The weather outside was dreadful, and Lamar Anderson couldn't have been happier about it.
The thunderstorms had kicked up without warning, turning the basin to mud and scuttling the week's planned bombing run. His squadmates were restless, pacing the base as if waiting for feeding time, but Lamar saw no reason to fret; the higher-ups would have new orders out soon enough, and his planned construction sites wouldn't exactly melt in the rain. Besides, it was game day, which meant the mission rain-out could only be called providence.
Lamar cracked open a Blu Streak, leaning forward to get a better view of the base's sorry excuse for a TV. The game wasn't exactly exciting thus far: still scoreless in the second quarter, with Dallas and Cleveland shuffling around the field like kids playing pick-up. He'd been hoping for a little more than televised grab-ass this game, and hopefully the Cowboys would feel the same soon enough. In the meantime, it looked like this drive was going nowhere --
"Th' Hell're you watchin' in here, old man?"
Reflexively, Lamar snapped his head back towards the voice, although he knew all too well whom he'd find there: the squad's Scout, as restless as always, bouncing the baseball bat on his shoulder as if he were waiting for an excuse. Of all the times for that damn kid to barge in!
"The game," Lamar replied, glancing back at the TV and being entirely unsurprised to see the Browns take possession. "And you're a jinx, kid."
"You gotta be kiddin' me! There's nothing better on TV than this? No baseball or anythin'?"
"World Series ended 'bout a month ago."
"Oh," said the Scout, as if that was only just dawning on him. Lamar decided to give him the benefit of the doubt for the time being; after all, holed up in base, it was easy to lose track of the seasons, and hadn't the poor kid been off running recon the entire Series? "But couldn't they air games from, I dunno, Mexico or something? Somewhere where they're still playing?"
"Afraid not," Lamar replied, shaking his head with the barest trace of a smile. It was strange; he knew as well as anyone in the squad what wearying company the Scout could be, but today there was something endearing about him, in a squirmy-puppy kind of way. "Look, son," Lamar continued, "why don't you sit down a spell and watch? You're keyed up to Hell and back, and it's not doing you any good. Rest your feet. Want a beer?"
"I don't drink that crap," said the Scout as he made his way towards the icebox. "It's bad for the nerves, and I gotta stay sharp, you know?" After a moment of rummaging, he withdrew a garish can of what Lamar could only assume was pop, cracking the can open before heading over to sprawl bonelessly on the couch. "So who's playin', anyway?"
"Cowboys and Browns. Don't remind me." The Browns hadn't managed anything, but the new Cowboys possession wasn't exactly looking fruitful either. "Dammit, boys, get with it! Ought to at least be able to manage a damn field goal." Something on the Scout's face twitched, and Lamar glanced over to find the beginning of a sneer there. "What?"
"Frickin' NFL. What, they can't show the Pats, any real teams?"
Now it was Lamar's turn to wince. Sure, the AFL had its points -- God knew his brother in Houston couldn't say enough about the Oilers -- but all it took was one glance at the Cowboys and the Texans to know which league played the real game. "Have a little respect," he said. "The NFL started this game, and no upstart league's takin' that away."
"You gotta be kiddin' me! Look at this crap! Guys runnin' all over, game's not goin' anywhere! You want 'til the AFL takes a shot at you. Gonna rip off your head and --"
"Be that as it may," interjected Lamar, "you're not doing it today. Are you going to keep complaining, or are we going to watch some damn football?"
"Okay, okay, whatever. Not like I got anything better to do." The Scout settled down, frowning; Lamar kept half an eye on his face, waiting for a twitch that would indicate the boy wanted a fight, but slowly the Scout's forced relaxation became more real. "Hey, there you go. C'mon. C'mon!"
On screen, the Cowboys had finally decided to try for a field goal, and Villanueva put it through the posts clean. "All right!" Lamar whooped, taking a long draw on his Blu Streak. Sure, 3-0 wasn't much of a lead, but it was a lead, and here was some action at last. Even the Scout looked pleased.
Yep, the day was definitely looking up.
The Cowboys didn't stay the course that game, unfortunately, but to Lamar's pleasant surprise, the Scout did. Whenever a game was on and Lamar found himself with a spare moment to watch it, the kid always seemed to be back like a bad penny, on the couch and ready to jaw. As November wore on into December, a cold snap sent the base into frozen lockdown, and with more time on their hands, it stopped being just football games. Lamar'd gravitate towards the breakroom to catch whatever happened to be on, and somehow, the Scout kept finding him. The kid was focused, even if Lamar wasn't sure precisely why.
