Rhythm Section

by v10climber1@yahoo.com

Cecil Montgomery was in the hospital, and it looked like he wasn't getting out, and that meant I needed a job.

I'd been playing bass for Cecil Montgomery for six years, and it had been a really good gig. The music wasn't the most challenging thing in the world, pretty much straight 12-bar shuffle blues. But we worked constantly, touring the United States and Europe relentlessly, and we made good money.

The band got along well, and Cecil was a great guy, fat and funny. He was one of the old school bluesmen, grew up in Texas, the stories he told of the old chitlin' circuit, playing in bars lit only by kerosene lamp, playing with people like Son House, were enough to keep us young players gathered around his knee like wide-eyed kids.

But his weight caught up with him. He had congestive heart failure and he'd gone back to Houston to the ICU, and the rest of us scattered to the four winds from whence we'd come.

It was like a funeral when we all got our stuff out of the tour bus for the last time, everyone telling stories about Cecil and promising to stay in touch.

I headed home to Seattle, where I pay rent on a small apartment in Fremont that I never use. It's a great place, in a funky old house of stucco that seems to be more window than wall, which helps endure the long, dim months of winter.

For two months, it was fun to be home. I made the rounds of all the blues clubs and jammed with my friends and got some local gigs here and there. I made my way up to Capitol Hill and hit my old gay haunts on Broadway and took a couple guys home for the night, and it was good to get my ashes hauled. I even toyed with the idea of staying home, it was so good to be still for a minute.

But when the call came from Cecil's record company that Hickory Cane Watson needed a bass player immediately, as the old one had quit mid-tour, I was packed and on a flight as fast as American Airlines could get me to Denver.

"I almost hate to hear you sound so happy, " said Claudelle, the tour manager for the label. "There's a reason the bass player quit. Hick is an asshole. Pure and simple. And his drummer Leon is impossible, from what I've heard from bass players. And he's gay, too, Leon is, and I know that bothers some folks. He's not in your face about it, but some players don't want to share a room with him."

"That sucks for Leon," I said. "I have no problem with it." I didn't figure she needed to know I was gay, too.

It was Leon sent to pick me up at the Denver airport, and my first look at him set me back some. I guess I envisioned some shaved-headed black giant with a lisp, given his intimidating reputation and his open sexuality. But when he found me at baggage claim picking up my upright bass from the oversized bags, he was small, about an inch shorter than me, and I'm 5' 10". He was also younger than I expected, maybe in his mid-30's. And he didn't look gay. He looked gangster, in a sports jersey with cornrows braided into his hair.

"Are you Eric?" he said, looking faintly puzzled.

"Yeah, you're Leon?"

"That's right. You're the guy they sent down from Sterling Records?"

"Yeah, that's me."


He clearly was thinking something he was reluctant to say. We were checking each other out like two fighting dogs, unsure of whether to wag tails or lunge for the throat.

"Is there a problem?" I asked.

"Does Hick know you're white?"

"I don't know what the fuck Hick knows," I said. "He knows what the label told him, I guess. Is it going to be in issue?"

"You'll be the first white guy he's worked with since I've known him," said Leon. "I thought that's the way he wanted it."

"Is that the way you want it?" I asked.

"I don't give a rat's ass," he said. "Just as long as you can play better than that fuckhead who just quit."

Leon was kind enough to grab my electric bass and we made our way to the concourse and grabbed a shuttle.

"We got a show tonight and there's no time for a rehearsal so I hope you been listening to the material," said Leon.

"Yeah, I been listening to all six albums and checked out all the youtube I could find, seeing as how Hick didn't see fit to send me a set list," I said. "But I don't know that my masters from Berklee and my sixteen years on the road or anything else could qualify me to learn six albums worth of complex material in two days, especially since you guys seem to play it different live than you do on the records."

Leon actually rolled his eyes.

"I can see how this is going to go," he said.

I was immediately furious.

"Yeah, I can, too," I said. "Not only do I see how it's going to go tonight, I can see how it's going to go for the rest of Hick's sorry fucking career if he expects side guys to show up pre-programmed for his show with no fucking set list, no video, nothing. It's going to be one shit show after another."

"That's the attitude you're bringing?"

"It could quickly become the attitude I Ieave with, too," I said. I found myself wondering bizarrely if I was going to be the first player to quit Hickory Cane's band before I even met him. "Tell me what part of what I just said doesn't make sense to you."

"Look, I ain't going to lie," said Leon. "Hick's an asshole. But if you make it through the first few shows, you'll find the set list is the same every night. It's only two hours of music. But you gotta come ready and willing to work your ass off. I don't mean to bust your balls."

