Tijuana Strays

written and illustrated by Iron Eater

illustrated by Iron Eater

Jeremy fancied himself an aesthete, even if his publisher (and what a crusty old goat of a man his publisher was!) saw him as a lazy good-for-nothing who only managed to deliver his work at the last possible minute. Could you be more like Paulie? the pub would ask him, shaking a handful of little stapled eight-pagers in his face. Paulie, he don’t care about makin’ great art, he’ll just draw Moon Mullins jazzin’ some motion picture beauty queen, and he won’t take three fuckin’ weeks to draw it all! So he’d nod and promise the next time the work would be done faster, and every time the next time rolled around he’d find himself detailing the bark on trees in the background for hours at a time instead of puzzling out how many excuses he could come up with for a lady’s top to fall off. He’d bring in two more stories than they asked of him as an apology of sorts, but even the promise of extra books wasn’t enough to keep him from getting yelled at.

The questionably legal, and barely ever profitable, world of Tijuana bibles was hard on gentle souls like Jeremy.

It was futile if you thought about it. The average eight-pager got printed up on something slightly less durable than a used Sears and Roebuck catalog, so any subtle details or delicate chiaroscuro disappeared into a big blob of ink that made it look like Buck Rogers was being attacked by bats. A good chunk of potential background space had to be sacrificed to speech bubbles big enough to fit the enormous lettering demanded by the bad paper. Most of the time he wasn’t even using his own style, either, instead comparing dozens of clippings from the funny pages to make sure everyone had enough buttons on their coats or the right number of hairs in their wispy cartoon-man mustaches. Not that his research mattered, either; if you somehow strapped a brush to a mule’s mouth, lined it up with the canvas, and slapped it on the flank, Jeremy would bet you couldn’t tell the difference from half of the crap they paid men to draw.

There were about a dozen other men employed by the operation that paid Jeremy’s bills, though the only ones he ever met were the aforementioned publisher and a few of the kids they had running the presses. The artists tried to avoid one another whenever possible, because who could keep a straight face if you knew the fellow looking in the shop window over there drew the Jeep rogering Betty Boop for a living? Certainly not Jeremy. It was hard not to bust up laughing even when the bossman was snarling at him, because here was a man so worked up over little trashy books–little trashy books where the stars of stage and screen went at each other with salami-sized pricks, no less–that he’d get red in the face and stomp around. The two-fifty a page was a downright kingly sum in that part of Illinois, though, so every month Jeremy would endure the publisher’s tantrums, drop off his picture sets, collect his pay, then return to the little walk-up he rented to prepare to do it all again. Most days he’d just think about his job as being in its own little bubble that only he (and sometimes his boss) inhabited.

Today was going to be a little different. This new guy, this new guy, the pub had groaned, and Jeremy had been startled that for once he wasn’t the source of the boss’s eternal headaches. This guy, he does good writing, gets some real knee-slappers in there, but his art, Jerry, his art is just a fuckin’ travesty. He pushed a booklet across the battered desk, which Jeremy thumbed through. “Travesty” described it pretty well.

You’re a good kid, slow as frozen shit in February when deadlines come around, but still a good kid, the publisher had continued, and you draw dicks that look like dicks and tits that look like tits. Go and give the new guy some pointers or something so I don’t hafta fire him, okay? Reliable art jobs were hard enough to find, even in the dirty-picture business, and Jeremy hated the idea of turning out some poor soul to scavenge for his daily beans, so he’d spouted off something or another about doing the publishing house proud–for all the pride smut peddlers could scrape together, anyway–and made his way down to the apartment block where the new guy, Todd, was busy drawing people’s hands on backwards.

Jeremy wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t the man who answered the door: he had a mop of red hair in dire need of a barber, broad shoulders, and clothes more like a day laborer’s than those of the artists Jeremy had known in his college days. He looked like someone had tied an Irishman to a bull. There was ink on his hands and trousers, though, and the pen he had tucked behind his ear looked well-used, so he had to be the same Todd that Jeremy was hunting. He squinted at Jeremy from behind his smudged glasses.

