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 Height's Mirabel Street flat. The feeling was dazzling, soothing. Things looked clearer now, and he was pleased listening to piano solo and gazing into a fire burning 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 a happy memory of a painter he’d met in Macombe Alley that made him grin from ear to ear. The telephone rang, disrupting his thoughts of delight. He leaned lazily over, picked up the receiver hoping it was already the painter calling to come over for a repeat performance he would not deny him. Instead, it was Belin, a man with a black Southern accent and his lover's surname. "Tyrone?" he said with a slight Texan drawl.
"Yassar, Clarence's brutha.”
"Why hello, Tyrone," he tried sounding cheerful and swallowed a dry lump in his throat. "Where is Clarence?"
"Dat's ‘y I is callin', sar."
"What's wrong?" Goosebumps spread over his skin, little blond hairs erected on back of his neck. He sank deeper into the chair feeling a chill down his spine. "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. E-e b-be g-gone away, s-sar."
"I don't understand." A pain in his chest. This feeling of foreboding doom agonizing him so. He pulled his fingers through his hair.
"M-me b-brutha, s-sar..."
"E’ is d-dead."
"What do you mean dead? What kind of prank is this?”
"E’s dead, sar. We's done buried ‘e dis past Friday. Momma says ya oughta be tolds-"
"So 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. Lordie ‘e face is 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..." He gritted his teeth. "Dammit! What a fool I've been." He stared into space furiously, pulling his hair 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 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. Free blowjobs for all. A deadly virus couldn't be lurking from people to people and slithering like an alien through human veins.
Never had he considered it in his search for Mister Right. What was there to consider in the age of promiscuity? Other than usual STD’s that were, yes, dangerous but common and easy to treat, he was apart of that free love generation and the thousands of young randy boys and girls coming out of closets to San Francisco from hick towns like Hatchechubbee, Possum Trot, Sugar Tit, Rabbitown, and Coon Corners.
Add that to a little cocaine, a bottle of White Label Scotch and he was out to conquer every man in town. He was tall, good-looking, blond and hairy and could have anyone he wanted.
No, he didn't want syphilis. That he knew well about having contracted syphilis on two occasions from anonymous men met in Mission News booths. Afterward those painful visits to Haight-Ashbury clinic his eyes squeezed tight feeling a stinging pinch as a needle penetrated his bottom with penicillin and then ⎯Presto! Another queen cured.
Now they're saying there's no vaccine for this deadly Red virus when STD was 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 like bizarre National Enquirer headlines he read in the checkout line at CALA and Safeway that there was official PROOF ELVIS PRESLEY FAKED HIS OWN DEATH. Doctor says, "I can’t argue with science! Elvis was not in that casket!"⎯despite the fact that some 25,000 people waited outside Graceland on the day of the funeral to get a glimpse of the King in his open coffin.
My God! My goodness. Why was he thinking like a nitwit? An absolute nitwit for believing Tyrone when he remembered it now as clear as day. It was back in early February when Clarence was diagnosed with an infection in his kidney. There was blood in Clarence’s urine, a persistent pain in Clarence's loin, swelling and constant weight loss that kept Clarence as slender as a jaguar. Being skinnier satisfied Clarence's vanity even though he really felt like shit most days.
Yet, something else Clarence wasn't telling him. He remembered that too and a solemn look in his dark brown eyes during their last supper the night before Clarence left the next day on a train from Emeryville through New Orleans and Atlanta to South Carolina.
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?"
“A little bit.”
"I ran up the hill."
"From Castro Street?”
"Yes," Zeno nodded.
"That's a good reason to be out of breath.”
Zeno sat down in one of the armchairs closest to the fireplace across from Abel on the sofa. He crossed his legs and pursed his lips gazing at red embers burning softly in the fireplace.
“Was it up to 17th directly to Twin Peaks or up Pemberton steps?" Abel asked.
“Pemberton Steps,” Zeno said.
Abel glanced down at his crotch and the thing was now slightly erect like a bent stalk in his pants. “You know," he grinned, looking at Zeno happily. "I miss you terribly much when you’re not here."
"Even when I'm painting in the Green Cottage?"
