As they headed out for Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the site of Hutch’s next concert, Starsky didn’t apologize for his blow-up of the night before and Hutch didn’t mention it. Instead, Starsky kept his focus on the road ahead while Hutch hunkered in the back seat of the Galaxie with his nose buried in a book.
Let him stew, thought Starsky. I’m not going to spend this whole trip coddling a temperamental artist. I got my own problems to deal with.
The scenery flew by mile after mile, with each man alone with his thoughts. Starsky cataloged the various state license plates in his head and took in how the busy cities morphed into peaceful rolling hills. The change in landscape mirrored the settling of his troubled thoughts, the way he was usually able to scramble his way back up after getting dragged down. It was one of his better qualities.
Twenty miles outside of Harrisburg, Starsky decided his biggest problem at the moment was his growling stomach. “I’m pulling off to get some lunch. I assume that’s okay with you.”
Starsky pulled off the exit without waiting for Hutch’s acquiescence and followed signs to a diner a few miles down the road. Several trucks in the parking lot told him the place met the approval of people who made their living on the road fueled by a hearty, hot meal. A good sign.
Starsky and Hutch took opposite seats at one of the vinyl-covered booths and picked up the laminated menus on the table. The entrees included chicken pot pie, meatloaf, and cabbage rolls. Beneath the list of sandwiches was a note that fries could be exchanged for potato chips for an additional charge of fifty cent.
All of it looked good to Starsky. He glanced over his menu to see if Hutch had found anything to his liking, but Hutch wasn’t looking at the menu. His eyes were focused a few tables over to where a young man with shoulder-length hair and a tie-dyed t-shirt sat alone, hungrily devouring a soup and salad combo. A peace symbol swung from a leather thong around his neck as he ate.
Probably on a break from one of those liberal arts colleges, Starsky thought. A psychology student or poet. Passing through a town he didn’t fit in, or working his way out of it.
Two men wearing uniform shirts stretched over middle-aged spreads got up from the table next to the hippie. One of the men, whose name patch read “Stan,” wiped his mouth on his paper napkin, then let the scrap fall carelessly on the table. He reached out a hand and tugged at the hippie’s hair as he walked past.
The hippie jerked at the unexpected breach of his physical boundary and his spoon dropped in his soup.
“I was just checking to see if you were a guy or a girl,” Stan taunted and his partner, “Bud,” leered. “It’s getting hard to tell these days.”
The hippie leaned away but said nothing. He picked his spoon back up and tried to resume eating, doing his best to ignore the pair.
Bud, however, was not to be ignored. He reached for the hippie’s peace symbol. “You’re probably one of those draft dodgers,” he said. “A bunch of pansies if you ask me.”
The young man’s face flushed as he trained his eyes on his soup, continuing to resist Stan and Bud’s provocation. The peace sign must have meant more to him than just a piece of jewelry.
Starsky doubted it was the first time the kid had been harassed. Starsky had seen lots of Stans and Buds. Big guys with small brains who got their kicks from antagonizing anyone who was different. In New York, it was the Jews or the Italians, outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, it was a lone hippie who wanted to make love, not war.
Starsky considered speaking up to defend the kid, but this wasn’t his turf. Not that that fact alone stopped him, but he had Hutch to think of. He doubted Hutch would appreciate him causing a scene. Possibly having the police called and getting a lot of unwanted publicity. Up until now, Hutch had seemed the unobtrusive type. The kind to keep his head down and avoid trouble. Starsky couldn’t blame him. People lived longer that way.
On the other hand, sometimes Starsky couldn’t keep his mouth shut. It was the old, ingrained habit of rooting for the underdog — defending the defenseless — that he’d picked up from his pop. A drive that he seemed to identify with more and more. Starsky was starting to rise from his seat when he heard a voice say in a low, even tone, “Leave the kid alone.” He was half-surprised it wasn’t his own, but Hutch had beaten him to it.
