Jefferson Parish, Louisiana
April 15, 1917
JACK ABADIE stared into the old, beat-up mirror as he shaved, noting the beads of perspiration as they dripped into the lathered shaving soap. Though he’d already bathed, he’d worked up a sweat just scraping the razor across his face. Summer already. Seemed Mother Nature had completely forgotten about spring.
Jack smiled though, because soon Louisiana weather would be a distant memory.
He noted the dark circles under his eyes. No wonder. He hadn’t slept for days. Pleasant thoughts of Emery lying next to him, their bodies entwined, had filled the only hours he’d had to himself.
Willswood Plantation didn’t run itself. “You have to help around here more,” his father kept telling him.
Between the long hours he worked doing every conceivable job on the place, then having to tend to family obligations, there wasn’t a moment he could steal for himself, save for late at night.
Jack would have left sooner, but with his father’s mysterious cough getting worse and his stubborn ass resisting every effort to force him to the doctor, Jack’s mother depended upon her two sons to pick up the slack. He’d either break away now, or be stuck for the rest of his life.
“Hey, brother. Happy birthday, old man.”
Jack stared into the mirror at Andrew’s smiling face. He’d miss the boy; they were best friends, but he had to have a life that was his own. “Yeah, thanks. Thought you were out in the fields.”
“I was, but I came in with Papa. He caught a spell out there, couldn’t catch his breath. Figured I’d come to see you, but it looks like you have plans. Big birthday date with Bessie?”
Jack’s stomach knotted. “Yeah. Emery and I are meeting the girls in town.”
Andrew’s eyes darkened, the unmistakable conspiratorial look on his face. “Sure, Jack. I’ll tell Mama and Papa you’re meeting Bessie.”
Though they’d never talked about such personal things, Jack had long suspected Andrew knew about him and Emery. How, he couldn’t say; it was just a feeling. “Thanks,” he said quietly.
“Yeah, well, I’ll leave you to your getting ready. See ya. Have fun.”
“Thanks again. I appreciate it.”
Andrew waved and bounded out the door. Jack watched after him. Sadness welled inside him. He’d miss his brother, hell, he’d miss them all, but a man was entitled to his dreams, and they didn’t come knocking. He had to go after them.
Actually stepping outside the house for the last time would be the hardest part, his mother innocently thinking he’d be back for dinner. Once gone, he’d focus on himself and Emery. Damn it, they deserved a life together, and they certainly couldn’t live on good old Willswood. They’d scrimped and saved for two years, while they’d planned their new life, and it was about to happen. The train would take them to sunny California. Emery would work while Jack took acting lessons, and one day, he’d be a star.
Since the day he’d seen Wallace Reid in The House of Silence at the Prytania, all he could think of was going to Hollywood and becoming a star. Maybe one day he’d even meet his idol.
Jack checked his pocket watch, a birthday gift from his father. The train would leave at six thirty, and with the three-hour leeway they’d allowed, they’d get to New Orleans Depot with little time to spare.
Andrew, his unwitting accomplice, would make it easier to get past his parents and out of the house, before they forced him to damn himself to eternal hell with more lies.
Jack could barely button his Sunday shirt for his trembling fingers. He donned his waistcoat and trousers, already feeling hotter than he had just out of his bath. Before he slipped into his church coat, he applied pomade to his unruly hair, then raked a comb through. He’d always admired the shine of Wallace Reid’s hair and did his best to emulate it every Sunday for church.
He ticked off another box on his mental checklist. Dressed and ready to go. He’d already hidden his meagerly supplied valise behind the barn.
He cast a gaze around the dusty, cramped attic room he and his brother had always shared. His unmade bed made him wonder how easily he’d take to another one. On impulse, he fluffed up his pillow and put it back in place. Bad enough his mother would find his farewell note propped up against it, no need for her to see the impression of his head to make her even sadder.
He so wished he could have the life he wanted without hurting those he loved, but sadly, he saw no other way. Years of working in the cane fields was no life for a guy with his ambitions.
