Issue 16 — Barry Brennessel, J. E. Robinson, Carlos Rubio
Brian Caleb stood surrounded by Japanese schoolboys, in packs, but not rowdy; ubiquitous businessmen; grandmothers with purple hair; and, at the far end of the train car, the college-aged kid he'd followed into the restroom of a Ginza District department store. Yuji, a year younger than Brian, was studying music — or at least that's what Brian thought. There'd been a language barrier, and the security guard who ordered them from the store put a damper on their getting to know each other on a more...intimate...level.
But now as the train swayed and clacked its way toward the next station, Brian stared at Yuji — his dark hair, the olive-colored skin, the muscular arms on that boyish frame. He waited for one glance, one sign that Yuji realized he'd caught the train, but he seemed to be ignoring Brian altogether, his back to him, his head pressed against the glass.
Who on this train could have guessed that Brian Caleb, age nineteen, had come to Japan in search of love? That Brian Caleb, college student, had arrived in Tokyo with twelve hundred dollars in loan money, three changes of clothes, and a passion for a Czech student named Ondøej who seemed equally passionate about Brian? How was it he'd gone from the elation of romance to this uncertain and complicated promise of sex with a stranger in Tokyo? Who on this train would guess any of this, just by staring at this quiet, timid American?
The train now began to slow, a long, loud squeal momentarily drowning out the low conversations all around him. A group of seven or eight passengers moved to the door. This afforded Brian a clearer view of Yuji. Even if it meant forcing himself through the crowd, Brian was determined to head to the other end of the car to stand with Yuji. But almost as if he'd read his mind, Yuji turned, pushed his way past several people, and took Brian by the arm. He pulled him to the door, and they both stepped off just as the doors started to close.
"You transfer. Um...here....here you take Keiyo Line," Yuji said, struggling with the words, as they stepped away from the edge of the platform. "For Shin-Kiba. Place for...it's for...us."
Brian smiled at him, his heart racing as Yuji stood next to him, their arms touching. "I can just follow you."
Yuji shook his head, a serious expression on his face. He pointed to Brian's backpack. "Map?"
Brian continued to smile, though it was a bit awkward given Yuji's expression. But when their eyes locked, Brian could still feel the same spark he'd felt in the department store when he first spotted Yuji in the sleeveless red tee shirt that stood out against the black and gray everyone else wore. And there was the cute way that Yuji brushed at his left eye, as if he had a lash that wouldn't stop bothering him. This somehow made him more approachable than most of the men he was attracted to. He did that now — a nervous gesture, Brian surmised — as he waited for Brian to pull out the map.
People bustled around them as they stood near a column in the center of the platform. Yuji unfolded the map, his elbow knocking into an older woman who glared at him as she hurried toward the stairs. He turned the map over twice, then tapped it a few times with the tip of his finger. "Here," he said, "Hatchobori Station, here, to Shin-Kiba. On Keiyo Line." Another train pulled into the station. "I must go now. I...wish you a...au revoir, right?" He smiled as he started toward the train, walking backward to keep eye contact with Brian.
"You'll meet me there?" Brian called out. "Is that what you mean?"
Yuji bit his bottom lip. Brian couldn't tell if Yuji hadn't understood him, or if he was just searching for words. As the crowd of people swelled, moving toward the train doors, Yuji shrugged. He turned and was swallowed up by the throng that started to board the train. Brian couldn't spot him as the train started to pull away. It seemed so strange suddenly to feel alone in a place with hundreds of people swarming around him.
* * *
"Ondøej," Brian had said to his sister over the phone from Tours, months ago, months before he'd ever dreamed he'd be in Japan. "And even though he thinks it's cute when I pronounce it like 'André', you sort have to trill the 'r' with a 'sh' sound, and it ends with a ‘j’, which in Czech is like a 'y' with a little—"
"So what happened to French all of a sudden?"
Brian hadn't answered right away. He knew what was probably going through Sheila's mind: her little brother's unreasonable insistence that he be allowed to go to France to study even though their father was undergoing chemo. Brian pressed his thumb against his palm in anticipation of whatever his sister might say next.
"Just remember you're there to study French, not spend all your time—"
"But I think this time it's—" Brian stopped himself. He wasn't ready to admit to his sister how different things seemed with this classmate of his. Ondøej. He wasn't about to utter the word "love" for fear he'd jinx something. Besides, it wasn't really something he felt comfortable discussing with his older sister. After a month and two days of seeing each other, this relationship between him and Ondøej felt like...well, pure confusion.
"So how did you meet this...On... Ondøej? Is that right? What do you plan to do? Move over there for good? Are you giving up all your French now?"
To Brian, the best part of meeting Ondøej had been the romance of it all. It wasn't the usual "we met at a club" or "we just really clicked in the chat room." No — he could tell people "we met on a train from Paris to Tours." And not just any train. "The TGV."
"Well, I don't know what that stands for," Sheila would most likely respond, in her detached, matter-of-fact way.
Brian had been heading back from a weekend in Paris, a weekend away from his two roommates in their shared house on Rue James Cane. It seemed after months of studying at the Institut d'Etudes Francaises de Touraine his weekend study sessions were being replaced by trips to Paris, with train tickets he was putting on his "emergency" credit card. But those clubs in Paris fascinated him — there were no gay clubs in Tours. And the walk along the Seine at three in the morning, when cruising is at its prime — it was fun just to have men come up and flirt.
Though these thoughts ran through his mind, he wouldn't mention any of this to his sister, of course. Instead, "So I was riding back from Paris, and I see a guy across the aisle from me, and he's checking me out. Dark hair, brown eyes, cute. And then he gets up and walks over to me. He speaks to me in English, and I assume he could tell I was American or whatever. But it turns out he's in my grammar class, and—"
"Brian, we can't talk much longer," his sister said. She reminded him it was an overseas call. Collect. There was a pause, and she added, "You haven't asked about Dad, you know."
Brian pressed on this thumb again, and his stomach sank. "I plan to call him in a few days, maybe. I don't know."
The sigh on the other end was louder than usual. "Jesus, Brian. Are you kidding me? Do you realize—"
"Sheila, just — just give it a fucking rest."
"No! I won't...give it a rest!"
"Well what do you think I should do? Call up and say, 'Hi Dad! It's the son you practically disowned! How's the ol' cancer?'"
There was a click. Stateside.
Had his sister cared, Brian might have told her he'd moved into Ondøej 's small apartment in Tours. Not really officially, since he still received mail at his other place, and a lot of his stuff was still there, but he was spending practically all his time with Ondøej. He might also have told his sister about Ondøej's smile, his laugh, his eating habits, his clothes, his love of movies — all things Brian thought about day in and day out. "I can't concentrate on classes anymore," he might have told her, though it wouldn't have been the wisest thing to do.
But Sheila would just be silent while Brian talked about it. As for his father — well, yes, of course Brian hoped there would be progress with the cancer treatments, and he knew that his father hadn't had the easiest time raising two kids alone, and he knew it wasn't easy on him to have Sheila fussing over him like he was an infant or something, but how do you tell this stuff to someone who orders you get out of the house and not talk to him until you come to your senses and decide you're going to be "goddam normal"?
* * *
The train that pulled in immediately after Yuji's departed was even more crowded. Brian pushed his way from the door to the farthest corner on the left side, where it seemed he'd at least not be fighting with those trying to get on and off. He leaned against the wall, awkwardly positioning his feet to avoid stepping on shopping bags a woman had inconsiderately spread on the floor around her.
