Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern

Thomas kearnes

Mama is always onstage

-- for my mother

            The checkered blindfold slipped down Hogan's nose. Kneeling before a Latino man, he tried to concentrate. The swarthy man's hips bopped closer to his face. Hogan fretted upon hearing the man's heavy, irritated sigh. The blindfold fell from his eyes, but his lids were shut tight.

            Hogan liked to please unseen men, at least once a week, sometimes more. Their approval, these beneficiaries of what Hogan promised, allowed him to believe the homosexuals of Dallas accepted him. All it cost was his dignity. He'd first offered another man blind pleasure, at the same bathhouse, almost twenty years ago.

            "I'm sorry," Hogan finally said, grabbing the blindfold from the concrete floor. "I can still suck you off."

            "You're sweet." The Latino man backed toward the door. "But I check out soon." Before Hogan had begun servicing him, the man mentioned his recent arrival; he had hours before checkout time. Hogan didn’t mind the white lie. He was grateful the man spoke at all. Most didn’t.

            Hogan's knees ached. Chugging two caps of GHB now seemed unwise. Sex filled the void quickly, the bottomless shaft of self-loathing inside him. Sometimes the shame, paired with the ecstasy, was so overwhelming that he remained limp.

            He left the door wide open, inviting men to behold how he stroked himself closer to release. An attendant announced over a loudspeaker that room 325 needed attention. Hogan groaned with pleasure. He planned to delay climax until someone could watch.

            He didn't hear the knock.

            "Need some help with that?"

Sex filled the void quickly, the bottomless shaft of self-loathing inside him.

            Hogan didn't want to stretch back and turn. Manners, though, demanded he meet the stranger's gaze. His new guest was certainly middle-aged: hair almost fully gray, jowls forming, lengthy crinkles fanning out from the corners of his eyes. The bottom of his ass collapsed into a series of wrinkles. Before Hogan uttered a welcome, the man stepped closer, slapping his hand over his fist and making a popping sound with his mouth—casual, keep it casual. But he stopped. His brow bunched in confusion, and he wrapped his arms around himself.

            Hogan hoped his impish belly, scattered gray chest hair and bags beneath his eyes didn't disappoint. He'd turned forty last month. He'd spent his birthday on his knees.

            "What's wrong?" Hogan asked.

            "Don't you feel that?"

            "I can't feel anything."

            "It must be fifty degrees in here."

            Hogan chuckled. "You got some bad shit, handsome."

            "I'm serious." The man spun around, arms folded. He glanced over his shoulder. "Come to 313. We'll smoke some dope and do naked things. Too damn cold in here." The man left. His offer to hook up in his room hadn't registered with Hogan. The Latino man's earlier rejection had soured his perception. He had enough dope for another bowl.

            "My Lord, child, there's not enough room in here to change your mind." The voice was high and melodious, an ice cream truck on an August afternoon, the bells of a rushing sleigh.

            Not tonight, he thought. I just wanted to suck strangers.

            It was not the first time Mama had come to visit.

            "Does this door lock? I don't want one of your friends barging in." She fiddled with the knob. It clicked, and Mama hooted, triumphant.

            "You're not real."

            "Don't sass me." She tapped her foot. The steel plate attached to her shoe banged and echoed through the tiny room. Since her first appearance the day after Christmas, Mama always wore her taps, oblivious to the sharp pops exploding with each step.

            "You're not my mother."

            "I can't imagine who else could stomach the way you slut around."

            He rubbed his temples, turned his back. Mama, however, would not vanish. She always appeared with hair frosted to hide the gray. She wore a sequined white dinner jacket, red bow tie and dark slacks. Her dance team, comprised of other middle-aged ladies, from long ago, had worn the same outfit.

            Hogan blew a sinister bank of smoke, hoping it would demolish the illusion. She waved her hands dramatically until the smoke dissipated. "Was that supposed to impress me?" Her curt tone indicated it had not.

            "I can't talk right now."

            "All these bad choices… We need to talk, honey."

            He smirked. "That ship has sailed, Mama."

