Chapter 22   

Belly Of The Beast      

 

       I couldn't wait for Todd to leave.  I didn't think I liked him.  He was big and powerful and didn't seem to like me.  Ty was silent and stayed seated opposite me.  Walt sat in his easy chair, looking brighter and showing some color coming back to his pasty skin.  He stared out the long window where the sun brightened all the buildings surrounding us.  He seemed lost some place in distant thought or reflection.  Then he turned and looked at me before signaling to me with a raised eyebrow and a come-over-here jerk of his head.     

       I stood up and crossed the floor until I stood in front of him.  He looked up at me like I might be tall.  His eyes were hollow but they sparkled black inside his head.  A smile crossed his lips as he extended his arms towards me as an indication he wanted a hug, or to give me one, and as I fought away my instinct that said "don't touch him," I found myself crying in his arms. He patted my head and brushed my hair as if I were his favorite puppy.  He held me tight against his skinny chest and I sobbed.     

       "It will be okay, Billie Joe.  You might not have it at all.  We must look to the bright side of this.  I could be dead, but I'm not.  Now I'm taking medication that seems to be working.  It's stopped my fall.  You aren't even diagnosed.  You aren't even sick.  You've just got to be careful.  You've got to be careful about other people's lives as well as your own.  None of us wants to wish this on anyone else.  It's truly a plague, and not God's plague, Billie Joe. It's a germ and a disease.  Don't corrupt God with the thought he is punishing you.  I blamed Him you know.  I believed the fanatics that said he made us sick.  I cursed God, but you know what, he didn't listen to me.  He gave me AZT when he could have let me die.  You see that's how I know it's not a plague from him.  He's on our side.  Your side.  Pray you don't have it, Billie Joe."

       "I don't believe in God," I said, snuffling.        

       "What do you believe in?"  

       I wiped my nose and sat back beside him, out of his embrace but not out of touch.         

       "Nothing.  I believe in life.  I believe in living."      

       "You think all this was a huge accident?  We're just so much protoplasm stacked up?  Just dust in the wind, Billie Joe?  Is that what you think we are?  You think we reason and experience intense feeling by accident?  You think birth is an accident?  A flower?  A tree?  A star?  The song of a bird?"     

       "Yes . . . .  I don't know."    

       "Ah, hah!  See, you just don't know.  It's okay.  Whatever you feel is the right God gave you to feel.  You don't have to accept him. Just give him a little room.  He'll be there for you in the end."   

       "He's never been there yet."      

       "Never?  Not one place where something happened that helped you out big time, and you don't know how it exactly did happen?  Things were just going all sour, and then all of a sudden you found an out?  Got clear of it?"

       "Maybe."       

       "Ah, hah!  Maybe?  Maybe someone was looking over you, boy."  "I don't feel like that."       

       "It's okay.  You don't have to, but when you get in the next fix . . . and you will, Billie Joe . . . I've seen you in action . . . when you paint yourself into a corner, remember when you get out of it.  Think about how you solved the problem and got out of it.  That's God at his best."      

       I looked up at Walt's face.  It was serene and innocent like a child's face.  Like my face had never been.  I'd never felt very innocent.  I'd always felt bad about myself.  How could God allow that?    No! I wasn't buying it.  Life is what happens to you.  No one cares.  No one's watching over you.  You get by.  That's all!   

       "You go home and make the best of it.  You get in a bind, well, I'm not telling you you can stay here with me, but if you showed up at my door and said you couldn't possibly live at home, I'd consider letting you live here with Ty and me.  We'd talk to Todd and ask his help, but I wouldn't let you go back to the street, Billie Joe.  I want you to know that."  

       My voice was low.  "That's cool."      

       "You are going home then?"      

       "Yeah!"  I took in air.   "I'm ready to go home.  I need to be in school. I can't make it without high school."  

       "That's smart thinking.  You do need that diploma.  You've got to make a future for yourself."      

       "What future?  If I got it, I'm dead."

       "You don't have it yet.  You might not have it.  Think positive.  Just be careful and try to make it at home.  It is where you belong for a few more years.  Your parents must want you.  They've put out a reward to find you."   

       "Yeah!  Hard to explain to their friends why their pride and joy took a powder."       

       "You're a cynic.  Your parents love you.  I'll guarantee it."    

       "They've never bothered to clue me in on that fact.  I'm just a gigantic pain in their asses most of the time.  Never did anything right, and never will."       

       "They just want the best for you."  He leaned back.  "You just said you were their Pride and Joy!"       

       "They don't even know me."      

