At first Zeno heard her gasping for air coming into the room and shuffling feet, also hers, drowning out raindrops tapping Pemberton steps incessantly. Finally looking up from a portfolio he’d been working diligently all morning and directly at her commotion, his eyes widened in soundless horror.
The flesh colored house robe was gone.
Zeno swallowed, felt excited and foolish looking again to see Thamus, the black cat she called Blackey, right behind her. Instead of the usual drab colorless attire she flaunted a white woven gown adorned with floral lace and tiny shell buttons; the top cut into a full sweep above her breast that appeared to have grown overnight. Her small mouth was shaped with red lipstick, soft earth shadow and rouge painted her chalky complexion giving her cheeks an unnatural glow. In one hand she gripped a glass jar of milkshake, a bag of M&Ms clutched under the other arm as she made a frantic approach for her rocking chair in a corner.
"Would you like a drink?"
“A little bit.”
"I ran up the hill."
"From Castro Street?”
"Yes," the boy said sitting in the armchair closest to the fireplace and crossing his legs.
“Why didn’t you drive?”
“I didn’t feel like it.”
"Running uphill? That's a good reason to be out of breath.”
“Was it up to 17th to Twin Peaks or up Corbett directly to Pemberton steps?"
“I prefer Corbett the way I always come.”
Abel looked down at his crotch and smiled “You know, 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.”
“Do I know him?”
“No, I don’t think so."
“Where did you meet?”
“Under that bridge?”
“No, it was at the top of the hill at 19th Street," the boy said studying red embers in the fireplace; then looking back at Abel he pursed his lips.
“Oh, the gay beach? Was he blond and good-looking?”
The boy swallowed and, sweating, wiped his shiny forehead. “He had dirty blond hair.”
“Yeah, he was ok.” The boy got up, took off his leather jacket and scarf and, dropping them on the arm of the chair, went over to the fireplace. He grabbed the poker from its rack and stirred embers until a flame revived.
"Was it a nude portrait?" Abel asked.
"No?" Abel raised one curious eyebrow.
"Just his face," the boy closed his eyes, his lips trembling when he murmured, “Nothing more.”
“Was he paid for this sitting?”
“He wanted a burrito. Nothing more than that.”
"Oh, I see. Steak, chicken or burrito de cerdo?"
"It was a fat steak burrito with extra meat,” he said squeezing the poker in his hand and his eyes opened in soundless horror. "I forget the name of the place because I can’t pronounce it in Spanish. It’s on Valencia Street. You took me there Halloween night before we went to Castro."
“And you danced and got drunk with a guerrilla in the Pendulum on 18th Street.”
“Yes,” the boy remembered and smiled, “but I wasn’t drunk, and everybody danced with that guerrilla.”
“Then I was the only one sober enough not to.”
“Are you drinking now?” the boy noticed Abel’s club soda.
“No, I am not drinking,” Abel said sipping his drink and putting it back down on the table. “Oh, that restaurant you can’t pronounce is Puerto Alegre. Can you pronounce it now?"
"Yes,” the boy turned back to the fire and rolled his eyes. “Puer-to A-legre.”
"Bravo!" Abel cried clapping his hands so loud the noise popped the boy’s eardrums.
"Abel,” the astonished boy spoke in a hush whisper and looked anxiously around the room, then at Abel. “Isn’t Mrs. Erikson sleeping?"
"Mrs. Erikson?" Abel clenched his right hand 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,” the boy said putting the poker back into place; then came 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 and was content 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. I much prefer to hold you in my arms and kiss you."
The boy crossed his legs and 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 suddenly recalled exploring another person. He shook his head, then looked at Abel waiting on the sofa like a supreme authority. He took a deep breath and got up. On tiptoes, he went over to him like an obedient puppy and gave him a reluctant smooch as cold as ice.
Abel was unhappy by this worthless kiss. He pulled the boy 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 unimaginable 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 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 and stared at houses clinging down the hillside with their lights shimmering like romantic candlelight. The fog had dissipated, and, in the distance, the lights of Oakland and Berkeley hills stretched beyond the top of San Francisco’s illuminated skyscrapers cluttered at the edge of the bay. He wished he was there in the cold on a dock by the bay, away from here and all Abel's questions and 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, said nothing at all and rejoined his lover on the sofa without even a whimper.