"But of course even then.”
"I started a new portrait.”
“Do I know him?”
“No, I don't think so.”
“Where did you meet?”
“Under that bridge?”
“No, we met at the top of the hill on 19th Street.”
“Oh, so you met there at the gay beach," Abel mused. "Was he good-looking and blond?”
“No...I mean, yes. Yes, he had dirty blond hair and was a Mexican boy.”
"Was it a nude portrait?"
“No,” Zeno swallowed and his eyes were shiny. “Just his face.” He blinked and wiped his eyes. “Nothing more.”
“Was he paid for this sitting?”
“He wanted a burrito.”
“Nothing more than that.”
"Steak, chicken or burrito de cerdo?"
"It was a fat steak burrito with extra meat from a restaurant on Valencia Street. That same one you took me to one afternoon when you first brought me here to San Francisco. I forget the name of the place because I can’t even pronounce it in Spanish-"
"Puerto Alegre with the mariachi music."
"Yes, that's the place on Valencia Street between 17th and 16th The burritos are the very best especially the way they do the melted cheese and rain was falling outside the window on the street then along with the mariachi players and we got kind of drunk sipping two pitchers of Margaritas. I took him there and I could see white fog hovering above Twins Peaks in the distance before we went inside and ordered, and we sat at the bar sipping dark Modelo beer and eating tortilla chips while waiting for his takeout since that’s what he wanted."
“Nothing more than that?”
Abel put his drink down. "Bravo!" he cried clapping his hands so loud the noise popped Zeno's ears. "What a magnificent performance Mr. Zeno Dexter Elliott. Bravo. Bravo!"
"Abel." A startled Zeno glanced around the room. "Isn’t Mrs. Erikson sleeping?"
"Mrs. Erikson?" Abel’s right hand clenched into a fist. "I don't give a goddamn if my excitement rouses that woman. If Zelta 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 someday you'll be able to tell me why you dislike her so. I promise I'll listen."
This pleased Abel wholeheartedly. He grinned, chin up, contented his boy had a compassionate heart and wasn't always so selfish. That raging beast that had overwhelmed him with unseemly thoughts of his mother faded. "What is done is done," he said calmly. "I'm simply happy that you care. But let's not talk about 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. It was the tip of them he now recalled that made him tremble so. He closed his eyes as he remembered dancing with him and their shadows reflecting in unison on the wall in the sunset. He looked over at Abel sitting there on the sofa like a supreme authority and a silly smirk planted on his face. Zeno stood up slowly. On his tiptoes, he went over to him like an obedient puppy. He bent over and gave him a reluctant smooch as cold as an ice cube.
Abel grimaced displeased by such a worthless little kiss. He pulled him down between his legs and drew his mouth to his. "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 worst 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 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 with your hands on your hips. I’m simply suggesting you’re careful when you’re out and about and among foolish men who could very well be carriers of this mad 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 to him lying there like a lifeless blow-up doll and unable to reciprocate naturally? Foolish men were indeed better in bed than a humdrum lover who needed a pill to get it up. He sucked-in his teeth and strutted over to the tall windows in front of the terrace that looked over the Castro and east toward downtown skyscrapers and, in the far distance east of the Bay Bridge, the lights of Berkeley and Oakland hills shimmered in the night.
He swung around abruptly glaring 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 than that. 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 after hearing Zeno snoring against his chest like a kitten purring softly…
November 3, three years later.
San Francisco, CA.
Abel Erikson folded his arms across his chest not enjoying the breathtaking view of fog drifting below Twin Peaks and downhill into the valley over rooftops and the very tip of Castro theatre marquee peeking in and out of blankets of fog and then sunlight. His thoughts were only of the boy he had brought from Charleston to San Francisco, and the reason the boy was late.
