The Bottom of the Cloud – James Barr

Robin left the winter coziness of his bedroom and stepped outside into the snow to watch the sun come up behind the distant derricks that fringed the town. Immediately the chill air stiffened the soft leather of his slippers and turned the silk of his pajamas into a wet gale against his skin. He shivered pleasantly, easing himself into the grip of discomfort for the next few minutes, holding confidently to the thought that he could end the unpleasantness at any chosen second by stepping back into his room. It amused him to play with pain when he felt himself safe from it. He breathed deeply of the cold and blew forth a torrent of gray into the frosty air.

There had been an ice storm the day before, and the wheat-stubbled plains, blacktopped roads, and drab buildings were coated with a slick brittle sheen. Every object possessed the lovely unreality of a movie travelogue. The creaking, clinking trees were especially colorful with their chandelier glitter, shifting and blazing blue-white, apricot, and scarlet as they moved clumsily in the wind beneath their unaccustomed weights. The red sun would turn to yellow soon and melt much of the ice, but tonight it would freeze again and the countryside would remain paralyzed for several more days. All but the main roads would be impassable and that meant little work for Robin until the snow plows had finished their monstrous jobs.

With the thought of no work, Robin’s exhilaration with the elements mounted and he thrust his arms into the air and his thighs forward for a wonderful moment of stretching. He kicked the snow roughly and laughed as it sprayed over his bare white arch to melt and trickle down into the pad of warmth beneath his foot. With a final snort of steam he hurried inside and dressed.

Inside the kitchen Mrs. Lalo, the Mexican woman who provided him with board and room, looked up with feigned amazement.

“You’re in your work clothes,” she exclaimed, lifting a wooden spoon from a pan of boiling oatmeal. “I thought you were going to Central City all so fast.”

“Got one short load to haul,” Robin said. He sat at his usual place and started to eat the ham and eggs already on his plate.

“Is it salt water or oil?” Mrs. Lalo asked, pouring the cereal into a bowl.

“Salt water,” Robin answered between bites. “Won’t take over an hour or so. Then I’m on my way.”

“And oh, the little split-tails look out then.” Mrs. Lalo gave a small shriek at her own humor. “Ah, you’re blushing, Robin.”

Robin grinned and continued to eat in silence.

“They got some nice girls up there in the city, Robin?” asked Mrs. Lalo. She sat down opposite him and poured a cup of coffee for herself.

“Pretty nice,” Robin grinned half-heartedly.

This was the part of his present set-up he found it so hard to live with in this damned hick oil town—the lying he had to do. He didn’t mind everyone kidding him about his frequent trips to Central City to see the girls. What he did mind was the fact that he couldn’t rip out his foulest oath and tell them that he went up there not to see the girls, but the boys! To shock them would be mildly enjoyable, but to tell the truth just once would give his conscience unequaled satisfaction. But the price was too high.

“They got big ones like these, Robin?” Mrs. Lalo tossed her great breasts up and down playfully.

“About like yours,” Robin said, stealing a sly glance at her laden hands. Again she shrieked with laughter. Most of his dialogue was carefully planned and delivered for Robin knew that his prosperity in this town lay in the perfection of his role. But it did get monotonous, going through the same routine day after day, and each time he returned from a trip, inventing additional lurid details to let fall in the manner of a stumbling novice to keep the thing going. Oh well, he thought, another year or so and he’d get out of here with enough money to last him quite a while. He had never planned to stay in one place very long anyhow. Then for the West Coast or Hawaii. Gosh! Those sailor towns and the way some of those queens lived! He tensed the muscles of his legs against the chair quickly several times. He’d be ready for Central City tonight all right, all right!

“Better get yourself something closer to home, Robin.” The old note of falsity crept into Mrs. Lalo’s bantering tone as it always did at this stage.

Robin finished the eggs and pushed back his plate. Immediately Mrs. Lalo was at his side, removing the dish, handing him oatmeal, pouring coffee, touching his hair shyly, hopefully. Robin whacked her on her flabby bottom.

“Careful, Maw, your boy friends won’t like your playing around with this young stuff. It might spoil you.”

Again the shriek, as she wriggled away from him. Mexicans must be awfully hot-blooded, he thought, but they were good cooks.

Mrs. Lalo had plenty of boy friends, both Mexican and American. They came to see her several nights a week from their boxcar barracks down by the freight depot. Sometimes they had drinking parties and he’d hear downtown the next day that she’d taken on all comers. The parties never bothered him in his part of the house. He could sleep through barrages of noise; the army had taught him that. The heavily laden visitors tramped in and out, always at night, but they did not bother him—the Mexicans because they didn’t dare, the others because they didn’t care. Once in a while, Robin would notice a particularly attractive fellow, but he had never tipped his hand. Too risky. He had a gold mine of a business in this town and he wasn’t going to give it up for a little fun. And besides, he often thought, men were all alike anyhow, conveniently located like comfort stations, something you didn’t think much about until you wanted one, then you just looked around for a couple of blocks and there one was.

He finished his cereal and coffee. “Well,” he said, getting up, “I may see you before I shove off.”

“Going to drive through or take the train?”

“Train. I’ll leave my car over in Hamlet at the garage.” Mrs. Lalo nodded. “Want anything from the big city?” he asked. “Another gut-buster, maybe?” He referred to a girdle he’d purchased for her on one of his trips. She shrieked loudly.

“You’re a card, Robin. You’re a whole pack of them.”

He rolled the doors of the garage all the way back and looked with pride upon the truck and the big new coupé. Both were immaculate despite the business he was in. He climbed into the cab of the truck and turned the starter over slowly a few times, pumped up gas into the carburetor with his foot and then turned on the ignition. The engine took the first time, roared but a second before he caught it with the throttle and nursed it to life gently but persuasively. He let the engine idle for a long while as he tested the heater, windshield wipers, radio, and lights. Then he went around the outside, checking the chains, the doors to the tool compartments, the lengths and connections of the thick high-pressure hose, and last of all the great fifty-barrel tank mounted on the chassis. Everything was shipshape, Robin observed with pleasure.

Five years before, after his discharge, he’d gone in debt to purchase this truck. The prospects had seemed pretty slim then, but today the truck and car were paid for and he had in the bank a balance that would allow him to buy two more trucks if he wanted to expand his business. But then he wasn’t at all sure he wanted to expand just yet. It was about time to cut loose and raise hell for a year or two out West. Then too, another war was brewing, and a business would be the last thing he’d want when he was called back to active duty.

Still, he hated to think of giving up anything as lucrative as this. It was lopsided in ways, but it brought in over ten thousand a year. For a young buck and for doing what was considered manual labor, that was all right. He knew of nothing else that would beat it, unless it was wheat farming, but that required a lot of capital and more hard work than he was used to putting out.

His business was tank cleaning, salt water hauling, road oiling, and anything else he could do with his truck. His summers were comparatively light, but in the winter work always piled up and he was able to get up to Central City only for overnight trips. During the big season, more often than not he made fifty dollars a day so he couldn’t afford to be away too much in the wintertime.

In this particular field the crude petroleum was of a very poor grade and carried a high percentage of impurities that settled out in the storage tanks before the refineries ran off the best in their own pipelines. When the residue grew deep enough, it was drawn off into a truck such as Robin’s and spread over the dirt roads to make a surface impervious to rain and snow. Salt water, which was settled out in special riser-equipped tanks, had to be hauled away also to disposal plants rather than be allowed to soak back into the earth to contaminate the farmland, streams, and pastures. This was a state law, and because of it men in Robin’s business did well.

For drawing off bad oil from a tank, a job that usually took an hour or so, Robin got a flat rate of fifteen to twenty-five dollars, according to the size of the tank. For road oiling, five dollars an hour; for salt water hauling, four. The work was not hard. Unlike most of his competitors, he worked with the fast high-pressure hose which some tankies believed to be dangerous because the nozzle often struck sparks inside the metal tanks. Oftentimes the work was dirty and this caused him a good deal more anxiety than the possibilities of being blown up. Mrs. Lalo always complained about his laundry, but good humouredly because he paid her well.

