JOE AND THE HUSTLER BY BRAD S.
The following was published in the NAMBLA Bulletin Volume XXII No. 3 (September 2002), pp. 22-26. No indication was given as to whether or not it was a true story, though the use of Brad as the name of both protagonist and author is suggestive of a claim to autobiography.. The images, besides the cover of the issue in which it appeared, all accompanied the original.
My mother always said I was a sweet little boy. I still have no idea what she meant. I was selfish, egotistical, and pragmatic. I decided very early that adults never meant what they said, and didn’t really expect to be believed. The game was to pretend to go along with whatever they said, then do what I wanted when they weren’t looking.
Adults were large, blocky objects that had no real relevance to me. Some were parent-shaped, and therefore annoying; some were stranger-shaped thus unimportant. In-between were teacher shapes, doctor shapes, policeman shapes, and all the other shapes adults came in. They weren’t people. They were obstacles to work around.
They didn’t know anything about the real me. They knew what I looked like, what I ate, and whether or not I’d done my homework, but that wasn’t me. They knew my favorite color, what sports I played, and where I was most ticklish, but that wasn’t me, either. They knew a thousand irrelevant things that weren’t me.
They were so stupid. It was summer, I was eleven, and I knew everything.
However, adults had one thing I didn’t - money. I wanted to find a way to change that, which is why I got to know Joe.
Joe was the local neighborhood pervert. Kid whispered his name in school, and told stories that I thought had to be complete fabrications. That didn’t make the stories any less interesting or the possibilities any less intriguing, so one day I decided to go say hello and find out the truth.
I didn’t really believe adults knew anything about sex - that was something my friends and I had invented. So what did Joe want? Why was he always on his porch, right there across the street from the park where we usually played, watching the boys? With binoculars? I figured I could charm him out of a dollar or two without much trouble.
He was old. Ancient. Maybe as old as fifty. I told the other kids I was going to get to know him, and they said I was crazy. Don’t go over there! What if he grabs you? I laughed at them. He’s old. I’ll kick him and run away.
My friends stood in a helpless cluster, safe on the park’s side of the street, and watched me march up to Joe’s house. Old Joe. Joe the Mo. Hi, Joe. Whatcha doin’, Joe? I climbed three steps up into the enclosed porch and said “Hi.”
“Hello, young man,” he said gravely. I realized there must be some age well past fifty, and he was it. His skin was wrinkly and pale, his hair was iron gray, and his nose and ears were huge. He sat in a chair facing the street, with a checkered blanket around his legs, even though it was hot out. The famous binoculars were nowhere in sight. He had a book on his lap. He put a marker in the book and folded it slowly. “May I help you?”
Now that I was here, all my ideas seemed dumb. But I carried through. “May I have a drink of water?”
“That would not be wise.”
Huh? Did that mean no? “But I’m thirs—“
“You should leave now, young man. My sister does not like children, and most especially she does not like little boys.” He had a very rhythmic and precise way of speaking. Each word got exactly the same weight, and was carefully enunciated.
“What are you reading?” I asked, stalling.
“If you persist in standing upon our porch, I cannot be responsible for the consequences when my sister discovers you. They will be dire. She guards me night and day.”
I began to think he was serious. I sidestepped down the stairs, the rubber of my tennis shoes squeaking on the wooden planks. “Nice to meet you, Joe,” I said, turning to sprint across the street. I didn’t expect an answer.
“And you, Brad,” he said.
I stopped dead in the middle of the street and spun around. “How’d you know my name?”
He beckoned with one finger, and I came slowly back to the steps of his porch. He held up his hand and I paused before mounting. “No closer, young man. If you are not actually on the porch, I believe you shall be safe.”
“How’d you know my name?”
He smiled for the first time since I’d met him. It was a very warm smile that lit up his face and made him seem suddenly alive, somehow very real. “Your friends call to you while you play,” he said.
“Shall I name your friends for you? They are standing across the street now, wondering if I shall if I shall rise up from my chair and do something dastardly.” He squinted. “Vic has gone home. Joey, Bobby, Sean, and Mike are still there. David and Charlie have retreated to the far side of the field. I don’t see Jason today.”
“You’re weird,” I said aloud, but I thought it was pretty neat that he knew all of us by name.
“Most certainly, young man. Run along now and reassure your friends that I have not ravished you. I hear my sister coming. Have I not said she is very protective?”
