by Scott David
The torched pages from Gar’s sketchpad tossed shadows this way and that against the filthy concrete. From these shadows, a more substantial figure emerged. He wore a ball cap cocked sideways and a tourniquet-tight T-shirt showing a strip of flesh above the belt. He had a ring on his thumb, Kenneth Cole shoes, and a canvas messenger bag slung over his shoulder, and he cried out, “No service?”
Gar frowned, but said nothing.
“You’re not wearing any shoes, dude,” the stranger explained as he approached the loading dock. “No shirt. It’s a joke. Get it? Bum a smoke?”
Gar flipped him a pack. He took two.
“Gimme a hand.”
Gar seized Jordan’s forearm and yanked him from the sidewalk to the loading dock.
Jordan warned, “Easy there, muscle boy. You’re gonna pull out my joints.” Opening and closing his hand thoughtfully, he added, “Tell you what. Grip like that, if I’m ever in danger of falling off a cliff, it’s you I’ll want to save me.”
“Where you headed?”
“No place in particular.”
“Late to be going no place in particular.”
“Bay Village. The gay neighborhood. A club.”
“They’ll like you there.”
Jordan scowled. “Man,” he remarked, “this place is deserted.”
“Walking here at night. Alone. Just warehouses mostly. In case you were worried. They leave me alone.”
“Maybe it’s a hygiene problem?”
“I’m joking,” Jordan said. “You look just fine to me. Hot.”
He licked his lips and cocked his head. His youthful vigor was deliberate and calculating, like an actor playing someone younger than himself because that’s what had worked in the past.
“Lemme guess,” Gar said. “Twenty-six? Twenty-seven? Been here and there, never longer than six or eight months in a place? Old men buy you things and pretty men fall in love with you and you’ve come a long way since Androscoggin County or East Buttfuck, Nebraska, right? That’s your story?”
Jordan lit his second cigarette from the first and didn’t dignify Gar’s summary with a response. Instead, he said, “You’re a strange one. Like a ghost. Give anyone the creeps, if they ran into you in the dark.”
Jordan took a harmonica from his pocket and played a riff like someone trying to ward off the cold.
“Not bad,” Gar said.
“I’m guessing you like to surprise strangers with unexpected talents.”
Jordan grinned lewdly.
“Besides playing the harp,” he boasted, “I have a juggling act, I can fix cars, I was trained as a carpenter, I sew my own clothes, I’m good with children, and I’m not the worst cocksucker in the world. Wake the neighbors?”
“There are no neighbors.”
Jordan cocked his head, clearly considering whether the absence of neighbors was unwanted news. They listened to the disputations of black youths three blocks over; the lawn mower sound of scooters and minibikes; bottle-pickers fumbling through curbside recyclables; and the rising pock-pock-pock of bottle rockets left over from the Fourth of July.
“Come in?” Gar invited, correctly guessing Jordan wouldn’t refuse because he didn’t want Gar to think he was afraid. Jordan pointed at the far end of the room, where the windows had been enlarged to let in more light and huge canvases leaned up against the wall, backside out.
“You a painter?”
“There’s a bed in there you can use,” Gar said, gesturing toward a side room.
“Where’re you sleeping?”
“Towels in the rack in the bathroom. Don’t steal anything.”
“Where’re you sleep—?”
“My own bed.”
“You wanna talk?”
In the morning, Jordan was standing over the café table, arms crossed defiantly. His eyes were bold and wet, the lips active, the face all hills and hollows.
“You dripped coffee on yourself,” Gar said, flinging a shirt at Jordan. “Try this on.”
Jordan peeled off his shirt. He was thin as a fasting Buddha.
“Not your size,” Gar apologized, but he didn’t look away.
“Never fear,” Jordan said. He pulled and tugged and arranged himself in the new one.
“You a short order cook?” Gar asked, gesturing at the breakfast feast laid out on the table.
“Chef, waiter, construction. Whatever I can get.”
Jordan examined his reflection in front of a mirror that was tilted against the wall like an additional canvas.
“You taking off this morning?” Gar asked.
“Oh. I expect so. At some point.”
Gar fetched the matching chair for the café table from the other end of the room, where it had been serving as an easel for a painting he had abandoned. He spread a rag over it. He was about to offer the chair to Jordan, when he changed his mind, surrendered his own chair, and took the one covered with paint. Jordan took the other.
“The Hours,” Gar said, nodding at the novel by the coffee pot. A kitchen knife marked Jordan’s place. “Mine?”
