A Cocky Kid, Coffee, and Kuchen
David and the Lion’s Den — Chapter 2
Raphael was a cocky kid, maybe 19 or 20 and way too pretty for his own good. Glossy black hair framed an ivory face. Gym-pumped muscles pushed out of skin as silky as any girl’s.
Taller than most of the busboys or servers, he stood out, strutting around the dining room like a rooster in a chicken yard. Every cougar on the prowl sighed over him. Every middle-aged Village queen at Cucina cruised him.
I swear some of them ate there just to catch a glimpse of Raph. He used the restaurant like his own personal Yellow Pages listing. Most whores have to pay for publicity like that.
I wasn’t as jealous as I sound. Probably.
That day I was happy the kid was off hustling his ass somewhere, if that’s what he was doing. It meant free food for me. I was tearing into a plate of shells and squid — Extra shells for skinny! shouted Howie into the kitchen — when this story really got started.
“You still looking for a real job?” he asked me around a mouthful of chicken parm.
“Hell, yeah, man,” I mumbled as I shoveled down pasta in spicy marinara. “I never realized the starving part of starving artist was so damn literal.”
“No luck, huh?”
I just shrugged and kept eating.
“Listen, I got an idea,” he said. “I been thinkin’, which as you know is not really my thing.”
I chuckled. Everybody knows Howie’s an airhead. “So?”
“So, getting a job in the City is about who you know, and you don’t know nobody, right?”
“I wouldn’t go that far.”
“I would. But anyway, here’s the thing. You gotta network, see. Volunteer. Put yourself out there.”
“Yeah, like how?”
“By coming with me on my deliveries, man! You start tomorrow morning at 11.”
“Dude, I dunno,” I whined. “That’d cut into my painting time.”
“Volunteers get free lunch.”
My mouth reacted before my brain. “Sold!”
“That’s what I thought. I’ll pick you up at the garden. You can put your painting stuff in the van.”
It wasn’t true that I didn’t know anybody. I’d been in town for six months, and I already knew the dykes who ran the reception desk at the 13th Street LGBT Community Center. They let me in super early — before the place opened — and I’d bring my coffee and set up a canvas in the corner of the garden before anybody could take my spot, the one with the perfect morning light.
I was working on people then. Painting them, I mean. I was good enough to be accepted into graduate programs at NYU and Parsons, but not good enough for a scholarship, so fuck it. I was just gonna paint and see if I could sell anything.
I don’t paint people anymore. Not after what happened that summer.
“Don’t move, Hilda,” I fussed from between clenched teeth, dabbing a little more ochre onto my brush. I squinted up at the sky. “Only about 5 more minutes before the light changes.”
I smeared the yellow paste around in bold strokes, then stood up straight, stretched out the small of my back, and wiped tacky fingers on my painting jeans. “Done,” I announced.
She started to pull herself off the bench, but standing is a slow process for Hilda. Howie charged into the garden before she was halfway up. He almost knocked Richard over. Did I mention Howie can be clumsy?
Richard was my upstairs neighbor, a soft spoken, retired ad man. He and Hilda spent a lot of time together. He helped her down to the garden most days so she wouldn’t go all moldy sitting around her cluttered apartment.
He was tall, thin, balding, kind of distinguished. Patrician. Quiet and reserved. I thought he missed his wife. They were divorced, but I’d noticed he’d have company some weekends. Kids and grandkids, I assumed.
“Sorry, man!” Howie apologized halfway through almost toppling Richard like a bowling pin. My bartender buddy caught his balance fast and hustled himself behind my canvas.
His face contorted. From silly goofball to something serious and thoughtful — all in one heartbeat. “Dude!” is all he said.
“You like it?” I didn’t want to ask. Seeing people look at my art makes my stomach hurt.
I watched him carefully as he squinted and shook his head like he was trying to clear his vision. “You can see she used to be so beautiful.”
“No,” Richard disagreed. He’d stepped up quietly beside us, Hilda leaning on him. “She is so beautiful.”
“Mein Gott,” Hilda gasped as she caught sight of her portrait — thickly textured, broad stroked, heavy with shadow and somber colors. I felt ashamed, like I’d violated her by trying to say something with her ruined face.
“I’m sorry,” I told her. “I got carried away. I’ll scrape the paint off before we leave.”
“No, Liebchen,” she sighed, patting my hand. “You did goot. Don’t you worry yourself over an old woman.”
“It really is quite beautiful,” Richard repeated softly.
It wasn’t, of course. Isn’t. It’s hideous. I tried to explain it to Howie in the van as we set off on our rounds. “It’s like when I look at her, I can see the pretty girl who used to live there. She hasn’t gone away. She’s just buried underneath. I tried to paint that feeling.”
Some art critic somewhere described my work that summer as a “soul-quenching plunge into the naked intimacy of imminent death.”
He totally doesn’t get it.
Howie drove us up past 23rd Street, letting swarms of yellow cabs buzz and dart around him as he lumbered up 8th Avenue. We parked a block west of Jill’s building, across from the FIT campus, and I helped him unload the cartons out of the back. This was my third trip with him, so I already knew the routine.
We worked for most of the afternoon. It could have gone a lot faster, but Howie was perfect for the job. He wouldn’t just leave a box at the door. Not Howie.