I had no idea what he meant half the time, but I was entranced by the sound of his stately, measured voice. I turned again to leave, but at that moment the door to the house banged open and Joe's sister came out, broom raised and voice raised. “Get out! Get out! Little vermin! Get away!”
She advanced toward me with the broom lifted to strike. I gaped at her in terror for a moment, frozen in shock. She had long gray hair, straggling around her shoulders like an old kerchief that hadn’t been washed in decades. Her face was red and contorted in anger, and I thought I’d never seen anything as frightening in my life. I kicked up my heels and ran. As I crossed the street, I heard her remonstrating loudly with him, but the words were indistinct. It seemed he was in as much trouble as I was.
That’s how I met Joe, and how I met his sister, Gertrude, although I didn‘t learn her name until the next day.
I had three basic summer outfits. Outfit Number One consisted of my jeans, a T-shirt, and my tennis shoes (no socks). Outfit Number Two was the same thing, but with shorts. Outfit Number Three was just the shorts. I usually wore Number Two, but for some reason I chose jeans the next morning, perhaps because it was early and still a little bit chilly. Summer hadn’t quite got into full swing yet. I left early and walked the several blocks to his house quickly. My friends and I never got together until mid-morning or early afternoon. I should have plenty of time to feel him out before anyone thought to look for me.
“Two days in a row,” he said when I showed up at his house. “Are you still thirsty?” I shook my head, careful to stand just shy of the steps so I was officially not on the porch.
“Then what may I do for you so early in the morning. Master Brad? Speak softly, for my sister is still sleeping.”
I shrugged, sniffled, wiggled my mouth around, and jammed my hands into the back pockets of my jeans. “What are you doing today?”
He lifted the book from his blanketed lap. “Reading.”
“You read a lot?”
“It is one of the few pleasures left to me.”
“Today, I peruse the excellent book by Mister Charles Dickens titled Oliver Twist."
I had heard the story of Oliver Twist, of course, and even seen an old movie. Something about an orphan. I didn’t see why anyone would want to waste time reading a book about it.
I put my foot on the bottom step, forgetting for a moment, then hastily snatched it back.
“Perhaps,” he said, “the time has come for you to tell me why you are here.”
“Why?” I echoed, confused.
“Yes, why. May I presume you have a reason for risking certain death from my warrior sister?”
I glanced nervously at the door. “I thought you said she was asleep.”
“No one sleeps forever, however it seems it will take forever for you to tell me why you are here. Shall I guess?”
“You do not want water. You are here on a dare? A wager among your friends? Talk to the old man and see if you survive?”
I shook my head, fascinated by the way he talked. Each sentence seemed to make sense when he was saying it, but I sometimes felt I had no idea what he had said afterward.
“You have come to steal my binoculars?”
“No-oo. Do you really have binoculars?”
“Everyone knows I have binoculars. I use them for watching birds in the park. Have you come to read the water meter?”
“Then I confess you have stumped me. I have no more guesses. Unless —? Do you work for the government as a secret agent?”
That one made me laugh, and when I laughed he showed me that wonderful smile again. “I'm looking for work,” I said. “Do you need any odd jobs done?”
“Ah, an entrepreneur. My sister deals with the hired help. Would you like an appointment?”
I wasn’t sure, but I thought he was joking. I shook my head, just in case he was thinking of calling her.
“If I may ask, young man, why did you choose to ask me? There are many houses on this block.”
I shrugged, pulled my hands out of my pockets and stuck them under my armpits.
“Well, perhaps I have one job for you. My eyes are not what they were, and I tire easily. Can you read?”
“You want me to read to you?”
“It would be worth a quarter to me if you read for an hour.”
In those days, a quarter an hour was a pretty good wage for an eleven-year-old. But … “What about your sister?”
“If you sit on the bottom step to read, and I sit in my chair up here, she cannot object overmuch.”
I took that to mean he thought I‘d survive. “You got a deal, Joe.”
“Then begin at the beginning. Read slowly and clearly.” He handed me the book and settled back in his chair. His slippered feet slithered softly on the wooden floor of the porch. I sat on the bottom step and began to read.
