AKA Fred Smith

By Richard Natale

 

Harold was clearing out a private room on the maternity floor and prepping it for a new arrival.  His eyes grazed a left-behind copy of the morning’s Daily News and the front page leapt up at him.  It took a beat for the image to register.  His was the last face Harold expected to see looking up from a newspaper.  Tracing his index finger along the sub-head, he read the caption again.  So that’s who you are, he thought.

After he finished collecting the lunch trays, Harold asked another orderly to cover for him.  “Just a few minutes,” he pleaded.  “Gotta run across the street to the newstand.”

At the Seventh Avenue kiosk, he purchased a copy of the Post and The New York Times, featuring almost identical stories on their front pages.  With any luck, after work there’d be a seat on the A train back to Brooklyn and he could finally start to figure out what happened to the man he’d met more than twenty years earlier at the Horn & Hardart at 1157 Broadway.

In 1966, Harold was twenty-three.  He’d been a dishwasher at the streamlined automat for the past four years.  Occasionally, if someone was out sick the manager, Mr. Grace, took him off kitchen detail and let him refill the glass cases with plates of food provided he wear thick, white rubber gloves.  The official reason was that the plates might slip from his hands because of the grease residue on them from washing dishes.

Mr. Grace regarded the temporary assignment as a reward for Harold “and only because you’re a good worker and always show up on time.”  He spoke the compliment off to the side into an empty pocket of air.  The one time Mr. Grace had ever made eye contact was the day he hired Harold – reluctantly, and only because his Auntie Ethel, who was vacating the position to have a baby, had badgered him to take him on.  She knew that Mr. Grace was sweet on her.  He looked directly at Harold and said, “I’ve agreed to try you out because Ethel here says you’re a good boy.  But the first time I find you sloughing off or helping yourself to food, I’ll fire you on the spot.  I swear I will.”

Though stuffing the small glass enclosures with plates of food was taxing and repetitive, Harold couldn’t help but wish the flu on the regular case fillers.  You still had to be on your feet all day, but at least you weren’t bent over a sink with your hands at the mercy of hot water and harsh detergent.  One of the regular fillers was his only work friend, Gabriela, a grandmotherly Puerto Rican mulatta, who laughed the first time they were introduced.  “Boy, you sure is black.  Coal black.”

The unrelieved darkness of his skin generally made others uneasy, fearful.  If he spent more than a couple of minutes staring in a shop window, the proprietor would come out and stare him down until he moved away.  On the subway, a lot of women – some men too – would get up and move to another part of the car.  Otherwise he was ignored, filtered out.

Harold’s looks favored his father, Dekker; the same delicate features and high cheekbones, though his father was dark mahogany while Harold homed closer to ebony.  His mother, Marlene, joked with Dekker (if he happened to be around), “I guess you don’t ever gotta question whether that boy is yours or not.”

It wasn’t just white people who were put off.  The girls at school and in his neighborhood also looked past him, saving their flirtations for boys who were mocha or lighter.  He didn’t much care.  Harold preferred having sex with his neighbor Lamont Carter, who was several years older.  Lamont would drag Harold to abandoned buildings and dark dead-end alleys, and they’d tussle one another to exhaustion.  Whenever Lamont found himself a new girlfriend he went out of his way to ignore Harold.  After they broke up, he’d start chasing him again… until Harold let himself be caught.

Harold knew who he was even if Lamont would never admit to such a thing.  Whenever he saw his image in the mirror, the invisible part of him was there for anyone who bothered to look closely enough.  Since no one except his mother ever did, his secret was safe.  Not that he was embarrassed.  Life was tough enough, he figured.  He didn’t need to add to his burdens by giving people one more reason to shame him.

After he clocked out from work, Gabriela, knowing he had a sweet tooth, would pass him a piece of pie, usually an end or a slice that didn’t pass muster with Mr. Grace.  His favorite was fresh apple, though more often he made do with remnants of cherry or huckleberry or rhubarb.  He drew the line at coconut custard, however.