Above the door there was a system map in small type. Brian squinted as he tried to decipher it, but it just wasn't possible to read from this distance. Though he dreaded it for fear he'd be drawing attention to himself, he slid his backpack off his shoulder and pulled his tourist map from the front pocket. A man next to him turned and stared, not so much annoyed as shocked that anyone would be trying to carry on any activity in such constrained circumstances.
Brian found on the map the area Yuji had pointed out. Though Shin-Kiba Station was listed, the area surrounding it was cut off at the edge, so there was no indication of what might be there. Could this be where Yuji lived? Was that what he was trying to communicate to Brian in his broken English? If Brian were to follow his instinct, he would be getting off at the next stop and taking a train back to Ginza. But then, wasn't it instinct that had made him go to the travel bureau in Tours and buy a one-way ticket to Tokyo?
He unzipped the top of his backpack and dropped the map inside. The man didn't turn this time. Regardless, Brian slowly and quietly tugged at the zipper to make as little noise as possible. Before he had zipped up the backpack completely, he caught sight of the tattered envelope he'd been carrying around for weeks. His name was written on it, in red ink, in Ondøej 's stylish writing with that oversized "B" that always characterized a letter or note or card — basically anything from Ondøej, all of which Brian had stuffed in this backpack. The envelope contained a picture, which Brian now slid out. It was one of only a few pictures where Brian thought he looked good. He considered this one the best, because of how happy he looked, how relaxed and surprisingly handsome. He also liked the way that he and Ondøej were leaning so close together at the outdoor café table, their heads touching, Ondøej smiling just as brightly as Brian was.
Brian quickly slid the picture back in the envelope and tugged at the zipper. It happened this way each time he looked at this picture: the initial elation followed by dread as his brain filled with conflicting thoughts and images and he questioned again and again what exactly he was doing here.
He looked at his distorted reflection in the train window. It bore no resemblance to the image in the photo.
* * *
"Excuse me, but are you in my French grammar class?"
Those were Ondøej 's first words to Brian. His knowledge of English was very good, and his accent — in addition to his cute face — made him all the more endearing.
But he didn't seem familiar to Brian.
"Oh, well," Ondøej said, "you've seen me with long hair and glasses. I had it cut yesterday, and am not wearing glasses, as you can see. So picture me in that manner."
Still Brian couldn't place him, especially since grammar class consisted of sitting at individual booths and listening to tapes, and he wasn't in the habit of paying much attention to the other students coming and going. But the haircut and no glasses must have made all the difference, because Brian would have remembered seeing this face. "I'm still not sure."
"Well, I noticed you," Ondøej said.
He was evidently testing the waters — unless he had somehow picked up on Brian, though Brian didn't think himself obvious. But Ondøej smiled with some relief, it seemed, when Brian smiled back. Brian pictured the seating arrangement of the class, still bothered he'd never noticed Ondøej before, then he pictured Mme. Biraud's scowl and wagging finger. "Mais en français, monsieur," Brian said, imitating her, "ou—"
"No," Ondøej had said, raising his hand. "I am bored with français. It bores me." He sat down in the seat next to Brian. "I know this seat is reserved," he whispered, "but as long as no one is here now, I will sit here. If it is fine with you. With your permission."
"Yeah," Brian said. "That’s fine."
"So, are you glad you have traveled all the way to France? To study?"
"Um..." Brian looked out the window a moment to gather his thoughts, so he wouldn't say something idiotic like, "I'm just escaping my family." He turned back to Ondøej. "I was told that the Loire region speaks the purest French in the world."
Ondøej smiled and rolled his eyes. "They fooled you also." He stared into Brian's eyes. "I'm Ondøej, by the way. I know that you are Brian."
They shook hands, and Ondøej’s hand was warm compared to Brian’s, which felt like ice.
"So when you asked if I was in your grammar class, it was all pretense?"
Ondøej looked confused. "Pre...tense?"
"It means that you — well, never mind."
"Okay, but, you can teach me more English, and I will teach you some Czech. But let's for now ignore the French."
Brian smiled, but was unsure just how seriously to take Ondøej 's attitude. "So...if you don't like studying French, why are you in the program?"
He shrugged. "I liked the language when I was a younger boy, but it is all so...mont...monto...."
"Exactly. But France was closer to home than Japan. I want to learn Japanese now, though."
"That's quite a bit different from a Romance language."
"It is more artistic."
The door at the far end of the car slid open, and a man started down the aisle. At first it looked as though he was about to stop where Ondøej was sitting, but he continued on.
"If no one claims this seat, may I continue to sit here?"
"Sure," Brian said, his hands shaking gently, his heart racing just a little. "Or I can move to the seat next to yours if that stays empty. As long as the ticket agent doesn't yell at us."
"To hell with him. I paid many francs for this sophisticated train. I won't be pushed around by him." He took Brian's hand. "I will just stay right here."
Brian's hands were slightly warmer than they were a few minutes ago, though he was nervous, excited, everything imaginable. He loved the fact that Ondøej had been forward, and held his hand tightly, though Brian was nervous that someone would see them. After a minute he slid his coat over just far enough to cover their hands. He didn't look up to see Ondøej 's reaction, but he did squeeze Ondøej 's hand, and Ondøej moved closer to him.
* * *
It had rained earlier that morning, which was why Brian had sought shelter in the department store in Ginza. The humidity had made him perspire, and a breeze had blown his hair all over. He hadn’t felt particularly attractive. It didn’t help that gay Japanese men didn't seem comfortable with foreigners, gaijin. That's why when Yuji looked him in the eyes, with that intensity he'd seen so few times, Brian followed him. It's why he now sat on a train entering Shin-Kiba Station, a place not mentioned in his guide book, an area that seemed so far removed from the vibe of Tokyo that he had the uneasy feeling he didn't belong here. It seemed as if it was a place for residents only, and he was clearly intruding.
After the train stopped, and he stepped off, he hung back against the far wall of the station, waiting for the crowd to thin out. He was growing tired of the crowds. He'd been awash in people for the last several days. And he thought, had Yuji really been trying to indicate they should meet here? Maybe he was around the station, waiting.
Though late on a November afternoon, the air was surprisingly warm, with just an occasional breeze producing a slight chill. And despite the car exhaust drifting up from the street level below, Brian stood there breathing deeply, waiting just a few minutes before he ventured out of the station into unexplored territory. To whatever Shin-Kiba Park was supposed to hold for him. "A place for...us," Yuji had said.
But whatever that meant, Brian felt he shouldn’t be here. Though the question remained: where exactly should he be?
* * *
"I think of this as our place," Ondøej announced, pouring out the last drop of cocoa from a dented saucepan on the first night Brian had decided to spend the majority of his time at Ondøej 's apartment. "You must feel you are...um...." He smiled, and turned toward Brian. It was at moments like this that Brian felt his deepest attraction toward him, his unusual blend of quirkiness and self-confidence, seriousness and silliness, all coming to the surface with his gestures and words. "You must feel," Ondøej continued, his left hand outstretched, "that this, too, is your home."
As was often the case, Brian didn't know just how seriously to take him. And he was frequently reluctant to ask, to pursue any of Ondøej 's pronouncements, lest he be informed that some — if not all — of the romantic things he'd been told had simply been jokes. "Just kidding," was one phrase in Czech-accented English he didn't want to hear.
