Imagine you’re a camera perched on the tavern’s dewy overhang, aiming your gaze down at the two men streaming out onto the lamp-lit sidewalk.
The younger one jogs backward toward a throng of trees, waving his scarecrow arms and licking a grin from his teeth. A reckless flush blooms high in his cheeks and he crows, “You gonna keep up, or what?”
Then there’s the broader one: Moseying indulgently across the glistening pavement with his fists balled in the pockets of his shearling coat, he catches up slowly. A sparse half-smile softens the flinty angles of his knifish face.
“You’re a lightweight,” says Shearling, stopping short under the lamp where Scarecrow—a little drunk but mostly just giddy—now balances on top of a bench. Age-wise, the former clocks in at forty, tops; the latter, early-twenties.
“No,” says Scarecrow, “I’m a cheap date.” He pushes off the bench and steps into Shearling’s shadow, leaning in to share the mint on his breath. “And I’m very handsome, and you want to kiss me.”
Shearling grinds gum between his molars in tranquil syncopation with the crickets; with the faint laughter popcorning among the buttery orange tavern lights behind them; with the rise and fall of Scarecrow’s chest. Tourist season came and went months ago, so there’s no one out on the street. Still, Shearling hesitates.
“You’re nervous,” Scarecrow breathes.
“I’m not nervous,” Shearling mutters into Scarecrow’s collar. He asserts his chin derisively, but a good-humored crease at the corner of his eye betrays him.
Scarecrow chuckles hoarsely. “You’re in the closet, then, right?” He half-steps back towards the bench, tugging Shearling by the hem of his coat.
Shearling cooperates. “Why do you say that?”
“Because your profile is far too dreamboat-bachelor to be real: ‘Liam, thirty-eight, Libra,’” Scarecrow rattles off. “’Pagosa Springs born and bred; likes lifting, running, and giving you free ski lessons, if you’re cute.’Come on—stiff, bottled-up guy like you?You’ve got married lacrosse coach written all over you.”
Shearling tilts back to squint at Scarecrow, exposing the thick flesh under his chin. The sputtering lamp pitches murky shadows across his throat, under his nose. There’s no one around.
Shearling murmurs, “I’m not in the closet.”
“You know, I wouldn’t care if you were,” Scarecrow says. He pulls Shearling in.
Imagine you’re a camera nestled among the branches above, aiming your gaze down at the two men pressed together like velcro against the bench.
The younger one reaches to meet the other’s searching hips.
The broader one draws back.
“Wait,” Shearling says. He glances left; then, right. A car drowses past the tavern, then disappears. There’s no one around. Still, he drops his head and clears his throat.
“Maybe you’re not ready,” says Scarecrow. “Let’s go back for another drink?” A dark cloud of pride crosses Shearling’s brow, and Scarecrow says quickly, “My buzz might be starting to wear off. Please?”
Shearling blinks. His jaw works restlessly, and he blinks again. Then: “Yeah.” The deep crease across his brow softens. He rolls his shoulders. “Yeah, sure. Another drink.”
His fists go back in his pockets as he guides Scarecrow back towards the light and the safety of the street.
“For the record,” Shearling says, “I’m divorced. But—” He bumps Scarecrow’s shoulder as they cross back to the sidewalk—“who knows if I gave you a fake name, huh?”
Imagine you’re a camera crouched between the Johnnie Walker and the Laphroaig on the pub’s dusty top shelf, aiming your gaze down at the two men drifting back into the humid orange fishbowl.
The broader one, shrugging off his coat, shoulders through a sweating crush of off-season locals toward a scarred corner of the bar. He reaches behind him to take the hand pressed to his back, and a wash of color climbs up his neck as he grunts, “You good, back there?”
Then there’s the younger one: Floating behind his date, he allows himself to be led by the hand like a kite through the crowd. When they reach the end of the counter and he’s released, Scarecrow leans dreamily and watches Shearling hunker down at a stool.
Shearling, nonplussed, lifts his brow. “You gonna sit down, or what?”
So Scarecrow sits, beaming, and Shearling buys their whiskey.
They put their heads together and all they do is talk. If you were that hypothetical camera, you couldn’t pick up any conversation between them. Friday nights still bring business in the off-season, and the press of guys and girls obscure the unremarkable pair hunched at the end of the counter. But if you were really looking, you could spy them jostling each other at the thigh; nudging shoulders; reaching in turns to scratch the scruff at the nape of the other’s neck.
And when a larger group bubbles in through the front door, ratcheting up the volume, Scarecrow angles his mouth toward Shearling’s ear and they get to their feet.
Unless you’d been watching them all along, you wouldn’t even notice them slip out to the smokers’ patio, nor would you catch Scarecrow’s fingers pressing the small of Shearling’s back.
Imagine you’re a camera clipped on top of the fire exit, aiming your gaze down at the two men edging under the dripping gutters toward the furthest corner of the cramped, fenced-in patio.
A scattering of smokers freckle the four wrought iron tables boxed in the space. Rusting chairs squeal against the cracked flagstone as the smokers pull out to sit, shift, light up, leave. Leaning into the inky cover of a corner alcove, Shearling cradles his tumbler of scotch and watches Scarecrow light his cigarette.
Scarecrow releases a drag and watches right back. “So, do you bring a lot of Grindr dates here?” Teasing, but not-teasing. Both.
“I don’t do a lot of…” Shearling lifts his tumbler, glances into the scotch, then sets it on the nearest table. “…you know, this.”
“I might be flattered to hear that.”
