Welcome to Hard Times
It was the third full day I was at Walt's that Todd came by with Fred. Ty brought them into the living room where we were listening to The Supremes. There was something very stimulating about the music. My feet were curled up under me on the couch. I was still wearing Ty's hiked up sweat pants. Fred and I hugged and he kissed me passionately. I didn't feel passionate toward him. I stood back and looked at him. He seemed happy and calm. Todd had gotten him into a foster home. It was two gay guys that had taken other boys for him. They would understand his problem and offer him some comfort at a time he needed to figure out what his life was about. Todd asked me if I was ready. I just shrugged and went back and sat on the couch. Fred stood next to me and held my hand. Ty stood in the doorway and watched us as Todd continued to explain what would happen to Fred.
"You know they are looking for you?" Todd said, looking at my hand in Fred's.
"Yeah. I know."
"I'd turn you in myself if I didn't know through a confidence where you were. You should be home, Billie Joe. You should be home with your people. Going to school." "I can't right now. You send me home and I'll just run." "I know that. Why do you think you're still here. When you want to go home, when you are ready, Ty will contact me. Don't wait too long. Don't wait until it is too late."
"Walt. You take care of yourself. No one would bust you for keeping these boys, but you know it isn't legal." "I know, Todd. I know. These boys have to make their own decisions. I make Billie Joe leave, I lose Ty. I think I'll go along with the boys, Todd. If I can keep them off the streets, well, you know where they are."
"Yeah! Unfortunately I do. It's my ass if any one else knows I know. My ass big time. I don't know why I let you kids work me this way. Don't know why I don't just bust all of you. Just don't wait too long, Billie Joe. Don't let too long be too late."
"I won't. I'm thinking on it."
Fred and I hugged as they left. I hoped he would be happy. He was a nice kid. Funny. He was a lot older than I was and I no longer thought I was a kid, but I saw Fred as a kid. Life's strange.
We listened to music and Ty fixed us soup and salad for dinner. Walt even ate all of his salad. The soup was onion and we had garlic bread. It was great. I'd eaten better in the past few days than in months. I started to feel alive again. I still spent much of my time in the shower. I still couldn't get myself clean enough. It was like after you have an operation and you aren't really completely awake, and you linger there in that world of bright light and movement, but you aren't really connected to it. That's how I felt. I was there, but I really wasn't there. It was just nice not to be looking over my shoulder and begging for food.
It was the night Fred came that Ty asked me about the future.
"You going home?"
"I don't know what I'm going to do." I looked up at Ty from under my eyebrows. "What are you going to do?" "Stay here. With Walt. He needs me. I like Walt. He always treated me good. He takes care of me. I take care of him."
"Can't I stay with you?"
"The guy's got AIDS, Billie Joe. He'll be dead in a few months. I'll be back on the street. Besides, his check just about pays the bills. You are another mouth to feed. I don't know how long we'll last."
"I can make money."
"Fuck you, Billie Joe! Not while I'm around you can't. I'll bust your ass I ever catch you at it again."
"What do I do? I might have it, Ty."
"Don't say that Billie Joe. Don't ever tell me that."
"I did stuff Ty. I did a lot of stuff."
"Shut up, Billie Joe. I don't want to know that. You go some place else to die, Billie Joe. I won't watch that. I won't watch anyone else die."
"We're all, dying, remember? You told me we're all dying."
"I didn't say 'we' meaning you. I said 'we' meaning the kids. We were all dying. You were fucking okay. You could live. You didn't have to be like us. You could go home."
"I didn't, and I am one of you, and I might have it." "Go home. Like Todd said, go home. Finish school. You can go home. If you get sick, deal with it. Don't ever tell me. Don't ever tell me I failed. I want to think I saved one person from the street. That's all I wanted with you. I just wanted to keep you from getting it. Don't ever tell me, Billie Joe. I don't want to know you got it."
We went to sleep but nothing was resolved. I knew I could go home. I didn't know why I should. I knew what was going to happen. It would be even worse now than it was before. They'd watch me like a hawk. Not that I deserved any less, but I didn't want to face it. I decided I would wait as long as possible. If I was dying, I'd never go home. Then there would be no need. I could stay in the street until my time came.