“Emery’s here,” Andrew shouted up the stairs.
His heart leapt. Just a few more moments, and he’d be in the clear. “Coming.”
He patted his waistcoat pockets. Pocket watch in one and his life savings in the other. He walked out the door without a second thought, and down the stairs.
His sickly father, Wilfred, sat in his favorite chair, reading the newspaper as he did most every day. He’d likely head back to the cane fields after the heat of the day dissipated somewhat.
His father glanced up over his glasses when Jack entered the room. “Where you headed?”
Jack decided he wouldn’t miss his father’s gruffness. “The picture show.”
Wilfred shook his head. “You spend entirely too much time with your head in the clouds, boy.”
Predictable response and nothing he hadn’t heard a million times before. “Yes, sir.”
“You are mighty dressed up for the picture show,” his mother said from across the room. “Andrew said you’re meeting Bessie.”
“Yes, Mama,” he said, his fingers firmly crossed behind his back.
“I’m so happy to hear that. She’s a nice Catholic girl. You know we’d like to see you married soon. You’re twenty, time you settled down.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jack said, his eyes trained on the door, Emery, and freedom.
“We need more help in the fields. I ain’t gonna live forever.”
“Yes, Papa. I’ve got to go.”
His mother shouted after him as he leaped off the porch. “Dinner at six. Invite Bessie for some birthday cake.”
He waved, but didn’t answer. One less lie to cross his lips.
Emery pulled the wagon around to the barn. Jack chased after him and tossed his valise onto the boards behind Emery, who clucked his tongue as he prompted the horses into a trot. Jack ran alongside, then hopped up. “Very funny,” he said as he swiped Emery’s shoulder with his hand.
The horses trotted down the dirt road at a good clip while Jack looked around him, saying a silent goodbye to the rows of shacky houses and the bright pink azalea bushes. Several minutes passed with not a word from Emery. “Why you so quiet? Did you have trouble getting away?”
Emery shifted on the seat. “No, just don’t quite know what to say.”
“Then tell me again about how wonderful it’ll be when we get to Los Angeles,” Jack said as he leaned in close.
Emery turned his head and drew a deep breath. “It’ll be wonderful for you.”
Before Emery looked away, his eyes filled with tears.
Jack grabbed the reins and stopped the wagon. “What do you mean, for me? We’re doing this for us.”
Emery shook his head, slowly at first, then with vigor.
Jack grabbed Emery by the arms. “You’re scaring me, Em.”
Birds chirped, and a squirrel jumped from branch to branch in Mrs. Faucheaux’s old pecan tree, and still Emery stared straight ahead. “I didn’t want to tell you until after we’d made it to the ferry and you’d bought your ticket.”
Jack grabbed Emery’s face and forced his best friend to look at him. “Tell me what?”
Emery’s hesitation chilled Jack’s spine.
Agonizing moments passed before Emery gathered himself enough to speak. “I can’t go with you.”
Panic scrambled Jack’s thoughts. He grabbed Emery’s arm. “You have to go. We’ve got everything planned. Don’t you remember?”
“Of course, I remember. But I can’t go. I just can’t.”
Jack stiffened his back. “You have to. I can’t do this on my own. I don’t want to be without you. I need you.” With one trembling hand, Jack clutched Emery’s sleeve. “We need each other.”
Emery hesitated for an instant, then tugged his arm away. “Damn it, I’m not going and that’s final! Now shut the hell up about it.”
He snatched the reins back, and they set out again. The wagon lumbered along the dirt road, while Jack and Emery sat silently all the way to the Algiers Ferry crossing.
Jack’s fear grew at the thought of traveling so far away from home by himself. How would he survive without Emery? Yet, he found it difficult to beg.
They stopped at the pawnshop on Daneel Street, where Jack sold his grandmother’s fichu pin. The pawnbroker agreed that if Jack sent him the money within a few months, he’d return the pin to Jack’s mother. Jack’s guilt at stealing it abated. Mama would understand.
“Look,” Jack said as he showed Emery the money he’d received. “I have enough for us both, if that’s the problem.”