Yet Brian felt that they were really about to make this apartment a home. This little apartment in Tours, on Boulevard Marchant Duplessis. They shared a small table with two mismatched chairs, a tape player, assorted cookware and plates, and a futon. They shopped for food together, ate dinner out once a week, and took coffee once a day, after classes, which Brian still attended but Ondøej skipped with more frequency. Ondøej, of course, hadn't let on to his family his waning interest, so they continued to send him money for living expenses. And Sheila also continued to send Brian a little money each month, though with the last payment she hinted that this allowance soon might come to an end. Brian suspected the reason had more to do with his reluctance to ask about their father than financial hardship on her part.
"And are you now exploring le subjonctif?" he'd asked Brian, one day over coffee, with disdain in his voice.
"So...what are you going to do?" Brian countered. "Are you going to quit the program altogether?"
The waiter brought their espresso. A young, stunningly handsome waiter with curly dark hair. A waiter who paid no attention to Brian, but kept his eyes fixed upon Ondøej. Although Ondøej smiled back at him in a way that Brian thought was friendlier than it should have been, Brian’s anger was directed more at the waiter for not acknowledging them as a couple. It seemed as though somehow the waiter couldn’t believe Ondøej might be with someone like Brian. It was just that…well, it sounded foolish and paranoid, but then again, at that moment, it seemed a plausible scenario to Brian.
After the waiter walked away — all too slowly, Brian thought — Ondøej stared past Brian for a minute, running the tip of his finger around the rim of his espresso cup. Then he took Brian's hands and squeezed them, running his thumbs back and forth along the contours of Brian's palms. "Tell me, would you ever consider living in Tokyo for a year?"
Brian knew immediately he wasn’t joking, though it sounded odd, out of the blue, related to nothing they’d been talking about. "I don’t know. I mean, why? What are you thinking?"
Ondøej looked past him again. "Too many things, maybe." He focused on Brian again. "It is a beautiful city, I think, though some people say it’s ugly. I just have this…I am in love with the culture and language. It is so different from all this."
Brian wasn’t sure how to respond. But he suddenly felt he hadn't said what Ondøej wanted to hear, or that he hadn't reacted in some specific way. He became more convinced of this as Ondøej 's hands slipped away and his beautiful, dark eyes drifted over to the waiter, who was standing against a doorway, staring back at Ondøej. Brian felt something had just happened.
* * *
Brian glanced at the thinning crowd moving about him in Shin-Kiba Station. It was a foolish hope, he knew, thinking he might spot Yuji among all these people. As a matter of fact, it was foolish to have gone all this way to meet someone with whom he'd barely exchanged words, someone who had interested him only because of his beauty and his physical attraction to Brian, which Brian suspected had faded soon after they'd tried to have sex in that filthy bathroom stall. Still, Brian was hesitant to step toward the escalator until one more train arrived. What if...what if he did see Yuji again? He was beautiful, after all. And he had liked Brian, if for only that instant.
But Brian felt uncomfortable standing there alone. No one seemed to take particular note of him, yet he felt a thousand eyes on him. There was no sense waiting for another train. And it didn't really make sense to head back downtown right away, either. Since he'd trekked out this far already, why not head to the park? If nothing else, it might be a welcome respite from all these people, all these strangers with their different routines, their heads filled with thoughts and ideas so far removed from Brian's that only they themselves understood. Or perhaps not. Maybe they were all like Brian to some degree. But Brian refused to believe this, at least for this moment. He yearned for isolation, to have nothing in common with this crowd. That is, he longed for this solitude only if Yuji happened not to be around there waiting for him.
As he started down the escalator, he spotted a tall man with salt and pepper hair, leather jacket, and jeans. He was another American surely, given the way he dressed and the way he carried himself with that peculiar hurried yet undirected pace one often finds in the larger American cities. The man turned to the right, toward a busy intersection shadowed by a bridge overhead.
When Brian stepped off the escalator he took out his map, but kept watching the man, who had crossed the street and was walking along the sidewalk. The man peered past a chain-link fence into an empty lot.
Brian studied the map. The entrance to Shin-Kiba Park was up two blocks and across the main thoroughfare. Despite all the cars speeding past, civilization seemed somehow removed from all this unattractive concrete and metal and weeds and litter. Brian felt he'd stepped into nothingness as he looked at this expansive empty lot on the right and the edge of this unmanicured park on the left.
At the next crosswalk, the man stopped and looked to his left. He caught sight of Brian and held his gaze. Brian studied him a moment as well: mid-40s, possibly; fairly muscular chest beneath his tight shirt; not a terribly unattractive face, though not remarkable. One thing seemed clear, though: he was also headed to the park. And it became increasingly obvious the man was finding Brian quite intriguing.
A meeting at the crosswalk was inevitable, though Brian was keeping a slower-than-normal pace. It wasn't quite slow enough, since the light hadn't yet changed, but Brian wasn't entirely averse to approaching this man. The idea of his continuing to appreciate Brian with his eyes excited him. As he stepped nearer the man, just the two of them alone as cars and trucks whizzed past, the man smiled.
"How's it going?" he said loudly, over the drone of a truck's diesel engine.
"Hi," Brian said softly, relieved that there was something familiar out here, but at the same time feeling someone was intruding on some spot to which only he himself had been given secret access.
"I'm surprised to see — I'm sorry, I assume you speak English?"
"Yes," Brian said. He stopped short of offering more information, though he felt idiotic giving one-word answers.
The light changed and the vehicles stopped, a couple of them screeching their tires. There was suddenly an uncharacteristic silence, save the hum of engines and the muffled sound of a radio through an open car window. The announcer spoke in quick, staccato Japanese, with a sprinkling of English here and there.
The man started across the street, then motioned Brian along, as if fearful the light would change on them midstream.
"I'm surprised to see another white guy out here," the man said. "You're the first I've seen here in...I don't know how long."
The man spoke as though he knew Brian, with an ease and comfort indicating not the remotest sense of nervousness or inhibition. He scanned Brian up and down as he spoke. "You a student? Just here on a trip? Pretty long way from home."
This man was annoying in his inability to recognize boundaries. He pried without even introducing himself, and he kept virtually no personal space between them as he spoke. At the same time, though, Brian reveled in the attention. At one point, as the man looked behind them while a car blasted its horn, Brian undid one of his shirt buttons since it seemed the man had been especially captivated by Brian's chest.
"I'm visiting a friend here, actually," Brian said. He hesitated for a moment, anticipating the man would quickly follow up with more questions. Brian then added, in a softer voice, "I'm visiting my boyfriend."
This sounded better than, "I'm searching for my boyfriend." Or worse, "I'm searching in vain all of Tokyo on the off-chance my boyfriend actually came here." Should he have searched Paris instead? Prague? Or Ondøej's hometown — what was it? Tøebíè?
They came upon an asphalt path leading into a growth of pines. There were benches on either side of the path, one every fifty feet or so, and just ahead a gazebo situated on the bank of a small stream.
"Boyfriend, huh?" The man raised an eyebrow and smirked. "He know you're here?"
"Open relationship?" the man pressed on. He was leading them toward the gazebo. Off in the distance a train clacked along the elevated platform following the path of a body of water — a river, canal, part of Tokyo bay, Brian wasn't sure.
