Zeno stretched out his long legs underneath the coffee table and lifted his arms high in the air above his head as long and hard as he could reach until he felt his spine crack and his soul tingled with relief. He smiled at a distant memory. The memory of a man he had recently known. Every thought of him delighting his senses.
It was raining with the view of the city hazy and gray below and he slowly got back to concentrating on a portfolio of photographs he'd taken in the studio of his artwork. The wind picked up and the rain fell harder by the time Zelta came through the French doors and into the living room gasping with every step.
In one hand she carried a bag of M&M candies, the other a glass filled with milkshake. Ceto, the short-hair black cat Zelta always called Blackey, followed in tow with a gay erect tail.
Zeno was about to say good morning but hesitated after seeing pale lipstick shaping her small mouth and soft earth shadow and rouge painting her chalky complexion giving her cheeks an unnatural glow. Her snow-white hair was untangled and brushed neatly into place. She wore a clean blue velvet gown with a flower embroidery knitted above the breast, a striking improvement over the drab flesh-colored robe she had worn previously. He couldn't believe it was the same woman who had managed to look so miserable only a few days ago.
This change, he thought to himself and held his breath to keep from laughing outloud, would probably horrify Abel upon his return from Charleston.
"How are you today, Mrs. Erikson?" he finally said after she settled into her favorite arm chair with a high back and a small fluffy pillow. The chair was closest to a floor lamp and off to the side of the white fireplace mantel with a ticking antique clock and Abel's portrait focused above the fireplace.
"Just fine, young fellow,” she said haughtily and Zeno looked away from her. “Thank you," she added and placed the glass down on the side table with bag of M&Ms centered in her lap; then looked anxiously around the room. "Where is Rosa?" she said.
"Rosa won't be in until the afternoon,” he glimpsed at her and continued his work. “She has a doctor’s appointment. That’s why she's late."
"Rosa won't be in until the afternoon,” he glimpsed at her. “She has a doctor’s appointment. That’s why she's late."
"I hope she'll be all right.”
"She’ll be fine⎯I’m sure."
She reached for the glass on the table and lifted it with the plastic straw anchored at the top to her mouth and, staring straight ahead into a downpour of rain dripping down the terrace glass, she parted her lips and sucked. Hearing the sound of her sucking and then wheezing Ceto, the black cat, scouted out from underneath the chair. She caught a sudden dash of the cat for only second as it disappeared through the open French doors and into the hall and ignored it for now. She put the glass back down on the table mechanically and fidgeted with the seal of the bag of M&Ms until she tore it open violently in her lap. Like a child she picked out the red and yellow candies and popped first the reds, then the yellows into her mouth and chewed ravenously.
The French doors wide open worried her more than the cat always chasing after something. She thought of Ahab, her second son, expecting he would come rushing through the door at moment and into the room raging about the heat being let out into the hall and the bill sky high. Ahab was always complaining especially about money he never had and always needed to buy filthy magazines he used to hurt himself down in the basement. She leaned forward with her elbows pressed into the top of her thighs and peered at Zeno wishing he would stop with that picture book right now, get up off of that floor and shut the door before Ahab burst in or that other one (Abel, her first son) returned like hurricane Hazel. Without either of them the house was calmer. She liked it that way.
She popped more candies and thought about the milkshake and how good it had been⎯and how much better it was than the first ones Ahab had made after he first told her Dr. Abagtha prescribed shakes especially for her diet. "The milkshake was another good one,” she blurted out loud. “Was it you, Rosa or that nurse who made it for me?”
"It was I. Your nurse, Wilma Hope, is out of town. I hope you like strawberry?"
"I love strawberry. It's a good flavor. The best I've ever had. I thank you very much."
About two miles southeast of Pemberton steps Travis Weatherford, a blond with stormy Nordic good looks and green eyes, snorted the last line of cocaine from a mirror in his Bernal Heights flat. The feeling was dazzling, soothing. Things looked clearer now, and he was pleased listening to piano solo and gazing into a fire burning softly in the fireplace with the smell of wet burning wood enhancing his euphoria.
In a little while he would add another log or two; but momentarily he didn’t care to do anything except settle back with happy thoughts of a painter he’d met in Macombe Alley. The telephone rang, disrupting his thoughts. He leaned lazily over and picked up the receiver hoping it was already the painter calling to come over and lift Travis' ready and willing legs into the air. Instead, it was Belin, someone with Clarence's surname. "You're Tyrone?" he said with a slight Texan drawl.
"Yassar, I is Clarence's brutha.”
"Why hello, Tyrone," he tried sounding cheerful and swallowed. "Where is Clarence?"