Emery steered the horses onto the ferry without saying a word.
They both jumped down onto the deck, and after Emery secured the horses, he led Jack below deck, where they found a darkened corner to themselves. “I can’t go, Jack. You have to understand. The folks need me, and what can I do out there, anyway? All I know is farmin’.”
“We’ll learn what to do,” Jack said weakly, too sad to plead.
“You’re better at learnin’ than me, Jacko. I can’t and that’s the end of it.”
Jack scouted around and discovered that they were quite alone. He hugged Emery, who kissed him hard and touched him frenetically through his clothes. “I want you, one last time. Something to remember you by.”
Emery’s eyes filled with tears. “I want you too.”
Jack undid his trousers. There were no words, just muffled moans, and tears enough to float the boat to shore.
After they’d disembarked the ferry, Emery drove along Canal Street toward the train depot. Jack didn’t try to convince Emery to change his mind, nor did Emery ask Jack to stay. All the unsaid words spoke volumes.
Now, in the crowded station, Jack gave Emery a brotherly hug.
“Do this for both of us,” Emery said as he patted Jack’s back.
With extraordinary effort, Jack held back the tears that seared his eyes. “I’m too afraid to go it alone, yet too afraid not to.”
Emery pushed him to arm’s length. “You go, you hear, and don’t be afraid. You were meant for greatness. Me, I’d just get in your way.”
If he lingered a moment longer, he wouldn’t leave at all. “I love you.”
His throat tight, Jack turned and walked away, the sound of his footfalls muffled by the breaking of his heart.
“Remember me, Jack.”
He slowed his pace, but didn’t turn around. Instead, he stiffened his back and walked toward his new life, without the man he loved.
THE confusion at Emery’s behavior gave way to righteous anger somewhere between New Orleans and Los Angeles. For all their planning, he obviously wasn’t as important to Emery as he’d thought. As the train breezed past amazing vistas, Jack accepted that while Emery’s realization was painful, he didn’t want someone who didn’t want him.
Four days later, in the late afternoon, Jack stepped onto the platform at La Grande Station in Los Angeles. He collected his shabby valise and set off to inquire as to where he might find a reasonably priced boarding house.
Jack approached a smiling young man in a blue uniform, thinking him a railroad employee. “Might there be a boarding house that you could recommend, within walking distance?”
“Welcome to Los Angeles, sir. There are several, but the best, from what I hear, is over on South Hope Street. The place is run by Mrs. Lord. She keeps it clean, for young men only. Very respectable I hear tell.”
“Thank you so much, sir. If you’d point me in the right direction, I’ll start my search there.”
“Take a left at the second street. Nice yellow building, you can’t miss it.”
“Thank you, sir. I appreciate your help.”
Armed with directions, he set out. No doubt he looked very much the tourist, with his mouth agape like an inexperienced small-town boy.
Palm trees swayed in the warm breeze as he walked down Santa Fe Avenue, past pastel-colored stucco homes, manicured lawns, and the biggest cars he’d ever seen.
His Sunday-go-to-meeting suit didn’t seem so fine anymore, and his scuffed shoes would no longer pass with just a good spit shine. As eager as he was, he feared he’d made a hasty decision. Would he ever be able to afford to live in the land of plenty?
Fifteen minutes of sightseeing brought him to a bright yellow clapboard building. The sign in the front yard read Mrs. Lord’s Boarding House. He followed the gravel path that led to an arched doorway. The first door on the right had a sign that read Manager.
Jack knocked and after a long wait, a woman with flame-red hair and an eager smile answered. She looked him up and down, then puffed on her cigarette. “And how might I help you, honey?”
The woman’s dark, assessing eyes discomfited him. “Ah, would you have a room to let, ma’am?”
She opened the door just wide enough for him to enter, but he hesitated at having to brush across her body.
She chuckled. “Well, come on in, hon. I’m Mrs. Lord. What’s your name, sugar?”
Her drawl and speech seemed affected.
