"Its awright naw, chile," Etha Lee said, patting his shoulder. "Ya've done what's righ in God's eye an’ given ma chile needed peace."
"He's given me peace too, Miss Etha Lee." Travis stood up from the grave. "I can go on."
"It's important ta go on, chile,” Etha Lee pressed her hand to his. “Long as de good Lord gots breath in yar bodie. Ya gotta go on."
The word breath, that she said, reverberated through his head. He blinked, remembering that magical afternoon he met a mysterious handsome painter back in San Francisco and how passionate they had made love. But he felt more than a physical attraction for this boyish painter who spoke very little about himself and virtually disappeared. Never called back. The contact number he shared not real at all. Was it all a dream like how he appeared in his dream last night? A painted face, one side black, the other white. A great fire winding down a hillside through dry golden brush. A waterfall rushing into a bloody pool. She said he had to go on, and a dream was just a dream. That much was true. He had to find the painter and see him again.
"I reckon' we's best be gitten back to the house naw. It be dark afta a-while."
He snapped out of it hearing Etha Lee's voice. "Yes," he said, glancing Clarence's grave for a final time, "we should get going. I can then pack my belongings.” He followed Etha Lee down a dirt path and brown Bermuda grass grew in the middle of two dirt tracks and they went down it and around the church and to the main dirt road, and the sun was setting behind tall pines in the distance.
"Ya means, ya wonts ta leav' here ta-nigh?"
"Yes ma'am. Thanks to you, I feel Clarence is at peace."
"Yes, my chile is at peace. He speaks of meetin’ Jesus Christ, de Messiah, de day 'fore he left dis earth. His soul wont perish."
"Then he believed?"
"’He believed for sho'."
"Then I should believe, too."
"Dat's all ya gotta do, chile, is believe in de Lord, de most high, who died on de cross to save all of us sinners."
"I admit I am not that religious, Miss Etha Lee, not like you are. But after witnessing your faith, I feel something has changed, perhaps spiritual, inside of me. I feel this certain peace. I'm happy that Clarence believed in something higher than we are. That truly warms my heart.”
"It warms my heart, too, Travis, dat ma chile believed in de Lord, de most high, to tak him home fore he lef’ dis earth. You knows, Clarence was a good chile. My peutiest chile born. I ain't never gonna forgets him. Not any day. He really loves ya, too. Very much, ye know? He tolds me over and over just how much he cared about ya and loves ya an' tells me dat he com home cause he wonted to protect you from wha' he had de day ‘fore he lef' dis earth callin' on Jesus, and I was callin on Jesus, too, right wit' him to his last breath...”
“Then he didn’t hate me?”
“Hate? Lissen here chile, ma chile ain’t hate a purdy yella hair on y’r head or hates anyones fir dat matter. Ain't ya hears all I jest say?"
"Yes, ma'am, I heard."
"I telling ya de truth, chile. Naw lissen, Clarence ain't had no hate in his heart. None lak de spiteful peoples downs 'ere in Alicetown always hatin an' jealous over somebody else's good dey wont ta tak. Alicetown's still mighty segregated an' aint never been a neighborly place even wit all dat high mighty shoutin an' praying dey do in dem churches...but Clarence surly was...neighborly. Not lak dis fake place he was born. He loves all people no matter dey color wit' a heart of pure gold. Dat was ma chile, an' y'r lover at rest in peace...”
Travis suppressed his tears and managed a smile as they walked down the dirt road, shoulder to shoulder. "If I leave here tonight,” he said, “I can stop over in Dallas and spend some time with my sister, Sophia. Maybe we’ll drive down to Waco. I can make peace with my father before I return to San Francisco, the city I love and cherish like the brilliant sunset I see setting behind those pines. It’s funny how I always miss San Francisco the most when I go away from it. I don't believe there's a place in the world as great as San Francisco."
"Den ya best be gittin' back ta it, chile. Back to San Franciscie righ afta ya see yur sister in Dallas an’ make peace wit y’r daddy. I gits olde Ty-rone ta drives ya ta Atlanta soon as ya ready."
Travis slipped his arm around her shoulder and kissed her chubby brown cheek. "Thank you, Miss Etha Lee," he said fervently. "You've been a real sweetheart...so kind to me.”
"Ya ain so bad yarsef, chile. Not fore a whit' boy. I's enjoyed all yar companie an’ glads ya known my Clarence an’ loves him." She started to hum, then belted in a thunderous voice a soulful spiritual, I'm Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Song.