"Dat's ‘y I is callin', sar."
"What's wrong?" Goosebumps spreading over his skin, little blond hairs erecting on back of his neck. He sank down in the chair. "Where is Clarence?" he repeated.
"E was ‘ere, sar."
"Then he's finally come back to his senses and on his way back to San Francisco?"
"N-no sar. C-Clarence,” Tyrone stuttered. “E-e be g-gone away, sar."
"I don't understand." A paining in his chest. This feeling, this foreboding doom agonizing him so.
"Clarence, me b-brutha, s-sar..."
"E’ is d-dead, sar."
"What do you mean he's dead? He can't be dead. I’ve just seen him a month ago. What kind of prank call is this? Are you insane, man?"
"E’s dead, sar. We's done buried ’e dis past Friday. Momma says ya oughta be tolds, sar - 'cause ‘e tells her ‘bouts ya’ll be livin' togather out dere in California."
"And you're just now telling me about this after burying him a week ago?"
"Sar, we's real upset down ‘ere, too. It happens so quick. Nobodies knows how sick ‘e is when he comes home. Den ‘e gots so weak an’ slim an’ dem sores. Open sores, ‘e come all over ‘e face, ‘e body. E gots to de place where ‘e can't eat no mor’! Dose sores in ‘e mouf dat ‘e can’t eat. Lord ‘e face was covers ups wit' ‘em. W-we almost too scared ta touch ‘im. Doc up in Alicetown scared, too. ‘E gits so bad dat we-"
"Oh my God," Travis cried, tears rolling down his cheeks. "He went back there to die when I thought...Dammit! What a fool I've been." He stared into space furiously, pulling his hair and gritting his teeth and cursing God under his breath. He didn't hear Tyrone's desperate stutters anymore. "I gotta go, Tyrone. I can't talk now. But thanks much, buddy. Thank you for letting me know about Clarence."
He hung up the phone, shaken and frozen to the spot. Then it struck, the painful aching, the burning misery. Long guttural wails echoed from his mouth as he screamed out his sorrow. The pain wouldn't ease. It kept coming, kept digging and twisting in his gut like a parasite. His lover had fallen to it. The same red virus the media reported was being transmitted through blood and semen, and gay men primarily at risk. That couldn't be true when sex was good, plentiful. Sex and sex ⎯everywhere! ⎯as far as the eye could see. In bars, bathhouses, bushes, public toilets and parks. Free blowjobs for all. A deadly virus couldn't be lurking from people to people and slithering like an alien through the human veins.
Never had he considered it in his search for Mister Right. What was there to consider in the age of promiscuity? He was apart of them. The sexual revolution sweeping shamelessly through the streets as young pretty boys emerging from their closets in hick towns like Hatchechubbee, Possom Trot, Sugar Tit, and Rabbitown flocked in droves to San Francisco to participate in that bloody night at Compton's cafeteria in the Tenderloin when queers tired of being pushed around by brutal SFPD screamed at the top of their lungs and fought back with purses, heels and pumps and even threw salt and pepper shakers and sugar containers at the police some three years before Stonewall happened on Christopher Street. A little cocaine, a bottle of White Label Scotch and he, too, was out to conquer every man in town. No, he didn't want syphilis. That he knew well about having contracted syphilis from men met in all night bathhouses.
He remembered those painful visits to Haight-Ashbury clinic squeezing his eyes tight and feeling a stinging pinch as a long needle penetrated him with penicillin and then ⎯Presto! Another queen cured. Now they're saying there's no vaccine for this deadly Red virus when STD’s were curable?
It was all a rumor; yet fundamentalists like his Uncle Clyde back in Waco, Texas, would have a field day. Whatever happened to love and compassion in their hearts? He could lose his mind listening to rumors. Surely it was only that.
Rumors. Nitwit! Tyrone had been wrong. He had to be. In early February when it had rained so much and flooded up and down the coast and caused mudslides, Clarence had been diagnosed with an infection in his kidney. He remembered the blood in Clarence’s urine, the persistent pain in Clarence's loin, the swelling and constant weight loss that kept him as slender as a jaguar.
Yet, something else Clarence wasn't telling him. He remembered it now. That solemn look in his brown eyes at the last dinner they shared before Clarence left the next day on a train from Emeryville to Georgia.
What if he had died from it?
...died from a little alien in the blood?
He caught a terrific chill thinking about it and smashed the mirror he had used to line cocaine, and then the lamp, leaving him weeping in the shadows of a dying fire.
"Would you like a drink?" asked Abel.
"No thanks,” Zeno replied.
