Real

by Salieri

troyswann@yahoo.ca

 

“I want to feel you from the inside”

Nine Inch Nails

 

 

      “What do you want?”

      In answer to his question, a shape separates itself from the shadows at the mouth of the alley and comes into the lamplight. He’s more angular than Hutch remembers, all cheekbones and eyes.

“Some people say hello.” There’s the curl of a smile in the voice, but something else too, just as familiar, a bit unwound, twisted wires fraying.

      “I’m not some people,” Hutch answers.

      “No.”

      Hutch can’t tell if he’s agreeing or objecting.

      Hutch is still standing behind the open door of the car like he’s ready to take cover. In his armpit, the Magnum is warm and suddenly heavy. The bag of groceries in his hand is heavy. The air is heavy. He hunches under the weight, knees locking, one hand bracing him on the hood of the car.

      “Jay—”

      “You look good.”

      Jay’s eyes are watery and pale, and the street lamp bleeds more color out of him. He seems translucent, but that’s mostly because Hutch has learned over the years to see right through him.

      “What do you want, Jay?” Hutch knows what he wants. It’s the same thing he always wants.

      Upstairs in Hutch’s apartment, the phone is ringing.

 

      “Where’d you go last night?” Starsky pulls their book out of the glove box and replaces it with the flares. They’re down one, from that traffic thing last week, the chicken truck. Feathers drifting down the street like first snow. As Hutch eases the car out away from the curb ahead of a taxi, Starsky slaps the glove box shut and leans back with his knee on the dash. He flips through the book. “Huh?” he prods.

      “Huh, what?” Hutch drives with one hand, the right one on his thigh so his knuckles aren’t on display.

      “Where were you? I called.”

      Hutch shrugs and does a shoulder check, changes lanes. “No place.”

      Starsky grunts. “Johnny the Jinx gets out in three days,” he observes and holds the book up so Hutch can see the copy of the mug shot taped next to the parole date.

      “So what are we gonna do about it?”

      “Hand out rabbit’s feet to all the hookers on Commercial?”

      Starsky’s not joking and Hutch’s laugh has no humor in it. He makes a mental note to get ahold of Sweet Alice, tell her to maybe take a trip up the coast for a few days. Eighteen months for beating three women. And Johnny in the courtroom all wobbly-eyed with tears and remorse and now he’s three days from showing up on the street again, hungry. At the intersection, Hutch rolls down the window and spits on the hot asphalt. He thinks of Sisyphus. His knuckles hurt like a bastard.

 

      The phone is still ringing when Hutch opens the apartment door and waves Jay in ahead of him. Hands in his back pockets, Jay turns in the middle of the living room. His olive drab jacket is more drab than olive. Hutch notices that the insignia have been torn off the sleeves. Darker patches suggest rank, a place in line, heat and bugs and things never said. The same things Starsky never says, maybe, or different ones, equally unsayable. Starsky’s jacket is in a trunk in the back of a closet.

      “Not bad. I liked the bungalow better, though.”

      The phone stops mid-ring, and like a balloon with a cut string, the apartment comes untethered.

      “It’s flattened,” Hutch answers with his head inside the fridge. When he stands up the room spins a little, so he hangs onto the beer bottle like somehow that’s anchored to something. “Demolished,” he clarifies. Already he feels it, the ghost beside him, deadly cold, cold enough to burn, and he can tell that Jay can see it, like he’s looking at Hutch with special alien eyes. He drinks the beer in one long swallow with his own eyes closed and when he opens them, Jay is a foot away, then half a foot. Then less.