Starsky looked up at Hutch and was amazed by his cool expression and crystalline eyes. A tough customer if ever he saw one. And he’d seen plenty. Starsky hadn’t missed that Hutch’s words came out smooth as silk either, without a single stutter. It was hard to believe this was the same man who rarely spoke other than to lecture, craved privacy when not onstage, then played his best music in solitude. Or maybe Hutch had him fooled the whole time. But Starsky had known from the first that there was more to Hutch than met the eye. And didn’t performing a complex concerto in front of hundreds of judgmental strangers take as much nerve as speaking up for one peace-loving hippie?
“What’s it to you, blondie?” Stan aimed his oniony breath Hutch’s way.
“He’s not bothering anyone. Let him eat his lunch in peace,” Hutch replied.
Shit, thought Starsky as Stan’s attention shifted from the subdued hippie to them. An ugly grin formed on Stan’s face and Starsky’s sixth sense tingled. The guy was eager for a fight. Starsky could practically smell it along with the onions. Maybe he’d just gotten his third traffic ticket or caught his wife cheating and thought throwing his weight around in a quiet, family diner would make him feel like a big man. Considering the trucker’s oafish demeanor, if Stan’s wife wascheating on him, Starsky couldn’t blame her. Stan was like a gorilla in a work shirt. Cancel that, he thought again. That comparison only gave gorillas a bad name.
Stan strode over to their table and glowered at Hutch, with Bud a step behind. A double side of greasy beef. The two waitresses took their opportunity to slip behind the glass pie display. Another customer stepped out of the restroom but quickly turned around and went back in.
“We don’t like his kind around here,” Stan spat out.
“What do you even know about his kind?” Hutch asked in a darkly withering tone. Then he looked past them as he took a sip of water from his glass.
Whether Stan took offense to Hutch’s questioning his intelligence or the dismissive sip of water, Starsky didn’t have the time to determine. Stan reached over the table and made a grab for Hutch. But the grab Starsky made was faster. He sprung up and yanked hard at the back of Stan’s cheap cotton collar.
Stan jerked back from the force, his whole body livid with rage.
Starsky was ready for the fist Stan swung at him. He dodged left and swung back, connecting firmly with Stan’s cheekbone. It wasn’t all that difficult. Stan might have had forty pounds on Starsky, but he also had twenty years of sitting behind the wheel of a truck, while Starsky was fresh from the streets and graced with the moves of an alley cat, besides. Stan stumbled from the well-aimed blow and into Bud who fell into the table behind him, sending silverware skittering to the floor.
“Come on, Hutch, let’s get out of here.” Starsky knew the police would be arriving shortly and sticking around to answer a bunch of questions from the boys in blue would only make them late for Harrisburg.
Hutch tossed a few dollars on the hippie’s table, then followed Starsky out of the diner and back to the Galaxie. Starsky imagined Hutch had given the young man an encouraging smile along with the bills. A smile that would take him a long way.
Starsky wordlessly put the car in gear and quickly got onto the westbound highway. Despite what had happened in the restaurant, he anticipated a repeat of their previously silent drive. His employer wasn’t long on explanations. So Starsky thought he might have been hearing things when the words, “Thanks for having my back,” came from behind him. But Starsky responded, “You’re welcome,” just in case.
Yeah, Hutch had lots of sides to him. Starsky doubted he’d ever understand them all. “If you’d gotten beat up by those goons, you wouldn’t be able to get on that stage tonight. And I would have lost my meal ticket. I didn’t even get a chance to try the meatloaf. What were you trying to do anyway?” asked Starsky, as if he didn’t already know.
“The only thing n-necessary for the triumph of evil is for g-good men to do nothing,” Hutch said, the stutter reappearing.
“Pretty fancy words.”
“That’s not me. That’s Edmund B-Burke.”
“Edmund Burke. He was a p-political philosopher from the seventeen hundreds. A little education g-goes a long way, you know.”
