from Butcher’s Road
Guest Editor: Steve Berman
Hollis and Butch
Hollis Rossington and Butch Cardinal wore evening attire—dinner jackets and white waistcoats. Each had parted his hair impeccably, smoothing it against his scalp in sleek, oiled sheets. The large men cut impressive figures sitting at the table against the wall. Neither of them smiled. If anything, they seemed awkward in each other’s company, though they did their best to hide it.
Similarly well-dressed patrons occupied the other tables in Galatoire’s front dining room. Chair legs scraped over the small, white, hexagonal tiles. Hushed voices, like distant surf, murmured. The click and clink of silver on china and glasses meeting in toast, created a soft, syncopated rhythm. Enchanting scents from the kitchen and from fine cigars wafted through the room, and though the restaurant was lovely and the appetizers exceptional, Hollis found himself disappointed.
He’d expected something different from the evening. Galatoire’s was Hollis’s favorite restaurant, but all of the fond memories he attributed to the setting couldn’t breach the crust of disenchantment. Though he could hardly afford the extravagant restaurant, he’d thought a night out would loosen up his friend, get his mind off his troubles, but Butch had carried his distracting concerns across the Quarter, and they’d dropped down in the chair with him. Though the clothes Hollis had given him looked quite fine, Butch fidgeted with discomfort, running his fingers under his collar and rolling his shoulders as if trying to dislodge something captured beneath his jacket. They’d already consumed salads and bowls of a delicious turtle soup, but Hollis had yet to engage Butch in easy banter. All of the talk of the “good old days” had never emerged, despite his numerous prompts.
“What do you think of the place?” Hollis asked, hoping to rekindle the conversation.
“The food is good. Thank you,” Butch replied.
“I’m glad to see those clothes fit.”
“Yeah,” Butch said. He leaned back in his chair and folded his hands in his lap. Then he swept his gaze around the room. He seemed to have a difficult time looking at Hollis.
“Is something wrong?” Hollis asked. “I mean, I know a hell of a lot is wrong, Chicago and all, but is something else going on?”
Butch’s eyes lost focus. He appeared to be staring off into the distance, rather than simply across a table. When he spoke, his voice was restrained.
“It’s been a long day,” he said.
“But the list proved useful?”
“Then that’s good,” Hollis said with a smile.
“Yeah,” Butch said, but remained distracted. A prolonged silence followed, in which both men drank from their water glasses and wiped their lips with their crisp white napkins. They busied themselves with the formalities of dining to fill the awkward moments. Hollis considered a number of topics of conversation, but all died in his throat as he struggled to form phrases that would introduce the subjects without jarring his companion.
Then Butch leaned on the table and asked, “Do you believe in magic?”
Clearly Butch wasn’t as concerned about making jarring statements. Of course Hollis didn’t believe in magic. He’d seen the local voodoo nonsense paraded in the faces of tourists and superstitious old women, but he no more believed a needle in a doll would make his neck hurt than he believed a potion would bring him love. He never said these things out loud, because he lived in a superstitious city, but Hollis considered himself a rational man, well grounded, and though his philosophies might not have been conservative or even moderately acceptable to America at large, magic played no part in them.
“You don’t,” Butch said.
“It’s not that simple,” Hollis said. “We believe the things we need to believe to get through the day. For some that means there’s a god watching their every move, judging their behaviors and threatening punishment. Others believe they interact with their gods, believe they can influence
their deities with rituals and gifts. I think it’s all bunk, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have power. Believing a thing, really believing it, makes it real on some level.”
It appeared that Butch didn’t like this answer. His face sagged and he looked around the room. “I need a drink,” he said.
“They only serve in the private rooms,” said Hollis. “I couldn’t get a table.”
“It’s okay,” Butch said. “A belt would grease my tongue is all.” He ran a finger under his collar and scratched at his jaw. “What I saw today, Hollis, it wasn’t a trick or a vaudeville illusion. It couldn’t have been. I see this thing and I realize I don’t know a damn thing. I’ve been outmatched since this started, you know, and I pretty much figured I wasn’t going to slip the hold. I knew that from day one, but now I don’t even know what kind of game I’m playing, let alone the rules.”
“What did you see?”
“I’d rather not go into it,” Butch said.
“You can’t tip that cart in the middle of the street and then just walk off . What did you see?”
“Hollis, you don’t want to get involved, and I don’t want you involved. It’s better for us both if don’t get mixed up in this.”
“I’d say I am mixed up in this.”
“And I wouldn’t. I appreciate the hospitality, but the less you know the better.”
Hollis thought that was horseshit, but he wasn’t going to waste the whole evening trying to pry information from the man. Things had been awkward enough between them.
“But it’s about the necklace?” he asked.
“Everything is,” Butch said, “but it isn’t. I mean, it’s all connected.”
