Roaring Camp

Off base and in the bars, or crowding the rails in the opera house, the Gentlemen are on the hunt for somewhere to sleep. War is come, but not—quite—yet, and they are flash in their uniforms, the clever, the canny, the old hands among them camouflaged in civvies, wary of the tigers that prowl the streets, that slink in through the kitchen door just long enough for the word to spread and the less wise to scatter.

They pass messages through the jukebox, sometimes through titles, sometimes through lyrics: heaven for two, why don’t you do right, jolene, jolene. They are scrutinized by the other patrons, the locals, the townies: what do they know, and when do they know it? None of them are from this town, all of them are suspect.

Later, scattered to the winds, they send letters through the military post, always one step ahead or behind the censors. Change the names, change the dates, change the places; nothing as formal and as breakable as a code, but all sly allusions, sidelong slang. If you know, you know. Meanwhile, the Army, off on completely the wrong track, prohibited soldiers from using any Xs at the end of their letters because ‘the number and arrangement of kisses might constitute a code.’

Handkerchiefs On A Washing Line

One is a puddle on the floor, and has been for some time; that fleeting glance was all too much. Not a talker, the other has been silent now for long minutes without occasioning comment, lost in his drink and his mortification, the red rim of the solo cup white where he’s flexed it. Nerves.

The Gentlemen run conversations in their heads, dream of humming some song as they pass in the street and seeing some stranger head prick up and swivel knowingly toward them. Beyond speaking, what they imagine is that moment of knowing, of being known, of passing a code openly and without possibility of interception.

The Gentlemen ever meet thus, in crowded rooms, in restaurants during the busy time, without speaking, without acknowledgement. They circle around each other nonetheless, tethered together like planets, like stars, like galaxies and black holes, carving through space as a single unbreakable system.

Mustering Out

The Gentlemen are past their time, scattered to the winds, driven into the hills and wild places to fill their mouths and bellies with thistles and sour grass. Spent cartridges, they were never meant to live so long—the peace of the city and the glamour of its streets is sustained through annual, monthly, daily sacrifice, hours and minutes digging little hooked knives into their flesh in search of their hearts.

Nevertheless, they persist. Some are barnacled into the truss of the city, but most are in exile, so many lonely Daedaluses still creating, still inventing codes in empty rooms. Some few live together, but most are strangers to each other, known only and intermittently through an old overheard passphrase, a pair of dusty hats switched in a late night restaurant, a bandaged finger and a memorial carnation marking the ambered cruelty of survival. 

No one will come for them, alas, no poison in the ale, no prick of poinard on a foreign subway station. Whatever secrets they hold are long dead and gone, dust gathered on a featureless plinth raised in a forgotten city park. The Gentleman raise tribute to each other, and count the passing days.

War is Fought by the Poor

for Amy

It is fall and the Ladies are alone with themselves again, alone in a half-empty city with distant reports of war. It is cold, and they have swaddled themselves in lengthy coats and sturdy gloves; good wool and strong leather, materials that last.

Each morning, some few of the Ladies rise from the windows and take flight to the front. They perch in the trees overlooking the battle lines, long coats hanging down, watching owlishly through their lorgnettes as the war moves back and forth, moving now six feet this way, now seven feet that.

They take to the skies again when the shadows have tinted the leaves gray and cross over to the other side. Their knives of glass are sharp, sharp; their coats sweep their feet from the ground. They visit the enemy tents in the evening, leave some piece of their own silence behind, here and there.

They like moonless nights, and full moon nights. The air is chill, the sky is wide, the Ladies are free-moving.

Home again, they shiver in the cafes, wrap bloodless hands around watery coffee, tell tales of what they have seen. The war continues.

Unmarried Men

The Gentlemen circle up, against themselves. They turn broad, uncommunicative backs to the pacing hyenas. It is dark, beyond the fountains, beyond the broad-leafed trees, beyond the soft and shifting glow of the unused pool.

They prowl their cage, room to empty room, drinks in hands, eyes clouded with too much smoke and earnestness. They wear paper hearts on paper sleeves; bleached by stage lighting, stained with cold cut oil, they have spoken only to each other for days and weeks. They speak of women in coded phrases: loyalty, they say, the most special girl, beautiful beyond speech, treasures piled on treasures.

Drunks, they are drunks, and snobbish about their drinking: too much, like too little, is bad. They like a little blood with their whiskey: red blood and oak casks.

Outside, hyenas and foxes, and miles and miles of empty earth.