“Jack Abadie, ma’am. I just arrived from N’awlins.”
She was his mother’s age or better and much too friendly. “Well, Jack Abadie from N’awlins, the room is furnished. The rent is two dollars a week, and that includes the shared bath and clean towels. Laundry and mending is extra, twenty cents a week. Breakfast is at six thirty, I pack a lunch for you every weekday if you want it, and dinner is served at six. I keep a respectable place here. Visitations with lady friends are conducted in the common room. I don’t allow guests in the upstairs rooms, and I keep the front door locked at all times. Your key unlocks it as well.”
Mrs. Lord stood back after delivering her rapid-fire pitch. Jack mulled it over, making some quick calculations. If he found a job right away, he’d be able to afford the place easily.
“Might I see the room?”
“Sure, hon, but you won’t find one nicer for the price.”
She disappeared into a room beyond, then returned, dangling a key from her finger. She walked toward the door. Looking back, she said, “Come on, then.”
Mrs. Lord led him up a short flight of stairs, her ample hips swaying with each step. “Here we are. Number four.” She opened the door and walked in, beckoning him to follow. “This is it.”
The dust motes floated lazily about the sunny room. A narrow bed stood under the window, and nearby, a plain mirror hung over the dinged wooden surface of a three-drawer dresser. The mirror resembled the one he had at home, where black spots had replaced the silver reflective paint. A single ladder-back chair rested against a wall next to an open space spanned by a short single rod. He presumed that was his closet.
“The bathroom is down the hall, first come, first serve. You’ve only got ten minutes in the morning so you don’t hold everyone else up.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” he mumbled as he looked around the room. There wasn’t much to it, no better or worse than what he’d had back home. “I’ll take it,” he said before completing his inspection, “and I’d like to pay for a month in advance, if that’d be all right.”
Mrs. Lord’s eyes widened as she extended her hand. “Why, honey, that’d be more than all right.”
“Great.” He dug in his pocket for his wallet. He gave her eight ones, leaving him with four dollars to his name. I’ll be fine, he told himself as Mrs. Lord counted her booty.
“Dinner’s at six. You can meet everyone then.”
“Thank you,” he said as he followed her toward the door.
“We’ll get along fine, as long as you’re quiet and pay your rent on time.”
“No problem there, Mrs. Lord.”
Jack closed the door and turned to face his new home. Clean and no funny, old-lady smells. That was a plus. The place was a bit warm as the afternoon sun poured in, but nothing at all like April in Louisiana.
He sat and bounced on the bed—creaky springs. Noisy, but functional. He needed to work more than sleep anyway. His mother always said, “You can sleep when you die.”
Jack opened the window and lay down on the thin mattress. The street noises were far different than those he was used to. He chuckled. Maybe he was too stupid or naïve, but he wasn’t afraid in the least. For the first time in his life, he had fully embraced life.
SLAMMED doors woke him, while shouts of “Dinner, dinner,” through the paper-thin wall got him out of bed. His growly stomach told him what his stopped pocket watch couldn’t—it was indeed dinnertime.
He opened his door and saw the backs of two men as they thudded down the staircase. One looked back at him. “You’re late. Miz Lord’ll take your plate if you’re not sittin’ in two shakes.”
Another growl and he was on the stairs, following close behind his neighbor.
Fifteen minutes passed before everyone around the long trestle table tucked into their plates. There was much scrambling for the one saltshaker, but soon enough it’d made the rounds, and the only sounds in the room were the clinking of cutlery and the satisfied groans of the six men seated around him.
His quest to satisfy his hunger eased his discomfiture at being in a room full of strangers. The roast beef and mashed potatoes hit the spot, even though the meat was overdone and the potatoes a bit stiff.
“You’re new,” the man across the table said, his mouth full.
Jack nodded, then swallowed, and answered. “Just got in today.”
“Yeah? Where from?” someone else said.
“I love the accent,” the guy across the way said.
“Got high dreams, no doubt,” said a fourth.
“I s’pose I do, but my first priority is to find work.”