In the beginning he had been a little ashamed of doing what was considered manual labor. After all, he had a college degree and during the war he had carried braid. However his feeling of shame disappeared quickly when he learned the social setup of the oil fields. There was no leisure class in the small towns. The very rich always moved away from their source of wealth. The educated of the town, the bookkeepers and the schoolteachers, were poorly paid and hardly ever held in esteem. Tradesmen comprised the highest social order, but the laborers and bosses of the oil companies were the envied. They were independent, proud, and very well paid. They married the best-looking women, who prized their maleness highly. All in all, in their easygoing manner, these men shaped the characteristics of their communities. It was with this group Robin chose to identify himself, which was natural since he got all of his work from them, plus invitations to supper and card parties, and too often for comfort, the glad eye from not only the unmarried sisters but also the wives. Life was pleasant enough for Robin, so close to Central City and its secret joys.

Robin climbed into the truck again and raced the engine a few times before easing it backward into the alley. As he was about to release the clutch, he glanced into the rear view mirror which was attached to an arm outside the window to see that the way was clear. As he did so two boys on a bicycle rode slowly into the range of the mirror. Robin had seen them often in the neighborhood. Impatiently he waited for them to clear the way. The older one, a nine- or ten-year-old, was pedaling leisurely. The other, who was perhaps a year younger, sat sideways on the frame in the curve of the older boy’s arms. The basket on the handlebars was full of milk bottles. Robin could hardly believe his eyes when suddenly the older leaned forward and kissed his young passenger on the cheek. Almost immediately they were out of sight, but the picture remained sharp in Robin’s mind—the gentle, protective insistence of the older, the casual acceptance of the younger who had carried a toy pistol in his gloved hand. How naturally it had been done. Robin grinned broadly.

“I’ll be damned,” he muttered. “I’ll just be damned!”

So those two babies were on to it already, he thought, and for a moment he wondered how much of that sort of thing went on in this slow predictable town. He hoped there was a lot of it. He hoped it was well submerged, well guarded, for it could be a frolicsome thing and give zest to the mediocrity of day-to-day living.

“Those little devils!” He laughed and eased the truck backward out of the garage.

The roustabout who awaited Robin at the tank battery wanted two loads hauled instead of one. The disposal plant was nearby and the road had been scraped free of ice the entire distance. He took his time, enjoying the unusual sparkling day, and spent most of the morning hauling salt water and emptying it into concrete pits. At eleven o’clock he drained the big tank completely and drove back through town to his garage. When he had parked the truck inside and backed the coupé out, he locked the doors and turned to look at the tracks of bicycle wheels in the snow. He remembered himself at the age of ten on a summer day in the caves along a creek. He had swum with a red-haired boy much older than himself and afterward they had slept in the cool dry caves. His eyes grew unseeing to the present and his smile became tender upon his lips.

The house was deserted as he expected it to be. In order to escape Mrs. Lalo before he left he hurried through his bath, splashed himself with alcohol, and admired himself briefly in the steamy mirror. He put on new shorts and socks and dived upward into a freshly ironed shirt, which was stiff as cardboard. He selected a blue wool tie and took out a light gray suit of English flannel, cut expertly along the lines he favored, and a Cashmere topcoat. His shoes had been polished and his hat brushed. Mrs. Lalo was an accommodating old whore, he thought happily.

Half an hour later his car was moving majestically through town. The air was never crisper, the prospects before him never more alluring. The car gathered speed slowly, picking its way over the frozen gravel of the streets daintily as if it hated to jar itself while it was still cold. Robin smiled and looked down fondly at the steering wheel in his hands. He loved engines, powerful engines. Such lovely things they were, so quiet and well bred, and yet so—so powerful. He was in a great mood, he thought, much too fine a mood to be broken, as it was in the next instant.

As he turned the car to the highway out of town a roaring, deafening blast from somewhere to the north rocked the car momentarily and shattered ice from the trees and telephone wires in showers along the road. Robin scanned the horizon fearfully, knowing too well the sickening, paralyzed quiet that had fallen over the town like a great invisible tent. Almost directly ahead of him he saw the first results of the explosion, a thunderhead of black smoke that billowed upward into the crystalline air staining the ice-blue sky. It spread quickly on the wind like ink through cloth. Near the horizon orange tongues of fire proclaimed the disaster was well out of hand.

Robin drove off the highway into a service station, his heart beating rapidly, and pulled up to await the news. If it was bad, he might be needed for rescue work. All plans for Central City were temporarily abandoned.

A group of men had poured out of the station and stood watching the growing smudge in the sky with silent apprehension. At last from the babble of voices that arose timidly, the station attendant emerged and asked Robin automatically, “Fill ‘er up?”

“Yeah. Wonder what happened out there?” Robin’s own voice had grown infinitesimal to him in the face of that rolling, spreading cloud.

“Don’t know. Probably thawin’ out a leadline. Looks like the whole battery’s goin’ up, don’t it?”

“Yeah.”

A heavy Diesel truck with a bulldozer chained to the trailer lumbered by with a dozen men clinging to it. The watchers’ eyes devoured it hungrily as it appeared, broadened, and disappeared down the road.

“Looks like the Byington lease,” Robin said.

“Byington or the Stringer. Both of ‘em’s pretty big.”

“Yeah.”

Mechanically the attendant wiped off his windshield and then, as if aware of Robin’s identity for the first time, asked, “You goin’ som’mers?”

“Central City on business.”

“Goin’ try ta drive through?”

“Nope. Train from Hamlet.”

“Guess it would be safer today.”

“Yeah.”

“That’ll be two-sixty-three. Want it on your bill?”

Robin nodded. He had hardly taken his eyes from the spreading blaze as he talked, glancing avidly at each truckload of workers or carload of sightseers that hurried by, but without comment. A well-known dread had possessed him tenaciously since the explosion. But for a rigid discipline, he knew he might now babble like a fool, leap into his car, and speed to the scene for the most electrifying view of the horror that rested somewhere out there on the snowy plains. As a youngster reared in the oil patch, he had once done such a thing and the hideous details of burned and bloody remains, the cries of dying terror had never left him. With each new disaster he had witnessed—and in the oil fields they were frequent—the weight of terror and fascination had accumulated. In college he had learned something of the significance of these experiences and he came to know that the great fear of his life was to be burned alive. And he had learned, too, that perversely enough he had devoured the hideous spectacles with shuddering eagerness because for some insane reason he wanted them for himself. Because of this, during his later years he had learned to clamp a shut-off valve over his brain, as it were, forcing himself to remain calm, forcing himself to keep away.

Robin left his car and went inside the station where some of the observers had gathered to escape the cold. He lighted a cigarette and dropped a nickel into the Coca Cola machine. There was a sound of falling metal, digestive organs whirred, purred, gurgled, and thrust forth an icy bottle from its rubber slit. The thing was almost obscene.

“Oil’s dangerous stuff,” one of the loiterers said. “Don’t take much to blow up a whole township.”

“You talk like a man with a paper A-hole!” said another scornfully. “There ain’t enough oil in this field to blow up anything. Now down in the natural gas fields of Texas—”

“Aw, take Texas and go to hell!”

Robin went to the phone and picked up the receiver easily. A familiar voice at the switchboard requested his number.

“Mabel,” he said softly. “Me, Robin. What’s the explosion?”

“Oh, hi, Robin,” the operator replied. He was on good terms with the operators who sometimes helped him get work. “It was the Stringer lease. Bunch of men laying a new line near where Jim Heath was cleaning a tank. They said his hose struck a spark inside the tank. Must have been an awful lot of gas accumulated. Gosh, I’m glad it wasn’t you!”

“Thanks, keed,” Robin said. “Anyone killed?”

“They haven’t been able to get close enough to find Jim yet. Mrs. Beedly turned in the alarm. She said some of the men were pretty bad burned.”

“Jesus! What a way to die!” Robin shuddered.

“What did you say?”

“Oh. Nothing. Well, thanks, Mabel. Give me Mrs. Lalo’s number, will you?”

“Sure thing, Robie.”

Briefly Robin told his landlady what had happened, knowing she would worry about him until she heard.

“You still going on to Central City?” Mrs. Lalo asked.

“Yeah. Everything seems to be under control. No need of delaying my trip.”

“Well, be good, and if you can’t be good, be careful,” the voice simpered in his ear.

“Okay. Take a good hitch on the gut-buster before you throw that whingding tonight.” He hung up before the shriek could reach his ear.

As he was leaving the station, one of the men said, “Somethin’ like that’s going to happen to you one of these days, young fella.” He pointed to the fire and then to Robin.

“Not if I can help it,” Robin said, starting out the door.

“Where you goin’ all dressed up like that?”

“Business trip,” Robin winked.

“Yeah? Sure wish I had some of that kind of business tonight.”

