Joey’s head was like sludge, his stomach foul, and he stank of sweat. He could hear someone making something in the kitchen, but he could not open his eyes. His mouth was dry, and he had to piss, but he could not quite stay awake.
Sleep took him for a bit.
Joey woke again, this time to the smell of coffee. He opened his eyes, still wrapped safe under the joy-boy’s jacket. He slid it off, sat up, and let the world percolate into his consciousness. He was shirtless and that was unsettling as he didn’t remember taking his shirt off.
A long groan and stretch helped force his way into wakefulness. He sat up and looked for his shirt, but didn’t find it. Satisfied that a pair of pants were sufficient, he zombie walked to the coffee pot.
No clean mugs were visible so he shoved several dirty dishes in the sink aside and rinsed out, with his bare hands, a fast-food Styrofoam cup. He then poured the coffee from an electronic brew pot. Mr. Coffee was now, officially, his favorite person. He opened the fridge and stared, still semi-conscious.
“Dey be crem in da door,” came a voice.
Joey slowly turned to see Star sitting in the middle of the Loft on the floor reading a book. His caffeine deprived brain hadn’t noticed him.
“They be cream, in the door,” Star repeated more concisely.
Joey found it and sniffed, unsure of what bad cream smelled like, then tossed in enough to change the color from black to a light muddy brown. Then, using a restaurant-style sugar dispenser, poured in too much sugar, and then he poured a little more.
Joey took a few sips and opened his eyes. They had been parted before, but the sludge and ache of the hangover made the world too bright to open them fully. He sat back down on the couch and slowly climbed out from under his hangover. He finished his cup and he would have to struggle to take on the day.
Sleep, however, took him for a moment more.
When Joey woke for the third time the light of day was dimming in the windows. Star was still in the middle of the room sitting with several books. Joey, looking at his empty cup still in his hand, needed a bit more. He refilled his cup, this time with much less of the hangover hanging over him.
“Hey, I’m Joey.”
“I know who you are, bruhta,” Star replied but stayed focused on his books.
“Are you friends with Mike?”
“Mike, is my dog. He bring you here, he don’t tell me why.”
“A place to stay for a bit, maybe dance a little, make some cash. Whatcha reading?” Joey asked sitting on the floor near Star.
“Physics, mon,” said Star without looking up.
“Why are you reading it?”
“I’m in college, bruhta.”
“I didn’t know any of you went to school.”
“What you want, bai? You see I’ma workn,” said Star.
“Coffee is all I need, sorry for bugging you,” Joey replied.
Joey stood up and walked over to the bed. He noted that Kyle, Jayce, and the other guy were bundled together. The other guy was well-muscled and had dark skin and was possibly Latino or Indian. He turned back to Star.
“How do I get a hold of Mike?” asked Joey.
“Sorry,” Joey replied.
There was a moment of silence as Joey debated waking Jayce. Instead, he walked over to his bed/couch and drew a shirt from the bag of clothes Baby had given him. He took a quick sniff to his pits remembering he stank. He looked over to the curtainless shower and then back at Star.
“Is there a curtain for the shower?”
“You gonna make me do dis,” Star said and gave a deep sigh, “No secret in dis house, bruhta. You be what you be, we accept it, you understand what I’m sayn,” said Star looking up from his books.
“I’m not comfortable being naked in front of people.”
“You gonna dance, make money tonight? You be getting naked for dat, bai,” Star said as he closed his books.
“Are you from Jamaica?”
“Texas, bai, we all cowboy talk like dis. Come bai, let’s sit on the stair, we smoke, we meditate,” said Star walking Joey to the door that Kyle had forbid him from using the day before.
Star unlocked the door and held it for Joey. Joey put his shirt on and followed out the door. He then, using a key, locked it up again. They both sat at the base of the stairs and Star drew out a hand-wrapped joint and lit it up. He offered it to Joey, who took a small toke and held it, proudly, for a moment.
“So, physics. I know a little about it, you know. I got an A in my science class.”
“I be readin about a Bose-Einstein Condensate. It occur when bosons be super-cooled to near absolute zero. De bosons collapse into dey lowest quantum state and quantum functions den can be observed at macro levels. Understand, mon?”
“Okay, most of my education comes from comic books and Star Trek.”
“Dat be cool, bai,” he said and offered Joey another hit.
“Scared of smoke?” asked Star.
“Dancing. Are you a dancer too?”
“I be dancin.”
“Do you dance naked?”
“Cool out bai, you don’t be earning wit you clothes on.”
“Why?” asked Joey.
Star did not reply just seemed to stare at Joey for a moment.
“I don’t think men will like me. I don’t have much to show if you know what I mean. I look better in my undies.”
“Bai, you ever be doin dis before?”
“I have never danced or been a stripper. I don’t have the slightest clue as to what I’m doing. Honestly, I was going to leave, but Jayce and Kyle, I don’t know, they are pretty cool. I really could use some money too.”
There was a long pause as Star tried to assess the situation. He made several attempts to speak, but then just went back to his joint. Joey could see him struggling with something but didn’t know him well enough to ask.
“Dey give you a name?” Star asked.
“Grade-school,” said Joey.
“Ah. Okay, Grade-school, I got sometin I need to show, if you gonna work tonight,” said Star.
“Yes, hello, this is the Northbay public library…yes, I was calling to remind you that you have an overdue book, Dune, by Frank Herbert,” Baby’s sickly-sweet voice sang into the phone. He looked up at Mike who was watching tentatively.
“Well, it says here that it was checked out by a Joey—”
The voice on the other end interrupted and seemed upset.