He swung around. On top of the sideboard were two decanters, one full of gin, another brandy. 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 sideboard his mouth watering to taste. He slammed the ice bucket lid down, picked up the shaker and twisted it open. Then readied gin and vermouth when the problem that had made him feel less than a man only a few weeks ago returned. He stared at the ceiling wanting 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 a mere yard away he heard her coming from behind the wall and heading for the French doors. He pushed the decanter back into place and darted over to the sofa. An antique clock ticked vigorously on top of the white mantle, a continuous sound he heard for the first time, and he shivered as the clock kept ticking. His portrait painted in oil by the boy hung above the mantle protected by glass and a light fixed at the bottom frame made the portrait alive with piercing eyes staring back. Tick...tick...the door creaked open. And therein the threshold she stood. Her snow-white hair erected like an electric bush. A beige gown clinging unnaturally to her shapeless figure making her look naked. Again, he wanted to scream.
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 reaching for the light switch. "I didn't realize anybody was here."
"Again, I am not Ahab!”
She squinted until she could see him clearly in the light and pressed a hand to her heart.
"Yes, it is I, mother. 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. Go to hell!"
"Why must you curse me all the time?"
"I curse you because you're a simpleton."
"I'm not a simpleton.”
“Then a worthless, pathetic hag.”
“I'm your mother."
“Yes, a mother. My mother as old as Attila 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-"
"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 from 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 used and defrauded you; yet, you insist defending him against me when it was Ahab who deliberately turned you into the pathetic rag doll moping around this house like a zombie."
"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 to never set foot again in this house."
The thought of Ahab being evicted had never actually occurred to her. It seemed so remote. Finally, some truth of Ahab’s eviction sank temporally. She shook her head remembering and caught a chill. "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, you are that woman. Farchrisake! 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. Or shall I remove you physically? 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 until she reached her bedroom. She slid inside and mustered enough strength to slam the door.
"Wretched bitch!" Abel went back to the sideboard and jerked the cap off the decanter. He started to fill the shaker with gin and bit his bottom lip until he tasted blood. It stung and he grabbed a cloth and dabbed the cloth at his lip until the bleeding stopped. And then he felt a stirring sensation in the crotch of his trousers. He looked up with a crooked smile that made his face appear lopsided. A full-length mirror hung on the side wall. He stood in front it and looked down; the thing itching to explode. He touched it effortlessly; then burst into naughty laughter tears welling in his eyes as he hugged himself in his arms like a lover.
The front door banged open downstairs. Footsteps pounded, rushing up. He pushed the cloth into his pocket, squirted club soda into a glass and hurried over to the sofa pretending he’d been waiting there all along without worry or care.
"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 on in my boy."
November 3, three years earlier.
On the Battery fronting the harbor, a half-dozen boys shivered in unsuitable summer coats. Each hoping in the back of his mind to get out of the cold by meeting Mr. Right and, after quick sex and warming up, securing enough money for food and shelter in a cheap rooming house on the Eastside.
Abel Erikson caught his breath stumbling up the steps of High Battery. He was one of those few Mr. Rights walking or waiting in parked cars around the garden to meet a wayward boy in the late night. At the corner and tip of the peninsula where Battery Street became Murray Boulevard that was lined with palmetto trees down a median dividing car traffic one way south, the other north, he squinted to see the boys lined up against the seawall like a bunch of juvenile delinquents. It was the black boy carrying an overstuffed backpack he noticed more than the others and decided then he would have the black one to take home for a trophy.
The boy was smoking a cigarette when he approached and Abel quickly pulled a lose cigarette from the left inside pocket of his overcoat. “Do you have a light?” he said cocking the cigarette at the corner of his mouth.
“Sure,” the boy said striking a match to light Abel’s cigarette and, in the flame, he saw that Abel's eyes were hazel like the color of algae murky pond water in the firelight. He shook out the flame and backed up.
Abel inhaled gazing at the boy’s physique, and he smiled. He wasn't necessarily skinny but full-bodied like a strong field hand. He carried himself well in baggy clothes that he prayed was surely baggy since he didn't look fat at all in his attire. As smoke billowed from Abel's mouth, Abel leaned back against the seawall resting his elbows and moving his tongue 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 foot in a worn out boot that had seen better days.
“What are you looking for?”
“I’m looking for you,” the boy said turning around and looking at Fort Sumter, a distant man-made island in the harbor, rising from the horizon with faint lights.
