Hutch’s face didn’t look much better than it had the previous night as he took the stage at the historic National Theater on Broad Street. The elegant Renaissance Revival auditorium was decked out in boughs of greenery and glistening crystal ornaments, making it appear even grander than it already was. Starsky had requested that the lighting technicians direct their lights on Hutch’s hands rather than his face, hoping that his bruises would be lost in the stage makeup and shadows. Starsky needn’t have worried. Hutch held the concertgoers spellbound as he played. Apparently, he attracted the kind of audience who focused on the music rather than the man. Their loss, he couldn’t help from thinking.
Looking on from the wings, Starsky felt a combination of pride and protectiveness that left him on edge. Hutch hadn’t brought up what had happened between them except for briefly mentioning a hangover, and neither did Starsky, who hoped to preserve what was left of his pride. He had promised he would stay through the rest of the trip but now wondered if these new emotions compromised his ability to do his job.
Back in New York, it was his very aloofness that let him see clearly and act decisively in dicey situations. Now he seemed to be constantly second-guessing himself. Was the piano in proper tune, did the dressing room provide enough privacy, was the murmuring in the crowd from anticipation or something more sinister?
Starsky stiffened when he saw a man in the second row reach for something inside his suit coat only to pull out a handkerchief and wipe his nose. He forced himself to turn away from the stage and paced the wooden floor. It was growing more difficult to break the pull Hutch had on him — a high-speed rollercoaster ride that was both breathtaking and edged with danger.
When Hutch stood to take his bow before the applauding crowd, Starsky breathed a sigh of relief. Now they could return to the hotel and relax.
“Mr. Starsky.” A heavy set woman in a lilac gown and pearls approached him as the house lights came up, preceded by a cloud of cloying, but no doubt costly, cologne. “I’m hosting a small holiday cocktail party at the Acacia later. It’s for a select group of guests,” she said, in a haughty, yet hushed manner. “I’d be delighted if you would join us. We’d love to hear about your experiences with the tour.”
Starsky felt a rush of inordinate pleasure. A few weeks ago he was just an out of work bouncer, cruising for a job on the docks. Today he was in an expensive suit getting invited to a high society soiree. Not that he cared, he reminded himself. But it was nice to at least be noticed.
His eyes flicked to Hutch taking his third bow in front of the curtain a few feet away. The slight lag in the movement showed Starsky that the performance had worn his charge out more than usual. It was easy to understand, considering his recent stand-in for a punching bag.
“Thanks, missus–” Starsky began.
“Fairchild,” the woman supplied after an awkward pause. “Gloria Fairchild.” She sent him a questioning look as if she was surprised he didn’t know it already.
“Mrs. Fairchild,” Starsky acknowledged. “But….”
Mrs. Fairchild sent a glance over to Hutch. Her eyes held a look of…wariness? “This is a bit of an impromptu get-together. I’m afraid the guest list is quite limited, Mr. Starsky. There won’t be room for Mr. Hutchinson, unfortunately. But I’m sure he’ll understand. Besides, I’m sure there are… other more suitable places for him to find entertainment.”
Starsky was stunned. Starsky was meeting the ugly truth head on — the reason Hutch retreated every night to an empty hotel room, with a bottle of booze and his guitar. Why every now and then he felt the need to escape to the shadowy section of town. It wasn’t because of his natural shyness or his stutter. It was because people like Mrs. Fairchild and her fashionable friends enjoyed Hutch’s talent enough to listen to him play but had no desire to actually share a cheese plate with him.
No doubt Hutch’s curious proclivities had them whispering together on staircases or the backseats of town-cars as if he had some type of communicable disease. The Gloria Fairchilds of the world were content to put on a show of open-minded elitism by applauding the gay prodigy, as long as he was kept in a cage of a comfortable distance.
The loneliness of Hutch’s existence hit Starsky more painfully than any punch he’d ever taken. This most gifted and gentle of souls — whose stutter only faded when speaking out for others — had been judged and found wanting by everyone around him. Hutch was snubbed by people who would see him perform like a trained seal and even berated by his own family, all because of whom he was born to love.
What a load of bullshit, Starsky thought to himself, although not without feeling a flash of irony, considering how much he’d been admired for his own ability to bullshit.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Starsky asked Mrs. Fairchild innocently, although he knew full well. He just wanted her in the uncomfortable position of exposing the ugliness her fancy clothes and makeup couldn’t hide.