He lingered over his pie at a remote table at the back of the cafeteria.  Automats were already on the way out and this one would be replaced by a pizza joint in a few years.  Traffic was especially slow in mid-afternoon.  The few patrons consisted largely of the down-and-out eating a bowl of soup or sipping a cup of hot water they’d stretched out with some catsup.  Sometimes they’d try to pilfer abandoned leftovers.  If they got caught they were banished, though the table clearers sometimes took pity and looked the other way.  The remaining customers were the weary looking for someplace to take a load off and make sense of the day over a cup of coffee.  They sat alone carrying on conversations in their heads with an occasional sigh and glazed stares of silent befuddlement.

Among the regulars was a stocky, middle-aged gentleman with a neatly combed mane speckled with gray.  Not much to look at, but Harold noticed because the man usually wore a cashmere topcoat with a maroon scarf tucked under a houndstooth jacket and dark brown corduroys.  The classic simplicity of the caramel-colored coat spoke to his breeding, as did the man’s shoes, oxblood cordovans.  When the weather was inclement, the man sported a different outfit: brown lace-up oilcloth boots and a handsome blue parka.  The handle of his oversized black silk umbrella was polished bamboo with a silver nose cap and collar.

Harold took pleasure in such fine apparel.  On his days off, he haunted second-hand clothing stores looking for Oxford cloth button-down shirts, navy or camel blazers, and twill slacks.  The few high-quality items he unearthed were either not his size or out of his price range.  Not that he had any place to wear them except church on Sunday with his mother and grandmother, which he attended less and less often.  He was at that juncture in his life when religion was for women, children and old people, and he didn’t fit into any of those categories.

The man was always hunched over a book or magazine, and Harold created a fictional biography for him, several actually, his favorite being that he was an exiled British noble whose identity as a Cold War spy had been compromised.  He appropriated the story from a film he’d seen a couple of years back at a Forty-Second Street movie house, into which he’d ventured to find trouble.  It was a quiet, drizzly day and the place was empty, so he put his feet up and watched the film.  Never caught the ending, however.  An usher appeared out of nowhere and told him to take his feet off the seats.  He was about to refuse when he noticed that look in the usher’s eyes and followed him up a flight of steps to a small darkened room.

One day, Harold glanced in the man’s direction and thought he saw that look again if just for an instant.  The man became rattled, gathered his things and left.  He didn’t return, and after a few months Harold forgot everything about him except his attire.

Then he was back, sitting at a table in the middle of the floor, looking haggard and a bit disheveled as if in the interim he’d been through an ordeal from which he hadn’t completely recovered.  At one point, he started breathing heavily and winced, pinching the bridge of his nose with two fingers.

“Mister, you feeling okay?  Can I get you a glass of water?” Harold said, standing across from him.

The man looked up at Harold.  His eyes widened and he flashed a grin.  “Oh it’s you,” he said as if they knew each other.  “Yes, water would be nice.”

Harold set down the water glass and the man raised it to his mouth and swallowed the contents in one gulp.  “There.  Better.  Thank you.”

He was on the way back to his table when he heard, “Young man.  Would you like to sit with me while you finish your pie?”

Harold felt compelled to say, “No, thank you sir.  I’m okay over here.”

“At least let me treat you to a glass of milk.  Don’t know how you can eat pie dry like that.”

Harold hesitated.  “But if you prefer to be alone with your thoughts, I understand,” the man said and went back to his book.

Harold picked up the pie plate and brought it over to the table.  The man retrieved some change from his pocket and was about to get up.  “No, I’ll get it,” Harold said.

The man nodded.  “And would you be so kind as to bring me another coffee as well?”  He counted out several coins and held them out to Harold.

Before taking a sip, Harold raised his milk as one would for a toast.  The man acknowledged it and said, “So tell me your name.”

“Harold.”

“Ah, as in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.  Lord Byron.”

“I’m no child,” he said in muted protest.

“Childe with an ‘e’ at the end, meaning a young man who is destined for knighthood, except that Childe Harold…  Oh, would you listen to me rattling on like some fusty old professor! Fred Smith’s the name.”  He laughed, offering his hand.  “A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Harold knew a fake name when he heard one but pressed the man’s hand anyway.

