Friday, February 17, 2017

MONARCH fiction by John Caruso




            Tonight, Jared and I sit on our concrete block before the dwindling fire.  He talks about taking the train to the shore one weekend this summer.  I get up and walk to the edge of the underpass.  It has rained enough to speckle the April dust.  The air is sweet with settling pollution, soily and sour with new grass.  The hollow OORRRR sound of the city hums perpetually around us, like the hypnotic drone of Eastern music.

            "Do you remember the room over Ocean Park?" Jared asks.

            I make a sleepy sound and walk back toward the fire.

            Wind rouses an eddy of trash and dust and brittle leaves around the underpass.  A juice carton scuttles like a fat rodent after the cellophane ghost of a cupcake.

            Jared jumps to his feet.

            "A symphony," he shouts, leaping through the swirl, a soda can clattering around his feet.  We haven't heard music in weeks.

            "Dance with me," he says, holding out his arms.  I wave him off.  He spins and chases the tail of the cupcake wrapper.  Over and over he misses pinning the paper with his toe, until he is delirious with laughter and gives up the chase for the simple joy of movement.  He waves his arms.

            "Ow," Jared bends over suddenly and covers his face.  The whirlwind dies and everything falls still around his feet.  Something's blown into his eyes.

            "You're hopeless," I tell him.

            I sit him down beside me.  He takes his hands away.  One eye is all right; the other one is red and watery.  Jared is handsome and dirty.  His hair is long, impossibly tangled.  He used to keep it short and sharp.  Sometimes I forget the way he was when I met him, laughing into cold, bright sea spray on a rock at Longport, like he wasn't afraid of anything.  He'd looked up through miles of Puccini sky, spread his arms and said, "Let me die this way."

            I stand up and lead him across the old railroad tracks to the floodwall and the spigot that not even the city remembered to shut off.

            The faucet spits.  Air wheezes out of the pipe before a steady stream of water flows, like the reverse of someone saved from drowning.

            "Open the bad eye," I tell him.

            "I can't."

            "Like this."  I take my thumb and forefinger and pry it open.  "Now hold it like that and bend over."

            Water floods the dust all around our feet like a miniature disaster.  Perhaps a whole colony of ants is washed away.  As a child, I played this game.  I cup my hands under the faucet.  The water is frigid.  I splash it in Jared's face.

            "Stop it, Salvy, that's cold."

            "Just Blink."  I fill my hands again, splash it harder in his eyes.

            He gasps, chest heaving like the cold shock’s going to give him a heart attack.

            "Better?" I ask.

            He wipes his face with his shirtfront.

            "Yeah, I can see," he says, smiling foolishly, leaning on the floodwall.

            "Good."  I fill my hands up again and dump water over his head.

            "Salvy!  What for?"

            "For being a wuss."

            He looks up at me, water glistening on his eyelashes.  "You want me to say it doesn't hurt.  That nothing hurts."

            I reach out and squeeze the hollows of his cheeks.  I feel the bluntness of molars rooted to his jaw bone, the silky wetness just behind his lips.  I let go and walk away.

            "Salvy?" Jared begins.  He follows me back to the underpass, his question unformed.

            I throw two branches on the fire.  "I'm going to sleep."  I spread blankets on the pallet that lies behind the concrete blocks, and I fold them back.  Jared stands watching me from across the fire, hugging himself.

            "Come on," I tell him, but he doesn't move.

            I lie down on my back, settle under the smoky blankets and look up at the belly of the old Station Road that covers us.  They closed this whole section the last time the river flooded and swung an extension wide of the river bank.  It is home to the bats whose bald wings flutter out to hunt the early night.  It is our home. 

            In a few minutes, Jared wanders over to the pallet.  He watches me, but I keep staring into the shadows.  He sighs and sinks to his knees.  Lately Jared prays.

            I turn on my side toward the concrete and sleep.



            I awaken with Jared pressed against me.  My whole backside stings with his heat.  Sweat tickles in the small of my back and in the creases behind my knees.  Without waking him, I turn the blankets back all the way down so they don't entangle my feet, then I hoist myself up, breath held, onto the concrete block.

            Cold seeps through my clothes.  I lie there taking deep breaths.  A breeze cools the sweat of my face.  I look back.  Jared clutches the covers in his sleep.  I sit up, swing my legs down over the concrete and stand up by the remains of the fire, a faint red pulse beneath a bed of white ashes.



            I walk through the empty industrial yards east of the downtown—stacks of seasoned lumber, mounds of lime and gravel covered in plastic and weighted with tires--where the scrape of my shoe doubles back like the sound of somebody following me.  I cross the heaving macadam of an abandoned drive-in theater.  The bare, rusted frame of the screen still towers. 

            Once my brother Danny and I knelt on the back seat of my father's Plymouth, our faces pressed to the rear windshield to glimpse that screen before the curve of the highway stole our view.  A giant man and woman kissed, their mouths folding softly one into the other.  Their eyes were closed and their faces looked pained, as though kissing was something they were forced to do.  Danny and I giggled.  We embraced dramatically and smacked at each other's lips.  My father saw us in the rear view mirror, swung the car suddenly onto the shoulder and screeched to a stop.  He turned in his seat, teeth dug into his lower lip, reached back and grabbed me by the shirt.  "Don't ever let me see you doing that again.  Both of you.  You hear me?"  Then he threw me against the seat back.  I was nine.  Danny was seven.      