Next morning was French toast and sausage. Walt ate at the table with us. His color was somewhat better, and he ate without assistance. He had good days and bad days, and as days went, this was the best one I'd seen. He spoke stronger and ate about twenty pills with breakfast.
Ty squeezed fresh oranges to make juice. The meal was fantastic. Each day everything seemed better than the day before. There was no mention of the big A, or of our conversation about it from the night before. I didn't know how much Walt knew, but he had enough problems without worrying about me. I didn't intend to mention the possibility I might have it. It just seemed best not to talk about it. But sometimes you don't plan things and they just happen.
"I'd like some ice cream for tonight, Ty," Walt said. "What flavor?"
"Peach. I'd love to have some real peach ice cream." "Butter fat would be good for you. You must be feeling better."
"Some. Leave Billie Joe here with me. I feel pretty good, but I don't want to be alone if I don't have to be." "Sure," Ty said.
"What else do you want?"
"More popcorn would be nice. You could rent a good movie. None of that violent shit you like. Rent us something nice. A love story, maybe."
"Geez, Walt! A love story? Nobody watches that crap." "I do. I bet Billie Joe does. He looks like a lover." "Right," I said, stirring the third spoonful of sugar into my second cup of coffee.
"Better get some more sugar, Ty. Billie Joe's storing the stuff in his feet."
Ty and Walt laughed. I stirred. I took the dishes away from Ty so he could go. I wanted to keep busy. I was suddenly leery of Walt. Him getting stronger wasn't necessarily a good thing.
Ty had been gone quite awhile when Walt asked for some water. I filled the glass with cubes and let the water run awhile before covering the cubes. I wiped the counter and the last dish before taking him the glass.
"Sit," he ordered.
"What's up?" Walt asked.
"I don't know what you mean."
"Here you are."
"That's obvious. You mean you wish I weren't?" "What are your plans? What are you going to do? You can't hide out in
"He'll narc on me?"
"He'll narc on you, and that's bad enough. But if he narcs on you, he also narcs on me. That could leave me a little short."
"You want me to leave?"
"I didn't say that. I tell you to leave, Ty's goes. I'm not stupid. He cares an awful lot about you. You know that? I think he's in love with you."
"I think we care about each other."
"Yes. You both care about each other, but Ty will hang his ass out there for you. What will you do for him? How far will you hang it out there for Ty?"
"Stay with him if he asks."
"He asks. What will you do then?"
"Until you're eighteen?"
"Maybe. Or dead."
"Look, kid. I'm going to lay it out here for you. Ty keeps me alive. If it weren't for him, I'd already be dead. My family disowned me when they found out I was gay. You know that story. When I was dying, Ty was the one that saved my life. That's why he is here."
He seemed to look inward.
"We dated . . . ."
Walt paused a long moment, recalling better times.
"I used to buy Ty. He used to hustle me. I liked him and thought that was the only way to have his company. That was a couple of years ago. Now I found out he truly likes me. Cause I never treated him like meat. I took him to eat and brought him up here to clean up and stuff. Now, I can't live without him. I've signed over my insurance policy to him. A few hundred thousand. It won't do a lot for him, but it will keep him alive awhile longer. He'll live maybe a few years. The apartment will be his. I tell you to leave, and he'll go with you. Of course he doesn't know about the insurance or the apartment. I don't want him helping me because he owes me. I want him to help me because he wants to help me. You understand?"
"So, here we are. I got a runaway the cops are looking for and a throw away that the cops will take if they come up here. I doubt they'll bother me. They don't want an AIDS patient down in the lockup. I just think you'd be wise cutting Ty some slack. If you care about him, let him have a life. Don't drag him back to the gutter with you. I know you can. If it's important for you to do that, I'm telling you he'll go. Ty thinks he loves you. I think he loves you. He just doesn't need you right now. It's not in his best interest.” He paused, and drew a long breath.
