“The Crooked Man” is a short story written by Charles Beaumont that was first published in Playboy in 1955. In response to a smattering of angered readers about the depiction of a society in which homosexuality is the norm and heterosexuals are persecuted, Hugh Hefner wrote, “If it was wrong to persecute heterosexuals in a homosexual society, then the reverse was wrong too,” according to The Advocate.
The Crooked Man
“Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools… who changed the truth of God into a lie. . . for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature:and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the women, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly . . .”
–St. Paul: Romans, I
HE SLIPPED INTO A CORNER BOOTH AWAY FROM THE dancing men, where it was quietest, where the odors of musk and frangipani hung less heavy on the air. A slender lamp glowed softly in the booth. He turned it down: down to where only the club’s blue overheads filtered through the beaded curtain, diffusing, blurring the image thrown back by the mirrored walls of his light, thin-boned handsomeness.
“Yes sir?” The barboy stepped through the beads and stood smiling. Clad in goldsequined trunks, his greased muscles seemed to roll in independent motion, like fat snakes beneath his naked skin.
“Whiskey,” Jesse said. He caught the insouciant grin, the broad white-tooth crescent that formed on the young man’s face. Jesse looked away, tried to control the flow of blood to his cheeks.
“Yes sir,” the barboy said, running his thick tanned fingers over his solar plexus, tapping the fingers, making them hop in a sinuous dance. He hesitated, still smiling, this time questioningly, hopefully, a smile drenched in admiration and desire. The Finger Dance, the accepted symbol, stopped: the pudgy brown digits curled into angry fists. “Right away, sir.”
Jesse watched him turn; before the beads had tinkled together he watched the handsome athlete make his way imperiously through the crowds, shaking off the tentative hands of single men at the tables, ignoring the many desire symbols directed toward him.
That shouldn’t have happened. Now the fellow’s feelings were hurt. If hurt enough, he would start thinking, wondering–and that would ruin everything. No. It must be put right.
“Your whiskey, sir,” the young man said. His face looked like a dog’s face, large, sad; his lips were a pouting bloat of line.
Jesse reached into his pocket for some change. He started to say something, something nice.
“It’s been paid for,” the barboy said. He scowled and laid a card on the table and left.
The card carried the name E.J. TWO HOBART, embossed, in lavender ink. Jesse heard the curtains tinkle.
“Well, hello. I hope you don’t mind my barging in like this, but–you didn’t seem to be with anyone . . .”
The man was small, chubby, bald; his face had a dirty growth of beard and he looked out of tiny eyes encased in bulging contacts. He was bare to the waist. His white hairless chest dropped and turned in folds at the stomach. Softly, more subtly than the barboy had done, he put his porky stubs of fingers into a suggestive rhythm.
Jesse smiled. “Thanks for the drink,” he said. “But I really am expecting someone.”
“Oh?” the man said. “Someone–special?”
“Pretty special,” Jesse said smoothly, now that the words had become automatic. “He’s my financée.”
“I see.” The man frowned momentarily and then brightened. “Well, I thought to myself, I said: E.J., a beauty like that couldn’t very well be unattached. But–well, it was certainly worth a try. Sorry.”
“Perfectly all right,” Jesse said. The predatory little eyes were rolling, the fingers dancing in one last-ditch attempt. “Good evening, Mr. Hobart.”
Bluey veins showed under the whiteness of the man’s nearly female mammae. Jesse felt slightly amused this time: it was the other kind, the intent ones, the humorless ones like–like the barboy–that repulsed him, turned him ill, made him want to take a knife and carve unspeakable ugliness into his own smooth ascetic face.
The man turned and waddled away crabwise. The club was becoming more crowded. It was getting later and heads full of liquor shook away the inhibitions of the earlier hours. Jesse tried not to watch, but he had long ago given up trying to rid himself of his fascination. So he watched the men together. The pair over in the far corner, pressed close together, dancing with their bodies, never moving their feet, swaying in slow lissome movements to the music, their tongues twisting in the air, jerking, like pink snakes, contracting to points and curling invitingly, barely making touch, then snapping back.
The Tongue Dance. . . The couple seated by the bar. One a Beast, the other a Hunter, the Beast old, his cheeks caked hard and cracking with powder and liniments, the perfume rising from his body like steam; the Hunter, young but unhandsome, the fury evident in his eyes, the hurt anger at having to make do with a Beast–from time to time he would look around, wetting his lips in shame . . . And those two just coming in, dressed in Mother’s uniforms, tanned, mustached, proud of their station . . .
Jesse held the beads apart, Mina must come soon. He wanted to run from this place, out into the air, into the darkness and silence.
No. He just wanted Mina. To see her, touch her, listen to the music of her voice . . .
Two women came in, arm in arm, Beast and Hunter, drunk. They were stopped at the door. Angrily, shrilly, told to leave. The manager swept by Jesse’s booth, muttering about them, asking why they should want to come dirtying up The Phallus with their presence when they had their own section, their own clubs–.
