Locomotive Breath

 

 

TERRELL was all braced for it when he stomped into Papiano’s—it was inevitable.

“Hey, T—nice teeth!”

“Get hit in the face with a railroad track?”

“If we stick a coat hanger up your ass, will we get AM/FM?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he muttered, stashing his shit in the dented lockers by the bathrooms. “Like I’m shocked you degenerates got the bad fuckin’ manners to bring up the rails.” He’d been off for three days, and the ache in his mouth was just fading to tolerable with the help of a little ibuprofen.

“Ain’t you a little old for that shit?” Percy the fry cook wanted to know. Percy was just out of high school himself, and his teeth were every bit as ugly as Terrell’s.

“I don’t live in the hood, Percy,” Terrell snapped, suddenly irritated. “I’m planning to live long past thirty.”

“You don’t live in the hood ’cause you’re tryin’ to be white,” Percy said, rolling green eyes in his café latte face. Percy’s genetics were a little more mixed than Terrell’s—his hair was nappy and chocolate blond, whereas Terrell’s hair, skin, and eyes were dark chocolate brown—but Percy had decided that choosing to be black meant choosing to be hood, and he had all the hard-core tats to prove it. He also had an ankle bracelet underneath his chef’s whites that told his parole officer he was exactly where he was in case he wasn’t exactly the fuck where he should be, and Terrell didn’t want no part of that.

“I don’t live in the hood ’cause them fools think the hood is all there is,” he told Percy flatly. “And I didn’t spend no six years in college to look like some bush baby with these ugly fuckin’ teeth.”

“I like your teeth. You got a real nice smile.”

At that low, slightly exotic voice, Terrell felt a jolt of awareness from the soles of his feet to the pit of his balls, but he clenched his ass, sacced up, and turned around to smile at Colby Meyers with easy sincerity. It’s what he’d been practicing since the boy walked into Papiano’s nearly a year ago, looking for a job.

“Hey, cheese boy—didn’t know you were waiting tonight!”

Colby smiled and mirrored Terrell’s actions on purpose. As they spoke, both of them pulled their aprons out of their adjoining lockers, slammed their lockers shut with their hips, and tied the strings of the worn black polyester blend around their backs. They stuffed the front with their little vinyl folders full of order tags, pens, bottle openers, and cards for the local cab companies as well as a local hotel, for easy access, and a couple of white towels for spills as well as a couple of red towels for handling hot plates. The aprons and the neon-green rugby shirts with the goddamn suspenders made up their uniform, because Papiano’s was that kind of no-tablecloth place with three franchises a city.

“Yeah, well, if you’re on bar, I don’t want to be anywhere else!”

Terrell winked at him and turned away, afraid his expression would soften and he’d get stupid gooey and show the whole world what a fag he really was.

Fags didn’t last long in Terrell’s neighborhood.

Well, that was an oversimplification. The ones with the money and the balls to just flame out and the parents who got past the tenth grade, they did okay. But Terrell didn’t flame, and his mother had him in tenth grade, and he was just smart enough to get an education and just dumb enough to get it in journalism, which meant money depended on how many tips he could charm out of his customers at the bar. Terrell had kept his little perversions and his one-nighters and his blow jobs in alleyways all to himself for nearly fifteen years, and as God was his witness, he’d keep on doing that for as long as it took, because wasn’t nobody worth coming out for, not in his old neighborhood or the streets of Zanzibar or the goddamned anteroom to heaven itself.

At least that’s what he told himself, anyway.

It got a lot harder to listen when his smart side said shit like that—especially when Colby came in and grinned at him, did the apron dance, and then held out his hands for a low-five-come-here-my-brother, just like any of the kids Terrell had grown up with.

The fact that he had rich blond hair complete with skinny little sideburns, a square jaw, round blue eyes, and a nose just big enough to fit his face didn’t seem to matter to Colby. He never seemed to notice that even in the summer, when the backs of his hands were tanned and brown from time at the river and the lake and on his bicycle, his skin was still several shades lighter and pinker than Terrell’s had ever been, even on the underside of his palms. He simply walked into work, and whether it was the end of Terrell’s shift or the beginning, he managed to find five minutes, ten minutes, an hour, an entire eight-hour shift, to chat with Terrell like they were friends.