"That's it. Everything I had to say. Don't get me wrong, Billie Joe. You're a nice kid. You should go home because that is where you belong. This is Ty's home now. Don't take him away from it. I'm asking you to leave, but I want you to go home. I want to know you're safe. I want Ty to know you're safe. He'll look for you if you just go off. That's not an option. I'd rather have you stay here than go back to the street, but it's going to come to the door one day, and then we'll all be shit out of luck."
I was surprised. Walt was very honest about his feelings. He went to a closet and dragged out a green box with a lock on it. He unlocked it and flipped the lid back. He set down some official looking documents in front of me. "I had these done while Ty was out one day. My friend is an attorney. This tells the insurance company Ty is my only beneficiary. This one shows Ty as the co-owner of the apartment. There is a little money in the bank accounts, but it will mostly be gone by the time I'm gone. That will leave the insurance policy to take care of Ty. Maybe when you are eighteen you can come back and live with him here. I would like to know Ty had someone with him at the end. I don't want to think he stayed with me until I died and then he died alone. I don't want to think about that."
"Maybe he won't die. Maybe they'll find a cure." "Wishing and hoping are nice, Billie Joe. Reality says we are both going to die soon. At least I had some kind of a life. I had twenty good years out in the world. I loved and was loved. Maybe longevity wasn't one of the big things for me, but I had my share of love. I hope Ty can find that at least once. He's so young. He'll miss out on so much." Slowly, he replaced the documents in the green box and locked it.
"Well, I can't dwell on that. I want you to know that Ty will be taken care of financially, but I can't do anything about the other stuff. He was the only one that cared, and I want him to know I cared about him. This is between you and me, of course."
He sat back and looked at me very straight.
"I know you'll make the right decision."
"You are putting me in a corner."
"Yes. I guess I am. I'm making you make the decision. It's the only decision that gives everyone exactly what they need."
"You mean my going home. Ty staying here with you." "You going home. Ty staying here with me. Exactly." "You were handsome?"
"No. Cute when I was younger. I was never a prize. I did okay. Sometimes it is best not to be too handsome. You never know if some one wants to be with you or to be seen with you. I never had that problem."
"What did you do?"
"I was an insurance account executive."
"Wow! Sounds pretty important."
"I sold insurance. From a fancy office, though. No door-to-door shit."
"You make a lot of money?"
"Not so much I couldn't spend it all between paydays." "I don't know what I want to do."
"Go back to school and you'll have a better shot at figuring it out."
"How'd you get it? AIDS."
"I think it was about four years ago. I'd been with a guy for seven years. We broke up. I didn't like the bars or clubs. I liked the baths. It was around the time they closed them, but they didn't close them soon enough. I got into drugs and alcohol. Feeling lonely and alone, I couldn't stand it. I went to the baths and had sex with four of five guys at the same time. I mean sucking, fucking, the whole nine yard orgy." I thought of my time in the hotel with sex in every hand and orifice.
Walt continued. "It only lasted a few weeks, maybe a month, then I stopped feeling so worthless. All these guys wanting me made me feel better about myself. Of course, it also killed me. It was an expensive way to get over being alone."
"So you got it by doing it with a lot of guys?"
I leaned my chin on the backs of my hands on the table, looking up at Walt as he remembered his past. I remembered the nights in the hotel doing it with people I didn't even know or remember.
"You can get it by doing it with just one person if that person has it."
"I mean it is more likely if you did this for, say, just four or five days, or less likely than the way you did it." "What do you mean?"
"Say a guy got drugged up and spent a few days fucking and sucking everybody in sight. Would he be more likely to get it that way, or the way you did it with the bath thing?"
"You don't understand, Billie Joe. You get it by doing it with someone that's got it. You can do it with a hundred guys a night and won't get it if they don't have it. You do it with one guy and he's got it, you got it, or it's likely you got it. It doesn't pass every time. Some guys don't get it as easy as others."
"Say I did it with some guys I didn't know. What would be the chance I got it?"
I watched Walt's eyes widen. He tensed up and a god-awful look came on his face. He was watching my face for expression and meaning.
"Ty said you were clean. You hadn't done anything to get it. Have you, Billie Joe? Are you telling my you're that guy doing it with everyone in sight?"
"I think so. I think I might have it."
Walt got up and came around the table hugging me weakly to his side. I could feel him sob a couple of times as he held my face against his shirt.
