About three miles southeast of Pemberton steps in Bernal Heights, Travis Weatherford, a blond with stormy Nordic good looks and green eyes and he was well built, snorted the last line of cocaine from a mirror in his bungalow on Montezuma Street. It burned horribly at first up through his nose to the top of his brain zigzagging in the back of his skull like a swarm of butterflies. He cleared his throat and coughed, his eyes watery but his pulse settled, and he breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, a total sense of serenity came over him, the butterflies subsided, he was pleased and relaxed.
The world seemed normal again, at least in his head it was a world of rainbows and waterfalls and blue birds, and he smiled sitting straight up and perfectly still there on the sofa staring at red embers and ash burning in the fireplace when he remembered a handsome young man. An unforgettable young man full life and disobedience. His image coming to him in slow motion. They were side by side in a sauna room. 21st Street Baths. Even now he could still smell his sweaty body in the dripping hot steam, shiny and black, he wanted him as their fingers gripped, locked, and effortlessly their lips trembled with the eagerness of urgent sex.
It was a different kind of sex that embraced them that afternoon, inexplicable and not even gentle but frantic and extraordinary for him then and now, forever in another place or time.
The telephone rang and he turned his head staring absently at the end table hesitating before finally grabbing the receiver with his right hand. “Hello, this is Travis,” he said with a slight Texan drawl.
“Mista Weatherford, sar?”
“Yes, this is he. Whose speaking?”
“Ty-rone. Ty-rone Belin.”
“Tyrone?” Travis picked up his Scotch and Soda with his other hand and sipped. “How can I help you, Tyrone?”
“I is callin' sar, cause of momma sayin’ I oughta call ya since we knows ya’ll be friends out dere in Frisco. I is ‘e brotha, Ty-rone, 'ere en Georgia.”
“You mean, Clarence’s brother?”
“Then Clarence has finally come back to his senses and on his way from Georgia to San Francisco?”
“No sar, see ‘e cant calls ya.”
“I don’t understand.”
“M-my brotha,” Tyrone stuttered, “ ‘e dead, sar.”
“What?” Travis said his face white, and he dropped his drink in his lap. “What do you mean he’s dead?” He persisted wiping his crotch with his free hand until the glass slipped past his knee, he could not catch it and it hit the floor hard. “He can’t be dead," he muttered to himself out loud as one tear came down his right cheek. “I mean, what you’re telling me can’t be happening, can't be true-”
“Sar, we's buried ‘e dis pas’ Fridie,” Tyrone said.
"So you're just now telling me about this after burying him a week ago?" Travis snapped looking down at the glass by his feet. It had not broken and shattered into pieces like the terrible way he felt now. He wanted to scream.
“Lissen 'ere sar, we's all upset down ‘ere. Nobodies knows haw siq ‘e is wen e’s comes down ‘ere. It gotts ta de plac’ ware ‘e cant eat no mo! wit’ dem sores all in ‘e mouf en dem lesion sores all orn ‘e face ‘e bodi. Lordie, we be almosta ta scared ta touch ‘e. Doc up en Alicetown as scared ta touch ‘e ta."
"Oh my God," Travis choked up blinking back tears. “He went back there to die, didn’t he? When I thought. When I thought. Dammit. Oh, Dammit. What a fool I’ve been." Furiously Travis pulled his hair, gritting his teeth, cursing God under his breath. He did not hear Tyrone’s desperate stutters anymore. "I gotta go, Tyrone. I can't talk anymore. But thanks much, buddy. Thank you for letting me know about Clarence. My condolences to you and your family.”
He hung up the phone, shaken and frozen to the spot. He wiped his eyes. Then it struck, the painful aching, the burning misery. Long guttural wails echoed from his mouth as he screamed out his sorrow.
The pain would not ease, it kept coming, digging into his gut like a parasite. His head pounding as if it would split wide open any second. Blood spilling everywhere. He would be dead, too, like Clarence, like all those others he met in bars and bathhouses, Bueva Vista Park and Mission News, Golden Gate YMCA, Union Square Macy’s and The Emporium Market Street, had sex and swallowed never knowing their surnames and, sometimes not even first names but he always remembered the body part.
He smashed the mirror he had used to line cocaine, and then the lamp, leaving him weeping in the shadows of a dying fire.