"Do you still love me?” Abel demanded. “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. He thought about the studio he called Green Cottage, the house up Pemberton steps, all the new expensive clothes, boots, jewelry and looked down at the emerald ring on his index finger Abel gave him in Amsterdam. Finally "I love you, sir" spilled out.
Abel squeezed him in his arms. "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..."
"Always remember it was I who made this entire journey to San Francisco a reality."
Zeno leaned his head against Abel’s chest and felt safe, secure so close to daddy. Nothing more than that. He took a deep breath, smiled and wrapped his arms around Abel's slender waist. He was happy 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) 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..."
But he stopped after hearing Zeno snoring with a sudden gargling and squawking against his chest and a terrifying pause like he’d just run into the devil in his worst nightmare.
* * *
About three 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 flat on Mirabel Street. 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 hearth with the smell of wet burning wood enhancing his euphoria.
Later he added another log and settled back with thoughts of a painter he’d met in Macombe Alley when the telephone rang disrupting his thoughts. He leaned lazily over, picked up hoping it was already the painter. Instead, it was Tyrone Belin...
"Tyrone," Travis said into the receiver with a slight Texan drawl.
"Yassar, Clarence's brother.”
"Why hello, Tyrone," he tried sounding cheerful and swallowed a dry lump in his throat. "Where is Clarence?"
"Dat's why I is callin', sar."
"What's wrong?" Goosebumps spread over his skin, little blond hairs stood up on back of his neck. He sank deeper into the chair feeling a chill down his spine. "Where is Clarence?” he said.
"He was here, sar."
"Then he's finally come back to his senses and on his way back to San Francisco?"
"No sar. Clarence. He gone away..."
"I don't understand." A pain in his chest. This feeling of foreboding doom agonizing him so. He pulled his fingers through his hair.
"My brother is dead."
"What do you mean dead? Who the fuck are you?”
“Clarence’s brother like I say.”
“You’re telling me he’s dead? Dead? Just like that. Dead.”
"We's done buried he 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 here, too. It happens so quick. Nobodies knows how sick he is when he comes down. He gots so weak and slim and dem sores. Open sores all over he face, he wholes body. It gots to de place where he can't eat no mo! with dem sores in he mouf. Lordie, we be almost to scared ta touch he. Doc up in Alicetown scared, too."
"Oh my God," Travis cried, tears rolling down his cheeks. "He went back there to die, didn’t he? Dammit." He gritted his teeth. "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..." 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. 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.
Three years later in San Francisco on the first of November, Abel Erikson sighed wearily folding his arms across his chest as fog drifted below Pemberton steps covering the white City and the boy’s absence gloomier. He swung around gazing at two decanters, one full of gin, the other brandy on the sideboard. No one was around, he could really do it, could pretend to fool even himself. He swallowed a dry lump in his throat, wiped his brow and hurried across the room to the sideboard. There he readied gin and vermouth draining it carefully over crushed ice into a shaker.
He shook it vigorously, snatched a glass from the shelf and filled it to the rim with two olives on a toothpick. He lifted the martini to his mouth, his right cheek twitched abruptly and he hesitated.
Once upon a time, 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 and closed his eyes admitting he was powerless over alcohol-that his life had become unmanageable. The second step he whispered, then hesitated again, pausing at mid-sentence and opening his startled eyes. He swung around facing the French doors and saw her in the doorway gasping for breath, her snow white hair erect like an electric bush and a beige gown clinging unnaturally making her look naked. Looking up and only at the chandelier, she stepped across the threshold, her bird claw fingers finding the light switch and turning out the light.
"Farchrisake! Turn that light back on,” Abel demanded. “Turn it on, now!”
"Ahab," the woman cried clicking the switch and, squinting, she saw it was not Ahab and backed up.
"That’s right," Abel said scornfully. "It is I. Abel. The other one! You so ardently hate.”
"I don't hate you so much.”
"Why I’m flattered.” Abel smiled grimly pouring the martini he’d just made down the drain. “Now be a good girl and go back to your room.”
“How dare you speak to me in that manner. I’m your mother.”
“Yes, let’s not forget your maternal devotion that’s neither here nor there. Now, get the hell out.”
“I’ll have you know I am not some simpleminded crone.”
“I never said you were a simpleminded crone, but that description is quite accurate of one I failed to consider.”
