“Out, you dirty thief! Get away from me!”
From the very top of the steps, the Hierophant, red-faced, gives my suitcase a firm push with his pale foot. Halfway down the stairs it takes flight, splits open because the lock on it has never quite worked, and releases my clothes like pigeons loosed from a rooftop coop. Worn cigarette pants hang lifelessly over the banister, while my only dress shirt flutters to my feet upon the dirt-caked landing. I wonder when I’ll have the chance to get it cleaned again. It’s not every day you get taken in by a trick with a washing machine, let alone a funny old wizard who loves to get all the street boys high on the Lord’s own formula.
“Now leave my sight,” the Hierophant says, and through a hazy cloud of sandalwood from the censer he waves me away, gilded vestments crinkling as he turns and slams the door to his private sanctum. So many nights spent waiting outside that room while he crafted his wares, eerie lights pulsating beyond the lintel as ancient invocations sounded from within until he would emerge in an alchemical cloud, dazzling creations in hand. I would genuflect in reverence, then drop to my knees so he could slip one of his magic wafers between my parted lips. Only then did I feel high enough to heaven, so close to God my lips would go numb in rapture.
Once I gather up my things and stuff them back inside my suitcase I head out into the sweltering afternoon. Heat waves rise from the concrete like treated glass, and the city seems newly loud, almost deafening; I went out so rarely during my stay in the Hierophant’s manse. I was lucky to have lasted so long. If I’d had to play petting games with the old fool one more time I was going to scream, I really was. That’s why I pinched so many of his wafers, the ones with the hourglass symbols he calls saturnalias. They cast a dreamlike spell, let you see who you used to be, before you got so low.
I hurry along the familiar way to the stone park, not remembering when even this tinderbox town was last so damn humid, the thick air already building a nest inside my lower lungs. The park opens up before me, bustling with people because of the heat—misery and company and all that—and I hover until someone vacates my favorite bench. I sit, yank the suitcase next to me and take a good look around. It’s been a while since I last saw this place, where all the sweet young apprentices come to meet their sugar mages and lonely sorcerers, their crippled mutant professors and horny sea captains, those who know a thing or two about how to feed a hungry mouth and get something else in return.
In fact, I haven’t been here since the Hierophant found me asleep on this very bench, gave me a kick in my side that took me out of my dreams. I looked up to find a tall white man, bony and birdlike in his tufted finery. He said he was a man of means now hidden to the world, and that he wanted nothing more than to take me back to his place. It is safe, he said, and warm. He also let it be known he could conjure the most illuminating things, potion-soaked wafers that gave you crystal visions. The Hierophant’s shit is so good, my brother Carter told me later, people say God is his supplier.
“Well, hello Lewis Lewis.” My friend Rosa towers above me. She’s wearing a black straw hat, the outsized brim decorated with whole clumps of waxed grapes. She pushes the brim back with a naked wrist and gives me her cheek to kiss. “Sorry, love, lipstick,” she says, and pulls my suitcase off the bench to sit, folds her endless legs over my lap. “So when did the Hierophant let you out?” I say, “I let myself out.”
“Well good, because Carter was thinking of sending in a SWAT team.” She reaches into her gargantuan black handbag, pulls out a candy, and waves it at me. “Peanut chew?” I say no and she says, “Peanut chew peanut chew?” because she is always talking nonsense like that; once she gets the sound of something in her head, it sticks. “I’m off to Pompeii,” she says of the hustler bar where Carter works and sleeps fitful mornings on a dirty mattress in the basement. “But, oh, come with me. I’m going to meet your brother, brother.” She puts her foot up on the bench and ties a neglected lace on a long blue boot. “He’ll love seeing you without that messy old queen shadowing you. For once.”
We leave the park, and because I’m squinting Rosa pulls out dark glasses and puts them on my face. “Now you look like that dead guy,” she says, and I say yeah, but I don’t know who she means.
Across the thin strip of city and we make it to Pompeii, its windows painted black with the overheads off, last night’s stenches of spilled beer and male excretions resurrected by the heat of the day. No one in the front room, no one behind the bar but these are the sounds I hear: the industrial fan whipping above the thick steel doors. The clack of a pool cue from the back room, where a sunk ball rolls through the canals. A transistor radio, blaring an ad for a car dealership. And finally my brother’s wordless screams, that seem to come from everywhere at once.