Finally the boy climbed out of the armchair suppressing a throbbing desire to confess meeting a man in a bathhouse on 21st Street who had overwhelmed him like no other back-alley whore as far back as he cared to remember. He was inclined to forget him like all other miserable poor men or risk losing a home of stability and rewards of a man whose heart was not always obliging. On tiptoes he moved across the Tibetan rug toward the crowned supreme authority on the long white sofa like a curious black cat noticing an awkward toy; effortlessly, he bent down bestowing him a smooch like a kiss of death.
Abel was displeased immeasurably. He pulled the boy down between his legs and drew his mouth to his like a sharp beak that made the boy squirm in his lap and cry for mercy. “I do love you, Zeno Dexter Elliot," he said holding the boy down with the strength of both hands, "and tonight rest assured I won't lecture you on importance of fidelity. You're home where you belong. However, I must demand that you to take extreme caution when you are 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 protested jumping 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 homeless man in Dolores Park and your painting him fully clothed?"
"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--among foolish men in this town who could very well be carriers of incurable Red virus.”
“Red Virus. What the fu-”
“Yes, Red Virus, transmitted sexually having unprotected sex with the gang of men you know nothing about. If contracted it will possibly kill you. In other words wear a god-damn condom and try not to swallow if you can help it or keep the thing covered even during casual oral sex through a glory hole. I know about your escapades. Regrettably, every one of them accommodating your amorous recreation or the fact that you just can't keep it in your pants.”
Zeno hated it when he sounded this way. So god-damn fatherly, so god-damn right about everything. Always blabbing something off with his "big-know-it-all-mouth". He pushed his hands in his pockets and strutted over to window seat, kneeling, and looking in the distance at shimmering lights of skyscrapers in the night. He wished he were there. In one of them far away from Abel’s piercing eyes and unsolicited advice. He swung around abruptly his black face livid glaring at him with blazing eyes. In three years his manly good looks had diminished with sags and a pathetic erection collapse, his lush black hair gone salt-and-pepper. Thinner and thinner atop his pasty weathered head.
"I have made an appointment for you to see Dr. Price in the morning to be tested for anything and everything that disturbs me. But for now," Abel suddenly beamed motioning him to a spot on the sofa, "I want my darling boy beside me where he belongs. I have a surprise."
"Would you like a drink?" Abel said hugging the boy gently around the neck and kissing him on the cheek. The boy's black face blushed and he told him no thanks pulling away and trotting into the living room. Abel shook ice cubes melting in his glass with his lips pressed into a thin line studying the boy's poise from the back of the boy's faded haircut down to the curve of the yellow-stitch sole of his black leather boots. “Tired?" he said sipping his club soda. “A little bit," the boy replied staring out the window at the sunset full of vibrant pink and blue, and no longer a hint of fog and overcast shadows.
"I ran up the hill.”
"All the way from Castro Street?”
“No, from Dolores Street,” the boy said turning around and, looking into Abel’s milky blue eyes, he smiled.
“Yeah, Dolores to Market and straight up 17th to Clayton to the steps.”
“Impressive.” Abel winked. “You know, I miss you terribly when you’re not here."
"Even when I'm painting in the Green Cottage?"
"But of course,” Abel chuckled walking past the boy to the long white sofa in the middle of the room, “even then when you're working.”
"I started a new portrait.”
“Do I know him?”
"No,” the boy said wretchedly and dropped in the armchair crossing his feet at the ankles.
“Where did you meet?”
“Under that bridge?”
“No, top of the hill.”
“Oh, the gay beach,” Abel said placing his drink on a placeholder on the coffee table and crossing his legs. “Was he blond and good-looking?”
“He was ash blond.”
“He was okay.” Abruptly, the boy got up taking off his leather jacket. He dropped the jacket in the chair and rushed over to the fireplace snatching a poker from the rack and stirring red hot embers into a vicious flame.
“Just okay?” Abel glared at the boy’s back.
“Yeah,” the boy snapped, “he was OK.”
"Was it a nude portrait?"
“A nude portrait?” The boy scoffed furrowing his brow. “Of course not. Just his face, I painted nothing other than that.”
“Was he paid for this impromptu sitting?”
“He was paid,” the boy said squeezing the handle of the poker tightly in his hand, “a big fat burrito.” His black eyes twitched. “He was hungry. That’s what he wanted. That’s what he got.”
“I’m not sure.”
“I don’t know.”
"Burrito de carne, pollo or cerdo?"