“You one of the runners Peckham sends my way?” he said. He had to be new if he still referred to the boss as anything other than title or profanity.

Jeremy nodded, since it was true enough. “I do pictures for him, too. He sent me out to look at your work. May I come inside?”

Todd shuffled to one side and waved him in. The lighting inside was bad–which on its own would make drawing decent pages hard enough–and ratty art supplies lay piled up on every flat surface not being used to hold books or clothes. Jeremy dusted off a crate and pulled it up next to Todd’s desk, where the big man had been hard at work drawing torsos that looked like nothing found on God’s green earth. This was going to be awkward.

Jeremy decided to ease into the topic of Todd’s deficiency of accurate anatomical representation. “So you’re the new guy, huh?” he said, going for as neutral a topic as he could.

“Yeah. Left the farm a year or so back. I figured I’d try my hand at becoming a big-shot arteest, and last month I heard Peckham needed someone who can do regular drawings and would pay half-decent scratch for it.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “Guess he’s noticed by now my talents don’t lie with doodling naked ladies.”

The kindest thing Jeremy could think of was to nod and say nothing. Todd sighed. “So are you here to say me and Peckham are parting ways now, or what?” he asked.

“Nothing that bad,” said Jeremy, quickly. “I’m one of the other artists he has on staff. He sent me down here to, uh.” There was no real way he couldn’t make the task sound rude, so he cleared his throat and carried on. “He says you write good jokes but can’t draw for beans. So he asked me to help out.”

Todd snorted, pinching the bridge of his nose, then gave a relieved little chuckle. He propped his cheek up on his hand. “Yeah? Which one are you, then? I haven’t had the time to read much in our fancy-schmancy publishing library yet.”

Jeremy was nothing if not prepared. He rested his bookbag on his knees, pulled out one of the first books he’d ever done, and slid it across the desktop to Todd. It was a saucy little number with Mae West vamping it up on the cover, credited to one “Jerry Hairpins.” He’d never been very good with names. At least the assonance rolled off the tongue.

Todd flipped through it with a distracted look on his face, stopping on the page where West was doing quite a number on Cary Grant’s johnson. It took Jeremy a minute to realize that Todd was actually looking at the stippling he’d done on the curtain in the background. Stippling! What kind of maniac tried to incorporate hundreds of tiny little dots into a dirty little booklet printed on bad paper? Especially one who had to get fifty more pages done before the next deadline? Jeremy had to wonder why he’d gotten off easy with the occasional come-to-Jesus talk when he was clearly more interested in the play of light and shadow off a starlet’s buttock than drawing the rest of her.

“You do decent stuff, Hairpins,” said Todd, who sounded like he meant it. “Classically trained?”

Jeremy nodded. He’d grown up reading storybooks crammed with gorgeous illustrations, and his dear old dad collected French posters full of flowers and patterns and women wearing fluttery dresses, so his parents hadn’t been surprised when he’d told them he wanted to go to art school. They’d been so proud when his teachers had talked about how he might be the next Alphonse Mucha. How wonderful it was drawing dozens of details for every advertising gig he’d found! Unfortunately, he didn’t quite see himself becoming the next Mucha while drawing Tijuana bibles for a living.

“Me, I paint,” Todd continued. He leaned over and tugged a piece of cloth from what Jeremy now realized was an easel, revealing the canvas beneath. It wasn’t finished, but Jeremy would buy a hat and eat it if it wasn’t one of the nicest depictions of a sunset on the lake he’d ever seen, especially so close up. The colors glowed even in the dim light of Todd’s apartment. “I do landscapes, still lifes. Sometimes I play around with that abstract stuff they do over in Europe. People I’m not so good at.” They turned as one to the page in progress on his desk, counted the fingers on everyone’s hands, then turned back to face one another without saying anything about the horrors they had witnessed.