Everyone chuckled in unison.
“I’m Tommy Wells, and I’m in number six.”
Jack wiped his hand on his napkin and extended his arm across the table. “Nice to meetcha, Tommy. I’m Jack Abadie.”
“Nice to meet you too. This here’s Sid, Elliot, Robert, Joey, and the quiet one down there is George.”
Jack nodded and smiled at each man as Tommy introduced him. They returned the greeting, and soon the room buzzed with several disjointed conversations.
“So, you’re from the land of the Mardi Gras, huh?”
“I’m from the country, near New Orleans. But yeah, Mardi Gras.”
“Once or twice. Once you’ve seen it, it’s all pretty much the same.”
The grandfather clock struck seven, and Mrs. Lord came in and swiped plates off the table, whether or not the men were finished with them. It’d been sometime since Jack had enjoyed a meal more. The taste of freedom trumped his mama’s gumbo any day.
The guys were friendly, and almost everyone offered to recommend him to their bosses, though Tommy had the most intriguing offer.
“Yeah, the restaurant where I work is looking for help. Waiting tables is hard on the feet, but the pay’s good, more than covers your room and board with some left over.”
“Move on, now,” Mrs. Lord said as she snatched Jack’s empty plate.
“I gotta go, anyway. Meetin’ Sadie at the picture show,” Elliott said. “Nice meetin’ ya, Jack.”
“Yeah, nice meeting you too.”
“Wait up, El. What show you goin’ to?”
Elliott shrugged. “Don’t know. One with a balcony. Not going for the film.”
“My kinda man,” Joey said as he draped an arm over Elliott’s shoulder. “Say, does Sadie have a friend?”
Tommy laughed as he pushed back from the table. “You guys are all the same. Go on with ya, now. Chase your skirts.”
“Yeah, we know, Tommy, but under skirts, yeah, that’s where you’ll find us.”
Tommy waved off his libidinous friends. “Come to my room. I’ll tell you more about the restaurant. On my word, I think Mr. Darby might be willing to take you on right away.”
They mounted the stairs, two at a time. Jack followed Tommy to number six, right next door to his room. Sid shouted from three doors down, “Watch him, Jack. He’s a devil behind closed doors.”
“Ah, go on with ya now. Get back to your own places, you buncha perverts.”
Tommy opened his door. “Don’t pay him any mind.”
“They’re friendly enough.”
“They are, but they’re full of bullshit too. All most of ’em think of is lifting the ladies’ skirts. You want the bed or the chair?”
“I’ll take the chair,” Jack said, thinking to give his host the more comfortable of the two.
“Whichever suits ya.”
Jack brought the chair closer to the bed and sat. Tommy’s disarming smile set him at ease. “What’d Sid mean about you being a devil behind closed doors?”
Tommy brushed a dark brown curl off his forehead. “Ah, ignore him. He’s just jealous cuz it’s been over between us for a while now.”
Jack’s nerves jangled. “You like men?”
“Yep, sure do, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. If that bothers you, too bad.”
He studied Tommy’s classic features—straight nose, large blue eyes, full lips that begged for a kiss. “It doesn’t bother me at all. I just didn’t know it’d be so easy meeting someone like me, that’s all.”
Tommy chuckled. “I knew it. I thought I sensed something about you. This is Hollywood, son. We’re everywhere. Unlike some others in town, I’m rather proud of who I am, now that I’m not around my family, that is.”
Tommy’s charming laughter lit his eyes. With his manly features and goodly height, Jack had no doubt that Tommy could be a movie star. While tempted to touch Tommy’s skin to see if it was as soft as it appeared, he shoved his hands in his pockets instead. “My family doesn’t know. That’s kinda why I left. Catlic, you know. They’d have me in confession every day and with the priest at night, trying to exorcize my demons.”
Tommy smiled and nodded. “Yeah, same wit’ me. You got somebody?”
Jack frowned. “Not anymore.”
“Good lookin’ guy like you, that’s too bad. Was it serious?” Tommy’s face had softened, all traces of humor gone. He leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees.