“A little bit.”
"I ran up the hill."
"From Castro Street?” Abel said.
"Yes," Zeno nodded.
"That's a good reason to be out of breath.”
Zeno sat down on the love seat opposite Abel. He sighed, crossed his legs and gazed at red embers in the fireplace crackling like bacon popping in a frying pan.
“Was it up Twin Peaks or directly up Pemberton?" Abel asked.
Abel glanced down at his crotch slightly erect like a bent stalk. He shivered in delight like a silly school-girl. “You know," he said, "I miss you terribly when you’re not here."
"Even when I'm painting in the Green Cottage?"
"But of course.”
"I started a new portrait."
“Do I know him?”
“Where did you meet?”
“Under that bridge?”
“No, we met at the top of the hill on 19th Street.”
“Was he good-looking and blond?” Abel said.
“No...I mean, yes," Zeno stuttered, "he had dirty blond hair.”
"Was it a nude portrait?"
“No,” Zeno moistened his lips with sad eyes, “Just his face. Nothing more.”
“Was he paid for this sitting?”
“He wanted food.”
“Nothing more than that.”
"Steak or chicken?"
"It was a very fat steak burrito with extra meat from a taqueria on Valencia Street. That same one you took me to one afternoon not so long ago and it was raining and the burritos were huge and so good. We drank Modelo Negra Mexican beer waiting for our order since he wanted takeout. Nothing more."
Abel put his drink down. "Bravo!" he cried, clapping his hands so loud the noise popped Zeno's ears.
"Isn’t Mrs. Erikson sleeping?" A startled Zeno looked around the room pressing a finger in one ear.
Abel’s hands were clenched and the blood driven out of his white knuckles. "Zelta," he said fiercely. "I don't give a goddamn if my excitement rouses that woman. If she fell down a flight of stairs tonight and broke her silly neck I would not shed a tear."
"I'm sorry that Mrs. Erikson has hurt you," Zeno said softly. "I hope some day you'll be able trust me entirely and will tell me why you dislike her so. I promise I'll listen."
This pleased Abel wholeheartedly. He grinned, chin up, content his boy had a compassionate heart and wasn't always so selfish. He relaxed his hands on both thighs. That raging beast that had overwhelmed him with unseemly thoughts of his mother faded like a mist and dissipated. "What is done is done," he said calmly. "I'm simply happy that you care. But let's not talk of Zelta when I much prefer to hold you in my arms and kiss you."
Zeno looked down at his manicured fingernails with trepidation; they were neat and trimmed just the way Abel preferred. But it was the tip of them he recalled caressing another man’s white flesh and then his kissing him fully on the lips. They melted into the other like two colors on stretched canvas so soft and beautiful and not dull and they trembled and held each other as the sun was going down. He shook his head, took a deep breath and looked over at Abel waiting there like a supreme authority in a high chair. Reluctantly, he stood up at once and went over to him like an obedient puppy on tiptoes. He bent over and gave him a smooch as cold as an ice cube.
Abel glared at him displeased by such a worthless kiss. He pulled him down between his legs and drew his mouth to his hard. "I do love you, Zeno Dexter Elliot," he said, "and tonight you can rest assured I won't lecture you on the importance of fidelity. You're home. However, I must demand that you take extreme caution when you're out and about. According to the media an incurable virus as ugly as Santa Ana winds is spreading in the worse imaginable way among sexually active men."
"Who said I had sex?" Zeno climbed up. "I swear I was in the Green Cottage working all day."
"It's not wise to swear, my boy, especially when you choose to utter an untruth. Do you think for one minute I believe this ridiculous story of your meeting a homeless man in Dolores Park and your painting him not nude?"
"I was there in the studio. That much is not an untruth."
"I'm unconcerned if you spent the day in the studio, Dolores Park or under a windmill in Golden Gate Park by a bush with your hands on your hips. I’m simply warning you to be careful when you’re out and about and among foolish men who could very well be carriers of Red virus.”
Zeno hated it when he sounded this way. So goddamn fatherly, so goddamn right about everything. Always blabbing something with his "big know it all mouth". Why didn't he just tell him he had been unfaithful without hinting so, and he might've admitted it was true. How could he not be unfaithful with him lying there like a lifeless blowup doll and unable to reciprocate naturally? Foolish men were indeed better in bed than a humdrum lover. He sucked-in his teeth and strutted over to the tall windows in front of a narrow balcony that looked over the Castro and east towards downtown skyscrapers and, in the far distance east of the bay, the lights of Berkeley and Oakland hills shimmered in a pastel pink sunset.