            Now, in place of a movie screen, there is only a white sheet rippling over the flank of bare girders, like a mast on a ghost ship.  It is initialed in red spray paint, blood of adolescence: A. C. + P. T. FOREVER.



            I don't stop until I’m in the West End of the city on the platform of the train station.  Clouds part and three-quarters of a moon shines through their opaque haze.  The muted fanfare of the twelve-thirty train rings out.  A single white light glows above the rails.

            People step from the terminal to the platform.  The silver Amtrak rushes in, brakes whining.  It sits rattling and hissing for several minutes before the passengers unboard.  I wonder what kind of people travel at this hour.  There are businessmen, college students, families with small children, solitary young men, all walking in the thrall of sleep.

            I sit up when I see him, a silhouette moving down the platform from the end cars.  His walk, the swing in his shoulders, sets him apart from the drab, stiffness of the other passengers.  He wears a v-neck sweater without a shirt, and pale blue jeans.  He has sleepy eyes and a high forehead.  When he looks at me I know.  There is acknowledgement in his eyes, but also something unknowable--the x in desire’s unbalanced equation.  He passes through the doors and walks alone through the terminal.  He goes down the stairs to the street level.



            I follow him, at a distance, to an old brownstone church three or four blocks north of the station.  He crosses the street and enters through a side door.  I pull on the same door a minute later, but it's locked.  Light pulses against the stained glass windows, illuminating saints and martyrs in sudden flashes.

            I walk around.  The front door is ajar.  Above the arched lintel, a single word shines in pale green neon: Chrysalis.

            Inside the foyer, a persistent syncopated beat pumps the place full of sound.  Vibrations tingle the soles of my feet.  A vapid blond boy, thin as a pixy, takes my money in one graceful hand and stamps a butterfly on my wrist with the other.  A very large and formidable man in a yellow slicker sits on a folding chair in the corner.  It may rain, but it isn’t raining.  He smiles and says, "Good evening."  I open my mouth to speak, but my throat is parched and my voice cracks.  I cough and nod.  The blond boy rolls his eyes and clucks his tongue.

            Three massive wooden doors lead to the sanctuary.  I pull the handle of the nearest one and peer inside. 

            Frenetic treble stabs the air above the bass beat.  The nave is crammed with men, and women who are really men.  They dance, or just twist their shoulders.  There is hardly room to shuffle your feet.  Cigarette smoke forms a fluid Milky Way above the bobbing heads, diffusing the pulse and spray of colored lights that angle down the vaulted ceiling.  Rafts of men lean against the walls drinking or beating brownstone to the music with their fists.  Some pose.  Others leer from the vantage of black boxes that rise in triple tiers between the stained glass windows.  And there are solitary men, a space around them wider than physics will allow for in a crowd like this.

            I want to stay in the doorway, unseen, but I'm stricken with thirst and the bar glows in green neon at the altar.  I wind and nudge through a loose zigzag avenue between the dancers.  Only the solitary men look at me, their eyes bitter with lust.

            I have not money, so I take the stool next to a heavy, middle-aged man. Every pore on his florid nose shines in the greenish bar light.  The man says, “Hi there.”

            “Hello,” I say and smile back at him.  He offers me a drink.  “I’ll have what you’re having,” I tell him.  After he pays the bartender, I thank him and I face out on my stool toward the dance floor.  “I like to watch the dancers,” I say, leaning close enough for him to hear.  A few minutes later, I stand up casually and sip my sweet milky drink.  I begin to move in place as if the desire to dance has taken hold of me.  Then, I slowly drift away from him, searching the clustering faces for the man from the station.

            The music fades out and all the arms come down.

            Now I hear the low steady human murmur, laughter ringing out antiphonally, but it sounds like silence after the stabbing music.  Bodies recede from the dance floor in a reverse procession.  A single spotlight beams the black curtain stretched across the organ loft. 

            The church bell chimes once and a deep thrum washes through the giant speakers, pulsing and growing stronger.  In the loft, a man size chrysalis pushes through the black curtain, descends on a cable like a gondola.  The pod glows faintly from within, florescent green at first, but soon it darkens to gray; then turns again slowly to deep burnt orange veined in black.  It comes to a stop over the center of the dance floor.

            Some of the men head for the door.  Others draw closer.  I take advantage of the flux and push my way through to the edge of the dance floor.

            Just as I gain the front line of spectators, the chrysalis cracks and the pod splits open.  A figure crouches, covered in the folds of a black and orange silken cape.  The thrum crescendos and the figure rises, slowly opens, spreading the bold patterned wings of a Monarch butterfly.  He is the man from the train, naked except for a deeply cut black thong.  His torso is broad with his arms outstretched, tensile, shining with sweat.  A slow drumming begins.  The monarch flaps his wings on the beat.  Suddenly he leaps, wings rippling like a kite then resting open as he lands lightly on one knee.



            The Monarch has danced and flown, disappearing through a door beside the altar.  The man in the yellow slicker circles the nave, nudging everybody out like a shepherd.  "Club's closed," he says.  Nobody argues. 

            On my way through the door I overhear two men in front of me.

            "He's the most beautiful," one says.

            "Since the Egyptian last summer," says the other.

            "I remember."