      He smells of diesel fuel and sand and mustard and beer, and his body is still familiar in spite of the new angles, the jutting bones at wrist and hip and shoulder that have replaced the wrestler’s build. He could still topple Hutch if he wanted to. He could still do it the way he did it back then, when, laughing, he’d swung Hutch into the slant of shadow between the studio building and the co-op bookstore, when the sky went dark early and the snow gusted along the walkways in thin, sinuous lines and the students were on the other side of the windows, bowed in yellow light over books and coffee, pencils between their teeth or tapping out Morse code—S.O.S.—on the tabletops. And Hutch pinned in the alley, his breath caught between his mouth and the wall, something from deep inside himself escaping into the cold air, something that might have been a protest but was really please. It was the ghost conjured by the fumbling of Jay’s hand at his belt, by every brush of skin at the gym, by every glance to slide—carefully, deliberately unseeing—over a slick curve of muscle in the showers. And even now almost ten years later Hutch can feel the brick of the studio building under his palms, mortar crumbling under his grasping fingers, and Jay’s weight on his back, Jay’s breath on his neck, and the way it felt when Hutch finally stopped grasping for purchase and gave in to gravity, and, everything, all of it suddenly as right and inevitable as up and down. “There,” Jay had said, over and over with each thrust, like he was winning an argument they’d never even had.

      Now Hutch’s back is against the wall beside the fridge in the blind angle between windows. Don’t, Hutch says, but the ghost is sliding into him now like a drug through a fine-gauge needle. Painlessly spreading, insinuating, until he’s not himself anymore. He’s another Hutch, one who leans into space and slips his tongue between Jay’s thin, cold lips. Don’t, Hutch says but he doesn’t know who he’s talking to, so he doesn’t say it out loud. It rings in his head the whole time he falls.

     

      “So what’d you call about?”

      “What? When?” Starsky’s counting change and passing it through the window to the waitress. He fumbles it because she’s leaning in, ruffled blouse parting like curtains before glory. While he’s still groping blindly between his legs for that last dime, Hutch fishes one out of the ashtray and reaches across him to hand it over.

      “Last night. What’d you call about?”

      Hutch can actually see Starsky’s brain shift tracks as the waitress disappears inside. “Oh, man. I needed you. Backup.” He points an accusing finger first at Hutch and then at something in his own memory. “On the tube, Plan Nine From Outer Space—”

      Hutch snorts and rolls his eyes. “Starsk, why do you—”

      “An’ what they did to Bela Lagoosy—”

      “Lugosi.”

      “—is criminal. I mean let the guy go with a little dignity, y’know?”

      The waitress is back with a tray and he pauses to grin the killer grin at her. Hutch can’t see her face, but he can deduce her expression by the way Starsky’s smile goes fixed before becoming sheepish. He tosses Hutch his hamburger, and because Starsky knows a lost cause when he sees one, is already back to Bela Lugosi before the waitress has gone two steps.

      “It was pathetic. It wasn’t even a real vampire movie.”

      “What tipped you off? The part about outer space?”

      “I about lost it, though, with the sheriff—” Starsky peeks under his hamburger bun and mumbles something about his pickle before leaning out his window and shouting, “Hey, excuse me! My pickle!” There’s no response, so he shrugs and takes a bite. “I can take it when they’re supposed to be on an airplane and they’re sitting on folding lawn chairs, but when the sheriff scratches his head with the muzzle of his gun, I started having uncharitable thoughts.”

      “Like?”

      “Like, ‘pull the trigger.’”

      Hutch snorts again and almost chokes on his pickle.

      “I needed you to talk me down. Where were you, anyway?”

      Hutch is considering an equally enlightening variation on his last answer but is saved by the squawk of the radio. A 415—public disturbance two blocks away.

      “Zebra 3 responding,” Starsky says, and puts their food back in the paper bag.

     

      “How many?” Jay says. He’s got Hutch pinned with his eyes, with his hands on Hutch’s wrists, with the press of his hips. “How many guys since me?”

      “None.”

      “Coward.”

