David and the Lion’s Den, chapter 19
Arnold the investigator didn’t figure it out, even though he spent weeks bird-dogging all the facts and harassing everyone I knew. Even though the answer was right under his nose, he never saw what he had. Of course, I never saw it either, so I’m not trying to blame him.
Besides, if it hadn’t been for him, I’d be dead right now.
The boy snapped his white cloth and wiped down the table briskly, pushing crumbs onto a tray and leaving behind a sharp lemon tang. The fountain bubbling behind him obscured his hearing, so he didn’t look up until the second time the girl called his name.
She was halfway down the stairs. “Set it up as a fourtop, sweetie? They’re still at the bar. Looks like I’ll need it in about 10.”
He smiled at her. The young hostess was pretty with her honey-colored hair and pointy little nose. He tried not to stare at the cleavage she exposed by leaving one-too-many buttons undone on her white dress blouse. The warm voice she reserved just for him left his cheeks tingling. He could have sworn he saw her blush as she headed back upstairs.
His thoughts flashed to Estrellita.
He hadn’t kissed a girl since her, since Colombia.
Maybe that was about to change. His life was turning around. He’d been busing tables at Cucina for more than a year. That morning at Carl’s when he’d beaten the shit out of that filthy maricon, that’s when everything started to change for him.
He glanced up the stairs and watched the girl’s — his girl’s? — legs disappear into the bar area, then he started laying out plates and silverware.
Carl had been violently furious with him, he remembered. But for the very first time, the boy had fought back. He hadn’t even realized Carl had entered the room until he felt himself snatched up off Jackson’s bleeding body and flung against a wall.
He still didn’t understand why, but something changed that morning. Carl started to beat him, lashing out with the buckle end of a belt, muttering under his breath like he had so many times before, clearly expecting the boy to lie there and take it.
Fury and despair mingled to ignite a fierce explosion. The boy jumped to his feet and charged, roaring vulgarities in Spanish. Carl laid into him with beefy fists, but the boy felt nothing. Hot blood pulsed through his ears as he punched, kicked, screamed, and even ripped through flesh with his teeth.
Later, after the boy locked himself into his room, he started to shake. He huddled on his bed, arms wrapped around his knees, and rocked. He loathed himself. What was wrong with him? It had been so easy!
Why had he waited so long? Why had he let himself be used and turned into a, a …
He couldn’t find the right words in either language, but he knew he was sick and depraved. By the time the knock sounded on his door, his body had stiffened and his bruises were blooming angry and purple. Between the hangover and the pain from Carl’s belt buckle, he hurt everywhere.
He ignored the knock, but when he heard a key turning in the lock, he grabbed a heavy vase and brandished it over his head.
Only it wasn’t Carl framed in the open doorway. His Uncle Esteban stood there, glaring. His eyes seemed to go huge as he took in the boy’s battered appearance. Or maybe the priceless jade objet d’art his nephew was threatening him with caused the facial contortion.
The boy froze.
His uncle took a step forward, growling.
Then the man broke down. His face turned bright red, tears welled under his eyes, his hands went to his knees, and he roared with laughter — so hard he had to gasp for air.
The boy lowered the vase, confused but wary.
“Dios mio, but you should look at yourself,” the man gasped after a few moments. “What a sight! You’re one big bruise, boy.” Then he doubled over in laughter again.
After another minute, he straightened up, threw an arm around the boy’s shoulder — eliciting a wince of pain — and ruffled his hair with his free hand. “All right, then. Fine. Get your clothes together. Anything else you want to keep. I guess you can stay with me for a while until I figure out what to do with you.”
“You should see Carl,” Esteban laughed, while the stunned boy hurried around the room throwing things into the luggage he used for trips to Fire Island and Key West. “You think you look bad? You really did a number on him, mijo.”
He sounded proud. “I don’t think he’ll be going out in public for a few weeks.”