Terrell had come to think of them as friends.

He’d started thinking up jokes for Colby, because the kid (he’d just finished school, and Terrell had been out for about four years) had a love of puns. For Christmas, Colby had given Terrell an Easy button, the kind you got from Staples, and every time Terrell bitched about how hard he was being worked, Colby reached in past the servers’ side of the bar and hit the button, arching his eyebrows when the words “That was easy!” came echoing through clear as day.

In return, Terrell did the kid’s drinks first if he could, and he’d started designing new ones, because he loved to hear Colby pimp his shit.

“Yeah, so you’re looking for a new drink? Our guy in back, he’s got something called the Rabid Hamster—I’m not sure what’s in it, but I understand it makes you want to mate like a lemming. Did you want a double?” And people ordered it too! As far as Terrell knew, Papiano’s had the only bar in town that served anything called a Rabid Hamster—and people seemed to like that shit!

And that wasn’t the best part.

The best part was that Colby treated him like a rational human being. Colby had just gotten a degree in sociology, and yeah, he’d been up-front with exactly what that sort of thing wasn’t going to get him in the real world.

“I’ll probably be waiting tables or tending bar my whole life,” he’d said one night about four months earlier, before he’d graduated, as they’d been out on the back dock, staring at the stars and sharing a beer after shift. It had been March then, and chilly, and they managed one beer before hopping into their cars and taking off, but as always, Terrell treasured that one beer.

“You’re going to school for that?”

“You went to school for journalism?” Colby mimicked with a smile, and Terrell bared his rat-nasty teeth.

“I did. Took me almost eight years to get it too, and look at all it’s got me!” Terrell gestured to the back dock, with its pile of recycling, stack of pallets, and, oh yeah, the trash-masher the size of his apartment.

Colby shrugged. “Well, yeah. I just love learning about people. That doesn’t mean it’s going to make me any money! But that’s okay. I’ll be able to wait tables in Marrakesh or Vancouver, and talk to people and just see the whole damned world. That’ll be all I need.”

Terrell sipped his beer moodily. “I want a cat,” he said out of the blue. “I mean, I want to see the world and all, but I want a place I know is mine.”

Colby tipped back his beer. “And a cat’s going to do that for you?”

Terrell considered. “In India, they don’t move cats, did you know that?”

Colby tilted his chin and smiled. Terrell loved that smile. It meant that whatever came out of Terrell’s ugly mouth would be thought about in Colby’s pretty head. “I did not,” he said thoughtfully. “Why not?”

“They figure that cats belong to a place and not a people, so if someone moves, they leave the cat in the place for the next family. I like that. I want a cat to belong to my place. That’ll mean it’s a good place.”

Colby nodded and finished off his beer. “Well, then—a good place is worth coming back to. You let me know when you get that cat.”

Terrell grinned then, and Colby’s gaze darkened, and his mouth went soft, and suddenly Terrell remembered his teeth pointed in sixty-three different directions, and when he grinned, Colby could see every damned one of them. He closed his mouth and, for no reason at all, went home and spent some time on his laptop, looking up one of the three dentists in the area that took the shit-tacular health insurance offered at Papiano’s.

It was stupid. Sheerest fucking folly. But he’d thrown that ball and it wasn’t going to stop until the pins were knocked down, and, well, here he was, with a mouthful of metal at thirty years old and a hopeless crush on a kid whose idea of a Christmas gift was an Easy button.

Terrell couldn’t even tell himself he wasn’t that easy, because just shaking Colby’s hand and coming in for the chest bump made him feel soft and wanting. The walking definition of easy.

Lovely.

But they had a Friday night—and not just any Friday night, the Friday night after finals at Sac State. Oh hell no! Every frat kid and his jerk-off buddy was in here trying to flash a phony ID!

“How you doin’, T?”

Terrell looked up after he finished telling his fifth kid that he didn’t take a goddamned student ID to prove someone was twenty-one, and scowled. The general manager of this particular Papiano’s wasn’t a bad guy, but he never struck Terrell as on the level, either. Maybe it was the habit he had of making sure all the young women at Papi’s got taken in the back for long lessons in how to cash out, or how some of them simply quit and never came back. Maybe it was the way he’d do anything to please a customer, but he never fucking fronted for his people. Either way, William Templeton seemed particularly skeezy, and Terrell wasn’t as diplomatic as he might be.

