"Would you like a drink?"
“A little bit.”
"I ran up the hill."
"From Castro Street?”
“Was it up to 17th directly to Twin Peaks or up Corbett to Pemberton steps?"
“You know,” Abel smiled, “I miss you terribly when you’re not here."
"Even when I'm painting in the Green Cottage?"
"But of course, even then.”
"I started a new portrait today.”
“Do I know him?”
“No.” The boy nodded sitting in the armchair and fidgeting with his fingers.
“Where did you meet?”
The boy looked up, swallowed and cleared his throat. “Dolores Park,” he said.
“Under that bridge?”
“No, top of the hill.”
“Oh,” Abel cooed, “the gay beach at 19th Street. Was he blond and good-looking?”
“He had dirty blond hair."
“Yeah, he was okay.” The boy got up, took off his leather jacket and, dropping it on the arm of the chair, went over to the fireplace. He snatched a poker from the rack and stirred red embers into a vicious flame.
"Was it a nude portrait?"
“A nude portrait?” The boy furrowed his brow. “Of course not.”
"Of course not?" Abel raised one curious eyebrow.
"Just his face," The boy said squeezing the handle of poker with both hands. “Nothing more than that.”
“Was he paid for this contrived out of the blue sitting?”
“It was truly arranged,” the boy swung around facing Abel and raising the poker in the air, “and he was paid, yes, he was paid a real fat burrito.”
"Burrito de carne, pollo or cerdo?" Abel said sipping his drink without batting an eye.
"De carne with extra meat at that Mexican restaurant on Valencia Street not far from the Roxie. I can’t pronounce its proper Spanish name.”
“Puerto Alegre," Abel articulated staring the boy down until the boy withdrew. "Can you pronounce it now?"
"Yes,” the boy said hypnotically and replaced the poker in the stand. “Puer-to A-legre,” he pronounced almost in Abel’s exact pretense.
"Bravo!" Abel cried clapping his hands and the noise popping the boy’s eardrums. “Isn’t Mrs. Erikson sleeping?" The boy whispered.
"Mrs. Erikson?" Abel clenched his right hand and swung his fist into empty space. "I don't give a goddamn if my excitement rouses that woman. If Zerita fell down a flight of stairs tonight and broke her silly neck I would not care."
"I'm sorry that Mrs. Erikson has hurt you, sir,” the boy said coming back to his seat. “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 Zerita anymore when I much prefer to hold you in my arms and kiss you."
The boy stared at his manicured fingernails with trepidation; they were neat and trimmed just the way Abel preferred. It was the tip of them he suddenly recalled exploring the body of another. A beautiful man with a ponytail down his back and too impractical for his heart to conceive especially under guardianship of an obnoxious other who pulled a lot of weight. He shook his head, got up and took a deep breath. On tiptoes, he went over to him--the supreme authority--like an obedient puppy and supplied him a reluctant smooch.
Abel was unhappy by this worthless kiss and pulled the boy down between his legs and drew his mouth very hard 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. Home where you belong. However, I must demand that when you're out and about to take extreme caution. According to the media, an incurable virus as ugly as Santa Ana winds is spreading in the worst unimaginable way among sexually active men."
"Who said I had sex?" Zeno jumped 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 ludicrous story of your meeting a trick 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". He pushed his hands in his pockets and strutted over to the window. The fog had dissipated in the night and, in the distance, the lights of Oakland and Berkeley hills shimmered beyond the top of San Francisco’s skyscrapers illuminated at the edge of the bay. He wished he were there in anyone of the skyscrapers on a rooftop away from Abel’s unsolicited advice. 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 held his tongue without even a whimper and rejoined his lover on the sofa.
"Do you still love me?” demanded Abel. “Your man? Your teacher? Your lover as I am?"
"Of course, all those things, just as you’ve said."
"Then look me in the eye, Zeno, and tell me that distinctly."
Zeno opened his mouth, but no words came, nothing flowed until he considered the studio, he called Green Cottage and the house not yet his at the top of Pemberton steps and then "I love you, sir," spilled from his lips.
Abel squeezed him in his arms happily. "Thank the Lord, baby, you said you love me,” he exclaimed. “That is most important to my heart."
"I'm glad you brought me here," Zeno said.
"Always remember it was I who made your journey to San Francisco a reality."
Zeno leaned his head against Abel’s chest. He felt safe, secure so close to daddy. Nothing more than that and nothing less. He took a deep breath and, smiling, wrapped his arms around daddy. He was content but tired and closed his eyes.
"I am the best thing that's ever happened to you," said Abel 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 I felt I was ready to make love to you. Guess what? (An abrupt laugh) Today I was in the study reading and I thought of you and needed you. My love, 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..." But he stopped upon hearing Zeno snoring with a sudden gargling and squawking against his chest and a terrifying pause as if he’d run into the devil in a nightmare.
