The city of Los Angeles is burning.
The air is hot, dry, and charged with static electricity and fear. The Santa Ana winds are blowing in from hell, punishing the palm trees and swaying tall buildings. The wind carries with it sand from the eastern deserts and the charred remains of dried brush, dead grass and of dull housing tracts that are burning in the distant suburbs. All of it, the wind, the sand, the ash, finds its way, like traffic and urban sprawl, into the San Fernando Valley. Once there it stagnates and becomes one with the smog, which in October has fermented in the unending heat to a golden-brown brew, condemning all in the region to a slow, drawn out and breathless demise. On a day like this, hair stands on end and human contact generates sparks, igniting shockwaves down the spine. This is what Martin sees, and thinks, as he looks blankly upon the Valley, watching the sunrise, from his perch above it on Mulholland Drive.
Last night, Martin gave in. He gave in to the loneliness and the fear of it. He grew tired of waiting for tears that no longer appeared. He grew annoyed by the desert winds and the gentle, but noticeable, sway of his building. He grew annoyed of drinking alone, of falling asleep on the sofa with Jack Daniels and David Letterman, and of waking up with Juan Valdéz and Meredith Viera. He decided to make a change, make a new start. He decided to go out.
He dressed in jeans, a simple white tee, and blue running shoes. He ignored the half-empty closet and the missing toothbrush and failed to notice that toothpaste no longer plugged the drain in the left hand sink. In West Hollywood, he bypassed open-air bars overflowing with thumping music and beautifully unavailable boys. He stopped only to gas up his Mercedes and checked his mobile phone. No missed calls, 10:00 p.m. He continued his drive east, to a part of Hollywood that neither the tourists nor Angeliños see; to a place where the theatres premier porn and where sidewalks feature runaways, not stars; to a club called Wasteland, chosen simply for the name; a name that reminded Martin of his new life.
Until last month, life for Martin was good, was full; he thought he had it all. Then, on the tenth, at 6:25 p.m., Manny left without an explanation, no notes, and no apologies. Just like that, after 22 years, he took a suitcase, the dog, stepped into the elevator, never to return.
“Don’t call me,” he said “it’s better this way.”
Martin was stunned. That is what he told anybody who would listen.
A moving van and some day workers showed up the following morning to collect a lifetime of art, most of the furniture and all of the CD’s. At noon, a greasy looking man shaped like a pear met Martin in the lobby and delivered a paper demanding everything else.
“Nice building,” he said.
“Asshole-mother-fucker,” Martin cried.
At the end of the day, after the movers had left, Martin stood alone in their, his, Westwood Dream, twenty-three floors above the traffic and noise with views to the sea. He was numb; looking out the window, hoping the view would calm him; all he saw was sadness reflected back in the glass. “Manny just ran out of love,” he said, to anybody who would ask. The dream had ended. Like that. That quick.
Wasteland was small; he almost missed it, wedged between a Taco Bell and a tatty strip mall with a nail salon, a massage parlor and a store specializing in S&M bondage gear. Martin stopped at the store, afraid to go in, fascinated by what he saw. In the window was a mannequin, the shape of a man, zipped, chained, strapped and locked in a black canvas cocoon, like a mummy. The face was hidden under a black leather mask, the eyes blindfolded. It reminded him of Hannibal Lector in “The Silence of the Lambs.” I would panic. How would I breathe?’ he thought.
On the street, outside Wasteland, on Santa Monica Boulevard, Filipino and Thai trannies hawked their treats and negotiated through car windows with married men from Beverly Hills. They had names like Luscious or Shantarelle, and all desperately hoped to parlay an evening of $25 handjobs into rent, a Meal Deal or a bump of “Tina.” Inside Wasteland, similar girls lip-synced on a small stage under a glittering disco ball to tracks of Cher and Whitney. When not on stage, they would line the walls or lurk in corners, desperately searching the darkness for a Daddy, one they hoped would save them from the fate that awaited them just outside the door.
Martin sat at the bar and ordered a shot of Patron Silver.
“All we have is Cuervo Gold,” the bartender offered. “Two-for-one tonight.”
“Make it a Jack, no ice, in your cleanest glass.”
The drink arrived and Martin gulped it down, left a big tip and ordered another. The bartender offered some shallow conversation, commenting on the novelty of seeing a new face. “You OK?” he asked, handing Martin his drink. Martin smiled, and said coldly that the tips were plentiful, but conversation was not. The bartender poured another shot, said nothing more and walked away, resuming his task of washing glasses and watching the stage.
