"Would you like a drink?"
“A little bit.”
"I ran up the hill."
"From Castro Street?”
“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 directly to Twin Peaks or up Corbett to Pemberton steps?"
Abel looked down at his crotch, grinned. “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.” The boy nodded sitting in the armchair closet to the fireplace.
“Where did you meet?”
“Under that bridge?”
“No, the top of the hill.”
“Oh, the gay beach at 19th Street? Was he blond and good-looking?”
The boy furrowed his brow but responded quickly. “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 grabbed the poker from its rack and stirred red embers into a vicious flame.
"Was it a nude portrait?"
“A nude portrait?” The boy rolled his eyes. “No.”
"No?" Abel raised one curious eyebrow.
"Just his face." The boy closed his eyes, his lips trembling as he squeezed the fire poker in his hand and murmured, “Nothing more.”
“Was he paid for this sitting?”
"Burrito de carne, pollo or cerdo?"
"De carne with extra meat at that Mexican place on Valencia Street," he said opening his eyes in soundless horror. "I can’t pronounce it. You took me there last Halloween before we went to Castro."
“Halloween. Castro's own national holiday. You danced and got drunk with a guerrilla in the Pendulum.”
“But I wasn’t so drunk, and everybody danced with that guerrilla.”
“I didn't and 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 unsmiling. “Oh, that restaurant you can’t pronounce is Puerto Alegre."
He sipped his drink and placed it back on the table. "Can you pronounce it now?"
"Yes,” the boy turned back to the fire with pursed lips. “Puer-to A-legre,” he pronounced slowly.
"Bravo!" Abel cried clapping his hands so loud the noise popped the boy’s eardrums.
"Abel,” the astonished boy spoke in a hush whisper looking anxiously around the room, then looked 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. "I'm simply happy that you care. But let's not talk about Zelta 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 all over the body of another man. A man who excited him so like no other. He shook his head, took a deep breath and got up. On tiptoes, he went over to him--the supreme authority--like an obedient puppy and supplied a reluctant smooch.
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 an alleged 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, and, in the distance, the lights of Oakland and Berkeley hills stretched beyond the top of San Francisco’s illuminated skyscrapers at the edge of the bay. He wished he were there in one of them, away from here and 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 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. None at all. Then he considered the studio he called Green Cottage, the house up Pemberton steps and, 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. He felt safe, secure so close to daddy. Nothing more than that. He took a deep breath and, smiling, wrapped his arms around Abel. He was content 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 the color of emeralds, 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 as a fire crackled in the fireplace. Later he would add another log or two as he settled back with thoughts of a mysterious painter, he’d met in Macombe Alley when the telephone rang. He leaned lazily over, picked up hoping it was the painter calling but instead it was someone else. Tyrone with his lover’s surname Belin.
"Tyrone," Travis said into the receiver with a slight Texan drawl.
"Yassar, Clarence's brother.”
"Why hello, Tyrone," he said cheerfully. "Where is Clarence?"
"Dat's why I is callin', sar."
"What's wrong?" He swallowed a dry lump in his throat. 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," Tyrone stuttered. "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.
"Clarence. 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.