In the other room, separated from the front by an arched brick entrance, I find Carter. He’s shirtless, faced away from me and crouched over someone as he throttles them, hard. His sweat-slicked shoulders move up and down, his whole body heaves as he beats on a white kid whose face is raw red. Standing behind Carter is another one of the bartenders, Scotto, who leans on his good leg, chalking his pool cue and surveying the balls on the table. Rosa stretches her arm in front of me and says, “What the hell is going on here?” Which I would very much like to know myself.
Carter turns and looks right at me, a spattering of blood across his cheeks. “Hey,” he pants, “Lewis,” and smiles that old familiar smile. The same one he had when we were little kids, big-headed boys under wild bushes of hair, let loose on the city streets. “How you been?”
He smiles that wide smile of his and I tremble. I try to freeze my heart from feeling, but it only melts away.
* * *
“You should’ve seen the way he went into the kid.”
Rosa has her arm around Carter’s waist and is recounting the story for some newcomers. She gestures madly, knocking over a bottle in her excitement. “Junk bitch got caught with his hand in the register. Didn’t know what hit him. Hurricane Carter over here!” Rosa hits my brother in the shoulder, and he raises his fist in mock retaliation, knuckles bruised and bloody. It’s early evening and a dozen regulars have shown, Pompeii humming with news of the fight. “You should’ve taken his ear off,” Rosa says, “made it into a necklace.”
“Screw that.” Carter reaches into his back pocket. “I got his wallet!”
He holds the cracked leather high in the air to much laughter. Scotto, behind the bar, snatches the wallet from him and picks through its contents until he settles on an identification card. “Check it,” Scotto says. “Sad thing is only seventeen.”
Carter turns to me, because that’s my age. “You better watch out, Lewis,” he says with a grin.
A regular at the end of the bar is holding an ID card in one hand and the emptied wallet in the other. He puts the card to his forehead, spins around in a little dance and says, “Look at me, I’m Dennis Dorst,” then falls to the floor like he’s been punched. More laughter, and why is that name so familiar? I feel a strange chill, as if the name might be my own, only from some other life.
Carter has turned quiet. He leans across the bar to grab the card away from Scotto, staring down at the scratched plastic before he puts it on the bar in front of me. It’s a student ID from our old high school. “You know this guy?” Carter asks, and as I take in the kid’s picture I think of chemistry class and a dusty pale boy bent over a flame, trying and failing to cook junk with the rest of the burnouts. I’d see him in front of school sometimes, kicking gravel across the blacktop, always quiet and slow. But I haven’t been by school in a while.
I shrug. “Don’t look like anyone to me.”
Carter turns away, toward the liquor bottles and the mirror behind them. I can still see his face though, the black warrior eyes that had met my own last year after we came home from school to find our mother had left, the house emptied of half its contents, her dying houseplants left behind to rot in the terra cotta pots that lined every windowsill. I watch him now, parts of him, his muscular back and sculpted arms that held countless girls in the dark basements and attics of our youth, groping them alongside moldered cardboard boxes and ancient ratty couches. I can’t help but think of those nights we lay in our beds, me on the top bunk with Carter below. Laughing, he would tell me which ones were eager and which were prudish, what he could get them to do. Then he would roll over, pull his pillow over his head, and drift into dreams.
But I never slept. Instead I would watch his face through the darkness until my eyes felt like they were going to be stuck open forever. I would imagine his hands roaming my skin, conjure the smell of his sweet-sour breath, that smile, just for me. Even with my eyes closed, it is still only him that I see.
I turn toward the front door of Pompeii, and a bloody handprint the beaten boy left there as he stumbled out, neat red stripes laid out on the jamb like the painted divider on a freeway. The bloodstains bend away, dissolve as the door swings open, along with the blinding light of day. And who steps inside the bar but the Hierophant himself.
