The Crooked Man – Charles Beaumont

“Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools . . . who changed the truth of God into a lie . . . for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another: men with men working that which is unseemly . . .”
(Si. Paul: Romans, I)

He slipped into a corner booth away from the dancing men, where it was quietest, where the odors of musk and trangipani hung less heavy on the air. A slender lamp glowed softly in the booth. He turned it down; down to where only the club’s blue overheads filtered through the beaded curtain, diffusing, blurring the image thrown back by the mirrored walls of his light thin-boned handsomeness.
“Yes, sir?” The barboy stepped through the beads and stood smiling. Clad in gold-sequined trunks, his greased muscles seemed to toll in independent motion, like fat snakes beneath his naked skin.
“Whiskey,’’ Jesse said. He caught the insouciant grin, the broad white-tooth crescent that formed on the young man’s face. Jesse looked away, tried to control the flow of blood to his cheeks.
“Yes. sir.” the barboy said, running his thick tanned fingers over his solar plexus, tapping the fingers, making them hop in a sinuous dance. He hesitated, still smiling, this time questioningly, hopefully, a smile filled with admiration and desire. The Finger Dance, the accepted symbol since 2648, stopped: the pudgy brown digits curled into angry fists. “Right away, sir.”
Jesse watched him turn; before the beads had tinkled together, he watched the handsome athlete make his way imperiously through the crowd, shaking off the tentative hands of single men at the tables, ignoring the many desire symbols directed toward him.
That shouldn’t have happened, Jesse thought. Now the fellow’s feelings were hurt. If hurt enough, he would start thinking, wondering — and that would ruin everything. No. it must be put right.
He thought of Mina, of the beautiful Mina. It was such a rotten chance; it had to go well!
“Your whiskey, sir,” the young man said. His face was like a dog’s face, large, sad; his lips were a pouting bloat of line.
Jesse reached into his pocket for some change. He started to say something, something nice.
“It’s been paid for,” the barboy said. He scowled and laid a card on the table and left.
The card carried the name E. J. Hodart, embossed, in lavender ink. Jesse heard the curtains tinkle.
“Hello, there! I hope you don’t mind my barging in like this, but — well, you didn’t seem to be with anyone . . .”
The man was small, chubby, bald; his face had a dirty growth of beard and he looked out of tiny eyes encased in bulging contacts. He was bare to the waist. His white, hairless chest drooped and turned in folds at the stomach. Softly, more subtle than the barboy had done, he put his porky stubs of fingers into a suggestive rhythm.
Jesse smiled. “Thanks for the drink,” he said. “But I really am expecting someone.”
“Oh?” the man said. “Someone — special?”
“Pretty special,” Jesse said smoothly, now that the words had become automatic. “He’s my fiance.”
“I see.” The man frowned momentarily and then brightened. “Well, I thought to myself. I said, E. J., you don’t actually think a beauty like that would be unattached, do you?’ But, it was certainly worth the old college try. Sorry.”
‘’Perfectly all right,” Jesse said. The predatory little eyes were rolling, the fingers dancing in one last ditch attempt. “Good evening, Mr. Hobart.”
Jesse felt slightly amused this time: it was the other kind, the intent ones, the humorless ones like the barboy, who revolted him, turned him ill, made him want to take a knife and carve unspeakable ugliness into his own smooth, aesthetic face.
The man shrugged; “Good evening!” and waddled away, crabwise.
Now the club was becoming more crowded. It was getting later and heads full of liquor shook away the inhibitions of the earliest hours. Jesse tried not to watch, but he had long ago given up trying to rid himself of his fascination. So he watched the men together. The pair over in the far corner, pressed close together, dancing with their bodies, never moving their feet, swaying in slow, lissome movements to the music… The couple seated by the bar: one a Beast, the other a Hunter. The Beast old, his cheeks caked hard and cracking with powder and liniments, the perfume rising from his body like steam; the Hunter, young but unhandsome, the fury evident in his eyes, the hurt anger at having to make do with a paid companion, and such an ugly one. From time to time the Hunter would look around, wetting his lips in shame. . . . And those two just coming in, dressed in Mother’s uniforms, tanned, mustached, proud of their station . . .
