We stood in front of a shelf marked 1953. A gap sat in the middle of otherwise tightly packed volumes. He began stroking the dust from the empty space. Again, it felt as if he were stroking my skin. This time I let myself experience it, for a little while.
“Where are those volumes?” I asked.
He sighed, looked down on the floor, took another shot. He hacked. Then he looked at me.
“The Beats, Mr. Gale. They persecuted the hell out of them, didn’t like their language. Rigid McCarthyism. Conformity. Prosperity. Button-down mortgages and three martini lunches. Trysts with the secretary during the week. Catch baseball with the son in the park on weekends, so that he grows straight, upright. We didn’t survive the 60s, we lived them. We survived the 50s. Some of us did. I know some who certainly did not. The jazz musicians were saying the same things the Beats were saying, just hidden behind notes. That’s how they got away with it. They spoke the same language. But the Beats used words, and they persecuted them for it. They called them obscene.
“You know the gym across the street?” I nodded. “There used to be a pool on the roof. They closed it years ago, but you can still see the old water tower next to where it was. I could see it out the dining room window where the easel’s set up. For years, every summer, I used to see boys of all ages in their trunks playing and jumping in the pool. But this particular summer, it was different. It was real hot that year, everyday, just hot and humid. The weather we love to hate so much. I painted in my drawers, usually after sunset. I spent the day in the show, just to stay cool. Didn’t care how bad the movie was.”
“But at night, I faithfully worked at my canvas, painting some irrelevant flower or another. Until one night. I remember I had the window wide open and I saw the older boys, late teens and early 20s, still in the pool. The difference, Mr. Gale, was that they’d taken off their clothes and swam in the buff. I could see them by the faint lights that surrounded the pool. They acted wild and crazy, openly naked to the world, and they didn’t care. Maybe they hoped someone could see them. Or maybe not. The point is they didn’t care. They spat in the face of society’s standards and McCarthyism. They did what any boy would do, what generations of boys did in the heat. Strip and play in the nearest watering hole. Only in this case, it was a city pool and not a country pond hidden in the bushes. It was just so beautiful to see, Mr. Gale. I couldn’t stop staring at them, not just because of their beautiful nakedness, but because of the beauty of their nakedness. Can you understand what I’m trying to say?”
“Yes!” I nodded.
“Those boys were passion in its purest form. The next thing I knew, I was pushing my easel aside, and I had my sketchbook in hand and I was sketching them, every one of them.”
He leaned closer to me and spoke in a whisper inches from my face. His breath rubbed against my face.
“I sat up for hours by the window, sketching what I saw and sketching what I thought I saw. Every night, that whole summer, I stayed up until the early hours.”
I saw myself standing by the pool. I felt the water splash on my naked ass and thighs as a comrade jumped in. I heard him goad me into joining him in the deep end. Water gushed up my nose on impact, but I could still breathe. It was as if I had never breathed before. And all the while, I felt the gaze of a master watching, carefully studying, touching with his eyes what his hands could not reach.
He stood erect again. Slowly I returned to the closet, our cave, our personal grotto.
“By the end of the summer, I filled three sketch books full of those boys playing in that pool.”
I stood nodding in a blank stare, my mind and soul rapt with the lust of unfulfilled passion. It was just as I had known as a hungry 14 year-old devouring his masterworks at the Met. I could tell he was aware of my reaction. All the while, his eyes relentlessly brushed my body with a fingerless caress. And I did nothing to distract from it. I allowed myself to possess the sensation. A part of me lingered in the pool.
“The blank spot on the shelf is where those volumes stood, Mr. Gale,” he said lowering his eyes, “I keep that spot empty, a raided tomb.”
“What happened to them?”
A single tear ran down his face. He fell back against the cobwebbed wall. A chill hit. The space no longer felt safe. Our cave became a dimly lit, dead-end alley menaced by shadows.
“I burned them, all of them, that winter in the boiler in the cellar. McCarthyism! It scared the living shit out of me. What did I have to worry about? I was a silly little Negro painting flowers. But I knew the truth, a truth too terrible to mention. A truth that the McCarthyites loathed and the Reds despised. What if someone saw me staring night after night at those naked boys? What if someone came pounding on my door and found my sketches? As Fall came on and the nights grew colder, that’s all I could think about. Every time someone passed down the hall, my heart jumped. Every time the phone rang I waited until the last possible moment to pick up, hoping that they would think I was out and give up. I lived in fear and paranoia. And my beautiful boys paid the price!”
He began to sob, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” I poured more whiskey into his teacup, but he refused it. When he looked at me, his eyes no longer gently stroked my frame but instead pressed hard into me. A shadow had fallen over them.
“And now you’re here to haunt me, aren’t you?”
“You’re one of them, back to haunt me for destroying your image! I recognized you from the start at the door, Mister Gale! Thought you’d fool me with a female name, didn’t you? Thought you’d gain my confidence!”
“Mr. Horton, what are you talking about?”
“I won’t let you! You won’t haunt this old man to death! I won’t let you!”
“I need to get out of here!”
He pushed by me and fled from the closet, panting and sweaty. Then I heard things crash on the floor. I ran to the closet door and stood in its frame. He loomed over his awards table, methodically taking each glass and plaster trophy, one by one, and slamming them on the floor.
“This is what you want, isn’t it? For me to curse my career? To pay for living a lie? Well here!” He threw another one down. “And here!” And another. “And here!” And another. “Don’t just stand there, help me! Come on! Help me destroy my life!”
He held one trophy with his hand and shook it at me, like a fist. It had a base shaped and textured like a lump of sand up from which grew a metallic stem crowned at the top with a carnation, the Peace Carnation, made from crystal.
“Smash it! Go on, smash it!”
“I can’t, sir.”
“It’s what you want, isn’t it? Smash it! Destroy it!”
I closed my eyes and threw it across the room. The crystal petals sprayed in a hundred separate directions.
He looked pleased, and then he paused. His eyes lost the shadow cast over them. His panting slowed. He suddenly looked weak, tired. I went to him, wanting to walk him to the couch to lie down. Instead, he moved towards the painting stool. His butt fell hard on it. He turned and looked at the half finished painting on the easel, more irrelevant flowers. Then he looked at the hardwood floor, strewn with plaster and glass, bits of wood and metal. He looked back at me, calm, his eyes no longer pushing against me.
“That’s quite an installation isn’t it, Mr. Gale?”
I half smiled, glad to see him relaxed again. “Is there anything I can get you, Mr. Horton?” I asked.
“A brandy, I think.”
To be continued. . .
© 2012, gar. All rights reserved.