"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 sighed, crossed his legs and gazed at red embers burning softly in the fireplace and the clock ticking on top of the mantle.
“Was it up to Twin Peaks or directly up Pemberton steps?" Abel inquired further.
“Pemberton Steps,” Zeno said glancing at Abel’s portrait in a white light above the fireplace.
Abel glanced down at his crotch that was slightly erect like a bent stalk. “You know," he grinned, looking at Zeno again. "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," Zeno said.
“Do I know him?”
“Where did you meet?”
“Under that bridge?”
“No, we met at the top of the hill on 19th Street.”
“Was he good-looking and blond?” Abel said.
“No...I mean, yes," Zeno stuttered, "he had dirty blond hair.”
"Was it a nude portrait?"
“No,” Zeno moistened his lips and his eyes filled with water. “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 or chicken?"
"It was a fat steak burrito with extra meat from a taqueria on Valencia Street. That same one you took me to one afternoon when you first brought me here and it was raining and the burritos were so good. So I took him there and we drank dark Modelo beer and listened to Mexican pop music waiting for his order to take out since that’s what he wanted. Nothing more."
“Nothing more than that.”
Abel put his drink down. "Bravo!" he cried clapping his hands so loud the noise popped Zeno's ears.
"Isn’t Mrs. Erikson sleeping?" A startled Zeno looked around the room.
"Zelta!" Abel’s right hand clenched into a fist. "I don't give a goddamn if my excitement rouses that woman. If she 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 trust me entirely and will 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 of 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 vividly recalled caressing silky white flesh as he kissed him all over and again and again he kissed him fully on the mouth. They melted into the other like two colors mingling into one color on a stretched canvas and it was beautiful as the sun started to set behind Sutro Tower and the sound of their breathing the only noise against the shadows on the wall. The sweet smell of him he would remember a lifetime.
He looked over at Abel waiting there like a supreme authority and a silly smirk on his face. Reluctantly, he stood up at once; then went over to him on his tiptoes like an obedient puppy. He bent over and gave him a smooch as cold as an ice cube.
Abel glared at him displeased by such a worthless 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 the 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. 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 like a kitten purring softly against his chest...
November 3, three years later.
San Francisco, CA.
As fog drifted below Twin Peaks and downhill into the valley over Victorian rooftops and the very tip of Castro theatre marquee, Abel Erikson folded his arms across his chest not enjoying the breathtaking view. His thoughts were only of the boy who was late and he imagined was in the Castro in a bar discussing his artwork with an imperfect stranger. The thought of the boy, his boy, entertaining any man in a bar was disconcerting.
He swung around staring at a white C-shape bar and storage shelves were underneath and a gold-framed mirror hung on the wall projecting his reflection from behind the bar. On top of the bar 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 bar, his mouth watering to taste. He slammed the ice bucket lid down on the counter, picked up the shaker and twisted it open. Eagerly he readied gin and vermouth. But then the problem that had made him feel less than a man only a few weeks ago returned. He squeezed the neck of the bottle hard until he wanted 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 inch away he heard her coming through the French doors. He pushed the decanter back into place and darted over to the sofa. An antique clock ticked on top of the white mantle, a continuous sound almost deafening, and he shivered as the clock kept ticking. His portrait painted by the boy hung above the mantle with a light fixed in the middle of the bottom frame that shined upwards and the portrait came alive with piercing eyes staring back. Tick...tick...the door creaked open. And therein the threshold she stood with snow-white hair erect like an electric bush. A beige gown clinging unnaturally to her shapeless figure made her look naked.
A second later the room fell into 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."
"I am not Ahab!”
She squinted until she could see him clearly. When she did hairs rose on the back of her neck. She shook and pressed a hand to her heart.
"Yes, it is I, mother,” Abel said. “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," Abel said. "Go to hell!"
"Why must you curse me all the time?"
"Because you're a simpleton."
"I'm not a simpleton.”
“Then a worthless, pathetic hag.”
“I'm your mother."
“Yes, a 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 to-."
"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 the house like a mindless 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. But finally some truth of Ahab’s eviction sank temporally, she remembered and shivered. "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, 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 a silly old bat. Get out of here. Or shall I remove you personally? 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. She fled into her bedroom mustering enough strength to slam the door.
"Wretched bitch!" Abel stumped back to behind the bar. He jerked the cap off the decanter and started to fill the shaker with gin and bit his bottom lip until he tasted blood. It stung a small bit. He grabbed a cloth from the top shelf underneath the bar and dabbed the cloth at his lip until the bleeding stopped. A crooked smile wrinkled his face which looked lopsided gazing at his crotch in the mirror. Nothing about the bulge in his crotch was stubby. Not at all. Effortlessly, he gripped the long shaft poking sideways through his pocket. It had been so long since the last time he initiated such self-hurt and gratification that he could no longer remember how long it had been. Dear God! The cock was itching to explode. He 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 threw the cloth on the shelf underneath the bar, grabbed a glass and squirted club soda into it and then 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. 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 in hopes of meeting Mr. Right and, perhaps, secure enough money for food and shelter and out of the cold after quick sex.
Abel Erikson, good-looking and dark-haired with a thin mustache, stumbled up the top step that was broken up into High Battery's sidewalk. High Battery overlooked the harbor and descended onto the Battery, the lower sidewalk, at the tip of the peninsula where Murray Boulevard divided into two traffic lanes, one south, the other north, by a median of Palmetto trees and brown Bermuda grass and Fort Sumter with its blurry lights rose from the high sea like a hill in the distance. Up ahead underneath street lamps glowing in the darkness Abel 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 the boy stood out in his mind as a trophy. Right then he decided he would have the black one before the other men parked in shiny cars along the street got out and propositioned the trophy boy he suspected was well-hung.
Abel smiled when he saw the boy was smoking a cigarette and pulled a loose cigarette from the left inside pocket of his overcoat. “Do you have a light?” he said with the cigarette cocked at the corner of his mouth.
“Sure,” the boy answered striking a match to light Abel’s cigarette and, in the flame, saw that Abel's eyes were hazel like the color of algae murky pond water that compelled the boy to shake out the fire and back up.
Abel inhaled deeply gazing at the boy’s physique. He wasn't necessarily skinny but full-bodied like a strong field hand. In his baggy clothes, he carried himself well and didn't look fat at all. As smoke billowed from Abel's mouth, Abel leaned back with his elbows touching the seawall and grinned moving his tongue playfully 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.
“What are you looking for?”
“I’m looking for you,” the boy said.
“My car is parked up the street on East Bay,” he said grabbing the boy’s hand firmly and found it cold but soft like a girl's. “Would you like to warm up?”
“Why not," the boy said.
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.
As a full moon rose higher in the black sky changing into a dazzling white, Abel 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 platinum white 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...