Robin, as he closed the door behind him, muttered, “I doubt it, you old fart!”

He left his car in a garage in Hamlet with instructions for the attendant to wash and grease it, went next door to a beer joint and ordered a bottle of beer and a ham on white. He glanced at the expensive watch he always wore on these occasions and told the girl to hurry. It was ten before two and the train might be on time. He drank the beer, wolfed the sandwich, and hurried to the station a block away. He had time to purchase a ticket before the whistle sounded at the five-mile crossing and the station master closed the window. Robin continued to refuse to think of the disaster that had claimed Jim Heath or to let it invade his anticipation of happiness. Thank God the people with whom he lived and worked were not demonstrative.

He stood on the icy platform, his topcoat flung about his shoulders, conscious of the unusually elegant spectacle he made against the dull background. He slapped his gloves lightly against his leg. Life was, after all, tremendously good sport.

The train ground down upon him, hoary and black, thrillingly huge, hissing, clanking, pounding, turning, grinding, snapping—a thousand sounds combined into one unbelievable nightmare of leashed fury. Blood sang in his ears. Instinctively he stepped back beside his traveling bag and picked it up. Though he loved the spectacle of approaching locomotives and was always fascinated by their powerful mechanisms, he was always frightened. Suppose one of them leaped free of its confining rails and tore toward him. No power on earth could save him if such a thing happened. Again he found it necessary to turn off these dangerous thoughts. The train stopped and he gave his bag to the porter and climbed aboard.

Inside the coach he tossed his coat over his arm, stamped the snow from his shoes and walked unseeing through the double row of faces to the club car at the rear. As the train started to move again, he ordered another beer and gave his hat, coat and gloves to the attendant to hang up for him. From now on he was anything but a man who worked for a living. Briefly he glanced down the car at the other passengers who stared at him with the frank curiosity that is born of travel’s boredom, and settled himself with a copy of an oil journal he had brought along to pass the journey as quickly and uneventfully as possible.

For three quarters of an hour Robin read, glancing at the wintry landscape from time to time to rest his eyes. Next to him sat a young marine who looked somehow as if he had just returned from active duty abroad. He had eyed Robin quietly since he had entered and Robin was pleased but not expectant. Probably the man would start a conversation before long. Robin didn’t really care if he did or not. He looked at his magazine a while longer and fell to meditating about himself as he always did on his way to Central City.

He began wondering, as usual, where this present course of his life was taking him. No student of psychiatry, he was not morbid or pessimistic about the fact that he was homosexual, whether congenital or nurtured or whatever else experts cared to call him. But once he had done a lot of thinking on perversion. He suspected the conclusions he had reached at that time were quite elementary so far as authorities were concerned, but then authorities were apt to be very dull people with rather unpleasant academic aspects, so he didn’t mind being considered elementary by them at all.

Everything boiled down to a few basic facts for Robin, the most important of them being that essentially he was like every other young man he knew—unmarried, free, in comfortable circumstances, living a fairly interesting life, hunting the same jungles for his sport as others, but preferring the male to the female of the species for his entertainment. But he was not trapped; at least he did not feel that he was, which was as important, and his difference in preference was not obvious. He supposed he was just plain lucky. He knew that he could stop what he was doing at any time he wanted. Of course, he did not want to slop, and if he ever did, it would involve a lot of self-chastisement that would be damned unhandy for a while, but Robin was reasonably sure that it circumstances arose that required him to live the life of a respectable normal man, he could do so without too much sacrifice. But, he thought with a smile, living as he was was so pleasant. He thought of the hunt, the thrills and the pleasures of the hunt.

He had his likes and dislikes in partners. He preferred redheads in the youthful, more effeminate types; blonds in the older, heavier, more masculine types; but there was a type of brunette that approached that standard of his perfection which, he had to admit, was for him a menace. Usually the few of this particular type were not big men, but extremely compact ones with short, easy, graceful movements and a quiet air of virility that was discernible almost as far as they could be seen. They were usually fairly normal in their habits but so hopelessly oversexed that they were driven to roam from their firesides to compensate for the wifely rationing. They were happy family men for the most part so they hunted the safer pastures where Robin’s kind, in both sexes, was to be found to receive their left-over passions.

But this highly desirable type was quite rare, Robin had discovered early in his career. Once they were found, however, they could be had as frequently as one wanted. More often than not these men turned to women for their extramarital relations, as the newspapers put it, but occasionally they sought those of their own sex for extreme safety. In this small group lay the gravest danger to Robin. Whereas their meetings could mean little to them since their primary desires remained in the homes they had been forced to leave for sufficient satisfaction, to the partners of their rendezvous the opposite was true. The homosexual without Robin’s intelligence and instinct might think that these relations were the beginning of his happiness, but he would be wrong, for these men had nothing more than a few casual meetings a month to give anyone. They arrived, anxious to be relieved and to be on their way, and at the first possessive sign they thought of their own safety and moved away from any danger. In these few men, Robin knew, lay the power that could pull him from his safe conveyance on the surface of this world and literally drown him in the depths where there was no volition. Because he knew this, he steered a wide course about them; and when he did meet them, he treated them with sarcastic flippancy, giving no quarter, demanding outrageously and consequently holding the whip throughout the brief but always shattering relationship. His knowledge of coquetry was not meager and he saw to it that he did not become too involved with any of this group. He would not let a suggestion of permanency enter his mind or any admission other than general impersonal admiration and satisfaction. With wisdom he was cautious and with caution he was safe.

The others he had observed in the homosexual world were really a pretty stupid lot when one got right down to it. They dolled themselves up in outlandish finery that could be spotted by an idiot, they sat in the same notorious bars too frequently, they mooned over affairs when they had them, and worked themselves into states over partings. They had mad passions for the ballet, or classical music, or feminine fashions, or crystal, or decorating, or old china. They picked up effeminate idiosyncrasies of speech and manner and gushed at each other, hoping they were showing the world how clever and important they were—and all the while they were willing to play to any audience they could shock, into watching them.

Robin enjoyed attention as much as any exhibitionist and he liked fine clothes, so long as they were quiet. He saw to it that his speech remained a little crude, his choice of subjects and attitudes masculine, and he tried to care very little what the rest of the world thought of him so long as it accepted him as an equal. That was most important. He suspected the same was true for the others in this world too, but they were not so wise as he in going about achieving this respect. As a result, Robin succeeded where they usually failed, for he knew that the only possible understandable element to the rest of the world who sat in on them as judges was this intense appreciation of that which is male. He also knew that departure from maleness led to personal disaster quicker than any other infringement.

Of course, there were many exceptions to any rule he used as a measure, but these exceptions in his world were hard to meet for they lived and hunted in his manner, not in parks like the others. It was in this group of individualists like himself that a possible future for him lay, he supposed, if he didn’t break with all this before it was too late. Yet he hated the thought of settling in one place and putting down roots and being enveloped by the tendrils of a comrade. The other escape he saw was in marriage when this present penchant was exhausted or outgrown, but marriage was not too alluring. He was fond of a few girls and supposed that any of them would do nicely, but they were for the most part older than he. It was difficult to escape the possibility that he found in women only an answer to a need for a substitute mother. Oh, well, better that than nothing so far as society was concerned with him, he supposed. When he decided to turn his talents to preserving society in a more genuine manner, women wouldn’t question his motives too closely so long as he married one of them. But in the meantime, there was pleasure to be had and—

“Excuse me. Do you have a light?”

“What? Oh, yes, just a moment.”

It was the marine. Robin handed over his lighter and studied the serviceman. Not bad. The man lighted his cigarette and examined the golden gadget.

“That’s nice. Got your name on it too. Robin S.” He handed it back. “I’m Bruce A.” Robin laughed and took the proffered hand.

“The lighter was a present from a fair admirer.”

“Some admiration, I’d say.”

Robin nodded. “I paid for it and more before I got out.”

“Married her, huh?”

“Not that bad.”

There was a pause indicative of polite disinterest on both sides, and then Robin asked, “On leave?”

“Yeah. Going home for ten days.”

“That’s good.”

“I suppose,” the serviceman replied, leaving the opening for Robin to enter but Robin remained uninquisitive. “Live out here?”

“Yes, I do,” Robin answered.

“I noticed some oil wells near the stop where you got on.”

“That’s right. Quite a field they’ve brought in there. Know anything about the industry?”

“A little. I’m from Pennsylvania.”

Robin raised his eyebrows appreciatively and gave a short nod. “Ever work in the field?”

