Close, But No Cigar
Spot Conlon's feet were cold, and he knew just who to blame for it. Sometimes it was harder to pin the blame on someone, like when news was slow, or the weather was lousy, or when someone finally decided to collect on a debt Spot was sure they'd forgotten about. But as a gray sun rose over New York and Spot stomped through the steely-eyed city of Manhattan without his socks, he knew exactly whose fault it was.
Then again, Spot also knew better than to gamble with Racetrack Higgins, especially after he'd had more than a little to drink. In fact, Spot usually never touched a drop of alcohol during the game of gin he and Race played once a month. It wasn't that he thought Race would cheat him (because if Race was a cheat, Spot had never been able to catch him at it). It was just that spending time with Racetrack was like playing stickball with live ammunition.
But last night had been especially grating on Spot's nerves, and the temptation for a sip of the rum that Race so flippantly offered him was too strong to resist.
The infuriating thing about Race was that every time Spot did something, he was sure that either Race had secretly led him to do that, or that Race took what Spot had done into consideration and wove that into his perfectly orchestrated plan to drive Spot insane. He was so cool about everything, flashing his crooked-toothed grin at Spot over what was probably a perfect hand, the look in his eyes somewhere between pity, amusement and contempt. No matter how many times Spot convinced himself that he'd finally done something to outwit Racetrack, he would find out that he'd been playing to Race's favor the whole time, and it was always like taking a plunge into ice cold water after burning up by a fire.
Racetrack just made Spot feel like that – like he was sitting by a fire, like he was building sand castles out of gun powder, like he was high with a fever during the dog days of August.
Race put Spot on edge. So last night the rum went down easy, and the cards seemed to slip gracefully through his fingers, and when Race bet a Cuban cigar for Spot's wool socks, it hadn't felt like a high stakes bet. But Spot wasn't in the habit of picturing himself walking through the city streets in the early hours of the morning without socks, and maybe if he had been, then he would've known that the bet was very high indeed, and that no amount of Cuban cigars should coax him into betting his socks.
Too late for it now, he thought, as snow crunched its way through the holes in his shoes. He stuck his fingers into his armpits, and tucked his chin under the collar of his coat, but he was still cold. They're only socks. You can get new socks. You're the goddamned king of Brooklyn, and they're just socks, and he's just Racetrack, and it really doesn't matter, so you could probably make it back to Brooklyn before anyone notices you're gone, because it's probably not even seven in the morning yet, and Mother of Christ, I'm cold.
Spot shut his eyes as the rising sun set a glare off the melting ice. He had a headache, he really didn't remember much of the night before, besides knowing that there had been cards, and booze, and that something about the way Race looked at him made his fingertips feel warm. He did, however, have vague memories of Racetrack telling him that they could just trade – socks for cigar – since it wasn't fair to leave Spot with no money, no socks, and no cigar, and since Race was nothing if not fair-minded. But there had been no Cuban cigar when Spot woke up that morning, and he decided sulkily that that's all he really wanted.
He was supposed to give me the goddamn cigar. Yeah, dammit, I want my cigar. Spot nodded in satisfaction. Or just my socks. I could just ask for the socks back, and he can keep the stupid cigar. He paused fretfully, realizing that he had nothing to bargain with, especially since Race had cleaned him out last night, and he couldn't pretend to have something Race wanted, since he'd never been that great of a liar anyway.
Whatever it takes. Racetrack is my friend, but if it comes to a fight... if I have to beat him, I'll beat him, but I will get my socks back. Spot hunched his shoulders higher, and settled into the steady, aching rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other. When his feet (Probably frozen all the way through by now, he thought bitterly,) finally carried him to the Manhattan Lodging House, he didn't find himself comforted by the sight of it. Sure, he was determined to get his socks back, but he didn't have a plan, he was definitely not on his own turf, and confronting Racetrack still made him nervous as all hell.
"Hey, Conlon. Didn't expect to see you again so soon." And there he was, before Spot could even take a deep breath to steel himself. Racetrack Higgins in all his weasel-y glory, slouching on the stoop of the Lodging House like it was his throne.
"Yeah, well, I came for my goddamn cigar, you two-faced, wangling son-of-a-"
"Whoa, there," Race said. "No need for that. I got your cigar right here." He patted the pocket of his vest, and rose slowly from his seat.
"Good." Spot stood where he was, waiting for Racetrack to come to him, because God forbid he look too eager to get the hell out of Manhattan.