“My car is parked up the street on East Battery right outside Edmondston-Alston house,” he said grabbing the boy’s cold hand that wriggled into his warm hand as he looked at treetops of live oaks trembling across the street in White Point garden. “Would you like to go to my car and warm up?”
“Why not," the boy said looking into his eyes.
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 another cigarette and a wind shook palmetto tree needles above the car roof.
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 the torn 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...
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, all over, he 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. Gradually, his concentration returned. He got back to working on a portfolio of his artwork. The wind had picked up and the rain fell harder by the time Zelta came through the French doors and into the living room gasping with every shuffling step.
In one hand she carried a bag of M&M candies, the other a glass filled with a 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 almost laughed out loud, would horrify Abel upon his return from Charleston.
"How are you today, Mrs. Erikson?" he finally said after she settled into her favorite armchair 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. “Thank you," she added and Zeno looked away from her and she placed the glass down on the side table and centered the bag of M&Ms in her lap. "Where is Rosa?" she said looking anxiously around the room.
"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."
"I hope she'll be all right.”
"She’ll be fine⎯I’m sure."
She reached for the glass with a plastic straw anchored at the top and lifted it to her mouth and, staring straight ahead into a downpour of rain dripping down the terrace glass, she parted her lips and sucked. The sound of sucking and then wheezing startled Ceto, the black cat, underneath the chair and it scouted out between her feet. She got only a glimpse of the cat vanished through the open French doors. She put the glass back down on the table and fidgeted with the seal of the 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 from the hall into the living room were wide open. This worried her more than the cat always chasing after Thamaus, the other cat, she called Blondie. She sucked in her teeth and thought of Ahab, the second son, expecting he would come rushing through the door into the room at any moment raging about wasted heat being let out into the hall and the bill sky high. Ahab was always complaining about money he never seems to have and needed to buy items she suspected were no good. She leaned forward with her elbows pressing into her thighs and peered at Zeno. She wished 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 around the house was calmer. She liked it that way.
She popped more candies into her mouth and thought about the milkshake and how good it had been⎯and how much better it had tasted than the first ones Ahab had made. He had told her Dr. Abagtha prescribed shakes especially for her diet, which was all he ever gave for breakfast, lunch, and dinner along with M&Ms on the side. All this saved on grocery bills and provided more funds for Ahab’s pleasure. "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. Nurse Wilma Hope is out of town. I hope you like strawberry?"
"I love strawberry. It's a good flavor. The milkshake is best I've ever had. I thank you very much."
In the palm of her right hand that was whiter than a sheet, she stared at chocolate candies thinking she had never lived with a Negro before. She consumed the candies until dark chocolate melted down her throat. She swallowed remembering a time when a Negro fellow of any complexion not of white people purity wasn’t allowed to sit alone in the same room with a white woman or even look at her, else he could be lynched or tied down to a stone to drown at the bottom of a creek because his color was wrong...evil. But this one, this young fellow, wasn't evil, wasn’t terribly bad looking. In fact, he didn’t look particularly ethnic of any sort, African or Middle Eastern, and he was handsome and hadn't stolen anything from them. He didn't curse in front of her and didn't have body odor.
Abel certainly appreciated him sniffing behind him like a hound dog. She certainly liked the way he made her shakes. They were the very best. Couldn’t his name very well be Blackey like her cat’s name? He was dark-skin with pretty black skin like Mario’s deep brown skin, her Cuban house gardener from a long time ago in Charleston. Sometimes, she called Mario by his nickname, Blackey. This young fellow’s nickname could be Blackey, too, like Mario. Why she, herself, even had a nickname as a girl given to her by her father. Her father called her Knut short for Peanut because she was his little peanut all of his life.
"I forget your name young fellow,” she said. “What is it again?"
"My name is Zeno. Zeno Elliott"
"Zeno Elliott...” She pondered his first name silently for a long moment.
"Is it with a `Z' like in my own?" She liked his name.
"Yes, it is."
"Well isn't that something. A `Z' like in my name. My name is Zelta, you know with a `Z' as well. Only you’re a handsome young fellow. I'm an old lady no longer so beautiful."
"But I think you are beautiful, Mrs. Erikson. You're an absolute doll."