“I thought so, but at the last minute, he decided not to come out here with me. No explanation, just ‘I’m not going.’”
“Best to get back on the horse, as they say. He’s a fool.” Tommy touched Jack’s face. “You’re beautiful.”
Jack pulled away, still remembering Emery’s touch. “Tell me about that job.”
Tommy shook his hand as though he’d burned it, his eyes full of quandary. “Didn’t mean to offend. Yeah, sure. Like I said, waitin’ tables, long hours, pretty good pay. You keep your tips. Got any experience?”
“My mama cooks for all the men who work on the sugar plantation. I’ve served food since I was old enough to hold a plate.”
“Well then, if you can write down orders, the job ought to be a cinch.”
Jack chuckled. “Then I think I’ve got it covered.”
“Good. I’ll give you the address, and you can come by tomorrow. I’ll introduce you to the owner.”
Tommy put his hand on Jack’s shoulder. “Make it noon. Darby usually takes a break for lunch about then. It’d be a good time to talk to him.”
“Sounds great. I really appreciate your help. Never expected to find something so fast.”
The touch felt good, but the timing was all off. Jack glanced at Tommy’s hand, then into the man’s eyes.
Tommy removed his hand and dug a piece of paper and pen from his pocket. “Here’s that address.”
“Great, thanks.” Jack rose. “I’d better go.”
“Nice to meet you, Jack.”
“Yeah. Nice to meet you too. See you tomorrow.”
“Noon. Don’t forget.”
AFTER a restless night in a strange bed, Jack awoke less than prepared to meet with a potential employer. He’d waited for everyone to leave for work before he bathed and dressed. With ten minutes to spare, he arrived at Darby’s Restaurant and Nightclub on Fowler Street.
Tommy greeted him with a big smile. “I’ve told the man all about you.” Tommy straightened Jack’s jacket collar. “Now, just be yourself. Mr. Darby’s a good man.”
They approached a secluded table in the back of the restaurant just as Darby put a forkful of potatoes in his mouth. “Mr. Darby, this is Jack Abadie, the man I’ve been telling you about. Jack, meet Mr. Darby.”
Darby chewed, then swallowed, and they exchanged handshakes and perfunctory greetings. Darby gave Tommy a nod that said “Beat it,” better than anything Jack had ever seen.
Darby studied him while Jack assessed his potential employer. Jack guessed Darby to be in his thirties, not yet gray-haired, well-dressed, and actually, quite attractive.
“You’re tall, aren’t you? Come on, sit down. You’re giving my neck a crick.”
Jack pulled out a chair and sat on the edge of the seat.
“Tommy tells me you’re looking for employment.”
“That’s right, I am, sir. I’m a hard worker, and I learn real fast.”
“Good to know. How long have you been in Los Angeles?”
“I arrived yesterday from N’awlins.”
Darby smiled, his teeth clean and straight save for the slight overlap of the two center bottom teeth. “Is that New Orleans?”
Jack’s face heated at the careful pronunciation. “Yes, sir, it is.”
“If you’re going to make anything of yourself in this town, you’d better clean up your speech. Charming as that accent is, it’ll do little but show you off as a hick. Charm gets you nowhere in this town.”
Blunt and to the point.
Embarrassed, but not defeated, he answered simply, “Yes, sir.”
“I knew a man from New Orleans once, owned The Grunewald on Canal Street. No matter. Have you ever waited tables or served drinks?”
“Drinks no, but I’ve served meals, and like I said, anything I don’t know, I can learn fast.”
“I’m sure you will.” The man’s smile was warm, knowing. “We work twelve-hour shifts, and I pay five dollars a week. You get your meals free and one day off a week, which is Sunday, when we’re closed.” Darby stopped speaking and raked his gaze over Jack. “So, what do you think?”
The delicious smells from the kitchen reminded him of home. “I’m ready to start, if you’re ready to hire me.”
Darby grinned and waved Tommy over. “Get our friend here the special. After he eats, you can show him around.”