       "Perhaps it is time you told them who you are.  Quit waiting for them to come to you.  Ask them what the problem is.  Ask them why they make you feel like they make you feel, and why you make them feel like they feel.  Speak up."     

       "You talked to my old man.  You don't ask him anything.  You listen and you better jump when he says jump.  That's why I'm always up against it.  I stopped jumping.  I just tune them out mostly."      

       "You're going to have a new start.  Take it to them.  You've survived on the streets.  You can do anything!  It takes courage and guts to do that. Don't take it from them.  Take it to them.  Talk to them."

       "Sure.  Right after I get out of my room in ten years."

       "Cut it out.  Sure you're going to be punished, but I'd punish you if you were my son."       

       "I guess."      

       "You need to go home and make a fresh start.  Put the past behind you.  Get the punishment and the anger out of the way.  Yours as well as your parents'.  Then start over.  You should have a better view of what you want and what you need to be happy.  Don't just sit there and act like you can't make your wishes known.  Tell them when they fuck up.  Speak up for yourself.  Don't let it get so bad you need to run away again.  That won't solve any problems."     

       For the first time I felt a real attachment to Walt.  Until then, he had been just the sick guy who let Ty live in his apartment.  He treated me well, but we were not connected.  From that moment there was something he gave me that I can't explain.  I knew we both could face an uncertain death.  There was the AIDS connection, of course, but more.  Much more.  Many times that afternoon I climbed back up into his arms.  He stroked my head and held me without expectation or demand.  As with myself, I'm sure he needed to hold me as much as I needed to be held, but now, in that time and place, somehow I belonged.       

       Seldom in my life had I felt like I belonged anywhere.  I was always the outsider, the fifth wheel.  I never fit in anywhere I'd ever been.  Except with Carl.  He made me feel like I belonged to him and with him.  I was a million miles from Carl and those few nights in Seattle.  I clung to Walt and wondered if Carl and I would ever be together again.          

       Todd came late the following morning.  There wasn't much said.  Ty stood to the side when Todd took me out.  We were going to the police station where my father would pick me up.  My father had rented a car from the airport and drove into San Francisco.  We were leaving in four hours to return to Minneapolis. Todd said nothing.  He parked at the front of the police station in the no parking area with the yellow lines marking off the forbidden zone.  We walked up the steps.  I stayed four steps behind him.  He was huge.  I got to the door and stopped. I felt a tremendous rush of fear come over me.  I looked to the bottom of the stairs where the police cars parked.  Uniformed officers trotted up and down around me.  I looked up toward Castro and back at the door where Todd had disappeared.  My legs shook and I wasn't sure if I wanted to run or not.  I wanted to cry.  I did not want to face my father.     

       The door swung open and Todd had my arm again before I could decide what to do.       

       "Don't even think about it.  It's too late to back out now, kid.  You're on your way home."   

       My father stood as we came through the second set of doors.  I shook as he glared at me long and hard.  I stood behind Todd so he couldn't see me completely and so I couldn't see his face.  He did not move but stood there, glaring.      

       "Boy.  Say hello to your father."        

       Todd moved away from me, exposing me to inspection as he and my father now both looked at me.      

       My eyes immediately went to the floor. My knees trembled. "What happened to him?" My father said to Todd.      

       "The street."

       "He looks older.  So much bigger than he was." 

       "Your son's growing up, Mr. Walker.  You haven't seen him in months.  You didn't know if he was dead or alive.  Of course he's changed.  Can't we have a little hug here or something."

       My father and I never touched one another when I wasn't getting spanked or the back of his hand.  He hesitated as he stepped forward.  He almost closed the distance between us, and then he put his hand out to me to keep the safety zone.  I gripped it, remembering what Walt had told me.  I stood tall and gripped his hand with equal force and looked slowly up into his eyes.  I don't ever remember looking into my father's eyes before.  Not once.  They were cold and angry eyes.    

       "Billie Joe," my father said in a cool, cool voice.     

       I nodded.      

       "I'm telling you now, Mr. Walker, I'm going to follow up on this.  I've contacted the authorities in Minneapolis.  I've told them what my evaluation is.  I've told them what I want to see done for Billie Joe to keep him home.  They are going to ask your cooperation.  There are two things I don't want, Mr. Walker.  There are two things I won't tolerate.  Number one, don't let me hear from Billie Joe.  Don't let him have to call me and tell me your heart isn't in this home coming.  Don't let me catch this boy back on my streets, Mr. Walker.  You don't want that to happen.  I'm not sure what I'd do if I found him back on my streets before he's ready to come for a visit when he's eighteen.”        