“I hope you’ll excuse that little episode earlier,” Mr. Smith continued.  “I get the nastiest headaches; comes from having my nose in a book all the time.  Does that ever happen to you?”

“No sir, I have problems with reading.  All the words squeeze together and I can’t make them out.”

“How ever did you make it through school?”

“Didn’t.  Left in the tenth grade.  But I’m pretty good at math,” Harold said, almost defensively.  “Got a B in algebra.”

“Bravo.  I barely passed.  Afraid I’m all thumbs when it comes to arithmetic.  If my wife wasn’t handy at balancing the checkbook, we’d all be out on the street.”

Harold could barely see Mr. Smith’s gold wedding band, his fists were so tightly clenched, his fingernails biting into the flesh of his palms.  Yet his face betrayed none of his anxiety.  It was open, serene.  How did he manage that, Harold wondered?

“You have a family… I mean, children and all?” Harold asked.

“Yes I do.  Would you like to see a photo?” the man said, tapping the wallet in his back pocket.

“No.  I know what they look like.”  It was a queer thing to say, but he sensed that Mr. Smith took his meaning.  “What do you do, sir?  I mean, for a living.”

“I write things from time to time.  But mostly I procrastinate.”

“You can support yourself doing that?”

Mr. Smith chortled and his shoulders and chest jiggled.  “Barely.  But somehow I manage to keep us all from starvation.  Now it’s my turn to ask questions.”

Harold tossed his head to one side as if to say, “Go ahead, I have nothing to hide.”

“Your features are most interesting.  What do you know about your family history?”

Harold told Mr. Smith that his mother’s kin were originally Alabama sharecroppers while his father’s grandparents had emigrated to New York from Trinidad.

“Ah, there you are,” Mr. Smith said, putting an index finger to his lips.  “And you take after your father’s people.”

“How’d you know?”

“One doesn’t see many American Negroes with such pure, distinctive features.  I’ve traveled around Northern Africa, been as far south as Kenya.  You remind me of a Moroccan prince I was introduced to once in Marrakesh.  Same noble profile.  Very distinguished, very proud.”

Harold broke into a wide grin, displaying his perfectly straight teeth.  There was little use pretending he wasn’t flattered.  A prince? His mother would get a kick out of that if he told her, though she might just as easily get upset.  “Why would he say a thing like that to a young boy?”  He decided against mentioning it.

“A great smile you have there,” Fred Smith said.  “You should share it with the world more often.”

The comment made Harold feel self conscious.  He squirmed a bit and his mouth turned down.  “My mother says the only people smile all the time is idiots and people getting ready to rob you blind.”

“Hear, hear.  Words to live by,” Mr. Smith said.  Then, as if he’d just been shaken out of deep sleep, he abruptly got up, scraping his chair along the linoleum.  “I must be going.  Don’t want to miss my train.”

Out of politeness, Harold rose too.  “Thank you again for the milk, sir.”

“Fred,” he said.  “Thank you for the water.  And the conversation.”  Then Mr. Smith’s eyes clouded over and he turned and walked hastily out of the cafeteria.

This time he went missing for only a few weeks.

*****

“Is this seat taken?” Mr. Smith said to Harold who was focused on his pie – fresh apple today.  He held a glass of milk in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.

“Mr. Smith,” he replied, inviting him to sit with a wave of his hand.

“Fred, please.”

“You shouldn’t oughta be paying for my milk,” Harold said, but not in an unkind way.

“I shouldn’t oughta?” Mr. Smith mocked.

Harold’s mouth tightened.  He wanted to snap at him, but held his tongue.

“I apologize,” Mr. Smith said, his face reddening.  “You see, I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to language.  I’m just a bear with the children.  I’ve spent so much time correcting their grammar it’s become almost a reflex.  It’s spilled over to my friends and even people I do business with.”

“Must make you very popular,” Harold said, deadpan.

Mr. Smith let out a rolling chortle.

“Wasn’t that funny,” Harold said, tickled by Mr. Smith’s curious laugh.

“Wasn’t what you said.  It’s how you said it.  Remind me never to get on your bad side.”

