Vermilion, page 1
FELONY & MAYHEM PRESS • NEW YORK
Monday, 1 January
THE FIRST NIGHT of the new year was bitterly cold. A wet chilling wind swept mercilessly down from Quebec. Sheets of snow-filled clouds blotted out the sharp small stars. A white sliver of the waxing moon was lost early in the evening, and never reappeared.
On Marlborough Street, Billy Golacinsky clapped a hand over his chapped lips, and breathed deeply. The cold air sliced through his throat, and beneath the pain was the unmistakable scent of snow. Billy hoped it would hold off an hour, just half an hour more. The unabating wind was punishment enough.
Billy shoved his ungloved balled fists into the pockets of his nylon football jacket. It was a size too large for his slender frame, and the wind cut down his upturned collar and blew up underneath the frayed and stretched waistband. The thin sweatshirt gave some protection but little warmth. Beneath the worn denim, Billy’s legs were numbing in the wet wind that funneled down the narrow dark street. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, but his cheap black sneakers afforded no real protection against the cold.
Billy moved a dozen numbers up the block to stand beneath the one converted gas lamp that had burned out. He leaned uncomfortably against the icy post, and directed his eyes toward Berkeley Street. Marlborough was one-way, and any vehicle that was to pass him would appear at that intersection first.
Tall, narrow brick townhouses lined both sides of the street. Tiny front yards were protected by low cast-iron fences. Windows in the converted buildings across the street from Billy were unlighted, the student inhabitants still away on their Christmas-New Year’s holidays. In the darkened windows of a five-story dormitory, Billy studied the reflection of the streetlamps and, higher up, the mirrored black sky. In the few lighted windows on the block, Billy could see broken ceiling moldings, scraggly hanging plants, the wrong side of soiled curtains.
The block of Back Bay demarcated by Arlington and Berkeley streets, Commonwealth Avenue and Marlborough is Boston’s principal cruising ground for male hustlers. In better weather, it seems that each lamppost and almost every parking meter is occupied by a slouching insolent young man, while a steady flow of automobiles with attentive drivers makes a stately progress round and round the block.
A car will draw up out of the continuous line beside a fire hydrant. The passenger door falls open, and the nearest young man will pull out of his slouch, and climb in. The car circles the Block once more, and if the young man and the driver cannot agree on a price, the hustler is deposited at the same fire hydrant. But more often, the car proceeds to one of the many dark alleys only minutes distant.
At high summer, the Block is often crowded, but at no time is it ever boisterous. Tourists imagine that the cars are stopping to ask directions. The hustlers, though perhaps acquainted with one another, socialize elsewhere. They move silently from parking meter to lamppost, from lamppost to iron fence. But, on the first day of the new year, Billy Golacinsky was a solitary figure slouching beneath the burned-out lamp.
He’d been on the Block over an hour. Seventeen cars—he’d counted them—had passed, and not one of them had slowed appreciably. Billy’s hopes for a warm bed for the night were diminishing, but he steeled himself to at least another hour in the open. Having fallen two weeks behind on the rent on his tiny single room in the Joy Street Chambers, he had been evicted the afternoon before. His clothing and small valuables he had packed in a duffel bag and checked in a bus station locker; the two director’s chairs and the green bamboo mat—his only furniture—he had abandoned to the next inhabitant. In his pocket were the key to the bus station locker, his Royal Baths membership card, and a photo ID that gave his real name and age. Secreted in one sneaker was a ten-dollar bill, all the money he had left.
He curled his toes, and the slight unevenness beneath his foot was reassuring. At the last, he could purchase admittance to the baths, and hope to find someone to invite him to share a narrow cot in one of the low-walled cubicles. But this was his last ten, and he had hoped to make at least twenty more tonight. The summer before, Billy thought ruefully, he had often turned sixty dollars before midnight.
Headlights suddenly glared around the corner of Berkeley, and a dark-colored Saab turned down Marlborough. Billy steadied his weight on both feet, placing them wide apart. He relaxed his shoulders, and slipped his frozen hands into the back pockets of his jeans. He thrust out his hips to a prescribed angle, and the practiced hustler’s stance was complete. Billy strove to look at once aloof and very much available. As the car drew closer he raised his head erect. The wind drove against his neck, and blew his dry blond hair across his eyes.
The car drew abreast of him. Loud music blared behind the windows raised against the cold. Taking care to retain his posture, Billy glanced warily into the vehicle.
Two young men laughed and talked above the music. Both were short-haired and moustached. Their heavy coats had been unfastened, and their scarves were loosened about their shoulders.
The Saab rolled past. Neither of the men had seen him. Billy’s shoulders went slack and he turned his back to the wind. The car swung onto Arlington Street and disappeared.
Swearing aloud, Billy crossed his arms tightly for warmth, and moved to sit on the wide granite stoop of an unlighted building. The heavy balustrade offered some protection from the wind.