“You’re not making this easy. But let me see if I’ve got this straight. The bottom line is once you find out what the necklace is, what kind of value it has, you can use it to clear your name?”
“My name is never going to be clear, Hollis. Even if I get out from under the Musante rap, the life I had is over.”
He was probably right about that. Once a scandal got stuck to you, guilty or not, you were pretty much sunk. You didn’t get a second round. “Even so, the necklace is key. If it’s valuable you have leverage. If it isn’t…Then what?”
“I lay low,” Butch said. “There are a hundred towns I could disappear into if I had to. Even here I’m relatively safe, depending on that Lowery kid.”
“So you’re planning to stay on with us for a while?”
“We’ll see,” said Butch.
Their entrees arrived. Both had ordered the prime rib of beef, and they set into their steaks as the waiter refilled the water glasses and removed the ashtray from the table.
After dinner, over cigars, Butch said, “So how do you know Rory?”
Hollis coughed on smoke and reached for his water as Butch clapped him lightly on the back. “We actually met after a bout I had with Simm,” Hollis said.
“You wrestled Simm?” Butch asked. His brows knit and his jaw went tight.
“Early in both of our careers,” said Hollis. “That son of a bitch about took my head off.”
“Yeah, he put that hold on me and I tried every which way to slip it. But I dozed off like a baby with a full tummy. Couldn’t turn my head for a week after that.”
“Did Rory teach you how to get out of that one?”
“Nope. He just brought me a drink and some BC Powder, told me to get a new trainer.”
“Did you?” Butch drew on his cigar and held the smoke in his mouth.
Hollis shook his head. “I…did…not. Two weeks later, Rory dropped me with the same hold.”
Butch laughed at this, sending a cloud of smoke over the table. Hollis hadn’t heard the man laugh before and it was a rich, deep-down chuckle that boomed in the high-ceilinged room. Ashing his cigar in the crystal tray, Butch said, “I never got to wrestle the old guy.”
“It was like trying to move a boulder. Rory was some kind of solid.”
“By the time I saw him, he’d lost a lot of his speed,” said Butch. “He still had the strength, but he moved slow and didn’t have the flexibility. I’ll bet he was something to see in his prime.”
“He was that.”
For a time the meal took on the tenor of the evening Hollis had wanted. They talked about the ring, about opponents they’d both faced and those they’d never had the chance to meet. Hollis warmed to the conversation, as did Butch, but the man’s enjoyment seemed to come and go, perhaps replaced by thoughts of magic or a tenuous future over which he had little control. The oddest moment of the night came as they finished their cigars.
Across the room a waiter set light to the contents of a silver chafing dish, likely cherries jubilee or perhaps a bananas foster, and as the alcohol burned the flame rose high, much to the delight of the restaurant’s patrons, most anyway. Hollis turned to Butch to note his reaction to the scene and was surprised by the look of dread and awe drawn across the man’s face. His eyes were large and held fear, as if he thought the flames alive and predatory. The expression only lasted a moment and then passed, but Hollis thought there was something to it, something about the fire.
“Everything okay?” asked Hollis.
“Fine,” said Butch. “Everything is fine.”
* * *
The umbrellas proved insufficient to their task during the return trip to Hollis’s bungalow. By the time they reach the gate, both men were soaked from the waist down and their socks squished in their shoes. Butch, who had spent the better part of a week in one form of discomfort or another, hardly minded. Though he could not shake the sight of Delbert Keane erupting into flames, a scene he imagined would always be very near the surface of his thoughts, he was feeling considerably better physically. The fine meal had helped. So had the conversation as it allowed Butch to thumb through good memories, memories of the sport, of the ring, of the men he’d called friends before they’d uniformly turned their backs on him.
Beneath the balcony, both men shook out their umbrellas and laughed at the state of their drenched attire. Hollis told Butch he had a bottle of decent whiskey to help get the chill off . “I’m going up to change out of this soaking rag.” Butch remained outside, listening to the marching rain and observing the big house across the courtyard. The building loomed, enormous and dark. Though he knew a teaming city went about its business beyond the high and shadow-drenched walls, Butch felt a sense of pleasant isolation. They were alone here. Anything that happened here would be between Butch and his host. Anything said need never leave these walls.
In his room, Butch stripped out of his wet clothes. He draped the trousers and his drawers over the back of a chair. He hung the jacket from one of the bed’s posters. He wrung the socks out into the porcelain bowl on the nightstand and then laid them out on the windowsill. Butch took the
silk robe from the armoire and draped it across the bed. At the mirror, he smoothed down his hair and checked his teeth for scraps of food. Once he felt sufficiently dry, he wrapped himself in the robe and left the room.
He hadn’t heard Hollis coming down the stairs, so Butch was surprised to see the man in the parlor, already holding two glasses of whiskey. Hollis had changed into dove-gray pajamas and a thick crimson robe.