Thereafter, Mr. Smith sat with him three or four times a week on average.  When he could afford it, which wasn’t often, Harold insisted on treating Mr. Smith to coffee and buying his own milk.  Mr. Smith was careful not to refuse or make a fuss.

Their chats did not go unnoticed.  One day Gabriela said, “What the old man want? What he say to you?” Harold couldn’t tell whether she was being maternal or nosy.  Or perhaps she’d been told to ask by Mr. Grace, who probably frowned on employees fraternizing with patrons even in their off hours.

Harold kept it simple.  “He’s a very smart man.  Knows a lot about a lotta things.  Don’t always understand what he’s talking about, so I just nod my head sometimes.”  Part of it was true, though Mr. Smith was never preachy.  He spoke easily and clearly about subjects he thought would interest Harold – sports, the space program, the recent assassination of Malcolm X, and the escalation of the Vietnam War, from which Harold had been exempted due to an enlarged heart.

Harold calculated that portraying Mr. Smith as a selfless white man trying to enlighten a young Negro would sit well with Gabriela and even more so with Mr. Grace.  “You see, hijo, there is good people in the world,” Gabriela said, and Harold squashed a grin.  She never brought up the subject again.

*****

On a warm afternoon in early April, Mr. Smith leaned over the table and said, “I don’t want to presume on your time, but might you spare a half hour for a walk along the Park?”

“You sure?” Harold said.

“Sure about what? Wanting to go for a walk on a lovely spring day? Absolutely.”

Harold nodded.  If he made a big deal about it, Mr. Smith might change his mind and get all strange and leave.

Both in the subway and as they strolled along Central Park South, heads turned, people were curious.  Harold tried to gauge whether the attention was making Mr. Smith uncomfortable, but he seemed oblivious.  He was silent for the first few blocks, his chin pointed up slightly.  Harold could tell he was mulling over what he was about to say, to make certain it came out right, him being a stickler for language and all.

“Harold.  Did I mention that I’ve recently taken a small apartment here in town, a quiet place where I can concentrate on my work?”

“No sir,” Harold said.  “Good for you.”

“Nothing elaborate.  I’d like to show it to you sometime,” he continued, “see what you think.”

Harold had long pondered when the man who went by Fred Smith would finally get to the point and how he would arrange it all.  He couldn’t very well take Harold to a hotel, at least not the kind of hotel Mr. Smith normally patronized.

Harold nodded, adding a soft smile.

“I’m so glad.  Shall we say tomorrow? Here, let me write down the address.”  Mr. Smith retrieved a leather-bound pad from an inside jacket pocket, and a Mont Blanc pen.  He scribbled down the information, tore out the page, and handed it to Harold.  “Looking forward to it.  As I said, it isn’t much, but I’d like your opinion on some ideas I have for fixing up the place.”

“Mm hm,” Harold said with no particular inflection, noticing the beads of sweat that had popped up across Mr. Smith’s brow.

Mr. Smith hailed a cab.  As he was getting in he turned and checked Harold’s face. Looking for clouds, Harold assumed.  Fortunately, he had a lifetime of practice at concealment.

The apartment was a top floor walkup in Yorkville, way east, almost at the river.  Not a neighborhood where Mr. Smith was likely to run into anyone he knew.  Harold knocked on the door and Mr. Smith called, “It’s open” from inside.  He was wearing only a sleeveless tee shirt and khaki slacks, sitting at a makeshift desk in front of a typewriter beside which stood a half-empty bottle of Jameson.  Mr. Smith took a large gulp from a glass before he turned to greet him.  “Ah,” he said, and Harold could tell that he was drunk.  “Sit down, Harold.  Would you like a whiskey?”

“Thank you, sir, I would,” Harold said, parking himself on a small divan opposite Mr. Smith, who rolled his desk chair over to the Pullman kitchen and retrieved a clean glass.  As he handed it to Harold, he said, “Am I ever going to get you to call me Fred?”

Harold held his gaze but didn’t answer, and the air between them seemed to solidify.

“Anyway, this is my little sanctuary,” Mr. Smith went on, trying to recover.  “Has possibilities, don’t you think?”