"So what makes you think I'm not here just visiting the park?" Brian asked, with a serious intent, but unable to inject with any degree of sternness, any indication he was irritated by this man's directness and suppositions. The man seemed to interpret the question as though it were meant as a joke.
"Yeah, okay," he said, patting Brian's shoulder. "Cute young guy wandering around a big, local, out-of-the-way park. Just checking out the trees." He sat down on the railing of the gazebo. "Really, he's okay with this? I don't want to do anything that's — you know — breaking some sort of commitment...."
Brian shrugged again. He stood near the man but kept a little distance between them. The man continued to study Brian's body. Brian wanted to ask him where he got off assuming he was going to have sex with him. But he didn't. He just looked away. And the fact that he could feel this man's desire for him kept his temper in check. There was always something pleasantly addictive in being the object of desire. Even if it always seemed to fade.
"How long have you guys been together?"
Brian looked back toward the man. "I'd say October eighteenth."
As Brian anticipated, the man gave him a confused look.
"October eighteenth," Brian continued, "is when it all started to unravel."
The man nodded his head uncertainly, as if he understood what Brian was talking about.
Brian wasn't even sure himself what exactly had happened in the last few weeks.
* * *
At the edge of the Jardin des Prébendes in Tours, Brian stood in a phone booth, just outside the main gate. There had already been five rings on the other end, and he was about to hang up. But he suddenly heard Sheila's voice, weak, drained, with static on the line adding to the difficulty of hearing her.
"Hey, Sheila, it's me."
"Brian. Um...listen. Dad's here. He came to stay a few days ago. I'm going to put him on the phone, okay?"
"Sheila, wait. I've—"
"No, Bri, listen. He's not doing well. The chemo's making him really sick. Can you just please talk to him for a minute?"
Brian sighed. "If he'll talk to me." He watched a group of young children chase a pigeon. "But hang on. I want to tell you that I'm thinking of living in Tokyo for a little while. If I get a work permit, or something like that, I can—" He heard talking in the background. It was Sheila's voice. Then he heard his father's voice, soft at first, then more heated, with Sheila's voice rising to match it. He couldn't make out much of it, but he did hear Sheila at one point telling their father to calm down. "Okay, Dad, just stop yelling! Just stop!" That's when Brian hung up. He walked into the park and sat down on a bench. He stared at the pond in the distance, at the swans gliding along the edge of the water. And one of the children who had been chasing the pigeon now stopped and stared at him. Brian didn't think his emotional state had been so obvious.
He sat there for a few minutes, turning away from the child. It was only when he heard the bells from the church a few blocks away that he realized he was late for his daily coffee with Ondøej.He wiped his eyes, stood up, and hurried out of the park.
In retrospect, he needn't have hurried, for when he arrived at their café, he wound up sitting alone for an hour. Though it seemed much longer.
* * *
"So Ondøej came to the café about an hour later, and just seemed to be acting…strange," Brian was telling this man as the sun was beginning to set, and they sat close to one another in the gazebo. He didn’t really stop to wonder why he was opening up to this stranger, but knew that it was the first person he’d told this to, that he had no other person around him that he could spill his guts to, who wouldn’t lecture him or offer some dumb advice. Mostly because the guy didn’t seem to care. He was caressing Brian’s leg, but Brian suspected it was more a precursor to sex than a gesture of sympathy.
"I know I was an idiot," Brian said, pushing a leaf around with his foot, "but the whole thing…I don’t know…what does any of it matter?"
"Yeah, that’s rough," the man said. He drew his hand away. "Listen, it was great meeting you, but I’d better get going." He stood up and perfunctorily rubbed Brian’s shoulder.
Brian closed his eyes. "Guess you didn’t want to hear all that."
"No, no," the man said. "I just have to get back downtown."
Brian knew that if he stayed here, in the park, he’d walk past this guy several more times and the guy would just ignore him. It always happened that way, just like in Tours, when he’d gotten nowhere with any of the men there. Even when he hadn’t spoken with them, telling them deep dark secrets they could care less about, they walked past Brian, leaving him to wonder if it was his body language or his expression or his age or his clothes...or...what? That’s why Yuji had seemed so special to him, why this guy, this plain looking American, was nothing, but why Yuji, someone as beautiful as Yuji…oh, what did any of this matter?
"Whatever," Brian said. "Good luck."
The guy shook his head, and then started back down the path. Silently.
The sunlight was almost gone, and the air was growing colder. Brian stood up and looked beyond the pines. He had no idea how big the park might be. He heard another train go past, and he didn’t want to think about trains right now. So he started along a path that led beyond the trees, up a small hill. He passed what looked like a high school boy, very handsome, his shirt undone. The boy ignored him.
Brian wanted to go up to him and ask what his problem was. "Why aren’t I cute enough for you?" He wanted to ask the plain, old American guy if he really thought he could do better than Brian. He wanted to ask his father how he could so easily tell his son to fuck off, even while he was probably on his deathbed. And to ask Ondøej how good the waiter from the café had been in their bed. He hadn’t any proof that the waiter had been in their apartment, or that he and Ondøej had even had sex, but when Ondøej had shown up an hour late for coffee, and the waiter appeared soon after, and the two of them just seemed not to be able to stop staring at each other, well….
But Brian had kept silent about it.
And now Brian walked on, up this hill, past a large tennis court that was dark and empty. Beyond, under a dim light, he saw the American guy talking to another man, just as he figured would happen. Brian started down the path toward them. It looked almost like Yuji standing there, though Brian knew better. But then he'd thought it impossible that it had been Ondøej kissing the waiter underneath the bridge in Tours, along the trail by the river where men in Tours found each other.
He walked past the two of them, this American man and this Japanese man, and said nothing. Just as he'd silently walked past Ondøej and the waiter. And he’d not told Sheila anything about this trip to Tokyo. "What the hell are you thinking?" she would ask, and he wouldn’t have an answer. And it was now that he started to realize that saying nothing to people wasn’t really working. It sounded silly to think something so simple. But on the other hand, blabbering, as he’d done to this American guy, and as he’d done to Ondøej, without getting Ondøej’s side of the story or giving Ondøej a reason why he himself had been down by the river, under that bridge…well, what was the balance? Who had answers for any of this?
"I just want to be needed," he might tell them all. "That pretty much sums it up."
And that’s what he said to the man ahead of him, who’d whistled for him to come into this wooded area beyond the path, at the bottom edge of a steep hill towering above them. "I just want to be needed," he whispered in the man’s ear, while trying not to focus on the leathery skin and thinning hair, and the purple splotch below the left eye. He whispered this knowing the man didn’t understand, or might not even be listening as he undid Brian’s shirt and softly tugged at Brian’s flesh with his teeth.
And as this man eventually went down on Brian, his forehead rhythmically butting against Brian’s abdomen, the smell of stale cigarette smoke and hair grease wafting up, Brian was, for the moment, able to think of something other than his father. Other than the fact that to Yuji he’d been nothing but a two-minute fling, a foreign curiosity. But Ondøej …that was trickier. Even the pain of this man’s teeth occasionally scraping the delicate skin wasn't enough to displace the ache in Brian’s chest each time he thought about Ondøej. Yet as this man wrapped his hands around Brian’s legs, and pulled his body even closer to him, Brian looked up at the bare branches of the trees and the darkening sky with its lingering glow of sunset and realized that it was just the two of them, in this huge, silent park. While Brian watched the branches sway, he wrapped his hands tightly around the man’s arms, knowing that this time he himself could be the one who would decide when it was over. As long as Brian held on, though it might last only a minute or two, this man wanted only him, and he wouldn’t just turn and walk away with no explanation. And the more of himself he gave this man, the harder he clutched his arms, the less severe this tightness in his chest. The queasiness in his stomach. The sense that every path he took was going to lead to some dark pit.