"I was very beautiful a long time ago,” she grinned remembering horseback riding right by the ocean in Fort Bragg and she smiled and noticed Zeno had stopped fumbling with the picture book and was looking at her with shiny eyes. She blushed like a young courting girl or swore she could have blushed, which was improbable at her age. “Have you not seen the pictures when I was a young woman?”
“Abel has shown them to me. Yes, you were more beautiful than Marilyn Monroe with striking blonde hair down to your shoulders.” And perky breasts he didn’t tell her and smiled remembering the size of Zelta’s breast in a tight fitted sweater in one black and white photograph, and she was radiant like a movie star.
“That was a very long time ago,” she laughed and so did he. Though he didn’t know why he was laughing she was laughing and happy and that made him laugh more because she was so happy and no longer sad.
The telephone rang out in the hall. Zeno placed his portfolio on the table and, still amused by Zelta’s gaiety, got up to go answer the phone.
"So what's new besides your sleeping in until noon every day?" Abel teased him over the line.
"I haven't slept in until noon. Not a single day since you departed for Charleston."
"Have you been painting?"
"Then what have you been doing?"
"I photographed my latest artwork for a new portfolio I'm making. You'll like it. Besides, there's not much else to do here in the rain."
"How long has it been raining?"
"Nonstop all week."
"I hope you didn't forget to pack your rain gear?"
"Actually, I did forget since I thought it never rained in California."
"Well, it does rain in California, my boy. But don't fret; I left enough petty cash in the top drawer of my desk for both you and mother or you can always use one of your cards. Purchase what you or mother might need. How is the mother by the way?"
"Mrs. Erikson is jollier than ever. In fact, you'll be amazed whenever you see her."
"Amazed?” Abel sounded with a tinge of alarm. “What wickedness has she concocted now?"
"Nothing wicked. I'd say it's a change for the better. Would you like to speak to her?"
"That would be most disconcerting, my boy. Don’t be ridiculous.”
"Then how are lofty old Charleston and the gallery?"
"Charleston is all right. As for the gallery I am most impressed with Marcel’s accomplishment. Gallery attendance is up and sales have exceeded my expectation. She's an excellent curator and friend. I trust this woman with my life."
"How is Matthew?”
Any mention of Matthew Rae exasperated Abel and he was breathing hard into the phone when he said, "I've been meaning to tell you all about Matthew Rae."
Zeno’s heart skipped. "He is still working there in the warehouse?"
"Matthew was let go."
"Yes, as in terminated."
"You fired Matthew? But why Abel?"
"Matthew was not only insubordinate but he is white-trash scum. Furthermore, he's a thief. I'm grateful that Dale Savage is so efficient in keeping the books, else Matthew would have gotten away clean-free with thievery."
"Matthew, a thief? I can't believe that. Matthew is not a thief. There must be some kind of mistake. Something Dale did to-"
"Matthew Rae stole from the gallery. It's as simple as that. I have filed criminal charges with the Charleston PD and a warrant has been issued for his arrest-"
"Matthew could go to jail?"
"Matthew will go to prison if I don't destroy him beforehand for what he’s done.”
“What has he actually done, Abel?”
“More than you’ll ever know.”
“What do you mean?”
“Listen, I didn't call home to quarrel or discuss Matthew Rae. I don't really care where he is...except he's out of my life, out of your life, out of both of our lives. I simply called to check in and make sure everything is satisfactory for both you and mother."
"Everything is O.K.,” Zeno said slowly.
"Try not to sound so ecstatic about it, will you?"
"Matthew was like family, Abel. My only connection to my past and the island-"
"Matthew Rae was a lot of other things and part of a past on a backward country island you never gave as much of a goddamn about then, you still don’t now, you never will care and you know it." Abel paused listening to the sound of his breathing on the phone and he got a warm feeling thinking so much about him. "Zeno...” he continued.
“Let’s not argue anymore.”
“I’ve missed you every single day since I've been away...I'd be the happiest man in the universe when I’ve found the right person to run JeE; then we can spend more time together. Just you and I. We can go back to Rome if desire, New York or Venice is so nice right now in November without all the tourists. I love you so much, Zeno, that sometimes it scares me that I could love anyone as much as I love you-"
"Sir, can't we talk about all of this later in person when you’ve come home? There's so much we need to talk about. So much I have to tell you."