Harold surveyed the small main room, a few pieces of used furniture, pull-down shades.  Beyond was a tiny bedroom with half-opened French doors.  Pretty much what he expected.  “Should do you nicely,” he said.

Then Mr. Smith’s nerve collapsed.  He slapped the broad side of his palm against his forehead.  “This was a terrible idea.  Maybe it’s best you go.”

Harold got up to leave.  He’d anticipated Mr. Smith possibly having a change of heart.  The man was worldly, educated, well-traveled, but in this one respect Harold had the upper hand, the finesse, the experience.

“Wait,” Mr. Smith said.  “I feel I owe you an explanation.”

“No need,” Harold said, trying not to choke on his words.

“You see, Harold, I’m not an honorable man.”

“How’s that, sir?”

“I’ve lured you here under the guise of friendship,” he started, then broke into a sardonic laugh.  “Good golly, man, do you hear yourself? You’re the stuff of dime-store novels.”  Mr. Smith braced himself with another drink and spoke into the typewriter keys.  “Did you know that I’d never been to an automat before I saw you coming out of the Horn & Hardart on your way home one afternoon? I haunted the place for months, and if you hadn’t spoken to me, I’d probably still be sitting there.”

He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet.  “Let me give you something.  I’d like to make amends.”

He shook some bills at Harold, who said quietly, “I don’t want your money.”

Mr. Smith squeezed his eyes together and lowered his head onto the typewriter.  “Please forgive me,” he whispered and laid the bills down on his desk.

Harold walked toward the bedroom and he felt Mr. Smith’s eyes follow.  Slowly, without turning around, he removed his clothes and lay naked on top of the sheets staring up at the ceiling.  A few minutes later he heard Mr. Smith trip heavily toward him and collapse onto the bed.  He sensed Mr. Smith taking him all in, his breathing shallow, partly out of fear, but mostly from excitement.  After struggling with his pants, he rolled onto Harold and filled his mouth with the taste of whiskey.

Harold never desired Fred in a physical way.  The fulfillment came from Fred’s need for him and the heft of his body beside him after he fell asleep.  The only other person with whom he’d ever shared a bed was his father.  When he was in between lady friends Dekker would return home and sleep next to his son on the pull-out sofa.  He was no longer welcome in his wife’s bed.  Harold guessed that neither was Fred.  Or perhaps it was Fred who had abandoned her.

There were also the lavish endearments Fred heaped on Harold, who had never received any words of affirmation except the maternal kind.  When he was in his cups, he praised every inch of Harold’s body – in detail – and especially what he referred to as “your gentle nature.”

“I can be fierce,” Harold assured him.  “I can love fierce.  And hate fierce, too.”

“Fiercely,” Fred said.

Fred needed whiskey to fuel his ardor, but afterwards he sometimes turned dark and questioned why Harold would give himself to “such a broken-down, sad man.”

“Oh, you ain’t so bad as all that,” Harold quipped, knowing he’d get a rise out of Fred, who for once didn’t correct him.

“Tell me, Harold.  Do you have any lady friends? I imagine you’ve broken several hearts already.  And you’re just getting started.”

“No,” Harold replied.  “Never much cared for the ladies.”

“Oh,” Fred said and seemed to deflate.

“Disappointed?”

“Well, it’s just…  Don’t you want to have a normal life?”

“I already do,” Harold countered.  “As normal a life as is possible for someone like me.”

“Yes, I see,” Fred said.

******

After a time, Mr. Smith gave him a key.  “So you can come and go as you please, even if I’m not in town.”  A few times a week, Harold packed a change of clothes and told his mother he wasn’t coming home.  On one occasion his father was present and teased, “Looks like my boy’s got himself a woman,” to which his mother merely rolled her eyes and Harold was thankful his father never looked at him too closely.

For Harold’s birthday, Fred brought in a light supper and they had a picnic on the roof, which afforded them a clear view of the tugs and barges and scows on the East River.  For dessert they shared a huge chunk of Black Forest cake from a German bakery in East Harlem with a single fat candle in the center.  Fred sang “Happy Birthday” at the top of his lungs and insisted Harold make a wish before he blew it out.