"Then tell me what fucking tunes are on the set list and I'll listen to them until tonight. I charted them all already, so I can just grab the charts and do my best. But don't expect me to be Marcus fucking Miller my first night out or this whole thing is going south," I said.

"You charted all six albums?" There was a faint glimmer of surprise on Leon's dark face.

"Yeah, I got that 'work your ass' off thing together. For a white guy."

"Oh, Jesus, simmer your ass down," said Leon. "It ain't me that's got the problem with it."

"Well, Hick's already shown himself to be an employer of diversity," I said, glaring at him. "So hopefully he can work around my damn skin."

"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?" said Leon, cocking one eyebrow and folding his arms. There was no one else on the shuttle, thank god, because this was getting tense.

"Just what it sounds like," I said. "If he can deal with you being gay, he can deal with me being white."

"Oh, you got a problem with that, now?" said Leon. He never would have shown up on my gaydar, in spite of the gold hoop in one ear. In fact, I had been wondering if Claudelle even got it right until Leon confirmed it.

"No, fuck no, I'm gayer than you," I said. "I'm just saying. He can't be that fucking uptight."

Leon suddenly burst out laughing. "You're white and gay? Oh, this is good. Whatever you do, don't tell Hick. Don't tell anyone. Listen, this is not the fucking ACLU we're on the road with here. Most these guys are back woods. They all come up from Mississippi with Hick. Trust me, we don't just call him Hick 'cause it's short for Hickory Cane. His dad was the pastor of the Burning Book Baptist Church of Podunk, Delta or some shit, and half the band came up through that church. They're all pretty sure I'm going to hell. Not that they don't fuck as much road pussy as they can possibly pin down and spend the next 600 miles giving us all the play by play."

"Jesus H.," I said. "What did you tell them for?"

"I didn't," he said. "It's just a known thing about me. There aren't so many gay black drummers in blues bands out of Mississippi, you know."

"Not a lot of gay Russian blues bass players either, I guess, but I'm from Seattle, so maybe that's the difference," I said.

"Well, don't think we're going to be hitting it because we both swing the same way," said Leon, banishing the dawning warmth I felt for him. "I don't shit where I eat."

"Charming," I said. "Trust me, it was not on my mind."

"Well, good, because we're sharing a room," said Leon. "Hick's tight as fuck and half the time we're going to be sharing a bed, too, so don't flip out about it."

"Since we're sharing a room, you're going to show me the difference between the tracks I have and how you play it live and do it by show time or my ass is on a plane," I said. "And I'll explain to Claudelle just why, and she'll explain it to Hick, and whatever happens after that ain't my problem. But I'm not going on stage with no fucking clue just so I can get my ass kicked by some racist homophobe in front of three thousand people."

"Hey, I don't want to suck any more than you do," he said. "You damn right we going to work on this shit in the hotel."

We only had three hours. I set up my little practice station on the hotel dresser as fast as I could, plugged in my iPod, and Leon grabbed a practice pad. I took the list he'd jotted and collected the appropriate charts.

For the next three hours I did what I do best, which is play bass, and we became nothing more than professionals, retooling my charts to reflect the live arrangements.

Leon was none too friendly, but nor was he hostile. Within an hour, we were grudgingly impressed with each other, I at his ability to communicate, he at my ability to learn fast.

When the knock at the door came for the shuttle to take us to sound check, Leon said "Listen, just hang right by me and keep looking at me, and I'll cue you, alright? And don't lose your shit and quit if Hick freaks 'cause you're white. He's got no options at this point."

Hick did freak.

He took one look at me and snapped open his flip phone.

"You know I don't work with no fucking crackers," he said to Claudelle without preamble. I folded my arms on top of my bass case in the glare of the white overheads as the sound crew moved backline around the black stage floor. I could hear Claudelle's voice as clear as if it was on speaker; like most lifetime musicians, Hick was half deaf and thus had his phone volume cranked.

"Listen Hick, you're lucky I could find anyone of any fucking color to play with your nasty ass so you ought to kiss my feet you even got anyone at all. I tell you what, you're on thin fucking ice with this label and if you want us to kick you to the curb like Stone did and Fat Possum did, keep being a bitch. That's the last fucking band member I'm sending, and I better not hear of no..."

Hick snapped the phone shut and muttered, looking at me.

"Fucking stupid bitch, I oughta quit that label, start my own, god damned cow, it's not like they do shit for me anyway."

"She ain't lying," said Leon. "You pissed off the whole east coast and the midwest and you burned out every bass player in the south years ago. You done worked your way to Seattle. Unless you want to take your chances on finding a Hawaiian bass player, you better work with this guy. He does not suck."

Coming from Leon, that felt like high praise indeed.

"How come of everyone in my band, it the faggot that's got the balls?" said Hick, laughing. I instantly had him pegged. He was one of those bullies that only respects people who fight back.