“Can’t let you leave with that,” Gar said. “Maybe next time you come back you can pick up where you left off.”
“Unless there was something around here I could do for you? Just until I finish the book.”
“Isn’t there somewhere you’re supposed to be?”
“Someone you’re disappointing?”
Jordan shrugged again.
“You might find it boring staying here. What happened to Bay Village?”
Jordan whisked away Gar’s empty plate.
Gar abruptly got up from the table and took his place in front of a blank canvas on the far side of the room. His lover, who had also been a painter, had prided himself on being guided rather than purposive. He used to like to say that to plan or sketch or calculate betrayed a lack of familiarity with the muse. A lack of trust. His lover had frequently declared: “I am the superior artist. Your paintings are workmanlike. You could make a living, maybe.”
Gar had painted less at that time, out of pure fear. Fear of being corrected and counseled and patiently lectured by his lover’s art school voice.
“You know,” Gar suggested without turning, “In that room you slept in, you might reshelve my books for me. If you don’t mind. Better than you hanging over my shoulder.”
“Oh, I don’t mind. Least I can do.”
“Why is it,” Gar asked, “that everything you say sounds like a proposition?”
Jordan laughed, pleased with himself. He took all day with the books, longer than it should have, and with altogether too much sound and fury for Gar’s taste. Jordan scolded the books and their authors (and sometimes Gar for possessing them) and sounded out strange or foreign titles as if he were committing them to memory. Toward evening, Gar proposed to get dinner.
“From Bay Village?” Jordan asked eagerly.
“From the 88. The Chinese market.” It was in the opposite direction.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to …?”
When Gar returned from shopping, Jordan set to work in the kitchen. He teased Gar about his being so much a bachelor that he had only one plate, one knife, one fork between them. “We’ll have to eat dinner in shifts,” he said. He joked about the unfurnished apartment and the strange coincidence that his bed had been made almost as if Gar had known he was coming.
“Maybe I did.”
“I bet you take in all the boys,” Jordan accused, pointing at Gar with a tomato knife. “The strays.”
“You leaving tomorrow?”
“Not that I’m chasing you out.”
“I washed your brushes for you while you were out to the market.”
“You look at the paintings?”
“Not bad. You show?” Jordan asked.
“Lemme stay a while. I’ll get a job in Bay Village to pay my way.”
Jordan posed a rash of questions about the future of the world and how things were going to be, and what role he might play, and what needed to be done. Gar offered a thousand solutions, each a searing vision like a vow made to God in a storm—grand, animated by guesses at Jordan’s highest ambitions and aspirations, the noblest conceptions he had of himself.
“You’re like a shaman,” Jordan said gratefully. “You’re a hermit. An urban hermit. A visionary.”
“Stay as long as you like,” Gar said abruptly to head off the praise.
“A monk. A wizard. A seer….”
“It hardly takes a penny more to provide for two than one.”
“I bet people talk about you. I bet they think you’re a genius….”
“There’s always something you could do for me here.”
Jordan frowned. “You don’t say much,” he observed.
“Doesn’t pay when you’re alone a lot. People think you’re crazy.”
“But, I mean … you don’t … talk, given the chance. Given me.”
“I hadn’t noticed you much bothered by it. Seems you got enough to say for both of us.”
“More used to folks you have to fight to get a word in edgewise,” Jordan admitted. He toyed with Gar’s brushes. “I wasn’t just talking about talking, you know.”
“It’s just the two of us. It’s not a big deal.”
“Never just the two of us. Never alone. Not a minute’s rest.”
“No one’s even going to know,” Jordan objected. “Will they?”
“They’ll know. They don’t have to see to know what’s going on here to know. They always know.”
“Most men would be happy to sleep with me.”
“I’m not most men. I’m different.”
“Then why did you invite me in?”
Abruptly, Gar stood and walked along the completed canvases leaning against the warehouse wall. He pulled one away from the wall, studied its painted side, and then let it fall back.
Aside from being the better artist, Gar’s lover had been prettier, funnier, queenier. Everything that lurked in the folds of life Gar’s lover wrung out, so that his friends heard their dreams spoken and did not feel so alone. But truth was, Gar’s lover had also been a grade-A asshole. Never speak ill of the dead, but Lord, how he used to zero in and humiliate Gar. Late at night, at others’ parties, he used to say in his elaborate singsong: “Gar hopes we’ll leave soon. Gar hopes I’ll stop drinking. Gar hopes that I don’t rendez-vous with this pretty boy so aggressively flirting with me.”