He learned why late one night in mid-December. He'd spent a long day at the drafting table, and Lamar found himself sleepless in the breakroom, trying to use the TV to dull his thoughts. One of the networks was airing a late movie, one of those noir jobs that were all harsh shadows and grainy light. In the silent darkness of the breakroom, the glow of the movie took on an eerie, faintly unreal air, more than the plot or the dim little TV deserved. Probably just his head; it had been a harsh day, one where his work had lost its power to satisfy him, and the combination of sleep deprivation and a hungry mind could make anything look like a nightmare.
The footsteps from the hallway made Lamar flinch, and he turned to find the Scout there, looking as twitchy as ever. "Hey," he said, strangely softly. "Hey, old man. Thought I'd find you here. What's on?"
"Some movie. Didn't catch the title. What're you doing up?"
"Me? Sleep? You gotta be kiddin'. I got better things to do than sleep." The boy didn't look busy, Lamar thought, but you never could tell. "Kinda wanted to talk to you. I... uh, look, I..." Was that hesitation in his voice? That wasn't a good sign. "... Heard you were a faggot," he finished, voice even softer now.
Motherfucker. Lamar should have known the rumor'd get around eventually. Somehow it always did; he'd been stationed at a half-dozen bases by now, and inevitably, someone got ideas. He supposed it was about time for his first fistfight here. He stood up, looking over the Scout; he looked like he was spoiling for a fight, but then again, he always did. "Son," he began, "if you've got a problem, we're gonna take this outside. I'm not ruining the furniture over this."
The Scout's face fell. "I don't want a fight! Okay? Swear I don't. Just tell me the truth, huh? You a faggot?"
It took a moment of thought before Lamar answered. "I suppose you could call me that."
"Shit, the big guy was right. Shit. So you are, huh?" The Scout stared down at the ground for a moment before looking back up at Lamar, and there was something desperately childlike in his eyes. "Can we, uh, can we talk about it? I..."
Oh, Christ, so that's what had happened. The kid had caught wind of the rumor somewhere and decided to stick to him until he worked up the nerve to ask for advice, hadn't he? It was always the way; Lamar remembered being that young all too well, and if he'd known someone who'd been in his place once, he'd never have left his side. "You want to talk," Lamar finished gently. "Sit down. First things first: if we're going to be talking about this, I think it's time we were introduced properly. It'll be easier to have this conversation if I'm not calling you 'Scout' and you're not calling me 'old man.' My name's Lamar Anderson. And yourself?"
"Johnny McRae. Kinda funny, huh? They keep us all on the codenames, sometimes you forget we got others. Real funny, if you think about it."
Not always so funny, Lamar thought. It was a canny move by the superiors, giving them role-names, making them all fit like cogs into a machine; it made it easy to forget just who they all were. It was surprisingly helpful to put a real name with the Scout's familiar face. "Good to meet you, Johnny. Now, where should we start?"
"I dunno. Lot to talk about, you know? I just think I'm turning queer, is all. Not all the way queer, but I haven't seen a real girl in so long, I start thinking things, you know?"
Oh, it was this old saw again. He'd heard this one more times than he cared to remember: the idea that the base did this to you, never mind that most men on the average base would slug you for suggesting they were "turning." If anyone really did turn, it might have been a happier world. "Mmhmm," said Lamar. "Let me ask you something. You ever think things like that before you got here? About men, about boys?"
Johnny blinked hard as he thought about it. "Well, yeah, I guess. I mean, I never did anythin' about it, but yeah, I guess I thought. Why?"
"So you're not turning queer," said Lamar. "That's the point. I know it seems like I'm splitting hairs, but it helps when you don't think about it like you're getting sick." He paused; the next step was going to be an awkward one, but he needed to ask it if he expected to give decent advice. "And when you say 'not all the way queer'... look, Johnny, be honest with me. Do you like women, or do you want to like women?"
"'Course I like girls! The Hell do you mean, 'want to like?'"
Lamar wasn't sure how to explain it, frankly, but he knew exactly what he meant. Staring at pinups, staring at girls, hoping for that oh moment desperately and never quite getting there... Johnny sounded sincere enough, but Lamar knew just how sincere the desire could be without it ever actually working. "All right, all right. Sorry, just something I had to ask. Do you mind if I tell you a story?"