“You’re nothing but a big kid,” Harold joshed.

“Guilty,” Fred said, looking pleased.  “Open it,” he said as he proffered Harold a package wrapped in shiny dark green paper.  “Eleven and a half wide, right?”

“Right.”  Even before he saw the pair of oxblood cordovans, Harold inhaled the aroma of fine leather.

“They’ll last you a long time as long as you polish them regularly and replace the heel with strong rubber.  Promise me you’ll wear them whenever you want to make an impression.  People will overlook it if a person isn’t wearing expensive clothing, but bad shoes are a dead giveaway.  Trust me on that.”

Harold tried to picture a situation in which he’d be judged by his attire or his footwear but could not.

Then Fred took Harold in his arms and after several kisses said, “I wish you cared for me half as much as I do for you.”

“You don’t know how I feel,” Harold protested.

“It’s okay,” Fred whispered.  “Come to bed.”

******

To this day Harold regrets that he never told Fred how much his affection meant.  They were only together a few more times before Fred disappeared.  For more than a month, long after he’d given up hope, Harold dutifully came to the apartment and sat on the bed, waiting for Fred until well past dark.  He persisted until the locks were changed.

He should have been furious with Fred Smith, who made avowals of love yet never cared enough for Harold to tell him his real name, who never really wanted to be seen with him in a public place, who for all his tender words and caresses abused Harold’s gentle nature and then discarded him.  Whether Fred was at heart a callous man or simply one who was ultimately engulfed by guilt, Harold could only speculate.

Yet even in his disappointment, Harold could not hate Fred Smith.  The only person who took notice of Harold’s mood change was his mother.  “I’m sorry you been hurt.  I hope that man was good to you for however long it lasted,” she let slip once in a moment of candor.  Harold was too stunned to respond but was wholeheartedly grateful.

To Harold, his grief signified that there’d been a genuine kinship between him and the man who called himself Fred Smith – an extraordinary thing in and of itself.  He remembered how Fred had clung to him in the night as if he was a life preserver and their long post-coital discussions that went on for hours until they were too tired to move their lips.  Fred had encouraged Harold to express his opinions and never dismissed them out of hand.  If he disagreed he’d simply say, “I think there’s more to it than that, Harold,” and explain what he meant.  When it came to sex, it was Fred who was unschooled.  Though he strove to satisfy Harold, he simply hadn’t been born with the devil in him like Lamont Carter.

*****

Fred Smith is – or was – Lucius Carlton Baker.

Harold read and reread the three obituaries.  Since having been diagnosed with dyslexia a few years back he had made considerable headway but was still dogged by poor retention.  He put so much effort into divining each individual word that he often lost sight of the overall meaning.

Over the course of his career, L. Carlton Baker had penned a dozen novels and hundreds of short stories.  “Well, look at you,” Harold smiled.  “Not bad for a procrastinator.”  One of his novels and a short story collection had won Pulitzer Prizes.  He’d also received a National Book Award and several other prestigious honors.  The obits contained testimonials from major figures from the publishing world, including such authors as Norman Mailer and John Updike, names with which Harold was familiar from television though he had never read their works.

At the time of his death, Lucius was still married to his wife, Brett.  They had three children, two daughters and a son.  A second son, his namesake, had predeceased him, succumbing to leukemia at age twenty-four, the same milestone Harold had celebrated with Fred Smith on that rooftop in Yorkville.  There were six grandchildren.

The piece of the Lucius Carlton Baker puzzle that most intrigued him came halfway into the full-page Times story.  He went over it several times, committing the details to memory.  Two decades ago, on an Indian-summer day in late September, as Baker was emerging from Grand Central Station to hail a cab uptown, he collapsed.  He’d suffered a stroke precipitated by alcohol abuse.  Paralyzed on one side, through dedicated rehabilitation eventually he was able to resume an active life and became quite prolific during his final decade, though he never fully recovered all his motor skills.

Harold let the words wash over him until he was clean.  Now he could mourn Fred Smith properly, without rancor, without hurt.  That he’d been a part of Lucius Carlton Baker’s life was right there between the lines, even if he was the only one who knew it.

