The Kowbell Kafe
By: James W. White
Jessie dropped the letter on his mattress, “What the living hell?” He studied the envelope for the third time. It was addressed to his cousin, Frank Graves, care of Jessie’s address, from Frank’s mother, Joyce Taylor, postmarked Brownwood Texas, October 23, 1930. Opening the letter was a breech of privacy, but Jessie didn’t know when or even if Frank would arrive in California and he figured if there was an important message, he ought to know about it.
Instead, the letter was filled with surprises, none of them favorable.
I hope you and Curtis had a pleasant journey, the letter began. Anita and I are anxious to hear all about California and your bus ride. Jessie’s father asked also that he hear from him.
Bus ride? Curtis? Frank told him he was coming by himself, riding the rails.
A warm breeze came through the kitchen window ruffling the blind, sending daylight into the dimly lit room. The breeze brought in sounds; traffic noise and racket from the kids on the street, birds chirping and the splashing of a fountain in a courtyard below Jessie’s apartment.
A small living room and an even smaller kitchen, bathroom outside, down the hall, that was it. He was taking a big risk letting Frank move in, even if it was temporary. The tenant rules were strictly enforced, no pets and no sublets, overnight guests only and the reprisal for infractions was swift. Immediate eviction, no appeals. The housing shortage in Los Angeles was so severe landlords were eager to evict tenants and put the apartments back on the market at a substantial increase in rent.
Frank’s promise to help pay the rent was a temptation, but Jessie had watched his neighbor get evicted; crying children, parents dragging belongings out the door in pillow cases and carpet bags, a policeman escorting them off the premises to who knows where. One new face would be hard enough to hide. Two would be impossible.
Jessie had been fortunate to get the apartment and a job. Both were as scarce as hen’s teeth, obtainable for a hayseed like himself only through favors that had gone far beyond his standards of decency.
“Curtis kills the deal,” Jessie muttered while buttoning his shirt with Ralph’s Grocery Company’s name stitched over the breast pocket. “I’m off the hook.” He left the letter on the mattress that took up most of the living room as he collected his things.
At the end of his shift, curiosity sent him back to the Kowbell Kafe, where he had been every evening for the past two weeks, waiting for Frank to show up. This’ll be my last look, he said to himself. Kinda like pulling a penny slot machine’s arm on your way out of a casino. Frank’s a week overdue, maybe dead or left for dead. Either way. . . He hesitated, ashamed for thinking such a vile thought, I’m in the clear.
Jessie recognized Frank when he peered through the cafe window, Frank had his back to him sitting at the counter, slumped over, looking like he’d just blew in from a central Texas dust storm. Shit.
He stepped back so Frank wouldn’t see him and weighed his options. You’re invisible, he thought. Walk away and he’ll never find you. Then he remembered writing Frank about Ralph’s Grocery Company. It would take a while, but Frank would eventually track him down. He tried to argue with himself he didn’t care, but he did. Abandoning Frank would come back to haunt him. Hell, it already was. He looked again. There was no sign of Curtis.
Joan, a tall red head who ran the business side of the counter with a practiced hand, spoke up as Jessie pushed through the cafe’s doors. “Well, here’s that rascal now.” She cut a slice of pie with the precision of an expert, poured a cup of coffee and pointed her chin in Jessie’s direction.
Jessie took a couple steps through the cafe door and stopped. When Frank turned and faced him, the two of them gazed at each other for a quiet moment, taking each other in, assessing the other’s state of mind. Jessie could see the strain in Frank’s face. He looked tired; beat, really, and Jessie felt sorry for him. “Welcome to Los Angeles!” Jessie exclaimed and walked toward the counter seats. “Ain’t it somethin’?”
“It sure as hell ain’t Texas.” Frank got off his seat and met Jessie half way.
Despite his misgivings, Jessie struggled to quell an irrepressible urge to embrace his cousin. He stuck his hands in his pockets to keep from reaching out. Frank triggered emotions he didn’t understand and he could hardly control. It was more than just family. When they shook hands they held each other a tad longer than was usual. Touching sparked a suppressed affection that crossed boundaries.
At close quarters Jessie noticed the trip had changed Frank. There was a scar, barely healed, across his temple. He wasn’t the perky young cousin Jessie last saw at the Graham Hotel three months ago, fresh out of high school, basking in attention and accolades, wanting to please.
“So what kept ya?” Jessie nodded a thanks at Joan for the coffee and pie.
Joan held the carafe in front of Frank, inviting a refill.
Frank shook his head. “I nearly got my head split open.”
Jessie and Joan both gasped and Joan set the coffee carafe on the counter.
Jessie studied the raw skin and long, ragged scar. “What the hell happened?”
Frank shrugged his shoulders. “It’s just about healed.” He hesitated a moment. “Never mind about the trip. Where do I sleep tonight?”
Jessie took a long sip of coffee. “You and me had a plan to bunk at my place. Remember?” He glanced behind Frank’s back. “I found out that’s not the plan anymore.”