            My heart sinks at the hungry sound of their voices.  How many of these men will remain, nets of their desire poised for the monarch’s capture?

            Only four or five linger, restless and unsatisfied by the dance and drink of this night.  The rest melt away in weary twos and threes, or alone out to the four winds of the city, with the mark of a butterfly on their hands.

            I look up at the burgeoning moonlight, thinking about a gamble.

            "Excuse me," I say, sounding polite but agitated.  "Does anyone know what time it is?"

            One of them tells me it's a quarter past two.

            "Goddamn him.  Always late," I say and stomp off around the corner, down the side of the church.  I wait just around the back a few feet from the side door.  Moments later I hear the knob turn and the door unlatch.

            I am right there when the Monarch steps out, in his street clothes again.  He takes one step back.

            "It's okay," I tell him.  "There's a little crowd waiting for you out front.  I thought you'd be tired from the train and all the dancing, and wouldn't want to be bothered."

            "Yeah, you were at the station.  Thanks man, that's nice," he says in a faded Latin accent, soft and slow as the last moments before sleep.  He smiles.

            "This way."  I touch his arm.



            His name is Angel Negron.

            "You looked like an angel coming off the train," I tell him.

            "I’m no angel," he says and laughs.

            We sit down side by side on a high-backed wooden bench along the wall of the main terminal.  In the unnatural brightness, he appears younger than he did stepping off the train.  His eyes tilt slightly downward at the corners.  His cheeks are smooth caramel brown, his jaw narrow.

            "I think it's the other way.  You've been looking out for me."

            "I’m glad to," I tell him.  "I liked your show.  Do you do that everywhere?"

            "I dance however they want me to."

            "So it's always different."

            "It's always the same.  A butterfly, a peacock, a tiger, a woman."

            "You dance as a woman?"

            "No," he says.

            "I didn't mean--I mean it's okay if you do..."

            Angel closes his eyes, rests his head on the bench back.  "I just mean that it doesn't matter."

            When he says that, I know he means everything--costumes and clubs, the dancing, me.  My chest feels tight and a sting travels up my nose into my eyes.  I blink and look off toward the darkened gift shop.  I force the rising tightness down with a swallow.

            "So you travel around to different places?" I ask.

            Angel opens his eyes to the high overhead lights, blinking at the brightness.

            "Mostly along the shore.  Hammond, Shea City, Ocean Park."

            I want to tell him that I've been to Ocean Park, only I imagine Jared laughing on his rock, ebullient as sunshine riding the crest of waves.

            "So you live by the shore."

            "Hammond."  Angel yawns.              

            He looks out across the terminal through the glass doors to the bus port.  We sit in silence.  Five minutes pass on a great round wall clock.  I am suddenly bone tired.  I feel immaterial, unreal, sitting here, as if either the bench or my body has vanished.

            Angel closes his eyes again.  "I just want to sleep.  With no dreams."

            "What do you dream about?" I ask.

            He doesn't answer right away, but he puts his hands over his closed eyelids, rubs them slowly.

            "The ocean," he says, finally.  "And this man.  I see him on the breakwater at nightfall, and I have this feeling of repeating as if I've been meeting him there forever, but I can only really remember this one time.  Everything is quiet and he smiles at me before he leaves like our meeting is some fabulous secret.  Later in the dream I come back, but he’s not there.  I spend a whole night of dreams looking for him."

            Angel sits forward, looks at his watch.  His eyes are red and moist.

            The diesel hiss of a Greyhound bus washes over us like an iron splash.

            "My train will be here soon.  Let's go outside.  I'm going to fall asleep if I don't get some air."

            We go up the stairs and out to the platform.  At three o'clock we hear the dissonant trumpet of his train.

            "Will you be back up here again?"

            "Yeah, they asked me to come back this summer."

            "Good, I hope I'll see you then."

            He nods.

            Silver steel flashes under the platform lights.  The train slows to a stop.

            "It was nice meeting you."

            "Yeah.  You too man.  Thanks for the company," Angel says, and he puts his hand on my shoulder. 

            My whole torso warms with pride.  I wish it were daylight and that the platform were full of people. 



            I walk quickly back through the city to beat the dawn, not because Jared rises early, but because I must lay this night to rest while there is still an hour or two of cleansing sleep, before it latches on to daylight.

            A hundred yards from the underpass, I realize that I have left Jared alone on a pallet most of the night.  Hot sweat breaks out on my forehead.  I walk faster.

            Jared sleeps.  I feel my insides loosen, a warmth flowing toward the exposed flesh on the back of his neck.  The fire is dead.  Wood smoke hangs heavy in the damp early morning.  I vault the concrete blocks silently, like a gymnast swinging over a pommel horse.  I find the end of the blanket and slide up to Jared's back and put my arms around him.  I hug him fiercely. 

            Jared shifts and clears his throat.  He rubs his chin into the back of my hand and says, "Love you, Salvy."

            "I know," I whisper back.







            On the second Saturday in May, we scale the floodwall and sit beside the river.  Jared is dangerous near water.

            "...Or we can stay with my sister in Easton by the lake," he says, planning for summer.

            "The one who's cool about us?" I ask.

            "Which other one?"  Jared's eyes narrow and his lips clamp.

            "Right," I tell him.

