Try a Little Tenderness

If you had spit in his face, Tommy would unfold a napkin, dab his cheek with a corner, and drop it in the laundry bin. He would pick up his story or his joke wherever he had left off, and you’d be left wondering if you’d even spit on him in the first place.

Enlightened as it was, though, Tommy’s style of rising above the sneers and slurs wasn’t perfect. His boy took it pretty hard. Sometimes I’d see them walking down the street and someone would shoulder check him, spit at his feet, bark ‘faggot’ at him. Mickey took it even harder when Tommy would keep walking, point out some fashion offense with a thin smile.

Unlike the rest of the staff, Tommy didn’t look like a punk, except that he was undernourished and might have been a junky if you didn’t know him. He didn’t have any tattoos. He took care of his skin and his hair, cleaned his fingernails and kept his hands clean. This is the way to wealth for waiters, but it set him apart from the kitchen crowd whose arms were scarred up from needles, tattoo guns, grease burns and knife-fight mementos.

But if Tommy didn’t have a place in the punk rock menagerie I think it’s because he knew better. And if it seems a bit on the precious side that I imagine him curled up under an afghan with Mickey, watching Billy Wyler films and eating popcorn, it’s because I was waist-deep in cheap beer and drinking and drinking…

…and struggling to unhitch my jaw, choking on the thickness of my own tongue, trying to cough up the syllables to order another drink, I’d wish that Tommy would come in to the bar and take me away. He could take me home and hold my head while I puked and he’d say something reassuring.

Honestly.

It’s not like a drowning man to say to the person trying to save them, ‘you ain’t my type’.

The time Tommy came down to Aggy’s¸ I was stooped to one knee, sneaking a bump from my jacket pocket. For a second, I had considered it. But he was there with his boyfriend, and it’s just as well, because I hardly think it’d be flattering to tell someone – I’ve always dreamed you’d show up to hold my head while I vomit.

They drank pink cocktails. They played Patsy Cline and laughed with their hands and, god help me, it surprised the shit out of me that no one said anything earlier. And someone yelled ‘queer’, and someone yelled ‘fag’, and Tommy and his boyfriend kept giggling, and whispering. And I guess it would’ve all happened sooner, but I imagine those country boys didn’t know whether to shit or howl at the moon. It was kinda sick fun, watching the Lelanders try and process it all.

Soon enough, though, one of them figured he ought to do the Christian thing and kick the hell out of these homosexuals. I don’t see country boys get squeamish often, but they did pick the biggest sonofabitch out of the bunch to go over to Tommy. I have never before in my life seen such a large pair of overalls.

“You faggots having a good time here?” He asked.

Tommy barely blinked, he just kept telling his story. All I could see, on account of the rafters, was the man from his shoulders down, and some spittle flecked into the bottom of what I imagined was a blue-ribbon grizzly beard.

“You hear me, faggot?”

Tommy smiled and nodded and rolled his eyes and even I was surprised by the speed of that grizzly. I was still staring at the place Tommy had been for a long moment before I gazed down and saw him lying, his arm at a funny angle, the legs of the bar stool splayed out like flattened branches after a storm.

And Tommy stood back up, his arm at his side, and a trickle of blood at the corner of his mouth. He leaned over the bar, and very politely asked for his check. And I saw the look in his boyfriend’s eye. That’s the way a dog looks, after it stops running from a cruel owner, when it just sits there and takes the beating, lies down and just waits for it.

And I’m guessing Tommy did too, and what he did next he did because he loved the misty-eyed kid to death, and when you love someone like that you don’t stand on principal. Tommy just looked at his boy and his face could have stilled a hurricane. When you love someone, they’re family, you just do whatever the fuck you have to do to.

And what he did next was the only honestly tender thing I’ve ever seen a man do.

“I heard you,” Tommy said, and as the big man was laughing he picked up his pint glass with his good arm and smashed it into the big man’s mouth. He dropped backwards with a wet scream, bits of teeth and glass dropping to the floor, a thick mess of ragged flesh pulsing in his mouth. Tommy’s good hand was bleeding slightly, but he looked evenly and calmly at the big man, and then at the group who were frozen half-out of their seats while the big man slowly dragged himself to his feet and walked out.

Things being what they are in this world, they should have dragged Tommy out to a parking lot and butchered him. But they didn’t and I’m tempted to say God intervened – that’s how unlikely it was – but I guess it’s more likely the work of cowardice than providence. Either way, they paid their tabs and left.

I bought Tommy another beer and thought about what to say, but I couldn’t think of anything. So I gave him a long, deep, solid nod, almost a bow, and I left. And so on. Night after night, as I lose my faculties and my memories, set adrift on some new river of mindless drunkenness, stumbling stupidly up to girls and hoping we can take each other home…night after night, and hardly do I think of Tommy. Hardly do I think of anybody but me, I’m just craving that rush, the thrill when someone lets you in. And most people, including me, get hung up on the particulars, thinking everyone ought to fuck like we’d like to fuck. For me it’s the way girls look in that blackout haze, reduced to contours and eyes, mouths and tongues. The body, the flesh, while it’s young, before it starts to rot – there’s nothing like it. But still, it’s a lighthouse in a storm.

And even a shallow cunt like me has the dream – where it never storms again.

So some nights, when I’m too strung out and that blackout just eludes me, I think if anyone looked at me like Tommy looked at his boyfriend, I think my fucking heart would stop with joy. But Tommy never showed except that one time, and anyway, some girl always came around to take me home.

Benjamin Schachtman is a retired line cook and bass player who now lives and teaches in New York City with his wife and dog. His work has appeared in Slush Pile, Ozone Park Journal, The Conium Review, and is forthcoming from a few other small journals.

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