How was he supposed to take the first step from this? The man could write, that was true, but aside from the fun of seeing famous people shouting swears and slang while schtupping each other most buyers didn’t care too much about the writing. He had a good eye for color, too, but at the most they had two colors of ink and most of the time everything was printed up in blurry monochromes. Jeremy doubted that people would want to come into a museum to look at a depiction of light off of Errol Flynn’s behind as he pounded away at whatever starlet would be popular in a month’s time. What on earth did the boss expect him to do with a man whose talents landed pretty much anywhere but where they needed to be?

Jeremy silently pulled out a little wooden pose dummy he’d packed and put it on an empty spot on the desk. It was soon joined by another, which he manipulated until they were locked in a crude and abstract sort of coitus, the dummy in front on its hands and knees. It was a pretty standard pose for anyone who drew eight-pagers for a living and had the side benefit of looking like whatever Todd had been trying for in the first place. Jeremy hauled out his drawing block, flipped it to a new page, and tapped a charcoal pencil to the blank paper.

“Let’s start with some basics…”

It was frustratingly slow at first. Todd kept trying to hold his charcoal the same way he held a brush, and the delicate dabbing that worked so well for showing the effect of sunlight through leaves just made a mess when he tried it with something other than oils. When Jeremy was able to get him to think of it as writing the picture into being, however, things started going a lot more smoothly. By midday Todd still drew hands and feet that looked like weird spiders, but his subjects’ heads all lined up with their spines and their navels weren’t drifting off to the side. Jeremy declared it a success and advised a break for lunch.

Todd’s kitchen had a genuine electric refrigerator in it, which surprised Jeremy given how shabby the rest of his apartment looked; he kept most of his food inside the thing, which resulted in the unusual sensation of eating a cold ham and cheese sandwich on equally cold bread. They ate standing over the sink to keep from having to wash plates.

“You know, for a bunch of guys who draw people humping all day, our books sure are predictable,” said Todd around a mouthful of sandwich.

Jeremy furrowed his brow. He didn’t like the idea of sweating over his storylines day after day to hear them described with words like “predictable,” at least not when he wasn’t just going through the motions. “What do you mean?”

“I’m just saying it’s weird we don’t sell more kinds of them, you know. Maybe one new title each batch having different smut in it? I bet there’s a lot of perverts out there who’d buy something with, I don’t know, two fellas going at each other.” He popped the last of his sandwich in his mouth and made some very rude, but evocative, gestures with his hands.

Jeremy kept his expression neutral as he made a big show of tapping his chin. “I’m pretty sure I saw one like that before, starring Mutt and Jeff.” This was partially true; he’d actually seen several along those lines, since he was the type of man to go out of his way for such, though in his experience they were pretty universally awful and liked to use humiliating punchlines a lot more often than he would like.

Todd rolled his eyes and scoffed. “Not funny little doodles who look more like Felix the Cat than anyone you’d see on the street. I mean people shaped like real people! Hell, it doesn’t even have to be movie stars.” He tucked his hands in his pockets. “I thought about drawing one up myself, but that old so-and-so we work for said it’d never sell.”

Now that was a concept Jeremy knew all too well: everyone he’d met assumed there were approximately five men who slept with other men in the entire universe at one time or another, and none of them were buying anything. Jeremy himself had taken a while to realize that there were men out there who not only had the same funny ideas he did but were willing to act on them. He’d assumed it was a little phase of his that would pass once he left art school and started wearing good shoes to work every day, but three years out of the studio he still had that little tickle in the back of his head that wanted to look at naked people, and not just the sweet-faced beauties he scribbled all day. Were there enough people of his persuasion to turn a profit above the printing costs?

Then again, maybe the pub had said those things about it never selling because Todd was just god-awful with a pen.

“So how come you’re so good at this stuff?” continued Todd. He twirled a hand in the direction of the main room. “You know, drawing people that look like people. Bodies are weird, all those lumps and angles and things.”