His lover’s death had freed Gar from certain kinds of humiliations: a mispronounced chateau; a meal that did not come off well; a joke that fell flat; a look of contempt from a pretty boy; unwanted drunken groping that was fended off; and infidelity, of course. Constant infidelity.
Gar’s lover had always been dolefully dismissive of his infidelities. He used to scold them as if they were the tragic missteps of another person and his ultimate loyalty to Gar was beyond question. Early on, he had made half-hearted promises to reform, but he soon gave up even these because he did not mean the words even as they left his mouth, let alone when he laid eyes on the next pretty boy. When Gar’s lover converted, it had been a relief to Gar, a confirmation that there was indeed a God in this cold, lonely universe.
Emerging from his memories, Gar remarked, “The longer I paint, the more often I’m reminded that the border of a series, when I’m between one project and another, that’s the most dangerous time. There’s a loss of discipline, lazy noodling, dissolute work that I have to destroy—impulsive, migrant, wandering, unbalanced stuff—the stuff I was burning up the other night.”
“Paint me,” Jordan urged.
“Paint me,” Jordan said again. He peeled off his shirt and loosened his belt. He slipped up behind Gar and kneaded his shoulders. Gar gasped. It was the first time anyone had touched him in years.
“Paint me,” Jordan repeated again.
Over the next several days, he mentioned that it was time he was going. Each time, Gar found something for him to do. He taught him how to prepare a canvas and mix paint. He made lists for the Chinese market. At night, Jordan put stories to the paintings, never cowed by silence.
Twice Gar caught Jordan undressed. The first time his dreams propelled him from bed, he stood over Jordan where he slept. Jordan had tossed aside the sheet on account of the heat. He was still thin, but his close-cropped hair had begun to grow wild. Gar stared at him for ages before he noticed Jordan had woken. When Jordan noticed Gar noticed, he moved his right hand so that the sheet dragged away from his crotch as if he were unveiling a portrait. Gar turned away. He picked up a kitchen knife from the bedside table.
“I was looking for this,” Gar said.
“I forgot to put it back …”
Gar returned to the main room. He slashed a canvas he had been working on. It collapsed inward, limp, two leathery wings like a bat.
The second time Gar caught Jordan undressed was in the shower. It was a chance encounter that was not chance, but rather engineered by Jordan, who let his towel fall and shook his head spraying droplets over Gar like a blessing. Gar thought: Jordan would not be doing this if I were not sending the signal that I wanted it.
Jordan was masturbating constantly—Gar had seen the crumpled tissue and dirty sheets. Certain evenings, Jordan sat by the window and looked out at what passed in the street. At these times, he was far away and hard to bring back, his head cocked at a certain angle as if he had heard a voice or sound that Gar did not. Near month’s end, Jordan knocked over a vase of cloudy water that shattered. The next day, he stepped on a tube of paint and shot a streak of ochre across the floor.
“Let’s go to the Village,” Jordan frequently suggested. “You and me. Let’s see a movie. Let’s get dinner. Go for a walk. Let’s talk about you.”
Gar invented a Bay Village errand. Jordan left eagerly and did not return until two AM.
“I can hear you,” Jordan shouted from the loading dock. “I can hear you breathe, you bastard. Do you know what I heard?”
Gar knew. He knew they still talked about him in Bay Village. He had, after all, made no effort to make it right. The only reason he hadn’t been arrested for his lover’s murder was because the cops couldn’t care less about another dead fag.
“I know all about you!” Jordan cried. “I know everything!”
Gar got up from his bed. Jordan had shattered the window next to the loading dock door with a paving stone. The shirt Gar had given him was wadded into the broken glass and covered in blood. A black woman stood over Jordan. As Gar approached, she put her fingers to her lips and stuck out a tongue pinker than Gar had imagined black people could possess. She wriggled it in the crotch between index and middle finger.
“Fuck off,” Gar said. It was strange to see someone here in the dead of night.
“You fuck off, white boy.”
“Fag,” the black woman said, without rancor.
Gar guided Jordan back toward the loading dock. He came unwillingly, like a box car jostling over ancient tracks.
“Are you going to kill me?” Jordan asked.
The black woman laughed.
“Not tonight,” Gar promised.
Jordan collapsed on the mattress in the room filled with books. He lay still, yet Gar was certain that he was not asleep. Gar turned away and began to paint.