"I used to be married once, years ago. She was a good woman, and I wanted to be in love with her so badly, I tried to make it work. Never did manage that, but by the time I gave up, we'd wasted years together. Practically took an act of God to get that divorce." Lamar paused for breath and to clear his thoughts. He probably shouldn't have started this way, but this was the kind of night where he thought about Nancy, and Johnny needed to hear the moral of this story. "We had kids, Johnny: two girls. It broke their hearts when I left. Caused a lot of suffering, just because I was trying not to be a faggot."
"Shit, man," said Johnny, leaning closer. "That's what you meant, huh? Don't do that?"
"More or less. Just be who you are; whether you're queer or AC/DC or what, it's nothing you need to try and fight against. Don't take anyone to bed, woman or man, unless you really want them. Make sense?" Lamar paused for thought. "Oh, and if it's a woman, wear a rubber. You probably already heard this a hundred times from your dad, but it's important."
"Yeah, yeah, he gave me the whole talk about not getting girls in trouble. Even bought me my first pack. Not like I got a chance to use 'em, but they're in my footlocker. ... Say, how long are those things good for?"
"Not nearly long enough," said Lamar. "If you're not sure, buy a new pack. You're a grown man, and pharmacists don't care." Idly, he glanced down at his watch; Christ, it was already quarter to two, and he'd need to be up by six as usual. "Shit. I don't mean to shut you down, but I need to get some sleep. I'll tell you what: here's the code to the workshop door." He grabbed a piece of scrap paper and a pen from his pocket and scribbled down the code: maybe the only one on the base that wasn't 1111, he thought, so it was best to offer Johnny a written copy. "Here you go. You want to talk somewhere private, you come in there and see me. You know where it is, don't you?"
"The door in the basement, right? With the signs? I got it." Johnny tucked the piece of paper away in a pocket. "Thanks. See you tomorrow, maybe?"
"I don't see why not. Night, Johnny."
"Night, old ma-- Lamar."
Maybe the boy was teachable after all.
"The first rule of finding a man on the base is that you really shouldn't. The second rule is, you're gonna try anyway, so be careful."
"Yeah, I get it," said Johnny, cocking his head and sitting up a bit straighter in his chair. "I ask the wrong guy, I get my ass kicked. I ask the really wrong guy, he makes a call, and I'm lookin' for a job. So how do I know who to ask?"
Lamar looked away from his blueprints for a moment; he probably should have known it'd be hard to have this conversation while trying to get work done. "It's not just that," he replied. "There are risks, of course, although whatever you've heard about people getting mustered out for being queer, it's probably not true. This isn't the Army, son; as long as you're good at your job, they won't kick you out. You really think they'd risk giving RED good men? If you get fired, it's for being a fuck-up, not who you fuck. Nah, what you really need to worry about is how to work with whoever you're giving the eye to. If one of your squadmates starts a fight after you give him the eye, or you end up sleeping together, he's still gonna be your squadmate in the morning. That's not easy to deal with."
"You're gettin' off the point. How do I find somebody, huh? I heard that there's, like, a password that you can say to a guy, and he'll know what you're getting at."
"Maybe somewhere else," said Lamar, "but not here. Here, just about the only thing you can do is be careful. You watch. If a guy's interested, he'll probably be looking you over, too. Take it slow and take it easy; make sure he's not going to spook, whatever happens. You have to feel it out from there, I'm afraid."
"Aw, man, so it's like the girls in school all over again?" Johnny had the expression of a kid who'd just heard the truth about Santa Claus and was crushed when his parents didn't contradict him on it. "Fuck, I thought... you know, all guys together? That it'd be a little easier than that. Maybe not to find a guy who was interested, but from there, you know?"
"Well, there are easier ways. Shame we're so far from civilization out here. Most cities have bars or other places you can meet men. Easy enough to mingle there, if you're not expecting much more than one night, but they're a good way to blow off steam sometimes." Never mind, Lamar thought, that cruising was a young man's game; Johnny was young, and he was entitled to adventures and mistakes alike. He had little doubt that they'd still hold the allure for Johnny that they'd lost for Lamar years ago. "You still need to be careful, obviously, but it's an advantage that you've got the merc look. Most civvies won't pick a fight, and if the cops show up, they don't want to tangle with us, either."
"Hey, they'd have to be crazy to tangle with me anyway! But, yeah, that sounds... sounds real good, actually. Why don't we go?"
