Boystown 4 – A Time for Secrets
by Marshall Thornton
“You owe me five pounds of potatoes,” the man said, and I had no idea what he was talking about. His name was Ronald Meek, and he’d shown up at my office unannounced. He was in his mid-sixties, far too thin, with a hawk’s nose and a few tufts of tea-colored hair.
He arrived while I was in the middle of packing my files into some beat-up cardboard boxes I’d gotten from behind the Jewel. My landlord had finally decided to tear down the south Loop building, where my office had been located for a couple of years, and put up a building twice as big. They sent me a flyer inviting me to rent from them again in fall 1984 when the building would be finished. Of course, I’d have to win the Pick Three or marry some fat old heiress to do it. So I figured chances were slim I’d be back.
I’d rented a new office up on Clark Street a few blocks from my apartment in a neighborhood that was sometimes called Boystown and sometimes called New Town, depending generally on which team you batted for. Of course, I had no idea how I’d get all my crap up there but figured I’d manage. I had three days left before I had to be out, so I kept packing while I talked to Meek.
“Five pounds of potatoes?” I asked. “Do you want to explain that?”
“You don’t remember me? I’m crushed.” He put on a face that mocked sadness.
I stopped what I was doing and took a closer look at him. The summer sun was bouncing off the building across LaSalle Street, so I got a little more light than usual. Otherwise, I might not have noticed that Meek was wearing makeup, subtly applied and covered with a light dusting of powder. On another man it might have seemed odd, but it went well with Meek’s green velvet blazer and paisley ascot. He sat in my guest chair with his legs crossed and a hand tucked under his chin. He reminded me of an overdressed praying mantis. None of this was familiar, though. I was sure I didn’t know him.
“You’re going to have to give me a clue,” I said, opening the bottom drawer of my desk and finding a two-year-old reverse phone book, back issues of Crain’s Chicago Business, and a company directory for First Chicago, something I was not supposed to have. I put everything into a box.
“I’m your knight in shining armor,” Meek said.
All his coyness began to piss me off. “Look, whatever this is about, just come out and say it.”
He took a deep breath and began. “One night about five years ago, I heard a commotion outside my window. I opened my window and looked down to find some young ruffians attacking a nice gay couple on the sidewalk below. Soooo…I got a bag of potatoes and started dropping them on the goons. A few minutes later they ran away.” He leaned over to make this point, “I saved your ass, Mr. Nowak. Though you hardly seemed grateful.”
Now I remembered him. I didn’t want to, but I did. My ex-lover, Daniel, and I had been coming home drunk from a bar when the kids jumped us. I wasn’t hurt, but Daniel ended up having a couple of surgeries to rebuild his cheekbone after getting hit square in the face by a baseball bat. I imagine all that surgery must have been extremely unpleasant. I wouldn’t know because we broke up that night, and I never got around to asking when our relationship had briefly rekindled the previous winter. By then his face looked good, too good, and we were, well, occupied.
“Other than receiving my undying thanks, is there a reason you stopped by?” I asked, giving up on packing and sitting back in my chair.
“You’re a private investigator?”
“It says so on the door.” Aside from the door with my name on it, my office boasted a desk, some filing cabinets, the guest chair Meek sat in, a half-dozen, half-filled cardboard boxes, and a dead plant I was considering moving to my new office solely for sentimental reasons. None of the stuff was any good; I could probably have just thrown it all away and started over.
“There’s someone I’d like to find. I thought you’d be right for the job.” He shifted in the chair as I waited for him to continue, his bravado fading. “He’s someone I once loved. We had a brief but quite intense affair. I suppose you’d say he’s the one who got away. I’m not getting any younger and I thought, if not now when?”
“What’s his name?”
“Does Vernon have a last name?” I was already afraid of the answer.
“I think it began with an S. Or maybe an M,” he said, naming the two largest sections of the phone book. “The last time I saw Vernon, he was throwing a party in his apartment at the Edgewater Arms. It was April 22, 1959.”
“Twenty-three years ago?”