Jesse held the beads apart. Mina must come soon! He wanted to run from this place, out into the air, into the darkness and silence.
No. He just wanted Mina. To see her, touch her, listen to the music of her voice . . .
Two women came in, arm in arm, Beast and Hunter, drunk. They were stopped at the door. The manager swept by Jesse’s booth, muttering about them, asking why they should want to come to the Phallus when they had their own sections, their own clubs . . .
Jesse pulled his head back inside. He’d become used to the light by now, so he closed his eyes against his multiplied image. The disorganized sounds of love got louder, the sing-song syrup of voices: high-pitched, throaty, baritone, falsetto. It was crowed now. The Orgies would begin before long and the couples would pair off for the cubicles. He hated the place. But close to Orgy-time you didn’t get noticed here; and where else was there to go? Outside, where every inch of pavement was patrolled electronically, every word of conversation, every movement recorded, catalogued, filed?
Damn Knudsen! Damn the little man! Thanks to him, to the Senator, Jesse was now a criminal. Before, it hadn’t been so bad: not this bad, anyway. You were laughed at and shunned and fired from your job, and sometimes kids threw stones at you, but at least you weren’t hunted. Now — it was a crime. It was a sickness.
He remembered when Knudsen had taken over. It had been one of the little man’s first telecasts; in fact, it was the platform that had got him the majority vote:
“. . . Vice is on the upswing in our great city. In the dark corners of every Unit perversion blossoms like an evil flower. Our children are exposed to its stink, and they wonder — our children wonder — why nothing is done to put a halt to this disgrace. We have ignored it long enough! The time has come for action, not mere words. The perverts who infest our land must be flushed out, eliminated completely, as a threat not only to public morals but to society at large. These sick people must be cured and made normal. The disease that throws men and women together in this dreadful abnormal relationship and leads to acts of retrogression — retrogression that will, unless it is stopped and stopped fast, lead us inevitably back to the status of animals — this is to be considered as any other disease. It must be conquered as heart trouble, cancer, polio, all other diseases have been conquered . . .”
The Women’s Senator had taken Knudsen’s lead and issued a similar pronunciamento and then the bill had become law and the law was carried out.
Jesse sipped at his whiskey, remembering the Hunts. How the frenzied mobs had gone through the city at first, chanting, yelling, bearing placards with slogans: “Wipe out the heteros!” “Kill the Queers!” “Make our city clean again!” And how they’d lost interest finally after the passion had worn down and the novelty had ended. But they had killed many and they had sent many more to the hospitals . . .
He remembered the nights of running and hiding, choked dry breath cutting his throat, heart rattling loose. He had been lucky. He didn’t look like a hetero. They said you could tell one just by watching him walk — but Jesse walked correctly. He fooled them. He was lucky.
And he was a criminal. He, Jesse Martin, no different from the rest, tube-born and machine-nursed, raised in the Character Schools like everyone else — was terribly different from the rest.
It had been on his first formal date that he became aware of this difference, that it crystallized. The man had been a Rocketeer, the best high quality, and frighteningly handsome. “Mother” had arranged it, the way he arranged everything. carefully, proving and re-proving that he was worthy of the Mother’s uniform. There was the dance. And then the ride in the space-sled. The big man had put an arm about Jesse and — Jesse knew. He knew for certain and it made him very angry and very sad.
He remembered the days that came after the knowledge: bad days, days fallen upon evil, black desires, deep-cored frustrations. He had tried to find a friend at the Crooked Clubs that flourished then, but it was no use. There was a sensationalism, a bravura to these people that he could not love. The sight of men and women together, too shocked the parts of him he could not change, and disgusted him. Then the vice-squads had come and closed up the clubs and the heteros were forced underground and he never sought them out again or saw them. He was alone.
The beads tinkled.
He looked up, quickly, afraid. Then his fear vanished.
A figure stood outlined against the curtains, quietly. A small, soft, clean figure, a softness there, and a cleanliness, cutting and dissipating the dark asylum of his memories like sudden sunlight, with all the good warmth of sunlight, and all the brightness. Mina.