It wasn’t the easiest book to read. It had many words I didn’t know, and the plot seemed to move at a glacial pace. But I found the story strangely compelling, and I fell naturally into Joe’s measured cadence while reading. That way of speaking seemed to fit with the ponderous, formal wording. I looked up at the end of every page or so, to see if he was listening, to see if he was even awake. I didn't catch him napping. Every time I glanced his way, he had his eyes fastened on my face, clearly paying rapt attention, that marvelous smile glowing at me. I was deep into the first chapter when the house door opened. I didn’t hear it. I didn’t hear the Broom Lady come out. But I knew something was wrong, because suddenly I could tell that Joe wasn’t watching anymore. I don't know how I knew — perhaps I saw him turn in his chair with my peripheral vision — but it was as if the sun had gone behind a cloud. I stopped reading and looked up.
The Broom Lady stood with her broom at her side, not threatening at the moment. She stared at me. Joe stared at her. I stared at them. No one said a word. I tensed my legs, ready to leap away if needed.
“Young Brad is reading to me, Gertrude,” said Joe quietly.
“So I see, Joseph, so I see.” She didn’t quite tap her foot, but her gaze never wavered from my face, and her grip tightened on the broom.
“Would you like to join us?” Joe continued, very polite and formal.
She frowned, and this time she did tap her foot. “No,” she said at last, her voice full of disapproval. “Brad?” I nodded. “Stay on the steps, Brad. I don’t want you on my porch.”
“Our porch.” murmured Joe very quietly. Her eyes flared. She whirled, went into the house, and slammed the door behind her.
Joe pursed his lips and nodded to me. “You have been granted a provisional reprieve. Would you please continue with the story?”
I widened my eyes, blinked a few times, and licked my lips. My throat was suddenly dry, but I turned back to the book and picked up where I’d left off. All too soon, the hour was up. Joe interrupted me at the end of one paragraph, pulled a green plastic change purse from his pocket, and carefully extracted a quarter.
“A job well done,” he said. For just a moment, as I handed him the book and took the quarter, our fingers touched. “Clean your nails before you return,” he said.
I frowned at my fingernails, seeing they were indeed dirty. I looked up at him quizzically. “Return?”
“This is our book now. I shall not read it unless you are here. So obviously you must come back tomorrow to read to me again.”
“For another quarter?”
“Quid pro quo. I believe those terms will continue being satisfactory.”
“Yes, another quarter. Tomorrow at eight o'clock, then?”
“Um, sure. Yeah. Yeah, okay. See you tomorrow.” I turned and walked slowly away, spinning a few times to see if he was watching me leave. He was not. He sat in his chair with his head leaned back, eyes closed. But the last time I looked, I noticed his sister standing behind the main front windows overlooking the porch. Had she stood there watching me the whole time? From that angle, she couldn't see the porch itself, but she could have seen me sitting on the steps.
“Bizarre, for sure,” I said to myself, and went off to find my friends.
The following day, promptly at eight o'clock, I presented myself at Joe’s porch. The front door was just closing behind Gertrude, but she’d left something behind. A small plate, with a delicate napkin and two cookies upon it, sat on the lowest step beside a tall glass of milk.
I showed Joe my clean hands, and he graced me with his broad, gentle smile. What he didn’t know was that I had gotten up early, showered, washed my hair, and — perhaps for the first time in my life --- worried about whether my clothes were presentable. I didn’t know why. I only knew that I wanted to see Joe smile that way, and that he'd asked me to clean up.
It became a routine. Gertrude always had milk and a snack waiting for me. Sometimes she spoke to me, sometimes not. When she did, her words were polite, but her expression was severe. Sometimes I caught her watching me through the window, but as time went by, I saw her there less and less. Joe sat patiently in his chair while I read, watching my face the whole time. We made our way slowly through the book, and Joe had a quarter waiting for me every day.
Always, after I’d read for about an hour, we sat and talked, I on the steps looking up, he on the porch looking down. The only time we touched was when he handed me the quarter, taken so carefully out of his green change purse and put into my waiting, sweaty hand. Sometimes I chattered about my friends and hobbies, but mostly I listened. He told me stories from the wars, a faraway look in his eyes. He had all of Kipling’s Just So Stories memorized, and I laughed and listened, entranced, learning about the cat that walked by its wild lone, how the alphabet was made, and the young elephant with all his ‘satiable curtiosities.’ When he told a Kipling story, he always looked directly at me, that warm, generous, oddly quirky smile on his lips from the first word to the last. When he recited “O Best Beloved," I imagined he was talking to me, not just telling a story.