“Why yes, that’s right. May I speak with him,” asked Baby.
The voice, a woman’s, spoke for several seconds.
“Oh, I see. Oh my, that’s terrible, I’m very sorry to hear that. Don’t worry about the book, I will just take care of it myself. It sounds like there’s enough trouble on your plate as it is, don’t worry. Do you know where he went, do you know what happened to him, I’m sorry for prying, it’s just so terrible.”
There was a long pause and then the voice on the other end began a detailed explanation. Baby nodded and said ‘uh-huh’ several times. Each time he looked at Mike with an increased expression of concern.
“I see. Okay, well if he comes in should I call the police?”
The voice replied then took a few moments to find a number then read it back.
“I see, yes, that’s terrible, just terrible. Okay so, if I see him, I will call Detective McPherson at the Northbay Police Department. Well, I will pray for you, buh-bye,” Baby hung up the phone and turned to Mike.
“Well?” asked Mike sitting in the back of Baby’s Taylor shop.
“It’s an active missing persons case. She wouldn’t tell me exactly why, but apparently, the police are looking for him and his cousin, they are both missing.”
“I didn’t touch the cousin. I didn’t know he was missing, Joey said he was alone,” said Mike, “Do you think he aced his cousin? Maybe that’s why he ran away! He was all suicidal and mopey when I met him. Jesus Arron, you think he’s a fucking killer? I kinda like that idea,” smiled Mike.
“Only because you thought of it. No, I do not think that timid young boy murdered anyone. He was barely able to put his pants on correctly. You always do that, you take the simplest of explanations, throw it out the door, and go straight to the least likely of conclusions. You want him to be like you, but he’s not, he’s just not.” said Baby.
“You don’t know that. Maybe the cousin tried to pull something and he stabbed him. Maybe there’s a body just rotting somewhere,” said Mike as he made a stabbing motion.
“Oh yes, deary, he’s about as strong as a kitten, a feeble, sick, elderly, kitten. He’d strain a muscle trying to stab a steak. You have a type, that’s for sure! Look, we have a problem here, we have a very serious problem. It won’t take Detective ‘Mc buckets’ long to figure out that the boy has come to San Francisco. I mean, how many tiny boys buy a ticket to the city, from Northbay,” said Baby.
“Okay, I’ll shut it down tonight. I’ll see if I can get, you know who, to dig around a little bit, see if SFPD is looking,” said Mike.
“You do that, and maybe consider that this might be the right time. I know you want to travel, and the bar is doing well. Maybe it’s time, Mike, to start over,” smiled Baby.
“You and Star, what is it with you two. We’ve run worse things, drugs, scams, and regular hookers, why do we need to quit? Cause you think we’re running with risks or because you think they’re adorable kittens? Well, I got fucking news for you, they’re whores. Dirty diseased up whores, and they all are gonna end up just like fucking Diamond James. Star included.”
“Don’t say that! You’re horrible, perfectly horrible,” swooned Baby.
“Do you know why I fuck ’em first? I do it because you can’t fuck ’em after they’ve started. Because they got AIDS or whatever bugs crawl off the johns and into ‘em! Not one of them will see twenty,” he sneered.
“Every whore, straight or gay, that I ever met or fucked is dead. They clean up their own mess like a mother fucking Amana Range. These boys, especially Joey, came here to fucking die, so what do I do? I keep’em alive. And yeah, I get what I want from them, but there’s a trade, a more than fair trade; nose candy, heroin, cash. They live another day, everybody is welcome. I’m doing good work for bad people.”
“Not every lady of the night ends early. These ones are different, they have persona, style, potential, they are Arteests!”
“Now who wants them to be like who? They are all hustlers, they drink, they smoke, they fuck, like it’s all gonna end tomorrow. Ain’t one of them innocent, Baby. Shit Star’s blowing through coke like it’s on sale at Thrifty’s.”
“Joey is not like you or me, he’s just normal, in over his head. You should send him home while we still can,” noted Baby.
“For all we know he’s the worst one. He probably fucking killed his cousin! I don’t get you! You cooked the books for my dad for fifty years. He was a fucking killer, many times over, and ran more whores than I ever have. Here you are swooning over some faggot hookers with a death wish? If my dad was alive…”
“He’d hit me! That’s what he’d do, or don’t you remember? We both put in our licks with that man,” Baby said as matter of fact.
“I’m trying to avoid his mistakes. We have a routine, we have rules. I control the environment and I get tips from the cops, I got dirt on every John that goes in there. I know who they are, what they like, and I have pictures of all of it. As for the boys, I only pick addicts that ain’t gonna make it. You knew when we started last year. And look at us. Almost all the debt is gone. What do a few boys matter?”
“Ancil didn’t have a humane bone in his body. He was a monster, and you’re turning out to be just like him,” Baby said.
Mike stepped forward and a thick disturbing calm came over him. Baby’s posture rescinded into his chair his eyes looking away from what Mike was becoming. He said it, he meant it, but he would now regret it.
“I ain’t Ancil. He was a son of a bitch for sure. He took me in, both of you did. If he was my father, then you were like my mom, and I do love you, but don’t ever tell me that I’m like him. I am so much more than he ever was. I came up with this, I’m getting top dollar for these zit-covered pieces of shit, and I am giving them more than they had before they got here. I am the fucking saint of whores. Whatever life they got, whether it’s a week or a day, they owe it to me. It’s mine, they are fucking mine and don’t you ever tell me how to run my shit again. DON’T YOU EVER TELL ME WHO I AM AGAIN!”