"You don't want to lose the rather insignificant balls you got, you'll mind your fucking manners," said Leon, staring at him coolly. I didn't stop myself from bursting into laughter.

"You think that's funny?" Hick snapped into warrior mode, glaring at me.

"I thought it was fucking hilarious," I said, glaring back. "What would really be hilarious is you trying to pull your show off with no bass player in an hour and half. That would be so god damned funny I'd stick around and watch before flying home and telling Claudelle what a piece of shit you are."

"You better not suck," he said. "Or I'll knock that mouth right off you."

"Now that would be some comedy," I said. "You're lucky I don't suck, 'cause otherwise you'd have to back that shit up and I'd break you."

The other band members were casting wary glances our way. I could see they were all terrified of Hick.

There was a long, tense moment.

"You better get him through this," said Hick to Leon.

"He'll be fine," said Leon, giving me a look to say I'd better be fine.

I'm good under pressure. But after that night, I'd set a new high water mark for myself. I stood by Leon, and I'll say this, he was about teamwork. Between my charts, the hotel rehearsal, and his cues, I knocked it out of the park. By the end of the second set, Leon actually smiled at me for the first time halfway through my bass solo.

He was a phenomenal drummer. We clearly listened to all the same people, too, because he started picking up my accents and for a second we were Gary Grainger and Will Calhoun and the crowd went apeshit. Inspired, I put over a series of blinding chops and Leon was right on top of it, and we grinned at each other as we nailed it.

It transformed his face. Up till then, he'd been brooding and edgy. The grin took a decade off him, put dimples in his cheeks, and for the first time I noticed that he was actually very good looking. I mentally smacked myself on the hand.

After the show, the band members came up one at a time and gave me props, and Hick was acting like he'd picked me out himself.

"You the man!" he said. "Listen, don't pay me no mind. I'm an asshole. Anyone will tell you. Just ask these guys." He jabbed a thumb at his band. "You did good. Hope you don't mind staying with Leon. Just sleep on your back."

"Fuck you, Hick," said Leon from where he was tearing his drums down.

"Don't get your panties in a twist," said Hick. "I'm just playing."

"Let's box," said Leon. "I'll just be playing."

"I got no problem with Leon," I said. "Hell, I'm..."

Leon caught my eye and slashed his hand across his throat furiously.

"...from Seattle." I said. "They practically make you a P-FLAG member when you move in."

"What ever that is," said Hick. He forked off $300 and handed it over.

"Look, we got off on the wrong foot," said Leon back at the hotel. "It's my fault. You see how it is with Hick. I live in fight mode. You did an amazing job. You are a fucking great bass player. I hope you stay. There's a place down the way that delivers pizza till four am. Let me buy and make it up for being such a dick."

"You were a dick, so I am going to let you buy," I said. But I was smiling. "Look, you got me through it. You are a monster drummer. Where did you learn to play like that?"

He started out in church in Jacksonville, he said. That's also where he picked up his fight and his gangster style. Being a gay black kid in Jacksonville was a Darwinian situation, he explained. I began to notice that for a gangster, he was remarkably well educated.

He'd gone on to study jazz at Louisiana State in New Orleans. No wonder he was so good. They don't give jazz degrees to chumps there.

"Why do you stay with Hick?" I asked. "Why do you deal with all that homophobia? Why don't you move to California or something? I'm sure you could go out on the road with Coco Montoya or someone a lot cooler than Hick."

"I love the music," said Leon. "I fucking love Hick's music. It's so funky. There's no one out there playing anything like it. It's tight, got jazz style, but solid blues roots, and as much as Hick's a jackass, he lets me run my show."

We talked music and shared our histories over pizza. His history was horrifying, even more so because he told it so matter of factly. His parents put him out on the street at 15 when they found him with his boyfriend en flagrante delicto. From there he'd lived in shelters and on the streets until a preacher took him in and let him stay at the church. He'd played the drums all night, alone, in the empty church, on the stage for two solid years. It was the only thing that kept his head on straight, he said. Soon he was playing in the church band, and the church finally took up a collection to send him to college. So he got his GED and studied hard for his SATS, and off he went.

"So I got mixed views on the church," he said. "There's my folks' hating-ass church, and there's Saving Grace Episcopal, that put me through college. They knew I was gay. They're just open to that."

After that, I felt pretty boring. But he thought my story of arriving as a Russian refugee in the middle of the cold war, only eight years old, pretty interesting. Like many refugees, we wound up in Seattle, and I went to a school where the kids spoke a total of 37 languages. I took to bass early, and won a scholarship to Berklee, which impressed Leon to no end.

When we turned in, we were allies.

The next day we loaded into the bus and headed for Omaha.