I saw him from time to time when I played across the street with my friends, but I didn’t go over to see him except in the mornings. I did notice that he never seemed to be reading, and wondered if his eyes were bothering him. But then I saw him using the binoculars one day when I chased a ball almost to the street. Unless I had a sparrow on my shoulder, or a robin nesting in my shorts, he wasn’t watching birds. I waved hesitantly, and he jerked the binoculars away from his head. A moment later, he waved back. I shrugged and went to rejoin the game of kickball.
I didn’t tell my friends or my family that I spent time with Joe. The only thing my mother noticed was that I suddenly cared more about personal hygiene and grooming. She hugged me once and said her little boy must be growing up. I don’t think my friends had any clue.
Catching Joe watching us with the binoculars wasn’t easy, but he was careless from time to time. And that, combined with the way he stared at me when I read, gave me an idea. I remembered the whispered stories, and realized that the rumors I’d scoffed at were true. He liked to watch boys. Exactly why he wanted to do this I wasn’t sure, but I suspected it was sexual. After all, I sometimes covertly watched stranger boys I found cute, and there was a lot of staring and comparing among those of my friends who fooled around.
It was a very strange thought, that Joe might have the same kind of feelings looking at me that I did looking at other boys. That maybe he wanted to do the same things with me that I did with them. It made him more real, somehow, but I had no desire to fool around with him. He was just Joe, the oddly cultured old man who paid me to read to him. I couldn‘t imagine touching his withered old penis, or letting his liver-spotted hands touch mine. But if he just liked looking, would he pay for it?
I put my plan into place the next day. I wore Outfit Number Three, figuring that if he wanted to look at my tummy, we could start there for free. We had finished Oliver Twist, and I was struggling through Jack London’s Call of the Wild. I suppose we’d been meeting almost every weekday morning for about a month. The quarters were adding up, but I wanted more.
After a few minutes of reading, I put the book aside, lifted my arms over my head, and yawned widely. I laced my fingers together, my arms still upraised, and stretched. Gertrude was nowhere in sight. She hadn’t been at the window when I arrived, either, and for the first time there was no milk or pastry waiting for me. Still stretching, I moved up two steps. I was now officially on the porch. The book lay abandoned on the bottom step. I smiled and said, “Do I have to read today, Joe?”
He stood up slowly and folded the checkered blanket. I gaped. In all the time I’d known him, I'd never seen him off the chair, even for a second. If I‘d thought about it, I would have assumed he was crippled, that Gertrude or someone carried him back and forth as needed. Seeing him stand and walk was like seeing a tree casually pull up its roots and go for a stroll.
He moved stiffly, but he moved. He wore slippers and funny old-man pajamas, covered with a thin robe. “My sister is away this morning,” he told me. “I feel the desire for some tea. Would you care to join me?”
“Um, I, ah, sure. Yeah. Tea?”
“Iced tea, with sugar and lemon.” He gestured toward the door, and we went inside. I followed him through the living room and sat at the table in the tiny, immaculate kitchen, watching him make iced tea. Everything in the kitchen was old, from the cast iron teakettle to the wooden spice rack. Everything smelled old, too: a deep, musty smell, like rotting leaves in a storm drain. It wasn’t exactly unpleasant, but it was pervasive. I sniffed at the wax fruit in the earthenware bowl sitting precisely centered on an ancient yellowed doily in the middle of the table.
The room was filled with a ghastly silence, broken only by the creak of the teakettle heating and the soft slither of his bedroom slippers on the linoleum as he moved back and forth.
I rubbed my toes on the floor while he steeped the tealeaves in the hot water. I tried to touch the tip of my nose with my tongue while he fetched the glasses, ice, lemon, and sugar. I drummed my fingers on the tabletop when he eased into a chair beside me. He sliced the lemon, and suddenly the room was filled with that fresh, aromatic scent. He finished preparing the tea and gravely handed me my glass.
I started to take a sip, and he said, “Let it cool. The ice must melt.” I chewed the inside of my lip and waited. Finally I couldn’t take it any longer. Screw the tea. Something bigger was on my mind. “I thought you couldn’t walk,” I said accusingly.
He seemed amused. “Just because you never saw me walk?” I nodded, and he seemed even more amused. “There are many things you haven‘t seen. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist.” My face must have shown that I was still angry, because he stopped smiling. He lifted his hand a bit, and I thought he was going to pat my head. After a moment, he put his hand in his lap. “There are many things I want in life,” he said earnestly. “Being able to walk more than a few paces without my knees buckling and my heart pounding is one of them. Having your respect is another. I cannot have the former, but I hope for the latter. I did not intentionally deceive you.”