            "It wouldn't be Ocean Park, but we could stay there for free.  And it's pretty in the woods, except for the bugs.  We could take night swims," he says, smiling at the river, which holds the place of the lake in his mind.    

            For the last six days the sky has run clear and blue.  Mornings are cool and shocking with sudden green.  By afternoon the heat rises.  I play with the buttons on my shirt and think about undoing them, but winter has made me shy.  Within an hour it is too cool to justify the desire to undress.  I plant my hands and lean back.  Long grass tickles my palms.     

            "Allie says the water's warm by the end of June.  We can take the bus as far as Wakefield and she'll pick us up there.  I think it would do us good to get away, don't you?"

            "Yes," I say, looking up through bursts of golden buds and dark branches to the sky, but I know no matter where he goes memory follows him.  “But, I’d rather it didn’t involve your family.”

            The summer we met, Jared took me to his family's Fourth of July picnic.  I remember the walk across the lawn, the smell of charred blood and meat, bottle rockets whistling skyward in the background, how everything stopped, but got busy.

            "Does anybody want another burger?" Raymond, the brother, asked heading for the grill, where he stayed doggedly burning beef and chicken from behind a shimmering transparent curtain of smoke and heat.  Jared's oldest sister Claire went inside for a pencil and paper to write down her aunt's recipe for Mexican dip.

            I stayed close to Jared.  I never stood back or hid my eyes from them, not even from his father, who sat hunkered in his armchair staring out at the lake.

            "Mom, Dad, this is my friend, Salvatore."

            Mrs. Swallow stood and smiled like a portrait, extending the back of her hand.  Mr. Swallow grunted from his chair.  I held out my hand.  He never took it, and I put it away in my pants pocket, like an obscene photograph.  Across the lake a cherry bomb thundered.

            The younger sister, Allison, came up and gave us each a hug.  Jared held her tightly.

            "That's my brother over there," Jared said softly, his nostrils flaring, eyes blinking.

            A little later, Jared took me in to see the house.  In the family room his father had taken down the glass case with all of Jared's track and baseball trophies from high school and college and had replaced it with some of Claire's boisterous floral paintings.

            He just stared at the paintings for a while, as if the wall were blank.  His face turned scarlet.  He didn't curse or talk at all, but he left me there and went down the hall to his old room.  He came out hugging an open box.  Old trophies jutted out at odd angles like the uprooted skyscrapers of a portable city.

            Jared took the box out to the car.  "Go around and talk to Allie," he said, pushing the box across the seat, his arced, slender back turned to me.  He slid in next to the trophies and shut the door.

            When he came out back again, he was silent and expressionless.  Allison was telling me about growing up on the lake.  Jared didn't add a word.  In about fifteen minutes, he leaned over and whispered, "Let's go."   Then he’d stood up and left without saying goodbye to anyone.

            Now he goes silent and balls his hands up in his lap.  "Do you have to shit your pants every time I mention your family," I say, tearing at the grass around my feet and tossing it into the breeze.

            I know what could happen if I go on, but today I have nothing to lose and everything to gain.  I'm giving him one more chance.

            "Don't, Salvy," Jared says.

            "Don't what?  Tell the truth?"

            He puts his hands together over the bridge of his nose, another prayer.  Tonight when I try to make up with him on the pallet he will turn away and say that I was cruel.

            "Look," I say, “either go on with your life, or go crawling back to your bedroom closet.  Maybe it's not too late to get your trophies back up on the wall."

            He looks up at me, tears starting in his eyes.

            "They're never going to accept you.  Get over them, or leave me out of it," I say.

            In high school and college Jared was golden.  He had so much parental love pumping through his veins, that when he brought me, his first love, home that Independence Day, a pure part of him never dreamed  he could do anything to change that. 

            Jared weeps into his hands.  I look down at my grass-stained fingers.

            Wind blows off the river, shaking loose a shower of candescent green-gold flowers on our heads and clothing.  A crow lands on the floodwall behind us.

            Jared wipes his tears, and then wipes his hands on his pant legs.  For a long time he stares out at the river.


            "What, Jared."  

            "Are you going to leave me?"

            The crow shifts its feet on the wall.  It's neck juts forward.

            "What kind of question is that?  I'm trying to help you get past your fear."

            "It sounded more like an ultimatum."

            "You're so afraid of everything, no matter what I say it sounds like the end of the world to you."

            "It's just that--"  Jared swallows the quaver in his voice.  "I get a feeling and I can't help it.  I mean, if you're trying to help, why does it make me more afraid?"

            "I don't know."

            Jared picks a gold flower cluster from his pant leg and puts it to his nose.

            "What would make you feel better?" I ask.

            "I don't know."

            "But you do."  I throw up a knot of grass I've twisted together.

            Jared says, "You're always telling me to accept things the way they are.  You could accept that I'm afraid.  People have fears.  Or don't you want to know that?  Maybe that ruins your fantasy?"

            Jared stares at me; his eyes focus the way they do when he talks about homerun hitters he struck out in college.

            "So now I'm just one more thing that makes you afraid.  You weren't afraid to take me home to your family three years ago.  You weren't ashamed of me then."

            "I'm not ashamed of you now," he says, shaking his dull, tangled hair.

            "Then just let it go:  your family, the myth of your golden adolescence, the whole snapshot.  Talk about fantasies.  Do you really expect me to hang around the lake on holidays with mom and dad, just to be ignored like a freak, or despised like some criminal.  Jesus, let them go."