      The sun was hot on the black robes, flashed on polished smiles and off of the opaque lenses of sunglasses. Mothers held gloved hands up to the brims of their fancy hats while fathers futzed with the cameras, Brownies and newfangled Polaroids. Hutch walked across the stage, the tassel of his mortarboard swaying beside his eye, and shook hands and took his diploma and kept walking, not toward anything in particular, his dad’s hopes and dreams notwithstanding. Away from Jay. Stumbled through three semesters premed and couldn’t find in any of the books a cure for haunting, and Jay always found him, twitching the ghost out of the darkness no matter how many coeds Hutch weighed down with a sort of desperate tenderness in his narrow bed. So Hutch kept walking, all the way to California, through the police academy’s front doors. He hit the streets and learned that everybody is haunted. Under every shiny surface is a shadow. It didn’t make him feel better, but it made him feel at home.

      Jay is pressing in harder now, mouthing Hutch’s neck, a hint of teeth, a threat of marks that will show. And Hutch wants it. Marks that will show. Something to provoke the question. Almost.

      “Coward,” Jay says again. He leans back and looks Hutch in the eye and he’s lean and hungry and cruel and beautiful. “What does your Starsky say when he catches you looking?”

      “He doesn’t catch me looking.” Hutch shifts his weight, feels Jay’s hard length settle into the crease of his groin, and grits his teeth against the pleasure of it. “Undercover cop, remember? Aptitude.”

      “Fate.”

      And that word makes Hutch suddenly so tired he can hardly hold himself up under the weight of it. He thinks of that moment in the car on the way back from Maggie Blaine’s house, when he asked Starsky how he’d’ve felt if he’d known about Blaine. When Starsky had had no answer. When, for one frightening, world-stopping moment, he’d seen Starsky see him. And then he’d seen Starsky stop seeing him.

      “What would your Starsky say if he saw you right now?”

      It takes no time for need to trip over into rage, and Hutch doesn’t even consciously think about it when he hooks his foot around Jay’s ankle and twists so that Jay’s knee buckles and he crashes down in front of Hutch, grunting in pain as the pins in his leg grind against bone. Shut up, Hutch thinks as Jay’s hands work his fly. Shut your fucking mouth, he thinks as his head hits the wall and Jay’s tongue touches him and the world gets small enough to hide in his fist.           

 

      The public disturbance has gone private by the time he and Starsky arrive. As they’re jogging up the walk, a frying pan crashes through the window in the top half of the screen door. Hutch dodges it, along with Volume A-C of the World Youth Encyclopedia that follows it. Starsky spins around to shout at the kids on the sidewalk to go home. They don’t move. Maybe they are home. Hutch’s gut twists up.

      Inside, Mom has given Dad a new eyebrow and is still waving the beer bottle she used to do it. Dad is on his ass on the floor, his face sheeted with red from the wound, saying mechanically, “Bitch. You bitch, you fucking bitch,” around a bunch of loose teeth. Mom has a shiner. Hutch makes a bet with himself that the darkest purple in the center of it matches the pattern on Dad’s school ring. Her nightgown is ripped open and she doesn’t care much about the fact that she’s naked underneath and there’s a couple of strange men in her house; she’s too busy meeting each “bitch” with a “bastard, cheating sonofabitchbastard!”

      Hutch grabs her as she’s heading back to maybe finish the job and practically has to wrestle her to the floor to get the bottle out of her hand, catches an elbow in the mouth for his efforts, and goes over backward with Mom on top of him and stars spinning behind his eyes. He’s just getting untangled when Dad’s on him, howling, “Let her go, you sonofabitch!” and then Starsky’s on Dad and by the time they’ve got them both side by side on the couch in cuffs, the kids are at the screen door, wide-eyed and silent.

      Before the black and whites and the paramedics peel into the driveway ten minutes later, though, Mom’s got her face buried in Dad’s neck, sobbing and cooing, and Dad’s saying, “It’s okay, baby, it’s okay I love you of course I love you baby,” and the kids are hunched over their knees on the walk playing marbles. Starsky’s crouched down with ‘em, one broad hand on the littlest head and he’s asking older brother what the big marbles are called, and does he play baseball—because that’s a nice hat, the Mets, good team—and do Mom and Dad do this a lot and would you guys want to go with this nice lady here and maybe answer some questions? So the kids are gone with child services and don’t have to see Mom and Dad getting put into separate cop cars, or hear Mom screaming that they should get to go together.