At least at this moment, not everything seemed quite so complicated.
Copyright 2007 by Barry Brennessel.
Barry Brennessel currently lives in Seattle. He graduated with degrees in English and French from SUNY Brockport, and earned his MFA from Johns Hopkins University. His work has appeared in Perspectives, Time Pilot, Nocturnal Lyric, and Midnight Times. His novel Our Home on the Hillside was a finalist in the 2006 Pacific Northwest Writers Association literary contest. He has also received Honorable Mentions for his short story collection and several scripts in the 74th Annual Writers Digest competition, the WriteSafe Art & Writing Contest, and Writemovies.com contest #14.
J. E. Robinson
-for Dale Ray Phillips
“Crazy” began to play. Mattie Buel smiled. She loved Patsy Cline. “Crazy” played on the motor scooter she rode, with her mother, to Lister’s Pool. Mattie could see her mother, pure legged, flirt with the older boys. Mattie was ten; the best thing to do with boys was to play Marco Polo.
More often than not, she played Marco Polo with Jason Kouklos, who was swarthy and whose hair was coarse enough for some to object to him swimming in Lister’s Pool, because they thought he was colored.
“Look at my eyes,” he said. “Do you even see them with these kind of eyes?”
Most admitted they had never seen a colored with his eyes, the color of jade. They let him swim. He swam with Mattie.
“Betcha I can do it longer than you,” Jason said.
“Can not,” Mattie said.
To prove it, his bottom came up in the air, a dark blue thing big as a school room globe, as his head and torso went underwater. In truth, it was narrow, like his feet, but to Mattie, his bottom favored a beach ball floating nearby. After a few minutes, Jason flipped right-side up, flipping his head back in victory.
“See?” he said. “You try.”
Mattie inhaled. She made her chest bigger than his bottom ever was. Then, she flipped. Underwater, she could hear the other children in the pool talk and carry on. To her, it all sounded like “beetlejuice.” Though she had her eyes closed, she imagined the pool’s world vividly. She saw the kids splash as they attempted swimming. She saw the intermediate swimmers, like herself, do tests of endurance. She saw the bigger kids swim to the bottom, touch it, and swim back up. And she saw her mother guide the older boys’ hands as they applied sunscreen on her thighs and calves. Mattie counted to ten. The last of her air bubbles percolated to the surface. Then, Mattie pivoted and came up for air.
“I can still do it longer than you,” Jason replied.
Jason was a spindly kid. Outside Lister’s Pool, he was all legs and arms. At school, he sat in the back of class and, whenever it was time for school pictures, he was always toward the back. When they did school pictures, the Mothers’ Club handed out combs. Jason was the kid who fixed his comb to the back of his head. His teacher pulled it out, along with hair and scalp. Jason always screamed. For that reason, he hated school pictures.
“Can you write about this?” one boy asked the small black kid in his fourth grade class.
“Yes,” the black kid said, and he went to get a drink of water.
Jason’s family ran the Candy Kitchen, on the corner of Main and Vandalia streets, near downtown. The store was best known for its peanut brittle. While he was in grammar school, Jason brought pocketsful of candy to his classmates. He made sure they obeyed him before they got any candy. If they didn’t, they got no candy. He had that rule with his dog Tommy, a gelded whippet, which rolled in the comforter on his bed with its tail tucked between its legs because it received no candy. “Be a good dog,” Jason said. When it was, when it did the things its master asked of it, Tommy received candy. Then, it wagged its tail.
They said Jason’s grandmother lived with them. They said his grandmother did the Candy Kitchen’s books. They said his grandmother rarely came out.
Mattie frequented the Candy Kitchen on her way to Girl Scouts. Jason was her clerk. He knew what she wanted. She liked caramel fudge, about a block, a fourth-of-a-pound’s-worth. With nuts. He got it for her. She smiled, and she ate it like a lady. Jason thought she was being silly.
The other Girl Scouts fixed their gloves and talked about school. What did Mattie talk about? After all, she hated school. Some of the girls grabbed her hands and noted the smudges on her gloves. “Mattie’s been eating candy! Was that candy from a boy?” Mattie retracted her hands, put them in her sash. There, no one could read them. One of the girls tried to put a Wallace for President button on her sash. “Don’t you put that thing on me,” Mattie said, and she threw it back at the girl. To Mattie, the sash was sacred. It was no place for politics.
She stopped at the Candy Kitchen again on her way home. An old woman, whom she would call “colored,” worked the counter. She sold Mattie peanut brittle. She had the color of peanut brittle and her eyes, obscured by cat’s eye glasses, were as dark as peanuts. Mattie took the brittle and was glad she could count the old colored woman at the Candy Kitchen as her friend. She told no one she was disappointed Jason had not served her.
At Lister’s Pool, Jason bounced on the diving board. “Lemme show you what I can do!”
“I know what you can do,” Mattie said. “Talk, talk, talk.”
“No. I know how to dive.”
To prove it, Jason bounced a couple times and flipped backwards into the water. He breached the surface with a tremendous splash. Mattie was amazed. She had never seen a ten year old like her splash into the water like that. He swam to her and smiled.
“See?” he said. “I told you I could.”
Mattie did not want her amazement to show. She smiled a little, but that was the extent of that. She turned her head and watched one of the older boys sit at her mother’s foot and caress her toes.
“It’s easy,” Jason said. “Wanna try?”
“No,” Mattie said, trying to sound bored. “I’d rather sit here and watch you splash around until you are exhausted.”
“It’d be easier if you’d try.”
With that, Jason dove for the bottom, which he touched. Then, he came up on the other side of the pool. Mattie felt abandoned.
Mattie lived with her mother, who worked in a textile mill. Her mother was younger than most mothers, having married at about fifteen to have Mattie. Her mother said her father was in the service. If he was, Mattie had no way to gauge the man. She never met him.
Mattie lived with her mother in a house her grandparents owned. It was in town, formerly derelict from when her grandparents took over the family farm and started growing tobacco. Her grandfather came in town every month to dig the shithole. Without it, Mattie and her mother would have had no toilet.
Mattie’s mother went out most Saturday nights, when she wasn’t working. Mattie watched her mother paint her toenails. “Always keep them short and shiny,” her mother said. “Then, you can eat a whole lot of caviar sandwiches!”
Mattie’s mother held out her toes. Mattie admired them. They were beautiful. Mattie wished she were old enough to have painted toenails. On some Saturday nights, with her mother gone, Mattie took her mother’s toenail polish. She opened it and sniffed it. Yuck! Once, she took off her shoes and socks to paint her toenails. The color was red. It was pretty. Her toenails were so pretty Mattie didn’t wash her feet for a whole week. She showed them to Jason.
“Did they bleed?”
“I asked,” he said, “’did your toes bleed to get that red?’”
Mattie shook her head and plunged into the deep end. Later, she would wonder if her mother noticed she had painted her nails. If she did, she said nothing.