“Oh God.” I leap off my stool, and Rosa reaches to slow me but I speed toward the toilets, where I lock myself inside. Soon there is a loud knocking on the bathroom door, and I let it go on for a while before I finally unlock it. The Hierophant, tight-lipped, smiles at me, Carter just behind him. I nod once at my brother and in comes the old man, the door shut and locked behind him. He puts his hands on my waist, and I pull away, go sit on the lip of the sink.
“I want you back,” the Hierophant says. “I’ve seen things. Created a new potion that’s changed everything. It’s given me a vision for the ages… I know what you are to me now.” But all I can do is shake my head. He looks awful, skin clotted like curdled milk, hairless and pink like a plucked chicken. He pleads with me, cries, “Please, please,” as he undoes my belt buckle. I can no longer look at him so I look away, into the mirror behind his back. The bathroom lights are florescent green and make my own skin waxen and pocked; I think I could pull this sickly mask off my bones with one quick scrape, if I really tried.
The Hierophant kneels and begins to weep, his head buried in my lap. His hands slide my pants down, and he takes the meat of my cock between his fingers like he’s about to pluck a flower in bloom, working his tongue upon the opening of my foreskin in practiced waves. I know I have to get hard so I make myself think of that night a year ago, the last Carter and I saw of our father. Our last night at home.
A heavy rain on the sills had made it sound like a holy war waged in heaven, like the storming of a wasted castle, up high in the sky. And lord how we drank that night, dropped the bottle of bourbon on the carpet again and again until the rug ran from green to brown, until it matched the spindly limbs of the dead houseplants still squatting on every ledge in the apartment. I said Carter, and he turned to me, lit up from behind by the streetlamp outside the living room windows, the walls barren white since our mother took all the artwork when she left. And he knew. All the lights were off, and we sat in stillness until he leaned into me across the table and took my hand in his.
I said that I was scared. Carter moved his hand to my face and said, Fine, be scared. He gave me the gentlest of kisses, and it moved me beyond words. How often I had pictured this, this sweetness, this beauty. The room began to spin, and I felt him hold me, felt him all over me, everywhere. His fingers, on the gate latches of my hipbones as he tugged down my boxer shorts, my cock springing skyward in newfound release; his own hardness, thick and warm as I brought its dewy tip to my lips, as I took him inside my eager mouth; the smell of his funk and the sound of his sighing as I brought him to the floor beside me.
And what I wouldn’t do for him. Walk on parched and jagged ground, walk through fire. That fire grew and raged over me, burnt his hands where they clutched my shoulders. He pulled me up and into his lap, and we were hard against each other, before I slid myself between his legs and thrusted my cock inside him. He almost cried out but then he bit my shoulder, drawing blood, and Go on and scream, then, I said. Go on and scream, since our father working the night shift at the electrical plant and the whole world was ours, the sky and the earth beneath it. I buried my face in his armpit, licked the dense patch of wiry curls there as he moaned, his hands moving around my neck and holding me there just tight enough that I was sure I was ready to explode.
We were attached, fleshy and inseparable, nails and hair grafted to each other in a living tapestry. An undifferentiated dyad, we burned together, and we made something new as we fucked on the soft carpet, me inside of him, him inside of me. Together we burned, as one.
And as we burned, we radiated waves of energy. I could feel little nicks and scrapes on my skin shimmer and fade; the little white scar Carter had on his temple from a recent fall on his skateboard, it shuddered like a dewdrop before vanishing from his face. The houseplants upon the windowsills—the ones our mother had left behind, to die as we would ourselves one day—they coiled and greened until their leaves unfurled like holy scrolls, scents heavy and fecund, their beds of black soil steadily moistening as they accepted this freshly secreted life. All this I could see in the night. All this I could taste, as I came in a convulsion of heat and liquid, jerking my brother until he came too, everything drowned and weightless and wild.
The sweet darkness turned to light, which I had mistaken for dawn until I looked over my Carter’s shoulder and saw the living room lights were on. And there was our father. He stood over us in his company uniform, the drained bottle of whiskey in his hand. He didn’t say a word, not one. He just stared, our bodies at his feet. If he had brained us both with that bottle it would have been relief from the unbearable silence. But it never came. Instead, we simply lay there frozen as he looked down at us, the dark outline of our tangled limbs singed into the carpet around us.
