“To lust,” he said, saluting me. His fingers trembled as he lifted the paper cups to his lips. Some of the water trickled down his chin.
“Ah, lust,” I said, taking a sip of the water from my own cup.
The two of us, Jack Dodge and I, were sitting in Room 302 at Broward General in. Jack was in his bed, propped up, an extra pillow behind his back, a light blue smock hiding his now fragile frame. I sprawled across the visitor’s chair, my long legs stretching under the bed.
“Yeah, lust,” Jack went on, a twinkle of amusement in his brown eyes. “You’re dead with it or without it, so you might as well enjoy it.” That was Jack. Full steam ahead. Damn the consequences. Although his face was now ravaged and gaunt, there was still strength and obstinacy in his jaw, a hard determination in his eyes, and about his manner the same unsettled, untamed. Quality that had been so apparent when I first met him four years ago, in ‘81. He had just turned 35 and, while he was short of stature and undistinguished in appearance, his pugnaciousness, enhanced by his strong neck and shoulders, was appealing. He was clean shaven except for a tiny moustache which he kept as fastidiously trimmed as his close-cropped brown hair.
I got up and walked over to the window. As I took another sip of water, the street lights below began to flicker on. A summer storm was brewing. Gusts of wind blew trash across Andrews Avenue and into the entrances of the graceless, characterless shops and offices that lined the street. In the vague twilight, the city seemed suddenly still, a certain stupor of downfall in the air. The long hand on the big clock on the facade of the bank on the corner edged toward the top of the hour. Seven o’clock. My time was running short.
I turned away from the window and leaned against the ledge, facing Jack. He was looking at me intently.
“Are you going to write about me, Johnny?” he asked expectantly.
I thought for a moment, then, reluctantly, “I’ve thought about it.” I told the truth.
With a tissue he gently wiped away some of the saliva that seemed to flow continuously from a corner of his mouth. Then he said, incredulously, “Really now. So, tell me, what the hell are you going to say?”
I didn’t answer. I stepped over to the tray table and picked up his yellow legal pad. He had been jotting notes all over it with his trust PlC ballpoint. He bought the same cheap pen, dozens at a time. He liked things disposable.
“Business as usual, I see,” I said, lifting the first page and glancing at the second.
“Well, you know how it is. Gotta keep my hand in.”
Even now, even here, he needed to feel a part of things, arranging dates for his “stable,” as he was fond of calling them.
“Yes, life goes on,” he added, sorrowfully. He knew I knew the truth. There was little arranging he needed to do these days. The customers had all been frightened off. His boys were relying on their regulars to sustain them. There was no new business. And the gravy—the tourists—began dying a couple of years before and. now, in the heat of August, was non-existent.
“Yeah,” he went on, “even James is taking precautions. He’s insisting his customers use rubbers. He carries ‘em with him.”
“Smart boy,” I said dryly.
“I just hope it isn’t too damn late for him,” he said.
James’ regulars were all ancient men. To them, sex was secondary. They found great delight in taking their “nephew,” as they liked to call him, to fancy restaurants and watch him tear into a steak. James was a cute little strawberry blond with a swimmer’s body, a wide, easy grin, and a playful manner. He had recently turned twenty and Jack sent him a bouquet of flowers. It was part of Jack’s remembrance ritual: a white poinsettia at Christmas and a bouquet of flowers on birthdays. The bouquet of a half dozen miniature red roses I had sent him were in a vase on the nightstand next to a giant get well greeting James had sent.
James was the last of the creme de la creme of Jack’s stable, a breed that began with Willy ten years before. Jack met Willy when he ha his fishing boat and was living in St. Petersburg. He hired Willy as a deckhand and they became close. Before long, Jack discovered Willy was willing and they began living together. They worked side-by-side during the day and went home to each other’s embrace at night. But such together-ness eventually took its toll. They started to argue frequently and often Willy didn’t make the boat as it slipped out of port just before dawn.
Then, in the early 70’s, when the crunch hit, Jack lost all of his highly leveraged property, including his boat. Destitute, he and Willy went to live with Willy’s father, a recent widower who worked for the post office. Jack considered various things to support himself. What he came up with, at first as a stopgap measure, was an escort service. He knew several boys who partied frequently at the bars and who were anxious to supplement their incomes. Working out of a shed at the far end of Willy’s father’s two acres in northern Pinellas County, he had a phone installed to arrange dates for the boys. He told them to put his share of the proceeds, usually $25, under a rock a couple of blocks from the house. That way he avoided having to have the boys come directly to the house and he managed to keep Willy’s father in the dark as to what he did.
Eventually, when Jack got a call and had no boy from his stable to send out, Willy was recruited. At first, Willy enjoyed the change of routine. Most of the johns were considerate and lavished considerable praise upon him. Jack often talked about Willy’s innocence and how the boy had artfully mastered his technique of passively spreading his legs for the old men. He laughed that Willy could please a trick without ever touching him with his hands. In Jack’s opinion, it kept Willy chaste for his trips to “the well,” a place Jack took his lovers, sometimes for days on end.
