a sorta-kinda sequel to "Tender"
"So what happened in Knoxville, Tennessee?"
"Knoxville. The other night. You said that whatever anybody told me about what you did in Knoxville, Tennessee, it was all a lie."
"Well, there you go. Whatever it is, it's not true. I didn't do anything at all in Knoxville. Never even been near the place."
"No, no, no. Don't tell me, let me guess." Blair pointed a fork at Jim. "You got arrested. You got arrested for shoplifting women's lingerie."
"Yeah, right. I'd like this push-up bra in a 42 Long, please." Jim shook his head.
"OK. You seduced the mayor. You seduced the mayor's wife. You had a threesome with ..."
"Sandburg, have you ever met a mayor?"
"Mm, good point. OK, here, I have it. You were just passing through, and you were waiting for a bus, leaning on the signpost, with your duffle bag at your feet, and this pickup truck pulls up, and there's this weathered cowboy -- they have cowboys in Tennessee? -- anyhow, he looks you over, and then he looks you over again, and he says, 'Git in, boy, I'll take ya anywhere ya wanna go --' "
"Jesus! We're in a public restaurant! Can you keep your wild imagination under wraps for five minutes here?"
"I've been doing some reading about Knoxville."
"Lots of rivers around Knoxville, Jim. Lots of deserted areas in the woods. Lots of places where there might be a waterfall, where a guy might want to get naked and just let the water wash over his bare skin ..."
"Sandburg, would you just go to sleep?"
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"Hey, Jim. Did you know there's a big mall in Knoxville? Kind of place where it would be easy to get caught in the men's room with --"
"It was back when you were traveling through the South, earning money for your bus tickets by working as a stripper ..."
Jim spat out a mouthful of coffee and looked at Blair balefully. Blair held up a hand.
"Oh, I know, I know what you're going to say, man, I've seen you dance, but I for one maintain that your apparent boogie deficiency is actually a diabolical cover to prevent people from connecting you with the notorious James 'Hips' Ellison --"
"Well, not compared to, say, Al Gore, but in the real world --"
"I don't know why I stick around to be insulted."
"I do." Blair walked behind Jim's chair, leaned over his shoulder, and gave him a long, wet, upside-down kiss. "That jog your memory a little?"
"Mmm?" Jim said dazedly.
"Right," Blair said smugly, leaning a hip against the table. "So anyway, you got a call to come do a performance down in the park one summer day as a surprise for little Katie Gatling's twenty-first birthday. And normally your policy was that the tear-away cop uniform came off but the matching blue twill G-string stayed on --"
"You know, Sandburg, I could have lived a long and happy life without ever hearing the words 'blue twill G-string.' "
" -- but this time the caller promised an extra hundred in cash if you'd go all the way. So they give you a date and a time and say to come to the park and follow the signs that say, 'Gatling Party.' And you do just that, and you set up your little boom box and do your stuff, and just about the time the last bit of velcro goes BRRRT, you look at the stunned faces around you and it occurs to you that there are lots of people named Gatling in Knoxville ..."
Jim shook his head.
"And when the local police show up and ask you for I.D., you're telling the literal truth when you say, 'I don't have any on me.' And you know what the worst thing is?"
"I suppose you're going to tell me."
"The worst thing is that to this day, embarrassing as it can be in your line of work, whenever you hear the snick of handcuffs ..."
The pancake made an odd hollow thwack as it hit Blair in the chest.
"Or maybe it was the time you were sunbathing nude on the roof of the Holiday Inn, and the traffic helicopter ..."
"Sandburg, why do you want to imagine me outdoors naked?"
"Jim, man, no offense, but that is a really, really stupid question."
"Turn down the sound," Blair said magisterially, "and I shall tell you a little Knoxville story."
Jim sighed dramatically, then turned the TV off, dropped the remote, and returned his arm to its original position, wrapped across Blair's chest and cupping his opposite shoulder. "If you must."
"You ever tend bar?"