I worked out that he was apologizing, but I wasn't clear on the rest. “So what’s wrong with you?” I blurted. “Are you dying? Is that why your sister is so protective?”
“She is not protective of me, my young friend. It is your virtue she guards. And there is nothing wrong with me that time won’t cure.”
He hummed to himself for a moment while I watched him, my forehead crinkled in irritation. Why couldn’t he say yes or no like an ordinary person? What did any of that mean? I picked out one word. “Virtue?”
“Drink your tea. Brad. The ice has melted now.”
I didn't want the tea. I pulled my feet up and put my heels on the chair, my knees touching my chest, my arms wrapped around my legs. I stared at my toes. Flexed them, relaxed them, and flexed them again. He was the most exasperating person I’d ever met. After a minute, I glanced up at him. He was watching me quietly, that same gentle smile on his face, warm and impossible not to return. I realized that if I had sat there silently playing with my toes for an hour, he would still be sitting there, watching me, waiting for me to look up and see his smile. In a sudden burst of sympathy, I lost my anger. I put my left cheek on my knees and rested my head, grinning at him.
His expression didn't change, and I finally realized what was so intriguing about his smile. It was pleasure and warmth and sunshine and fondness, but underneath it was a vast sadness, a sorrow I could just touch the edges of but never understand. The idea of teasing money out of him by showing him my body now seemed utterly impossible, as if some other boy, in some other world, had been thinking that way. Joe lost the vague blocky shape other adults had. He became a person, a friend. For the first time, I found myself wondering not what I could get from him, but what I could give him.
I wanted to hug him. I thought he wanted a hug. It didn’t matter anymore that his nose was big, or that his hands had liver spots. I unfolded from the chair and moved to stand beside him, my skin tingling. I put up my arms and leaned toward him. Eleven wasn’t too old to cuddle. He reached out tentatively, as if he couldn't decide whether he wanted me in his lap or not.
A very loud, stern, female voice said. “Go home, Brad. Now.”
Gertrude stood in the doorway to the kitchen, shopping bags in her arms. The look on her face was cold. I edged around her, holding my breath. “Don’t come back, Brad,” she added. “Ever.” Her voice was flat, hard, inarguable.
As I got to the front door, she started screaming at Joe. I couldn’t hear all of her words, but certain phrases came through loud and clear. “Near-naked boy!” “Call the police!” “In my own house, too!” “You should be ashamed!”
My lace flaming, my heart pounding, I sprinted all the way home. I flung myself onto my bed and cried. I bawled like a baby, and didn't know why. I couldn’t stop. I finally fell asleep and spent most of the day in bed. I told my mother I was sick, so I didn’t have to get up for supper and face the family. I couldn’t have eaten anyway.
I suppose I should have known better, but the next morning promptly at eight o’clock. I showed up at Joe’s house. The chair and blanket were gone. Gertrude stood on the porch, arms folded. My stomach sank.
“Go home, Brad,” she said before I even got to the steps. “He can‘t see you.”
“You know perfectly well why. Don’t come back.” I saw Joe hovering in the shadow of the open doorway behind her. I waved to him. “Can't I say goodbye?” I asked Gertrude.
“You just did,” she said flatly. She turned, entered the house, and pulled the door firmly shut behind her.
“I hate you!” I yelled at the door. “I hate you!” There was no response.
Joe never appeared on the porch again, and I never saw him, even from a distance, A few weeks later, they moved away. I took the quarters I’d saved and bought a copy of Kipling’s Just So Stories. I read them over and over, cherishing each word, remembering Joe, who had said “O Best Beloved" to me as if he meant it.
I believe he did.
It wasn't until years later that I was mature enough to understand the sadness behind his smile, or why Gertrude had been so upset. It didn’t seem such a big thing to me. I wished I‘d given him something more to look at, a memory to take with him to match the memories he gave me. More than that, I wished I’d been able to hug him that day in the kitchen.
I still have the book, and I still get it out every now and then, to reread the beautiful stories and remember Joe. I’m saving the book to give to someone. I don’t know who he is yet, but I’ll know him when I see him. Perhaps I'll be as old as Joe was by the time he comes along. He’ll be wearing Outfit Number Three and a grin, and he’ll come by my house some morning to say hello.