After a few months, Willy grew bored and restless. When he turned 18, he helped a girlfriend move to California and never came back. Despondent, Jack decided to, in his words, “shove St. Pete.” He moved to Fort Lauderdale. Within a short time, he had made some lucrative connections and built a formidable stable. By the time I met him, between the boys and the dope he peddled along with them, Jack was clearing a grand a week, enough for him to rent a small house on an acre of ground to the west of the city. He built a greenhouse on the property and raised tropical plants. Re made a few dollars selling the plants through ads in neighborhood shopping papers, but, mostly, Jack tended the plants as a break from the sixteen hour days he put in on the phone. His dream, he often said, was to eventually save enough so he could get out of the escort business and grow plants he could sell wholesale to florist shops.
Over the years, he developed intimate relationships with many of his clients. He never actually met any of these men face-to-face, but between what the boys told him and what he was able to elicit from them over the phone, especially when they had had a few drinks, he developed an impressive mental dossier of their kinks and foibles. He reveled in tawdry secrets. Having the inside scoop on these men gave him keen pleasure.
I dropped the legal pad to the tray table and resumed my seat in the visitor’s chair.
“So what are you going to say about me?” he pestered.
“Oh,” I answered reluctantly, “I’ll definitely write something about you and Michael.”
“Yeah,” he said excitedly. “Mike and me. Me and Mike. Oh, what stories I could tell you!”
“Oh, what stories you have told me,” I corrected him.
“Yeah, but it’s about the well you want to know. But I can’t tell you. You just have to go there. God, I miss it. You know, Johnny, it all ended in January. January, when the sweats started. And then the business just dried up. And then Michael having to die. All in January!” he said torturedly.
“I remember. It was horrible.”
“Yeah, nothing is like before. Everything has been contaminated. This fuckin’ disease&mdashit’s turned everything to shit.”
“Yeah, I could never make ‘Biscayne Boulevardt’ now.”
“No, and if you hadn’t made it when you did, you never would have met Michael. And that would have been something to regret.” He stopped and thought a minute. Then, happily, “You know, he had this way about him, that look of innocence. That shy manner. You knew he knew all the right moves, yet he let you think you were the first person he’d ever been with. It was such a beautiful, unconscious, effortless thing on his part.”
“Yeah, and that magic came across on the screen,” I said, picturing Michael on that first day of filming, and then later, when I saw the completed film, His face was unusual, handsome rather than pretty. Photographically, his mouth was his best feature. It was large and sensual. He had a seductive way of baring his teeth when he smiled. His body had been molded, with careful diet and considerable effort, into a beautifully defined torso. But his eyes. His eyes always bothered me. They were bleak and dark, with a bitter enmity.
“Yes,” I said, smiling, “but he was your baby. You had him at his peak.”
“Oh, god, how I miss those days. You remember how I’d take a break from him and go to the phone and call you up and breathe into the phone…”
“I’ve taken Michael to the well!” I said, mimicking him.
“You do remember!” he said in mock surprise.”
“Oh, but you have no idea really,” he continued, tauntingly now, his eyes flashing. “The well is a place whore only us true degenerates go. A place where some don’t ever cone back… alive. Where anything goes.”
“Especially after some coke,” I interjected.
“Yeah and Chivas. Love that Chivas! God, I can remember Michael lying there, just like a little puppy, this six foot fuckin’ Adonis, just begging me. Me!” he said wonderingly.
“And when you’d be on the phone and he’d call from the bedroom—
“I’m red—eee,’” I said, mimicking Michael.
“You know,” I said, “I told Carole about that and she started whispering that in my ear at the oddest times. What a laugh!”
“Carole! What do you hear from her, anyway?”
“Oh, she’s still in New York.”
“Still the hostess with the mostest, I suppose. God what big tits! Too much woman for me. But she was great for you.”
“Only to look at.”
“Shit, you loved every minute of it,” he said fervently.
“Well, if I could have just looked at her and fucked her…”
“But what else are they good for?”
“But now I appreciate quality over quantity…brains over boobs.” I lied.
“Now you see the light and it’s too late! You wouldn’t go gay so now you’ve gone crazy!” he said delightedly.
“Gone celibate, dear friend. There’s a difference.”
“Bullshit! Celibacy is crazy. Doing it alone in the dark, with one of your lousy movies flickering away. Oh, and don’t forget to turn off the sound.”
“That way you create your own soundtrack.”
“No, that way you can just look at the pretty bodies and you don’t have to hear what’s corning out of their mouths, showing you how ignorant they are.”
“It’s not their fault. It’s the scriptwriter who puts those words into their mouths” I said didactically.
“Scriptwriter my ass! Those kids could appear in ‘Hamlet’ and make it sound like drivel.”
“But you did like ‘Young and Foolish,” I said, admonishing him.
“Only because Michael was in it.”
“Well, then, you liked them all because Michael’s been in every one, except the first, of course.”
“Every one? How many of those things have you done?”
“Three!” he said, with glee. “Three in four years? What the hell do you do with your time?”
“Well, right now I’m looking for some sweet thing to appear in yet another epic.” I lied.
