Last updated August 8, 2018
"Would you like a drink?"
“A little bit.”
"I ran up the hill."
"From Castro Street?”
"Yes," Zeno said sitting down on one of the armchairs closest to the fireplace and remembering it was Zelta’s favorite chair. He pulled her shawl from underneath his thigh, folded it and placed it over the back of the chair.
“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 Pemberton steps?"
Abel glanced down at his crotch, and he 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, I don’t think so,” Zeno said studying red embers of a dying fire flickering in the fireplace.
“Where did you meet?”
“Under that bridge?”
“No, at the top of the hill on 19th Street.”
“The gay beach?”
“If that’s what they call it.”
“Was he good-looking and blond?”
“He had dirty blond hair.”
“Yeah, he was ok.” Zeno got up and stirred the embers with a poker, the fire revived, and he quivered staring at the poker squeezed in his hand.
"Was it a nude portrait?"
“No,” Zeno swallowed a dry lump in his throat and put the poker back in place. “Just his face. Nothing more.”
“Was he paid for this sitting?”
“He wanted a burrito.”
“Oh, I see.”
“Nothing more than that.”
"Steak, chicken or burrito de cerdo?"
"It was a fat steak burrito with extra meat from a restaurant on Valencia Street," Zeno said sitting back down. "That same one you took me to right before Halloween. I forget the name of the place because I can’t pronounce it in Spanish-"
"Yes, that's the place."
“Nothing more than that?”
"Bravo!" Abel cried clapping his hands so loud the noise popped Zeno's eardrums. “What a magnificent performance.”
"Abel.” A startled Zeno looked round the room. “Isn’t Mrs. Erikson sleeping?"
"Mrs. Erikson?" Abel said, his right hand clenched 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," Zeno said softly. "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, 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."
Zeno 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 recalled, and he sighed heavily over what he had done. He looked at Abel sitting on the sofa like a supreme authority and a silly smirk on his face. Finally, he got up and on tiptoes went over like an obedient puppy and gave him a reluctant smooch as cold as an ice cube.
Abel pooh-poohed over this 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 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 overlooking houses with their windows lit like candlelight along the hillside and, in the distance, tall skyscrapers bright under the black night like a million stars.
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 would come. 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 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 its gargling and squawking against his chest and a terrifying pause like he’d run into the devil in his sleep.
* * *
About two 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. 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.
A little while later he added another log and settled back with memories of a painter he’d met in Macombe Alley. The telephone disrupted his thoughts. He leaned lazily over, picked up hoping it was already the painter. Instead, it was Tyrone Belin with a black Southern accent; Belin, his lover Clarence's surname.
"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 erected on back of his neck. He sank deeper into the chair feeling a chill down his spine and repeated, "Where is Clarence?”
"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, s-sar."
"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? What kind of prank is this? Who the fuck are you?”
“Clarence’s brother like I say.”
“You’re telling me he’s 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. Den he gots so weak and slim and dem sores. Open sores all over he face, he body. He gots to de place where he can't eat no mo! Dose sores in he mouf he can’t eat. Lordie, we almost too scared ta touch he. Doc up in Alicetown scared, too. He gits so bad dat we-"
"Oh my God," Travis cried, tears rolling down his cheeks. "He went back there to die. Dammitt." 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 for letting me know about Clarence."
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. It kept coming, kept digging and twisting in his gut like a parasite.
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.