* * *
As the wind howled through a canopy of moss covered oaks, Tyrone stepped out of the forest and crossed a field of collard greens, their flowery shabby tops trembling, as he trotted down a middle row, and the headless graveyard of his brother's grave lie at the end behind the church. Fresh footprints from Travis's cowboy boots and his mother's old black slippers were dug around the grave. He squatted down and grabbed a fist full imprinted by Travis's boots.
"Dont ya worries, big brother," he murmured, squeezing the red soil hard in his calloused hand. "I wont let dat Frisco cracker git ‘way wit his killin' ya wit de faggot white man disease he brung 'round here. He wil’ pay even ef I hav' ta go ta all de way ta San Fran-cis-cie. I’d find‘im an' put an end ta’him an' anyone else of his kind standin' in ma way. An eye fir an eye, a tooth fir a tooth. Yar death will be avenged."
Violently, Tyrone threw the soil into the field of collards and away from Clarence’s remains. With clenched fists raised up in the air he climbed to his feet. For a moment, his eyes were shiny as though, at last, he might cry; but then fierceness came back to his eyes and a fling of curse words spilled from his mouth. In a mad frenzy he danced around his brother’s grave, cursing an unmerciful god and stomping out Travis's footprints until none were left...
* * *
Fog drizzled like raindrops below Twin Peaks and down into the streets of San Francisco it was damp and chilly, and the autumn night pitch black. In Meatball Factory a low fire burned and tassel-shade floor lamps dimly lit its back wine bar with a number of stained glass mosaic tabletop tables and two plaid fabric couches by a fireplace behind an L-shaped bar opposite Dutch half-doors to the kitchen. On a jukebox shoved in a corner underneath a tall plant and a mosaic window, Michael Sembello’s “Maniac” played and Zeno immediately perked up from being depressed on the couch facing the bar beside Abel.
Zeno glanced at him, but Abel did not meet his eye. He sucked in his teeth and tapped his feet to the beat of music, forgetting Abel and remembering how he had danced like a Maniac one balmy night last summer in Charleston at an Isle of Palms beach house of a flamboyant older couple, Saul Levin and Samuel Spitzer, who invited him to their pansexual party. Originally from Brooklyn, Saul and Samuel both spoke with thick New York accents, which he did not always find appealing and the slang they used he often didn't understand it. At separate occasions he had slept with both of them but adamantly refused a three-way they suggested even after they promised to supply him a weekly bag of marijuana for bringing such ‘color and spirit and excitement’ to their uneventful lives.
The dope he wanted to share with Matthew, his reliable home bad boy, and almost agreed to their tempting proposition, but then decided he couldn’t do it after all. It would be hideous and exhausting when it was only Saul he preferred much more over Samuel, but he couldn’t tell Samuel he thought he was lousy in bed. That would have been cruel. Offensive. Even if it was the truth that Samuel was that awkward in bed, especially the sloppy way he kissed. It was repulsive. Every time more awful than the previous. Zeno would always have to turn his head to the other side and bury his face in a pillow when Samuel tried to kiss him with all that saliva dripping from his lower lip. He squeezed his eyes shut from the mere sight of that hanging spit from his cigarette breath. His slobber all over him from his little toe to the tip of his nose. There was no way to not go limp like a flat tire with all that drool as much as he tried to keep it up, he just couldn't. Not even thinking about ruggedly handsome Alain Delon, Roger Hanin, Maximilian Schell whose slobber he wouldn't mind at all, but Samuel Spitzer was not any of them. On the other hand, Saul was darker, divine; furry but smooth like silk, and Zeno stayed quite erect for Saul. He enjoyed versatile sex with Saul, especially the climax when Saul would tremble so, squeeze him tightly and just scream as he felt his hot semen spat over his chest and tenderly he released down into a sea that drowned out all of his worries that never existed. Generously they presented him with a bag of dope without necessary performance, promised a ton more upon is next return and he gladly snatched the bag from them and collected a dozen business cards of all other men before he left the party, which he figured might come in handy for another night when he was in the mood to swing from new poles.
He grinned and snapped his fingers to the beat of the Sembello; then noticed Abel’s grim expression, which dissuaded him from continuing. He picked up his glass of burgundy from off of the table and slouched back into the sofa. He sipped, wishing he were any place else in the world and not in the Meatball Factory with Abel who had been a bore all evening. Abel had said very little to him since coming home unexpectedly early last Sunday, except to only hint what he was to do and not do in his presence like a broken record Zeno hated.