Jeremy shrugged. “I’ve just done a lot of life drawing in my time. I like doing it, so it helps me want to practice more.”

Some days it had felt like his body had fused to his chair and his lungs were solid knots of charcoal dust, and as the hours passed the light changed in a thousand little ways that were a nightmare to keep track of, but Jeremy had been truly happy as he coaxed lines into shapes and shadows from empty newsprint. It was just like it’d been when he was a boy, lying on his stomach in the kitchen with whatever scrap paper his father would bring home from the print shop, trying to draw the characters from his storybooks and getting a little better each time. He had trouble thinking about why anyone would pour so much effort into a single task if they didn’t enjoy doing it.

“Life drawing, huh?” said Todd. “Is that the thing where some lady sits in the altogether while a dozen fellas draw what parts of her they see hanging out?” Jeremy nodded; he’d always admired the patience the models had for being ogled all day by men barely out of (and sometimes still in) their teens. When it came to art, though, after a while you stopped staring at the nipples unless you were shading them. “They ever have any men sit in, too?” Todd asked, and the way he waggled his eyebrows gave Jeremy pause.

“Sometimes, sure,” he replied, warily. Saying the wrong thing to the wrong person could get a young man in a lot of trouble if he wasn’t careful! “We’d do these studies on how light looks on different textures of skin, comparing our really old groundskeeper and all his wrinkles to the teacher’s aide–”

“Who was no doubt chiseled like one of those Italian statues.” He pronounced it eye-talian. This was entirely true but no less annoying for its veracity.

As I was saying, we’d do lots of work on how shadows fell on skin, how muscles deform in different poses, that sort of thing. I never thought I’d draw so much drapery in my life.” The fact that he knew full well what some of their sitters were packing underneath those drapes was neither here nor there. His keen interest in the male form came in very handy when he needed to focus his attention on drawing the same dark-eyed dance student for hours on end.

Todd chuckled to himself. It was the kind of chuckle that Jeremy had always appreciated when he was getting to know someone on a more-than-friends level. He busied himself with pouring another glass of water and drinking it instead of admiring Todd’s profile. That sort of thing could come off a bit strong. After all, he’d just met Todd; there was a time and a place to talk about shared interests that went beyond whittling little figures out of soap, and a visit focused entirely around trying to get the new artist on staff to stop drawing breasts that looked like chameleon eyes was neither.

Their conversation drifted back to art again for a while as they cleaned up the last few crumbs. Todd had learned some of his craft out of mail-order kits or books sent by family members who lived out in California, but a good chunk of it was the result of just seeing what worked the way he wanted it to. Jeremy, on the other hand, had started young with private lessons before being shipped off to a fancy university to blossom into a proper artist. Neither of them talked about whether or not they were wasting their talents.

Breaks were only breaks if work continued afterward, so they grudgingly returned to the desk to practice linework again. Todd chattered away while following Jeremy’s lead; once he warmed up it seemed hard to get him to stop. It kept the mood casual, at least. After a while Jeremy started broaching slightly more personal topics.

“So why’d you leave the farm, anyway?” he said, both of them huddled around the graying paper. “It seems like there’d be a lot to paint there.”

Todd laughed with all the grace and dignity of a braying mule. “Maybe if you like corn! Besides, I got the feeling my pa didn’t approve of what me and one of the other farmhands would get up to when we went out past the cow pasture to ‘hunt for Indian money.’ Figured I’d head out on my own before he had to make a decision he didn’t want to.”

Well, that certainly answered a few questions Jeremy had been dancing around asking. It took him a moment or two to collect his composure.

“You said something about asking Peckham to broaden our subject matter earlier,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “I just so happen to have some, ah, proof-of-concept work tucked at the bottom of my bag that might be what you were talking about.” He forced a casual smile as he pulled out a single purple-inked book from its hiding place and handed it to Todd. Why had he even brought the blasted thing? This was only going to get him in trouble. “You could say it’s more of a personal project.”