He swung around abruptly and glared at Abel with blazing eyes. In three years he still had his manly good looks, but his brunette hair had turned salt-and-pepper. Thinner and thinner atop his pasty weathered head.
"I want my darling boy beside me where he belongs," Abel motioned him to a spot on the sofa. "I have a surprise."
He only wanted to run away from him, his savior who had rescued, sheltered and supported him for the last three years. Better it would've been if he had confessed all of his sins; then this heavy burden lifted from his shoulders. But he held his tongue, said nothing at all and rejoined his lover on the sofa without even a whimper.
"Do you still love me? Your man? Your teacher? Your lover as I am?"
"Of course, just what you said - all those things about love."
"Then look me in the eye, Zeno, and tell me that distinctly."
He opened his mouth but no words came at first until he thought about the studio he called Green Cottage, the house up Pemberton steps where they lived and "I love you, sir" finally spilled out.
Abel squeezed him in his arms. "Thank the Lord, baby,” he exclaimed. “You said you love me. That is most important to my heart."
"I'm glad you brought me here..."
"Always remember it was I who made this entire journey to San Francisco possible."
Zeno leaned his head against his chest. He felt safe, secure so close to daddy. Nothing more. He took a deep breath and wrapped his arms around Abel's slender waist and was almost happy.
"I am the best thing that's ever happened to you," Abel said stroking the boy's kinky black hair. "We will never hurt each other or stop sleeping together because we are a permanent couple. I told my therapist today that I felt I was ready to make love to you. Guess what? (An abrupt laugh) Just before you came home tonight I was aroused. It's true! I am ready to make love to you. That's my surprise! Reach down right now, my boy! Reach down and feel what is truly yours. Tonight..."
But he stopped hearing Zeno snoring like a kitten purring softly against his chest...
November 3, three years later.
San Francisco, CA.
As fog drifted below Twin Peaks and downhill into the valley over Victorian rooftops and the very tip of Castro theatre marquee, Abel Erikson folded his arms across his chest not enjoying the breath-taking view. His thoughts were only of the boy he imagined was in the Castro in a bar discussing his artwork with an imperfect stranger. The thought of the boy, his boy, entertaining any man in a bar was disconcerting.
He swung around. Across the living room on top of a round bar with shelves underneath and a great gold-framed mirror on the wall behind it, a decanter was full with gin, two others brandy and scotch. He swallowed a dry lump in his throat, wiped his thick brow and glanced anxiously around the room. No one around. He could really do it...could pretend to fool even himself.
He crossed the Tibetan rug over to the bar, his mouth watering to taste. He slammed the ice bucket's lid on the counter, picked up the shaker and twisted it open. Eagerly he readied gin and vermouth. But then the problem that had made him feel less than a man returned. He squeezed the neck of the bottle until he wanted to scream.
Once upon a time he could drink until he was literally blue in the face. There were no hangovers then, no problem. Now he went to therapy and made special appearances at AA meetings upon his therapist's suggestion. He hated the meetings, having to sit there in that melancholy room, half listening to their stories, thinking he wasn't as far gone as those people. Drinking out of control and waking up in a gutter was not something he had in common with any of them.
And then he heard her coming a mere foot away from the French doors. He pushed the decanter back into place and tiptoed over to the sofa in front of the fireplace where a fire, the color of blue, shimmered very low. The door creaked open. And there in threshold she stood with snow-white hair erect like an electric bush and a beige gown clinging unnaturally to her shapeless figure made her look naked.
A second later the room fell pitch black.
"Farchrisake!" he hollered. "Turn that light back on. Turn it on, Now!"
"Ahab!" the old woman gasped and quickly switched the light back on. "I didn't realize anybody was here."
"I'm not Ahab!”
She squinted until she could see him clearly. Hairs rose on the back of her neck. She pressed a hand to her heart.
"Yes, it is I. Abel, the son, you so ardently hate!"
She caught her breath, swallowed. "I don't hate you so much,” she said.
"Oh, get out of here," Abel said. "Go to hell!"
"Why must you curse me all the time?"
"Because you're a simpleton."
"I'm not a simpleton.”
“Then a worthless, pathetic hag.”
“I'm your mother."
“Yes, a mother as old as Atila the Hun."
"How dare you."
"After all, I'm the one taking care of you. The only one picking up your dirty laundry. Never Ahab who doesn't pay the bills."
"I happen to get a check every month, young fellow! Ahab deposits it in the bank to pay-."
"Ahab made those deposits of your measly pennies into his own personal account right down to your last nickel. He would have let this house foreclose right under your nose if-"
"Ahab wouldn't have. Why must you make up filthy lies?"
