When I researched The Sweet Flag I often fell back on my knowledge of and training in music. The music mentioned in the story were not only time appropriate, but were selected to subtly reinforce the themes of the story.
Set up: Jacques Offenbach was of German-Jewish origin and one of the most feted composers of operettas during the 1850s and 60s. I was fortunate to perform in his last great opera, The Tales of Hoffmann. The farce mentioned in this excerpt is one of Offenbach's most well-known works, Orpheus in the Underworld, with libretto by Ludovic Halévy, librettist of the opera, Carmen. In this first excerpt, Ron tells Brandon of what transpired when Clermont, deMonde's former lover, brings news of the new operetta to Matthew and deMonde.
“One day, Clermont brought the latest rumor to them. He always knew what was going on in the musical community and shared every bit of gossip. He had great news. Offenbach was mounting a new production. A madcap retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice. Matthew and deMonde greeted his information with mixed feelings, both of them recalling the night they’d met, when Matthew compared deMonde’s voice to Orpheus.” Ron paused. “Was it fate that this farce should drive a wedge between them?
“The next time he visited, Clermont brought the sheet music with him. They went through the parts, singing the female roles in falsetto and bringing Matthew to tears of laughter. But when they sang the male arias, he quieted. The vocal part of Jupiter was for a baritone. It was perfect for deMonde’s voice. Clermont noticed how quiet Matthew had become while deMonde read the music and damned himself for a fool. He loved the two of them, had not one jealous bone in his body. He wished them to remain as they were ‑‑ the epitome of romantic love in his eyes. And now, he had become the snake in their little Garden of Eden.”
I butted in. “And they knew this how?”
Ron sighed. “Wait. You’ll see later.” He sipped some more of the tonic and leaned back against the couch, sliding closer to me and playing with my hand. He brought my palm to his mouth, and I waited for his kiss.
When I needed a dramatic piece of music supposedly performed by deMonde, I chose to use the musical/operetta written by Jerome Kern for several reasons. First and foremost was the music, of course. Considered by many to be among the most powerful and the first true piece of American musical theater, Showboat shocked many contemporary audiences in 1927, because of the story's non-too subtle message against prejudice. The character of Julie La Verne is a mulatto passing as white, illegally married to a white man. When they are about to be arrested for the crime of miscegenation, he cuts her hand and swallows some of her blood, thus giving him one drop of "colored" blood, making him a mulatto, too. How could I not select this musical? As a personal note, all the talented people involved with this work - the book, the music, the libretto, even the producer - were all Jewish.
While Brandon waits for Ron to prepare some food, Ron puts on a special recording for Brandon to listen to.
“Don’t strain yourself, mon ami. The key is not there. If you’re looking for a way out, try the front door.”
Shit, that bastard moved like a ghost.
I turned around and faced him. Like myself, he was barefoot and shirtless. His jeans were still unbuttoned, and the fly partially zipped. He shook his head, zipped up his fly, and buttoned his jeans while I stammered like a choirboy caught sucking the choirmaster’s cock.
“I was looking for some food. There’s bloody nothing to eat in the fridge.”
He laughed without mirth.
“And so you thought to find something in the desk or the basement?”
He’d seen me from the minute I’d gone back into the parlor.
Why the hell hadn’t I seen him?
“Silent?” He shook his head and tsked. “If you had checked the cupboards more carefully, you would have found tuna fish and instant coffee. In the freezer are some steaks.” He sighed. “I haven’t had a chance to shop for a while.”
I didn’t buy his explanation ‑‑ who could resist cooking in a kitchen like that? ‑‑ but I couldn’t think of a better one. I wondered if tuna, coffee, and steak would be the only things I’d find if I looked.
“I’ll open the tuna, and you can have some with bread. I’ll put the kettle on for the coffee. I’m sorry I have no milk. The last of it turned sour, and I dumped it.” He went over to the antique Victrola and unlocked the cabinet, chose a recording, and placed it on the turntable. “While I prepare the food, why don’t you sit back and enjoy some music.” He stood there for a moment, his eyes shut, listening in delight, then opened his eyes and walked without another word into the kitchen.
The tinny sound couldn’t completely disguise the quality of the baritone voice issuing from the speaker.
I recognized the song ‑‑ Jerome Kern’s “Old Man River” from Showboat. A former lover had been a dinner theater waiter. Three months of heartburn and four operettas and musicals, but I did develop an interest in classic American shows. The period of history in which Showboat was set was fascinating, and the story was a cut above anything before it.
I recognized incredible singing when I heard it. The performance was done as a solo with piano and included an introduction and arrangement I’d never heard before. The recording came to an end, and I went over and lifted the needle from the record while the disk continued to revolve silently.
“Did you enjoy the song?” Ron’s voice drifted back to me. I heard the kettle whistle, and then he came into the room, carrying a tray with the tuna fish artfully arranged on a bed of lettuce on a china plate, a chunk of bread, some butter, the carafe of amber liquid and a glass. The copper kettle sat on a trivet with a jar of instant coffee and a single mug. He set the tray down on the hassock and gestured for me to join him. He poured a glass of tonic for himself and sipped it before speaking again.
“You didn’t answer me. Did you like the performance?”
“The guy has a great voice. Who’s the singer? There was no label on the record. I’ve only heard modern recordings of the show.”
“Yeah, right. Do you think I’m an idiot? Showboat was written in the nineteen twenties, assuming deMonde was still alive, he would have been in his nineties!”
Ron laughed. “Of course he would have been in his nineties. I just wanted to tease you. Eat.” He leered and twirled an imaginary handlebar mustache. “You’ll need the strength when I have my wicked way with you.”
“Join me, m’dear,” I retorted in my best imitation of Snidely Whiplash. “We’ll both need all our strength.”
But he didn’t join me. He watched me eat and urged me to share his drink with him, holding the glass to my mouth and doling out the liquid between the two of us. And when the glass was empty, he set it aside, leaned back against the arm of the couch, and watched me expectantly as my eyes traveled the length of his body.
The dark swirl of hair on his chest arrowed to his waistband, and I knew exactly where it led.
He narrowed his gaze while I reached out and unbuttoned the jeans’ brass fastener and pulled down his fly. His penis nestled in the dark curls, thick and heavy and already semi-erect.
“What are you waiting for? I can smell your arousal.” His voice was calm.
It pissed me off until I dragged my eyes from his erection and looked up at his face. His nostrils flared, and his mouth was a slash in his face.
“I can’t smell yours. I’ll have to get closer.”
I lowered my face until my breath moved the fine curls of his bush. Taking my time, I licked him from base to tip.
I spread his pants open wider, and he lifted up as I pulled the denim down below his buttocks, leaving his legs restrained. His dick was hard; a drop of precum glistened on the crown. My mouth still hovered by his groin as I breathed in his scent. He’d moved his legs until they were half off the couch, his knees nudging mine, and I could feel them trembling ‑‑ my knees and his.
“What are you waiting for? Merde, what are you waiting for?” There was desperation and need in his voice.
Just what I was waiting for.