December 21, 1946
The weather wasn’t going to get better. It was too cold to snow now, but the sky had opened up half an hour out of Yonkers, dumping several days’ worth of blizzard on central New York state in less than eight hours. Looking at all that white could have been cleansing. Or comforting.
Instead, all Don felt was exhausted.
Traveling by train was lauded in many of the old songs. When he’d been growing up in 1920s and ’30s Boston, the trains were exciting creations. By the time he’d turned sixteen, the glamour of a locomotive ride across the US enchanted him: the rocking of the cars, the bizarre and exotic conversations that could crop up between strangers, and of course the unexpected romance. Like the one that had joined his parents, Roger Chesterfield and his eventual bride, Grace Lennox. Two people from different parts of the United States, which was like two opposite sides of the world back in 1909. Soon after came their first daughter, and their second, then the twins, Anne and Eve, and at last, in 1916, Grace Lennox Chesterfield had given birth to her first and only baby boy. She’d named him Donald, after a favorite brother who died in the first war in Germany.
Trains were undoubtedly beautiful things. If you could afford a first-class ticket. First class brought meals and real seats with cushions instead of hard benches. As to the conversation, Don hadn’t wanted to talk to any of the women who cast looks his way. And he hadn’t dared risk striking up an acquaintance with any of the men, even those who were from such a reportedly loose city as New York. He’d kept his left hand in his lap and his right hand tucked into his pocket. Sometimes he caressed the dog tags there, but mostly he left them alone. Their weight was torment and consolation enough.
Now he was off the train, standing on a platform as the engine tugged the passenger cars and the rest of the train back into motion. The snow had stopped as the temperature dropped to a dozen degrees below zero, but he could see beyond the station that this little town of Saltport was buried in crunchy white like the rest of the state. If he’d had the money, he would have bought a ticket that took him all the way home. But home was several states west of New York, and his limited funds brought him only this far. His sisters would have gladly wired him some money if they had known he was coming home. But being unexpectedly discharged from the army had made his head spin. It hadn’t occurred to him to contact his family for help.
It would be hell finding a place to stay. He looked across the row of double tracks, now empty, that stood before the depot. He might as well start walking.
He strolled to the end of the platform, looking for hotel signs. Not that he could afford to rent a room, but hotels had kitchens, and kitchens had dishes to be washed and floors to be mopped. There weren’t any advertisements of any kind, so he took the stairs down to the gravel beside the tracks and headed into the lower part of town.
Even in the dimness caused by coming night and heavy clouds, he saw the distinct residential split between one side of the tracks and the other. He’d seen it coming into town. Marching away to the east, toward the hills, rows upon rows of proud houses stood like soldiers, holding strong against all kinds of weather. In the west, heading for the river, the direction Don walked, huddled smaller homes. These crowded close, filled with the families who knew how to pull together for warmth.
As Don crossed the third street west of the train depot, the wind picked up. He shivered and dug his hands deeper into his pockets. The dog tags probably jingled, but he couldn’t hear them over the shrilling in his ears.
The trees alerted him that the village proper was coming to an end. Groaning, he made to turn back the way he’d come. Maybe he could sleep in the depot for one night. Then he saw a sign standing in a yard, almost hidden by snow-covered bushes, and he stumbled toward the house: ROOM FOR RENT.
. He rushed up the half-shoveled walk, nearly slipped on the three steps up to the creaky porch, and knocked on the door. The roof over the porch groaned, and he glanced up. It needed work. He shot a look back at the steps. They needed work too. Maybe he could earn his keep here rather than asking for a temporary handout.
The front door opened slightly. A Negro, perhaps six inches shorter than Don, opened the door and glared at him. “Hello?”
Maybe it wasn’t a glare, Don decided. Maybe the man just didn’t want to be out in the cold. “Excuse me, sir, but I don’t have a place to stay, and I saw your room-for-rent sign.” He cleared his throat. “I don’t have much money, but maybe I could help you with some repairs around the place. I have my carpentry experience from the army, and...”
The man’s eyes--beautiful amber eyes, like glowing sunshine through orange autumn leaves--narrowed even more. “This ain’t no hotel, boy.”
Don stamped on his immediate reaction to tell the man to let him the hell in, it was fucking cold. “I understand, but I have nowhere else to go.”
The man sighed. “Fine. Come in.” He stepped back. He closed the door behind Don and looked him up and down with those narrowed, fiery eyes. “You could fix things round here?”
“Don’t call me sir, boy. I used to work--”
“For a living,” Don finished with him, and for a moment they both grinned.
“Will Jefferson. Former army.” He held out his slender, calloused hand.
“Don Chesterfield.” They shook. “Also former army.” And I like your eyes
. He dropped Will’s hand. “Where can I start?”
