About two miles southeast of Pemberton steps Travis Weatherford, a blond with stormy Nordic good looks, bent over and snorted the last line of cocaine from a mirror in his Bernal Heights flat. The feeling was dazzling, soothing. Things looked clearer even if he wasn’t sure how he was going pay all the rent without his lover's assistance since his job as a runner at Pacific Coast Stock Exchange was not sufficient to afford the flat alone. And now that his father had cut off his allowance after his refusal to marry Louvenia Langford back home in Waco, Texas, for his father's own gain, everything seemed bleak. His only hope was to appeal to, Laura, his baby sister for generous support until he could do better if his lover never came home from Georgia.
He relaxed listening to piano solo and gazing into the fire. In a little while he would add another log or two but for the moment, he settled back with thoughts of a young portrait painter he’d met in Macombe Alley when the telephone rang disrupting his thoughts of lust and passion.
TO BE CONTINUED
"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.
Three years later Abel Erikson was alone in his San Francisco house at the top of Pemberton steps watching fog from a living room terrace window drifting below Twin Peaks and into the city. Fog always depressed him especially when it was wet and grey and cold. But even without fog he was unhappy. Unhappy over his boy not being with him. The boy was late and, as usual, had not phoned to let him know he was running late. His behavior had become rude and inconsiderate, and he was angry about the constant way the boy disrespected him after he had done so much for the boy. His dinner in would be cold and tasteless when he got home. He’d left it there on the sideboard in the dining room and decided he wouldn’t care since the boy had not called. However, he did care and knew he would gladly warm the boy’s dinner the moment he said he was hungry because he loved the boy incurably. His great love for the boy had not changed. He sucked his teeth wanting to scream and swung around. Two decanters were on top of the bar, one full of gin, the other brandy. He hesitated and felt himself shivering as he was moved gingerly towards the bar.
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 and waves lapped against the seawall when he first saw the black boy on the Battery straddled over an overstuffed backpack and smoking a cigarette. Abel liked the way he smoked, the effortless way his hand lifted to his mouth almost feminine like a Barbara Stanwyck femme fatale and yet masculine as Gary Cooper and Sidney Poitier. From a distance his wrist looked skinny like a girl’s, Abel imagined hairless and smooth, and Abel grinned thinking soberly about his wrist as he hurried down the steps past a half dozen lily white boys lined up in a row like shifty shivering Raggedy Ann dolls for only a couple of men in cars parked on the street across from the public garden.
He pulled a cigarette from the inside pocket of his overcoat, the only one he carried for such an occasion, and cocked it in the corner of his mouth. “Do you have a light?" he asked the black boy, eagerly.
“Sure,” said the black boy, turning to light his cigarette and in the flame of the light the boy caught a chill seeing Abel’s eyes; they were hazel but appeared fiery in the glow. He backed up stumbling over his backpack and landing against the guardrail.
"Are you alright?"
"I’m fine,” the boy said waving a hand in the air.
"I'm surely glad it was your backpack and not the seawall you tripped over. If not, I would have jumped into the harbor and rescued you."
Then the boy dropped his cigarette and mashed it out on the sidewalk with the tip of one boot. He squeezed the guardrail with both hands, a sullen expression on his face as he stared at faint lights across the harbor and a foghorn echoed in the distance. For an abrupt moment he considered walking away from this man he didn’t particularly like, didn’t really want to know but changed his mind because he was cold, and he stayed.
Abel studied the boy meticulously through a cloud of smoke. He wasn’t necessarily skinny but full-bodied like a strong field hand from one of those rural Pee Dee counties northwest of Charleston. Indeed, 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. “Cold out, don't you think?" he said breaking an awkward silence.
“What are you looking for?” Abel persisted.
“I’m looking for you,” the boy whispered.
“My car is parked up the street,” Abel moved closer and, reaching down, grabbed the boy’s hand that was soft and tender like a girl’s and not like a field hand. “Would you like to go to my car and warm up?”
“What kind of car?”
“It’s a grey Mercedes.”
“How old?” the boy wondered out loud more about Abel’s age than the car and quickly jerked his hand away.
“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 water 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.