It was three years later. Abel Erikson crossed his arms across his chest watching fog in the late afternoon blowing down Twin Peaks and over the city of San Francisco like a quiet storm in the window of his house at the top of Pemberton steps. He pulled his fingers through his hair and sighed seeing his reflection in the window from the chandelier light. He was shorter. He was not as tall as he were back in Charleston. He was almost sure his posture had shrunk. Furthermore, his jet-black hair had turned a dirty peppered grey. In addition, he had gotten more wrinkles and sharp crow’s feet around his milky blue eyes especially when he grinned. Thus, he preferred not to grin, wearing an almost permanent clown-face frown. The back of his hands was speckled with unsightly age spots he attempted to hide when stroking the boy for that kind of recreation. He had become a vain, prudish man. Older and alpha-gay. Slightly insecure of his sexual prowess no matter how wiser he thought he had become. Yet he was a dominate force to be reckoned with and most worthy of careful observation the way he swaggered into a room.
He could see the tiptop of Castro Theatre marquee sweeping in and out of the vale of fog below the rooftops clinging down the hillside and into the valley streets. He imagined the boy was there on Castro Street in a non-discriminatory bar where legal age identification was strictly overlooked. He imagined the boy was there on Castro Street. In a non-discriminatory bar that generously overlooked age of consent. He would be in the middle of the meat rack, his long legs crossed, holding a cocktail with one flimsy limp wrist, the other holding an unlit cigarette, smiling provocatively at a mustached sailor he dreamed was an uncut stallion.
The boy was amorous with too many men from here to Rome. He could never love anyone of them. Not even that one he thought he was madly in love with. The married man from Naples he met on a train during a long layover in Milan. He had piercing black eyes and wore gaudy jewelry and, from what he had understood, was a stallion. Nevertheless, the boy did it on his knees in a compartment car and came home to him like always. Not to them did he follow, but to him did he come. His provider, his master, no matter how extremely late he came home to him. The god-damn boy was not in his arms this urgent moment when he needed him. He shook his fist in the air staring up at the ceiling gritting his teeth and cursing God under his breath because there was no god to severely reprimand the boy for the wages of his sin.
He swung around facing the living room. His portrait above the fireplace, unsmiling and stone-faced, stared wistfully back at him. Behind the sofa the wet bar beckoned him like a magnet, an ice bucket and two decanters, one full of gin, the other brandy, whispered his full name. He swallowed a dry lump out of his throat. No one around, his mouth twitched violently. He could do it, he sneered, he could fool them and even himself.
A mirror behind the bar captured him readying gin and vermouth and draining it tirelessly over crushed ice into a shaker he grasped and shook vigorously. He got a glass from underneath the counter slamming it down on the bar, dropped in two olives pierced on a toothpick and filled the glass to the rim. As the olives floated to the top, he cracked a smile and hesitated before lifting the martini to his mouth remembering once upon a time when he could drink until he was literally blue in the face. There were no hangovers then, no problems. 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.
He looked dubiously up at the ceiling admitting he was powerless over alcohol-that his life had become unmanageable. The second step he whispered, then paused at mid-sentence unnerved to hear her feet in a pair of exhausted slippers dragging across the floor and coming up the hall. He looked at the door and saw her in the doorway, her snow-white hair erect like an electric bush. A beige gown clinging unnaturally making her look naked. She struggled breathing through her mouth and, then swallowing, leered at the chandelier never noticing his presence in the room when her trembling fingers like bony bird claws reached for the light switch shutting out the light.
"Farchrisake!” he hollered.
"Ahab," the old woman gasped, turning white and grabbing her heart.
“Turn that light back on, now!”
“Oh no," she cried, stumbling to find the switch. "I didn't know anyone was here." She squinted her eyes in the light and saw it was not Ahab at all. She panicked and backed up.
"That’s right, it is I,” Abel said scornfully. “The other one! You so ardently hate.”
"I don't hate you so much.”
"Why I’m flattered,” said Abel, and he smiled grimly pouring the martini he’d just made down the drain and rolled his eyes. “Now be a good girl, go back to your room.”
“How dare you speak to me in that manner. I’m not a child or a simpleminded crone to be told what to do.”
“Indeed you’re not a child, but simpleminded and in need of instruction is debatable.”
“I’m your mother.”
“Yes, let’s not forget your maternal devotion that’s neither here nor there.”
“I happen to get an allowance every month, young fellow. Ahab deposits it in the bank to-"
"Ahab made those deposits of your measly pennies alright, right into his own personal account! Right down to your last nickel. Silly woman, don’t you know there’s nothing left? That Ahab spent it all.”
"Ahab wouldn't have.”
“In fact, he would have allowed this house to foreclose from right under your nose if I had-"
"You always do that. Why must you make up filthy lies to torture me?"
"I just can't get it.” Abel threw his hands up in the air helplessly. "After all the miserable years you've spent with Ahab, you still insist defending him against me when it Ahab, your first begotten bastard son who bankrupted his inheritance and defrauded you."