Carter, naked, stood and walked stoically to our bedroom. By the time I pulled myself up and ran to him he had already gotten the suitcases down from the closet shelf. We dressed, and we packed, and we left. The heat from his skin still upon me, the wet smells of the resurrected plants heavy inside my head, we wandered the rainy streets until we were so tired that we collapsed in the weeds bordering the stone park. I assumed Carter had felt as shameful as I did, so I kept quiet as he pulled his hood over his eyes and fell asleep, his lips wet with rain. But I never slept.
And that was all. One night of heavy storming and heat, and it was over. Gone down to the place where skin and silence both go to die. Forgotten. But not forgotten. Because I remember. And so does he.
I grunt once, twice, and I spasm and spend in the Hierophant’s mouth, hold the back of his skull so he’s forced to take every drop of it down his gagging throat, just how the old bird likes it. When he finishes jerking himself off he staggers to standing, pale hand on the lip of the sink to steady himself. “Thank you, my son,” he says as he does up his trousers, eyes fixed on the wet floor between us. He turns on his heel and leaves the bathroom, the door swinging shut behind him.
I get down from the sink and pull up my pants, and there’s a small glassine baggie of wafers on the floor, an offering of sorts. I hold the baggie up to the grotesque light, and inside the wafers glimmer in beautiful greens and yellows and blues, each surface etched with a clover or a star or a moon like some fucked-up version of Lucky Charms. I lean out the door and flash the baggie, and Carter and Rosa come running. “You best give me my share,” I say as Carter divvies up our score. “I’m the one that had to do the dirty work.” There’s blood caked in the edges of Carter’s nails, and I picture that beaten boy again. The thought of his broken face makes me shudder.
Carter hands me my due, maybe five wafers in all. We dose, and all our heads go up, toward God. I ask what kind they are, and Carter shakes his head. “They have little hearts on them,” he says. “So maybe they’re a new kind of jumpers?” Which I don’t really like but are better than nothing at all. I like spreading out into a velvet rug on the floor and burning down into pulp, a slow, simmering crawl into sleep. Jumpers make your love grow larger so you have enough for everyone, but they also make everything race at the same time. Not what I like at all.
“Oh wait,” Carter slurs, and squeezes his eyes closed. “Wait just a minute. There’s something else inside of this. Another spell building.”
“Saturnalia?” I say hopefully, which rolls you out into a sticky sweet paste, so you feel like you did before you were born.
“Not sure,” he says, his lips widening into a Cheshire grin. “But it tastes pure.” And it’s only now that I’m sure the Hierophant really does want me back.
* * *
We treat ourselves to a second heart-inscribed wafer as me and Rosa drink beer and watch Carter restock the bar. Darkness ascends and Pompeii begins to fill with lustful bodies, the air conditioner wheezing beneath the heat. I feel warm and distracted, unsure of where the new wafers will take me; all I know is every patron that enters has a face that interests me. “Hot night,” I say, and for some reason that makes Carter laugh.
“Here, dear Lewis dear Lewis,” Rosa says, and pulls two cigarettes from her handbag. She puts them both in her mouth and lights them before handing me one. “You know, I really mother the two of you,” she says, a helix of smoke escaping her lips. “You’d be nothing without me.”
“We’re nothing with you either,” Carter says, and she reaches over the bar to swing at him with her bag. They start bickering, play sparring the way they always do. I pretend to smile and close my eyes, let the sound of them drift away as I allow the wafer’s spell to take hold.
And that’s when I see him in my mind: the battered boy, lying on the pavement in the alley next to the bar. I look down as if from above, lean over him to make sure he’s alive, his chest rising and falling with shallow breath. His face is bent, split sideways across the nose, but still beautiful in its own broken way. And it is him, Dennis, the burnout I remember from school. But his tatty image soon fades from sight and my head begins to spin, the vision reeling with the stuttering speed of a departing express train. I begin to panic, afraid that I might float up into the atmosphere, never to return.