"Yeah, you did. You were tending bar at a little dive near the airport. You know the place, hasn't been redecorated since 1972, all arthritic Shriners and redneck bachelor parties and sunburned ex-football stars that hit on you while their girlfriends are in the ladies' room and then spit 'Faggot' at you when you turn 'em down."
"You make it sound like so much fun."
"Oh, man, it was the low point of your life, you have no idea. So anyway, it's about a quarter to one, almost closing time, and there's nobody there but Florence, the town whore, and some guy named Junior who's too drunk to walk and too fat to carry. You're wiping down the bar, putting chairs on tables, getting ready to close, when all of a sudden the door bangs shut and in walks somebody you've never seen before."
"Tarzan," Jim suggested.
"Better," Blair said. "It's a handsome and witty young anthropology student."
"Ah," Jim said. "And you say he's better than Tarzan?"
"Well, you're about to find out. Anyhow, he's got one of those backpacks with the sleeping bag rolled up at the bottom of the frame, and he heaves it off with a big sigh and asks you for a beer. You don't want to look at his ID, because you have a feeling that once you see it you're not going to be able to sell him that beer, and for some reason you just don't want to tell him 'no,' not ever. But you do the legal thing, and it turns out he's twenty-six, so you pop the cap off a beer and something makes you say, 'On me.' "
"What happened to Florence and Junior?"
"You don't really want to be imagining Florence and Junior, do you, Jim? When our leading men are conversing so nicely? Anyhow, the student finishes his beer just as the clock ticks to one, and you say, 'Closing time,' and then you say, 'I've got a car if you want me to drop you at your hotel.' And he says, kinda embarrassed, 'Don't really have a hotel, was gonna get a room when I got here, but my plane was six hours late and by the time it got in I just needed to relax for a few minutes.'
"So you tell him, 'We'll figure something out -- you hungry?' And he grins and says, 'Starved.'
"Well, you know a diner that's open all night, so the two of you get in your car --"
"What kind of car?"
"Mmm. A 1978 Ford Fiesta."
"Yup. Gold. With black-and-orange-striped seats. And an eight-track player. I told you it was the low point of your life."
"You weren't kidding. Damn."
"Right. So you tip the seat forward so you can throw his backpack in the back, and the two of you go to Burrell's. And you can't quite figure out why it seems like the two of you know each other -- like the way he automatically points you to the quietest corner booth in the place, as though he knows about those strange trances you sometimes go into when the music's too loud."
"What's this paragon's name?"
"You don't know yet. You haven't talked about that. You order an orange juice for you and tell him to get whatever he wants, your treat, and he orders the biggest, most disgusting breakfast you ever saw and eats it like he hasn't eaten in twelve hours, which he hasn't.
"He tells you he flew down to do some hiking on the Appalachian Trail, only if he had flown into Asheville, he wouldn't have had any money left for the trip. So he took the cheaper flight into Knoxville instead, and he figured he could hitch across the mountains and still have a hundred dollars, and when the hundred dollars ran out he'd know it was time to go home.
"The two of you talk and talk, and when you look at your watch you're surprised to discover that two hours have passed. Now a barman's used to those kinds of hours, but you figure your friend could probably use a rest, so you say, 'We'd better hit the road.' And then you tell him, 'No sense in trying to find a hotel room at three in the morning. If you've got a sleeping bag in all that stuff, you can stay with me.' "
"No monkey?" Jim asked sleepily.
"It was an ape. And anyhow, there's no ape, this is an alternate universe in which there is no ape," Blair said.
"Well, go on."
"Well. The apartment you're living in. Dreariest place you can possibly imagine. It's converted to apartments from an old motel, so the two of you lug his backpack up the outdoor stairs and you walk along the balcony past 3A and 3B, and you unlock the flimsy door to 3C and stand back so he can go in first.
"You knew the place was tacky, but you never really noticed how tacky. Just one room with a kitchen in the corner, coffee table, a hide-a-bed that you never bothered to fold up this morning, all decorated in brown and gold, with those curtains that are all stiff so you can't quite pull them together enough that the streetlight outside won't shine through the gaps. And you set his backpack down on the floor and he walks into the middle of the room and he turns to look at you, and you feel ... you feel everything that's been keeping you in this godforsaken place just wash away, and for the first time in years, you feel free.