“We got any muscle coming in?” he asked irritably. “These white boys don’t want to hear it from me that they can’t drink on Daddy’s dime! Jesus, can you get someone up here to check IDs for me? That would be simply fucking awesome!”

Templeton was a smooth-faced man in his early forties who obviously dyed his hair and his beard and (probably by accident) his bald spot. He scowled at Terrell before looking up at the blond frat kid and showing perfect blinding white teeth.

“I’m sorry,” he said sweetly over the roar. “We really can’t honor that. We could lose our license if we served you, and that would be a shame.”

“Yeah,” Terrell muttered under his breath while he poured two basic rotgut kamikazes, “that would really fuckin’ suck.”

“What was that?”

Terrell looked up at the frat kid and sighed inwardly before smiling with his lips over his teeth and saying, “Nothing, Junior. Can I get you a Diet Coke?”

“You!” the kid snarled at Templeton. “You’re his boss! Can’t you fire this bandy-legged little nigger when he mouths off to me like that?”

Templeton shrugged and turned away, and Terrell ignored him and focused on his next order. Templeton wasn’t necessarily a racist bastard, but he wasn’t going to put himself out for Terrell, that was for damned sure.

“I’m talking to you!” Geez, the kid wasn’t going to let it go!

“I’m sorry,” Templeton said, oozing insincerity, “but he was just doing his—”

“Ouch!”

Terrell looked up in time to see the kid jerk back, his face twisted in pain. He jerked around toward the door because someone was yanking his arm behind his back, and Terrell got a very nice—and not very welcome—view of Colby’s backside as Colby hauled him away and hustled him out. Colby’s voice had a deep, carrying timbre, and the entire bar heard him reading poor blond frat boy the riot act on his way out.

“Hate speech is grounds for arrest in California, and inciting violence or termination on the basis of someone’s race can get you jail time.”

Terrell widened his eyes in surprise. The shit you just didn’t fuckin’ know.

Templeton looked sideways at him. “Nice to have your own pet pit bull,” he said mildly, and Terrell shrugged.

“You weren’t doing the job,” he muttered. Now see, if Templeton wasn’t a skeeze, he’d take exception to that, but he didn’t. He shrugged instead.

“I’m going to the back to count the safe,” he muttered, and yeah, of course he was, because among every other goddamned skill needed to run a restaurant, he was also missing the one that would help him tend bar. “Let me know if you call the cops.”

“We’ll get right on that,” Terrell muttered.

Colby was coming back through the crowd now, his shoulders square and his expression thunderous. To Terrell’s surprise, he hopped up on a barstool and rang the tip bell violently and at top volume until all the chatter at the bar ceased.

“All right, college boys,” he hollered, “you’re having a good time tonight, am I right?”

There was a general good-hearted cheer from around the bar, and Terrell used the opportunity to keep working—he was about six drinks behind.

“Awesome! Now I need you all to do me a favor. Can you do that?”

That hearty applause again, and Terrell dimly remembered one of his college professors saying it was human nature to keep going in the same direction. Get everyone to cheer once, and they’d cheer again and again and again.

“Excellent! Now we got two bartenders, and they’re working their hearts out for you, but you got to cut them some slack! Have your ID ready, and your card if you’re starting a tab, and our boys can get to you. If you don’t have your driver’s license, you need to go somewhere else. Can you get behind that?”

And sure enough, just like Professor Nichols predicted, there was that hearty huzzah, and Terrell felt some of the tension that had been building up his spine ease on out. He glanced up at Sukrish, the other bartender, and Suk looked back, nodding and rolling his brown eyes in his thin, sallow face. Suk hadn’t been tending bar very long, and if the kids were going to fuck with Terrell, odds were good they weren’t going to give Suk a break at all.

They worked hard, elbow to elbow. They laughed, they joked, and apparently the stiff-necked, racist little bastard Colby had walked out wasn’t going to come back. By the time twelve o’clock rolled around, the place was almost sane.