“Nope. That’s one thing I haven’t done yet.”

“Quite an experience.”

“I guess so. Where are you going?”

“Central City. I come up often on business.”

“Your home office there?”

Robin laughed. “I own my own business. I label my trips business, but I guess they’re really for relaxation.”

“How is Central City? Quite a town?”

“Yes, quite a town.” Here Robin found the pattern growing more familiar. He looked the man over carefully, noticing every feature separately—head, body, hands, legs, eyes, teeth—weighing them against his private standards before deciding . . . There was nothing wrong with the man. He just didn’t quite meet the requirements. Then too, servicemen could be the dullest of the lot, or even troublesome on occasion, especially if they were as interested in being friendly as this fellow seemed.

“I might stop over there for the night.” The man uttered the expected. “Getting tired of riding. Been on since ‘Frisco.”

“Traveling can wear you down, all right,” Robin agreed.

“What’s a good hotel?”

Robin considered a moment. “The Luckendam is fairly good and right downtown. Not far from the station and reasonable. They can usually find a room for a serviceman.”

“Is that where you’re staying?”

“No. I’m putting up at the Town House. It’s out a ways and rather expensive.”

“Oh.”

Robin glanced at his watch. “Care for a drink?” he asked.

“Don’t mind if I do,” the marine agreed warmly.

Robin raised his hand to the barkeep who came on the double.

“What’ll you have?”

“Double Bourbon and a coke,” the marine answered promptly. Robin’s stomach turned at the thought of the concoction. He was quite sure of his decision now.

“Bring me a Martini,” he said, “and take this away.” He indicated the beer. “I guess it won’t hurt me to start my imbibing an hour early for once.”

“It shouldn’t,” the serviceman smiled, turning his chair a little more to him. “You must do all right in your business.”

“So-so,” Robin replied, thinking the man duller than he had originally supposed. He calculated the number of minutes he’d have to get through before the train got in and he could decently escape.

The drinks arrived and as the serviceman grew more acutely aware of Robin’s lack of interest, he tried to become more entertaining by reciting his stock of well-exercised observations gathered from his run-of-the-mill experiences in the Philippines.

Robin felt sorry for the fellow, so he tried to listen with interest, but the man was hopelessly boring. Robin recognized the type; he was looking for a good time on someone’s expense account, which probably meant a steak dinner, a nightclub or the fights afterward, a good bed where he would square up his end of the bargain, and a spot of cash to speed him on his way in the morning. He might be manna from heaven for some queen, but from Robin’s viewpoint, he had little to offer. The Martini was abominable so he left it unfinished.

When Central City was announced, Robin called the waiter, ordered his companion another drink, and paid the bill. As the sheds came into view, he stood up and took down his hat and coat.

“Lots of luck,” he said and held out his hand.

The marine lurched to his feet, and squeezed Robin’s hand with undue warmth. “You’re a damned good joe.”

Robin cupped his hand to withstand the pressure and smiled indifferently into the probing eyes. The porter appeared with his bag.

“Right this way, sir.”

“Goodbye.” Robin released his hand, promptly wiping the man and the past hour out of his mind forever. He followed the porter down the long moving aisle.

In the station he paused long enough to make one call. Though it was heartless of him to do so, he always rang up Freddie, a clerk from some man’s shop who had picked him up one night when he had been very drunk. He reported that he was in town, “but pretty busy this trip, seeing some new equipment and meeting some business acquaintances for the evening.” With this explanation he left himself free of Freddie for his stay. In return he got a quick summary of the local gossip that might interest him and valuable tips on where not to be seen at the moment. Freddie was a cloying, nauseous little fellow, but he had a certain usefulness.

Robin stepped out of the booth and walked through the high glass-covered, bubble-like station to the taxi ramp. He got into a cab, told the driver his hotel, and settled back to watch the town roll by the windows in the press of after-five traffic. The War Memorial atop Hillside Park came into view, a tall slender shaft of concrete set among promenades, parapets, and long sweeping lines of fountains, and flanked by broad stairways. At the top of the shaft, commanding the entire city, floated a diaphanous flame of orange. The city’s lights were still dead and the crepuscular stillness far above the dinning traffic about him helped to fill his mind with memories of those long, shadowy night walks one might take up there in the park, the faces one saw or did not want to see, the whole forbidden atmosphere of expectancy. He drew his breath in sharply and looked up again at the flame, floating like a scarf of bright silk against the deepening blue-black sky, and quite without warning he shivered with cold—and, yes, it might have been fear—not for an instant but for several minutes. The cab moved on until the monument was no longer visible, and the paroxysm left him as unexpectedly as it had arrived. He huddled into the warmth of his top coat. Perhaps he was coming down with a cold. He’d try to remember to drink only whisky tonight.

His arrival at the hotel was without incident. He went immediately to his room which was nice enough but without the view of the city he had been anticipating. He was too exhausted to call the desk and demand another room, and since the lobby had had that convention look, they were probably crowded.

He fought a sudden desire to fall on the bed and sleep, telling himself he hadn’t come all this way only to sleep. He went into the bathroom and started filling the tub with hot water and came back to the phone. He noticed his voice was weak and he said, “Give me the masseur, please.” He waited for a few seconds and replied to the voice that answered him, “I’m in 622. Can you come up in a quarter of an hour?” The voice said it could and Robin dropped the telephone into its cradle.

Refusing to look at the bed, he made the tub with effort and climbed in hardly caring that the water felt scalding to his skin. He submerged and closed his eyes. Slowly, very slowly, he relaxed and let his arms and legs float to the surface. Strange, strange, this sudden lethargy. He was not ill. He was chilled from the drafty train. That was it. Or had the shaft and the flame had something to do with it. It was as if someone had walked over his grave. His laughter was a weak snort of contempt. Still it was such a funny old idea, shivering when some one stepped on your grave. But then he’d never have a grave, he was going to be cremated, they’d have to step on his ashes.

A knock awoke him and he called to come in for he had left the door unlocked. The door opened and a high, table-like bed rolled in before a man wearing the whites of a hospital attendant. Several towels and a flat pillow lay on the fresh sheet, and bottles clinked lightly from the shelf below. The attendant came to the bath door. “Good evening, sir.”

“Hello.” Robin sat up with some effort. He hoped he felt better. “I think I’m coming down with something. Chilled and a sudden fatigue. Don’t know what it is,” he finished thickly.

Instantly the masseur was on his own jovially familiar ground. “We’ll have you fixed up in a jiffy, sir.” He gave Robin a hand to help him rise and brought a great white towel and wrapped him in it before opening the drain. “If you’ll just lie on your stomach on the table here, sir.”

Robin decided he was hungry. “Order me a couple of Gibsons,” he told the masseur, “and get yourself a drink if you want it.”

He stretched out on the sheet completely relaxed, almost asleep while the masseur ordered the drinks. Then the man toweled him dry and started kneading the muscles in the small of his back, rubbing in unguents that smelled faintly of Vick’s ointment and lavender water. Robin dozed feverishly.

“Here you are, sir.” The masseur awakened him. “Your drink.”

Robin raised himself on his elbows and looked at the handsome young bellhop who stared at his nakedness with unconcealed interest.

“My wallet’s there on the bureau.” He smiled, lifting himself up more and turning on his side. The boy appraised him further. “Hand it to me, will you?”

The bellhop offered him the tray of cocktails and then brought him his wallet. He managed to touch Robin’s hand as he handed over the wallet.

“Be interested in a little lovin’ tonight, sir?” He grinned impishly, his eyes leaving Robin’s face slyly.

“Have you any suggestions?” Robin asked, immensely amused.

“I can fix you up with anything you want, sir. Blonde, brunette, redhead—anything you might want.”

Robin gave the boy a wink of understanding and a bill. “We’ll see later. Keep the change.”

“Thank you, sir. I’m on duty until one o’clock. If you want me, call for Number Seventeen.” He touched the brass tab on his dark green chest and backed out the door with an answering wink.

Robin drank his first cocktail, took the second, and lay on his back for the remainder of the massage. The masseur’s joviality seemed to have frozen. So he had caught on. What the hell. Robin thought closing his eyes and exhaling the pleasant fumes of gin through his nostrils. What the hell. He was beginning to feel wonderful. He was glad when the doddering old dodo was finished and left with his wet towels and clinking bottles. He drank his second drink and thought of Number Seventeen. It might be nice to have him up for a few minutes. Sort of a preliminary to the evening to come. He could order another drink. He toyed with the idea for a moment and decided against it. Tonight, he felt, was going to be something special. He would save himself for it. With a sudden excess of good spirits he picked up a rather heavy chair and held it straight out before him, admiring his modest corded muscles in the mirror above the bureau. Then he dressed and went down to the hotel bar.

