Nathan Alling Long responds to our monthly historical photo prompt with his story, “Call Us What You’d Like.”
“Call Us What You’d Like”
I prefer the term ‘invert,’ as we are the perfect inversion of the world around us. It’s on stage, in our clown dresses, in our women’s boots, in our make-up, where we are most free, most like ourselves. Offstage, outside the theater and dressing room — that is, on the streets, in the public spaces — we are less who we are. That is where we wear the face, where we act our parts.
Onstage, we invert all the rules. We dance in boots, click our heels, and even kiss. The crowd laughs and cheers. Onstage, Homer can shyly hand me a flower, and the audience sighs at the sweetness of the moment. Onstage, I can rub his long, red, wooden nose and say, “Oh, what a nice nose you have. It’s so large and … red.” And the children all laugh because who would like such a large, red nose? And the adults all laugh because they know, even if they won’t admit it, I am talking about something else entirely.
We sing songs about spring, about toy trains, about rain. We are singing clowns. Harvey and Homer. And when we sing a duet about sailing a boat made for two around the world to find a land where we belong, all the couples nod and the lovesick girls cry, thinking the song is meant for them.
Sometimes when we’re performing, I look over at Homer, and I see that big, red nose he carved of balsa wood, and I think of how lucky I am to have found him. I think of our nights together, of the night ahead, and I feel so happy I could cry. But crying would make my make-up run, so I don’t. I look away, at my ukulele, and concentrate on placing my fingers on the frets. But sometimes, even that triggers my love for him:
I think about a few years back in some hotel, as we were working out a new children’s song I’d written about having to go to bed, how Homer started laughing out loud.
“What?” I said. I thought he was making fun of my lyrics.
“Harvey, look at our instruments!” he said. “Mine is long, without many strings, and yours is short, with so many strings.”
We broke out into laughter. They were just like our other ‘instruments’ — his long, but less hairy, mine shorter but with thick curls. We’d been together almost five years by then and had never noticed!
We met on the streets of New York. Homer was standing on a street corner, waiting for the officer to signal pedestrians across, when I walked up beside him. He was wearing a suit with a matching yellow tie and handkerchief, and from that, I already knew. But he didn’t look my way.
So I asked him, “Do you have the time?”
He turned to face me, and we looked at each other one, two, three, four, five seconds, and in each of them, my heart pounded faster and harder. Our entire courtship took place in those five seconds. In the first second, he recognized that I was not a threat. In the second, we confirmed we were not ordinary men. In the third, as we both remained open and kind toward the other, Homer’s eyes glistened and the tiniest smile stretched across his face. In the fourth, we both revealed to the other our strengths, to stand in a crowded Manhattan street, with others now looking, and an officer just feet away from us; in that second, I think we developed a deep admiration for each other. In the fifth, we expressed our love, our understanding how rare and fortunate it was that we had discovered each other. We commited to go forward, across the street, and into the future, together.
The other pedestrians began to move, and though I think we could have stared at each other for hours, we were smart enough not to risk losing what we had just found. Homer lifted his arm and pulled back his coat sleeve to reveal a wrist watch, the first time I had seen one on a man except from soldiers returning from the trenches. But Homer’s was more delicate and finer, as though it were made for a woman.
“It’s ten minutes to ten,” he said, then he started walking across the street, knowing I would follow. He tipped his hat to the officer, who gave us a scowl, and when we had reached the other side, Homer turned to me and said, “It’s about time for tea, I believe. Would you care to join me?”
I was on my way to an audition, as a pianist for the Chautauqua. But I knew there would be a long line of musicians, and though I’d gotten my hopes up all week at the prospect of getting out of New York and traveling the country, the world had changed in the last ten seconds. “I would be delighted,” I said.
“A tea house,” he asked, “or perhaps my place? I make a very nice tea.”
“Yours,” I said, before I could reason with myself, or doubt myself.
“I’m Homer,” he said, and extended his hand like a gentleman.
“Harvey,” I said and shook his. But I could not look again into his eyes, for he was so handsome that I feared I would melt there on the street.
Homer lived in a tiny fourth-floor room in a tenement off an alley off 21st, equal distance between the Manhattan Gas Works and the theater district, as Homer pointed out. The room was cold, but he started a coal fire and filled the kettle. He shared it with another boarder, who, fortunately, was not there.