"I'm sorry, Billie Joe. I didn't know. Ty said . . . . I didn't think you would go that far down in such a short time. I mean I didn't really think at all. You've got to be tested. Not now. It's too soon. Six months. You've got to be tested in six months. If you want to stay with us, that's okay. I won't force you out. Not now. I won't do that. We'll just take the chance together. One of us goes down, we'll all go down. I know that's the way Ty would want it. We'll have to talk to him. Does he know anything."
"He won't even listen to me. He keeps telling me to shut up. I tried to tell him about it."
"He loves you, Billie Joe. He wanted to get you out of here safe. I guess maybe he can't do that now. I'm sorry, Billie Joe."
"I did it with a lot of guys. I mean I didn't want to take it up the butt, but it happened one night. I didn't think it much mattered after that. I mean I was like you at the baths, trying not to be alone. I didn't plan to do it."
I squeezed my eyes shut.
"It just happened."
"Drugs and alcohol have killed a lot of people. They get fucked up and do something stupid like you did. That's how you get it. It only takes one stupid night. You're so young, Billie Joe. You still need to go home. You need to be somewhere where you can get treatment. If we try to get you treated here, they'll just take you into custody. You're too young to get treatment without your parents. You still need to go home."
"I don't know if I can, Walt. I might be better off on the streets. My parents'll kill me."
He walked back around and sat down in his chair. He wiped tears from his eyes.
"I don't know how to go home. I don't want to just go to the cops," I said.
"Maybe you could give me the phone number. I'll see what I can do. I'll tell them I can contact you. I'll tell them that you’re a friend of a friend, and I'll try to talk you into talking with them."
"There's a reward."
"A reward? You're parents want you back pretty bad." "I guess. They never seemed to care much when I was there. I never did much right."
"It gets better, Billie Joe."
"Yeah, that’s what they said."
Walt started laughing and shaking his head.
"August twenty second was the night you came. Today is August twenty sixth."
"Guess I missed it. Does that mean I'm fifteen another year?"
"I don't think it works that way.”
“I’m not sixteen. I’m seventeen. I can’t lie to you. I don’t need to lie any longer. I was seventeen four days ago, but when I came up here, I literally didn’t know what day it was. I do now and I have you to thank for it.
“I don’t tell the truth about my age either,” Walt said, giving me a big smile. “We'll send Ty out for some cake and ice cream. We can’t let your birthday pass unrecognized. It’s bad luck no matter how old you admit to. I told Ty I was Twenty-seven when we met. I was Thirty-seven. He didn’t care. He’s a prince."
"You got to be kidding. I'll be lucky to get out of my room by seventeen. I'll be on restriction from now until I'm forty if I go home."
"You give me your home phone number. I'll try to make peace for you. I'll talk to Todd. He'll see to it they don't get abusive. He's pretty well respected around town. He looks after the hopeless kids if he can get them to stand still for it. The gay ones are hardest to reach. They don’t trust anyone. He lost one when he first started. He never got over that. Always thought it was his fault. Now there isn't anything he won't try to help a kid."
"No. I don't think so. I don't know. Never asked him. Subject never came up."
Ty came back a few minutes later, shortly after Walt put the box away in the top of the closet. He brought a half gallon of peach and a half gallon of rocky road because he knew that was my favorite.
"You've got to go back out, Ty."
"What? What did you forget to tell me?"
"Birthday cake. Our boy here was seventeen four days ago."
"That was the night I brought him home?"
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I didn't know what day it was. Wasn't sure what month it was. Never thought about it."
"He's going with me. I'm not walking back down there alone."
"Yeah. I'm okay. You boys go ahead. Here's a few extra dollars. Stop at the bakery and get something real nice. That's a lot closer. Better bring some milk back. I want some whole milk with my birthday cake. How about you, Billie Joe? That sound good to you. We'll have a party."
"Milk sounds great. Party sounds good," I answered.
We went back down the stairs and headed for the bakery.
“You really seventeen or are you whatever age you say you are?”
“I couldn’t lie to him. I’m seventeen these past four days.”
“Cool,” Ty said with a smile.