Mattie knew the old colored woman who worked at the Candy Kitchen sometimes took care of Jason. She knew that because the old colored woman stood at their classroom door and took Jason home when he was sick. Mattie knew the old colored woman knew how to drive—she had the Koukloses’ car, after all when she came—and Mattie watched her take Jason by the hand and deposit him in the back seat. Watching them, Mattie wished she had a mammy as attentive as the old colored woman.
“Do you believe in Jesus?” some other ten year olds asked Jason, ringing him in the playground at recess.
“Then, why don’t you go to church?”
“I do go to church,” Jason said. “I go to a church different from yours.”
He would have added that his Easter was different from theirs, but that was so complicated even he didn’t know the proper explanation. He saw the black kid from his class at the edge of the ring. For once, he knew what the black kid felt like, being the only one in the fourth grade.
“Leave him alone,” the black kid said.
The other ten year olds looked at him. “What you say?” someone asked.
“I said leave him alone,” the black kid said. “I said it in English, didn’t I?”
Forgetting Jason, the ring chased the black kid, who ran well, eyes not frightened, but laughing, as little kids’ eyes do. He got refuge near the teacher supervising recess, who made the ring return to its fourth grade line. Jason watched all of that. Mattie gave up jumping rope and joined him.
“He should know better than run his mouth so much,” Mattie said.
“He was just sticking up for what was right,” Jason said.
“So? He should know better than run his mouth like that.”
Every now and then, Jason’s grandmother went wild greening. She came back with lamb’s quarters, dandelions, wild lettuce. She cleaned the greens and seasoned them with jowl and onion. She made hot water cornbread. Jason ate his wild greens with hot water cornbread. He broke the cornbread into the greens and ate all of that with his fingers. Good eats.
The old colored woman worked in the Candy Kitchen after supper. She always served Mattie as she returned from Girl Scouts. To Mattie, her name was unimportant, at least for her purposes.
“I got some peanut brittle at your Candy Kitchen,” Mattie said to Jason at the pool.
“So, I just thought you’d want to know.”
Hanging on the side of the pool, Jason kicked furiously, and tried not to laugh too hard. “Everybody comes by to get candy. I can get some peppermint for you. You like peppermint?” he asked.
“I like peppermint fine,” Mattie said, “but I like fudge better. Can you get me some fudge, Jason?”
“It’ll cost you.”
Mattie wondered how much. She had no money, aside from what her mother gave her to keep her quiet. She used that to buy candy. Would her mother make it possible for her to buy some fudge? Mattie wondered. In the pool, she practiced all the things she would try saying to get her mother to give her some money. It all sounded like little kid stuff.
“I’m gonna go over to Jason’s,” Mattie said one Saturday.
Her mother groaned. She was still in bed and, for once, she went out the previous night. Little did she know, Mattie had borrowed her toenail polish and painted her nails. Not red, but pink this time. Hot pink. She had heard from the older girls at the pool that boys liked hot pink.
Jason met her at the back door. His hands were in his pockets. He looked taller than he did at school. Perhaps that was a matter of the shorts he wore, which exposed more of his legs than Mattie had ever seen, when he wasn’t at Lister’s Pool, that is.
“What I got to do?” Mattie asked.
She followed him upstairs to the apartment the Koukloses kept above their shop. The smell was sweet, like Christmas Eve. In the kitchen, the old colored woman worked a sauce pan of chocolate, which she stirred until it was ready to take nuts.
“Jason said you wanted fudge,” the old colored woman said. “Sit yourself down for a little bit and I’ll get this to you in no time.”
Mattie stayed in Jason’s room. It was the first room she had been in where the kid had his own television. A baseball game was on. It was the Detroit Tigers playing. Mattie hated the Tigers. She rooted for their opponents, the Baltimore Orioles. The Baltimore Orioles really knew how to play.
Mattie sat on the bed with Jason. She knew what not to do. She knew to keep her legs closed. While they waited for the fudge to be ready, they watched the Game of the Week. Her Baltimore Orioles were giving the Detroit Tigers the time of their lives.
“Do you like swimming?” Jason finally asked.
“Yes,” Mattie said.
Jason watched the Detroit pitcher wind up and prepare to deliver the ball. “Do you like school?”
Mattie stretched on the bed. She allowed him to look at her painted toes, as she kicked them up specifically for his purposes. She had on shorts that reached her knees. She wished she had the miniskirt she heard the older girls claim to have.
“Sit here,” Mattie said, patting her hand on the bed. She was patting for him to sit close to her.
Before Mattie could answer, the old colored woman came to the door and said the fudge was ready. Jason ran to the kitchen so fast the old colored woman looked at him as though something had happened, then she looked at Mattie, moving slower but still heading in that direction. If she asked, Mattie would tell her nothing happened and she would tell her to mind her own business anyway. If she had a problem with hearing that, Mattie would have her grandfather come and tell her himself. Mattie rolled her eyes; these people never know their place.
It was a moot point, because the old colored woman didn’t ask a thing. She played Nat King Cole on the transistor radio and had Mattie and Jason sit at the kitchen table, a yellow-topped thing. On it were napkins in a brass napkin holder, the morning mail, and an old file folder with a pencil and a fountain pen.
The old colored woman set ice cold glasses of milk before Mattie and Jason, which gave them premature mustaches. The milk was so cold it made them laugh. Mattie liked Jason’s laugh. She liked Jason’s smile, too, because his teeth were perfect and white, not like those of some other boys in the fourth grade, who sometimes chewed tobacco like their fathers. Mattie thought he would look great in a real mustache, too.
For the fudge, the old colored woman did not give them the candy she was working on the stove when they got there, but she took out some that she had made earlier, which she had solidifying in the ice box.
“Help yourself,” she said, setting the fudge on the table with a butter knife. Enticed, Jason reached for the knife, but she stopped him. “Did you wash your hands?”
Jason smiled. His eyes twinkled. He shook his head. “No, ma’am.”
“Wash your hands, honey.”
As the kids ate fudge, the old colored woman sat at the table. Opening the file folder, she wrote the Candy Kitchen’s invoices and prepared them for delivery.
A group of fourth graders made a ring around Jason again. “My mama says you eat goat!” one kid said.
Jason salivated. His grandmother said she was making gyros for dinner. He could smell the pita on the grill, the spicy lamb’s meat loaf in the oven. She would have feta cheese; she was driving to Durham to get it. Jason loved feta on gyros.
“My granddaddy said,” a short blond boy began, “if you is Greek, I ain’t supposed to drop my soap around you.”
Jason laughed. “How come?”
The boy shrugged.
Mattie had come in from the outhouse and was about to wash her hands at the kitchen sink when someone banged on their front door. It was evening, not quite dark, and after supper. Mattie’s mother was in the back room, her room, applying lipstick. She told Mattie to get the door.
“I want your mama,” a mother said.
Mattie got her mother. When she came, her mother opened the screen door. “Yeah?” her mother asked.
The woman slapped Mattie’s mother. “Trash!” she shouted. “You are nothing but a tramp and a slut! My boy is just fourteen years old! You keep your claws away from him!”
After the woman left, Mattie asked her mother what that was all about. She knew what “trash” is, but what’s this stuff about “tramp” and “slut?” “What they be, Mama?” Her mother slapped her mouth and made her go to bed early.
After supper, Jason watched television in the living room while his grandmother did the dishes. She joined him when she was done. They loved watching Hogan’s Heroes because Colonel Klink was so funny. When Colonel Hogan French-kissed Fraulein Helga, his grandmother removed her cat’s eye glasses so she couldn’t see. She asked Jason if he liked seeing that. He scrunched up his nose.