Race took another step, and then eyed Spot critically. "You sure you want it?"
"What do you mean? 'Course I want the cigar. Why wouldn't I?" Spot was aware that his teeth were chattering, and that he would probably gnaw the cigar to pieces before he could light it, but it was the principle of the thing.
"I don't know. You look a little cold. Thought you might want your socks back instead." Racetrack let loose a glimmer of a grin, and Spot got the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach that he was about to made fun of again.
"You told me you'd trade me socks for a cigar, so whatever that means to you, that's what I'm expecting you to hand over right now."
"Really? 'Cause I could give you your socks."
Spot sighed. "Fine. Socks. Cigar. Either."
Racetrack nodded. "Yeah... I got your socks right upstairs. Stashed away, so no one will steal them. They're probably all warm now too, 'cause I stuck 'em under the covers." He paused. "You know, they are real nice socks."
"Yeah, they are," Spot said. "Now can I have 'em back?"
"Well... I'm not so sure. See, my socks," he lifted a foot to display his grubby shoes, under which he wore dark brown socks, "they're alright, you know, they get the job done, but they got this hole in the heel, and I get a little blister right there the way it rubs against my shoes... you know those little blisters?"
Spot nodded numbly.
"Yeah, those are annoying as anything. So I think I'd like to keep your socks."
"What? No. No, I want my socks." A minute ago Spot would've taken the cigar without complaint as long as he walked away with something to show for the encounter, but now the idea of Racetrack wearing his socks irked him.
"Yeah? Well... they are real nice."
"Yeah. Keep your damn cigar. Go get my socks."
Racetrack shook his head slowly. "See, Spot, it doesn't work like that. I already got the socks. We had a fair trade – socks for cigar – and so the socks are mine by rights."
Spot opened his mouth to speak, but Race cut him off.
"No, no, you said you don't want the cigar. That's alright, cigars ain't for everybody, you know. Not everyone appreciates 'em like I do. So I'll keep the cigar because you want me to, but the socks are still mine."
"That... that's not... you can't..." Spot wondered if Racetrack was actually making sense, or if Spot was just too tired to care.
"Unless you got something to trade me for the socks."
"You know I ain't got a penny," Spot said impatiently. "You got everything last night." He was now fully aware that he'd been playing into Race's hands since they'd met for cards the previous night, but dammit, they were good wool socks, and if he had to put up with Racetrack's shenanigans for a little while to get them back, he'd do it. There was no one around to see him anyway.
"I don't want a penny."
"Don't got a nickel either."
"Don't want a nickel."
"Well, what do you want, Higgins? I'd like to get my socks back before I grow a beard, if that's alright with you." Spot took a step forward in an attempt to be threatening, but Racetrack wasn't impressed.
"You can grow a beard? Face looks awfully smooth to me."
"I... shut your trap. Give me my socks."
Race smirked. "Alright. You want your socks? I'll give you your socks. But you gotta give me something in return, and I'll tell you what."
"I told you already, I don't-"
"I know," Race said. "That ain't what I want. Hold still."
Before Spot could object, Racetrack closed the distance between them, grabbed Spot by the shoulders, and pressed his lips against Spot's. He tilted his head to the side, and Spot found that their mouths fit like puzzle pieces, like a key in a lock, like a door that keeps the cold out. He could smell the smoke on Racetrack's breath, and feel the rough silk of Race's cheek, but all his nerves seemed fixated on their lips together, connected, warmer than any fire could be. One of his hands crept to Race's waist, and the tips of his fingers brushed against Racetrack's coat, but before he could move closer, Racetrack pulled away. The smirk was back.
Every part of Spot's body that had been touched was tingling, and he was sure that if he could see his face, there would be hot red marks were Race had kissed him.
Race had kissed him. Racetrack had kissed him.
"Here," Race said, reaching into his pants pocket and pulling out Spot's socks. "They're yours now." He squinted up at the sky, where the sun was inching its way to daylight. "You'd better hurry if you want to make it in time for the morning edition." He looked at Spot, and for a moment Spot was sure that he'd imagined the kiss, that there was no way he and Race had just had the same experience, but then Race smiled. And it wasn't a smirk. It was a smile, a gentle, teasing, questioning smile.
And without thinking about it, Spot smiled back. "Maybe I'll just sell here today."
"Oh?" Racetrack raised an eyebrow. "Alright. You can borrow two bits if you need it." After a second, he continued. "Bet you can't sell fifty papes in an hour."
Spot grinned. "Bet you I can."