There is nothing like an expensive cocktail lounge to bring out the very best in an exhibitionist, Robin thought happily as he walked down the few deeply carpeted steps to the hostess in her too smart black dress. He paused a moment, aware of the eyes on him, and looked over the dim crowded room with a subtle show of indifference. It was a gorgeous setting for gorgeous people, tall mirrors flanked by tall slabs of onyx marble and small white plaster chandeliers of pink lights. He smiled at the hostess and said, “A table, please.” From the bar, appreciative eyes watched him across the room.

But from the moment he was seated, he knew his adventure would not begin here tonight. The place was too civilized. Its possible passions were too well-known to him, too burned out. Two tables away an unbelievably good-looking man smiled tentatively but Robin looked away, hating him for attempting to intrude on such a promising night as this might be. Without waiting for his drink, he put money on the table and walked out. He went to the dining room, ordered drinks and dinner and sat morosely listening to the unctuous strains of chamber music.

What was this business of homosexuality anyhow, unless another narcotic for the jaded, the used-up of the world? He was not thinking of those who could not escape from the trap of their natures. They didn’t count. They were faceless before humanity in any light you examined them. He was considering those like himself who conceivably might get out but who always chose not to. Tonight why didn’t he pick up a girl, take her to his room, and make a night of it? And in the next instant he knew why he would not. It was the possibility of that fantastically satisfying experience he would have one night, perhaps this night, an experience that would set the mark for all others to follow. It was the fact—and this jarred him soundly—that already he was in too deep to get out with a whole skin. He knew now that he’d been in too deep the second time he had willfully sought out this type of satisfaction, so many years ago. The first might have been excused for several reasons: curiosity, lack of control from drunkenness, inexperience, or a number of others. For the second attempt there was no excuse. It was too bald a fact to allow qualification.

Robin sighed. It had taken him years to admit this point. For a moment he was worried, but he turned his attention to his dinner thinking, “Oh well, that’s life,” and began to eat.

He walked through the city for an hour. Fog threatened and for a while it seemed to grow warmer. That was good for he did not want to be out too late if it started growing colder. He might be having influenza and there was no use inviting a long illness. He walked along with a cigarette, looking into the shop windows, admiring or discarding the treasures they offered. He found a few things he liked, but nothing he coveted. He seldom did in shop windows. The things he bought were usually kept exclusively out of sight.

His feeling of adventure had grown rather dim during dinner but the longer he walked the streets, the more it revived. He still did not know exactly what he wanted to do. He stopped in a cafe for coffee and sat at the counter beside a heavily muscled man with a great head and dirty nails. Immediately the feeling of anticipation spread through him like a warm glow of liquor. Big and brutal. Power. Power to conquer, power to control, a machine, an engine, power to own, to make work for you at your whims. His pulse grew sluggish in his throat.

“So that’s what you want,” he said to himself. “A bit of roughing up, is it? Well, okay, but excuse this one, please. He’s much too filthy. At least get one that looks as if he bathes regularly.”

When he left the cafe it was snowing so he entered the next bar he saw and had a double rye. He lingered a few minutes studying the habitués and went out. He had seen nothing that interested him.

Like a beacon between the walls of the tall buildings, he saw the War Memorial atop the hill with its elusively contoured flame almost obscured by the light falling snow. His pace quickened. At last he had a destination. He knew that it was there he had wanted to go from the beginning. There on the promenades about the flame-bearing shaft might await the shadowy personage he would know this night.

As he walked briskly along the quieter streets the reasonable part of his brain argued that the place would be deserted on such a bad night, thus conditioning him for possible disappointment. But a second part of his mind told him that there would be no disappointment. And still a third thought neutrally, “You can always call Number Seventeen.”

He crossed the last street and stood before the first long flight of steps up the hill. A policeman strolling nearby looked at him a while before deciding to nod and speak. Probably this minion of law and order had decided he had come from the nearby railway station for a walk between trains. Robin nodded in return and looked up at the great shallow urn atop the shaft that held the flame. How high it was, how great was the bowl, how tremendous the fire. Once more he shivered and fearing another paroxysm, he looked down and started the ascent.

Halfway up he started encountering people, either seated on the benches or standing fairly near the lamps. A vagrant, little more than a heap of hopelessness, grief, and rags, sat half frozen in the meager protection of a stone bench. Robin’s heart ached with sudden pity and he took a couple of pieces of silver from his pocket.

“Get yourself a drink,” he said hoarsely, dropping the heavy coins into the rags. He hurried on, not wanting to hear the servile whine of thanks. Why did such people deliberately torture themselves in such a way? Didn’t they know about the institutions that would feed and clothe them? Or bridges where one could jump?

On the next bench a soldier and a girl were embracing in the darkest shadow. As he approached their rhythmical movements stopped and they stared at him until he passed. The girl, her leg over her companion’s flank, looked cold. Robin hoped she was prompted by love.

Nearer the top Robin came across the first game, two figures sitting near a lamp. Like fowls from underbrush, they watched him tramp past them. At last one got up and followed at a timid distance. He could hear their soft girlish voices and indistinct words that probably invoked the gods of love and luck. He did not look back.

There were others, standing or moving stiffly in attitudes of embarrassed bravado at their lack of respectable motives for their presence, and some that looked more likely than others, but none that proclaimed at the first glance, “This is the one you seek.”

Robin climbed the last flight of stairs and stood looking down the long shining pavilion before the monument. Along the parapet that overlooked the city to his right were the sitting ducks. With a heart beating an old exotic tempo, he lighted a cigarette and started the walk peering intently but briefly into each face that turned as he walked by.

Long yellow hair … a furred flying jacket … a hungry face there … a man blowing on his gray hands to warm them … a camera case suspended from the neck … a bright muffler, gloves, and a beret … one who spoke softly … one who did not speak, but smiled….

Robin walked along, aware of the sickening thrust of his heart as each prospect was examined and discarded. Which would it be? There were not many left….

A knot of three chattering like birds, hungry snow birds … an old one in a homburg … a suave profile held for its dazzling effect against the city’s light….

That was all of them. For a moment Robin was stunned. He considered going back to see if he had missed one. But bitterly he knew he had not. Slowly he walked to the opposite stairway and put out his hand to the stone balustrade to descend. He poised his cigarette on his fingertip to flip it away when he heard, “A light, if you please.”

“What?” Robin turned to the voice at his shoulder.

“I said, a light if you please.”

Two bare hands reached for his cigarette and as he would have surrendered it, the hands enfolded his own and carried it to a narrow lean face. The cigarette tips touched and glowed, revealing dark eyes and heavy brows under black curling hair, hollow cheeks beneath high bones, and wide soft lips that were nearly purple with cold. The hands were like two husks about his own, but husks that were tough and green, not ready to be shucked off. He was not a tall man, nor a heavy one. but he was aware of his endowments for obviously he did not feel it necessary to parry in the accepted manner. He continued to hold Robin’s hand while he looked at him. Robin cast about for some excuse to shatter the pose they held.

“I didn’t see you. Where did you come from?”

The shining wet head jerked toward the shadow of the tall stone shaft. In the sudden flash of light on the face, Robin thought he must be an Italian or perhaps one of the other Mediterranean peoples.

“You want some fun?” The accent was thick and labored. Robin realized the man had not spoken more because he was unsure of the language.

Robin nodded. “I want some fun.”

The hands released his. “We go.”

They walked rapidly down the darkened stairway and down the curving paths of the hill. Once as they rounded a corner into pitch blackness, Robin felt himself jerked to a stop and the lean face was thrust down animal-like into his. The man was like a steel spring bent to its utmost tensility. At the street Robin signaled a taxi. The drive was completed in silence and Robin stopped the cab half a block from the hotel, paid, and watched it move away.

For the first time Robin noticed the man’s disreputable state. His clothes were cheap, frayed, sodden. The threadbare coat collar was turned up against the falling chill. Impossible to take him inside in this condition and too risky to ask him to use the service elevator. Better bluff it out, he decided. Quickly he moved into the doorway of an unlighted store and took off his topcoat, hat, and gloves. Luckily they were near the side entrance of the hotel. He helped the man into his coat and saw him stroke its wet silkiness with wonder. He gave him the hat and gloves.