Despite how confident I’d felt on the street those five seconds, I suddenly grew nervous. I stood by the single window, wiped the coal dust from the glass, and looked out over Chelsea. How different the world looked from four stories up. And as long as I remained there, I reasoned, I did not have to think about what was happening, about how many changes I would have to make in my life in the future.
I’d grown up in Iowa and had come to New York on the advice of my piano teacher, an older man who liked to hold my fingers in his hand and speak enviously of the range of notes I was able to play. But I was not happy here. I lived in a basement room, a place I would never take anyone to, and played piano in a basement bar at night. I did not have money to eat out and often ate just bread with thin slices of salami all week for lunch, and scraps from the bar kitchen on nights I worked.
As I looked out the dirty glass at the alley below, I felt again how much I missed the fields and spaces of the Midwest, missed the comfort of home, of warm meals, though I did not have enough funds to return. A fear suddenly overtook me. I had imagined my only hope was to get out of the city on a traveling show. What if the Chautauqua audition was my one chance? What if this encounter with a stranger was nothing more than the devil leading me down a dark way?
As Homer prepared tea, he talked about his watch, which he noticed I’d admired. He told me he was related to a Countess from Hungary, the first woman known to wear a watch.
“Is that hers?” I asked. “On your wrist?” I looked briefly at him. His face seemed to shine so brightly, to speak of possibilities I had all but dissolved within me, that I had to look away. I was wrenched between these two worlds, of escape and ecstasy.
“Oh no,” Homer said. “Hers was speckled with jewels. This I bought at a pawn shop. It belonged to a society woman who passed away. I wear it as a reminder.”
“Of what?” I said glancing at him again.
“Of how little time we have. Of why we must live happy and gay.”
I turned from the window then. The coals were glowing and giving off a heat, and I came up close to them, suddenly feeling a chill.
“Yes,” Homer said, “here.”
He took off his coat, draped it over my back, and patted my shoulders, as if to hold it down in place. The gesture was so kind and gentle, a touch I felt instantly was something I’d longed for my entire life, something I could not find, even from my mother or father, at home.
“I cannot live here,” I said.
“No,” he said softly. “It is only temporary. We are meant for the road, like Whitman.”
How did he know so much, so instantly? I fell in love then, and decided no longer to doubt. Homer would later give me a copy of Leaves of Grass, one which contained the Calamus poems, and we would often read them to each other in bed while on the road.
But that day, we drank tea and shared our lives, and as the sun set, Homer locked the door, so that his roommate could not come in without knocking, and he took me to bed.
It was less than a month before we joined a traveling show. Homer did not play an instrument, but he could sing, and more importantly, he commanded the stage. I played the uke, and eventually, bought him a guitar and taught him to play. We slept together every night, under the auspices of sharing costs, and no one said a word. We traveled the States, read Whitman, and made our secret, ecstatic love at night.
There are times, of course, when we are given looks, when we do not come off the stage of our lives and take up our role on the streets swiftly enough. At times I imagine I’m still standing by the window in his room in Chelsea, and I haven’t noticed that someone has opened the window and gotten behind me, ready to push me out. More likely, it will be by accident — a door left unlocked, a witnessed kiss — and all this will end. The watch will stop.
Until then, as the song I wrote for children goes:
We will sing and we will play, We’ll be happy, we’ll be gay, til it’s time, til it’s time, to go to bed.
NATHAN ALLING LONG’s collection of fifty flash fictions, The Origin of Doubt, was just released by Press 53, and over a hundred of his stories and essays have appeared in venues such as Tin House, Crab Orchard Review, The Sun, and NPR. His work has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes and the Best Non-Required Reading, and he twice attended Bread Loaf Writers Conference on scholarship. He currently lives in Philadelphia and teaches creative writing at Stockton University.
Each month, Alternating Current Press presents an ekphrastic challenge for writers and lovers of history: We feature a different public domain historical photograph, and ask writers to respond to it. There is no wrong answer, and no set style guidelines. Poetry, prose, hybrid, fiction or non, experimental — Anything goes that has a history bent. All work is considered for our Charter Oak Award for Best Historical and for publication in our annual Footnote: A Literary Journal of History (only if selected), and the best responses will be published on The Coil the following month. Check out our homepage for your chance to participate in the March DaguerreoTyped historical ekphrastic challenge, and read all of the past archives here.