       Todd paused and looked at me. 

       "You got a good boy here.  He's smart.  You better give him a hug now and again.  You don't know how long he's going to be around.  I'd hate to see you want to hug him after he's gone."    

       He made a dismissive gesture. 

       "That's it.  That's all.  I'm out of it. You two better make an effort.  That's all." 

       Todd paused and looked at us both again, as if to fix a memory, and in dismissal.  

       "That's all.  Make an effort."      

       He turned and walked back out through the doors.  My father walked toward a rear entrance.  He turned his head and looked at me as I stood there.  He gave me the hard look I always got when I was fucking up.  I knew he expected me to follow him.  I looked at the front doors one more time.  I knew Todd would now be standing at the bottom of the stairs, waiting for me to run.  I followed my father out to the red rent-a-car.         

       "Our plane leaves in a little over three hours.  Is there somewhere I can get something to eat?"

       "Yes, sir," I said, as he backed the car out and made it lurch when he braked and put it into gear.      

       "Where?"      

       "Left.  Up the hill."      

       "You know how worried your mother is?  You know what you've put us through?"    

       I smiled in amusement.  Not because he was saying something funny, but because it had taken him only three minutes to start telling me what a terribly disappointing son I was.  The marvelous thing about these tirades is that long ago I learned to tune them out.  I always felt that the pressure and the air weighed down on me and forced the air almost out of me while he went into tiresome detail about each of my indiscretions back as far as time permitted. This time was different.  I not only tuned him out, but it didn't bother me to have him doing what he always did.  I thought maybe I didn't care. My father's power over me was gone.  I once more thought of Walt's words and smiled.  I could stand up for myself.  I didn't have to be beat down any longer.

       In my nicest voice I interrupted him in mid sentence, "Where's my bag."          

       "What," he said, surprised by the interruption.      

       "My bag.  They said the police had my bag.  Didn't they give it to you."  

       "I put it in the trunk."

       "I want it."    

       "You'll get it at the airport."

       "I want my bag."  

       "You'll get it at the airport."      

       "I want my fucking bag,"  I screamed insanely, like this was some battle over life and death.    

       The brakes of the car shrieked as the car slid to the curb and bounced hard enough to put the front right tire almost over it.  I waited for the hand or fist but heard the door opening far too hard.  The trunk lid bounced the car as it sprung open and then slammed shut.  I felt myself shaking as I saw my father's form standing at the door.  The bag came sailing at my head and the cloth handle smacked me across the face as I deflected it with my hand.  My father threw himself into the seat, the back of his hand knocked my head back against the door jam with a thud.   

       He said in an angry low growl, "Don't you ever talk to me that way again. I'm your father."  

       I ignored him and rifled through the bag.  Carl's picture was out and on top of the letter. The envelope was all torn and tattered.  I'd kept it carefully in the pocket where it would stay protected.  I looked at Carl's picture and my father looked at me looking at the picture.  

       "Who's that?"       

       "A friend."     

       I finished going through my things. I turned each sock inside out. "Where is it?"      

       "Where is it what," he said, as he looked in the mirror and pulled back out into the street.   

       "My money.  I want my fucking money. Todd said the cops had it," I yelled. He reached into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and a dozen bills slapped me in the face and cascaded onto the floor. As I bent to collect them a handful of coins hit me and followed the bills rattling all over my side of the car.  I collected all that I could find.  There was a hundred and twenty eight dollars in bills, and several dollars in coins.

       "Where'd you get all that money?"   

       "I made it."   

       My father glared at me in a quick glance and then stared out through the windshield.       

       "Where's this restaurant?"

       "Up top to Lombard.  Make a left.  It's still a ways up."         

       "Look, Billie Joe. Your mother needs you home.  She wants you home."  

       "What about you?"      

       "I'm here, aren't I?"    

       "Why?"  

       My father drove awhile.  He acted like I was no longer there.  He watched the mirrors more than necessary.  Much out of character he held both hands on the wheel, I suspected in order to keep from pummeling me.  I took off the too big shoes with the white tops and put on my tennis shoes.  He cleared his throat several times.  After awhile, he spoke once more, trying to pace his words and to speak in a soft tone.

       "Your mother wants you home.  She blames me for this.  Your mother's going to leave me if I come back without you.  Is that what you want?  Do you want to break your family up?  Is that it?  Do you really hate us that much?"

       "Why do you hate me, Dad?  Why haven't you ever done anything with me, Dad? A ball game, Dad?  Fishing, Dad?  A long father and son talk, Dad?  Why is it so hard for you to love me, Dad?  Why haven't you ever done anything with me as your son, Dad?" 