He looked up the sidewalk. A man stood unmoving beneath the corner lamp at Berkeley Street, but not in the hustler’s stance; he was possibly a mark, at least not competition. Billy looked quickly toward the other end of the street, then back again—now he could see the dog. The man moved toward Billy, his progress halting only because of the evidently recalcitrant animal.
Billy stood, tucked his hands lightly into his jacket, and ambled casually toward the man. He tried to appear as if he were not wretchedly discomforted by the cold.
The tall slender man appeared well built beneath his black pea coat. Sandy blond hair, showing beneath his black knit watch cap, matched the color of his well-trimmed beard. His features were not exceptional, but his expression was one of self-confident easeful strength. A red wool scarf spilled up out of the collar of his coat, wrapped around his neck, and fell over his shoulder. He pulled impatiently on the long leash to hurry the dog along.
Before Billy reached him, the man spoke sharply to the dog and turned around, dragging the animal now in the opposite direction and with equal vigor. Billy thought the man had not seen him; he stepped faster, and slowed only when he came abreast of him.
The bearded man looked over at Billy, knitted his brow curiously, then glanced deliberately away.
“Hi,” said Billy. In the light of the streetlamp, Billy guessed the man’s age to be thirty.
The man looked over again. “Isn’t it a little cold…?”
“A little,” Billy replied with a half-smile. The man evidently knew what was going on.
The man stoppe
Taken aback, Billy shuffled his feet, wanting to get from under the man’s level gaze; but the hope that the man would pick him up was stronger, and he did not move. The man was young and handsome, but Billy had come across other young and handsome men who craved the excitement of picking up a hustler. Even if this man weren’t one of those, perhaps he would simply feel sorry enough for Billy to take him home. He wondered if he shouldn’t immediately offer himself for free, but feared putting the man off.
“That a sheep dog?” Billy asked.
“No,” said the man, after a slight pause that seemed to mean something, but which Billy couldn’t interpret. “It’s an afghan.” Without another word, the man walked on. Billy followed.
The man stopped again at the corner of Berkeley and Marlborough beneath a light. The afghan wrapped its leash around the trunk of a small, dying tree, to the man’s intense displeasure.
“Do you have a cigarette?” Billy asked in a small voice. The insolent slouch had been abandoned back at the burned-out lamp.
The man reached deep into his pocket and pulled out a crushed half-empty pack of unfiltered cigarettes. He handed it to Billy, and then stooped to untangle the afghan from the tree.
Billy tapped a cigarette out of the pack and held it back out to the man.
“Keep ’em,” said the man, “I’m quitting.”
“Thanks.” Billy nodded, and stuffed the pack into his back pocket. He retrieved a pack of matches from the same pocket and tried to light the cigarette. It was impossible in the wind. He gave up but held the cigarette as if it were lit. Billy had to think of something to say that would justify his continuing at the man’s side. He had decided to follow when the man crossed the street. The afghan, at last untangled from the tree, nuzzled against Billy’s sneaker with the ten-dollar bill inside.
Billy bit his lower lip, and took a drag on the unlit cigarette. The man watched, shook his head and laughed softly. Billy looked up suddenly, brushed the hair from his eyes. “What are you up to?” he blurted.
The man didn’t answer. He stepped off the curb, jerking the dog forward. Then he turned, looked directly at Billy and said, in an uninflected and somehow weary voice, “Listen, kid, nobody’s out tonight. Nobody’s playing. Nobody’s buying. Everybody shot his wad last night. Remember? New Year’s Eve. John is home with his wife, John is home with his lover, John couldn’t get his car started in the cold. John is not going to show up on the Block tonight. Your timing’s bad, kid. Go home and get warm.”
The man crossed the street, now dragged by the afghan. Billy watched as he moved down unlighted Berkeley Street and turned onto Beacon.
Billy crushed the cigarette in his hand, and wiped the loose tobacco off on his pants. He crossed Berkeley, and stepped a few dozen yards into the alley that ran behind Commonwealth Avenue. He craned his head to search out a particular set of windows half a block down, and cursed to find them dark. He knew people in that apartment, but evidently they weren’t in. He returned to his station beneath the burned-out lamp on Marlborough.
Anger, frustration, and humiliation now made him tremble as the cold had not. No car had passed while he talked to the man with the afghan; none appeared now.
A single harsh church bell marked the hour. Billy abandoned the icy post and hurried with sudden resolution to Arlington Street. The man with the dog was right: no one was out looking for trade tonight. Billy felt a fool for having wasted his time in so dismal and uncomfortable a fashion. Despite the cold, a flush of angered heat broke through his frame.
Billy crossed Arlington and stumbled into the darkness of the Public Garden. On the ornate footbridge that crossed Swan Lake, the first flakes of snow flashed against his face. He burrowed his hands deeper into his pockets and pressed his arms closer to his sides. He ran to the eastern boundary of the garden, sprinted cross Charles Street, and slowed to a brisk tripping walk as he entered the Common. He cut around the baseball field and the tennis courts, and hurried past the black brick tombs of the Revolutionary cemetery. More snow caught on the thickly intertwined branches above him, and blew through the halos of the streetlamps over Boylston Street.