The four band members that made up the horn section and the keys, as well as Hick, were birds of a feather. They cracked on each other, sucked up to Hick, pretended to be gay, tried to one-up each other with pussy stories and generally behaved like high school douche bags. They ignored me for being new and white, and when they talked to Leon, it was with a cautious respect. I could see how Leon got his reputation.

The problem I was having is that Leon was starting to turn me on. He was possibly the toughest guy I ever met. And one of the most talented. And he was hot. There was no way around it. He had high cheekbones and big, full lips and huge dark eyes and the buff arms and shoulders of a drummer. And I learned last night that he was a truly nice guy, once he'd taken you off the enemy list.

But he'd made his policy clear. It was a good policy, too. There's nothing to fuck up a band and a professional reputation like drama between quarreling lovers. Still.

The Omaha show went even better than Denver. I spent the whole show with my eyes glues on Leon, and it wasn't just to pick up the cues. Drummers are sexy, like human machines, and they drive the whole machine that is a band. Leon played with a poker face, impassive, even intimidating. That's why when he cracked a grin at me mid-solo, it not only drove me nuts, it drove the crowd nuts. He was sexy as fuck.

I started thinking about what I look like. I have never had trouble picking up guys. My Russian coloring doesn't hurt. I have dark brown hair and very pale blue eyes and the combination can be a little startling. Some people really like it. I keep my look a little gay, too, in a tight-tee-shirt, well-groomed, designer-jeans kind of way. And I keep myself in shape, hitting the hotel gyms every place that has one and getting up early to jog where they don't.

I resolved to get in even better shape, and the next morning before we headed for Lincoln I got out my track shoes and sweats.

"You going for a run?" said Leon, sleepy in a white wife beater and boxer shorts, from the other bed. As new guy, I was assigned to room with Leon for the foreseeable, and that suited me fine.

"Yeah," I said.

"Fuck, hold up, I'll come," said Leon. "God damn. What time is it? You are a sick mofo. Gimme one second."

I heard him brush his teeth in the bathroom and he emerged in a jersey and sweats and we headed out, headed into the suburbs behind the hotel where there are lots of sidewalks and little traffic.

It felt great. I love running, and he was in great shape and we ate up miles, side by side and breathing easy.

"You do this every day?" he said.

"Yeah, it's the only way I ever see where I am," I said. He laughed.

"Ain't that the way? Everyone thinks because you tour, you've seen the world. And all you've seen is hotel rooms. Shit, you do this every day, I'll come. Hell, I'm glad to have you on this tour. This will be good for me."

Back at the room I stripped my shirt on the way to the bathroom and tossed it at my suitcase. I saw him watching from the corner of my eye. The devil on my shoulder was running me. I grinned inside.

We got into a good routine in the next weeks, playing at night, each night getting tighter and enjoying each other more, running or lifting weights in the morning, weather and hotel amenities dictating. Hick and the band mostly ignored us, and when they lipped off, cracking that Leon must have turned me out, we presented a united and extremely hostile front. We were respected, if not liked.

On our days off, we worked on music in the room or kicked around the city together, shopping for clothes and music and catching up on laundry. I learned he was funny and irreverent, intellectual, politically aware, profane and spiritual at the same time. We had long conversations about everything. Everything except our love lives.

Then we had a night off in Salt Lake City.

We went to the Red Iguana. Every one does on tour. There's no Mexican food like it in America. They make their own mole. They also have a wide array of tequilas. It turns out Leon has a little weakness for expensive tequila.

I don't drink at all; like many musicians, I had to quit long ago. When I drink, I drink too much. That's all there is to it.

"You're getting a little buzz, aren't you?" I said to Leon as he drank a fourth $15 shot of tequila.

He raised his eyebrows.

"Don't lie, you're jealous," he said.

"I won't be when I'm watching you try to go running tomorrow," I said.

"You're too fucking disciplined," he said. "No wonder you're single."

We handed our cards to the waitress.

"I'm single because I never met a man who wanted to have a relationship with a phone," I said. "They tend to trade the phone in on something life-sized and warm, after a month or six."

"God, you ain't lying," he said. "I love this life. But I hate that part. I hate the crying lover on the phone. 'Leon, I met someone, Leon, I'm so sorry, Leon, when can you come get your shit, you were never here for me.' And I know it was true, so all I can do is get my shit next time I roll through. That does suck."

We signed our slips and walked out.

"I just about stayed in Seattle after Cecil went to the hospital," I said. "I'm halfway through my 30s. One of these days I'd like to get into something permanent. You know, someone to buy a birthday gift for every year. I haven't bought a birthday gift two years in a row for anyone but Mom since I was 20 and Dad died."

"Yeah, me, not even that," said Leon.