      Hutch stands on the porch between the well-tended flower boxes and can’t move his legs because the air is too thick and the sky is too heavy. He stands there until only the LTD is left against the curb and the curtains of the houses across the street fall closed again, until Starsky comes up the walk and hooks a finger in the bottom of Hutch’s jacket and tows him down the steps and toward the car.

 

      It’s not what Hutch needs. Not quite. But it’s close. If he’s on his hands and knees he doesn’t have to see Jay’s face, and he can’t hear Jay’s voice over the ocean roaring in his own head, so it’s close enough. But not quite. He wants to be opened. He’s so, so, so tired of being closed in his skin. He’s so fucking tired of choking on not-words, on not-saying, of skimming along the shiny surface like there’s nothing underneath.

      And he’s so, so, so tired of hunching against the tide: another perp caught, put away; another day, another perp—or the same perp—caught, put away. The tide goes out and he’s got enough time to gasp in a breath and the tide comes in and each wave wears the shiny surface thinner and thinner. And once that’s gone, there’s just the ghost, the underneath, and he’s never let that be real because he never said.

      He wants to feel like there’s an inside. It doesn’t matter that much just now that Jay isn’t the right one to do it, to drive himself into Hutch and break him open, because it’s not about fucking and it’s not about doing. It’s about saying. Jay’s not the one who needs to hear.

      The roar of the ocean in Hutch’s ears is so loud he can’t hear himself crying.

 

      “Huggy’s?”

      Hutch puts the car in gear. “Huggy’s.”

 

      After sitting out on the counter all night in the grocery bag, the milk has gone bad. Hutch is watching it swirl down the drain like it’s the most important activity he’ll undertake today. But he can still hear Jay moving restlessly behind him.

      “Listen, Hutch.”

      Hutch puts the bottle in the sink, braces himself on the counter and closes his eyes. “I told you last time, Jay.”

      “No, it’s not like that. Seriously.”

      “I’m not going to give you money so you can inject it into your arm or snort it up your nose or however you’re doing it these days.” He turns around and steps into the open space between the living room and the kitchen. He won’t get cornered again.

      Jay looks raw, like he’s been in a crucible, burned down to the essentials of bone and need. There’s something weirdly transcendent about him. Hutch has seen his likeness in stained-glass windows. The army jacket hangs on him like it once belonged to someone else. Hutch supposes that this is true, in a way.

      “It’s not money.” Jay ducks his head and a grin slants across his face. “Okay, maybe. But this time it’s serious.” When he looks up the desperation is there, but so is determination, entitlement. Hutch spent a long time in the shower, but Jay still smells like sex. And this is where the scales get balanced. “I got a warrant on me.”

      Weary, Hutch sags. “No, Jay.”

      “You can fix it.”

      Grabbing his jacket from the arm of the sofa, Hutch slips it on, checks the straps of his holster, shrugs it into a more comfortable position. “I’ll help you. But not like that.”

      When Hutch heads for the door Jay steps into his space, but he seems smaller than he did last night, and he obviously remembers that it was Hutch who toppled him this time, brought him to his knees, because he keeps a bit of distance, even as he’s reaching out, pleading. “C’mon, Hutch! It’s just a robbery. Some rich fuck who wouldn’t even miss a thousand bucks, and this was just fifty. Fifty bucks. You want me to go to jail for fifty lousy bucks?”

      Hutch doesn’t want him to go to jail. Hutch wants him to be the kid he was in college, sleek and smooth and cocky and competent and alive. But he’s not and Hutch doesn’t know how to turn back time. He shakes his head, takes a step toward the door.