“Uncle, I …”
“Shush, boy. Just pack. Hell, he might even need surgery on that ear. Were you trying to bite it off?” The man’s voice was harsh, but his eyes sparkled with humor. The boy smiled for the first time, letting the corners of his mouth turn slightly up. He felt something warm and unfamiliar flood his soul when his uncle slipped an arm around his shoulder again.
So began a new life.
After his bruises healed, the boy started working in his uncle’s restaurant. For the first time ever, he had his own money in his pocket. He lived with Esteban for several weeks, then moved into a 5th floor studio walk-up in the East Village.
The work was boring, but his tio promised him more in time. He explained that if he learned the business from the ground up, there’d always be a place for him. The boy learned quickly that his uncle meant a lot more than the restaurant business.
He encouraged his nephew to join a gym and lift weights. The bigger he got, the more the man seemed to invite him along as he visited his various interests, collecting envelopes of cash and directing his employees.
As the boy finished laying the table as a fourtop, he was glad Esteban had him working out. He liked the way Samantha looked at him, eyeing his swollen muscles.
She’d be gliding down the steps any minute now with her party of four. He gave himself a little pep talk as he arranged fresh linen. He decided not to wait a minute longer. He’d ask her out tonight. No more messing around.
He’d let her seat them and then follow her upstairs. He’d ask her to go somewhere after work. A movie, maybe.
No! Wait. She might think that was stupid. He wasn’t old enough to take her to a bar. They’d both already had dinner at work. Dessert? Ice cream? A stroll around the Village? Maybe down to the piers? The moon was out already. He could see it through peeking through the vines and flowers that hung from the skylights.
He was still debating with himself when he heard their voices on the stairs. He was busy calculating how much he could afford to spend on her when he looked up and saw them. She smiled brightly as she led four men down and around the fountain.
She was so pretty his heart hurt.
One of the men said something to her, and the boy’s head cocked for just an instant. He knew that voice, but he didn’t know why. He shivered for no reason.
As the men sat and he poured their water, he decided he must be going crazy. He didn’t know any of them.
Three of them seemed to be in their 30s or 40s, typical New Yorkers dressed casually for a night out after work. The other guy looked a lot older, with scraggly, straw-like hair and purple blotches on a skeleton-thin face.
“Wait, Samantha,” the boy called. He wanted to walk her up the stairs.
Then he heard that voice again, ominously familiar, calling his name. He looked over his shoulder and the old man was staring at him. “Excuse me, can we get some lemon for our water?”
Jackson’s voice was talking to him out of that decrepit, yellow face. Impossible!
When the man leered at him, twisting his mouth so the wine-colored blotches stretched and seemed almost to wink, the boy knew it was true. He knew that look. He’d seen it before, right before the man had pinned him into the sand and impaled him.
“I… uh… lemon upstairs,” the boy mumbled to the group. “Be right back.”
“Sam! Samantha!” he hissed as he caught up with the hostess. “Did you see that guy?”
“Yeah, gross, huh?”
She walked with him as he headed over to the bartender for lemon slices. “I was afraid he was gonna touch me,” she squeaked.
“You guys talking about that sick dude?” the bartender asked as he pulled out a lemon and picked up a filet knife.
The boy nodded.
“He’s got it. You know? That thing going around.”
Samantha looked confused. “Thing?”
“That gay cancer thing. You don’t read the papers?”
The boy had never heard of the strange epidemic sweeping through New York’s gay communities. Why should he have? He wasn’t part of that world. Not anymore. It had nothing to do with him.
He got his kiss that night. She tasted of the bubblegum ice cream he treated her to. Her breasts were warm, soft, and plump in his hands. Her hair smelled of flowers as her heartbeat merged with his.
He pushed Jackson out of his head and vowed never to think of him again.
You just read chapter 19 of a character-driven mystery set in Greenwich Village during the worst of the HIV Plague Years. David, Jill, Hilda, Richard, and Howie — and Raphael — 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.