“I stay there,” he said distinctly, pointing to the hotel. “You follow me in. Up to my room. Understand?”

“I understand,” the man said, putting on the hat that sat grotesquely on the top of his head.

Robin laughed. Better carry it,” he said. Then he laughed again as a thought struck him. “What a hell of a lark if this poor, hungry son-of-a-bitch ran away with his clothes. Three hundred bucks worth of hat and coat disappearing up an alley. What an experience. He almost wished it would happen.

Robin lighted a cigarette and stepped casually out of the store front. To anyone who noticed him, he must seem to be a hotel guest out for a breath of air. He looked behind him at the man in his coat. Already he was moving to follow him, so Robin strolled toward the hotel entrance. Pretty fair deception so long as no one noticed the dilapidated shoes. He took out his key and played with it idly as he approached the marquee. He nodded to the doorman, passed him and then, calculating the time the man behind would reach him, turned abruptly and asked, “Oh, by the way, can you tell me where I can find a Chicago paper?”

The doorman replied, “You might try the newsstand just off the lobby, sir.”

Robin saw his coat enter the revolving door, “Thank you. Quite a crowd at the hotel tonight.”

“Yes, sir. Another convention.”

“Well, good night.”

“Good night, sir.”

Inside Robin picked up his shadow once more and felt the man follow him to the elevators. Robin entered the first car, turned, and saw it enter too. Robin was somewhat surprised at the man’s manner. He seemed to be fairly at ease,

“Six, please.” Robin looked at his companion. The man moved a step nearer and smiled down on him showing dazzling white teeth. How theatrical he looked, like a prewar troubadour from a very schmaltzy movie. He even wore a neat mustache and he was immaculately shaven. “Maybe he works in a barber shop,” Robin thought with amusement. The elevator stopped and they went down the hall to his room.

“Nice place,” the man said. “In Poland, once, I work in place like this.”

“Indeed?” Robin concealed his grin and unlocked the door. “Go ahead.”

“Thank you.” The man bobbed him a little bow and walked in. Robin closed the door and shot the bolt into the jamb.

“You’d better get out of those clothes. They look wet to me.”

The man took off the topcoat and laid it tenderly on the bed. Then to Robin’s amazement he went to the closet, brought out a hanger, and hung it up.

“Hey, fellow, you’re all right. A gentleman’s gentleman, no less.”

The man beamed and Robin went to the bathroom for towels. Coming back, Robin saw that the man’s suit was really nothing more than a dripping rag.

“Better give me your clothes and I’ll have them pressed for you.” Obediently the coat and trousers were handed over after being flushed of a dime and a few pennies, a fresh handkerchief, a penknife, a small roll of copper wire, and a tube of preparation that could have but one purpose. Robin’s mounting mirth burst forth in unapologetic laughter.

“You’re always prepared, I see,” he said as the man deposited the articles on the bureau. “What’s this,” Robin asked, touching the wire.

“I use in my work.”

“Oh, well, you’d better hop into a hot bath. You’re probably chilled.”

As he called room service, Robin watched the man remove his shoes and socks and put them on the radiator. Then with rising tension he watched him strip the rest of his clothes.

“You might have been a homeless war refugee once,” Robin said to himself, “but there’s no evidence now that you were ever starved.” The man was splendid and proud of it. He walked away from his clothes and posed consciously for Robin, at last coming nearer and holding out his hands.

“Not now, Pedro.” Robin waved him away. “Go take a bath while I get this stuff taken care of.” He indicated the clothing near the door. The man went off to the bathroom taking the towels with him. When Room Service answered, Robin said, “I’ve got some clothes to be pressed and mended. Can you have them ready in the morning?” He was assured they could. “Fine. And bring up a bottle of good rye whisky when you come.”

Robin took off his coat and hung it up, smoked a cigarette while he waited for the bellhop, and listened to the sounds of running water and a deep rich voice that hummed what might have been a lullaby.

When the bellhop knocked, Robin closed the bathroom door. He went to the door and saw with relief that it was not Number Seventeen. He took the tray, gave up the suit, and told the boy to do whatever was needed but to be sure to return it in a presentable state. He locked the door again and half filled two glasses with whisky and added ice. Holding them both in one hand, he opened the bathroom door and looked in.

“Hello. You sound happy.” He handed the man a glass. “For your bugs.”

“Bugs?”

Robin gave a mock cough by way of explanation and said, “Germs.”

The man looked bewildered but smiled, lifted the glass to his nose, rolled his eyes with appreciation, and drained the glass in one attempt. “Good,” he said.

“Like another?” Robin asked, concealing his astonished amusement behind a habitually sarcastic countenance.

“Please.”

Robin gave him his own glass and the man drained it as he had the first drink. He turned and escaped to the other room to shake with silent laughter. This guy was a clown. He belonged in a circus. Robin stood by the window until he was possessed of sobriety again. The night ahead would certainly compare with nothing he’d ever experienced, he was sure of that. He fixed another pair of drinks and went back to sit on the stool and regard the man splashing in the tub. If this guy drank two more like the first, he’d flat on his damned face in another half hour. He held out a glass to him. But the man shook his head and laughed.

“I get drunk,” he protested.

“No.” Robin exclaimed with condescending irony. “How old are you anyway, Pedro?” he asked, looking him over admiringly.

“Thirty-four,” the man said. He seemed never to miss an opportunity to display those teeth. They were marvelously even, but on him they looked like a wolf’s. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-nine,” Robin replied,

“You are a nice boy,” the man said solemnly and went back to scrubbing his foot. “You live here all the time?”

“No.”

“Where you live?”

“Out west a hundred miles in the oil fields.”

“You come here often?”

“Not often.”

“You take me to the oil fields to work with you?”

“Don’t tempt me, Pedro,” Robin said. “I’d probably never get any work done myself.”

The smile appeared again, as it in understanding. “You come in with me?” He patted the water in front of him.

“No, thanks. I don’t think I could swim for my life in such a small place.” Robin laughed at the man’s puzzled look. “Hurry up, Pedro.”

Immediately the man stood up and started drying himself. Robin went into the other room and finished his drink. The man appeared and drew himself up at the edge of the rug like an acrobat about to go into a tumbling routine. Robin felt his mouth curve with mirth again.

“Have you ever worked for a circus?”

“I was farmer over there,” the man said with a trace of sadness in his tone. Robin shrugged and nodded.

“Are you cold?”

“Some cold.”

Robin took his dressing gown out of his bag and tossed it to him. The man took it and caressed its silk against his chest with his big hands before putting it on. “Fery soft,” he said.

“Glad you like it. Pedro.”

The man came to him and sat down on the arm of Robin’s chair. He took Robin’s hand in both of his. “Why you think me funny?” he asked quietly. There was a frown between the heavy brows and hurt in the dark eyes.

Robin shrugged his shoulders restlessly. How in the hell could he explain anything to a poor dope that didn’t even understand the language well enough not to appear comic. How could, he explain that it didn’t matter what either of them thought so long as they got satisfaction from each other. How could he say to this pot of flesh, “Forget you have a brain. Forget you can talk or laugh or think or cry. Forget everything but that you are an animal and give me and yourself what we both want so I can give you a couple of bucks in the morning and throw you out.”

Robin knew there was no way he could say these things to this man. As human beings they were alike, yet tragically separated. Only as forces, blind mute forces, could they meet. So Robin made his voice light as he replied, “I think everyone is funny. Don’t you?”

The man shook his head. “You must not play with this—” He groped for the word but Robin understood what he meant. He bobbed his head up and down encouragingly but Robin gave him no help. “You want to be happy,” the man faltered on like a child learning to walk, “then you must not play. Suffer, be killed, die, but not laugh and be funny.”

Robin freed his hand and stood up hurriedly. Damn it all! This was exactly what he had fought to escape all this time. Keep it frivolous and keep it safe. That was his motto. The best cure for a heavy passion is a sense of humor. And now this goddam peasant was trying to shove the whole damned mistake down his throat. And what else was he trying to do? Ingratiate himself to the point of receiving a comfortable handout for a while?

Robin’s eyes fell on the objects on the bureau, the pitifully few coins, the tube, the wire he had said he used in his work. Robin seized the opportunity to get the conversation back to the rollicking tempo it had had a few minutes earlier.

“What kind of work do you do, Pedro?” he asked, turning to him with a smile. The man looked at him with eloquent sadness.