Martin looked around; the place was shabby and cheap, the décor matching perfectly the smell of stale beer, sweat and Pine-Sol. The walls were badly painted in thin, dripping coats of glossy black enamel, and they were streaked and peeling, revealing a thin layer of red enamel beneath. The chairs, also red, with silver glitter embedded in plastic upholstery were all torn. The tables were white and plastic, the kind nomadic tenants leave behind on apartment balconies or that taco stands use for outdoor seating. It all seemed to him to work. It felt expected, as though planned carefully and purposefully designed to be the gritty East Hollywood yin to the glossy West Hollywood yang.
Most of the boys in the bar were on their way to becoming girls — few would ever complete the process. Most were Asian, a few Latin, and one black, none of them over 25. All the men in the bar were like Martin – white, most were balding or gray, none of them under 45. The boys, he thought were pretty, so frail, and so available. All he had to do was select one, like a cupcake at the bakery, it would be easy, but he was not here for sex and besides, Martin liked men. Real Men, like Manny.
He had tried a woman once, a lifetime ago, on a weekend escape in Tijuana. He had gone there, just after college, to get loaded on tequila and do things respectable people frown on north of the border; things like snorting piles of blow in public, throwing up on the street, and paying for sex. He thought he could change, thought a woman would help. Isabella was pretty and young; she looked clean and had all of her teeth. She agreed to let him fuck her, however he wanted; he agreed to buy her drinks and to give her $8.00. It turned out that for Martin, fucking Isabella was like taking an M&M to cure a migraine — it melts in your mouth, but does nothing to kill the pain.
Shortly after Martin returned home from Tijuana, he met Manny while shopping at a local Farmer’s market. They agreed to meet for dinner at Crustacean in Beverly Hills. A week later, they dined on fresh Langosta with Manny’s family in their modest home on the Yucatán peninsula. A month after that they rented an apartment; ten years later, they bought the Westwood Dream. Manny was not everything Martin expected but he turned out to be damn good for a migraine.
Martin’s head ached; he ordered another Jack, shot it back and stood up, prepared to leave. This is a bad idea, he thought. “Keep the change,” he said to the bartender, leaving three twenties on the bar. Then he saw The Boy watching him from across the room. The Boy was alone, and looked different from the rest. He dressed in jeans, a simple tee shirt, and work boots. He wore no makeup; his hair was curly and black and he wore it cut close to his head. His dark, wide set eyes, round face and broad nose hinted of a mixed heritage. The Boy saw Martin return his stare, crossed the bar and approached him.
“May I please sit here?” he asked, his accent spicy, his voice deep and masculine.
“You may do whatever you want,” Martin replied, “But I am not going to be your Daddy, so if you are looking to hook up, you are wasting your time.”
“Vete a la chingada, Maricón! I’m not trade!” The Boy cried, angry tears forming in his eyes. “I thought you looked nice. I just wanted to talk. Estuve equivocado, and you are an asshole!” He lowered his shoulders, turned and walked away, returning to his chair and sat down.
Martin felt shitty. When did I become so bitter? he thought. I have turned into one of those horrible old queens who drink too much and hurt people on purpose. I used to mock them, now look at me!
“I am so very sorry,” Martin said, now standing beside The Boy. “I’m not feeling so hot, I am miserable and I should not have taken it out on you.”
“I’m sorry I told you to go fuck yourself.”
“I deserved it.”
“Why are you so angry?”
“I lost somebody I loved and I am not really angry, just sad.”
“Me too,” The Boy replied, drying his eyes. “I lost mi familia. This afternoon I was working and imigración raided our building, taking away my mother, father and sister. The Boy paused, and then looked directly into Martin’s eyes. “We came to L.A to stay with my uncle, but he doesn’t answer my calls. I am afraid to go home, so I came here.”
“We’ll be sad for a while, together.”
Martin and the Boy sat in silence, watching the stage, developing a bond formed out of loss, loneliness and a need to feel something more than emptiness. Conversation was not required and over time and drinks, the bond deepened.
“Last call!” The bartender shouted.
The Boy stood up, shoved his hands into his jeans pockets and stared at the floor. “I’m glad I met you,” he said. “I should go.” Where, he had an idea, a cheap motel nearby, but with $5 to his name the how would be the problem.
“You can spend the night with me, if you are interested, I mean.” Martin said, his hand held firmly on The Boy’s lower back. “I live in Westwood, I can drive or you can follow… oh, sorry, I can drive. “
“There is a motel down the street, Vista del Sol, it’s not much, but I like to stay close,” The Boy was relieved. “I have to be at The Home Depot, early, when constructors show up. It’s an easy walk from there. Esta bien? “
“I’ll drive us there.”
The room was like Wasteland: shabby, cheap and used-up. Brown carpet, threadbare and stained, accented an orange bedcover, also stained. Outside, the wind rattled a torn window screen and hot air whistled under the door. Martin pulled off the bed cover and threw it in the corner of the room. Then he lay on the bed and grabbed The Boy by his belt buckle, pulling him onto the bed next to him.