Television-watching ended when his parents came up from the store. Then, he had to show them his homework before taking his bath.
Once he was bathed, his grandmother and parents took turns reading bedtime stores. The Trojan Horse, the duel between Achilles and Hector, Odysseus sailing past the Sirens latched to his mast—those were his favorites. In his tenth year, his grandmother read The Count of Monte Cristo, children’s version, which had belonged to her children. Jason propped himself up with an arm and listened intently to his grandmother, who at times injected the original French words Dumas used. She sounded so exotic, and, as she spoke, Jason envisioned Parisian cafe society and the tables along the Champs Elysees. How he wanted to see Europe! Would Paris be as wonderful as when his grandmother saw it in the twenties? Perhaps, if he did really well in school, he could go to college, to a university like Lincoln, where his grandmother attended. If he did, then he could learn French well enough to get to Paris. Yes, that would do it! Paris would be so cool!
At school, Mattie got the teacher to seat her behind Jason. Originally, the teacher didn’t want to, because Jason was tall, but she knew Mattie’s growth spurt was just around the corner, so, soon it wouldn’t matter. Besides, Mattie used her pestering, whiny voice. Few adults can survive a child’s pestering, whiny voice.
Seated behind him, Mattie paid more attention to the back of Jason’s head than to the front of the class. She traced over his nape so many times she could have been doing multiplication tables. One night, on her way to the slopjar for a wet, Mattie peeked into the back room for curiosity’s sake, because she could hear a boy giggling. Through the cracked door, she saw her mother stick her tongue into the ear of an older boy. He loved it, and he bounced in her mother’s bed.
Tongue out, Mattie leaned forward to stick it in Jason’s ear. She would have, too. She was determined, but the teacher called out her name. She called it out so loudly, so sharply, and in such a scolding manner that the class neglected the World Series, playing on the radio, to see what was going on. Mattie hated being called out like that. It always made her blush.
Before the Cardinals came up to bat and the Tigers were set in the field, the teacher returned Mattie to her original seat. Her teacher would deal with the growth spurt when it came.
A group of fourth-graders made a ring around Jason again. “You know any Greek words?” one girl asked, a red-headed girl, who looked like Pippy Longstockings because of her freckles. When she asked that question, she closed an eye like she was examining him through a microscope.
“Of course, I do.” Jason said, a little indignant.
Jason hoped she wasn’t going to say that. He ran through the Greek he really knew, not the words he heard the priest use in Durham, words that sometimes ran together and blended into nothingness in his ears.
“Let’s see,” Jason began, “there’s kalla, malos, ego, me, mater—that means ‘mama,’—mater.”
He stopped. Led by the red-headed girl, the ring ran off to surround the little black kid, who, it heard, liked opera. The ring wanted to know opera words.
About a week before the election, someone came to the classroom and talked to the teacher in the hall. When she returned, the teacher’s face was white. She reached out her hand and led Mattie to the office while the rest of the class quietly listened to a record of Tom Sawyer.
It was afternoon. Everyone was tired, sleepy. There was an afternoon hush in the school that, to Mattie, seemed just a regular thing. Her teacher had a hush to her as well. She said nothing. Was she also sleepy? If she was, why did she hold Mattie’s hand like that, tender, firm, like a grandmother?
The principal greeted them at the office door. He was a tall man, who wore glasses, and who, it was said, kept an allotment of tobacco during the summer. Mattie had seen him at the farmer’s market, wearing a smelly undershirt and dusty overalls. He didn’t look like a principal then.
To be truthful, he didn’t look like a principal now. Now, he looked like any old daddy or granddaddy. He patted Mattie’s head and guided her into his office, where her grandfather wiped his eyes with his handkerchief.
Her grandfather took Mattie to the country. Mattie never saw her mother again.
Jason opened the tattered Webster’s dictionary his grandmother kept in her room. “Sympathy,” he said. He searched for the word. He had the card his grandmother had bought for him as a guide. “Sympathy,” he said again. He found the word and read the definition. He turned to his grandmother. “Did Mattie’s mama die?”
The Koukloses didn’t take Jason to the viewing. They felt it would be too upsetting for a little boy. Besides, they doubted they would be welcomed at the funeral home. They wondered how they would explain Mattie’s mother’s death to Jason, particularly if the talk that people brought to the store made it to the playground. Explaining in flagrante delicto to a ten year old would be difficult, never mind the part about another mother shooting her. They hoped they would never have to define “fellatio” to him, ever. No, there was no way they would define “fellatio” to him. At least, not until he was thirty.
Mattie was back in school on election day. The fourth-graders made a ring around her. “I’m sorry about your mother,” the little black kid said.
“I’m sorry, too,” the short blond boy said. “Why that lady shoot your mama?”
“You ain’t supposed to ask that question,” the red-headed girl said under her breath to the boy, who, embarrassed, realized he had said something he shouldn’t have.
“I meant to say,” the short blond boy began, “who you got for president, Wallace or Nixon?”
“I got Humphrey,” the little black kid said.
Laughing, the ring chased him. He found refuge with the teacher supervising the playground. The other children forgot about Mattie, except in whispers. For that November day, she stood near the swing set, alone.
Copyright 2007 by J. E. Robinson.
Mañana se celebran las exequias de Belisario Fleitas. Sobre mí ha recaído la ineludible responsabilidad de pronunciar unas palabras sobrias, delineando la trayectoria ejemplar de su vida, antes de que el féretro sea depositado en la fosa y lo cubran de tierra. Con una voz grave y el semblante pesaroso pronunciaré palabras de encomio, todas apócrifas, ensalzando la vida del difunto desde sus más tempranos días hasta su trágico final. ¿Qué más se podría decir de un hombre a quien todos consideran un héroe? De nada valdría desenmascarar a ese impostor después de su muerte; muchos, estoy seguro, me acusarían de estar motivado por la envidia.
Es preferible dejarlo todo como está, permitir que crean que un héroe vivió y murió entre ellos. Todos los pueblos, pero especialmente los pueblos pequeños como Costa Blanca, tienen necesidad de sus mártires, aunque éstos sean falsos, para así proyectar patrones y pautas de conducta destinadas a las nuevas generaciones.
Esta noche la única funeraria del pueblo estará atestada. Aunque el féretro permanecerá cerrado ‑‑sería no solamente inhumano sino también de muy mal gusto exhibir un cadáver irreconocible‑‑ los moradores de Costa Blanca asistirán a esa cita con los restos mortales de Belisario en su última noche sobre la tierra.
Primero llegarán a la antesala, donde se encuentra el registro, y allí dejarán constancia de su presencia con sus firmas ilegibles, ansiosos de pasar al salón principal, ofrecer un pésame apresurado a los familiares y entonces detenerse unos momentos cargados de silencio junto al ataúd. Aspirarán las fragancias de las flores que exudan las esquelas funerarias; examinarán con detenimiento la foto de Belisario ‑‑tomada en sus mejores tiempos‑‑ que sin duda se encontrará presente. En un salón contiguo de tonos leves se servirá café negro y se conversará en voz baja, hasta que llegue la hora de regresar a casa.
Sin duda vendrán Julián Martínez y su hermana Eulalia, dueños del hotel; el relojero Montero con su hija Nara; el español Ferro dueño de La Salerosa, el almacén general. Y no dudo que hasta Filomena, una prostituta de La Odisea y con quien tanto se codeó Belisario, también acuda a esa cita final. Por supuesto, el padre Damián Molina también estará presente. Sí, todos acudirán y todos lo recordarán como en la foto, joven y apuesto.