            Jared stares into his lap.  "Then what will I hold on to?" 

            The crow lurches forward, caws and spreads it shining black wings in flight toward the river.

            Jared presses the gold flower cluster to his nose again, throws it down.  "I can't ever figure out what this smell reminds me of."

            I shake my head.  My future follows an untraceable arc, shot across impossible trajectories to the distant silhouette of a man, to a universe undaunted by pasts, atomized hope; Jared waits for something cyclic, the restoration of rooms and trophy cases, for some recurrence of the past lived out in even greater glory, as the second advent is to the first.

            The edge of the floodwall's shade inches towards us with that invisible melting motion of shadow on a sundial.  We sit, separated by ideal extremes, and let the shade cover us.

            "Don't you love me anymore, Salvy?"

            "Is that it?  Is that what you want to hear?  Let me tell you something, Jared, if I thought it would do any good, if it would make you happy, I'd tattoo it on my forehead."



            That evening while it was still warm and light outside, I left Jared.  The wind had dropped, and the high clouds had run smoothly into the rippling shapes that recur in sand, ocean waves and in the body, like signs of an old, unfulfillable covenant between the world and our desires.

            I didn't see if Jared cried, but he didn't try to stop me, or follow me.  He still has that much grace.  I fell in love at the sight of him dancing on a rock, tasting sea spray like it was death, a man so full of wonder I swore he'd never be ashamed.  But, I had watched him fall, go from strength to weakness, and I knew that my love would have gone all the way down with him.  They say you will die if you ever fall and hit bottom in your own dream.






            The club is easy to find.  I pass through the center of Hammond and follow a sign for Shore Points.  Boy Blues comes at the end, just before the city limits. 

            I search for Angel and push against a tide of clean fragrant bodies, but motion ruins my focus, the way reaching into water obscures the shiny stone before it can be plucked.  I slip out of the stream and up a ramp to the back bar, where I can view the dance floor and sort out faces.

            A new song starts, music that is like a trickle of water on crystal.  Bodies move toward the dance floor, pulled irresistibly, like small objects drawn across a tabletop by strong vibrations.  Men turn lithely at the hips and shoulders; they raise their hands as the singer calls down rain and sky, eyes shining with belief for the duration of a song.  I lean over the railing.

            A familiar warmth spreads on my right shoulder.  I turn around.  Angel stands behind me, his hand resting as it had when we parted at the station.

            "Angel."  I smile, stand up straight and hold out my hand.  He opens his arms, embraces me and kisses my neck.  I feel awe with him, the kind of seduction that takes hold of you in dreams.

            "How you doing, man.  Salvatore.  Right?"

            “You remembered."

            Angel puts one foot on the low railing and grips the top bar with both hands.  I turn also to face the dance floor, but I stay inclined toward him.

            "What brings you here?" he asks, scanning the crowd before he looks at me.

            "I've been wanting to come back to the shore for a while.  I stayed at Ocean Park for a week one time.  A few years ago."

            "Well, I'm glad you made it back," he says.

            "Are you dancing tonight?" I ask.

            "No, thank God.  I'm just meeting some friends."

            Across the club two men wave to him from a table.

            "Speak of the devils," Angel says.  "Come and sit with us."

            I follow him down the ramp through the heavy stream of bodies around the dance floor to where they sit. 

            One of the men has Angel's complexion.  He is slender, but round-faced.  He wears large owl glasses and a thread of a mustache along his upper lip.  The other has ivory-colored skin and long, dusty brown hair.

            "You're late, Angel," the one with glasses says.  "Eli said, if you were any later he was gonna kick your ass all over the dance floor."

            Angel laughs.  "How much later?"

            Eli snaps his fingers and bobs his neck.  "Five minutes and your ass was history."

            "I guess I'm lucky, then," Angel says, taking Eli's hand and kissing it.

            The one with glasses holds out his hand to me.

            "I'm Ozzie," he says.  "Angel, you're so rude, you don't even introduce your friend."

            "Sorry, man," he says.  "This is Salvatore."

            "Sal," I tell them.

            I shake hands with them.

            Angel pulls a couple of chairs over from an empty table.  We sit down.

            "So where do you live, Sal?" Eli asks.

            "In Hartsfield.  An underpass by the river."  I lean over the table to be heard.

            "I love underpasses.  They're so gothic," Eli says with a wave of his hand.  "It seems you have to go to larger cities, though, to find the best ones.  I would never live in the ones down here.  I'm in an abandoned mill."

            "Not for me," Ozzie says.  "Too much arson."

            "I like fire."  Eli says.  His small lips plump together.

            "I'll take a culvert any day," Ozzie says.

            "Cozy until it floods."

            "Then I bum a night off Negron," he says, brushing Angel's arm.

            "Yes, Angel's lucky.  He has a room at the Cheap Sleep," Eli says, lighting up a cigarette.  "The owner's very fond of him."

            Angel chases a pretzel crumb on the table with his finger.

            I already knew that he was lucky, with his beauty for shelter.  He would do his shows and no matter what became of him, he would always have that much shelter.     

            "Some nights when I can't sleep," Ozzie says.  "I just walk until I can't stay awake anymore."

            "You meet some scary people walking at night," Angel says.