“You have to understand, Mr. Starsky, that there are some very prominent people on my guest list. A few even in government office. People whose careers would be jeopardized if they were to be seen socializing with… someone like Mr. Hutchinson.”
“You mean, a musician?” Starsky was beginning to enjoy Mrs. Fairchild’s growing unease. He doubted one of her invitations had ever been turned down before. He relished being the first.
“Of course not. But Mr. Hutchinson isn’t just any musician. Let’s not be indelicate.”
The house lights had come up and Starsky could feel as much as see Hutch walking toward him from the stage. In that moment, Starsky knew he’d rather spend an evening alone with Hutch than in any posh restaurant hobnobbing with high society. Mrs. Fairchild’s obvious penchant for all that was tasteful had left a sour goo on his tongue.
Starsky pasted on his most charming smile, the one that worked so well to disarm high class hookers and mobsters alike. “I’m sorry, Gloria, but if my friend Hutch ain’t invited, I’m not coming either. And you can tell your buddies at that fancy club that Hutch has twice as much class in his little finger than you have stuffed in that purple potato sack of a dress.”
Mrs. Fairchild’s gasp was audible. “Your rudeness, Mr. Starsky, will be reported to the board. This may well be Ken Hutchinson’s last engagement in this town.” She glared and stalked away just as Hutch reached them.
“Great show, Hutch.” Starsky clapped him on the back. “I doubt anyone was payin’ attention to a couple ‘a bruises when you played like that.”
Hutch gave him a gratifying smile, utterly appealing despite the swollen lips. “What did Mrs. Fairchild want?”
“Who? That old windbag?”
“That old windbag is the wife of the ch-chairman of the b-board. Really, Starsky, you need to b-brush up on your etiquette.”
Starsky shrugged. “I call ‘em like I see ‘em. Seems to me she’s the one with the bad manners.”
Starsky tightened his jaw, not wanting to continue. But he would have to tell Hutch about the exchange, especially if the foundation that booked tonight’s performance decided to no longer sponsor him. And who would Hutch blame — Starsky or Mrs. Fairchild? This just might be their moment of truth. “Hutch, I don’t know what you get out of these events. These people may like the way you play piano, but I’m not so sure they’re wild about you.”
A shadow crossed Hutch’s face and it anguished Starsky that he’d said the words to put it there.
“Don’t you think I know about all the p-post concert receptions I’m not invited to?” Hutch said haltingly. “All the d-dinner parties? Do you think I haven’t n-noticed when people p-pull away after shaking my hand or even step b-back so they don’t have to t-touch me it all? I know what p-people call me behind my b-back. Hell, I’ve been c-called enough names to my f-front.”
“Then maybe you should play somewhere you can be really appreciated — for people who want to hear the real you,” Starsky said. “Not just this dressed up mirage. You’ve got so much more to offer. Don’t be so afraid to show it.”
“I’ve t-trained for my whole life to be a classical p-pianist. It’s what g-gives me some s-s-semblance of respectability.” Hutch straightened imperceptibly, but Starsky had grown to notice every tense of his shoulders and curve of his mouth. “M-maybe someday things will change…. I thought maybe I c-can even help things change.” His voice drifted off.
“Maybe,” Starsky agreed — because if anyone could change the world he believed that this man could, “but until then, you’re giving concerts for people who want nothing to do with you after the curtain comes down. Do you really want to wait for ‘someday?’ Come on, Hutch. They…” Starsky’s throat tightened painfully. “Hell, they don’t deserve you. But somewhere out there, there are others who do. Let me show you.”
When they left the concert hall, Starsky took the Galaxie in a route that didn’t lead back to their hotel. For once, Hutch didn’t comment on his driving, proof of his distracted state of mind. But when they neared the neighborhood of the Dial Tone, he seemed to rouse from his bleak mood.
“What are we doing here?” he asked, alarmed.
“I figured we both need to unwind for a while and shake off some of old Lady Fairchild and her cronies’ stink.” Starsky turned back to Hutch and said, “Trust me.”
A few minutes later, Starsky pulled the car smartly against a curb. They were a few doors down from a small club whose exterior was unpretentious, but well-lit and inviting. The name above the door read The Golden Bird. He’d noticed the place the night he’d been called to pick up Hutch. Familiar as he was with every kind of nightlife imaginable, Starsky had thought it looked like a place he might actually enjoy spending an evening. Now, the sounds of music and laughter spilled from its modest door. Starsky was gratified when Hutch agreed to go with him inside.
