(This entry is a continuation of the Earl series about my relationship with an older man in my teens, and of the complications caused by a peer named Topher. It's a direct sequel to The Last Time I Saw Topher, from a couple of weeks ago.)
No alarm rings, the morning of an especially bad day. No easy portents signal its coming. No cracked mirrors, or ravens on the lawn, no black clouds on the horizon. No spooky organ music plays in the background, or moody atmospheric synths create sounds of unease.
This particular bad day, which happened shortly before my senior year of high school, when I was sixteen, I remember as sunny and warm. Richmond had a sultry and humid haze draped over it, like mosquito netting on a still afternoon. My summer school classes were over, and I had a short period before my final two semesters commenced. What had I done that day? I don’t remember much. I’d laid around the house, and played with the cats. I’d helped my mom in the garden in the morning, because I recall smelling the indelible scent of crushed tomato leaves on my fingertips when bad things started happening, later in the day. I’d steered my bike along back streets and quiet, dozy neighborhoods to Willey Drugs, where I’d purchased a grape Nehi from the vending machine purring outside its door. And then I’d ridden down Bellevue and turned a corner and let my Raleigh touring bike clatter down onto the sidewalk in Earl’s back yard.
We’d fucked, up in his bedroom. I can remember that fuck, even—how wet my hair was from the heat, relieved only by a tiny box fan perched at an angle in his back window. Earl had taken me silently and roughly on his bed, thrusting into me with quiet, urgent grunts. It was so hot that he seemed loath to let our skin touch in any more places than necessary. His cock filled my ass, and occasionally the tops of his thighs would meet the back of mine; the flat of his hands rested on the soles of my feet. His fingers curled around my toes. Otherwise, it was too hot and we were both too clammy to touch. Even when he came, he seemed in a hurry to disengage and let our mutual temperatures mingle. His sperm spilled from my hole, onto the sheets. I lay there with my legs sprawled to either side, my hands above my head.
He tumbled beside me. On a clock, my feet would have pointed at four, and his at seven. Our heads met in the middle, intimate and familiar, next to each other in the mattress’ center. His hands stroked my hair lightly. Then we dozed a while.
I don’t remember any particular signs of doom in that afternoon, no auguries, no ill tidings. Merely a hot bath of an afternoon in which we both soaked, while we listened to Q-94 softly playing on the clock radio by Earl’s bed.
I must have fallen asleep at some point. I nap badly; I wake up confused and crabby and dazed. I always have, and on this stifling afternoon it was no different. Only this time I had been startled by Earl slamming something down on the dresser. “God damn it,” he muttered. I tried to blink the nap from my eyes and come to, but it was like surfacing from dozens of feet beneath the ocean’s surface. It takes time, no matter how urgently one has to breathe. “God damn it,” he said.
“What’s wrong?” I mumbled.
“Did you see a clip with some money under the mirror?” he asked. On his dresser, Earl kept one of his mother’s old mirrors. The frame was antique, and white, and quite ugly to my eyes. He used it as a kind of catch-all for the contents of his pockets at day’s end, for his combs and change and the horehound drops he occasionally carried. I told him I hadn’t. “God damn it,” he said a third time. “Jim!”
The sheets beneath me seemed drenched with sweat and cum, but I didn’t want to move, because the area around me might have been worse. I also dreaded that moment when the fan would inevitably blow on my moist flesh and cause me to shiver. I watched as Earl stomped out of the room and across the upstairs hallway, over to the little stair that led to the attic room that Jim claimed as his own. His voice was angry as he barked his boyfriend’s name up the stair. “Did you take my god-damned money out from under the mirror on my dresser?”
I couldn’t hear Jim’s reply, but I could tell they were starting to argue. I’d heard their arguments before—they were loud and impossible to miss, really. “No, I’m sure I didn’t lose it,” Earl was snapping. “I’m the one who actually keeps track of his money, remember?” A pause. “About two hundred dollars. I don’t know. Maybe more.” Another pause, while Jim said something. “Thanks for being so helpful. Asshole,” he muttered, as he stomped back into the room.
I didn’t say anything as Jim began rooting around his dresser like a madman. Pennies clattered to the ground as he lifted up the mirror, checked the underside, and then laid it on the bed. He lifted up the lids on the old tea set sitting to one side, and let his fingers dig through his mother’s old Wedgewood box. Through the drawers he rooted, letting stuff fly and hit the floor. Not a word did he say to me. I was so uncomfortable that I began to brave the fan and rise so I could find my clothes and sneak out before the fight got out of hand.