“I get an allowance every month, young fellow. Ahab deposits it in the bank to take care of this house-"
"Ahab made those deposits of your measly pennies alright, right into his own personal account! Right down to your last nickel.”
"Ahab wouldn't have.”
“He would have and did let this house foreclose from right under your nose if I had not-"
"Why must you make up filthy lies?"
"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 insist defending him against me when it was Ahab who defrauded you."
"I'll get Ahab. He'll speak the truth."
”You have to go all the way to 6th Street to find him .”
“6th Street? I don’t understand.”
“Of course not. Let me remind you. He’s been evicted
"Yes, evicted as in discarded, thrown out."
"But how? Why?"
"Your precious baby boy is living in absolute poverty and on general assistance, in an SRO on 6th Street where he will surely perish."
The thought of Ahab being evicted had never actually occurred to her. Poverty--yes, but eviction--no. Finally some memory of Ahab’s eviction was no longer so remote, she remembered it along with the fighting, the screaming and the police. Yet, she had no memory of 6th Street or this SRO, but the thought of them didn’t sound exactly like Park Avenue. She got a quiver in the pit of her stomach worrying over Ahab’s situation until she started to shake. "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,” Abel said calmly, “you are that woman.”
She started to leave, then stopped. Her hands were no longer shaking, the quiver in her stomach dissipated and she accepted they were still a cold family of stone, heartless and unforgiving or each other’s faults. That had not changed. "I don't hate you so much," she said looking down the hall into empty space past the spiral stairs leading up to the master bedroom.
"Get out or shall I remove you personally? Dearest mother, you wouldn't prefer that..."
"All right,” she said with sudden vivacity. "I am leaving...now." She sucked-in her teeth and made her way down the hall feeling her hands along the wall like a blind woman and, entering her bedroom, slammed the door behind her.
"Wretched bitch!" Abel said gritting his teeth, then suddenly froze like a statue and a frivolous look on his face. He grinned feeling the thing in his boxer short pulsating, the thing ready to explode. Effortlessly he fondled it, biting his bottom lip until he tasted blood. He burst into laughter, a savage reverberating echo from a wet unexpected climax. 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. Abel cleaned himself up quickly, squirted a sip of club soda into a glass and 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 looking desirable in a leather jacket accented with a checkered cashmere brown scarf he wore over a black turtleneck with olive pants and black boots. 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."
Updated May 8, 2019
It was three years earlier the 21st of November, a full moon and hide tide at the Battery when he first saw the boy smoking a cigarette and an overstuffed backpack at his feet, his wrist steady shifting back and forth in a sudden wet ocean breeze. It was that second sight of him, not the first, Abel desired him completely and grinned pulling a cigarette, the only one he carried for such an occasion, from the inside pocket of his one bottom blue checkered blazer.
Turning slightly towards him but not looking into his eye directly, the boy mumbled a toneless "sure" as he struck a match and lit Abel’s cigarette; then backing up almost stumbled over his backpack.
"Are you alright?" Abel said.
"Yes," the boy retorted.
Abel drew smoke into his lungs feeling its burn and the high sensation of nicotine. "I'm glad it was your backpack you stumbled over and not the seawall," he said smoke billowing from his mouth. "If not, I would have had to fish you out of the harbor to save you."
The boy kind of smiled or was it a silly smirk? but he said nothing back to Abel who was a stranger to him then like all the sailors and businessmen who staggered to the Battery after dark for pleasure without unnecessary conversation.
Abel stared at the boy meticulously who wasn’t 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 baggy but undeniably dirt cheap. No, he didn't look fat at all, was impressed the boy had no accent and probably whispered a phlegmatic ask instead of a vernacular ax. “Cold out, don't you think?" he said.
“Yes,” the boy muttered one word again and dropped his cigarette mashing it out with the tip of his boot.
“What are you looking for?”
“I’m looking for you,” the boy replied.
“My car is parked up the street. Would you like to go there to my car and warm up?”
“What kind of car?”
“An old red Mercedes.”
“How old?” the boy wondered out loud more about Abel’s age than the car.
“Old enough but reliable.” Abel smiled. |”And, most comfortable I guarantee.”
Inside the car, the boy offered a stale can of malt liquor beer pulled from his overstuffed backpack. They shared it along with one cigarette as the moon rose higher in the black sky changing into a dazzling white. Then 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 . . .