He sipped more burgundy and caught a glimpse of his black reflection in the mirror. In dull light his face appeared significantly black opposite Abel’s pasty complexion. At every angle he turned, he looked as black as soot [in his eyes] . Most disturbingly, he could only make out the whites of his eyes. Not his face. He dared not smile with a set of gleaming white teeth. He would look even blacker in that horrible dull light. Irritated, he fidgeted in the sofa like a naughty child, swallowed the rest of strong wine in his glass so hard that Abel grew alarmed. He slammed the glass down on the table and flashed Abel a frivolous smirk intended to express his sorrow over disrespectfully slamming the glass down in the first place, but that was not the real reason and he knew it. He sat straight up and blinked his long black eyelashes like a demure girl would do; then started to hum and mumble a few words along with Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams” playing over the jukebox. Another song he loved like a great bowl of dope and Matthew would be waiting for him to kiss him, passionately. He grinned and tapped his feet rapidly to the beat until he'd convinced himself he wasn’t so fiendishly black after all in the bar’s ghastly mirror. Not at all was he a blue-black against Abel’s chalky skin. When he looked in the mirror again, he smiled and was content that he could see more than white teeth. That face was black and beautiful. He certainly hoped every man in Meatball Factory admired his face as deeply as its self-conscious occupant.
Abel was thinking how much he wanted him to suffer and believing he had not forgiven him about last Sunday when he came home early and found the bedroom disarrayed and all that dope the boy smoked--supposedly all alone. What kind of a jackass did Zeno think he was? The whole room smelled like semen of two men. He finished his wine, listening to another shoddy song over the jukebox and hating its senseless lyrics. His thin pencil lips tightened. He wished the Factory played Coltrane, Fitzgerald or Davis, instead of this obnoxious new wave. He picked up the carafe of burgundy, glimpsed at Zeno through the mirror and almost smiled, thinking Zeno looked very attractive in the fire light. He wanted to take him in his arms that instant, kiss him and tell him how much he loved him repeatedly until it finally sank in his silly head. He loved Zeno deeply. Perhaps that had been an unfortunate error, his enduring love for selfish Zeno Dexter Elliott. A love that was greater than love of himself, and he relapsed. If only their relationship could be as it were in the beginning when they were so gay in Denmark, he was willing to sell his soul to the devil for a return that happiness. Now he was almost afraid to love Zeno any longer from fear of being abandoned. He trembled, tried to conceal his shaking hand and refilled his glass over the brim; then poured a half glass of what was left into the other.
He handed the half glass to Zeno, and their eyes connected. Both swallowed.
For an abrupt moment Abel heard nothing save a peculiar silence, which made him think surely he had gone deaf or had died. He clenched his teeth and heard an unglamorous song about girls just wanting to have fun, which echoed in his ear like a barnyard of Rhode Island hens out of control with hiccups; but, in spite of the lyrical degradation he was hearing, yes, he was relieved he had not died.
Zeno took the glass Abel handed him and stared back at him, truly concerned over a queer twitch in Abel's jaw. He thanked him profusely, hearing his own heart beating so soundly he thought it might burst. Anxiously, he waited for Abel's twitch to go away, for Abel to tell him anything at all. Again no words ensued between them. Zeno’s eyes welled up with fake tears. Abel turned away and resorted to silence.
He sat back and wiped his eyes and swallowed a mouth-full of wine. He grimaced from the strong drink settling in his stomach like a obnoxious punch in the testicles and an awful sour after taste lingering in his mouth. He felt nauseous, sweaty and shook his head. Abel's twitch had finally stopped. He put his drink down and slid closer to Abel's side. "I wish you'd forgive me, sir," he whispered, leaning his head against Abel’s shoulder. "I miss not talking to you."
"Then you think that you've suffered long enough and learned a valuable lesson?” Abel commanded.
"Yes," he said matter-of-factly. "I have learned a valuable lesson and suffered as though I've been imprisoned. I want to escape but you're the keeper of that key. The only one capable of setting me free. I want us to be happy again like we were on holiday in Copenhagen, Rome and Venice." And he smiled, remembering Simone, the boy, he'd met from Naples on a train he'd taken from Milan and down to Rome to meet Abel. No, he'd not actually forgotten Simone. Then how could he forget a olive face as beautiful as Simone's? A face he wanted to paint. A face and pouty pink lips he had to kiss.
"I wish our happiness too, my boy. But you're right I do hold that key where you and I are concerned. I am your past, your present and possibly your future. But you must be faithful and obedient to me for as long as we are to remain as we were."