Then. “Shit.” He stood stock-still for a moment. “Shit.” He called Jim’s name at the top of his voice. I heard his boyfriend yell back. Then, after a moment, I heard the thud of his heels on the floor above us, and the insolent shuffle as finally he headed toward the stairs.
I had on my shorts and shirt by the time Jim appeared in the room, naked except for a leather cock ring and a subsiding hard-on from his masturbation. He had a cigarette in hand. He looked at the room’s disarray. “What the fuck did you lose now?”
“Where’s my watch?” Earl snapped. When Jim started to point to a wristwatch on the dresser, Earl almost shouted, “Where is my father’s god-damned pocket watch?” I looked over at the dress, now. Earl usually kept his favorite pocket watch on the mirror he used as a tray. It wasn’t anywhere to be seen. The two of them stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity. Then without warning, Earl broke free of the deadlock and bolted for the closet.
Jim started to say things. I don’t remember what they were. They were protestations of innocence, I’m certain, weak disclaimers of ignorance. All I remember is looking at him as his mouth moved and those little mewling noises came out and thinking to myself, This man is lying. I am watching a man lie to his lover.
And them Jim looked at me, and seemed to know what I was thinking. His expression relaxed as he realized I was staring at him with dislike, and contempt. For a microsecond, his shoulders sagged. If we’d been in a silent movie, there would’ve been a subtitle after his close-up: Aw, c’mon, kid. Give me a break. I never meant any of that crap I gave you. I was just kidding around.
Then another close-up on me, the self-righteous ice queen, frosty and unmoving: Fuck you.
Earl kept the rest of his precious pocket watch collection in another of his mother’s antiques, an old silverware case that he kept in the back of his closet. While Jim and I had been glaring at each other, he’d managed to pull it out from under the shoeboxes and detritus lying atop it. He opened the lid, then the drawers.
They were empty.
This is how bad things arrive—in a rush of words and fear, in a whirlwind of activity and with the prickle of adrenaline in every limb and up and down the spinal cord. My head started to pound in time with my speeding heart as Earl stood up, kicked the old wooden case so that it went spinning across the floor, and then grabbed one of his shoes. A shiny penny loafer, I remember. “What the fuck did you do?” he growled at Jim, as he brandished the shoe so that its wooden heel was a club.
“Nothing!” Jim squeaked. I could tell he was still lying. And if I could tell, Earl surely could.
“Get out. Go downstairs,” Earl barked at me.
I didn’t have to be told twice. I ran the hell out and down the stairs, and through the dining room and kitchen and out the back door, where I sat on their wooden porch and buried my face in my hands. That’s when I smelled that sharp, unmistakable scent of tomato on my fingers and remembered helping my mom in the garden that morning. I wished that I was still there, boring as the work was. Anywhere but here, listening to the raised voices inside, the sounds of books and valuables hitting the floor, of shouting and recriminations and the unending litany of ills, imagined and real both. The sounds of a bad thing arriving and parking itself squarely in my life, unannounced and unheralded, unwanted.
It seemed like forever before Earl came storming out of the back door. He had managed to put on a pair of shorts and wore a T-shirt with a UVA logo on it. “Well,” he said as he sat down beside me. “It seems like Jim’s little friend went through the house last night and took anything that’s portable and valuable. Topher,” he said, when he saw me opening my mouth to ask. “Funny how he knew exactly where everything of real value was.”
I think I apologized, and then caught myself halfway through. Earl disliked when I apologized for something that wasn’t my fault, and I was trying back then to correct myself of the bad habit. (I still do it.) “If you want to be helpful,” Earl said, “you could go over to Topher’s house and take him a message.”
I think Earl expected my immediate reply to be What? instead of what I said, which was, “Why me?”
He stared at me for a moment. He was still angry from the discovery of his missing stuff. His answer came out condescending and snide. “You don’t really think I could go over there, do you? Or god knows, Jim?”
I got it. I didn’t need more explanation. Not in that tone of voice. “You want me to go now?” I was supposed to be home for dinner soon.
He did. “You tell him. . . .” He paused while he thought about it. “You tell him that I’m not mad.” Which was plainly not true. “And tell him that if he brings back everything—everything—I’ll forget about it. Don’t tell him he won’t ever be bringing his sorry little ass back here after that, because he won’t. Just tell him to bring back my god-damned stuff.” Then he rose, and without a thank-you, stalked back into the house.
I had my orders. I collected my bike, and went to carry them out, like the dutiful soldier I was.