We piled into a cab and headed for the hotel. In the back seat, I could feel something change. Maybe it was body language. His knee was close to mine, maybe closer than necessary. I hardly dared hope.

"I just can't see myself ever stopping doing this," said Leon. "I love traveling. I love playing music. I love the festivals and all the good people I meet and everything. And now you're here, and I got someone to hang with, I'm happy as a pig in shit. I don't know if I could stop to make it work for a dude."

"Me either," I said. "What I need to do is hook up with another player. At least he'd understand why he never got to see me. We could get together between tours."

Not, you know, a player I work with or anything.

Leon paid the driver and we got out.

"Fuck, don't do that," said Leon, as I unlocked the door. "Players is all crazy as shit. You can't trust any of 'em. They spread it around like peanut butter."

"Yeah, look at us," I said. "Spreading it around like celibate monks."

That cracked him up as he followed me in.

But when the door closed, he stopped laughing.

"Eric, much as I love playing music with you, I almost wish I didn't," he said. "If we didn't work together, I might try to be that birthday gift guy."

"You would probably make a great birthday gift guy," I said carefully, suddenly flushed and dizzy. "Don't think I haven't thought about it."

"It's just I've tried to do that before," he said. "More than once. I've never had it work out with someone I work with. I lost gigs that way. Had a hard time getting new ones, too, after that. My reputation was shit in Mississippi after the last go round. It's part of why I'm stuck working with Hick. It was that or move. Hick has to take who ever can deal with him. I fuck this up and I'm looking at jeopardizing the one thing I love to do most."

He flung himself back on his bed and I did the same on mine, and we stared at the blank TV.

"Well, Leon, if you don't want to go there, we should probably stop talking about it," I said. "Or I'm liable to tell you exactly what I've been thinking lately, and that will do you no good."

"Fuck, this is the tequila talking," he said. "But what exactly have you been thinking?"

"You tell that tequila to shut it's Mexican yap," I said. "You want to know, ask again tomorrow."

Leon rolled himself up in a huff like an armadillo, but I saw him smiling. When I was sure he was asleep, I got up and walked around his bed and pulled up a chair and just looked at him, the little scar in his eyebrow, the smooth perfect caramel skin. I thought of him as a kid sleeping like that in a cardboard box, like he'd said he did.

I got up and got an extra blanket out of the closet that had the ironing board in it and put it over him, curled up with his shoes still on and his hands sandwiched between his knees.

The next morning I saw him register the blanket.

"We don't have checkout till noon and we're only going to Ogden," he said. "Give me a damn minute before you go charging out the door."

"You really going to run, tequila boy?"

"Fuck you, I'll dust you," he said, grinning at me. "After I've had me some coffee."

He then scowled dramatically, eased himself out from under the blanket, and headed out the door, returning a few minutes later with a tray. I was touched. He'd grabbed coffee and cereal for both of us. That was a first.

"Thanks for the blanket," he said so shyly and sweetly I melted.

Weeknight gigs pay jack, and we were playing Ogden on a Monday. So when I opened the next hotel room door and I saw one double bed, I tipped my head back and laughed.

"I don't know what the good Lord was thinking," I said, "but take a look. Hick's feeling tight."

He walked in after me.

"Fuck," he snorted. "The last time this happened, the bass player quit."

"Oh, is that what happened?"

"Yeah, that and I took a tooth out of him for telling me to keep my faggot hands to myself."

I chuckled.

"Yeah, well, keep your faggot hands to yourself," I said.

"Bitch," he said, laughing. "Don't make me send you to the dentist, too."

"Bitch," I said, shouldering him. "You talk a good game. What you got?"

"Bitch, I'll show you," he said, grinning and shoving back, and we started sparring and pushing and laughing and soon we were grappling and what the rules or goal were, I don't know.

But he got me in a head lock under one arm and I grabbed a knee and pulled hard and we sprawled onto the bed and for a second we just looked at each other and then it was too late.

"Oh, shit," he said, and the humor drained from his face. And then he leaned over me and his face eclipsed the room and his mouth came down on mine.

His mouth was made for kissing, it was so full and soft. I kissed him back with everything I had, and when I felt his soft tongue, I pushed up against him and moaned.

His hands came to my ribs and he pulled me close to his body and threw a leg over me. I scooted until I could get no closer and it was a full body kiss. We caught fire, thrusting against each other, pulling each other closer, rolling, kissing frantically.

I grabbed his perfect ass and thrust against him hard and he caught his breath and did the same and we were grinding against each other like teenagers.

"Damn, Eric, I've wanted this," he said between kisses. "Damn, boy."

"Me too," I said against his mouth. "So bad."

"Baby, hold up," he said, out of breath, going still but making no move to untangle.

I went still too, and just looked at his incredible face, inches from mine, feeling him breath in my arms.

