, reflected the two of them bent towards each other, F.E. reaching up towards him even though Aubrey felt like the one who was clinging desperately, clutching F.E.'s wrist for all he was worth.
F.E. reached up and slowly unhooked Aubrey's fingers from his wrist. Aubrey froze, feeling panic set in, the certainty he'd gone too far, given too much of himself away. But F.E. held up both of his hands, just as slowly, making Aubrey aware of his movements as he leaned in. Carefully, gently—always so gentle, so deliberate—he took Aubrey's face in his hands.
"See," F.E. said evenly. "I got you. You're all right."
Aubrey could see from the mirrors on either side of him that he had gone rigid, like a wild animal caught out by the glow of a lantern light; he breathed in and out, in and out, and the whole time F.E. held his gaze, held his face steady, like he was gentling a colt about to buck.
"Everybody's gotta learn how to be touched," F.E. said. "Sometimes it's hard. You're doing all right."
"I always let you touch me," Aubrey blurted, past the point of caution.
F.E.'s face softened. He kept his hands on Aubrey's face, didn't pull them away. And Aubrey thought, as long as I live, that's it—that's the look I'm taking with me.
"I've known you since we were both in knee-breeches," F.E. said. "I remember your mother threatening to pull a briar switch from out back of the house if we didn't come into the kitchen and help her shell beans. I remember she was so excited when you won that theatre scholarship she sent my family a telegram to tell us about it. A telegram."
Aubrey laughed and covered one of F.E.'s hands with his own. "She sure did. She marched all the way down Main Street to the telegraph office holding that scholarship letter. She talked about that for months."
F.E.'s grin was rare, but when it came, it was powerful. "You know what I thought when my father came to me holding that telegram? I thought, thank goodness. This means somebody's watching out for you. This means I'll be able to keep an eye on you for a long time to come."
"Been nigh on twenty years," Aubrey said.
"Just about," said F.E. "Gonna be twenty more at this rate."
"You think so?"
"I know so," said F.E. "But some things... sometimes you just know a person. What they're made of. I can touch you 'cause I know you. You know me."
And then, still slowly, still carefully, he pulled away and said, "You know you have to let other people in, too. Can't be just me."
Aubrey, instead of asking, Why not?, managed to laugh it off. "Why, you getting sick of doing my facepaint?"
"You know I ain't. I'm just saying. There's a whole world of people out there who don't wear gloves."
And, while Aubrey was still swallowing that idea, F.E. shot him a narrow side glance and said: "And it's safer that way."
His meaning was crystalline. He picked up the cake of burnt cork and finished off Aubrey's makeup.
Later, in New York City, back in the city and on sturdy financial ground for once—separate apartments on the same block of 54th Street.
Onstage ten times a week there's a rush and a thrill and Mr. Sam Peck and Mr. Steve Jenkins have the audience in the palm of their white-gloved hands. And when F.E. and Aubrey are backstage, still helping each other in and out of their costumes, the gloves still go on last and come off first.
Aubrey, he holds out his hands and lets F.E. pull off his gloves and do his makeup.F.E. returns the favor. The banter is light and constant. And they are Miller and Lyles, vaudeville's greatest black comedy duo, ready to take Broadway by storm.
And when the nightmares follow him, when Aubrey gets so lost and desperate he knocks on F.E.'s door in the middle of the night, F.E. gives him that same penetrating stare—but always invites him in.
His hands are sturdy and warm against Aubrey's back.