A secret lover is a lover nonetheless.

It was entirely possible, Harold reasoned, that after he was up and about again and able to walk with a cane, Fred had tried to find him.  But while Fred had never revealed his true identity, neither did he know Harold’s surname.  And by then Harold was long gone from the Horn & Hardart.

With a terse but sincere recommendation from Mr. Grace in hand, Harold secured work in clinics and hospitals.  If his dyslexia had been discovered sooner, he might have studied nursing.  No matter; he liked what he did and people on the street didn’t shrink from him as readily when he wore scrubs.

A couple of years after Fred vanished from his life, Stonewall happened.  But as with the civil rights movement, gay liberation took its sweet time reaching Harold.  He was welcome in some bars and clubs; others actively discouraged him or even turned him away.  If he cruised the docks, men invariably offered him money and would cuss him out when he turned them down.  The treatment in his own neighborhood was worse.  There gay men existed on a lower tier than drunks, drug addicts and thieves.

Not that Harold lacked for partners, usually men with a particular taste for blacks – and they didn’t come any blacker than Harold.  The white men who pursued him were usually referred to in disparaging terms by other gays.  Harold was stoic by nature, but these dismissive epithets infuriated him.  Did the world have nothing better to do than coin demeaning names for people of his color and bent?

One of the white men he dated, a high school teacher, urged him to get tested for dyslexia since there were now remedies available.  He and mostly everyone Harold was intimate with over the next decade, including Lamont Carter, were lost to the plague.  For no apparent reason, Harold was spared.

Then, two years ago, Harold and Renny Aldieri were standing on opposite sides of a subway platform and there was an immediate flash of recognition.  Like a mirror reflection.  Two men black as jet looking closely enough to comprehend the similarity of their nature.  Though it would take him past his stop and he’d be late for work, Harold took a chance and hopped on the express and stood beside Renny, making sure to fall against him whenever the train jerked.  Their first kiss was in between subway cars as the train hurtled uptown.  They were so used to being cloaked in invisibility they weren’t worried anyone would notice.

Renny (actually René) was half Haitian with a pile of tightly curled Italian hair on his head.  He and Harold lived with their now widowed mothers, Renny in Corona and Harold in Bed-Stuy.  They took turns sleeping at each other’s apartments.  Renny had his own bedroom and on the nights when they were at Harold’s, his mother slept on the pull-out so they’d have privacy.  Their mothers knew who their sons were and, being churchgoing women, were hardly overjoyed but were relieved that Harold and Renny had found each other.  At least now there was a chance their sin would not kill them.

*****

“This is the man I told you about,” Harold said to Renny, who had just walked into the kitchen and set down his empty lunch pail.

Renny peered over his shoulder at the newspaper and curled his lip.  “That’s him?”

“You jealous?” Harold teased.

“Of a fat old dead man?” Renny said taking a second glance. “Don’t think so.”

Renny stripped off his shirt as if it was on fire.  “Hey, scratch my back? The heat was cranked up so high at work today I wanted to rip my skin off.”

“Okay.  Hang on a sec and lemme get some lotion,” Harold said.

Harold had begun making his way slowly through Baker’s oeuvre.  He listened to the ones that had been recorded on that marvelous new invention, books on tape.  The writing was straightforward and easy to grasp, like Fred Smith.  He could hear the cadence of Fred’s voice in his words and always knew exactly where to lay the emphasis in a particular passage.  Occasionally, in the stories that were romantic in nature, he recognized a phrase that Fred had uttered in moments of intimacy.  Hard to say why, but until now it never occurred to Harold that there could have been other men in Fred Smith’s life and he might have spoken those same words to them.  Doubtful.  Not that it made the slightest difference.  Fred Smith may have dissembled about his identity but not his affection, which was true, transparent.

There was no nightstand on Harold’s side of the bed and he didn’t want to reach over Renny and disturb him because he had to get up so early.  He clicked off the floor lamp, shut the book and slipped it under the bed beside his recently resoled and carefully buffed oxblood cordovans.

One Response to AKA Fred Smith

  1. A really lovely story, remindful of James Purdy (a great favorite of mine and I trust yours.)

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