The Golden Bird’s clientele was an eclectic, low-key bunch. Glassware clinked with good nature on tabletops and clouds of aromatic cigarette smoke swirled in the air. Just what Starsky had hoped for. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves without worrying about how they looked or who they might be seen with. Starsky’s, and even Hutch’s, formal attire drew only a few mild glances as they wound their way through the restaurant. When they took seats at the bar and ordered drinks, the bartender, who could have been somebody’s mother, responded with friendly efficiency.
Off in a corner, a lanky black man picked out a bluesy rhythm on his guitar, backed by a heavy-set harmonica player with sweat that streamed down his face from enthusiasm and the heat of the southern night. A shaggy-haired drummer who sported a T-shirt that read, “I got crabs at Lou’s Crab Shack,” completed the trio. Their sound was more Greg Allman than Donna Summer; nothing at all like the driving beat that had reverberated nightly in Starsky’s head from the over-sized speakers at Swing Shift.
“I don’t know what it is they’re playin’, but I sure like it,” Starsky said, frothy beer in hand.
“It’s called Piedmont b-blues,” Hutch commented with interest from the stool beside him. “It’s quite p-popular in this p-part of the country.”
“You know about that too, huh?”
Hutch sent him a slow, side-eyed look that said, I can’t believe you’re even asking. When it came to music, there was probably little he didn’t know. But he responded with a simple, “Some.”
“Think you can play any of that stuff? Or do you only play in hotel rooms?” It might have been a cheap trick, but Starsky had counted on Hutch’s eyes to light up even before he’d asked. Even more, he’d counted on Hutch showcasing his talents for a more laid-back audience to help heal the wound he’d suffered an hour earlier. A wound that had been inflicted, patched up, then reopened over and over again for years.
The ensemble came to the end of their number and the crowd showed their appreciation with loud claps and shouts. Immediately, Starsky hopped off his bar stool and swaggered up to the guitarist.
“Hey, my buddy over there,” he indicated Hutch with a nod, “thinks he can play that thing better than you.”
“He does, does he?” The musician’s eyes narrowed as he looked Hutch over.
“Your playin’ is nothing compared to what he can do,“ Starsky continued to goad, adding a slur to his words as if he were a bit drunk. “He’s a fuckin’ world-renowned musician.”
“If he’s that good, then send your buddy over here.” The guitarist smirked.
Gratified that his gift for reading people was still intact, Starsky called out, “C’mon up here, Hutch, and show ‘em.”
Hutch paled a bit and grimaced from his seat. His gaze flicked toward the door. He looked as though he were about to head toward it. Some of the bar patrons, however, had become interested in the exchange. The clinking of glassware quieted as someone shouted, “C’mon, buddy. Let’s hear ya play.”
“Whaddya got?” another added.
Hutch looked back and forth from the boisterous crowd to the guitar in the musician’s hand. Above the noise of the bar crowd, Starsky trusted his instincts that Hutch wouldn’t be able to resist the sleek instrument and the ready audience. He held his breath as he watched, practically feeling Hutch’s indecision and desire as his own. Finally, Hutch stood and walked toward the stage area as if drawn by a magnet and Starsky let out a sigh of relief.
The guitarist handed Hutch his guitar and Hutch cradled it against his body like a newborn child. He brushed his fingers over the tight metal strings, testing out their strength and tone, and then nodded his approval to Starsky.
Starsky stepped away to let the crowd focus their attention on Hutch, confident they would appreciate his incredible talents. A few seconds later, Hutch began thumbing a steady bass rhythm as he picked out a lilting, syncopated melody with his fore-fingers. The style was similar to the local musicians’, but Hutch’s picking was more complex and the melody was as smooth as a draw of fine tobacco. He gave the music a sensuality that made Starsky’s hair prickle.
Hutch closed his eyes as if the music was carrying him away from all the pain and loneliness the evening had stirred up. Starsky wished he could float right along with him. Starsky recognized that by offering up his music, Hutch was sharing his heart to a roomful of strangers. The courage that took was breathtaking. Starsky knew now that’s what he wanted, too. To be a part of Hutch’s world. Not only to feel his body but to share his heart.