“Funny — I don’t think Stan and his pal were all that interested in discussin’ philosophy.”
Starsky’s point was made and Hutch retreated back into silence.
Hutch’s itinerary called for them to stay in Harrisburg for a few more days before moving on to their next gig in Baltimore. Starsky used his free time to explore Harrisburg’s local hangouts, trying out a few of the local bars and shooting hoops at a neighborhood basketball court. He even stopped in at the Civil War Museum (as Hutch’s words “…education goes a long way” echoed in his head). It wasn’t as boring as he’d thought it might be. Skimming through a dog-eared textbook was nothing like coming face to face with the artifacts left behind by people who’d been treated as less than human, as well as those who’d sacrificed to change that.
Meanwhile, Hutch stayed holed up in his hotel room when not at the piano, with only his books and guitar for company. Starsky knew next to nothing about concert tours, but he thought it would have been nice for one of the many classical music enthusiasts who lauded Hutch on stage to invite him for dinner. So, although Hutch leaned more toward health food, Starsky found himself picking up a pizza with extra everything and a six-pack of beer and carrying it all up to Hutch’s room one evening.
Pungent smells of garlic and onion hung in the hotel hallway as Starsky knocked on Hutch’s door. It took a few minutes for Hutch, wearing loose cotton pants and an open robe to answer it. Starsky didn’t miss the look of surprised pleasure on Hutch’s face before he masked the expression. He also didn’t miss the half empty bottle of Crown Royal and plastic tumbler sitting on the dresser, along with the guitar out its case next to the bed.
“What’s this?” asked Hutch brusquely, making a show of irritation that his solitude was being disturbed.
“A pizza. Thought we’d share.”
“Who said I wanted p-p…”
“No one turns down pizza,” Starsky finished for him and stepped into the room before Hutch had a chance to close the door. “You wouldn’t be human if you did.” Starsky set the pizza box and six-pack down on the small round table that served as the room’s dining table or work station. When he flipped open the lid of the box, the smells that had been following him in the hall filled the room with full force.
“Hmmmmm,” Starsky moaned appreciatively.
“I don’t have any p-plates.”
“We’ll have to make do, the same way you did with that glass,” Starsky said, with a nod toward the tumbler. “You’ve made pretty good use of it tonight, haven’t you?”
Hutch’s eyes flashed. “That’s none of your business,” he snapped.
Starsky was unfazed. “Seein’ as how I’m responsible for you — at least for the next few weeks anyways — gettin’ shit-faced alone in your room every night kind of is my business. Besides, my ma always said drinkin’ alone wasn’t good for you.” He spun one of the table’s two chairs around and straddled it. “Mind if I join you?” Starsky snapped open a beer and taking a quick swig without waiting for — or expecting — an answer.
“I believe we’ve already determined that we c-came from very d-different families.” Hutch reached for the bottle of whisky and refilled his cup as Starsky pulled out a triangle of pizza, lifted it deftly to his mouth and bit in deeply. “Happy f-families are all alike,” Hutch commented as he watched. “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Starsky looked at Hutch expectantly, his mouth full.
“Tolstoy,” Hutch supplied.
Starsky swallowed. “Enough with the philosophy already. Just eat some pizza. It’s one of life’s simple pleasures. You can put that down as ‘Starsky’s philosophy.’” He gave Hutch a wink.
Hutch said nothing in response, but his gaze softened somewhat. Reluctantly, he took a seat across from Starsky. He set down his drink and carefully separated a wedge of pizza, wary of the oozing cheese.
Starsky nodded at him encouragingly. “Go on. It’s good. I didn’t know what you might like on it, so I got one with everything.” Starsky grinned as he watched Hutch bite into the pizza and a dollop of sauce dripped onto his chin. “What did I tell ya?”
Hutch licked his lips then wiped his chin delicately with a napkin. “It’ll do.”