“You can start by sleeping. I was about to turn in. It’s been a long day.”
He sounds less Old South Negro every minute
. Perhaps the way Will answered the door was a mask. “Thanks.”
Don was slightly startled to find the bed in the spare room Will showed him already made up, and although it wasn’t a hotel’s turned-down comforter, he hadn’t seen a more welcoming sight in years. Aside from brief naps on the train, he hadn’t slept on US soil in three years.
“I’ll be up making breakfast in the morning,” Will said. He shut the door as he left.
Don sank onto the mattress, shrugged out of his coat, and looked down at his boots, which had tracked snow into the house. Sighing, he stripped off his gloves, fumbled in the right pocket of his coat, and found the dog tags, two of which belonged to him. The third was Sergeant Vincent Bonasanto’s. The lamplight illuminated the name and rank.
Don kissed the tags. Then he put the chain away.
The house complained around him like an old, well-put-together but running-down home might. Don’t you worry; I’ll look after you this Christmas, he thought at the roof and windows. God knew he’d rather be far from his parents and sisters this year. He’d see them after he finished healing.
Don smiled wryly. At least he’d be spending the ensuing days with a beautiful man. Having a chance to look at Will would be a nice Christmas present. Perhaps, Don mused, more than he deserved.
* * * *
A heady aroma reached into Will’s slumber early the next morning. The intoxicating scent curled around his dreams and drew him gently toward wakefulness. He sat up, rubbing sleep out of his eyes. Was that the distinct and homey smell of porridge on the air? Garnished with brown sugar? Will scrambled out of bed and to his door, yanking his trousers up and doing the fly as he stumbled out. First into the hall and then on to the kitchen.
porridge, and he recognized more than brown sugar; there was butter too. The last of his butter simmered away in the pot. The man he’d taken in last night stood at the stove, stirring the inviting contents.
A blue piece of paper lay on the table. My discharge from the army. How the fuck did he get hold of
Will stalked into the kitchen, stamping until the old boards squawked their protest. “What’d you think you were about, boy?” Good. If he kept the anger going, he might be able to intimidate this stupid, superior jackass. White people were all the same, thinking they owned the world.
The beanpole turned. His short, corn-yellow hair contrasted strongly with his deep tan. He looked foolish with a military cut. No guilt shone in his idiotic doe eyes.
Will snatched the blue ticket off the table. He shook it under Don Chesterfield’s nose. “What were you about, sneaking into my room? Did you think you have mast’ry here cuz yer a white man and I’m just--what? What am I to you?”
Don’s hazel eyes narrowed. “It’s not yours.” He crossed his arms, making no attempt to reach for the discharge. “I knew I’d have to tell you eventually if I have a prayer of staying here. I figured we might as well talk about it this morning.” He gestured at the bubbling porridge before refolding his arms. “I made breakfast so you’d know I’m not a layabout and that I’ll pull my weight.”
“You make up good lies, but there’s something you’re forgetting.” Will flapped the blue ticket again. “You’re not a Negro, asshole. Only Negroes get these half-assed marching orders.”
But the bastard talked over him as if he didn’t give a shit what Will had to say. “Did you think you’re the only homosexual to get kicked out?”
Will slugged him. It happened before he realized he was going to do it. White Boy thought he, Will, was a homo.
Brief panic closed his throat. What had he done that gave him away? Will shot a quick look around the kitchen as Don reeled from the punch. There wasn’t anything patently “homo” in the room.
Maybe, Will thought, he figured me out because I said I’d make breakfast.
What else could he have done? Men who lived alone cooked for themselves. Most didn’t know thing one beyond boiling water, but that was beside the point.
Don had fallen against the stove. But he leaped forward, knocking the hot porridge to the floor, where it splattered everywhere. His intense gaze seemed to demand Will face him. He kept his left hand at his side like he was an inexperienced boxer, but his right hand was a mace. He advanced.
Will dodged, grunting when Don landed an elbow against his ribs. He countered with another punch, but Don blocked this and then swung again. Will swore as his nose bled.
Don backed away. “Maybe you’ll think twice before taking after somebody half a foot taller than you.” He took another step back and slipped in the porridge. He caught his balance on the stove, but his left hand came down on the burner. “Son of a bitch!” He yanked his hand back and clutched his wrist.
Will rushed to the sink and turned the cold taps, grateful for once that icy water came out like a shot during the winter months. He snagged a nearby pan and clanged it into place under the faucet. “Get over here.” He grabbed Don’s injured hand and put it under the running water. The burn didn’t look bad.
Don gritted his teeth.
“Don’t move. The running water’ll keep air from getting to the burn.”
“Huh,” Don grunted, his lip briefly caught between his teeth. “And I thought it was the coldness of the water that helped.”