“You heard about Curtis, I take it.”
“Yeah, your mother wrote. Sorry to stick my nose in your correspondence, but ̶ “
“Well, he ain’t here. . . yet.” Frank fiddled with the remains of his pie. “He’s making his way on his own. We split up in Phoenix.”
Jessie stared in the distance, suddenly fascinated with the coffee machine. “Him ridin’ the rails, I suppose. You took the bus?”
“Something like that.” Frank leaned back in the counter chair. “I hope he makes it alive, only I don’t know when. I’ll be keeping a lookout. He knows to meet here, at the cafe.” He glanced at Joan.
Joan nodded while she pretended to ignore the conversation. “Another straggler to babysit.”
“Why’s he coming anyways? I thought he had to finish school?” Jessie swallowed a mouthful of coffee to hold back his disappointment. “Don’t tell me your mother made you take him.”
“Close. I was out-numbered and out-gunned; Mama, Uncle Stan, Aunt Willie, even Anita. Me against them, you might say.” Frank stared at the ceiling. “Me taking Curtis was their way of letting me go gracefully. I either took him along or I left as a pariah. You can get away with that, Jessie. I can’t.”
Jessie rolled his eyes. “My cousin the philosopher. Nothing as simple as adios muchachos. There always has to be a big long reason behind everything.” He finished his coffee. “Well, when he gets here, you’re gonna have to philosophize yourself a new plan.” He lit a cigarette. “I know some places you can investigate, cheap flop houses. I used ’em. You can too.”
Joan removed the plates and mugs, then wiped the counter. “Pay up, boys. It’s closing time.”
Jessie reached in his pocket before Frank could react. “I’m paying this round. It’s my welcoming gift. Grandpa would kill me if he heard I didn’t treat you to your first Los Angeles meal.”
Jessie raised his eyebrows while he handed Joan a couple of dollar bills for the tab. He had spotted Frank’s sack. “I see you found a hobo’s luggage of choice. Did you ride at all?”
“We rode from Fort Worth to Albuquerque. . .” Frank paused. “And fell a few times along the way.”
Jessie chuckled and took another look at Frank’s scalp wound. “I never said it was gonna be easy.”
“It was a struggle at times,” Frank grimaced. “What about you?”
Jessie twisted in his seat. “I caught a freight out of Oklahoma City that took me north to Denver and then Salt Lake City. Pretty country but cold when I was there in March. I got stuck in Salt Lake. . .” Jessie’s voice trailed off while an incident at Salt Lake City crossed his mind. A misunderstanding that led to a scuffle. . . He’d played out the memory of what happened a hundred times and the outcome still surprised him. He should have died, but a knife had missed its mark and he got away unhurt. Ever since, he wondered who or what it was that saved him from harm.
The lights in the diner switched off. “The door is that-a-way,” Joan said, while hanging up her apron.
“Well, the rest of your journey is easy,” Jessie countered. “My place is a twenty minute walk from here.” He pointed across the street. “Thanks Joan!” he called out as they passed through the door.
Frank followed Jessie’s lead as they crossed Santa Monica Boulevard. A Ford coupe narrowly missed him making a right turn. A grim-looking man behind the wheel ignored Frank and concentrated on the road while chomping on a cigar. “He never even saw me,” Frank said to the Ford’s rear bumper when he scampered to the sidewalk.
“Saw what?” Jessie said over his shoulder.
“Never mind,” Frank replied.
“You gotta watch them automobiles,” Jessie continued. “They don’t give a damn about pedestrians and the cops don’t either.” They followed a sidewalk with automobiles parked on one side and darkened shop windows on the other. Some of the windows were boarded up and looked abandoned. They hurried by a filling station and turned down a side street filled with drab two story apartment buildings, all painted the same battleship gray. Sour-faced overweight women in worn housedresses, their hair wrapped in scarves, smoked and watched the street from ground-floor stoops.
“Here we are,” Jessie whispered. He excused himself to a scowling woman at the base of the stairwell and led Frank up, then across an open landing to the last door. “They’re called garden apartments,” he said in a low voice. “We don’t have ‘em in Texas, ya know.”
“Where do they keep the gardens?” Frank chuckled, peering into the shadows.
“Shush!” Jessie growled. He unlocked a door and stepped inside. “C’mon in. I’ll get us some beers. And keep the noise down.”
“Beers?” Frank repeated the forbidden word. “You have beer?”
In the cave-like space beyond the apartment door, Frank stood still while Jessie rummaged around in the gloom. When Jessie turned on a small lamp Frank took it all in with one glance. A cramped, cluttered living room that served as a bedroom and a kitchen, nothing more.
“I see what you mean,” Frank said. He placed his sack on top of a pile of clothes and cleared a space on Jessie’s mattress to sit.
Jessie appeared in the passageway to the kitchen holding a brown, long-neck bottle in each hand. “You’re gonna have to sleep on the floor. I’m not giving up my mattress, but I have an extra blanket and I’ll give you some clothes to soften the blow. Bathroom’s outside, down the hallway.”