"We going to go down this road, we need to know what we're doing," he said. "I'm too old to fuck and figure it out later."

"You're 32," I said.

"That's old enough," he said. "You said ask you tomorrow. I'm going to ask you again, what have you been thinking?"

"I'm thinking this tour is toxic," I said. "I'm thinking I want you and me to go on the road with Mighty Sam McClain or someone else positive like that. Oh, babe, I ain't gonna lie. I'm picking out dishes."

I caught a glimpse of the defenseless boy he must have been once.

"You know I love you, right?" he whispered, like it hurt him to say it. It knocked the wind completely out of me.

"I'm off my ass in love with you," I said helplessly. He shut his eyes for a moment.

"When did you know?" he said. The way his long eyelashes hid his eyes made me want to shelter him from every possible harm.

"Day two," I said. "That's when it started. You're so tough, but you turned out to be so cool. I get why you're such a warrior all the time. But when you let me see the rest of you, well educated, thoughtful, decent, honest, brave, I fell like a ton of bricks."

"Yeah, that's when it started for me, too," he said. "Even before. When you stood up to Hick, I suddenly noticed how sexy you are. I've been fighting it ever since. But you play with such intensity I get hard sitting behind the drums. And you're so good to be with. You are the mellowest, most wonderful, amazing, talented, beautiful guy I've ever known. That you're a bass player I just can't believe."

I ran my hand over the rough surface of his cornrows, traced the tiny grooves at the corners of his mouth.

"We don't have but half an hour till sound check," I said.

"I want to hold you till then," he said. "You're right. This band is horrible. It's a horrible situation. Let's try to make ourselves a positive space, just you and me. We'll get outside in the mornings and hang by ourselves and love each other. Read the same books and talk about them. Do political stuff on line together. What ever we can think of to counteract the poison of Hick and his crew."

It occurred to me his language had cleaned up. It, too, was a way he held people at bay.

"Kiss me," I said, and his soft, perfect lips covered mine again and we didn't stop until we heard doors opening down the hall. We unwrapped from each other and the air seemed cold against my body.

Sound check took forever. I wanted to kill D. J. the keyboard player. He kept wanting to run through songs, making an unnecessary rehearsal out of sound check. Then all the guys wanted to eat. Downbeat was in an hour and we still had to change. I could have cried in frustration. Leon kept his perfect poker face on.

I didn't even have time to get to a drug store, pick up a few necessities, given where I knew we were going. And the next day started a long haul up into Illinois that would find us all sleeping on the bus.

Back in the room, Leon seemed a little shy. But as soon as the door shut behind us, he caught my hand and brought me around.

"We could hit it quick, but I want something a little more special than that for the first time I love you," he said.

"Oh, God, Leon, when?" I said, taking his other hand, too. "I'm going to die, I want you so bad. I can't even get to a drug store. I thought I was going to kill D.J."

"Tonight," he said. "I can't wait any longer than that. I got a few things with me. I always carry that stuff for the sheer sake of being responsible, but I got to tell you, it's gathered dust."

I smiled and he pushed me gently against the wall, stood between my legs and kissed me until I was so hard it hurt.

Leon and I played together with a furious brilliance that night, the near- psychic dynamic responses between us a surrogate for the sex we wanted. The 35 people in attendance got to see one of the best rhythm section performances ever seen in Ogden, I have no doubt. He kept his implacable face on, and it drove me crazy, the way he played like a perfect machine.

"Damn, Leon, did you turn him out?" said Hick, afterwards, gleeful. "You playing like you fucking. I'm going to stick you in a single room more often."

"Fuck you, Hick," we both said in unison. He just laughed and paid us.

"God I am tired of having to constantly hold the line on that guy," said Leon as we tore down.

The band scattered like cockroaches down the hotel hallways after, and I tried to act like it was any other day, walking through the door.

But the second it closed, Leon's body was pressing mine against the door, searching my mouth with his, and we were tugging at each other's shirts until we were naked chest to chest and the heat of his perfect body cost me my mind.

"You know what I want to do right now?" he said into my ear as I struggled to undo his belt. "You know how many times I have heard the shower run and thought of you in there? Let's get in together. I want to clean up. And I want to see you naked."

I smiled and we kissed and undressed each other, leaving a trail of shoes and clothes all the way to the bathroom.

He ran the water and stepped out of his underwear and his naked body was stunning, his ass perfect, round, legs long and graceful, upper body muscular. I stripped too and stepped under the water and realized a second later he wasn't getting in, was just watching me.

"You are too hot for belief," he said. "You make me crazy, boy."

"Get in here," I said, and when he did I pulled his wet body against mine and felt his hard on, thick and heavy, against my own.