She wore a loose man’s shirt, an old hat that hid her golden hair: her face was shadowed by the turned lip collar. Through the shirt the rise and fall of her breasts could be faintly detected. She smiled once, nervously.
Jesse looked out the curtain. Without speaking, he put his hands about her soft, thin shoulders and held her like this for a long minute.
“Mina—” She looked away. He pulled her chin forward and ran a finger along her lips. Then he pressed her body to his, tightly, touching her neck, her back, kissing her forehead, her eyes, kissing her mouth.
She pulled her head back and sat down, staring at the table. “Don’t do that, please don’t.” she said.
Jesse opened his mouth, closed it abruptly as the curtains parted.
“Order, sir?’’
“Beer,” Jesse said, winking at the bar boy, who tried to come closer, to see the one loved by this handsome stranger.
“Two beers. Yes, sir.”
The barboy looked at Mina very hard, but she had turned and he could see only the back. Jesse held his breath. The barboy smiled contemptuously then, a smile that said: You’re insane — I was hired for my beauty; I know that I am beautiful, hundreds would be proud to have me, and you turn me down for this bag of bones . . .
Jesse winked again, shrugged suggestively, and danced his fingers: Tomorrow, my friend. I’m stuck tonight. Can’t help it. Tomorrow.
The barboy paused a moment, grinned briefly with understanding, and left. In a few minutes he returned with the beer. “On the house,” he said, for Mina’s benefit. She turned only when Jesse said, softly:
“It’s all right. He’s gone now.”
He looked at her, at the pain in her face, and the fear; hard lines that lied about the love that was between them and had been for all these months. He reached over and took off the hat. Long tresses of blonde hair spilled out splashing over the rough shirt.
She grabbed for the hat. “We mustn’t,” she said. “Please. What if somebody came in?”
“No one will come in. I told you that.”
“But what if someone does? I don’t know. I don’t like it here. That man at the door, he almost recognized me.”
“But he didn’t.”
“Almost, though. And then what?”
“Forget it. Mina, for God’s sake. Let’s not quarrel.”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry, Jesse. It’s only that meeting you like this makes me feel . . .’’
“Dirty.” She spoke the word defiantly, and lifted her eyes to his.
“You don’t really believe that, do you?”
“No. I suppose not: I don’t know, any more.” She hesitated. “Maybe if we could be alone together, I—”
Jesse took out a cigarette and began to use the table lighter. Then he cursed and threw the phallic object under the chair and crushed the cigarette. “You know that’s impossible,” he said. The idea of separate Units for homes had disappeared, of course, to be replaced by giant dormitories. There were no more parks, no country lanes. There was no place to hide at all now, thanks to Senator Knudsen, to the little spearhead of these great new sociological reforms. “This is all we have.” Jesse threw a sardonic look around the booth, with its carved symbols and framed pictures of entertainment stars all naked and leering.
They were silent for a time, hands interlocked on the tabletop. Then the girl began to cry. “I—I can’t go on like this,” she said. “I can’t. Jesse, listen; I came here tonight to tell you—”
“I know. I know how awful it is for you. But what else can we do?” He tried to keep the hopelessness out of his voice.
“We could—’’ the girl started, and seemed to change her mind. “Maybe we should have gone underground with the rest, right at the first.”
“And hide there, like rats?’’ Jesse said.
“We’re hiding here, aren’t we,” Mina demanded, adding, “like rats!”
He sighed. He could not remember seeing her quite so unhappy. Things had never been exactly right, never perfect, because she had always seemed to fight her instincts. Even her affection for him since that first time when he made her admit it, pried it loose from her. But he had thought this could be conquered . . . No; don’t think about it. Think about now, and how beautiful she is, how warm and vibrant and soft.
“It’s necessary,” he said. “Parner is getting ready to crack down. I know, Mina: I work at Centraldome, after all.
In a little while there won’t be any underground. He has a list of names a mile long already.”