“My name is not Pedro,” he said heavily. His dark eyes dropped and he said softly, “It is Karl Tadeuz Horejscai.” He offered it humbly, the only gift he had to bestow, and he added, “I work at the bone yard.”

Robin frowned for a moment and asked, “Do you mean the cemetery? The graveyard?” For no good reason he felt himself shiver.

The man nodded and looked up uncertainly at Robin’s tone. Something was falling into place in Robin’s mind. He tried to smile as he asked his next question but he knew the expression he wanted had not appeared. “You mean you—dig graves?” His voice was actually unsteady. The man studied him closely, the sadness leaving his face. Slowly he shook his head. A look that might have been craftiness crept into his eyes.

“I,” he said softly, “am the cremator!”

A thousand impressions packed precariously into the dark spaces of Robin’s mind came loose and hurtled down the long dangerous limits. Among the confusion he recognized a smudge against a thin blue sky, an explosion that shattered ice-like broken glass about the streets. “Name of God! What a way to die!” A train thundering down on an ice-bound station, a floating flame at the top of a tall shaft, a floating flame and from its shadow coming to him as if it were the whim of a hilarious god. A cremator!

He shook his head helplessly, and his hands sought vainly for something to grip. He saw recognition of his fear dawn in the man’s beautiful eyes. He saw him stand and move toward him, the silk falling apart to reveal the long thrust of bronze flesh.

“Don’t,” Robin tried to say with authority. “Don’t.” But his voice escaped its control. “You’ve got to get out of here. I’ll send for your clothes. I’ll give you money, but you’ve got to get out!”

He spoke rapidly with pleading incoherence but the man did not pause. He came closer. He smiled. The teeth, so white. Robin aimed a swift blow at them but his arm was sluggish and easily deflected by the man’s hands that reached for his throat. As the hands touched his neck, Robin desperately remembered a fragment of his Army training. He lifted his knee hard for an attack to the groin and felt it hit. The face before him blanched sharply but the hands did not loosen their firm pressure. The thumbs bit down so easily, so very easily. He struggled until he was unconscious.

The overhead lights were out and his head ached. The only light in the room seemed to be coming from the bath. He could not breathe freely. Something was stuffed loosely into his mouth. He tried to move his head and a biting pain seized his wrist and held. He moved the other hand and a similar pain attacked him there. He yelled and the sound was muffled but for its ringing echo inside his head. He tried to move his legs and again pain struck him in his ankles. Gradually he realized what had happened to him. He was bound, spread-eagled on his stomach to the four posts of the bed by thin strong wires. He was loosely gagged and a towel was tied about his face. He knew he was undressed. He knew his captor was a cremator named Karl something unpronounceable.

Out of the darkness gentle hands touched him, stroked his back and legs lovingly, tenderly. A voice in a language as strong and harsh as stale tobacco half sang to him. For a moment he almost relaxed when the voice grew suddenly silent and something burned briefly into the flesh of his back. He screamed his surprise as pain ricocheted up and down his spine but again no sound came forth. The song began again and a cooling, soothing unguent was massaged into the fresh wound, and the gentle hands went exploring, coaxing him to a passion he could not restrain. The voice stopped again and a sharp object was driven into his flank and quickly extracted. This time he did not scream but bit down hard on his gag and felt tears slip from his tightly closed eyes. To his horror he found that the manifestation of passion had not fled but remained waiting for release. Again the voice began to sing.

Near daybreak the wires were taken from his chafed wrists and ankles.   The man named Karl took away the towel and wiped Robin’s face with a cold cloth and gave him water to drink. Robin was spent, not from actual pain but from the anticipation of it. And yet he was no longer terrified. Strangely, in a way he could not yet comprehend, he was certain of something important, if still somewhat elusive. He lay relaxed in the arms that held him and looked up into the anxious face that studied his own intently. “Why?” he asked at last. “Why did you do it?”

“To show you must not laugh,” the man replied softly. “Suffer, be killed, but not laugh. I had to show you it was not funny. I will never do it again. You know? You understand? I never hurt you again.”

Robin nodded weakly. He understood that the man was not a sadist. What he had done had been but a token of what he might have inflicted upon him. Robin knew from his own past that some cures can be effected only by extremes. So it was all over at last. The light threads and fabric of his existence had at last been burned and cut away. He lay where he had fallen, at the bottom of the cloud with the rest of those like himself. He lifted his hand and touched the man’s chest. It was rough and compact and warm with life like an animal’s. Instantly he was crushed closer and words he could not understand poured passionately over his head.

“My back,” he gasped with pain.

“It will grow well fery soon,” the man assured him. “I stay with you and see it grow well.”

“No, I must go back this morning,” Robin said slowly. Realization of what lay before him was becoming more apparent every second. No longer did he think of fighting the irrefutable. He could only make adjustments now. That was all that was left him.

“I go too, with you.”

“No.” Robin shook his head. “Not this time. I’ll come back for you in a week or so.”

“You will go away,” the man said sadly, “because I have hurt you.”

“No,” Robin smiled. “I’ll not run away. Not now. I understand. And I won’t laugh anymore.”

The man searched his face carefully and at last his smile appeared. “What is your name,” he asked.

“Robin.”

“Robin,” the man repeated it slowly, “Robin.”

“You like it?”

“I like it, Robin.”

When the sun was high, they rose and bathed and Karl dressed his wounds with the medicines sent up from the drug store, touching them carefully and repeating that soon they would heal. They dressed when the pressed and mended suit arrived, Robin giving his new friend one of his shirts, a tie and his extra shoes. He took all the money from his wallet and gave it to the man.

“Take this and find yourself a decent room in town somewhere. Get yourself some clothes. Don’t spend it foolishly— and for God’s sake, get yourself another job.”

He smiled affectionately as the man nodded in heavy seriousness. He was like a great, gentle animal, Robin thought, but an animal that is miraculously wise.

“Then we go to the oil fields perhaps,” Karl asked.

“Yes, perhaps,” Robin agreed. “You’d better go now. I’ve a train to catch.”

“I will help.”

Karl moved about the room collecting his possessions and packing them expertly into the suitcase. As Robin watched him he felt a silly desire to weep, thinking all the while what a hell of a setup he’d been saddled with.

At last they said good-bye reluctantly and Karl went down the hall. At the elevators he turned and lifted his hand. “Robin,” he called. “Robin.” The door slid open and with a last wave the man stepped out of sight.

On the train, Robin settled back against pillows to alleviate as much pain as possible and reviewed the experience of the previous night. He was not happy with the present state of affairs, but he was resigned, perhaps even content.

He felt no hatred for the man who had tortured him, nor a desire for revenge against him. There was no bitterness in his heart, he knew, for what he had endured had been but a device to free him of what the man had recognized as an artificially superior attitude. And now that he was free of it he was glad, for in freedom, he recognized at last, he could love without fear. And most important of all, he did love at last. True, by some standards he had been treated abominably. But he knew also he had been treated in such a manner because he was wanted in a genuine way for perhaps the first time in his life.

Robin looked out of the window at the snow-packed landscape racing silently by. He realized he had gotten too close to the rim and his footing had crumbled away. He was in for good at last. And being in, he looked again at his new responsibilities and sighed.

He’d speak to Mrs. Lalo (My God! who was Mrs. Lalo!) about another room. He’d look around town for a job for the man. Better still, he’d take him out on the truck for a while. He’d arrange to buy another truck immediately and thus expand his business.

And Robin looked inward upon himself with new eyes. How docile he had become, how quiet and unbelievably at peace. How willing he was to make adjustments. Yet there was fear within him still, fear that he did not identify. If only he could get through the next week safely in this unaccustomed role until he saw Karl again, he knew he would be safe. He was walking in a dream and in dreams there is only that which is new, present, and unpredictable. Before his present breath could be exhaled, he knew he could find himself facing, yes, even death. He knew it was possible to face it and be claimed by it because he was no longer his own master. He was alone in a strange land with no one to guide him. He was at the mercy of anything that might decide to attack him until he learned to protect himself again. He was a Grimm hero, turned into a mouse by a force of magic; and a cat, in eating the mouse, would digest the man. Instantly his fear became the dull terror of the dying. It had been a mistake not bringing his new friend with him, for the man knew the way out. The man was protection and he had blindly left him behind. Robin closed his eyes. What to do? What to do? Better not think of himself. Bluff it out as always. Think of Karl. Think of him and find comfort there in his plans for their future. But his new friend was alone, too, poverty-stricken in a country that had evidently not treated him too generously as yet.