Todos menos yo, que presencié los últimos momentos de su miserable vida, que lo conocí mejor que nadie en este pueblo y que fui testigo, aunque mucho se esforzara él por ocultarla, de la misteriosa metamorfosis que sufrió.
Nunca he sido un hombre supersticioso. Todo lo contrario; he regido mi vida según los preceptos dictados por la lógica. (Esta actitud, dicho sea de paso, con frecuencia ha engendrado acaloradas discusiones filosóficas con el padre Damián.)
Si tuviera que escoger un instante, un evento cuando noté ese primer cambio imperceptible en la personalidad de Belisario, sin vacilar tendría que recordar aquella noche en que asistimos a una feria de gitanos. Iban de pueblo en pueblo, armando y desarmando las raídas carpas y presentando espectáculos insólitos que ofrecían a la muchedumbre por el precio de dos reales.
Belisario y yo éramos adolescentes aún. Como tales, buscábamos incesantemente cualquier forma de diversión o motivo de risa despreocupada. Esa noche exploramos la feria en una requisa alucinada, asimilando todo lo nuevo e increíble que rebasaba fácilmente la capacidad de nuestros sentidos.
Bajo una arboleda y apartada de todas las otras, una tienda captó nuestra atención. No estaba, como el resto de la feria, burdamente iluminada; ausentes se encontraban los buhoneros que constantemente exhortaban a los potenciales clientes a que pasaran y presenciaran lo inaudito. Desde su interior, sin embargo, se escapaban unos destellos intermitentes y un rumor ahogado, como si ocultara una fragua secreta que un inmenso fuelle alentara rítmicamente, o las profundas exhalaciones de un ser lejano y subterráneo.
A medida que nos acercamos, también captamos un olor acre. Antes de que pudiéramos entrar, un hombre de barba puntiaguda y ojos penetrantes surgió por entre la cascada de abalorios que ocluía la entrada. Sin decir nada, le hizo una señal a Belisario para que entrara en la carpa; cuando yo intenté seguirlo, el hombre me lo impidió con el brazo extendido.
¿Reconoció en él algo de lo cual yo carecía? ¿Era ya esperado, acaso desde antes de su nacimiento? Belisario me miró, se encogió de hombros y desapareció en el interior.
No recuerdo cuánto tiempo permanecí esperándolo; sí recuerdo que aquel olor tan peculiar se hizo más intenso, como si su origen se hubiera aproximado. El rumor lejano e intermitente que habíamos percibido al llegar también se hizo más inmediato y agudo, como la manifestación de una entidad extraña en busca de una vía expresiva.
Ya he dicho que no soy un hombre supersticioso, pero casi podría jurar que cuando Belisario salió de la carpa no era él, sino otro. Aunque su apariencia física no había sido alterada, la expresión de su rostro era ajena a la del que había entrado. Noté también que la manera en que su cuerpo se desplazaba en el espacio era diferente, como si cada ademán estuviera destinado a alcanzar un propósito único y muy bien definido. Colgando del cuello traía lo que identifiqué como un medallón o amuleto de entrelazados símbolos que en la penumbra no logré precisar con claridad. Nunca más se separaría de ese misterioso talismán.
Pero lo que más me sobresaltó fue el fulgor nuevo que residía en sus ojos; eran destellos inmemoriales que se remontaban a una época en que los hombres todavía no eran dueños del fuego. Alarmado, le pregunté si se encontraba bien; su súbita carcajada me hizo estremecer. Cuando inquirí sobre lo que había visto en la carpa, sonrió misteriosamente ‑‑dándome a entender que yo jamás podría comprenderlo‑‑ y la luz en sus ojos pareció intensificarse.
Desde aquella noche en adelante, ahora me doy cuenta, nos convertimos en extraños; el sendero de nuestras vidas, antes paralelas, se había bifurcado.
La primera manifestación concreta de aquel cambio se manifestó al día siguiente en un grito de dolor procedente de la cocina. Allí encontramos a la sirvienta, con los dedos profundamente marcados por quemaduras recientes. Alguien, explicó entre sollozos, había colocado los rescoldos del fogón de carbón dentro de su guante protector. Al calzarlo, los dedos indefensos habían hecho contacto con el fuego oculto.
Aunque nunca se supo con certeza quién había perpetrado tal maldad, el regocijo reflejado en los ojos de Belisario no me dejó la menor duda. Su conducta en días subsiguientes corroboró mis sospechas. Se aficionó a provocar, con ayuda de una potente lupa y la luz solar, incendios miniaturizados de cualquier material combustible que se encontrara a su alcance. Esta etapa en su metamorfosis fue relativamente breve. Aburrido de incendiar hojarascas y periódicos atrasados, se dio a la tarea de construir una detallada maqueta de un pueblo ficticio, completa con su escuela, hospital, ayuntamiento y otros edificios claves. Unas noches después, salió furtivamente con su creación. Yo lo seguí en la oscuridad, hasta que alcanzamos un terreno vacío y distante, tal vez el mismo donde los gitanos establecieran su feria. Sobre unos pedruscos acomodó con cuidado el proyecto que tantas semanas le había tomado construir, hasta lograr un nivel aceptable.
Guarecido tras el tronco de un árbol, vi cómo Belisario sacaba un frasco pequeño del bolsillo trasero del pantalón, lo descorchaba rápidamente y entonces rociaba la maqueta con su contenido. En ese momento parecía ser un acólito profano llevando a cabo una oscura y maligna ceremonia. Cuando concluyó aquella danza macabra alrededor del pueblo miniaturizado, extrajo una caja de fósforos del bolsillo de la camisa, puso uno en marcha sobre el esmeril y lo lanzó decididamente en la plaza del pueblo. La ínfima llama, propulsada por el líquido combustible, se extendió prontamente de edificio en edificio. Iluminada por el fuego, la figura de Belisario danzaba alrededor del pueblo ardiente entre las pavesas que se elevaban en el aire nocturno. También creí detectar, aunque esto no puedo asegurarlo, el sordo rumor lejano y el olor acre que tanto me había impresionado durante la feria de los gitanos.
El completo regocijo y abandono total de Belisario ante el fuego me hicieron comprender de inmediato que aquella noche no era sino un simulacro para lo que pronto sobrevendría. La proximidad a las llamas engendradas por él mismo le permitía descender momentáneamente a aquella región secreta que ahora consumía su voluntad pero que al mismo tiempo le comunicaba una energía interior que se manifestaba en su creciente cambio de personalidad.
Desde aquella noche, me hice el propósito de vigilar a Belisario; presentía que tarde o temprano un suceso mayor tendría lugar. No tuve que esperar mucho tiempo para presenciar su próximo paso en aquella dudosa senda que él había emprendido.
Cerca del pueblo concluían las labores de la zafra azucarera. Trasladada la caña de azúcar a los insaciables ingenios, se preparaban los obreros a dar comienzo a la limpieza de los campos. ¿La forma más rápida y eficiente? El fuego. Era una quema controlada, que vorazmente consumía los tallos y hojas secas y simultáneamente ahuyentaba a los pequeños roedores que se ocultaban en los campos y se nutrían de las raíces tiernas de las nuevas cosechas.