Jesse pulled his head back inside. He’d gotten used to the light by now, so he closed his eyes against his multiplied image. The disorganized sounds of love got louder, the singsong syrup of voices: deep, throaty, baritone, falsetto. It was crowded now. The Orgies would begin before long and the couples would pair off for the cubicles. He hated the place. But close to Orgy-time you didn’t get noticed here–and where else was there to go? Outside, where every inch of pavement was patrolled electronically, every word of conversation, every movement recorded, catalogued, filed?
Damn Knudson! Damn the little man! Thanks to him, to the Senator, Jesse was now a criminal.
Before, it wasn’t so bad–not this bad, anyway. You were laughed at and shunned and fired from your job, sometimes kids lobbed stones at you, but at least you weren’t hunted. Now–it was a crime. A sickness.
He remembered when Knudson had taken over. It had been one of the little man’s first telecasts; in fact, it was the platform that got him the majority vote:
“Vice is on the upswing in our city. In the dark corners of every Unit perversion blossoms like an evil flower. Our children are exposed to its stink, and they wonder–our children wonder–why nothing is done to put a halt to this disgrace. We have ignored it long enough! The time has come for action, not mere words. The perverts who infest our land must be fleshed out, eliminated completely, as a threat not only to public morals but to society at large. These sick people must be cured and made normal.
“The disease that throws men and women, together in this dreadful abnormal relationship and leads to acts of retrogression–retrogression that will, unless it is stopped and stopped fast, push us inevitably back to the status of animals–this is to be considered as any other disease. It must be conquered as heart trouble, cancer, polio, schizophrenia, paranoia, all other diseases have been conquered . . .”
The Women’s Senator had taken Knudson’s lead and issued a similar pronunciamento and then the bill became law and the law was carried out.
Jesse sipped at the whiskey, remembering the Hunts. How the frenzied mobs had gone through the city at first, chanting, yelling, bearing placards with slogans: WIPE OUT THE HETEROS! KILL THE QUEERS! MAKE OUR CITY CLEAN AGAIN! And how they’d lost interest finally after the passion had worn down and the novelty had ended. But they had killed many and they had sent many more to the hospitals . . .
He remembered the nights of running and hiding, choked dry breath glued to his throat, heart rattling loose. He had been lucky. He didn’t look like a hetero. They said you could tell one just by watching him walk–Jesse walked correctly. He fooled them. He was lucky.
And he was a criminal. He, Jess Four Martin, no different from the rest, tubeborn and machine-nursed, raised in the Character Schools like everyone else–was terribly different from the rest.
It had happened–his awful suspicions had crystallized–on his first formal date. The man had been a Rocketeer, the best high quality, even out of the Hunter class. Mother had arranged it carefully.
There was the dance. And then the ride in the spacesled. The big man had put an arm about Jesse and–Jess knew. He knew for certain and it made him very angry and very sad.
He remembered the days that came after the knowledge: bad days, days fallen upon evil, black desires, deep-cored frustrations. He had tried to find a friend at the Crooked Clubs that flourished then, but it was no use. There was a sensationalism, a bravura to these people, that he could not love. The sight of men and women together, too, shocked the parts of him he could not change, and repulsed him.
Then the vice squads had come and closed up the clubs and the heteros were forced underground and he never sought them out again or saw them. He was alone.
The beads tinkled.
“Jesse–” He looked up quickly, afraid. It was Mina. She wore a loose man’s shirt, an old hat that hid her golden hair: her face was shadowed by the turned-up collar. Through the shirt the rise and fall of her breasts could be faintly detected. She smiled once, nervously.
Jesse looked out the curtain. Without speaking, he put his hands about her soft thin shoulders and held her like this for a long minute.
“Mina–” She looked away. He pulled her chin forward and ran a finger along her lips. Then he pressed her body to his, tightly, touching her neck, her back, kissing her forehead, her eyes, kissing her mouth. They sat down.
They sought for words. The curtain parted.
“Beer,” Jesse said, winking at the barboy, who tried to come closer, to see the one loved by this thin handsome man.
The barboy looked at Mina very hard, but she had turned and he could see only the back. Jesse held his breath. The barboy smiled contemptuously then, a smile that said: You’re insane–I was hired for my beauty. See my chest, look–a pectoral vision. My arms, strong; my lips–come, were there ever such sensuous ones? And you turn me down for this bag of bones .
Jesse winked again, shrugged suggestively and danced his fingers: Tomorrow, my friend, I’m stuck tonight. Can’t help it. Tomorrow.
The barboy grinned and left. In a few moments he returned with the beer. “On the house,” he said, for Mina’s benefit. She turned only when Jesse said, softly:
“It’s all right. He’s gone now.”
Jesse looked at her. Then he reached over and took off the hat. Blond hair rushed out and over the rough shirt.
She grabbed for the hat. “We mustn’t,” she said. “Please–what if somebody should come in?”
“No one will come in. I told you that.”
“But what if? I don’t know–I don’t like it here. That man at the door–he almost recognized me.”