I open my eyes and I’m back inside, back inside my body. Carter and Rosa are staring at me, my brother now on our side of the bar top. “What’s up with you?” he asks. I shake my head and he rests a gentle hand on my shoulder. “You sick?”
“No,” I lie. Because really I feel like vomiting, my spell-drowsy skull hung so low my chin almost touches my chest. “Well, let’s drink some more then,” Rosa says. She slides my beer in front of me, clinks her bottle against mine.
I look away for what I think is only a moment, but when I turn back Rosa’s gone, the Hierophant standing in her place. Bone-thin inside a frayed black velvet smoking jacket despite the heat, he grasps my wrist in a chapped white hand. “My child,” he says, “I’ve seen you in my prayers. Have you seen me in yours?” I open my mouth to reply but no sound comes out. “Soon you’ll know, if you don’t already.” He smiles, and the sight of his yellowed teeth makes me list.
I stumble from my bar stool. The whole place starts to shimmer with an iridescent light, colors throbbing from green to yellow to blue and back again. No sound now as a new fever wracks me, and I press the side of my head against the bar top. Carter passes by with a crate of empty glasses and it’s like he’s all lit up, skin sparkling with neon energy, with bright and gleaming diamonds. He glows.
It takes all my strength to turn my head toward the Hierophant, whose veins swim like eels beneath his skin. “The new wafers,” I manage to say, stomach rattling like spare change in a tin can. “The ones with the hearts on them. What are they supposed to do?”
“Magnificent, aren’t they? I call them lockets.” He reaches deep inside the pockets of his smoking jacket and produces two heaping baggies. “There’s plenty more for the taking. If it’s me you see, that is.”
“Of course I see you.” What does he mean by that?
The Hierophant leers, bears his stained teeth again. “Then all is as it should be.”
I creak my head back toward Carter, who is busy wiping up a spill on the bar top. “Hey,” I say. “Do you feel as strange as I do?” But he refuses to look at me, fixed only upon the dishrag swirling beneath his glittering hands and their bruised knuckles, rich and purple like dark rock. All of him glows. I want to blow upon these fingers, cool them beneath my sweet breath, make my brother smile or sigh. We can heal him, together, this I know just as surely as we undid our scars that night, the way we raised our mother’s houseplants from the dead. But the Hierophant pulls me closer with a bent claw cupped beneath my chin. “Tell me how you see me,” he says, his voice lascivious, wizened face inches from mine. “Tell me how you see your heart’s own desire.”
“My heart’s own…?”
In an instant, Pompeii grinds to a halt, as if frozen in time. The four-on-the-floor stomp from the speakers becomes one long and steady thrum, a bass-heavy moan both primal and holy. The Hierophant is talking but I can no longer hear him, his words a mumble that soon forms a song, sung in a language I’ve never heard before. The tune folds in on itself until it becomes everything, electric sparks flaring inside my eyes. “Here it comes!” the Hierophant shouts with exultation. “Here it is!” I try to blink but I can’t, try to move or scream, and just when I think this dizzying enchantment has reached its climax, I see.
It is a taste more than anything else, a peppermint and egg yolk mash that slides over my tongue in a wave of liquid light. Or rather it is a smell, that of lilac and vinegar, gasoline and dew-damp moss. But more than all this it is a person. Oh yes, it is someone that embraces me beneath the shade of a crepe myrtle, white petals gracing us like rice thrown at a wedding. The Hierophant is gone. Instead, it is my love who reaches out for me, and I kiss his hand, kiss the tips of his bruised fingers, rough upon my lips like pitted rock. I’m hard now, harder than I’ve ever been, and he smiles and looks away, turning from me.
And I want to say no, no, but it is too late. He floats away and I am left behind, screaming his name through the lonely fall of night.
“I’m here, I’m here,” Carter says. I squint through the dark and find myself limp in his arms, his palm pressed to my brow. I throw his hand off, shrug off the cobwebbed fog in my head. I push myself away and flee, lurch through the crowd to the emergency exit, beat my hands against the door until I think my fists will breach the steel. As I throw the door open a few patrons stare after me with mild curiosity, but most of them are caught up in their own worlds with their own longings, everyone looking to score.