I sighed. “What was the apartment number?”
“You know the exact date, but you don’t know Vernon’s last name or his apartment number? That doesn’t make sense.”
“I keep a journal. On April 22, 1959 I wrote, ‘Went to a divine party at Vernon’s apartment in the Edgewater Arms. The view was amazing. Vernon was delightful. We all drank too much, and Vernon was very witty. We kissed on the roof under the stars.’ Well, we more than kissed, but discretion forbids.”
“Why didn’t you ever see him again?”
He sighed. “I’m not sure someone your age can understand. In the fifties, we were degenerates. Perverts. Sickos. To many of us, the idea of forming a relationship, having a real lover, well it barely entered our minds. We were told we couldn’t have that, that it wasn’t in our nature. We didn’t dare contradict that. Nowadays things are so different. If I were your age and I met Vernon today, well…I would make different choices, let me tell you.” He smiled in what he thought was a demure way. “Can’t you help me, please?”
“Is that all you know about Vernon? He was good kisser who lived at the Edgewater Arms?”
“No, not all. I know lots of things.”
“He’d been in the Navy. He was a Republican. He worked as a hairdresser on Oak Street, and the ladies called him Mr. Vernon. He was quite popular.”
“Have you tried to find him yourself?” I asked.
“Oh, I couldn’t. I’d have no idea where to start.”
“Detective work isn’t rocket science. It’s mostly paperwork.” And the occasional gunfight, I thought but didn’t mention.
“I don’t just want to find him,” he admitted. “I’m hoping you’ll give him a message for me. Tell him that I’d like to see him, that I’d like to talk over old times. If he’s willing.”
“And if he says no?”
“Then that’s all you have to tell me.”
Something was a little off about the whole thing and I had a bad feeling, or maybe the grilled ham and cheese sandwich I’d had for lunch wasn’t sitting well. I couldn’t be sure. Given the few scraps of information he’d provided, I didn’t think I’d be able to do a lot for him. I didn’t want to rip him off. No, it wasn’t the sandwich. My gut said not to take the case. On the other hand, my bank account said I was about to start bouncing checks.
I dug around in a cardboard box and found an index card. I slid it across my now empty desk. “Write down the message,” I said. “Write it down exactly as you want me to say it.”
While he did that I told him my rates. He swallowed hard when I asked for a two hundred and fifty dollar retainer, but he handed me the message and took a checkbook out of his inside jacket pocket. He wrote me a check.
“I hope you’ll get started as soon as you can,” he said, sliding the check across my desk.
I glanced at it; his bank was on the other side of the Loop. As soon as I walked over and cashed the check, I’d get started.
“Sure thing,” I said.
He said his goodbyes and rose to leave. Before he got to the door, I asked, “How did you find me?”
“You’re listed in the phone book.”
“My name is, yes, but I don’t remember introducing myself the night we met.”
“Oh.” He blushed. “There was a police investigation afterward. Don’t you remember?”
“Yeah, I remember.”
“The policeman who came by my apartment asked if I knew you, and not very nicely. I think he was hoping that the three of us knew one another and were somehow trying to con four nice kids from the suburbs.”
That didn’t sound far off. I was a cop then myself. It wasn’t just that cops didn’t like fags. Some cops didn’t like victims much either and seemed to delight in turning things around and making them guilty. If you were a fag and a victim you didn’t stand a chance. It was no surprise the CPD never bothered to find those four nice kids from the suburbs, which at the time didn’t bother me much. There were a couple of days when I even thought the whole thing might blow over and I’d get to hold onto my job. I stonewalled in the two interviews they tried to have with me. But then copies of the police report and Daniel’s statement made the rounds of the department.
“And, of course, I met Daniel,” Meek said.
“I went to see him in the hospital. He’s a nice young man.”
“Yes. He is a very nice young man.”
“He was grateful for my help.”
“Are the two of you still…?” Meek asked with a raised eyebrow.
“No. I’m with someone else now.”
“I guess that’s the way of the world,” he said, and floated out of my office.