      “You gonna arrest me?” Jay’s belligerent now, baiting. He pushes Hutch backward, two hands on his chest. “Huh?”

      “No.”

      “I didn’t ask to be like this! I didn’t ask to get left in the fucking jungle and get shot up and get a leg full of metal pins.”

      “I know.”

      “You wanna arrest somebody? Arrest the army. It’s them put me there. It’s them put the pain in me and there’s only one way to make it stop.” Jay’s eyes are enormous and too bright. He shoves the sleeves of the army jacket up and Hutch sees in the light what he felt with his fingertips in the dark, the ladders in the crooks of both arms.

“You wanna arrest somebody, arrest the U.S. Army. Arrest the president!”

      Hutch can’t say anything. There’s nothing to say.

      Jay nods and his face is suddenly ugly. “I won’t go to jail.” Hutch can see him scrambling around inside his head like a fly trying to escape a bottle. And then he goes still and calm and Hutch braces himself again. “What do you think your Starsky would say if he found out his partner’s a fa—”

      Hutch doesn’t even realize he’s punched him until he’s looking down at Jay sprawled on the rug, his hand over his mouth, blood leaking between his fingers. He’s like a rag doll when Hutch straddles him and lifts him by the front of his jacket and says, “You don’t talk about Starsky. You don’t know.”

      He leaves him there and drives to the precinct one-handed.

 

      Hutch doesn’t resist when Starsky pinches his sleeve between his fingers and slides Hutch’s hand off of his thigh and onto the bench seat between them. He keeps his eyes on traffic when he feels Starsky’s thumb sweep once over the new bruises there, the crescent indentations of teeth.

      “So,” Starsky says.

      “So,” Hutch says, and puts the hand back in his lap.

      “Okay.” Starsky lets it go.

      Hutch risks a glance his way, but Starsky is looking out the window, tapping out some song on this knee, doing the baseline with his heel on the floor. There’s a deep notch between his brows.

      Hutch wonders how come Jay came back so broken inside and Starsky didn’t. And then, like a sucker punch that knocks the air out of him, he realizes that maybe Starsky did. Maybe Starsky did but Starsky never showed. Hutch looks at him and suddenly Starsky’s a shiny surface reflecting light away from something Hutch has never seen, except for a jacket folded up in a paper bag in a trunk at the back of Starsky’s closet. The glare is so blinding that Hutch forgets to drive and the car drifts into the oncoming lane.

      “Hey!”

      Starsky jerks the wheel and Hutch overcorrects, narrowly missing a yellow VW bug. He just catches sight of wide eyes and an open mouth before the momentum carries the two cars in opposite directions.

      “Sorry.”

      “Maybe I should drive.” Starsky’s mad, but there’s a crease of concern in his voice.

      “We’re almost there. Relax.” To show how responsible and in control he is, Hutch puts both hands on the wheel and pretends not to notice Starsky staring at his knuckles.

      When they pull up in front of Huggy’s, Jay is leaning against the liquor store next door. Hutch adjusts the rearview mirror so he can see him and doesn’t even bother to wonder how he found the place. Jay looks smooth around the edges, like blown glass. Riding the gleaming curve of a high. Hutch’s hands are shaking when he lays them carefully in his lap.

      “We’ve been driving around for nine hours,” Starsky says, holding up his watch so Hutch can see. “You gonna get around to telling me what happened to your hand?”

      With an effort, Hutch breaks eye contact with Jay in the mirror and looks at his knuckles. “There’s a story there.”

      “You mind sharing?”

      Hutch raises his head to find Starsky looking in the side mirror. Hutch hesitates, poised over dark water reflecting the sky. “Tell me about the army jacket.”

      The double take is almost imperceptible except that Hutch expects it. Starsky’s expression clouds over for a second before something opens up in his eyes and it’s more terrifying and more beautiful than Hutch has ever imagined.

      “And you’ll tell me about the hand.”

      “Okay,” Hutch says.

            “Okay.”

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