Then, suddenly, the girl said. “I love you,” and leaned forward, parting her lips for a kiss. “Jesse. I do.” She closed her eyes. “And I’ve tried to be strong, just like you told me to be. But they wouldn’t leave us alone. They wouldn’t stop. Just because we’re qu. ..”
“Mina! I’ve said it before — don’t ever use that word!” His voice was harsh; he pushed her away. “It isn’t true! We’re not the queers. You’ve got to believe that. Years ago it was normal for men and women to love each other: they married and had children together; that’s the way it was. Don’t you remember anything of what I’ve told you?”
The girl stared downward. “Of course I do. I do, really. But it was such a long time ago.”
“Not so long! Where I work — listen to me — they have books. You know, I told you about books? I’ve read them, Mina. I learned what the words meant from other books. It’s only been since the use of artificial insemination — not even five hundred years ago.”
“Yes,” the girl said, sighing. “I’m sure that’s true.”
“Mina, stop it! We are not the unnatural ones, no matter what they say. I don’t know exactly how it happened — maybe as women gradually became equal to men in every way — or maybe solely because of the way we’re born — I don’t know. But the point is darling, the whole world was like us, once. Even now,” he said, desperately, “look at the animals.”
“Jesse, don’t you dare talk as though we’re like those horrible little dogs and cats and things.”
Jesse took a deep swallow of his drink. He had tried so often to tell her, show her, make her see. But he knew what she thought, really. She thought she was exactly what, the authorities told her she was.
God, maybe that’s how they all think, all the Crooked People, all the “un-normal ones” . . .
The girl’s hands caressed his arms and the touch of them became strange to him. I love you, Mr. Martin, even though you do have two heads . . .
Forget it, he thought. Never mind. She’s a woman, a very satisfying, desirable woman, and she may think you’re both freaks, but you know different, indeed you do, you know she’s wrong, just as they’re all wrong . . .
Or, he wondered, are you the insane person of old days who was insane because he was so sure he wasn’t insane because —
It was the fat man, the smiling masher, E. J. Hobart. But he wasn’t smiling now. Jesse got up quickly and stepped in front of Mina. “What do you want?” he said. “I thought I told you—”
The man pulled a metal identification disk from his trunks. “Vice-squad, my friend,” he said. “Better sit down.”
The man’s arm went out through the curtain and two other men came in, equipped with weapons.
“I’ve been watching you quite a while. Mister,” the man said. “Quite a while.” “Look,” Jesse said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. 1 work at Centraldome and I’m seeing Miss Kirkpatrick here on some business.”
“We know all about that kind of business,” the man said.
“All right — I’ll tell you the truth. I forced her to come here. She didn’t want to, but I—”
“Mister, didn’t you hear me? I said I’ve been watching you. Let’s go.”
One man took Mina’s arm, roughly; the other two began to propel Jesse out through the club. Heads turned. Tangled bodies moved embarrassedly.
“It’s all right,” the fat man said, his white skin glistening with perspiration. “It’s all right, folks. Go on back to whatever you were doing.” He grinned and tightened his grip on Jesse’s wrist.
Mina, Jesse noticed, did not struggle. He looked at her and felt something suddenly freeze into him. She had been trying to tell him something all evening, but he hadn’t let her. Now he knew what he had feared. He knew what she had come to tell him: that even if they hadn’t been caught, she would have submitted to the Cure voluntarily. No more worries then, no more guilt. No more tender moments, either, but wasn’t that a small price to pay, when she could live the rest of her life without feeling shame and dirt? Yes. it was a small price, now that the midnight dives and brief meetings were all they had left.
She did not meet his look as they took her out into the street. He watched her and thought of the past when they had been close, and he wanted to scream.
“You’ll be okay,” the fat man was saying. He opened the wagon’s doors. “They’ve got it down pat now — couple days in the ward, one short session with the doctors; take out a few glands, make a few injections, attach a few wires to your head, turn on a machine: presto! You’ll be surprised.”
The fat officer leaned close. His sausage fingers danced wildly near Jesse’s face.
“It’ll make a new man of you,” he said.
Then they closed the doors and locked them.


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