"I will be faithful from now on," Zeno replied, glancing up at the low beam ceiling. It did not cave in on his head. He thanked God for being merciful and prayed that some day he could stop lying altogether and express his true feelings, which seemed easier now than a web of tangled lies to a lover paying the bills.
"Then you are forgiven, my boy," Abel said, putting his drink down and studying his hands that were still trembling. It had to be love, he figured that was the reason he was shaking and perspiring so. He clasped his hands together to control them and finally sat back in the sofa.
Zeno laid his head back on his shoulder, and Abel didn’t protest. After a while, he stroked Zeno’s short kinky black hair and thought he heard Zeno purring like a kitten, the same way he purred softly in his arms after they had made love. The memory of that excited him.
"I only want you to be happy, Zeno,” he said honestly. “I feel responsible for you as if you were my own flesh and blood, as if I am your real father. I feel I am your father in a spiritual sense. I've been more supportive of you than any other man, including your biological father who was never there for you as he should have been. I am the parent, the father you so seek. That’s why I am often strict with you. But our relationship goes deeper than that of son and father. I am your lover. I’ve been intimate with you longer than I've been with any other person on the face of the earth. The truth is I am in love with you as much as I love myself, and more so than I have loved anyone else. When I discipline you, it's because I truly care about you.
I want you to be an adult responsible for your own actions, a distinctive man set apart from the rest of the fools out there who live such disillusioned. In time, you'll learn how to control your lower conscience and obtain a higher good that life has to offer. I am simply here to help you achieve that as I’ve always stipulated. You're not a loser, my boy. No man who ever loves me is a loser. I feel in my heart you have the power, the ability and the talent to determine your own destiny. My purpose is to guide you."
It was suddenly like former times of them communicating like teacher and student, father and son. Zeno smiled and promised that he would return to painting full-time, whether his Dolores Street studio he called "The Green Cottage" was completed or not.
"It's true that most common people desire lovers," Abel told him, picking up his glass and sipping. Then he looked deeply into Zeno’s ebony eyes and reached for his hand that he squeezed gently. "But did you know that a friend or a true achieved friend of the heart is even more enlightening than a lover? See lovers don't last, my boy. Lovers, as I've had in the past, get bored with you, hate you, abandon you for someone new or go away and die. But friendship, true friendship of the heart endures. A true friend is always there to support you through good and bad times. A true friend doesn’t go away and is always there. That's basically what I wish from you. The rest, as all things do, will take care of itself."
"Then you truly believe in me? That I can do better and be a great painter?"
"You will do better and you are already a great painter, provided you continue striving harder than the rest."
“Oh, thank you, Abel,” Zeno cried, hugging him hard. “I think...no, I really do love you.”
“I love you,” Abel said kissing the top of his head and hugging him back as hard. “I have always loved, Zeno. You’re my pride and joy, my now and tomorrow...”
An overweight man with thinning red hair laughed very loudly with Alphonz, the mustached and sexy dark haired bartender, at the far end of the bar arousing Abel’s attention. Zeno caught Abel’s eye and looked over at the bar to see who fascinated him so. "You know him?" he said, looking back at Abel.
"Yes,” replied Abel. “I think I do."
“He's quite amused. Who is he?”
"I believe he could be my former roommate.”
“Yes,” said Abel, “when I attended Stanford. A long time ago.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Ancient history you need not worry your pretty head over,” Abel grinned, patting Zeno’s hand.
“Then I wasn’t born?”
“You will never stop trying to guess at my age, will you?” Abel chuckled.
“I could care less about your age, except you are old enough for that and I'm just curious, of course.”
“Remember what curiosity did for the cat?”
“Yes,” Zeno said, looking back at Abel and sipping. “It killed the horniness right out of the crazy thing. So aren’t you going to go over and say hello to your old college roommate?"
"I think I shall," Abel kissed Zeno’s forehead and stood up. “Thanks. I’ll be back in a moment.”
“Take your time,” Zeno said, sinking down into the soft sofa as Sweet Dreams started to play again. He crossed his legs and watched male waiters dressed in all black and all of them perfectly slim, and one shapely waitress with shiny black hair and beautiful like a 20's flapper girl, her tray balanced and lifted high above her head like the waiters. Seamlessly they marched in uniform from the bar and into the restaurant and back again to the beat of Eurythmics and Sembello, and he smiled, wondering which one he should select to lead him to the men's urinal...