I start down the alleyway but remember the beaten boy lying there and I can’t help him now, can’t even help myself. So I backtrack, take hold of the dangling fire escape ladder above me and start to climb its rust-flaked rungs. I reach the first landing, fall against the ragged brick wall and to my knees, too strung out to go on. Instead I sit and wipe tears from my face, using a well-worn sleeve that makes my eyes sting even more.
There is a clattering on the ladder below, someone swiftly rising in my wake. I reach out in front of me and a hand finds mine in the dark. “Shhh,” Carter says, wrapping his strong arms around me. I cry for a while, too ashamed to ask what I might have said or done back inside the bar, under the influence of the wafer-induced spell. All I want to say is that I’m an unclean thing, that I’m something dirty and wrong. But when I look into his eyes my breath catches, his black warrior eyes that are not so different from mine. Eyes I’ve always thought of as flinty and sharklike but are really just wounded, and searching, and scared. I could stare into them for the rest of my days.
I take his face in my hands, close the short distance between us, and press my mouth to his. I kiss him hard, force him to kiss me back. And to mean it.
Carter’s arms slacken, and I pull away. “I’m sorry,” I say, “I’m sorry. Damn. It’s the wafers. I don’t know what they did to me but I didn’t mean to—”
“You saw me,” Carter says. “When you were rolling just now. You saw me, didn’t you?”
I nod reluctantly, and he exhales, hard. “The Hierophant,” I say. “He started to tell me something about them. But…”
Carter looks away, down at the alley below. In profile he looks softer, and younger; maybe even younger than me. “The ones we took before, with the hearts on them,” he says, his voice uneasy. “They cast a spell that shows you the face of your true love.”
I open my mouth, but I cannot speak, cannot believe this is happening. It takes me a few moments to steel myself. But finally I ask.
“What about you? Carter? Who did you see?”
He doesn’t answer, only waits for a few moments. And then he yanks me roughly toward him. I brace for him to hit me but he lifts me on top of him instead. His hands move over me, traveling my goosefleshed skin until I’m so engorged I can feel a dribble of pre-cum ooze from the tip of my cock. I play with his hair, let my tongue flicker across his neck. We fall against the railing and climb along the stairs like an enormous crab. He holds my face in his bruised hands, drinks from my mouth, my lips. I reach down in the darkness and fumble with his sweat-soaked shirt, yank his pants down and then my own, cover my palm with spit before I grab his swollen cock and slide him inside me with a raw hunger I’ve never known. And we rock, his long fingers digging into my ass and squeezing me like overripe fruit, the muscles of his exposed back slick with sweat as he pistons in and out of me, a train racing so hard it can’t possibly have any tangible destination, not anywhere God’s green earth. Not here.
“This is all I want in the world,” Carter whispers in my ear, and he brings me back to his sour and red mouth, his beautiful God-given form, and I bite down on his shoulder as I struggle for leverage. I finally find something solid, hold tight to the metal rails of the fire escape, like a prisoner to the bars of his cage. He thrusts me further open, again, again, and we race together as one, the fire escape rattling away like rolling thunder as we fuck in circles, in spirals, in tightening cords of passion, of lust. We are the only ones left here, the only ones that matter. And together, we begin to burn.
I think of the Hierophant, waiting inside the bar for me. And who can say I will not go back to him? He still has what I want, after all, the sweet taste of oblivion that he parcels out like bones to a starving dog. I think of the beaten boy in the alleyway, his tongue lolled from the side of his mouth, convulsing in a private hell of pain that my brother and I can abate, with our shared heat, together. And who says I will not go to that boy instead? I think of my father hunched over his whiskey and cursing his perverse sons, his abandoning wife. His barren walls still shine in the night, in and among our mother’s forsaken plants, dead again or still alive, in verdant shades of green. And who’s to say I’ll never return?
All I can say is this I will not leave, and Carter’s kisses go down in the dark, kisses like lilac and gasoline. Our fire, it brightens and swells, and it melts the cage that encloses us, the flames of resurrection spilling from our bodies in irradiating waves. I will not let this leave.
© Robert Levy, 2016