Terrell had Suk hold down the fort while he ran back to stock—they were out of their rotgut brand in almost every liquor, and it figured. In college, you ordered well. Out of college, you ordered call. Once you got your first promotion, then you could order your premium top-shelf shit and still make the rent. Every now and then, when one of the suppliers had some of the premium or top-shelf shit that “fell off the truck,” Terrell would buy it. He didn’t drink it a lot, but when he did, he knew it was the good stuff. Too many kids in his hood wasted their brains and their bodies on shit that would probably take the paint off of Terrell’s beat-to-hell car.

He was in the back, grabbing a couple of bottles of Johnnie Walker, when Colby went running back to the walk-in and came out with two bottles of salad dressing—apparently the waitstaff was stocking up too. They met by the door to the storeroom, and Colby pulled back to let Terrell out first.

“They treating you okay, T?” he asked, and Terrell swallowed. You don’t forget a guy standing up for you like that.

“Yeah—what’d you do to make him go the fuck away?”

Colby shrugged. “There was a cop outside anyway. He saw me shoving the guy out and asked what was up—I told him we didn’t take punks harassing our bartenders. The guy went off, and, well, I hope his buddies check their messages, ’cause he got a ride he didn’t expect.”

Terrell stopped for a second there in the hallway by the lockers and looked at him. “You gave him to the cops?”

Colby blinked. “Well, yeah, T—he was trying to get served underage, was being a racist prick—why not?”

Terrell shook his head and kept going, not sure if he could articulate his bone-deep hatred of most higher forms of authority. The one exception—his only exception—was education. He should have said something, he thought, some sort of thank-you, some sort of appreciation, but he couldn’t. He… the kid had come up like a knight in shining armor, and Terrell couldn’t even fathom ever needing such a thing. He split off from Colby and trotted up the stairs to keep up with the night, and thought he might have gotten away from any sort of emotional display at all when Colby hollered after him.

“Hey, T—back dock before cleanup, right?”

Terrell nodded and called “As always!” over his shoulder before he even knew what he was saying. But of course he was going on the back dock before cleanup. You waived break times when you signed up for the job, but Colby and T, they sort of had a ritual whenever they closed together. They went out behind the store by the trash masher, had a soda, shared a sandwich—whatever. Sometimes they talked, sometimes they just hung out. Terrell always figured that if they were smokers, they’d share a smoke, but they weren’t, and that was a shame, because really? Without nicotine addiction, there wasn’t a name you could put on that stolen ten minutes. It had started the first night Colby closed, and he’d been looking a little beat by the pace and the noise and just all of the stupid minute-by-minute stress that came when serving in a place where the seats were designed to be uncomfortable so customers wouldn’t linger and turnover would be lightning fast.

Terrell had poured them both a couple of sodas, grabbed a roll from the drawer (they weren’t supposed to be free, but everyone stole them), and dragged Colby outside, made him eat, made him caffeinate, made him slow the hell down. At the end of about ten minutes, Colby had looked up at him, grinned, and said, “Ready to get back to it?” And that had been that. Colby could probably work straight through now, but the next time they’d closed together, he’d asked Terrell if they were going to take a break, and Terrell… well, he’d appreciated the boy’s company. Even when they didn’t say anything, he just… radiated strength and good will. It was like when he hauled the college kid out and read him the riot act on civil rights—he was a Boy Scout through and through.

Yeah. On the back dock before closing. Of course. Because he was going to just stare straight ahead and pretend he wasn’t gay and hadn’t noticed that Colby had a full mouth and a little turned-up nose and eyelashes that went blond at the tips during the summer and hair that grew long enough to curl at the collar. None of that meant shit to Terrell, and neither did the fact that Colby would swoop in and play Captain America for him when not a soul on the planet had ever done so before in his entire life.

Terrell recognized the thing in his stomach as he went back and forth between the bar and the stockroom. It was a buzzy, warm, fierce tingle of excitement. He remembered it from childhood—it was the feeling he got right before school was about to start.

About half an hour later, he went back for more Sam Adams (it was the only upgrade the college kids got right) when he saw Kelly, one of the Do’ Hos (okay, door hostesses, but they all layered on makeup with a trowel and skirts with a Band-Aid, so Do’ Ho, which was a lot more fun to say) hiding in the back corner, face to the wall, face in her hands, shoulders shaking.

Oh no.

Crap. Terrell could be a cranky bastard with men, but he hated to see a girl cry.