            Eli claps.  "Oz, tell them about that guy last week."

            "Yeah, I was walking near the edge of town, it must have been 1 AM and this big black man comes weaving down the sidewalk talking to himself.  So as I'm going by he sways a little towards me but all he says is, ‘What's up man.’

            "Then he stops and says, ‘Hey.’  And I'm thinking, here it comes.  He's going to ask me for money or something and then he's going to get pissed off when I don’t give him none.  But you know what he said?  He looks at me like he didn't know what was coming out of his mouth next, and asks me, do I eat breakfast sausage?  I was so jumpy, I just said, no, really quick and kept walking."

            Eli says, "I would have said, yes, but not yours."

            "I think that’s what he meant.  The rest of the night, I just kept wondering what would have happened if I'd said yes."

            Angel stands up, ruffles Ozzie's head.  "I need some air.  You guys want to go over to Ocean Park for a while?"

            "You're not even going to dance with me?" Eli says.

            "We'll be back before closing."

            "Count me out," Ozzie says.


            "Sure.  Let's go."

            Ozzie and Eli stand up.  Angel hugs and kisses them goodbye.  He kisses Ozzie on the lips and neck, holds him for a moment, eyes closed.  Then he turns to leave.  Ozzie watches him.

            "Nice to meet you, Sal," he says.  Then he leans in, mouth to my ear, and whispers, "Stay with him."

             I blush and nod quickly, but I'm not sure what he means.

            "Dance with me, Oz," Eli says, pointing his cigarette toward the dance floor.  "It's our song," he tells me, taking Ozzie's hand.



            The iron marquee over the gate is strung askew with lights that glow against the night like a constellation.  Behind it Ocean Park dazzles in midair, its wheeling white lights held together in perpetual loops and spirals by the laws of physics.  The high spine of Leviathan arches in the distance over arcades and spinning rides, as if it will rise up soon from the beach and trample everything.

            Angel and I head over to the food booths.

            "You hungry?" he says.

            "Starving."  I peer over red countertops.  Mounds of sausage, peppers and onions shimmer on the grills.  Pizza cheese bubbles, runs in little molten streams.  The aroma of fried dough and shoestring potatoes hangs in a greasy mist.

            "What do you want?" he asks.

            "I don't know."

            "My papi used to tell me, when you eat out, make sure you get the one thing you really want."  Angel leans one elbow on the counter and rests the other one on my shoulder.  "I never listened to him, and I always ended up eating some of everything and feeling sick.  What do you want?" he says again.

            "Some of everything."

            "Okay," he says.

            "I'm kidding."

            "Come on.  My treat.  I danced my ass off last night.  I'm crack-head rich."  He gives a little laugh.

            Angel orders and pays for the food.  It looks good under the bright florescent lights, but I wonder if we can eat it all.  I blush, as we pile plates of sausage, pizza and fried dough, balance them on our forearms, nestle the red and white checked baskets of beef kabob and french fries in the crooks of our elbows, and somehow hold large clear cups of soda in our hands.  We walk quickly to the nearest bench, plates shifting, soda spilling as we go.

            We arrange the food between us and feed silently on the pizza, fried dough and shoestrings fries.

            "Feel this shit clogging your arteries," Angel says, sitting back, satisfied, a hand on his chest, as if it were a desired state.  He smiles.  His eyes possess the same sleepy cool of his voice.

            The beef is tough, and every mouthful is harder to swallow than the last.

            "I'm stuffed," I tell him, dropping the half-eaten kabob into an empty plate.

            "You haven't had any sausage."  Angel looks disappointed.

            "I can't even look at it," I tell him.  "What would your papi say about that?"

            "If I asked for it, he'd make me eat it."

            We sit for a while as the food settles to our stomachs.  When we can breathe and move again, we head down the midway. 

            There are basketballs to shoot into deceptively small hoops, darts games, beanbags to throw at tin jugs, frogs to flip into plastic swamp lilies, duck shoots, and the ring toss.

            "Test your skill.  One ring wins," the barker repeats his challenge with the incantatory dullness of a priest.  It is early in the season and the crowd is sparse, players are few.

            The prizes, huge stuffed pandas and brontosauruses, hang down over rows of tall brown bottles.  Angel goes over, stands examining the bottlenecks and the size of the rings.  He leans forward, licking his lower lip.

            "Five rings for a dollar.  One ring wins," the barker says through his cigarette.

            "Ten rings, please," Angel says.

            "You know this is impossible," I tell him.

            "I’ll pray to Saint Jude," he says, with a little lift of his eyebrows.

            Angel tosses one hundred rings, all of which clink and tumble down between the bottles.  Three or four people have gathered around the ring toss, fascinated with his obsession.  He gets more desperate.  "Just five more rings," he says.  I look down at my feet.

            He stands there for a minute, after the last ring falls.  The barker looks away and starts to collect them.  “Test your skill.  One ring wins,” he says to the onlookers.

            "Come on," I take Angel's arm and turn him around.

            A disembodied girlish chorus shrieks across the night.  A little shiver tickles my neck.

            "Leviathan," Angel says with teeth.



            In the incandescent belly of Leviathan, our blue jeans turn violet, and Angel's shirt glows white.  We strap ourselves into the front car.  An attendant locks the bars in place.  Another man pushes a tall lever forward and we start clicking up the track.  We look at each other, grinning like children.  My stomach flutters.  Our thighs touch.