After a few moments’ thought, Robin took up his address book and wrote on a fresh page:

“In the Name of God, Amen: The Last Will and Testament of the Undersigned. I, Robin, being of sound mind and memory, but knowing the uncertainty of human life, do now make and publish this, my last will and testament. That is today, I give, devise and bequeath unto Karl Tadeuz Horejscai, a recent immigrant into this country and lately residing at 7703 Cokely Street in Central City, all my real and personal property.

“I do hereby appoint Karl Tadeuz Horejscai executor of this my last will and testament, and he is to serve without bond or inventory.”

He signed his name and wrote again:

“Signed, sealed, and declared by the said aforesigned, the testator, as and for his last will and testament; and we, at his request and presence, and in the presence of each other have hereto subscribed our names as witnesses thereto, this 27th day of January A.D. 1949.”

He drew three lines on which his bankers would witness the paper and closed the book. He stared at the wide, monotonous landscape with a sense of finality. At last he felt that in a small way he had matched Fate to his last farthing. He massaged his bandaged wrist.

In Hamlet he got his car and drove slowly along the roads toward his town as if he were seeing them for the first time. A pall of doom, white and everlasting, hung over the quiet countryside, and high in the pale sky faint flat ice clouds lay in a pattern of a spreading mottled pheasant’s wing. Oil wells pounded and pumped and trucks ground along the dangerous roads. Robin wished he were out of the oil game, for here he felt alone, and for him aloneness now spelled only destruction. He looked at a farmhouse set far back from the road in a belt of snowy cedars and smiled wistfully.

In town he stopped by the bank, saw the will typewritten and witnessed, and took a carbon copy with him. To the banker’s puzzled inquiry, “This fellow a friend of yours, Robin?” He replied, “My best.”

“Know him long?”

“Not long.”

“Then, why—”

“He tried to help me once,” Robin said. “There is no one else I owe that much to if I should die tomorrow.”

“I wouldn’t be too hasty.”

“I’m not hasty, sir. He risked himself to save me. I think he’s a deserving man. I’m sure you’ll agree when you meet him.”

He drove his car into the garage and sat in it for a while. He’d better sell it soon and buy something less pretentious. He looked around the darkened garage at the truck, the various spare parts and equipment hanging on the walls, calculating their value.

Outside the door the sun on the snow was dazzling. Yesterday at this time two children had ridden by on a bicycle. He wished they would ride past again and enact their scene once more. But he knew that such tableaux are not enacted twice. One sees them the first time or not at all. Stiffly he climbed out of the car.

Inside the house he remembered he had not brought Mrs. Lalo a present. She expected one so he took five dollars from his replenished wallet and gave it to her, explaining, “The train was late and the stores were closed. Get yourself something useless.”

“A gut-buster, eh, Robin,” Mrs. Lalo shrieked. “Yeah. A gut-buster,” Robin replied, knowing that he would never bring Karl here. He’d have to find another place. “Any calls?”

“Dozens of them.” Mrs. Lalo lifted her beringed hands. Funny, he’d never noticed the cheap rings before. She handed him a list of seven or eight names. “The one at the top is a rush job. He says you’ve got to transfer some oil right away. He say his tank’s full.” Suddenly Mrs. Lalo shrieked and Robin jumped. “I told him to take a leak!”

Robin tried to smile but started for his room.

“Something wrong, Robin?” Mrs. Lalo asked.

“I—had an accident. My back’s a little stiff.”

“You’ll be all right?”

“Yeah. Fine.”

Slowly he changed clothes and went out to start the truck so it would warm up. His head ached and his shirt was a bed of cactus against his back. He went back to his room and sat wearily at his desk. On a sheet of paper he wrote, “I’m awaiting your arrival, hurry.” He folded the copy of his will into an envelope, sealed, addressed it and put it out for Mrs. Lalo to mail. In a daze he went back to the garage and got into the truck.

Though the roads were glassy with ice, his boot was heavy on the accelerator. Several times he was forced to lift his foot off completely and let the heavily laden truck roll down to a safe speed. Brakes were useless on this kind of surface, he told himself again. Yet his mind would not stay with what he was doing. It roved back through his years with a desperateness that aroused his objective pity for it. He tried to discipline it into remaining aware of the job he was doing, but it was impossible to do so. He listened to the icy crust on the road break beneath the chains on his rear wheels, faster and faster as he picked up speed. His mind filled with thoughts of the explosion of the day before. Jim Heath had been burned to a crisp. They’d had difficulty finding enough of him to bury, the bankers had said. He had left a wife and baby. Some insurance. The town was taking up a donation for the widow. Robin’s lips parted and curled with horror. He looked down at his speedometer. He was going much too fast and a rather steep grade was coming up with a narrow bridge at the bottom of it. He tensed himself over the wheel and kept his eyes on the bridge below. He recognized his danger, and from force of habit when he was in a tight place, he slowly started to count.

Barely a quarter of the way down he felt the rear end of the truck give and slip sideways. “Three, four, five, six…” he gave the wheel a little compensating turn. His speed was still mounting. Silently he prayed that the rear end would hold and yet he knew before it started to give again that it would not. “Twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen….” When he felt the slip coming, he turned the wheel carefully, knowing that it was going to be of little use. The slip was going to be a slide. The truck would approach the bridge broadside and there wasn’t a chance in a million that it would remain upright. Laden with live oil and traveling at its present speed, if it turned over now, it would be a rolling ball of fire. “Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three….” Before his eyes flashed the explosion that would come, and he saw the great dark smudge of suddenly wasted energy that would spread again over the sky and the orange flames the townspeople would see, floating, floating, floating above the one who had to be taught he could not laugh at Fate. The truck was almost crossways in the road. The steering wheel was bent as far as it would go. He had done everything he could inside the cab to save himself.

Terrified into effort, he broke the hypnosis of the atmosphere about him, threw open the door, and leaped as the truck hit a rut and started rolling. The ice-hard ground struck him like a hundred quivering spears inside his flesh, muffling the exploding roar a short distance away. He lay unmoving as he saw the sheet of flame cover the bridge and the truck, tear through the concrete buttress and disappear into the stream below. Robin rolled over and let his head fall back on the icy road. Only half conscious he watched the smoke roll up past the trees into the pale sky.

Thus it was that a man named Karl left Central City and came to live on a wheat farm near Hamlet.

“He’s the best darned worker this county’s seen around here for many a year,” the natives are fond of saying. “Why, his employer just deeded him an interest in his farm the other day. That should give you an idea how good he is, I’d think! A good-natured devil too, always laughing. Drinks, but not too much, and courts the farm gals like a fool! Never seems to find one to settle down with though, and nobody’s ever seen him mad. Robin’s mighty lucky to have a hired hand like Karl, I’ll tell you! Yes, sir, mighty lucky indeed. Best hand with a sick milch cow, I believe I ever seen!”

_______________________

James Barr was born in 1922 “in an oilfield boomtown in either Texas or Oklahoma,” according to a biographical sketch he wrote in 1990. He never knew his father, and his mother died shortly after his birth. Barr served in the U.S. Navy from 1942 to 1946, later moving to New York to begin work on his first novel, Quatrefoil. When it appeared in 1950, Barr became an instant gay celebrity. (Quatrefoil was reprinted in 1991 by Alyson.) Barr re-enlisted in the Navy during the Korean War, but the Office of Naval Intelligence learned he was the author of Quatrefoil and ordered him discharged. His collection of short stories, Derricks (from which “Bottom of the Cloud” is taken) appeared in 1951. Both books were eventually pulled off the market when the U.S. Post Office threatened to prosecute Barr’s publisher for “peddling pornography.” When Barr’s foster father was diagnosed with leukemia, Barr returned to Kansas where he worked as an oilfield roustabout and continued to write, including stories, articles, and reviews for One Magazine and The Mattachine Review. He later moved back to New York for a time, where he struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction, only to make another return to Kansas and a new career as a newspaperman in the mid-sixties when his foster mother fell ill. A second novel, The Occasional Man, appeared in 1966. Barr died of liver cancer at the Oklahoma Veterans Center in 1995. (Biography excerpted with kind permission from Hubert Kennedy’s excellent article, “A Touch of Royalty: Gay Author James Barr.”) This version of “The Bottom of the Cloud” appeared in Everything I Have Is Blue in 2005.

Photo credit: “Wells of the Home Oil Company.” Online Archive of California. Photographer unknown. Undated: circa early 20th century.

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