Jerry Hairpins “Gives the Business” was not exactly high art by any stretch of the imagination, and he definitely would never get paid for it, but Jeremy was still proud of his weird little baby. It followed the formula properly without making any nasty jokes or slipping into the stomach-churning caricatures some of his fellow cartoonists foisted on their readers, and he’d had more than a few cold nights warmed up by reviewing its contents. All this and he’d been able to give the artwork the detail he so loved! A shame the writing and lettering weren’t as snappy as Todd’s. Jeremy would never be able to match the groaners he’d seen propping up the ugly art in his fellow author’s work.

Todd flicked through the booklet, his eyebrows going up and up each time he read a new panel. “You do this whole thing yourself, Hairpins?” he asked. Jeremy nodded shyly. If he’d put less effort into things he could have claimed it featured any young man with short brown hair and a penchant for wearing bow ties, but the faces were such obviously loving self-portraits the lie would have been obvious as a fart in church. Maybe he’d flattered his own build a little here and there, but that was the entire point of fiction, wasn’t it?

“This isn’t the sort of detail you just make up for giggles,” said Todd. “Either you know someone who’s been around the block a few times, or you’ve gone out past a few cow pastures of your own.” He propped his hand against his cheek again, the other cradling the eight-pager. “Calm down, I’m not gonna rat you out! I just wasn’t expecting it.”

Jeremy squirmed. He’d just met Todd and now he was already sharing secrets even most of his family didn’t know? No, this hadn’t been a good idea at all, even if he did halfway enjoy being put on the spot like this. “Sometimes I just have to get ideas down on paper or I’ll go stir crazy. It’s not like this dinky little town has much else to do, you know?”

“I’ll bet.” Todd flipped to the fourth page and studied the panel where not-Jeremy-honest was lounging in a fancy parlor with his business hanging out. “So here’s a rude question for you,” Todd said, the corners of his mouth curling with mischief. He turned the book around and tapped the picture with his finger. “How much of this picture here is truth, and how much is just fun with a pen on a rainy day?”

illustrated by Iron Eater

“That is a rude question,” said Jeremy. But it was kind of fun when Todd was rude, what with how he had an earthiness to him most of the others at school had lacked, and Jeremy couldn’t deny that he’d envied that farmhand a little. He had such a terrible weakness for redheads, too, and Todd could probably be mistaken for a forest fire if he went outside without a hat on. What was the worst that could happen if he flirted back? “If you must know, though, it’s drawn to scale. Maybe a little exaggeration for the sake of clean lines, but I swear I’d never take more artistic license than absolutely necessary.”

Todd folded his arms across his chest. “Oh yeah?”


“And what if I say I think you’re full of it, Hairpins?” Todd’s voice was defiant, but his eyes had a puckish little sparkle to them that was best described as a look.

Jeremy knew that look. He’d spent several very nice afternoons in college that had all started with someone giving him that look. They were in a private place and the boss didn’t need to hear back from him until tomorrow, so he made up his mind to strike while the iron was hot. “If you don’t believe me, I can show you. Up close and personal,” he added, feeling his cheeks threatening to go as red as his bow tie.

The tip of Todd’s tongue darted against his lips. He glanced down at Jeremy’s trousers, then back up again, his mischievous look melting into a cautiously interested expression. That alone was enough to make Jeremy’s pants fit a little differently. One of Todd’s carrot-colored eyebrows arched up perfectly in a way Jeremy had never been able to manage no matter how long he stayed in front of a mirror, wordlessly asking permission. Jeremy had spent far too much time without friendly company to back out now. He nodded to Todd and rested his hands on his knees, which was apparently all the prompting the other man needed to start wrestling with Jeremy’s buckle.