            Halfway up the long first hill, Angel says, "No hands."


            I catch a whiff of salt water and look out at the dark, glittering Atlantic.

            The car clicks to a stop.  Everyone is silent.

            Then we plunge, hands raised, stomachs at our feet.  My mouth is frozen open.  I hear Angel laugh.  We bank hard, snap right.  Our bodies press together and our feet get crossed.          

            The second drop is straight and bottomless.  We are jerked up, around a tight curve into a spiral.  There is nobody else in the car now, just Angel and me, winged, raised arms tossing like branches, flying as we fall, laughing at the same death. 

            We clatter around the last turn and then Leviathan's crimped tail whips us to the ground again, out of breath.

            Shouts erupt, cheers and clapping.  The bars unlock and everyone gets out.  We are the last ones into the exit tunnel:  Leviathan's winding bowel.

            "Let's go on again," I say.

            Angel shakes his head.  "It's better to leave when you still want more."

            When Angel touches my arm, rubs his fingers over the hairs on my wrist, not even the ground under my feet feels solid.



            We make it back to Boy Blue's in time for last call.

            Ozzie and Eli are gone, or there are so many people now that we could never find them anyway.  The dance floor is jammed.  Men are dancing everywhere.  Smoke rises up like fog to the metal warehouse rafters.  Colored light beams spin, or white ones blip in lightning flashes that throw the dancers into slow motion.  I feel vibrations in my knees.  The music is five times louder than before.

            "Angel," someone says.  Three more of his friends pass by us.         

            "Hey," Angel shouts above the music.  They each kiss him on the cheek before they are carried away in the slow current of the crowd.

            The beat changes.  An exaggerated cheer goes up, as if they have all been waiting for this.  Foot stamping builds around a sweet operatic chord progression and swells like the sound of a walking giant.

            A British voice begins to croon, "So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodni-ight; I hate to go and leave this pretty si-ight.  Although, you know I hate to go, its gauche to stay on past the show..."  The dancers sway, turn in unison and stomp with the other foot.  The cheering grows more manic.

            "I'm glad to go, I cannot tell a li-ie; I flit, I float, I quickly flee, I fly-y.  I'm glad to go, I flit, I float.  Don’t stay too long and miss your boat..."

            Angel and I stomp, turn and flap our arms with everybody else.

            Near the end, the men make little bows, the drag queens curtsey.  A little motif repeats, a loopy variation of the one to which Von Trapp children once marched off to bed.  Everybody waves goodbye as they file out into the night.



            The motel keeper snores behind the counter of the Cheap Sleep, one curling ear aglow, veined and translucent as a fetus in the lamplight.  Angel sneaks me in and we go quietly past on green indoor-outdoor carpeting.

            "This looks like miniature golf," I tell him.

            He smiles, puts a finger to his lips and stops in front of room eighteen.  Angel slides the key out of his pocket, fits it in the lock.

            We slip in.  He shuts the door.  Light from the strip glows around the closed curtains.  Angel moves to the nightstand by the twin bed and turns the lamp on.  The bedspread is dull blotchy blue like the curtains.  The carpet is dingy beige.

            Angel sits down on the edge of the bed facing the wall.  I sit near the foot of the bed, one leg up on it, so that I'm facing him.

            After a while, I say, "Ozzie's all right."

            "Oz is cool," Angel says.

            "Are he and Eli together," I ask.

            Angel looks at me.  "They used to be; now they're just friends."

            "Why do you think that is?"

            Angel looks at the wall.  "It just worked out better that way," he says.

            Outside, a horn blares and modulates down as the car passes.

            Angel kicks off his shoes, swings his legs up onto the bed.  I do the same.  We sit facing each other.

            "Are you with anyone?" I ask, tracing the hourglass nylon stitching on the spread with both index fingers.

            "No," he says, as if it were unfathomable.  "You?"

            "I was, but I'm not anymore."  I feel color flooding my neck and cheeks.

            "What happened?"

            I shake my head and start to gesture with my hands, as if words will somehow come out of them.

            "Trying to live in two worlds is what happened.  You try to bring them together and the stronger one always wins."

            "And your world lost."

            "Nothing could measure up to his glorious past.  Fastballs, trophies and family pride.  I’m just a part of the imperfect present, the sad decline of Jared Swallow."

            Angel looks down into the hollow of his cross-legged sit.

            "I said it was better to wander like invisible truth than to stand in the open feeling like a dirty lie," I tell him.

            Angel looks at me, as if he has an embarrassing middle name and I have guessed it.  He leans forward, holding both hands out to me.  I take them.  He pulls me toward him, and I walk the bed on my knees.  His hands slide under my arms along my rib cage.  He kisses me once, eyes closed, his upper lip pulling gently on my lower lip.

            We sink down side-by-side and stretch out on the mattress.  I pull him close and hold him.

            "It works out better this way," I say, smiling.

            He doesn't smile back.  I let him go and he turns on his back, staring up at the ceiling.

            "But you still love him," he says.

            "That's not it though.  It doesn't change the facts.  I mean, of course I do, but--"

            "Is he your first?"  Angel turns his head.  The plane of his face in semi-profile, from jaw- bone to forehead, is almost flat like a cliff.

            "You could say that," I tell him.