       I jerked each "dad" out of my mouth in a mocking twisting disrespectful tone.         

       "It's how I was raised," he said.  He paused for a moment, looking straight ahead at the road. 

       "I want you home.  Your mother wants you home.  That's it."        

       "I've got two stops to make.  One on the way to the restaurant, and one after you get there.  You can take me, or I can get out and take myself. It's up to you."     

       "Where?" he said, resigned.       

       "Make a right instead of a left at Lombard.  Next big intersection."        

       I guided my father down below the Castro and toward the old warehouses.  We stopped at the end of all the deserted loading docks.  My father looked alarmed and cautious as he gazed around at the vacant facility.  I hopped out, leaving my bag on the passenger side floor.  I could feel his eyes on me as I climbed the small hill and disappeared into the bushes.   

       "Jesus," I yelled out.   

       "Si," a voice came back.     

       Jesus stood up out of the box.  He smiled when he saw me. 

       "Gene's boy friend.  Hello, Billie Joe."      

       "Hi. I wanted to bring you your shoes back.  I wanted to thank you for being nice to me. For helping me."   

       "Not always so nice," Jesus said, with sadness in his voice.   

       "Nice enough," I said, remembering the last time I saw him ranting and raving at Gene and me. I hugged him, and I could feel him tense up.  His hands raised up to the sides of my arms, but it was obvious he couldn't return the hug.  I smiled at him and knew he'd be shocked to find the twenty dollar bill in each shoe.  I felt good about that.  Jesus saved me for awhile.  I couldn't leave without a thank you.  

       I took my father into the restaurant on the block.  He seemed a bit skeptical when we passed all the strip joints and dirty book stores.  It wasn't crowded and we took the booth in the back.  The big guy in the apron acted like I wasn't there.  I told my father I'd be back in a few minutes.  He looked at me carefully but didn't say anything.  I nodded at white apron as I left.  I could tell he thought I was with a trick.  Little did he know!        

       I prayed the hotel was open.  It was.  I slipped through the hole and tried to resist the irresistible smells that had my crotch stretching out for the first time in days.  Sex hadn't entered my head since that first night at Walt's when I took care of myself.  Now, all those feelings and yearnings came back on me.  I climbed up the stairs.  The lower levels were empty, and I wondered if everyone had cleared out, but when I got to the top, there on the rubber foam mattress were Tony, Tim, and Bryce.

       I kneeled beside them and put my hand on Tim's stomach.  He turned his head sleepily and his eyes stared at me vacantly.  Then a sudden surge of recognition came on his face.       

       "Billie Joe.  Where in hell have you been?"     

       I was immediately pulled into the center of the foam.  Tim tore at my clothes and called Tony's name.  Funny, as quick as Tim started touching me my cock went soft.  I let my hand touch his solid body, as his hands rubbed and kneaded me, trying to get life into my best part, and finally putting his hand inside my pants.  Tony wrapped his arms around me.  Bryce rolled over and tried to go back to sleep.    

       "Look," I said, with my hands exploring their erections, "I'm leaving.  Going home."

       They stopped with their activities and stared at me.   

       "You're going home?" Tim asked.     

       "Yeah!  I got to get back to school.  I need to get off the streets."  

       "Don't we all," Tim said.  "Glad you can, Billie Joe.  Maybe you'll make it.  Donnie's dead."    

       "What?"

       "Found him yesterday in an alley off 101.  Strangled."

       "No," I protested as my face ran hot with the knowledge.    

       "Yeah!  Bryce came in last night.  He'd been with Gene and Donnie.  Then they got tricks, and next thing they knew . . . well . . . .  Donnie was too brave.  Cute kid.  Too bad."       

       My stomach pitched as I thought about Gene.  I knew he'd likely be torn apart by Donnie's death.  It made me saddest for him.  Donnie was out of it, but Gene would have to go on.  There was no excitement or energy left in any of us.  I took out the three twenties two fives and a ten dollar bill.  I handed them to Tim.  

       "What's this for?"

       "You."    

       "Why?"  

       "Cause I got it.  I'm going home.  I won't need it.  It belongs here. You guys fed me, protected me, loved me.  I'll never forget you.  I enjoyed being with you more than anyone out here.  You guys are cool."   

       "You don't have to do this, Billie Joe," Tony said.  

       "Treat yourselves and think of me.  Remember that I care about you."   