I slid down his body, sank to my knees in the spray and took him in my mouth, saw him reach for the shower curtain rod to brace himself, saw him bite his full lower lip.

Going down on him wasn't easy. He's hung. But I was going to be the best he'd ever had, if it was the last thing I did, so took him all the way down, anyway, fighting to breathe in the water, took his heavy balls in my hand, and when I needed a break, I took them in my mouth too.

Oh, did he make it worth my effort. His whole body jerked, and he gasped and moaned and told me how good I made him feel and how good I looked and how long he'd waited to see that.

"No, no, no, don't get me off in here," he said a few minutes later, as I took him all the way down again. "You do that again I'm finished. Come here."

He kissed me, and then he went to his knees and the pleasure was incredible as his warm mouth closed over me and drew me in.

Between his hands and his mouth I could barely stand. I had to hold on to the soap dish to stay upright.

"Jesus, Leon, God, yes," I was barely aware of my words. The sight of him below me, taking me in, was such a turn on I had to look up and away if I wanted to last another minute.

"Come on, let's go to bed," I said. "I want you to fuck me."

I didn't know if he bottomed but if he didn't that was alright. It wasn't my steady diet, but once in a while it was fine, and I knew we would figure out the rest. He rose to his feet against my body and we kissed in the cascade of water and then got out and toweled each other off. He did it so gently and reverently I felt his hook sink deeper into my heart.

I dried his face softly, and he blinked those enormous eyes at me over the towel and once again I saw the gentle soul inside the warrior and knew this thing between us had legs.

I kissed him with all the feeling I could express, and then took his hand, turned and lay back on the bed and pulled him down.

The feel of him, long and naked, stretched out full length beside me, drove me insane, as his tongue came into my mouth again. He held nothing back, moaned when it felt good, and there's nothing in the world that turns me on like a man letting me know how good I make him feel.

Finally he leaned off the bed and reached a muscular arm for his suitcase and came back up a second later with a condom and a small bottle of lube.

"You okay with this?" he said.

"Tonight I am," I said. "But take it slow."

I watched him put the condom on, loving the way it looked, and crazy with excitement, waiting for it.

Then he knelt above me and poured lube into his palm, and oiled himself with it, and then slid a finger into me, making me gasp and buck. He slid a slick hand up and down my cock as he readied me. I was going nuts, mastered by his hands, desperate for him.

When he finally positioned himself and pressed against me, I braced myself for the brief pain. He was big, and it hurt for a second, but he gave me time. When I was ready, I pulled him in.

"God, I love you, Eric," he said. "Do you know what you look like, with my cock in you? Tell me you like it. Do you like it?"

"Oh, Leon, fuck yeah," I said. "I've never felt anything like this. Just don't stop. Fuck me and don't stop."

He dropped to his elbows and his tongue invaded my mouth. I was full of him, drowning in him, and let myself go, crying out against his mouth, straining up against him, seeking more.

That set him off. We could not get enough of each other, slamming against each other, panting and moaning, kissing and gripping. It was overwhelming. I lost control of my body. I was going to come, I felt it, and told him, and he built the pace, watching my eyes, and when I came, he drove himself into me even harder. We stared right into each other's eyes as I shot all over his chest, yelling through gritted teeth.

A second later I watched his big dark eyes glaze over in an ecstasy like pain, and I felt him come hard inside me, heard his choked cry as he tried to keep the neighbors from hearing him. His back arched, he slammed a hand into the mattress, struggling to keep himself from screaming.

"God you're beautiful when you come," I said in awe, pulling him into my arms as he caught his breath, still jerking with aftershocks.

A moment later he turned his face to mine.

"So are you," he said. His fingers traced the spot right behind my ear, smoothed my temples, and he grinned, perfect white teeth and big dark eyes. "That was amazing. You are amazing."

"I'm so crazy about you," I said, kissing his nose.

We cleaned each other off, cuddled each other to sleep, and woke that way, still tangled in each other.

"Six more weeks of tour," said Leon. "Then I'm pretty sure Hick's going to want to do an album. So we'll probably hole up in Mississippi for a while, and then head for L.A. But we'll have a little time off, first. What do you want to do?"

"I want you to come to Seattle," I said. "I want to show you everything. You can put your suitcase in my apartment. We'll call it shacking up."

"I can't wait," he said.

We walked up the street together, went to a bookstore, grabbed two copies of Dreams From my Father, and agreed to read them all the way to Illinois, where Obama had been a senator. Leon is a huge Obama fan. I reserved judgement until I read the book.

When everyone fell asleep on the bus, he shut his copy and I shut mine and we looked at each other across the aisle.

"I love you," he mouthed. I mouthed it back.