“What’s wrong, sweet thing?” he said in his best “Tell Uncle T” voice. It got him good tips at the bar—he’d practiced!

The girl looked up, her curly brown hair falling from the clip that usually secured it at the back and her makeup running like a black bandit’s mask across her eyes.

“Hi, Terrell,” she said, half-afraid. He didn’t blame her, really. There was a hierarchy that superseded management even. The bartender was the top-of-the-line waitstaff and the window man was the top of the line in the kitchen. Terrell had been there for eight years—he’d worked his way up from bar-back in college, and he was the most senior staff member there, including Will Skeezy Templeton, whose drawers always counted up short and who never, ever seemed to have to tell corporate about it. (Terrell counted up the bar drawers in the back when Templeton counted up the rest of the take. Terrell had heard the man mumbling to himself on more than one occasion, and since they both had to put their count slips in the same place, he’d noticed the discrepancies. He’d seen enough -$100 marks to know that something was up, and enough managers come and go to ripely not give a fuck.)

“Aren’t you about ready to go home?” he asked kindly. It was getting close to one in the morning, and the few folks trickling in were heading straight for the bar since the kitchen was closing in about fifteen minutes.

She nodded and went to wipe her eyes. Terrell sighed and held out his hands. “Tch, tch, tch,” he muttered, then reached into one of the freshly laundered packages of white bar towels and found one that had been through the wringer a few times. It was still fresh and white, but one more time to the cleaner’s and it would disintegrate, and it was about as soft as soft could be. “C’mere, sweetheart,” he muttered, and she came hesitantly. He found a bottle of soda water not far from the bar towels and dumped some of it on the towel, then got close enough to wipe her eyes carefully, taking the goop off around the lower lashes without rubbing it into the poor girl’s eyes. She saw the big black crescents and let out a sound close to a laugh.

“Thanks, Terrell,” she said sincerely. “That’s a big mess. I’d forgotten how much makeup you put on when you’re dressing for the front.”

“No worries,” he said softly. God, he wished this could be a kissing moment. She was a sweet kid with an open face once you got some of the goop off. You could see the roughened skin from teenage acne, but for Terrell, that just made her more accessible, more human. Well, yeah, if onlies. “So, what’re you doing in here?”

She shook her head. “Have you ever been stupid?” she asked baldly. “I mean, ‘don’t sleep with that person’ stupid?”

Terrell thought of those frantic gropes in alleyways, the blow jobs he’d gotten from strangers based on a glance and their possessive hand on his ass as he moved through a crowd. He thought of driving past Gatsby’s Nick longingly, thinking of the people in there who knew what he would be there for and who wouldn’t judge, and who would maybe even come home with him at night. He’d never gone in. What if someone who would know him was there? What if word got around to his hood? He never went there anymore—God knew he was going to hell for ditching his Gi-Gi for the past few years during holidays and birthdays—but he hated lying to her too. It was easier to work the holiday and the birthday and send a gift and give a phone call, and to pretend that home wasn’t ten miles away in a sketchy neighborhood of people who thought he was a fool to go to school and not come out rich on the other side.

“All the time,” he said mournfully, and she smiled at him with gratitude he really didn’t deserve.

“Yeah,” she whispered. “Me too. I shouldn’t have slept with him, and I really shouldn’t have believed him when he said I was the only one.”

Terrell felt a stirring in his stomach. “Oh Jesus, sweetheart—please tell me it’s not—”

“Dodge-the-bill Will?” Kelly said bitterly, and Terrell winced.

“Cute,” he muttered. “And clever too.”

“And true.” She took the cloth from his hand and carefully wiped the crease of her eyelid. He let her do that. He’d exhausted his girl makeup skills in the first sally. “But he’s going to have to foot the bill this time. You can’t dodge a paternity test, you feel me?”

Terrell knew his eyes bulged, and that probably wasn’t attractive, but he couldn’t seem to blink. What was it with girls and just spilling that shit? “I feel you, sweetheart. That’s plenty real to feel!”

“Thanks, Terrell,” she said briskly, like she was regretting saying too much. “I gotta go up. Chelsea’s a real bitch if I’m not there to help clean up.”

She hustled out of the stockroom and Terrell grabbed his cases of Sam Adams, thinking that maybe being a spineless weasel wasn’t Will Templeton’s worst failing.