When Hutch finished playing, the audience rewarded the stranger — who seemed to understand their blues almost better than they did — with hearty applause and even a few whistles. The guitar player gave him a wide, toothy smile and jovial clap on the back as Hutch handed back the guitar. The welcoming response showed that he’d been adopted into the group as one of their own. No pretense. No judgment.
Hutch practically glowed as he stepped away from the makeshift stage and joined Starsky at the bar. Murmurs of appreciation continued after him. When he finished off his beer which had become lukewarm, the matronly bartender promptly replaced it with another one, free of charge.
“This is what you should be doing, Hutch,” Starsky said, indicating the enthusiastic group with a wave of his drink. “This is where you should be. With real people — not a bunch of stuffed shirts.”
The comment caused a shadow to cross Hutch’s face. His lips twisted in a dark smile. “I’ve been t-trained to be a c-classical pianist from the time my f-feet could reach the p-piano p-pedals — even before, I think. It’s the one thing I knew I could d-do well. The one way to p-please my p-parents,” he said, repeating the dogma that had been drummed into him for years.
Hutch didn’t consider his life to be his own. The pain Starsky experienced at the understanding cut like a knife deep in his gut. He could imagine how Hutch felt, himself. Hutch was waging an unending inner battle to accept the unacceptable, all because he thought he deserved punishment for someone else’s idea of failure.
But wasn’t that what I’ve been doing, too? thought Starsky bitterly. Despite his and Hutch’s differences, Starsky sometimes felt that looking at Hutch was like seeing a reflection of his own soul. Starsky was so tired of trying to live someone else’s life.
“You can be whatever you want, you know,” Starsky announced, not knowing if he was addressing Hutch or himself. “You don’t owe anybody anything. And you certainly don’t have to prove your worth to anyone ‘cept yourself.”
Hutch threw him a sideways smirk. “Who’s qu-quoting philosophy now, hot shot?”
Starsky felt his face flush. He’d never been accused of being a deep thinker. Always before, he’d been sought after for his fists and his balls, not his brains. Quick moves were what had kept him going, but he’d only been running in place. Now, it seemed a little intelligence wasn’t such a bad idea. Especially if it made Hutch smile. If it helped Hutch realize he was more valuable than he knew. But most of all, if it made him understand that he deserved to be happy.
He caught their dual images in a mirrored glass that hung above the bar. One dark, one light. Both searching for their true selves. Yeah, Hutch deserved happiness. They both did.
Southern California, December 1976
Starsky leaned back in the worn but comfortable second-hand couch and considered the small aluminum tree he’d just finished decorated with shells and feathers. The affect was surreal, but no less surreal than the way his life had changed over the past months.
On the long drive back to New York after the last concert, when neither he nor Hutch could escape the confines of the moving Galaxie, Starsky had confessed to everything that had been spinning through his head. He figured that if Hutch could own his truth, then he could, too. Starsky wanted, no needed, to be honest for once — to himself as much as to Hutch.
Starsky admitted his attraction to men and how he’d thought it was only because he was so messed up inside. He’d seen his father gunned down in the street and afterwards his family had fallen apart. But he’d come to realize that his feelings weren’t going to disappear, like a balloon let loose in the wind. They were as solid and permanent as concrete and steel. As much a part of him as the curls on his head. And, like Hutch, they didn’t make him any less of a man — just a different kind of one.
Hutch had listened but said little in response. In fact, the silence in the car had been deafening, leaving Starsky with the impression that he might have made an awkward mistake. Starsky held back the final truth — how he felt about Hutch — and changed the subject somewhere around the Virginia state line. He couldn’t expect Hutch to share any reciprocal feelings — one night of drunken declarations aside. He figured they lived in separate worlds whose stars had only momentarily collided.
When they reached the Big Apple on a frosty December night, they had nothing to do but part ways.
Once back in his old turf Starsky wasted no time in saying goodbye to his mother, making use of a good part of his paycheck to buy a plane ticket and heading west. He couldn’t wait to escape the Durniaks of New York and the Fairchilds of the South. It wasn’t that he was running. He just wanted to stop — stop having to prove himself to people who didn’t see the world the way he did or forced him into a mold that didn’t fit.
Outside of Los Angeles, Starsky was lucky enough to have found find a place near the ocean, even though it was barely more than a ramshackle cottage. But at least it had a deck with a view of something other than a tenement building. He’d never thought much about California. It was Hutch who’d put the idea in his head when he talked about the Laurel Canyon music scene and the relaxed, open-mined communities near LA. Those were the conversations that had eventually filled the long hours back to New York. Starsky only wished he could have convinced Hutch to come with him.