Starsky devoured three more pieces and finished off a beer before he nodded to the guitar propped up against the bed. “I heard you playin’ the other night. Sounded pretty good. Do your fans know about your secret?”
Hutch choked on his pizza. He washed it down with the contents of the tumbler and set the empty cup down hard. If the plastic had been more substantial, it would have made a loud bang rather than a modest thump. Then Hutch got up and stalked over to look out the window. Starsky didn’t think Hutch realized how his reflection was caught in the dark glass. He knew Hutch enough by now to know he wouldn’t have wanted anyone to see the desolation etched on his face.
Looks like I touched a nerve. Maybe playing a mean guitar wasn’t Hutch’s only secret. What was it that caused him to stay hidden away when he wasn’t on stage? His public persona was someone other than this tortured soul who quoted poets and philosophers, who stood up for outsiders against the odds, and got drunk alone. What was it he had said a few nights ago? That he was a disappointment?
Starsky walked over to the bed and lifted up the guitar. “Play me somethin’,” Starsky said quietly, offering him the instrument.
Hutch turned back to Starsky and looked at the guitar like an addict being offered a hit — not wanting to take it but knowing he would, and knowing it would bring relief. Hutch’s left hand curled tightly around the long neck as he pulled the guitar’s body to himself. His long fingers positioning themselves along the frets instinctively as the fingers of his other hand began to pluck at the strings creating a melodic line that was painful yet beautiful.
Starsky found himself caught up in the music but soon felt a familiar prickling of danger and fought to break the spell Hutch was casting over him. “That’s great, Hutch, but don’t you got somethin’ a little more upbeat?” If I wanted to feel sad, I’d go look at my bank account. How about something we could tap our toes to. A little Beach Boys or CCR.”
Hutch paused. “I don’t usually take requests,” he said dryly.
“I don’t usually do a lot of things either, but here I am. So quit stallin.’ Or else I’ll take the pizza and leave.”
“Is that a promise?”
Starsky got up to gather up the pizza box in the pretense of a huff, but before he could close the lid Hutch broke into the introductory bars of Ventura Highway, a song Starsky recognized right off. He stopped going through the motions of cleaning up and Hutch sang out a clear tenor voice:
Chewing on a piece of grass
Walking down the road
Tell me, how long you gonna stay here, Joe?
Some people say this town don’t look
Good in snow
You don’t care, I know*
When Hutch reached the chorus, Starsky joined in, adding “do-be-do” sound effects.
They both looked at each other and grinned. Starsky could swear he felt an electric current jump between them. “And he sings, too,” he teased when they got to the end of the song. “Not half bad, but I’ve been known to carry a tune myself.”
“Was that n-noise you singing?” asked Hutch. “I thought there was c-cat with its tail caught in a t-trap outside.”
Starsky might have knocked him in the head for the jibe but for the fact that Hutch was finally smiling. And Hutch’s smile was a glorious thing. It had a luminescence that lit up his entire face, making his features even more appealing, his blue eyes even bluer. Starsky did his best to ignore the alarm bells they set off.
Hutch followed up Ventura Highway with the Eagles Take it Easy, Here Comes the Sun from the Beatles, and a couple of Neil Diamond songs, with Starsky chiming in after “good times never felt so good.” And while he was singing, he didn’t stutter once.
When Hutch finally set his guitar down, he seemed a different person — relaxed, happy. The shadows that always seemed to engulf him had been pushed aside for the time being.
“If you ever decided to take a break from the piano, I bet you could make a decent living slinging a guitar,” said Starsky. “You never smile like that after a concerto.”
“What? And give p-people something else to b-be horrified by?”
“Why do you keep sayin’ stuff like that? Your music makes people happy.”
“My music, yes. It’s just me that d-doesn’t. Not the real m-me, anyway. Only the K-Kenneth Hutchinson who d-dresses up like a b-bellhop, plays Mozart by rote like a trained lapdog, then d-discreetly disappears. The real me scares them. Hell, the real me scares m-me.”