The next time he checked, Jordan’s bed was empty. For several minutes Gar stared at the bed. He listened to the night sounds and he was tempted to take to the bed himself and root around in it like a pig.
Gar rattled the handle of the bathroom door.
“Go away!” Jordan shouted.
“Open the door!”
“Don’t hurt me!”
Gar kicked. The doorjamb burst. Jordan was cowering in the dark beyond the shower box with his underwear around his ankles.
“You killed him,” Jordan accused. “Your own lover.”
“You’re piss drunk.”
“You got away with it, but everybody knows.”
“He was sick …”
“They said you were jealous of him. He was the real painter.”
“I should have known you were fucked up. Living here alone, not a friend in the world…”
“Still you came back. Who’s more fucked up, you or me?”
“So I’m fucked up. So what? Alert the fucking media.”
Jordan savagely yanked up his pants. He pushed past Gar and went out to the cavernous room where the paintings were stacked against the wall.
If he goes for the door, Gar vowed, I won’t stop him.
Gar lay down in his bed. To his surprise, sleep took him. He dreamed of fantastic color on an imaginary canvas. He dreamed of a man combatant, despondent, ashamed, clinging to life in a way that had been surprising and outrageous: a shiver, a spasm, a clutch, a gasp. When Gar woke, Jordan was standing naked in the doorway.
“I shouldn’t be here,” he said. “You’re supposed to be alone. It’s none of my business. You’re like an outcast. I’m young. I shouldn’t be here. Why am I here?”
“Shh. How could you have known?”
“I couldn’t. I thought you were … I’ve been here so long. I keep waiting for something to happen.”
“I’m not like I was then,” Gar said. He was immediately ashamed, as if these words were a concession to something he did not believe in. A justification. He felt like a coward for having let him go into Bay Village to discover the truth.
“It’s crazy that I came back,” Jordan said.
“Maybe so. But it’s crazier yet, me letting you in the door. So we got that in common.”
“I should go.”
“Maybe you should.”
“You won’t get anyone like me, you know.”
Jordan had more dignity than to bother to respond. He seemed to be judging whether he should say something further. He placed on the bedside table the book Gar had sent him to Bay Village to retrieve. He seemed proud, as if he had accomplished something Gar had never expected him to accomplish.
He said, “I talked to one of them that knew you. He said that in those days, there was nowhere to run and people did all kinds of reckless things they later regretted, and some tried to shut themselves away. But he said most of you tried to make do. People made the best decisions they could. But he said none of them ever did what you did.”
Confusion troubled the Jordan’s face, as if there was something wrong in his retelling, something inaccurate or incomplete or otherwise off, though he could not put his finger on what it was. “I really wanted you to be better,” he whispered.
Gar jumped up and threw Jordan to his bed.
Jordan didn’t look surprised. He pulled his knees to his chest to expose his asshole and hissed, “It’s okay if you don’t have any … I want to feel you.”
They made love savagely, vindictively, without tenderness, condoms left in the drawer, spit for lube. Afterward, Jordan lay prone, his eyes wide open, his legs strung so tight they seemed to hum.
Many months later, Jordan returned. His canvas messenger bag bulged with loot. He yapped incessantly. He had become a member of a group called Gay Shame. He said he was willing not to pass and afraid of nothing and he rejected all the dichotomies—straight/gay, femme/butch, bottom/top, virgin/slut, moral/immoral, positive/negative.
“We’re not like straight people,” he said.
Gar tucked his brush behind his ear and clapped. His hands were huge, and each clap rang through the warehouse as loudly as if Gar and Jordan had been under a cast iron bell.
Turning crimson, Jordan asked, “What? What?”
“That was a performance,” Gar said. “I clapped. Isn’t that what you wanted? Isn’t that what an audience is supposed to do?”
A troubled look crossed Jordan’s face. His return wasn’t unfolding as he had planned.
“I was always planning to come back, Gar.”
“You weren’t. It was a relief for you to go.”
“No, that wasn’t it at all.”
He opened his mouth to speak and then cut himself short.
“It’s late,” Gar said. He indicated the bed in the side room.
“Is it because I took off?”
“I was confused.”
Gar cocked his head and set his jaw. Jordan made a movement as if he might walk out, but he did not. He’s afraid I won’t stop him, Gar thought. He searched his heart for pity or gratitude or disgust or any human emotion whatsoever, but found just a vast open space that he might render on a canvas with a few pale brushstrokes.
“You know I was in love with you. Am in love with you. You know that, right?” Jordan asked.