"And you feel ... safe somehow. As though you never knew how much energy you were putting into keeping that guard up, and now you can let it down. Feels like sinking into a warm bath in a quiet room."
Jim pressed his cheek against Blair's hair. "And him," he whispered. "What does he feel?"
"Oh, man. He feels like everything that's happened to him suddenly has a reason -- the whim to hike the Trail, the hundred dollars, the late flight. No, more than that -- like everything in his life suddenly has a reason, like all of it was for nothing but to bring him right here, right now."
"Ah." Jim pulled Blair closer, nuzzled his ear through his hair, and Blair's voice got a little lower, a little fuzzier.
"He feels like yesterday he was living for nothing, but today he's doing something other than just using up oxygen, you know? And like he's been handed the most beautiful puzzle anybody's ever seen, man, a whole lifetime's worth of mysteries, something he could never, ever be bored with."
Jim closed his eyes and pushed his face into Blair's neck, breathing in his scent, feeling the vibration as he talked.
"And he feels like ... like when that backpack hit the floor, he was on solid ground for the first time in his life. Like now he knows what home means.
"And you lay him down on that flimsy fold-out bed, and the streetlight puts stripes of light over your two bodies, there in the dark ..." Blair sighed as he felt Jim's hand turning his face for a kiss.
There was a long silence. Then Jim pulled back and said, huskily, "What happens then?"
Blair put his hand over Jim's where it rested inside his unbuttoned shirt. "You're lying there, just holding onto him like you're afraid to let go, and he says, 'Come with me.' And you say, 'To hike the Appalachian Trail?' And he says, 'Yeah, OK, if you want to, but I meant, you know, come with me. Home with me. I've got to be at school at the end of August and you could come with me, you could figure out something to do with your life there, hell, you're not doing anything with it here.' And you say, 'There. Where's there?' And he says, 'Cascade.' And you say, 'I think I've been there. I think I liked it.'
"And the next day the two of you drive over to the bar and drop off your keys, you don't even bother to hang around for your last paycheck, and then you drive out and hike -- and hey, there you go, there's that waterfall I was telling you about, it's still summertime, you could still --"
"Finish the story."
"Yeah. Right. So you hike for a couple of weeks, and then you hang around Asheville eating fried okra and looking at pottery you have no intention of buying until his hundred dollars runs out, and then you buy a couple of tickets to Cascade and you drive that Fiesta to the airport and you just leave it in the lot, man, all the maps in the glove box, the half case of motor oil in the trunk --
"I'm driving around with motor oil in the trunk?"
"Cheaper to put oil in every time you put gas in than to get the leak fixed, you know?"
"Right. So I just leave all that stuff behind?"
"Yup. And your Kris Kristofferson eight-tracks, too -- hey!"
"Yes?" Jim said innocently while Blair struggled to still his tickling hands, finally succeeding only by flipping over to face Jim and kissing him breathless. When he judged that he was safe from further indignities, he raised his head.
"So. Did I guess right about the story of Knoxville?"
"Now, realistically, if I had met this handsome student you're talking about, would I be here with you?"
"Mm, no, I guess not. He probably wouldn't like that much. Jealous type, you know?"
"No kidding? I had no idea. He seemed pretty laid back to me, seemed like he might be willing to share."
"You can just think again about that theory, man," Blair said firmly, and he sat up a bit and ran the backs of his fingers gently over Jim's entire body, from his forehead down to his left foot, in a gesture both tender and possessive. "Hypothetically, I mean."
"Mm. Better quit my job as a stripper, then, huh."
"And that sunbathing on hotel roofs has got to stop."
Jim gave a long-suffering sigh. "Sandburg, this has all been very ... enlightening. But I've never set foot in Knoxville, Tennessee, in my entire life."
And then he winked.
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