Todd looked as pleased as could be when he finally got Jeremy’s belt off and coaxed Jeremy’s cock out from its hiding place beneath the corduroy. He didn’t take long to admire it before nuzzling at Jeremy’s thighs and kissing his way up towards the main event. He hadn’t shaved very well that day, assuming he’d bothered to shave at all, so the occasional whiskery rasp from his chin made Jeremy jump. Being with someone a bit on the stubbly side was an entirely different animal from someone with a well-groomed beard or a chin as smooth as Jeremy’s own; it was also far better than being with nobody but his left hand, so he wasn’t about to complain.

When Todd took Jeremy’s cock in his mouth it was the nicest feeling he could remember for a month’s worth of Sundays, and as his lips slid further down the shaft Jeremy quietly thanked that farmhand who’d helped Todd practice back past the cow pasture. Those kinds of skills you only learned in college if you had understanding friends. Jeremy had been very understanding back in art school, of course, but there was a time and a place for learning, and he’d already worn out his teaching muscles for the day. There were worse ways to relax after a long day of tutoring.

Aside from a bit of teasing at the beginning Todd was all business, keeping Jeremy’s glans snugly past his lips and putting most of his energy in stimulating the inch or so of shaft beyond that. Jeremy gasped with pleasure. Todd glanced up at him and winked. What cheek! Jeremy hadn’t known until that very moment how much he happened to like a lover who wasn’t afraid to be cheeky from time to time.

He dug his fingers into Todd’s stupid, wonderful hair and urged him onward. His hips bucked against his will but Todd rolled with it, briefly breaking the seal his lips had made with a wet popping sound; young Jeremy would’ve been repulsed by it, given how unabashedly organic it was, but today’s Jeremy thrilled to hear. There was scarcely a beat before Todd had him back in his mouth again with a happy little growl. He knew a few of his fellows back home would have sneered at the thought of spending a little time with a man who’d done hard labor for a living, but as Todd’s callused hands touched him and his clever tongue tasted him Jeremy almost felt bad for their loss.

Going so long without this sort of thing had left Jeremy quite sensitive, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to last much more no matter how much of the dictionary he recited in his head. He whimpered. Todd lunged forward, his fingers digging into the fabric of Jeremy’s pants, and something cool bumped against Jeremy’s lower stomach. It took him a moment to realize what he felt were the lenses of Todd’s glasses pressing into his skin; save for a little bit of exposed skin at the corners of Todd’s mouth, the entire length of his shaft had been swallowed. Now that was talent.

With a shiver and a groan, Jeremy came, and Todd didn’t seem to mind at all.

After they cleaned themselves up–Todd having taken care of his own needs while Jeremy caught his breath, though Jeremy quietly wished he’d had a chance to help with that–they sat in comfortable silence. At some point Jeremy’s elbow had gotten into the sketches and was now covered in shiny gray. Spending an hour or so with laundry soap and a wringer definitely seemed worth the afternoon he’d had.

“So you think you can come back some other time for another art lesson?” said Todd, wiping his glasses on the corner of his shirt. He looked pleased and happy, like a dog lying in a sunbeam. “I mean, Peckham’s gonna keep yelling at me until I shape up, and I could use this job, yeah?”

Jeremy grinned. “Only if you help me with my writing.”

Todd made a faux-concerned noise. “Oh, that’s gonna be tricky. You can write dirty talk well enough, but you don’t seem to get how a good plot is supposed to work.” He pushed his spectacles back up his nose. “I figure that might take a lot of tutoring. A lot. I don’t know if we’d have enough time to fit it in around work.”

“I’m sure we’ll think of something,” said Jeremy.

While he wasn’t about to buy a press of his own and try selling books to an audience that might not exist in the first place, knowing there was someone else in their neck of the woods that could appreciate his less public works (and less public places) did wonders for Jeremy’s mood. As he gathered up his supplies he found himself already looking forward to the next visit. All this and he’d have the publisher’s favor for the next inevitable late deadline!

There were worse things in life than working blue.

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