"Then we'll talk on Monday. I'll be home late Sunday night. You'll probably be asleep."
"Then Monday. We'll see each other then."
"Yes, Monday. I love you, Zeno Elliott," he whispered from the bottom of his heart, "don't ever forget that."
"Thank you," Zeno whispered back and quickly told Abel good-bye and hung up the phone.
For a long while, he stood in the hall, shaken with memories of Matthew Rae. He knew he could not continue protecting Matthew from Abel's rage without jeopardizing himself and/or losing everything. Perhaps it wouldn't be so terrible if Matthew were caught, arrested, carted off to prison, never to interfere in his life again. There could be only peace with Matthew imprisoned 3,000 miles away.
He started back into the living room where Zelta waited with a silly grin on her face. "That was Abel on the phone," he told her from in the doorway. "He asked about you."
Zelta felt a sudden draft in the room from his shadow and she reached for her shawl on the arm of the chair. She pulled it over her shoulders and stared out the window at the rain beating on the terrace.
Zeno heard footsteps. He turned around and was relieved to see Rosa coming in. Rosa had more patience with Zelta unlike Nurse Hope and especially Abel.
"Is the senora up and about?" Rosa said in a thick Spanish accent.
Zeno looked again at Zelta. So gaunt and tiny in the armchair and it was raining harder. He pulled the doors shut. "She's there in the living room,” he said to Rosa. “We were talking and having a good time until I came out to get the phone. Abel called from Charleston. After I hung up, I told her he asked about her. She turned away as if she didn’t even know me anymore..."
Rosa did a sign of the cross and muttered something in Spanish. "Senora so afraid of the senor, si?"
"I don't understand the reason."
"Maybe it is best you do not know the reason."
"Then you know why there's so much friction between Abel and Mrs. Erikson? Of course, you must know. How long has it been since you were housekeeping here?"
"I’ve been domestic in this house ever since I left my people in Nicaragua four years ago," she said, holding up four fingers as if to double-check her own shaky account of when she first came to America. "I don't know why they argue all the time and hate each other so. I was in the house the day the senor evicted that brother. It was a terrible day like a nightmare. The police came. I so afraid because I do not have all of my papers. I hid in the basement until the house was silent."
"Then you knew Ahab Erikson?"
"I not know him long enough," she said crossing her breasts again. "I not say much to him when I come do the cleaning. He was not nice to me. Always looking at me with the funny eye." She smiled as she spilled out of her blue plastic raincoat.
Zeno blushed and was unable to remember her uniform being that snug before on her plump figure.
She swished over to the closet and removed her rain-cap and hung it up along with her coat. "I go see about the senora now," she looked at him with black penetrating eyes. "You gonna paint me a pretty picture today, senor?"
"I'm not painting anything today," he glimpsed up at the skylight and the rain was coming down like buckets of water hitting the glass.
"Then what you to do today?"
"I'm going upstairs and watch television. I am in need of a distraction.”
"You so young, so handsome, senor. Surely, you find better way to distract yourself than television. Television, like they say in this country, is bubble gum for the eye, si?"
"But I like chewing bubble gum once in a while, Rosa. It keeps me from getting carried away."
"You get carried away easy, si?"
"Let’s just say that when the moon is full, Rosa, there are a very few things I would not try for the hell of it."
“I saw the moon last night above Coit Tower,” Rosa said feeling a fervent sensation in her heart, and she blushed. “It is very full moon.”
"Yup," Zeno nodded and turned and left.
Rosa leaned her shoulder against the door watching him until he disappeared up the spiral stairs and into the master bedroom on the top floor. All the while she waited to wonder why Zeno insisted on wasting his time with the zancarrón anyway? Abel was a rich senor but a no good-for-nothing diablo!
Eagerly she waited in secret to bestow her passion upon the trueno who would soon know that she was truly worthy of his affection. And in return, unlike senor Abel, who had broken all of his promises, Zeno would ask her to be his senora and make her legal...