They started kissing, exploring exposed skin with their mouths and tongues. First the lips, then the neck and ears. Clothes fell away and inhibitions followed, hands now involved, caressing, increasing arousal, electrifying each other’s bodies, igniting shockwaves down their spines. The Boy took Martin in his mouth, building on the tension, increasing the pleasure, stopping just short of no return.
“That was close,” Martin said, uncurling his toes.
“Have a smoke, relax a bit,” The boy replied, rolling onto his stomach. “Just don’t take too long, I have to get at least an hour of sleep.” The boy smiled, wiggling his ass.
Martin looked at The Boy; his skin looked as good as it tasted – sweet, delicious caramel. A smoke is not what he wanted; he got up to his knees and mounted The Boy, starting out slowly, carefully, not to hurt him. The Boy responded with a flinch, he pulled forward sharply, took a deep breath, motioned for Martin to continue. The Boy relaxed into the rhythm, first moaning, then pushing himself into Martin, taking him deeper and closer to the edge. Martin built momentum, taking cues from The Boy. He thrust harder, pounded deeper, each push brought memories of Manny, each pull drew tears, burning his eyes and clouding his judgment. Sobbing, thrusting, and sobbing. Martin was bawling and grunting, an out of control animal calling out to Manny — deaf to cries beneath him; muffled pleading from The Boy.
The Boy was in agony, he was frightened and crying, pinned to the mattress, unable move or to breathe, metal springs jabbing and bruising his ribs. Martin rammed into The Boy, tearing at him, forcing his face into the pillow, his body deeper into the creaking, sagging mattress. “Why did you leave me?” Martin cried, “What did I do?”
Climax approached, Martin hit the edge with his full weight, all 225 pounds, supported by his left hand on the back of The Boy’s head, his right hand on The Boy’s shoulder. Climax started at the base of Martin’s spine, traveled up through his body, electrifying his skin, his balls tightening, and his shaft on fire. Spasms rocked his body, no time to pull out, no turning back, his breathing shallow, his heart racing; collapse, sweating, out of breath.
On top of The Boy, Martin lay sobbing until he fell asleep and dreamt of Manny. When he awoke, he quickly rolled off, wiped off on the damp sheet and rushed in the shower. The water was cold; mildew growing in large black colonies marred the walls and ceiling. “Are you sure you don’t want to come back to my place?” he called. “I could drive you back in the morning, not a problem. This place is filthy; it’s a dump. I can make you something to eat.”
“Are you still sleeping in there?”
He stepped out of the shower, dripping water onto the piss-stained linoleum-tiled floor. There were no towels and the toilet paper roll was empty. “No fucking towels in this shit-hole. C’mon, I’ll get you out of here.”
The Boy was still on the bed and face down. He had not moved. Martin went over to him, tried to wake him, shook him, slapped him, and rolled him over. His face was still and his sweet candy lips were blue. Martin started to panic, thinking to himself, Not breathing… Not breathing… Life can change in an instant, and in an instant, Martin Andrews was The Killer. Like that. That quick.
The Killer sat on the stained carpet, his back against the front door; sweat chilling his skin. Lint, dirt and a small leaf clung to the back of his legs and ass. From where he sat on the floor, he could see an exposed needle and a heap of wadded towels under the bed. He started to cry and played out a million scenarios and constructed an equal number of alibis. If he made a call now, it would look suspicious. If he left The Boy in the room, American Express would surely lead the police to his door. I am fucked, he thought. I am goddamn fucked. His skin itched and his breathing was restricted and shallow. Just then, he realized something cruel; he had just fucked and killed someone without ever asking for a name. It had never occurred to him to ask such a simple question. Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!
The Killer stood up, wiped sweat from his eyes and walked tentatively to the pile of clothes that lay at the foot of the sagging bed. The Boy’s jeans were there, worn, buried under his own, next to a pair scuffed work boots and dirty socks. He carefully picked up the jeans and fished The Boy’s wallet from the back pocket. The Killer was sweating, his blood pounding in his ears. With trepidation, he opened the tan leather wallet, unsure what to do with any information it may contain. Inside were a $5 bill, some receipts, an L.A. Metro pass, a torn piece of paper with a hand written phone number on it, and a photo of a man and a woman and a small girl. He glanced at the phone number; seeing it shocked him, time suddenly stopped. His hands shaking, he carefully folded it up, returning it to its place in the wallet. In the photograph, he saw the familiar eyes of the boy staring back at him in knowing judgment; The Boy’s father and mother, he black, possibly Jamaican, she brown, and Mexican – the young girl, beautiful, and like The Boy, had skin sweet and golden as caramel. The room started to spin; the photograph, the phone number, everything suddenly felt real. The Killer took the photograph out of the wallet to examine it further, looking for some clue, a crack in the ether, anything to provide escape from his simulacra Hell. Beneath the photograph, in a clear plastic sleeve, The Killer found a green and red Matricula Consular card – The Boy’s I.D.:
Lugar y de Fecha de Nacimiento/Place of Birth and Birth Date
Cancun, Quintana Roo
25 may 1989
1749-B N. Orange Drive.