“But he didn’t.”
“Almost though. And then what?”
“Forget it. Mina, for God’s sake. Let’s not quarrel.”
She calmed. “I’m sorry, Jesse. It’s only that–this place makes me feel–“
“Dirty.” She said it defiantly.
“You don’t really believe that, do you?”
“No. I don’t know. I just want to be alone with you.”
Jesse took out a cigarette and started to use the lighter. Then he cursed and threw the vulgarly shaped object under the table and crushed the cigarette. “You know that’s impossible,” he said. The idea of separate Units for homes had disappeared, to be replaced by giant dormitories. There were no more parks, no country lanes. There was no place to hide at all now, thanks to Senator Knudson, to the little bald crest of this new sociological wave. “This is all we have,” Jesse said, throwing a sardonic look around the booth, with its carved symbols and framed pictures of entertainment stars–all naked and leering.
They were silent for a time, hands interlocked on the table top. Then the girl began to cry. “I–I can’t go on like this,” she said.
“I know. It’s hard. But what else can we do?” Jesse tried to keep the hopelessness out of his voice.
“Maybe,” the girl said, “we ought to go underground with the rest.”
“And hide there, like rats?” Jesse said.
“We’re hiding here,” Mina said, “like rats.”
“Besides, Parker is getting ready to crack down. I know, Mina–I work at Centraldome, after all. In a little while there won’t be any underground.”
“I love you,” the girl said, leaning forward, parting her lips for a kiss. “Jesse, I do.” She closed her eyes. “Oh, why won’t they leave us alone? Why? Just because we’re que–“
“Mina! I’ve told you–don’t ever use that word. It isn’t true! We’re not the queers. You’ve got to believe that. Years ago it was normal for men and women to love each other: they married and had children together; that’s the way it was. Don’t you remember anything of what I’ve told you?”
The girl sobbed. “Of course I do. But, darling, that was a long time ago.”
“Not so long! Where I work–listen to me–they have books. You know, I told you about books? I’ve read them, Mina. I learned what the words meant from other books. It’s only been since the use of artificial insemination–not even five hundred years ago.”
“Yes dear,” the girl said. “I’m sure, dear.”
“Mina, stop that! We are not the unnatural ones, no matter what they say. I don’t know exactly how it happened–maybe, maybe as women gradually became equal to men in every way–or maybe solely because of the way we’re born–I don’t know. But the point is, darling, the whole world was like us, once. Even now, look at the animals–“
“Jesse! Don’t you dare talk as if we’re like those horrid dogs and cats and things!”
Jesse sighed. He had tried so often to tell her, show her. But he knew, actually, what she thought.
That she felt she was exactly what the authorities told her she was–God, maybe that’s how they all thought, all the Crooked People, all the “unnormal” ones.
The girl’s hands caressed his arms and the touch became suddenly repungnant to him. Unnatural. Terribly unnatural.
Jesse shook his head. Forget it, he thought. Never mind. She’s a woman and you love her and there’s nothing wrong nothing wrong nothing wrong in that. . . or am I the insane person of old days who was insane because he was so sure he wasn’t insane because–.
It was the fat little man, the smiling masher, E.J. Two Hobart. But he wasn’t smiling now. Jesse got up quickly and stepped in front of Mina. “What do you want? I thought I told you–“
The man pulled a metal disk from his trunks. “Vice squad, friend,” he said. “Better sit down.” The disk was pointed at Jesse’s belly.
The man’s arm went out the curtain and two other men came in, holding disks.
“I’ve been watching you quite a while, mister,” the man said. “Quite a while.”
“Look,” Jesse said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I work at Centraldome and I’m seeing Miss Smith here on some business.”
“We know all about that kind of business,” the man said.
“All right–I’ll tell you the truth. I forced her to come here. I–“
“Mister–didn’t you hear me? I said I’ve been watching you. All evening. Let’s go.”
One man took Mina’s arm, roughly; the other two began to propel Jesse out through the club. Heads turned. Tangled bodies moved embarrassedly.
“It’s all right,” the little fat man said, his white skin glistening with perspiration. “It’s all right, folks. Go on back to whatever you were doing.” He grinned and tightened his grasp on Jesse’s arm.
Mina didn’t struggle. There was something in her eyes–it took Jesse a long time to recognize it.
Then he knew. He knew what she had come to tell him tonight: that even if they hadn’t been caught–she would have submitted to the Cure voluntarily. No more worries then, no more guilt. No more meeting at midnight dives, feeling shame, feeling dirt . . .
Mina didn’t meet Jesse’s look as they took her out into the street.
“You’ll be okay,” the fat man was saying. He opened the wagon’s doors. “They’ve got it down pat now–couple days in the ward, one short session with the doctors; take out a few glands, make a few injections, attach a few wires to your head, turn on a machine: presto! You’ll be surprised.”
The fat officer leaned close. His sausage fingers danced wildly near Jesse’s face.
“It’ll make a new man of you,” he said. Then they closed the doors and locked them.