Shearling lets himself soften. “And what about you?”
“What about me?”
The last of the other smokers—a round-shouldered beanpole and his date, a dumpy older woman—heave off their chairs and amble back into the tavern.
“Well,” Shearling says, pushing off the wall, “how much of your profile was real? ‘Ambrose, twenty-four, grad student home for summer break,’” he recites. “It’s almost October, shouldn’t you be getting back?”
He flirts like he’s done it his whole life.
“You want me to go?” Scarecrow hooks a thumb over his shoulder. “Should I leave, ‘Liam, thirty-eight’?”
“Yes.” Shearling pulls Scarecrow in by the waist. “You should go.”
Scarecrow chuckles, grasping for the ashtray, dropping his cigarette on a chair instead. They kiss.
Shearling tilts back a few inches. “You know, your hair was longer in your pictures.” He half-grins at the top of Scarecrow’s head; reaches up to ruffle Scarecrow’s peach fuzz. “Look at you; you look like a fucking lamb after a date with the clippers.”
“Rub it, why don’t you? It’s good luck.”
This time it’s smoke between them, smoke peppering Scarecrow’s breath and smoke clinging to his long, spindly hand, the heel pressing Shearling’s jaw, the thumb grazing Shearling’s ear. Scarecrow’s other hand snatches Shearling’s lapel, pulling him into the kiss chest-first, while his pelvis pushes into Shearling’s, easing them both deeper into the shadows of the alcove.
The tavern spits a pair of staccato voices out onto the patio before Shearling can finish unbuckling Scarecrow’s belt. As the men’s voices settle at the table furthest from the alcove, Shearling and Scarecrow tussle, laughing silently and trying to goad the other into making a noise, until one of the new voices goes, “Look what Currant texted me.” Then Shearling goes very still. He grips Scarecrow’s wrists tight against his chest.
As the first voice turns over a gravelly cough, a second voice narrates: “Surprise, surprise. Just saw Becker cruising out in the park, l-m-a-o.” He spells out the acronym dryly. “You could spot that stupid coat across a football field.”
Shearling’s vise grip clenches around Scarecrow’s wrists and pulls him deeper into the shadows. Scarecrow chews his lip and glances at Shearling’s collar. Their eyes meet.
From around the corner comes the curt shnick of a lighter. Deep whooshing inhale, then the second voice tight as it eases out of its drag: “Jesus, why’s he still doing that?”
The first voice, hoarsely: “Way I see it: you get caught—on the job, of all places—what’ve you got to risk anymore, not covering your shit?” A loaded pause. “Gimme back my phone, would you?”
The second voice: “First lemme ask Currant if he busted our old buddy.”
“Fuck that, come on. You wanna slap a fine on a prick who’s watched his marriage and his pension go down the tubes? Does he even got a job now?”
Back in the shadows, Shearling’s sudden spasm releases Scarecrow’s wrists. Shearling’s chest rises and falls evenly, hot breath blasting from his taut nostrils in the blackness between them. Scarecrow looks down and frets his lip more urgently; fingers the buttons of Shearling’s coat, smooths a fold.
Out on the patio, the second voice grumbles: “Sure, you’re right.” A phone screen locks: click. “Waste of a good fucking cop, though.”
A chair screeches away from the table, then a muffled shoulder clap. “A lesson to all of us,” says the first voice. “Turn off your fucking body cam before you do something you’re not supposed to.”
Another chair shrills across the flagstones, and one of the cops hawks a dreg of phlegm. Shearling squeezes his eyes shut; Scarecrow says nothing. The second voice rambles away: “Currant says our buddy was gone by the time he circled back around the park, but he got some other guys by the bathrooms. You think he’ll get off before last call?”
Then the voices are gone. If you were a camera clipped on top of the fire exit, aiming your gaze down at the two bodies hidden together in the shadow of the corner wall, you would think the sound cut out from the transmission altogether. Then you would start to pick up the gutter weeping its ration of yesterday’s rain; the ping-pong of bar chatter sailing from the back window; the long, bristling sigh from the man rubbing his scarecrow arms. You’d swear you could even hear the one in the shearling coat, his molars grinding in discordant syncopation with the fists clenching and unclenching at his sides.
“You know—” Scarecrow starts. He falters. Then he clears his throat, begins again: “You know, I did lie on my profile.”
With a harsh sniff, Shearling barricades himself behind his thick arms and glances over at the tables. “About what?”
“I dropped out of school. Months ago. It was getting too hard and I just thought, fuck it. Why am I doing this? I’m not happy.”
Shearling says nothing.
And Scarecrow presses on, gently: “I only didn’t say earlier because I really liked you. And I wanted you to like me too. Isn’t that crazy?”
Shearling hugs himself, blinking hard and dragging a palm down his brow, his nose, his chin. “I really don’t mind,” he croaks. The transmission flickers. “And I guess I like you too.”
A beat passes. Scarecrow says, “Do you think you can forgive me for being such a big wuss?”
Shearling chuckles wetly and hugs himself tighter. “Yeah, of course I can. Are you kidding me?”
Scarecrow reaches over and pulls Shearling’s arms away. “Do you want to get out of here, then?”
Shearling heaves a sigh, glancing up at the orbit of moths chasing one another around the lamp overhead. The feed falters again. Then he says, “Yeah. Let’s go, come on.”
“Okay.” Scarecrow brushes ash from Shearling’s lapel, then tugs his date out into the light. He says, “My name really is Ambrose, though.”
“Mine’s Liam, too.”
The transmission winks out entirely.