Gar shook his head.
“Why can’t you love me back? You’re still young, you know,” Jordan cried. “What are you, forty-three? forty-five?”
“Forty-nine. That’s still young,” Jordan said without conviction. Then he added, “You can’t stay here forever.”
In the morning, the loading dock door rumbled up and then down again. Cold winter air rushed across the room, but Gar didn’t turn. For a quarter hour, he listened, posed in front of the canvas as if modeling for a painter who dwelled in the canvas itself.
That evening, Jordan returned. He was drunk, but clearly surprised—and maybe even a little hopeful—that Gar had waited up. He selected a brush and fiddled with it, pointing it at Gar and proposing with false cheerfulness that he paint a happier face on Gar.
“How was your night?” Gar asked.
“Did you enjoy listening to them talk about me?”
“What? No one …”
“Did you say a word in my defense?”
“I know those bitches and queens. I used to be one of them. They were shitting all over me. They were mocking you for being out here with me. And I know you, too. You didn’t say a thing! You made out like I was keeping you here, and maybe paying you out of his money.”
Jordan’s blank look betrayed that Gar had hit the nail on the head.
“Where’re the fists? Where’s the knot swollen up beneath your eye? What the hell do you know about love?”
Jordan retreated to the kitchen and helped himself to a bottle.
“You’ve had enough of that,” Gar said.
“Why? It makes me happy.” Jordan downed a glass and inspected the bottom closely. “Are you sick, too?”
“No. No, of course not. I told you, it never took with me. I’m … invincible.”
Jordan shot him a hard glance, and Gar realized what he’d said.
“I mean, yes,” Gar said quietly. “I’m negative. I’m sure. Miracle of science, that’s me.”
Looking back to his empty glass, Jordan swirled imaginary liquid round and round.
“Aren’t you friendly with any of them anymore?” he asked finally. “They said you all used to be friends. You and your … your friend. And them.”
“No. Not any more. Not with anyone in this town.”
“I don’t know about anywhere. I’m here now.”
“Tell me everything, Gar. Tell me what happened. Your side of the story.”
“Please. Tell me everything. You have to.” Jordan’s greasy fingers made the tumbler squeak.
“What would keep you here if I told you everything?”
“Do you want to keep me here?”
Gar buried his face in Jordan’s neck, sniffing and tasting, as if he might find on Jordan his dead lover’s stench, or any sign of his cold, luminous presence. Jordan’s arms remained at his side, stiff as pencils.
“Why don’t you defend yourself?” Jordan asked. “Tell them you’re not so bad as they think.”
“I am as bad as they think.”
Gar removed Jordan’s shirt. He fingered his nipple and firmed the younger man’s shoulder. “Or I was,” he added. “Now I don’t know what I am.”
“A shaman,” Jordan said mechanically. “A hermit. A seer.”
He pushed Gar away and ran his hand through his hair.
“That tiny little fire on the loading dock,” Jordan said, “that’s what drew me to you, that first night. You so big and this little fire you were keeping. It never occurred to me you owned the place. I thought you were a crazy vagrant like me.”
“Nothing like you.”
“Can’t you say anything that might give me some comfort here, Gar? Why do you always have to be so hard on me?”
“Not you. Not just you.”
“Why don’t you try to love me?”
Gar drew Jordan into a crushing embrace. Jordan sighed, as if the last breath had been squeezed out of him. He said he imagined Gar accompanying him to Bay Village to a job where Jordan would work forever. He imagined going to a coffee shop that had not existed when Gar last came to the village. He imagined placing an order, and exchanging greetings with the other men, both young and old, as if they were familiars.
“You would have your arm around my waist,” Jordan said. “We would look ridiculous, and it would make me smile, and I’d look back at all the men looking at me. They’d be jealous.”
“Is that how it would go?”
Jordan stiffened, broke free and made a beeline for a canvas in the corner that was buried under many other canvases. Triumphantly, he turned the canvas right side out as if it was an incontrovertible argument. It was a painting of Jordan. The portrait was raw, but infused with generous affection.
“Only somebody who loved me could have created this,” Jordan said, but the tears streaming down his face revealed his uncertainty. One by one, Gar turned canvases painted side up, as if he were playing a game of concentration with an oversized deck of cards. Each painting was precisely the same: identical portraits of Jordan like a regiment on review.
“I’ve already begun to sell the Jordans off,” Gar promised, “We’re going to live like rich men.”
© Scott David. All rights reserved.