"I'll get Ahab. He'll speak the truth unlike your filthy lies."
”Then you’ll have to go all the way to 6th Street to find him.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Of course not. Ahab has been evicted.”
"Evicted as in discarded like an old shoe thrown into the trash."
"Because he’s a son of a bitch living in an SRO, nothing more than a flophouse he deserves and where I suspect he’d surely perish since I won’t support him anymore.”
The thought of Ahab being evicted had never actually occurred to her. Poverty—yes by his own doing, but eviction—no, she had never considered that when they had a home. Harpogon built at the top of Pemberton steps below the heaviest fog on Twin Peaks had always been their San Francisco home that Carl James, her husband, their father, first named Harpogon after the family Charleston house on Tradd Street. And then the bitter memory of Ahab’s eviction from Harpogon came back to her. She cringed feeling his pain, his desperate despair wrenching in her gut. Her eyes welled up with tears recalling the policemen dragging Ahab down the stairs kicking and screaming to never be seen again by his own mother. "Ahab can't be gone," she snapped. "He simply can't be. Why would you evict him? Your own brother? It was because of her, wasn’t it? Her! That woman?"
"Why mother," retorted Abel, "you are that woman."
She started to leave, then recoiled long enough to accept they were a cold family of stone, heartless and unforgiving of each other’s faults. They had always been that way since the beginning. "I don't hate you so much," she said wiping tears from her eyes.
"Get the hell out or shall I remove you personally? Dearest mother, you wouldn't prefer that..."
"All right,” she sucked her teeth and raised her chin high. “I am leaving...now." She left the room feeling her hands along the wall like a blind woman and, entering her bedroom down the hall, she slammed the door hard enough with all her strength.
"Wretched bitch!" Abel muttered under his breath pulling his fingers through his hair with gritted teeth. He started to make another martini to finish this time because he needed it when he heard the front door banged open downstairs, he squirted club soda into a glass instead. Footsteps pounded, rushing up.
"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 Zerita, his scraggly mother, about those goddamn cats all day. That had exhausted him. "Well, don't just stand there,” he said walking quietly to the sofa. "Come in my boy."
It was three years ago the 21st of November, the moon was full that night. The most brilliant white it was gleaming over Charleston and the city looked brighter in the darkness when he first saw the boy on the Battery straddled over a backpack and smoking a cigarette. He was lean and tall, square-jaw and sexy, a color as black and as beautiful as the cold crisp night. Abel Erikson grinned boyishly, feeling a chill down his spine. He wanted him that instant and hurried down the steps, hearing a faint sound of waves lapping the seawall and never really saw the other boys and shadowy figures of men waiting in cars with idle engines humming.
“Do you have a light?" he asked the boy pulling a cigarette from the inside pocket of his blazer underneath his overcoat.
“Do you have a light?" he asked the boy pulling a cigarette from the inside pocket of his blazer underneath his wool overcoat.
“Sure,” the boy said, turning to light his cigarette, and in the flame of the light, the boy saw Abel’s eyes were hazel and fiery in the glow. He caught a chill, shook the match out and backed up stumbling over his backpack and falling against the guardrail.
"Are you alright?" Abel said.
"I’m fine,” the boy said, stopping Abel’s unsought approach with the show of the white palm of one hand.
"I'm glad it was your backpack and not the seawall you tripped over,” Abel said, laughing underneath his breath, “Else I would have gladly dived into the harbor and rescued you."
The boy rolled his eyes and sucked his teeth without another word. Abel smiled and studied the boy meticulously through a cloud of smoke. He was not necessarily skinny but full-bodied like a strong field hand from one of those rural Pee Dee counties northwest of Charleston. He carried himself well in baggy clothes, Abel prayed were surely just that—baggy-but undeniably dirt cheap. No, he did not look fat at all.
“Cold out, don't you think?" Abel said finally breaking an awkward silence.
“Yes,” the boy nodded and dropped his unfinished cigarette on the sidewalk mashing it out with the tip of one black rubber boot.
“What are you looking for?” Abel whispered.
“I’m looking for you,” the boy said softly, noticing Fort Sumter in the distance and then looking into Abel’s eyes he stopped shaking and smiled.
“My car is parked up the street,” Abel said grabbing the boy’s hand that was soft and tender like a girl’s and not like the hard-callous hand of field hand. “Would you like to go to my car and warm up?”
“What kind of car?”
“It’s a silver Mercedes.”
“How old?” the boy wondered out loud more about Abel’s age than the car and jerked his hand away abruptly.
“It’s old enough but reliable,” Abel replied. "and most comfortable I guarantee.”
The boy picked up his overstuffed backpack and they left.
Inside Abel’s car parked behind Adgers Wharf near the waterfront the boy offered a stale can of malt liquor beer he pulled from his backpack. They shared it along with one cigarette as the moon rose higher in the black sky changing into a dazzling white. It was that moment Abel leaned over and kissed the boy on the mouth and felt himself sinking, slipping into the slightly 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.