Will rummaged in a cupboard for the jar of aloe he’d gathered earlier in the year. “Nope. Cold helps dull the pain, though. Air makes it keep burning, so you submerge it. Ever put out a fire with dirt? It’s the same deal.”
“Where did you learn so much about first aid?”
“My ma and gramma.” He’d followed both women around as a kid, all but disdaining the company of his father and brothers. Will saw no reason to tell this too-tall, too-white man such a thing.
Not that there was thing one wrong with being white. It was liking white people that got you in trouble. It had gotten Will in plenty of arguments and scrapes anyway, both when he was a strong, squat farm boy and when he’d decided to join the army rather than submit to his father’s rules. Doing so had lost him a share in the family business, but what the hell. He’d done the only thing he could: be true to himself. If his father couldn’t handle who Will had slept with, that was the older man’s problem.
So Will’s uncle, to preserve family peace and maybe give Will a fresh start, had given Will one of his two houses. The one in Maryland, which was where the rest of the family lived, he’d kept for himself, leaving Will the homestead and property in upstate New York. Over three hundred miles away.
Will glanced at his patient, nodding when he saw Don hadn’t moved. He returned his attention to the cupboard. “Where the hell’s that jar?”
His refusal to join the family business and so give up any hope of finding a man he could have a tumble with once in a while hadn’t been noticed. His father hadn’t seemed to want him inheriting part of the repair shop. Will’s brother, Paul, owned all the tractors and other farm equipment now. Paul had made a killing with his natural business sense.
Building on their father’s good name hadn’t hurt either.
“Ha!” Will produced the aloe with a flourish. “Here we go.” He set it on the counter. “This will help you heal. I’ll put it on after your hand stops burning.”
“How long will that take?”
“A few more minutes.” He took the lid off the jar and held the container out so Don could look. “It’s aloe,” he said in response to the man’s dubious glance. “Like the plant?”
“If you say so, Doctor.” Don grinned, flashing square teeth between slightly peeling lips.
Between those lips and Don’s tan, it was easy to see he’d been out in the field more recently than Will. He was attractive despite the stupid military haircut. Will looked away to hide his blush, grabbed up the blue discharge paper, and studied it.
“Donald Chesterfield” was written where Will’s name should’ve been. So the white boy had told the truth. He’d been discharged in a way that was supposedly not dishonorable. Except since the blue ticket didn’t come right out and say “honorable discharge,” finding a job after being kicked out was the devil’s own work. No one wanted to a hire ex-army without the promise--on paper--that the soldier in question wasn’t trouble.
“Keep that hand under the water,” Will barked when he heard the splash of liquid in the metal sink.
Don laughed; it was a musical, husky sound, like Will imagined the Archangel Michael might sound.
And that’s the end of those thoughts. I told him I’m not a faggot, and I’m not going to show him otherwise
. That would lead to problems even if Don had sounded accepting of the homo idea. Everything Will did from this moment on must be calculated to convince Don that Will had no interest in men.
“My hand doesn’t hurt anymore,” Don said.
“I don’t care. It hasn’t been under the water long enough. Don’t take it out until I say so.”
Will refused to look at Don again right away. That tone of teasing submission was enough to undo a man.
* * * *
The officers’ wives had invited him for tea. Not for a rousing game of basketball, tennis, or even chess. For tea. What was he supposed to do in a parlor, surrounded by delicate cups, tinkling laughter, and doilies?
Xander shuddered. “Doilies, John. You can’t be sending me into a battlefield that includes doilies.”
His husband of two weeks smirked at him from where he stood in front of the dresser. BDUs on halfway, John Tsoukatos masqueraded as a partial god, partial GI Joe standee. “I thought being part of the military community sounded like ‘all sorts of fun.’ Isn’t that what you said when you agreed to take up with me?”
Xander cast through his shirts, seeking one that wouldn’t look too “out there” according to the assumed military standards. Assumed by me, but confirmed by everything I’ve ever heard about the military
. “I don’t regret making our relationship official”--never in life would he regret it--“but I didn’t realize all the required frills that would come with saying ‘I do.’”
“The officers’ wives aren’t harpies,” John said. Fully decked out in his everyday uniform at last, he sat down on the end of their bed to tie his boots. “They’re women. Good women, for the most part. Major Cassock’s wife is a gem. And the others will fall right in line today because this meeting’s organized by the Colonel’s wife, Nora, and she’s a piece.”
“A piece of what?” Xander asked, pulling his head out of the closet.
.” John smiled. “Relax, Xander. You’ll love them.” He grinned. “And look at it this way: with your long hair, you’ll fit right in. Keiko Armstrong’s hair isn’t even as long as yours, and she’s the queen of understated fashion.”
Xander didn’t respond. John was trying to be helpful, but beyond that Xander heard the familiar note of “I’m being patient in spite of your madness” tone creeping into his husband’s voice. Any further questions and John might snap.