All they way through the Great Lakes, we made desperate love at night, and sometimes it was his long legs wrapped around my waist, too. We talked about the book, which won me over, and others we read. I turned him on to Stephen Leavitt and he devoured Freakonomics.

We joined the Southern Poverty Law Center and sent them donations on my laptop. We signed petitions for Organizing for America, wrote letters to our hometown papers about the Prop 8 trial in California and sent money to the Red Cross when the earthquake struck Haiti.

"I've never had a relationship like this," I said one night. "All the stuff we do together. Being involved in the country together. This is amazing."

"I don't ever want it to stop," he said, running his hand down my spine, which he knows I love. "I'm thinking long term, now."

"Me, too," I said.

Then we got to Cleveland, with two weeks left on the tour.

There was a huge backstage, with several green rooms. We locked the door to one, fell into each other's arms after ten hours on the road, with only a few minutes to go before we hit the stage.

The doorknob turned, and in walked Hick. The lock didn't work.

"What the fuck?" he said. His voice was huge in the room.

"Hick, mind your own business," Leon warned, stepping away from me, and there was homicide in his eyes.

Hick should have paid attention. Instead, he lost his mind in rage.

"That's fucking disgusting, you fucking faggots," he said, and swung the hickory cane for which he is named at my head. Leon's hand caught it, quick as a cat. His other hand struck like a snake. Hick took a table down with him as he fell, and I knew that sound would draw a crowd.

The rest of the band poured in.

"What the fuck is this?" yelled D.J.

"Hick needs to learn to mind his own fucking business," said Leon, ignoring the slow ooze of blood from his knuckles.

"Oh, my God, you and Eric?" DJ. sounded horror stricken.

"Oh, you need to learn to mind your own business, too?" Leon's eyes were a little crazy.

"I got no problem with you," said D.J.

"We got to play in five fucking minutes," said Louis, a horn player. "Guys, what are we going to do?"

Hick sat up.

"Leon, you're fired," he said, thickly. "Both you faggots are fired. The show tonight is cancelled. Where's my phone. Gimme my phone."

He called the promoter and told him what had happened, fully expecting the promoter to share his horror at finding his rhythm section lip-locked, and when the promoter expressed far more horror at the cancellation of the show, Hick seemed genuinely puzzled.

He called Claudelle, and she couldn't talk any sense to him either. A minute later I was on stage packing my gear, and Leon was dismantling his kit, both of us right in front of a sold out crowd.

As I dismantled my gear, Hick stormed on stage.

"Tonight's show is cancelled," he yelled into a mic. "You know what I just saw, you'd understand. I walked into a dressing room and my drummer and my bass player were getting it on."

The crowd was stirring like a herd of cattle before a lightning storm. They didn't know if it was a joke or not. I felt a thousand pairs of eyes on me and Leon, the accused.

"I tell you, faggots got no place in my band," thundered Hick. I saw Leon straighten and leaned my head back and groaned. We'd be lucky if Leon didn't wind up in jail.

But instead of heading for Hick, Leon headed for me. He grabbed my arm and hauled me in and kissed me, furiously, in full view of everyone.

I pulled him in tight and gentled him down, kissing him with love and joy, stroking his hair and back. I felt him ease and slow, forget Hick, focus on me, and his graceful hands cupped my face.

There was a rising noise from the audience. Some of it was disgust, but there was a swell of applause. There were hoots and catcalls and whistles.

I pulled away from Leon's unbelievable mouth and put my nose against his and smiled, brushing my knuckles across his cheek.

I could dimly hear Hick screaming some invective, and a couple stage hands were pulling him off stage.

Leon smiled back, deep into my eyes, and then we actually laughed. We broke apart and headed back to our gear to finish breaking it down.

"Hey, you guys are hot!" yelled some drunk college girl.

"That's fucking gross," someone else cried. I was aware of little fights starting in the crowd, as people fought over their reaction to us. I smiled. Leon was there. I feared nothing. He put his cymbals in their case and grinned at me.

"Ain't no shame in this game," he called over to me and he straightened under a heavy load of drum bags and cymbals.

"Hell, no, baby, no shame here," I yelled back. We flashed peace signs at the milling crowd and walked off to a smattering of applause and catcalls.

A cab took us to the airport and we spent most the night in the terminal, bitching about Hick, laughing at our balls for kissing on stage, trying to figure out what to do next and waiting for Alaska Air to take us to Seattle.

We slept all the way to Sea-Tac and took another cab to my place.

Leon was wide-eyed, seeing the Space Needle for the first time. It was a perfect spring day and boats were scattered over Lake Union like a child's marbles. The wind snapped flags out straight and Mount Rainier loomed over the whole southern skyline.

"God, this place is gorgeous," he said.

"It's our home for the next little bit anyway," I said. "And babe, I hope it's our home forever."