       I was on my way down stairs before they could get up or protest further.  I leaped two and three steps at a time.  I tried to wash the smell out of my brain.  My erection was up before I was back out in the fresh air.  I'd remember Tony and Tim best.  Them and Ty.  Those were the guys that really kept me alive.  I thought of Gene again and remembered we were just a convenience to one another, but I still felt really bad for him.  I could see Donnie in my mind.  I could remember him from that first night when he was with Gene.       

       My father was picking at his food when I came back into sight.  A look of relief came to his face.  He hadn't been sure I was coming back.  He drank from his coffee cup as I moved to the last booth.  He looked down to his plate and moved things around with his fork.   

       "Not bad," he said.  "I wasn't sure you'd be coming back.  I'm sorry I hit you.  You shouldn't talk to me like that.  I'm your father."    

       "I'm sorry.  Bad habit I've picked up.  Taking up for myself.  It's one of the things you learn on the street."   

       "We are going back together?" he asked.       

       "We are going back together.  I'm not stupid, Dad.  I need to finish school.  I need to finish growing up.  I can't do that here.  The only thing you can do here is die."      

       "Why'd you come then?"     

       "To see."       

       "To see what?"    

       "To see."       

       "These tests.  I haven't told your mother."     

       "Why not?"   

       "She can't handle that.  I can't tell her that about her son.  You're a child for Christ sake.  How could you have this thing?"    

       "The usual way you get it."        

       "How do you get it?" 

       "You need to read up, Dad.  I'm not going to discuss it with you. You've never wanted to discuss anything with me.  This isn't where we start.  I don't even know that much.  I might not have it.  I might.  That's what the tests will tell."         

       "Who's Carl?"       

       I shuffled my feet around under the table.  My father was starting to hit the buttons.  I watched my hands drum the table.  

       "He's someone I met."

       "You want something to drink?"       

       "Yeah!  Yes, sir.  Coffee, cream."      

       My father looked at me and at his own coffee cup.  He seemed surprised.        

       "Bring my son a cup of coffee if you don't mind," he called to the counter guy.

       White apron looked up and then at me as he walked the coffee around the corner of the counter and slid it in front of me.      

       "You've grown,” dad said.  “You look older."

       "The streets age you."        

       "You don't look bad.  Just older."      

       "Shit!  I look like shit.  I've seen in a mirror."

       "You'll get better.  You'll rest up.  School starts next week, but you'll rest up until then.  You'll be okay.  Your mother will be glad to see you. We'll be okay."    

       "I know.  I'm sorry I hurt you."  

       "It'll be okay.  We'll do okay," he said.     

       I drank my coffee and watched him shuffle his food around.  He didn't eat much of it.  The conversation became strained, stifled by that uneasiness when there is no more small talk you can make.  We desperately needed some small talk, but only the big questions were left.  Having never talked before, we had no practice for just talking.  Throughout my entire life my father had told me how it was and what I was going to do.  He'd never asked me once what I wanted, what I thought, or what I felt.  It wasn't going to start in a cafe in the Castro.  We both knew that.       

       "Who's Carl," he said again, after the dishes were cleared away and he was cradling his third cup of coffee since I returned from the hotel.       

       "You read the letter.  You know who he is."   

       "Is he what this is all about.  Is that why you ran off."

       I started laughing."     

       "This has nothing to do with Carl.  It has to do with me."     

       "So tell me who he is."       

       "He's a marine.  He met me on the bus.  When he left, I couldn't go home. That's it.  I couldn't go back to Minnesota.  I couldn't just go home."    

       "Why didn't you talk to us?  Why didn't you tell us what was going on?"

       "I can't talk to you, Dad.  You tell me.  That's it.  You don't talk to me. You tell me.  I found out something I couldn't just go home with.  I had to deal with what I felt before I could go back home."  

       "What was so terrible that you couldn't come to us with it?"           "Remember Ralphie, Dad?  You remember that cute little kid that was always over to our house?"        

       "We don't need to talk about him.  Ralphie's dead, Billie Joe.  You've got to face up to it."  

       "Dad, Ralphie killed himself rather than face up to being gay.  I ran away rather than face you with it.  That's why I couldn't go home. That's what it’s all about."  

       My father choked on his coffee.  It ran off his chin. He blotted it with his napkin and coughed on my words.  He drank some water and blotted some on the spots on his shirt.  He didn't look at me.  He couldn't talk.  There were tears in his eyes.  I don't know if they were from the choking or from finally hearing the admission coming from the horse itself.       

       "We'd better go.  Should be there at least an hour early.  Got to turn in this car.  You want anything else?"  

       "No, sir."