Not that John’s testiness was bad on a day-to-day basis. It normally led to some pretty hot make-up sex. Or some plain old “rough for the sake of being rough” lovemaking that left Xander craving full-blown BDSM.
Either floated Xander’s boat just fine.
John stood. “You can come home whenever you want.” He crossed to Xander, turned him gently, and kissed him. “Try? For me?” He laughed. “Besides, after six years of our long-distance loving and you moving whenever I thought I’d be staying in one place for more than six months, meeting a few women--and seeing their doilies--can’t be that bad.”
Xander nodded. “I know.” He swept his hair behind his right ear so it wouldn’t get in the way and resumed their kiss. Mmm
. John tasted of coffee and something fruity. “What did you eat this morning?”
“Toast. With homemade raspberry jam.”
The jam Xander had made before their wedding.
John’s next words squashed the warm feeling in Xander’s chest. “I’ll eat a real breakfast at the chow hall.”
With all your buddies I haven’t gotten to meet yet
. Xander shoved that thought to the back of his mind. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell had been repealed for less than a year. He and John had been married for barely two weeks. There simply hadn’t been time for more than John going to work and Xander staying in the house they didn’t own, longing to paint the walls and redesign the landscaping in the front yard but knowing he wasn’t allowed to make any significant changes. Bases on the East Coast might be more accepting as a rule, but conformity was still strongly encouraged.
“You taste good,” Xander said, drawing on the raspberry-jam comment. He closed the distance again, grinning when he found John smiling into the lip-lock. “Yes?” he asked, pulling away half an inch.
John’s milk-chocolate eyes sparkled with humor. “I love you. Don’t worry so much.” He stepped back. “If the officers’ wives don’t love you, they’re crazy. I bet they’ll start a contest to see who can French braid your hair the most elegantly.”
“Oh God. Not that.” Xander grinned. “I’d better get going. They wanted everyone to bring a dish to pass for brunch, and I haven’t even started my famous sausage-and-peppers casserole.” Why had he been worrying about what shirt to wear in the first place? He should cook in an apron but without a shirt. As much as he enjoyed being in the kitchen, his fastidious nature wouldn’t allow for oil stains on his clothes. “Go on. You don’t want to be late. The chief will make you give him fifty.”
and give him fifty. Chief Ringgold’s not the BJ type.”
“Lucky for me. And ‘drop and give him fifty’ sounds wrong in the right context.”
“You’re only thinking that because your ‘erotica on the moon’ is due in three weeks and you just finished the outline.”
Xander blushed. “It’s only a short story. I’ll be done in plenty of time for the deadline.”
John pinched Xander’s cheek. “Don’t spend too much time trying to impress the ladies. You’re handsome just the way you are.”
“So are you, GI John.” Bare-chested and wishing he could drag his husband back to bed, Xander nevertheless shoved John toward the door. “Get going. Whether it’s push-ups the traditional way or the new, more creative variety, I don’t want you having to do more than necessary. Unless you’re practicing them on me, of course.”
Alone five minutes later, Xander began assembling his ingredients in the kitchen. I’ll say one thing about the on-base housing I’ve seen so far: there’s a window in every room, and light absolutely loves these floors
. He smiled down at the glowing linoleum that looked so much like tile it might as well be. Yet all the walls were depressingly white. John had explained that each new family should have the ability to move into a fresh-looking house, so painting was against the rules. Xander couldn’t even hang pictures without permission from John’s first sergeant, or so it seemed.
That should have left more time to write, but John had told the truth. Xander’s newest manuscript was due in less than a month, and he had barely finished the outline. Unable to go exploring, or at least find a part-time job to make money and waste his hours, Xander still couldn’t make himself sit still long enough to write.
Simply put, he currently climbed the walls of this “fresh-looking” house while he waited for John to get home each day. During the first week of wedded bliss, Xander had assumed the best qualities of the whirlwind and the nesting eagle. He unpacked boxes and cleaned the house until it shone like an understated but beautiful jewel. As John said, “Everything has its place, and there’s a place for everything.” There had been little enough to organize. John lived light as a rule, moving around the United States without much more than his uniforms, his French horn, his air force band music, and a few sets of civilian clothes. Xander added to that limited assemblage with a kitchen’s worth of proper cooking implements, a handful of art supplies, and two trunks full of designer clothing.
By the beginning of the second week, Xander was sick of staring at the same walls. He did his best to keep his wanderlust under control, though. The last thing John seemed to want at the end of a long day was to face the prospect of going into public.
Xander cursed--softly; he reminded himself how close all the houses stood to one another on base--and yanked the wrapper off the thawed sausage. After turning on the burner under the ready skillet, he tossed the sausage in and went in search of green, red, and orange sweet peppers.