            "Jesus, it seems so long ago, like another life, since my first.  I think I'm living in dog years."  He laughs.  His dusky eyelids lift.  "I bet that's why dogs can't look you in the eye.  Every one of our years they age seven.  You get old fast that way.  They're temporary, man.  They know their place." 

            His faint Latin accent and the forward pull of his lips when he speaks are like an invitation to kiss.  I reach under his shirt and touch his smooth belly.

            "I think you love once," he says.  "And when that's over, you walk up and down the street where you found it hoping it will come back to you again.  And when it doesn't you pretend to find it.  Like trying to find God in church on Sunday."  He looks at me solemnly and says, “If you still love him…”

            Then for a while we say nothing.  There is no sound from the street.  The clock says a quarter past three.

            Angel says, "We'd better get some sleep."  He sits up on the edge of the bed again and takes off his socks and his shirt.  He sits there for a while, shoulders hunched, as if he cannot decide what comes next.

            "Are you all right?"

            He says, "Sal, what do you think of me?"

            I sit up and rub his back.  "I think you're beautiful, so beautiful.  And funny and cool.  I really like you--."

            "But, you really don't know me," he says. 

            He turns off the lamp and finishes undressing.  I take off my clothes and we get under the covers.  For a few moments he holds me and we kiss.  I feel the silky wetness behind his lips.

            I spoon him, press my body to his back, kissing the close-cropped hair on his neck.  His skin is the temperature of warm food.  I press my full swell into the cleft of his behind, feel the velvet of tiny hairs.  His breath escapes like steam.

            I wet my fingers in my mouth and reach down.  He opens up for me.  I spit in my hand, wet my cock.  My heart is pounding crazily and I can hardly breathe.  I push in all the way.  I kiss his neck and head again, until it is not enough to taste him with my lips.  I take his flesh between my teeth and I begin to rock my hips slowly.  I grasp the slight mounds of his chest and pull, as if to tear them from his sternum.  Angel throws his head in equine spasm, baring his slender throat to my teeth.



            I awaken to a dazzle of white walls and sunshine.  The curtains are drawn.  I blink several times and shield my eyes from the light pouring in the window. 

            Angel is gone.  The covers are turned back and his place on the mattress is cool.

            "Angel," I start to call him, lifting my head, but my throat is dry and my voice cracks.  I squint at the wall clock.  It's after two.  I lean over his side of the bed; his clothes are still there.  I rest my head back on the pillow and spread my arms out in a stretch.  My bladder presses and tightens to a cramp.  I wait for it to pass and head for the bathroom.  I push the door open. 

            I stop cold.  Angel is on his knees, his back to me.  A man stands in front of him, mouth open, eyes closed.  I recognize the ears of the hotel manager.  He opens his eyes and Angel turns his head in the same instant.

            “I’m sorry, man,” Angel says.  “I wanted to tell you…”

            I step back and close the door.  I gather my clothes.  I pull on my shirt and pants.  I stuff my socks into my shoes and carry them out with me.









            "There's a moon," Jared says.  "Let's go swimming."

            There is something about the thought of slow, dark water that is comforting.

            "Okay," I tell him, before the desire leaves.  Even then, Jared has to take my hand and lift me.

            On the way to the river, he begins to make his odd little noises again, squeaks and crazy whirly-whoops like a starling in the spring, noises I have almost forgotten about.

            We swim out to the sandbar by Governor's Bridge.  The water is cold.  Ripples shimmer and overlap.  Reflections of the bridge lights splinter on the surface, as if the giant bulbs themselves have dropped and shattered.  The dark mounded shapes of trees flank the river.  They almost keep out the roar of the interstate.

            Jared glances at me, expectantly.  We move apart to find the warm spots over the sand bar.  He pushes off with his feet, arms parting water, and coasts over to where I am.  He swings his legs out front and clasps them around my waist and wraps his arms around my chest.  His warmth covers my back, driving the chill back into the water.  He squeezes me and kisses me.  I rest my head back against his shoulder.

            Soon the cold river has us both shivering.  We swim back to shore side-by-side, taking our time despite the chill.  The water is warmer in the shallows.  I stand up and my feet sink into the velvety silt.  Jared is up to his ankles in mud.  I take his hand and help him onto the riverbank.  The night air is warm.  We don’t dress right away.  We stand and drip for a while and then we lie down on our blanket, gazing up into the night and listening to the faint lapping of the river at our feet.

            “Do you think someday we’ll have a place inside?” Jared says.

            I imagine houses without trophies or halls of empty pasts, and I see Angel’s motel room.  What will it cost us to find shelter?  “I don’t know,” I tell him. “I’ve been inside before, but it was never my place really.  I’ve always been outside and so have you.”

            “I know,” Jared says.  “It’s strange that I don’t really care anymore.”

            Tonight, we are alone, continuous as the dark rolling trees along the river, cold-eyed and vindicated as the stars.  I don’t know if we were born to underpasses and firelight, born to the elements and the drone of trouble all around us.  But, there is a strange and wild joy that echoes in the dissonant night trains.  It wakes you out of a dead sleep, thunders inside of you like a man.       

  “It doesn’t matter—in or out with you.”  I reach around his shoulder, roll him toward me and cradle his head on my chest.  It feels good, the precise, remembered fit of our embrace, sign of a covenant between the body and desire.


The End