John pointed at the bottles. “Is that beer? It’s against the law, right? Prohibition? Is California ̶ “
Jessie held a finger to his lips and shushed his cousin. “It’s supposed to be malt extract. Schlitz sells it for bread making. I have a friend who turns it into home brew. Not bad, really.” He handed Frank a frosted bottle.
Frank held the bottle at arm’s length. “Wow. I feel like a gangster.” He took a gulp and gasped. “It’s strong!”
Jessie smiled. “This stuff will make you feel like a drunk gangster.” He raised his bottle and gulped. “Mind if I sit down?”
Frank slid over and Jessie sat. He handed Frank a sheet of paper that lay between them while he wiped his mouth with his shirt sleeve. “It’s your mother’s letter. Like I said, I didn’t know when or even if you’d arrive.”
Frank chugged down a long swallow of the forbidden beverage and stared at the letter. He burped, dropped the letter and smiled at his cousin. “This must have come as a surprise.”
Frank’s smile, and the gleam in his eye picked up by the lamplight told Jessie all he needed to know. The special relationship Jessie felt he shared with Frank instantly made itself known. He pretended to ignore how closely they sat and wondered if Frank’s mother suspected something and that’s why she insisted that Curtis come along.
After a vacant moment, Frank took a deep breath and rummaged in his sack. “I just remember we brought you something from your Pa and Grandpa.” Frank handed Jessie a box, no bigger than a pack of cigarettes. “Been carrying this little box around since we left home.” It was dented, but intact.
“My gracious,” Jessie replied with a contemptuous tone. “Something for me?” He shook the box close to his ear, but didn’t open it. “Thanks for bringin’ it all this way. My folks can get so sentimental at times.” He placed the box on the floor and picked up his beer bottle.
When the beer bottles were empty and Frank finished his story about the trip from Texas, the two boys waited for something to happen, hoping the other would make the first move. It was getting late and Jessie had warned Frank he left early for work. “Well, ya gonna open it?” Frank finally said.
“Oh, it’s nothing important.” Jessie looked at the box. “Some memento, I reckon. Probably one of my mother’s things. A broach or whatnot.”
Frank stretched, groaned and slid across the mattress until he rested his back against the wall. His leg brushed against Jessie’s hand. “You always liked keeping secrets.”
A spark raced up Jessie’s arm and he flinched. It wasn’t an invitation, just an accident, but Jessie didn’t move his hand away from Frank’s leg. Two accidents make for an invitation. “Better than telling lies.”
Frank smiled. “Yeah, but lies are more entertaining.” He took off his shoes. “Mind if I stretch out a minute? Been a long day and I know you leave early for work.”
Jessie removed his shoes, leaned to one side and rested his head on his pillow. He stuck to the outer edge of the mattress, leaving space next to the wall. He turned on his back, his legs against Frank’s and stared, first at Frank then at the ceiling. “Let’s get on with it, then.”
Frank’s breathing quickened as he pressed his body against Jessie’s. “What about the light?”
Jessie chuckled and lay his arm on Frank’s chest, feeling for the shirt buttons. “Fuck the light.”
* * *
It was long past daybreak when Frank woke up. As he opened his eyes daylight streamed through the kitchen window. A note was pinned to the front door, too far away to read. Sounds from neighboring apartments came through the walls.
The flood of experiences from the day and night before rushed back along with the anxieties about what needed to happen next. He was naked, which was strange enough. He couldn’t remember when was the last time he lay naked in bed. The blanket was rolled into a ball and most of it lay on the floor. He felt uncomfortable and satisfied at the same time. His dick ached and his ass was sore; a feeling he remembered from when that bastard Palmer DeWitt raped him at the hobo jungle in Fort Worth. Frank grimaced thinking about that incident. He was so innocent then. It took him a long time to realize what had happened. The soreness felt shameful. Now, the soreness was a pleasurable reminder of. . . Of what? Affection? Could that be?
Above all his internal chatter, he missed Jessie. He wanted him back, next to him, on top of him, under him. Oh God, what was he thinking?
The chatter came back like it always did. He needed to find a place to stay before Curtis showed up, and he needed to get a job pronto. Curtis needed to get enrolled in school somewhere.
As the strange, soft California light filled the living room he wondered if Jessie was as content as he was while he wrapped the blanket around him, crawled to the door and retrieved the note.
The key is on the table next to the lamp. Be sure and lock up when you leave. Be back no later than 5:00. Ralph’s is at Walnut and 10th Street. They got the LA Times and the Evening Herald. The classified ads are in the back. Good Luck.
Frank suppressed his disappointment, knowing his cousin had no choice. It wasn’t like Jessie was turning him away. He knew they’d remember last night and the secret they shared was safe. That was enough.
Out the kitchen window a small courtyard was crowded with vegetation, dancing butterflies and brightly colored songbirds. A small fountain tinkled and flashed in the sunlight. “A-ha,” Frank smiled. “The garden.”