 

 

FORTY-FIVE minutes later he was on the back dock, sweating in the humidity and the warm summer air and trying to work up some righteous wrath, because dammit if Colby wasn’t late! Terrell had busted his hump to get shit clean, and then Suk just kicked him out to his break without so much as a by-your-leave! Terrell didn’t even have a chance to see if Colby was ready too, and they didn’t exactly have time to burn. Damned if that kid couldn’t—

The door flew open before Terrell could start analyzing his justified anger as hurt, and Terrell’s shoulders and neck relaxed as Colby bustled through the door.

“Make a brother wait!” Terrell snapped before he could stop himself, but Colby just raised his eyebrows and flashed that easy smile.

“Sorry, T. Some girl was all heartbroken in the stockroom. Dammit, I hate it when girls cry!”

Terrell was not appeased. “Well, Kelly already fell apart in there. She sucked up my time, she don’t need to be hoovering yours!”

Colby frowned. “I wasn’t talking to Kelly, I was talking to Erin!”

“Erin?” Erin was the head waitress—she was nearly six foot tall, blonde, blue-eyed, and as gorgeous as a supermodel. “Did Erin get knocked up by dodge-the-bill-Will too?”

“Too?” Colby’s voice rose for a moment. “Who else did he knock up?”

They both stopped then, eyes wide in the June moonlight that partially illuminated their little corner of the back dock, and Terrell let out a breath.

“How much do we want to know about this, really?” he asked, remembering all of his survival skills from the hood days when a boy didn’t want to know nothin’ ’bout nothin’.

But Colby didn’t grow up in the hood. “T, if he’s harassing all these girls into sleeping with him, that’s… that’s….”

“Harassment?” Terrell asked dryly.

Colby shot him an annoyed look. “It’s illegal,” he said, his voice flat and strong and brooking no argument. “Someone needs to report him or something—”

Terrell grunted. “Baby boy, if they was gonna fuck him for the girls, they woulda fucked him for the drugs and the cash already!”

Colby drew himself up, cocking his head to the side and looking very concerned. “Drugs and cash?”

Terrell shrugged. “It’s gossip, right? Like, just a hunch, so don’t repeat it—”

“Dude, so far we’ve got two knocked-up girls, a corporate manager on the rampage—”

“What?”

Colby looked behind him. “Beth Mitchell went hauling ass through the restaurant right when we were locking the doors from the outside. I have no idea who she wanted to talk to, but she was pissed! Now spill about drugs and theft, ’cause that’s a hell of a lot more interesting!”

Terrell shrugged uneasily, his long habit of saying nothing but jack still sitting heavy on his shoulders. But Colby was looking at him with big eyes, even in the moonlight, and a little bit of eagerness, and it was clear he wanted to hash this out. Terrell was uncomfortable with the lengths he’d go to find something that would make Colby want to stay and talk.

“His drawers don’t come out right,” Terrell said so softly that Colby bent his head close to hear. The boy’s aftershave was washed with body sweat and restaurant smells, but Terrell could still detect it over the unpleasant odor of wet concrete and the trash compactor. It was warm and sharp and musky, and Terrell bit back on a shudder. “They come out wrong in even amounts,” Terrell clarified. “Twenty, forty, sixty—easy amounts to, you know—”

“Buy a dime bag of something with,” Colby said seriously.

“Listen to you, being all street!” Terrell mocked gently, and Colby looked abashed.

“Yeah, well, I watched TV as a kid,” he said with a shy little grin.

“Yeah, so did I.” Terrell smirked. “That’s where all the white people were!”

Colby scoffed. “Man, I’ve been through your neighborhood—there’s plenty of white people there!”

“Yeah, maybe so, but they were all poor racist motherfuckers who’d as soon drop boys like you for not being white enough!”

“You’re so full of shit!” Colby crowed, and Terrell had to shake his head.

“Naw, white boy, I’m serious. And what you been doin’ in my old neighborhood anyway?”

Colby shrugged, and in the quiet before he answered, Terrell felt the strain of the night on his bandy legs. He exercised, ate well, and drank as much soy milk as he could afford, but poor childhood nutrition did put a damper on the old bone structure. Before Colby answered him, Terrell moved back to the wall, right by the door. They kept palle