It was a curious statement. Starsky found himself reaching over to touch Hutch on the arm. “I guess it’s good that I don’t scare so easy.”
Hutch gave him a curious look. “That’s why I hired you,” he said. “But I think I better turn in now. Tomorrow’s going to be a long day.”
Baltimore, with its sprawling neighborhoods and bustling commercial port, dwarfed Harrisburg. The boisterous city was filled with working class people of all nationalities — a great place for drinking beer, eating seafood, and catching an Orioles game. After the bucolic Harrisburg, Baltimore felt as welcoming as a second home to Starsky. That was, until he went to check the piano that had been set up on stage for Hutch. When he propped up the cover, he pulled out a ragged scrap of paper that had been stuck between the strings. On it was written, “Go home fag.”
Fag. Seeing the terse words felt like being slapped in the face. The ominous note must have been meant for Hutch. Starsky took a staggering step backward. It was all starting to make sense now — the topic Hutch had been avoiding. Hutch was gay. And the secret had somehow slipped out and put his tour in jeopardy. Gays weren’t exactly welcomed everywhere with open arms. That was why someone like Ken Hutchinson had hired someone like David Starsky. Who had left the note there? A member of the stage crew, most likely. Someone they counted on to have their backs but who choose to bait Hutch instead.
Anger flared within Starsky like a lit match. Starsky never needed to use name calling to make a statement. That was a cheap and cowardly trick. If he had a bone to pick with someone, he’d damn well tell them straight.
What was it that made people fear or even hate homosexuals? In Starsky’s old neighborhood gays were ostracized like lepers. Right after they were beaten up, that is. But what about Starsky’s own dark fantasies? He’d always thought they were the result of a violent and troubled childhood. It had left him unsuitable to love even as sexual desires threatened at times to overwhelm him. Like when he watched Hutch on stage or listened to him play guitar late at night. He’d grow hot as he imagined them touching each other.
Would it be so horrible to admit? Starsky had heard in other places like San Francisco and Miami homosexuality was becoming more accepted as another expression of love. An emotion as elusive to him as a winning lottery ticket — and just as much of a wasted effort thus far.
Starsky felt a chill as he recalled how Durniak’s lips would curl as he growled about unsavory characters doing unspeakable acts. He didn’t want their kind at Swing Shift. But Hutch was far from unsavory. In fact, Hutch would make Joe Durniak look like a pig who’d rolled in muck, thought Starsky. Besides, if Hutch was gay, it wasn’t any of Starsky’s business. Someone like him could never be interested in a hood like Starsky. His only concern was getting Hutch from one gig to the next, he told himself firmly. That’s all. He crumpled the paper in his fist.
“What’s that?” Hutch asked, coming up behind him.
Starsky stuffed the note in his pocket. Ever since their impromptu jam session, Hutch had been more relaxed around him, easier to talk to during their long car rides. The change in Hutch’s mood had made the time go by more enjoyably. Hutch had a quick wit and a wide range of knowledge. He could actually be fun to be with, although he made terrible choices when it came to restaurants and didn’t always appreciate Starsky’s jokes.
“Nothing,” Starsky said, forcing his voice to stay light. “Is this piano going to be okay for you?”
The deflection did the trick. Hutch turned his attention to the piano, an older and seemingly more worn down instrument than they’d been provided at other venues. He stepped forward to run his hands over the keys and played a quick arpeggio, as he did each time he checked over a new piano. The tone was lovely, but even to Starsky’s ears something seemed off.
Starsky watched Hutch’s face and noted the tight line around his lips. “You want me to say something?” he asked. “Tell’ em we need a better piano, maybe?”
“No,” Hutch said carefully. “This will be f-fine.”
Maybe. Maybe not, Starsky thought. Funny how the only one Hutch didn’t seem to stand up for was himself.