With a sigh, Starsky got up from studying the shiny tree and stepped out onto the deck, shielding his eyes with a hand as he scanned the rugged shoreline. He loved to watch the blue expanse of ocean. It reminded him of Hutch — cool and calm one minute, fierce and turbulent the next. And now, with Christmas just a day away, he admitted to himself that while he missed New England’s snow that fell like powdered sugar and the lights of Rockefeller Center, he missed Hutch most of all.
Starsky’s mother had urged him to come back after the New Year in their most recent call. He would one day, but not right now. He still had too many things to work out in his head. He’d taken another job as a bouncer — this time a small folk music club — but had also started toying with the idea of getting certified as a security guard or maybe even a police officer.
The noise of a car engine caused Starsky to shift his gaze from the western horizon and look toward the road. A cab had stopped at Starsky’s drive and a man got out. For a minute, Starsky got a chill up his spine, thinking that it might be Chet or Rocky or any number of Durniak’s cronies, come to drag him back to Swing Shift. But the figure, tall and lean, pulled out what looked like a guitar case along with what was evidently a travel bag. Stunned, Starsky watched the man approach with smooth grace and determination. Starsky figured he’d know that stride anywhere and his heart raced.
Starsky came around to meet him at the front door and fought to calm his breathing. Play it cool, boy. “What are you doing here? Looking for another driver?”
“No. I’ve come to tell you that I’ve quit touring,” Hutch said smoothly.
“Why’s that?” It was hard to focus on what Hutch was saying when all Starsky wanted to do was drink in those drop-dead gorgeous blue eyes. Deeper than any ocean.
“Because you were right. I need to find people who will appreciate me for me. And they’re out there. You showed me that. No more trained poodle.”
Starsky swallowed. “Glad to hear it. But you could have just written a letter. I can read, you know.”
Hutch flushed. “If I gave the impression I thought you were less than intelligent, I’m sorry. Keeping you at a distance was my own form of self-protection.”
“Yes. Now it’s my time for honesty. Because Starsky, from the moment I first saw you walk across that lobby in New York, with your sexy swagger and the devil’s own grin, it wasn’t just your driving skills I was interested in.”
Damn. Was Starsky really hearing this? Or had he taken a swig from the wrong carton?
“You thought you weren’t good enough for me, but the truth was — it was me who wasn’t good enough for you,” Hutch was saying. “Sure, I accepted that I was gay, but I was still ashamed. I let people boss me around and tell me what to do. You don’t do that. You’re always your own man. I should have said something in the car. I can’t say for sure why I didn’t. I guess I just had a lot of thinking to do. Besides,” Hutch’s mouth quirked, “I’d never quite met anyone like you before. After you left, it only took a few hours for me to realize I couldn’t live without you. So I looked up your mother — I have a touch of the detective in me — and found out where you’d gone.”
For once Starsky was speechless, incapable of stringing together any line of bullshit or schmooze. His heart was beating a wild rhythm even a musician like Hutch might not recognize.
“So here I am.” Hutch set down his bag and guitar and opened his arms in a questioning gesture.
“Here you are,” Starsky repeated then blinked. “Say, what happened to your stutter?”
Hutch gave a little lift of his shoulders. “It disappeared. For the time being anyway. I guess that means I’m speaking up for someone, as you once put it. Only this time, it’s me.” Hutch threw a brief look back at the waiting cab. “Uh — I need a place to stay. Can you recommend a good hotel?”
“Fuck hotels. Haven’t we had enough of them?” Starsky suddenly broke free of his trance, grabbed Hutch by the shoulders and planted his lips aggressively on Hutch’s. He tasted warm and firm and full of life. When Hutch returned the kiss with a passion Starsky had dreamed of in a hundred dreams, Starsky thought they both just might burst into flame.
Not caring if the cabbie saw. Not caring if the entire world saw.
“This isn’t an easy life you know,” Hutch reminded Starsky tentatively when they broke apart and he waved the cabbie away. “Are you sure you’re up for it?”
Starsky took Hutch’s palm and pressed it to his tightening crotch, grinning wickedly. “Yeah — I think I’m up for it.” Then he picked up Hutch’s guitar case and they both went into the house.