"C'mon," said Johnny, "think about it. We're still frozen in, and I hear the head office is handin' out leave like candy, tryin' to keep us happy. Shit, the Demo's been gone two weeks, God knows where. Bet you we could get a few days to go into the city. You find me a bar, and, hey, you said it yourself, huh? We blow off a little steam."
"You've got to be kidding. It's a good two hours' drive even when the roads are clear, and if we go together, people'll talk. They'll think we're --"
"So we leave at different times. We both get a week's leave, you head out a couple of days early, and I follow later. Nobody's gonna know, man! 'sides, you oughta get out. How long you been working on those blueprints?"
Too damn long, thought Lamar. The new sentry-gun prototypes were going well, but he was getting tired of the smell of ink and draft paper hanging in the base's recirculated air. Even if it were hailing softballs topside, at least the air would be fresh. He was crazy to even consider it, but...
"I get it. I really shouldn't be saying this, but let's go to the city."
To call the place they ended up seedy would have been an insult to seeds. The only homophile bar in the city operated out of a plain storefront in the warehouse district, and inside, it was what you would expect: dim light, creaky chairs, and a craggy-faced, wiry old bartender who had the look of a man not paid enough to care about any of it. Lamar hoped very much he wouldn't need to brave the bathrooms; if nature called, he was tempted to try his luck with the alley instead.
But there were men. Tall men and short, dressed in suits and shirtsleeves and work clothes, some put together carefully and some barely washed, were speaking in soft tones and drinking slowly, the natural speed of men who didn't want to rush their evenings out. Ever so often, one of them would move to touch another: careful touches, on the arm or the knee, always still poised for rejection that didn't come. Across the room, Johnny sat at the bar, deep in conversation with a tall, dark-haired man not far out of boyhood himself; Lamar had never seen the boy so anxious, not even the first night, but he could see him grinning when he let his nerves fall away. Good for Johnny, he thought, and sipped his watered-down Scotch.
The door to the bar opened silently, and conversation stopped as the crowd turned to look at the new arrival. Lamar kept looking even after the murmur resumed; the man who'd stepped in was unmistakable, even in his plain button-down shirt and surprisingly sharp trousers. The Russian! The Russian was here, of all the places -- ordering a drink from the bartender, who'd deigned to crack a smile. This demanded investigation.
Lamar stood up, abandoning his table to head towards the bar. He'd never had an opportunity to use the Russian he'd learned doing his nuclear-physics Ph.D., but this was a special occasion. "I didn't expect to see you here," he began, wincing inwardly as he imagined what his accent must have sounded like.
"And I didn't expect you to speak the mother tongue," the Russian replied without a pause. "We're all full of surprises, squadmate. What brings you here? And is that our Scout?" He gestured down the bar, where Johnny, bless him, was too absorbed in his conversation to have noticed the Russian's arrival.
"That's him. Leave him be for now? And, I think, I'm here for the same reason you are. I have a table back there; come talk? And I'll warn you, they mix the drinks weak here."
"I know that," replied the Russian, picking up his drink and sipping it. "Last time I was here, I managed to talk Dane there out of it. He does better by the regulars."
"Wait, so you..."
"What do you think I should do with my leave time? I can't exactly go home. I've been at Badwater Basin for five years, and four of them, I've been coming here. Is this your first time?"
It was his second, but the first had been within weeks of his arrival at the base, and most of the night had vanished in a cloud of beer and regret. "Close to it. You'll have to introduce me to Dane. Speaking of which, I don't think I've ever caught your name?"
"Grigory Volkov. And you?"
"Lamar Anderson," he replied as they arrived at the table. "Careful of the left chair; I think the leg's half-off. Anyway... hmm. Out of curiosity, is there anything good on the jukebox?"
"I barely know the difference between good American music and bad, but the patrons seem to like it. Give it an hour or two, and the dance floor'll fill. The night's barely begun here."
Lamar glanced back at Johnny, who'd still not registered their squadmate's arrival; he was leaned in close to the dark-haired boy now, almost whispering, with one hand resting on his new friend's thigh. Across from him, Grigory was smiling. Lamar realized he was smiling too. How long had it been since he'd done this without constant worry, without the expectation of being hurt somehow? Maybe cruising wasn't just a young man's game. Maybe he still had an adventure or two in him.
Lamar had change in his pocket, enough for a few songs. It was time, he decided, to start the jukebox.