"I can't get it, mother," he threw his hands up in the air helplessly. "After all the miserable years you've spent with Ahab who purposely defrauded you; yet, you insist defending him against me when it was Ahab who deliberately turned you into a pathetic rag doll as you are now."
"I'll get Ahab, he'll speak the truth! Unlike you and these filthy lies."
"Then you'll have to go all the way to 6th Street to find that idiot. That's right, mother. He's been evicted and shall never set foot again in this house."
The thought of Ahab being evicted had never actually occurred to her, which seemed so remote. But finally some truth of Ahab’s sin sank temporally and she shivered. "Ahab can't be gone!" she snapped, her frail voice rising. "He simply can't be. Why would you evict your own brother? Your own flesh and blood? It was because of her, wasn’t it? That woman?"
"Oh mother, if I'd been any smarter I’d kicked you out along with him."
"I don't hate you so much."
"I said get out silly old bat. Get out of here. Or shall I remove you personally? Dearest mother, you wouldn't prefer that..."
"All right!" She raised her chin high. "I am leaving...now!" She made her way out of the living room and down the hall, feeling her hands along the wall like a blind woman. She fled into her bedroom mustering enough strength to slam the door.
"Wretched bitch!" Abel stumped back to behind the bar. He jerked the cap off the decanter and started to fill the shaker with gin and bit his bottom lip until he tasted blood.
It stung a small bit. He grabbed anything he could find and found a cloth was folded under the bar on the top shelf. He dabbed the cloth at his lip and wiped blood until it stopped bleeding. On his tongue he could still taste blood. He turned around and saw himself in the mirror. In his pants a great big bulge. Nothing at all stubby about it. He burst with naughty laughter. Tears welled in his eyes as he hugged himself in his arms like a lover.
The front door banged open downstairs. Footsteps pounded, rushing up. He threw the cloth on the shelf underneath the bar, grabbed a glass and squirted club soda into it and then hurried over to the sofa.
"Darling, I’m home," came the boy's breathless voice from in the doorway.
His boy had come safely home. He wouldn't complain or question him about his day away from him. Besides, he had argued long enough with Zelta, his scraggly mother, about those goddamn cats. That had exhausted him. "Well, don't just stand there,” he said wiping his eyes. "Come in my boy."
November 3, three years earlier.
On the Battery fronting the harbor a half dozen boys shivered in unsuitable summer coats in hopes of meeting the right companion to escape and, perhaps, secure money after quick sex.
Abel Erikson, good-looking and dark-haired with a thin mustache, stumbled at the top broken step up High Battery which descended onto Low Battery at the tip of the peninsula and where Murray Boulevard divided into two traffic lanes by a median of palmetto trees. Under neon glow lamps Abel squinted to see the boys all lined up against the seawall like juvenile delinquents. It was the black boy with an overstuffed backpack he noticed more than the others and decided right then he would have the black one for himself before the other men parked in shiny cars along the street could proposition him.
“Do you have a light?” he said with a cigarette cocked at the corner of his mouth.
“Sure,” the boy who was already puffing a cigarette struck a match to light Abel’s cigarette and saw that his eyes were hazel like murky fish water. Behind the flame there was a harshness in his eyes that compelled the boy to shake out the fire immediately and back up with smoke rushing through both mouth and nostrils.
Abel swirled smoke around his mouth studying the boy’s physique. He wasn't necessarily skinny but full-bodied like a strong field hand. In his bulky clothes he carried himself well and didn't look fat at all. As smoke billowed from his mouth Abel leaned back with his elbows finding the seawall and grinned moving his tongue playfully over the upper lip from right to left. "Cold out, don't you think?" he said.
“Yes,” the boy nodded dropping his cigarette butt and mashing it out with the tip of his boot.
“What are you looking for?” Abel said.
“I’m looking for you,” the boy said.
“My car is parked just up the street on East Bay,” he grabbed the boy’s hand and squeezed it firmly. His hand cold but soft like a girl's. “Would you like to warm up?”
“Why not," the boy said.
Inside Abel's black Mercedes the boy offered a warm can of malt liquor beer he pulled from his backpack, and they shared it along with one more cigarette.
As a full moon rose higher in the black sky changing into a dazzling white, Abel finally leaned over and kissed the boy on the mouth and the loneliness of the empty night was gone. He felt himself sinking, slipping into platinum white leather seat, losing control and wanting it.
This kiss, the helpless way it made him feel, captivated him so, leaving him no hint of the dark machinations yet to come, no hint of the relentless downhill spiral that would eventually lead to murder...