“Nights like this I wish I had a fireplace,” Hollis said. He handed a glass toward Butch. “This should take the edge off, though.”
Butch accepted the glass and touched it to Hollis’s before downing the contents in a single slug. Hollis chuckled at the display and reached to take the glass back. “It’s going to be an early night if you keep that up.”
At the tall silver cart, which served as the bar, Hollis set down his drink and Butch’s empty glass. Butch stepped forward with feet that felt as if they’d been dipped in lead. Hollis chatted as he poured another drink, but the words were lost on Butch. He could only hear the sound of blood rushing to his ears. The whiskey’s warm trail led to a coal burning low in Butch’s gut. At Hollis’s back he laid a hand on his host’s shoulder. Hollis turned, and Butch grabbed the lapels of his robe, squeezing the fabric tightly in his fists, wringing it. Surprise widened Hollis’s eyes, but before the man could voice concern, Butch pressed forward and kissed him.
When their lips touched, the roaring in Butch’s ears intensified, became deafening. His heart kicked hard behind his ribs, and it felt as though he couldn’t breathe. Hollis’s beard tickled the soft skin between Butch’s lower lip and chin, and the feeling proved intensely sensual. Hollis’s hand went around the back of his head, holding Butch tightly in the kiss. Butch kept his grip on the lapels of Hollis’s robe, choking the material between his fingers and keeping a narrow gap between their bodies.
Then Butch shoved Hollis away, but he maintained his grasp of the man’s robe. He held his host at a distance. His elbows were locked and his arms strained.
“What’s wrong?” Hollis asked.
Butch felt his features tighten. Nothing was wrong. Not really. But he couldn’t help but admit, “I don’t really know how all this works.”
The comment brought a soft smile to Hollis’s lips. He nodded. “The first thing you might want to do is unlock your elbows and maybe take it easy. We aren’t opponents here.”
“Yeah,” Butch said, releasing his grip and letting his hands hang at his sides.
They stood facing one another, and the pause unnerved Butch. It gave him time to think, and he didn’t want to think. He wanted to feel and forget about the rules and judgments he carried like scars. The kiss had consumed him, silenced the rational thoughts, but they were creeping back
in. Fears and justifications knotted and uncoiled and wormed behind his eyes. He didn’t want to be a punk. He wasn’t one. He wasn’t like Lionel Lowery. Hell, he wasn’t like Hollis. This was a moment, physical and hungry and necessary. It wasn’t a way of life. He didn’t want it to be a fucking way of life, but he wanted this moment. Why was Hollis just standing there? Why didn’t he say something? Why didn’t he do something?
“This won’t end well,” Hollis said.
“Who fucking cares?” Butch asked.
He tramped forward and backed Hollis to the wall. He placed his hands gently on Hollis’s shoulders and squeezed lightly before he pushed in for a kiss, and this time he didn’t pull away. Hollis slid his hands around Butch’s back and embraced him. Butch moved in even closer, pressing Hollis hard to the wall, experiencing the density of the man’s chest against his. He felt the rigid shaft of Hollis’s cock through the fabric of his pajama trousers, and he ground his hips forward, rubbing his own erection, which had escaped the silk robe, against Hollis’s. Butch stepped back and pulled open Hollis’s robe, then he lunged forward to reattach his lips to the man’s as his fingers worked the buttons of the pajamas free. Every breath brought the scent of shaving soap and salt.
Hollis shrugged out of his robe and then reached down to untie the sash at Butch’s waist. Butch slid a hand over the soft hairs on Hollis’s belly and then gripped the waistband of his pajamas and worked them over the man’s hips. And when Hollis was completely exposed with only the lapels of his pajama shirt draping either side of his torso, Butch buried his face in the man’s neck and wondered at the powerful sensation of having Hollis’s body against his.
They made their way to the couch and Hollis reclined. Butch lay over the top of him and immediately returned to rubbing against the man. He felt Hollis’s hands on his buttocks, holding firmly and pulling to encourage the aggressive massage, and when Butch felt himself nearing climax, he rolled to the side for fear of bringing the encounter to an end. Hollis rolled too so that they were face to face. Butch took in the man’s face, its strength and kindness, and he experienced a moment of complete peace. His passion had ebbed only a fraction, but his concerns were absolutely gone. His thoughts were clear. His body felt light, yet sensitive to every fiber of the sofa, every hair on Hollis’s chest. Butch closed his eyes. A moment later, he felt Hollis’s lips pressing softly against his. Later, after both men had climaxed, they lay on the sofa with Butch on
his side and Hollis on his back. Propped up on his elbow, Butch rested his hand on Hollis’s chest.
(And now, Hollis thought, he’ll make his excuses and go to bed and in the morning, he’ll be angry or deny the act outright, maybe he’ll manage to figure out a way to blame me for what happened. He’ll pull some shit. That much is for sure. Men’s opinions changed about three seconds after their sacks emptied.)