Hollywood, CA 90028
The Killer froze. He re-read the information. 1989? Jesus Christ! I am doubly-screwed, he thought. “Holy-Fucking-Shit,” he said. The Boy was 17.
The Killer pulled on his jeans and tee, laced up his running shoes and wrapped The Boy in the orange bedcover and then went outside for a smoke. The air was hot, and it smelled of jasmine or orange blossom, he was not sure which, but he liked it either way. The wind had died down and all the rooms in the motel were dark except for his. Overhead a police helicopter hovered low, shining a light into the night, following some unknown prey. He finished his cigarette and then went to his Mercedes, backed it up to the door just outside his motel room and popped open the trunk. The Killer then went back into the room, picked up his heavy orange package, and then sweating and puffing, and as quietly as he could muster, carried it out and dropped it into the trunk and closed the lid.
He returned to the room, lit another cigarette and sat on the toilet to pee and think. He then collected The Boy’s clothes, returned to his car, dropping the bundle into the back seat, started the engine and drove off. With a Doors track he recalled from distant memory echoing in his head, The Killer drove west on Santa Monica Boulevard, turned right on Crescent Heights Boulevard and stopped at a 7-11 for a carton of Marlboro Lights, some Red Vines and a Cherry-Cola Slurpee. As he stood waiting to pay, two young men, drunk, high on something and full of life, laughed and teased one another between gropes and kisses. The taller of the two ordered a box of Trojan Magnums from behind the counter, educing a loud peal of laughter from his companion and smirks from a rough looking woman skimming a copy of The National Enquirer near the door. The cashier, his eyes half shut and thinking more about getting off work, robotically handed over the rubbers, rang them up and wished the men a good morning. The Killer added a Quick Pick and book of matches to his order, paid and returned to his car. Back on the road, he drove north onto Laurel Canyon Boulevard, carefully maneuvering through hairpin curves until reached his destination on Mulholland Drive.
The Killer is sitting on the hood of his car, smoking and wondering what to do next. Brushing ash from his shoulders, he hops down from his car, snuffs out the remains of his cigarette in the dirt, kicking up red dust in the process, walks around the car to the back and pops open the trunk. He looks in at the body of The Boy, partially wrapped in an orange bed cover, once beautiful, now lifeless; his eyes still open, brown, empty, blindly looking back. The Killer thinks again, and cries aloud, his voice heard by none, except a large gray squirrel that has been watching patiently, waiting for a handout perhaps, from the safety and distance of a tree. El Diablo may have heard as well. My God, what have I done?
The Killer pulls the body of The Boy from the trunk, removes it from the orange bedcover and watches with tears in his eyes as it tumbles down the dry ravine. The body rolls through the dirt and grass, picks up speed, bounces off a rock, stopping to rest at the foot of the tree startling the hungry squirrel. The squirrel jumps down from the tree, flips his tail wildly, and scurries away. A blue jay follows, squawking loudly, and flies quickly to the shade and protection of the nearby brush.
Overhead the morning sun struggles to break though haze of smoke and smog, casting a rich caramel glow across the Valley. In the distance, The Killer watches as traffic builds on Ventura Boulevard, millions of people, oblivious to the world, secluded in their cars, in search of a latté or headed to work. Until last night, he thought, I was one of those people.
The Killer lights another cigarette, takes a drag, and throws the lit match into the dry grass below where he is standing. The grass quickly ignites, orange flames lick and kiss at the brush and trees. White and gray smoke rises and swirls into the caramel air, catches the dry wind and disappears into the Valley. He takes another drag from his cigarette, inhales deeply and holds his breath, allowing the chemical laden smoke to poison his lungs and his heart. When he can no longer take the pain, he exhales through his nose, holding back a cough, retrieves his car keys from his left jeans pocket, closes the trunk lid, and checks the time on his mobile phone, 7:12 am. From his right pocket, he retrieves The Boy’s wallet, removes the paper with the phone number, studying carefully the bold handwriting, heavily slanted to the left. He takes one last drag from his cigarette, tosses the lit remains along with The Boys wallet down the burning hillside and returns to his car. His head spinning, on the edge of vomiting, he dials the number on the paper.
One ring, two rings, three rings….
Bile burns his throat, his mouth and breath hot and dry as the air.
“Hi, you have reached the voice mail of Manuel Zurujano. I am sorry I cannot…”
“Hi Manny,” he says. “I met your nephew last night. We need to talk.”
About the Author
Mark B. Papale is an editor for Two Hawks. Find out more in Meet the Editors.