"Steak with extra meat.”
“That Mexican restaurant on Valencia Street not far from Roxie Theater, I took him there,” the boy exclaimed dropping his arm down at his side, and he sighed and tried to relax.
“The one I took you to last Halloween?”
“Yes,” the boy said replacing the poker in the stand, “I can’t pronounce it.”
“Puerto Alegre," Abel articulated in Spanish and, uncrossing his legs, leaned forward circling the top of the glass on the table with his index finger slowly. "Can you pronounce it now?"
“Puer-to A-legre," the boy stammered.
"Gracias!" Abel cried clapping, the noise of his applause popping the boy’s ears. “Isn’t Mrs. Erikson sleeping?" the boy whispered.
“Isn’t she in bed?"
"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 single tear."
"I'm sorry that Mrs. Erikson has hurt you, sir,” the boy said coming back to his seat and pushing his jacket aside. “I hope someday you'll be able to tell me why you dislike her so much. I promise I'll listen."
This pleased Abel wholeheartedly. He grinned, chin up, contented his boy had a compassionate heart and was not always so selfish. That raging beast that had overwhelmed him with unseemly thoughts of his mother dissipated. "What is done is done," he said calmly, "I'm simply happy that you care. But let us not talk about Zelta 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, and he slumped back in the chair remembering how much he wanted the white body they had just touched.
"I don't hate you so much.”
"Get the hell out or shall I remove you personally? Dearest mother, you wouldn't prefer that..."
"All right,” she whispered, and, without further recourse, she relinquished leaving the living room for her bedroom down the hall behind the staircase. She entered quietly, locking the door, and falling against it, she sobbed uncontrollably into her hands.
"Wretched bitch!" Abel muttered through gritted teeth pulling his fingers through his hair that he tangled into a mess. As always, he was disgusted by his mother's appearance and any discussion of her favorite son, Ahab, pushed him over the edge. Never had they taken his side and was incessantly scheming means to his bank account through every Dick, Tom and Harry. He hated them both, wishing them straight to hell if the place would even have them. He took a deep breath and started to make another martini, to hell with sobriety, when he heard the front door bang open downstairs.
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 would not complain or question him about his day away from him. Besides, he had argued long enough with Zelta, his scraggly mother, about Ahab and those god-damn cats. That had exhausted him. "Well, don't just stand there,” he said squirting club soda into a glass. "Come in my boy."
"Farchrisake!” Abel's voice boomed in the darkness startling the old woman out of her wits, and "Ahab," she cried grabbing her bosom in horror.
“Turn that light back on, now,” he commanded as the woman struggled to find the switch. A moment later she was able to catch her breath squinting her eyes in the light to see him, "I didn't know anyone else was here," she said, realizing then it was not Ahab behind the bar, and her eyes widened in total fear. She stumbled backwards into the door hitting the back of her head.
"That’s right, it is I. The other one you so ardently hate.”
"I don't hate you so much," she said raising her chin.
"I’m flattered you care,” Abel said rolling his eyes and pouring the martini he had just made down the drain; then looking at her directly he continued softly, “Are you all right? I mean, you didn’t hurt yourself when you struck the door?”
“I’m fine, but I thank you very much for asking.”
“Very well then,” Abel said flashing an abrupt smile. “Can you now do me a great favor as to be so kind and humble as to go back to your room this minute.”
“This minute," she snorted. "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.”
“I happen to get an allowance every month, young fellow. Ahab deposits it in the bank to-"
“What has this request to obey me have anything to do with Ahab? Ahab, Ahab, he’s all you think about.”
“Ahab goes to the bank every month to-"
"Ahab made those deposits of your measly pennies alright every month into his own personal account. Right down to your last nickel. Nothing is left, you silly, pathetic woman.”
“In fact, if not for me he would have let this house foreclose from right under your nose being in cahoots with that charlatan, Orin Nichols, who was not a realtor and nothing more than a pornographer-"
"Ahab wouldn’t have. Why must you make up filthy lies?"
"I just can't get it,” Abel said throwing 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 depleted his inheritance, made nothing of himself; then defrauded you, his beloved mother, out everything you had."
"I'll get Ahab. He'll speak the truth unlike your filthy lies."
” Then you’ll have to go all the way to Turk Street to find your baby boy.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Of course not,” said Abel. “Ahab has been evicted.”