Butch scooted and adjusted his frame on the sofa, but he found the two of them only fit on the furniture together if they were stacked or laid out on their sides. He threw a leg over Hollis and did his best to reach the floor without disturbing the man. At the bar cart, he lifted the glasses of
whiskey Hollis had poured and carried them back to the reclining man.
He offered Hollis the glass. Hollis thanked him and raised himself to a sitting position.
“Thank you,” Butch said, clicking his glass against Hollis’s.
“Sure,” Hollis said. (This is it. Now, he escapes to build his excuses.)
After taking a sip of the drink, Butch rubbed the back of his head. He yawned. He said, “I’m going to head into bed.”
“Okay,” Hollis said.
Butch couldn’t help but notice a flash of emotion—What was it? Anger? Sadness?—skipping across Hollis’s face. The expression came and went too quickly for Butch to identify. It was probably nothing. Butch couldn’t think of a thing to be angry or sad about.
“You coming with me?” Butch asked.
Now Hollis looked surprised. Again, Butch couldn’t figure the why of it, but it wasn’t as if he were in familiar territory right now. In fact he’d rarely been in territory this strange. The brief moments with his cousin and the longer, though admittedly one-sided, exchanges with the Weeping Clown bore little resemblance to what he and Hollis had shared. He wondered if he was meant to retire on his own. Is that how this worked?
“Or are you going upstairs?” Butch said.
“No,” Hollis said. He lifted himself from the sofa. He went to the cart and grabbed the bottle of whiskey.
In bed and propped against pillows they enjoyed their drinks in silence. Butch rested his hand on Hollis’s thigh, tracing patterns in the hair with his fingers. Aware that the curtains were open, Butch climbed from the bed and crossed to the window. Before he tugged the drapes together he asked, “Who owns this place? I haven’t seen a soul in the big house since I arrived.”
“And you probably won’t,” Hollis said. “A kid named Travis Brugier owns the property. And when I say kid, I mean it. He can’t be but about seventeen years old, if that. He used to frequent my club. He liked it. He liked me and he offered me this place a couple of years back once he’d had it refurbished. I’ve seen him half a dozen times since then. He’s always traveling. Even when he’s home, you wouldn’t know it.”
Butch closed the curtains and returned to the bed.
“You have to realize how surprising all of this is,” Hollis said. “I mean I didn’t think you—”
“Didn’t think I was a sissy?” Butch asked. He rolled his head along the wall and looked at Hollis. “Me either.”
“You think we’re sissies?”
“Doesn’t matter what I think. Right here…right now…in this bed, we’re two men who’ve found a good way to get along. But we get out of this bed and leave this house and we’re a couple of fruits, and there’s no arguing out of it.”
“So what happens when you get out of this bed and leave this house?”
“You’re the one that said this wouldn’t end well.”
“You got me there.”
“So why don’t we worry about how this ends when it’s over?”
“And you’re okay with this?”
“Hollis, I’m not drunk, at least not yet. I’m not insane. I made a choice and acted on it, and right now it feels like the best choice I could have made, but I’m not that Lionel kid. I don’t know much of anything—not about this. I’m supposed to believe it’s wrong, but right now I don’t. Tomorrow I might. I have no idea. But when I said thank you, I meant it. It’s the only thing I’m certain of right now. I’m grateful for everything you’ve done for me, and I’m happy you’re in this bed. So thank you.”
“That may be the smartest thing you’ve said since you got here.”
“Don’t get used to it,” Butch said. “Smart isn’t really in my wheelhouse.”
“I’m glad it happened,” Hollis said, “and I’m glad Lionel is gone.”
“Yeah, about that. I feel like a horse’s ass about what I said that first morning, considering how we just spent the last hour. I don’t really know how this happened… It’s not like… I mean, I don’t think I was jealous of the kid. I wasn’t thinking about any of this when we spoke, but I know I was insulting to you, and I’m sorry.”
“I expected you to hightail it out of the parlor when we finished up.”
“I’ve done that before.” He read the surprised expression on Hollis’s face and said, “Those were very different circumstances.”
“I’m looking forward to hearing about them.”
“Maybe after another whiskey.”
He finished his drink and handed it over to Hollis for a refill. When Hollis handed him the refreshed glass, Butch tipped some of the whiskey onto the man’s chest. Hollis flinched. He moved to wipe the booze off of himself, but Butch stopped him. “I’ll get it,” he said and leaned over to lap the alcohol up, allowing his lips to press deeply against the brush of hair and the firm muscle beneath.
Lee Thomas is the Bram Stoker Award and the Lambda Literary Award-winning author of Stained, The Dust of Wonderland, In the Closet, Under the Bed, The German, Torn, Ash Street, and Like Light For Flies. He currently lives in Austin, Texas.