No. He stopped and chatted and told jokes and gossiped and laughed and watched TV maybe and stood beside beds when the clients couldn’t get up anymore. He joked about IV lines and catheters and adult diapers. He even joked about losing weight. He acted just exactly the way he did when he was slinging drinks and holding court behind his bar.
“How do you do it, man?” I asked him once. We were driving to the next apartment building where three clients were waiting for their food. “All those dying people. How can you be… so…”
“So me?” he asked.
“I guess. Like that last guy. With the purple spots all over his face? You could see his bones through his skin. His hair’s like dirty straw. His throat’s so swollen he almost can’t talk. But you were laughing and joking like nothing.”
Howie’s hands tightened on the wheel. His knuckles got white, and he glanced over at me. “Double Dewars twist on the rocks.”
“That’s what he drank when I used to work the bar at One Potato.”
I must have looked pretty confused because Howie turned off the jokes for a minute. “Look. I don’t believe AIDS is a death sentence. I won’t believe it.”
“Huh? Dude. I’m sorry. Really I am, and I know you know him and all, but that guy’s gonna die. Soon. You can tell.”
“So? Everybody dies.”
“Yeah, but he’s not even old! Not really. What? 40? 45?”
“So, Bubbelah, what, you want he should live to be 1,000? 35, 45, 55, 75 — it’s all short, Mary Louise. Allen can’t come drink Dewars anymore cause he’s sick, but I can go see him. That’s nothing to be broken up about, huh?”
I didn’t understand. Probably still don’t. But I never saw Howie cry. Not once, not that whole summer when he had so many reasons to. Oh, wait. The time Patrick Stewart had lunch at Cucina and Howie missed him by five minutes?
Let’s not talk about that day. It wasn’t one of Howie’s best.
I wasn’t used to the Center at night. The big room where I’d sometimes leave a canvas to dry was empty during the day. Oh, you might spot a couple kids making out in a dark corner or spy a solitary figure hunched over lunch. You never saw this crush of people all jumbled up together, listening and mumbling and shouting and agreeing and dissenting, and heating the place up with their bodies and breath, filling it with outrageous colors and smells.
“Is this us?” I asked Howie, skeptical. A balding man leaned against a lectern, haranguing the crowd about something.
“Nah, that’s Act Up. Don’t you recognize Larry Kramer?”
“Never mind, come on,” he said, tugging me through a knot of fierce-looking young lesbians in white t-shirts and horn-rimmed glasses. One of them looked like she wanted to step on me.
“Hey, Cookie,” I heard as we rounded a corner and the noises and smells of the mass meeting faded behind us. Mistress Carla was leaning against a stained plaster wall, twirling her whip and flicking her tongue. She grinned at me as we pushed past her into the small meeting room, and I flinched as her whip tickled the spot between my shoulder blades.
Howie gushed. “You KNOW her?” “Dude, that is so cool. She’s like totally famous. I saw her on the Robin Byrd show last night! Introduce me? Bring her to Cucina? Even just to the bar?”
I stammered, not knowing what to say, but he didn’t push it. We were late and everybody wanted to get started on organizing the boat ride. The party. The fundraiser to help pay for all the lunches Howie and I delivered. I figured this was the networking thing he’d been talking about.
He was right. I still know some of the people from the room that night. The ones who lived.
“Hilda?” I was surprised. She was the last person I expected to see there. “Ja, David,” she answered. “Coffee is no goot,” she teased, pointing at an industrial urn, “without my apfel kuchen, nein?”
“Nein,” I agreed, “Or ja, or jeez, where the heck are the cookies?”
“At least this volunteer thing is keeping me fed,” I joked out of the side of my mouth to Howie as we filled plastic plates and found seats near Hilda. My eyes kept closing as the meeting droned on, but I found myself volunteering to sell tickets at some local street fairs. Some other guys picked up stacks to sell at the bars where they were regulars.
Hilda surprised me. She was keeping our books. She wasn’t there just to stuff us with apple and ginger pastries.
“Boy, boys, boys!” she quavered as she shuffled up to the front. “You want I should work a miracle for you? You want I should pray to Jesus that he should turn one little tuna salad lunch into 500? That would make it all so simple, nein?”
A polite titter of laughter rose into the coffee-scented air.
“Then you must giff me your receipts!” she scolded, shaking a knobby finger at us. “This is not some little kinder game we play. If you spend even one penny, you must tell me and giff me the paperwork. I cannot turn one fish into 500, and I cannot make imaginary numbers add up.”
She smiled crookedly though yellow teeth. “You hear me goot?”
She continued as an assenting murmer filled the room, passing around computer printouts and going over budgets and bottom lines. I’d never seen that side of my elderly friend.
I didn’t know that before the night was over, I was going to see another side of her, much darker than I’d ever imagined.
You just read Chapter 2 of a character-driven mystery set in Greenwich Village during the worst of the HIV Plague Years. David, Jill, Hilda, Richard, and Howie are walking a path that leads to intense friendship and love, to the creation of gorgeous but wrenching art, and to the unraveling of a series of horrific events that nobody sees, not even as they happen. Because sometimes what you’re looking at isn’t what you see.