"Yes, discarded into the trash like an old shoe.."
"But why, Abel?"
"Because he’s no good. You can’t support him anymore, and I definitely won’t support the bastard.”
"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, “you are that woman…”
Three years later as fog drifted down Twin Peaks and over the city of San Francisco like a quiet storm, Abel Erikson pulled his fingers through his hair and hesitated to catch his reflection in the living room window of his Pemberton steps house. He was shorter. He was almost sure his posture had shrunk changing like his jet-black hair turned a dirty peppered grey. His brow was bushier, greyer. There were more wrinkles and crow’s feet sharper around his milky blue eyes especially if he smiled. Thus, he preferred not to smile, often wearing an almost permanent clown-face frown. The back of his hands was speckled with age spots he found unsightly and attempted to hide when stroking the boy for that kind of recreation. He had become a vain, prudish man, an alpha-gay who was older and slightly insecure of his own prowess no matter how wiser or privileged he thought he was. Yet he was a dominate force to be reckoned with, conceited and most worthy of careful observation the way he waltzed into a room.
He shifted his weight to his left foot and cupped one hand under his chin as a vale of fog swept over the tiptop of Castro Theater marquee and, thinking about the boy, a mischievous smile came over his face. He suspected the boy was not far from the theater in a bar that overlooked age of consent. He would be perched like a queen in the middle of the meat rack, long legs crossed, holding a cocktail with one flimsy limp wrist, the other an unlit cigarette, smiling provocatively at a Germanic type of white blond hair, pale blue eyes and chiseled features. He hated the boy’s amorous habit from here to Rome wishing there were truly a god to reprimand the boy for the wages of sin.
He swung around staring at his portrait, unsmiling and stone-faced, hung above the fireplace looking wistfully back at him. Behind the sofa the wet bar was well-stocked underneath the way Rosa, the housekeeper, had arranged it. On top an ice bucket filled with fresh cubes of ice and two decanters, one full of gin, the other brandy beckoned him to the bar like a magnet. Effortlessly he started forward, swallowing a dry lump out of his throat; then reluctantly took another step. No one around, he could do it, he sneered, his mouth twitching violently. He could fool all of them, even himself.
Behind the bar he strained vermouth carefully over crushed ice into a glass pitcher, added gin and stirred mechanically. 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 was not 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 stopped stirring looking 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 when he heard her feet sliding up the hall coming toward the door.
The door opened and passing through a gasping old woman limped into the room with hair snow-white and erect like an electric bush; she was very thin wearing a beige gown clinging unnaturally making her look naked. After gazing up at the chandelier for a long moment she moved toward the light switch and the room fell pitch-black.
It was three years ago the 21st of November, the moon was full that night a most brilliant white. It gleamed above the old city of Charleston in the darkness when he first saw the boy on the Battery. He was straddled over a backpack and smoking a cigarette. So lean and tall, square-jaw and sexy, his color as black as the night and he was beautiful. He wanted him that instant and started sneezing, which regularly happened to him when he was aroused—was to sneeze before an erection. He couldn’t stop and tried to hold back the sneeze and erection more so out of embarrassment as he hurried down the steps hearing an echo of waves lapping up against the seawall and rushing pass other boys-all of them white and pasty-who made him go mercifully limp along with shadowy figures of dirty old men in cars with open pants and idle engines humming.
“Do you have a light?" he asked the boy immediately pulling a cigarette from the inside pocket of his checkered 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 his hand.
"I'm glad it was your backpack and not the seawall you tripped over,” Abel uttered laughing underneath his breath, “Else I would have dived into the harbor to rescue your beautiful body."
The boy rolled his eyes and sucked his teeth without troubling himself to comment. Abel smiled fully erect underneath his coat 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 like Florence or Williamsburg northwest of Charleston. He carried himself well in baggy clothes, Abel prayed were surely just that—baggy-but undeniably dirt cheap.
“Cold out, don't you think?" Abel said finally breaking an awkward silence between them.
“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 said.
“I’m looking for you,” the boy whispered looking at Fort Sumter in the distance and then into Abel’s eyes he stopped shaking, he wanted him and smiled wondering if it was big at all or the usual white boy small disappointment warranting no long-term repeats.
“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 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, comfortable and reliable, I guarantee,” Abel replied.
The boy picked up his overstuffed backpack and they left.
Inside Abel’s car parked behind Adger's Wharf at 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.