He stopped abruptly when he hit the sidewalk. Melted snow mixed with perspiration dripped down his temples. The sweatshirt stuck uncomfortably beneath his arms.
Traffic here was moderate. High tungsten lights above turned the cold air a feverish amber. Neon signs marked bars and nightclubs in garish pastels. Automobile headlights, storefront fluorescence, and naked white bulbs in the alleyways prevailed at street level.
Directly across from the Revolutionary cemetery was a brightly lighted recessed doorway, above which “Nexus” was spelled out in red neon Deco letters. Several young men, dressed like Billy only more warmly, huddled there, talking, passing a joint, and jerking spasmodically with the cold. All eyes followed any man who entered or departed Nexus, and conversation was momentarily suspended.
Billy dodged the slow-moving traffic and ducked into the shadow of a burned-out building that, despite the cold, still stank of charred wood and water. He pulled a comb from his pocket and ran it quickly through his hair. Then he wiped his face on his nylon sleeve. After retrieving the ten-dollar bill from his shoe, Billy unzipped his jacket and walked slowly to the entrance of Nexus. He had prepared an arrogant smile for the men gathered there, but they had moved off down the street in a laughing group. The smile fell, and Billy blinked the snow from his eyes.
Billy edged through the dark vestibule. The coatroom was not yet opened—the crowd could not be as great as he had hoped.
He stepped cautiously onto the carpeted ramp that spiraled easily down into the large main area of the bar. Involuntarily, Billy paused. The sudden blast of heat, the blaring music from the enormous speakers on either side of him, the pricks of blinding white and silver light off the revolving glitter ball were too great a contrast to cold, silent, dark Marlborough Street. He leaned against a wall until he had adjusted to the changes.
After a time, Billy made his way down the ramp. Below, two bars flanked a darkened stage, used for drag shows and live bands on the weekends. Billy stood at the smaller bar with one sneaker on the brass foot rail. He looked about before ordering.
There were no more than twenty-five patrons in Nexus, most at the other end of the room. He wouldn’t be able to make out their faces until the glitter ball was darkened, and the dim red wall lights were brought back on. Billy assured himself that the crowd would have doubled within the half hour.
The bartender, a balding round-faced paunchy man of middle age, wearing a white shirt with a butterfly collar and wide yellow suspenders, was talking casually with two customers at the opposite end of the bar. Billy raised a finger to attract his attention but the bartender didn’t see him. Billy looked closely at the customers—a man and a woman. The man was black; he wore a tailored purple suit and a black tie over a ruffled pink shirt. On the collar of the suit jacket was a large diamond stickpin that matched his cuff links, all in heavy gold. The woman wore insubstantial sandals, a pair of unfaded jeans cut off appreciably above the line of her thighs, and a brief white blouse with large red polka dots scattershot over it. Her heavy white-blond hair flared above her ears into long thick ponytails. She was a hooker who, in warmer weather, stationed herself in a particular doorway on the next street over. Billy had never seen her when she was not dressed as Daisy Mae Yokum.
She and her companion laughed at something the bartender said and then slipped off their stools as a disco version of “Ave Maria” rode over the end of the last song. Red, green, and gold lights flashed in time with the music. The couple paused directly beneath the now darkened glitter ball, listened a moment, and on cue erupted into dance. The man moved his feet very little, possibly because of the st
Billy squinted at the dozen tables lining the opposite wall. He made out the shadowy figures of two other hustlers, sprawled in the darkness, also waiting for the crowd. He tightened his stance in the sudden heat of competition.
“What’ll it be?” said the bartender, just at Billy’s shoulder.
The bartender flipped open a cooler, extracted a bottle and twisted off the lid before sliding it across the bar. Billy held out the ten.
“On the house. Happy New Year,” the man said and winked without smiling.
Billy nodded thanks and stuffed the bill back into his pocket. He felt better for having saved the dollar. He could nurse this beer until a man entered who would buy him others; who would want to spend thirty or even forty dollars more after the bar had closed. Billy moved around the corner of the bar to a stool in the shadows. He laid his jacket across the seat, and then swung onto the stool in the approved fashion of hustlers.
By midnight, only about fifty persons had showed up, but the small crowd was lively. The dance floor was never empty, and the single waiter never enjoyed the opportunity to sit with his friends. Billy remained in the shadows. He leaned against the bar, elbows up, drink in one hand, cigarette in the other, legs cast wide apart. He searched every face that passed near him, discounting the regular patrons, the hookers between tricks or just out of the cold, and the four drag queens. That still left more than a dozen older men for him to work on. From long practice Billy could recognize hunger and desperation in a man’s eyes from ten paces away in dim red light; he also knew how to disguise the same in himself—with lowered lids and a seductive, apparently unconscious half-smile.
Billy lit another cigarette. He had nursed his beer one hour by the clock. He guzzled the last of the warm liquid, and set the bottle disconsolately on the bar. Another Miller’s took its place immediately.