He sighed with puzzled awe, then blurted, with halting appreciation, “So all you do is look for sweet young things, is that it?”
“Yeah, everything I do is geared to it! No, truthfully, I’ve no stomach for it any more. All the fun has gone out of it.”
“Yeah, it’s all turned to shit,” he said with vengeful passion. “It’s that Meese character. And all the others. They’re greedy…greedy for power and greedy for money. That’s all they think about. The people can go screw themselves as far as they’re concerned.”
“Oh, maybe they mean well, trying to save the people from themselves.”
He lapsed into a brooding silence, then blurted, “Have you heard anything more about the investigation?”
“No. I operate under the delusion of reprieve, clinging to the last shreds of hope. Now’s the time I should get out of Florida…go to California .”
“Naw, they’d hunt you down where ever you went, like a mad dog,” he said scornfully.
“I hope not.”
“Oh, God, Johnny, they’ll get you,” he said portentously. “They won’t rest til they do. They’ve got the phone records, we know that. And godknows what else. If it isn’t this, it’s that. It’s tiring me out,” he said, his expression now resentful and defensive. “Tiring me out thinking about all the trouble. And all the arrangements I have to make.”
“But you’ve taken care of everything. No need to worry,” I said in a quiet tone.
“But James’ll screw it up. He’s been acting flaky lately.”
“Has he been to see you?”
“No, not this time around. He’s terrified. He hates this hair, all orangey. And this body, nothing but skin and bone. Hell, the only meat I got left is between my legs.”
“That’s good…that’s the only meat he ever cared about anyway.”
“Got that right! These fuckin’ kids! Ingrates all of them!” he said with lofty scorn. “Why I shoulda taken that little fucker to the well. But he’d never go. He’s not Michael. No, he’s just trash, street trash. But, Jesus, he’ll do. Damn him!” He fell back into the pillows, a grimace of sour exasperation on his face. “Oh, God, I still want it. My spirit isn’t dead yet. My balls ache for it. I’m alive!” he cried rebelliously.
“Of course you are,” I said. The sense of disaster in which we were both involved had robbed us of our inner freedom. I lied to him.
“Oh, where is Michael when we really need him?”
I didn’t tell him about the last time I saw Michael. How shocked I was that he had yielded to drugs and had gotten so disheveled, no one would hire him. He was reduced to running ads in local gay newspapers in Los Angeles: “Michael Compeli/ Film Star/Hairless Italian Stud/Superhung/$100/24 Hours/Credit Cards Accepted.”
“I hope you don’t blame me for Michael,” I said.
Blame you? Hell, no. You made him a star. He deserved to be a star–a star at something. No, he’s the one that went Hollywood and started shooting that shit into his veins.” A solitary tear rolled down his cheek. “Now look at me. I promised I’d never cry again.”
“Cry if you want. If anybody’s got a right, you do.”
“No, no…I’m not giving in to self-pity any longer. But, God, how I wish we could walk out of here, get into your Mercedes, put the top down…ah…and go to Down Under and order those tenderloins.” He closed his eyes.
“Yeah, it sounds great, doesn’t it? And we will, soon.” I lied.
“Yeah, and I almost forgot. We’ll let James make us feel good. You know, he really can. Best damn blow job in the world!”
“You’ve told me,” I said with indifferent finality.
I stood up again and walked back to the window. It had started raining…a typical summer shower. It would be even hotter when it was over. Raindrops pelted the window pane, then trickled down the glass monotonously. “Well,” I said, noticing the clock again, “They’ll be throwing me out soon.”
“I know. But before you go, take my hand,” he said, proffering one toward me. I turned and stepped close to the bed. His grip was feeble but resolute. We held hands for a brief moment. His eyes were closed. I might be wrong, but it could be he was saying a prayer. Then he opened his eyes and lifted his head from the pillow. “Why?” he asked, plaintively.
“I don’t know. Just one of those things.” At that moment I could think of nothing profound to say o him.
“Well, they can’t fuck friendship, can they? You’ve been a real friend, putting up with me, coming to see me,” he said, his eyes becoming moist again.
“It’s nothing,” I said, smiling at him.
“No, it’s everything,” he said with hungry appreciation. He let his arms drop to his sides. “I tire so easily now. It’s the business. It’s all these headaches with the business.”
“Oh, of course it is. And having to rely on James.”
“He’s a good kid,” he breathed. “I want him to make you feel good. For me. Promise you’ll go see him while you’re in town.”
“I promise.” I lied.
“No, I’ll call him. Tomorrow. And I’ll tell him to come to your hotel and see you. One on the house, okay?”
“Maybe. Yeah, okay, I said laconically.
“But now, I gotta get some sleep. My beauty rest. Who knows, maybe Michael will be waiting for me when I get there. I wanna look my best!” He laughed.
I stepped to the door and opened it. Shafts of light from the corridor streamed into the room, bathing it in a strange, milky radiance.
“Well, goodnight, Jackson ,” I said. He didn’t answer. I closed the door and as I walked down the corridor I tried to picture them, Jack and Michael, going to the well again, together.