            Her spooky violet eyes, they narrowed. She pointed her finger, shaking it in his face. "You were always a quitter. Boy Scouts, football, so many jobs…"

            "Then leave before I disappoint you again."

            "Still got a smart mouth."

            "Come back when I'm not tweaked, okay?"

            She looked stricken. "I can't wait that long."

            Wait, he thought, how does she know what tweaked meant?

            She tried the door, and then shook her head, smiling at her own foolishness. She'd forgotten locking it, Hogan figured. He exhaled loudly and stepped toward her. Mama stopped him with a hand raised to his chest. "I locked it myself. I'll unlock it myself." Stepping around her, he jiggled the knob. The door swung open.

            "My Hogie, such a capable boy." He froze when she kissed his forehead, stayed motionless as she stepped out of the room, metallic pops at first loud, but already fading. His heart raced. Ghosts can't touch you, he thought. She hadn't before. After a deep breath, he peered into the hall. Mama was gone.

* * *

            Mama breaks from the line of women to perform her solo. She taps and tilts, arms stretched like the wings of a single-jet airplane. Lights bounce off her sequins, dazzling the crowd. Tap, tap, and smile! Tap, tap, and grin! The boys and girls don't hide their derision; rolled eyes and snickers tempt their teachers' open hands.

            One boy, younger than the others, his back against the wall, stands mesmerized. Mama is so young and arresting, chestnut locks spinning as she reaches the finale. The spotlight shines down like the Arizona sun, but Mama keeps her eyes wide. The boy's eyes are the same eerie violet.

            Followed by the troupe, Mama strikes a pose before a flourish of strings. Mama doesn't lose her smile as her shoulders heave. The teachers gesture for the children to clap—or else. The boy with violet eyes pounds his palms together till they hurt. Mama winks at him. He is five years old. Mama loves the boy—it is certain like the sunrise.

* * *

            Kyle rarely arrived early. Hogan thought he had more time to disguise his latest binge. He showered, brushed his teeth for five whole minutes to compensate for the skipped days, shaved, and then poured Visine into his eyes. Naked and nervous in the bathroom, he heard a knock downstairs. He'd hoped to exclude Trevor from his afternoon with Kyle, but his housemate's bedroom window overlooked the front entrance.

            "Baby," Hogan barked to at the neighboring room. "See who it is."

            After a moment came the reply. "It's the ungrateful shit."

            "Let him in. I'm not dressed."

            Kyle knocked again, louder. "Hogie, you there?" he called.

            "I refuse to do that boy a single favor," Trevor said.

            "I explained all that," Hogan said. "He didn't mean it."

            "He didn't mean his apology, neither."

            Hogan scurried to his bedroom, tossed on a hooded sweatshirt and pulled on faded jeans. "Baby, it's freezing outside." It was easier to do it himself than persuade Trevor. They'd split six months ago. Both men lacked the funds to abandon their townhouse, bought in a haze of optimism and love. More importantly, Hogan wasn't ready to concede failure and live alone.

            Barefoot, Hogan threw open the door, his arms open wide. Kyle shuffled into his embrace but didn't return it. Before scuttling into his teen years, Kyle had hugged Hogan with a ferocity that made him wish for children of his own. Hogan released him, catching his face.

            Acne feathered the teen's forehead. He'd pierced his left ear a sixth time. A kidney-shaped bruise lurked on his upper throat. A rush of desire filled Hogan, a desire to show his godson the entire world, its wonders and winters. All he hoped were that girls, not boys, had left their marks on Kyle. He wouldn't wish his life, even his expired heyday with Trevor, on anyone, let alone a child who loved him.

           "Let's get out of here," Kyle said.

            Kyle's fondness for fast food offered Hogan a respite from the pretentious bistros and cafés swarming Oak Lawn, the city's gay nexus. He feigned indecision, but he'd known what he wanted long before pulling into the Whataburger lot.

            "Mom wants me to ask you a question," Kyle said, Hogan taking a bite from his burger.

            "Why not ask me herself?"

            "If you put up half the cost, Mom will match it. I'll finally have some wheels."

            Hogan swallowed before he'd finished chewing. He coughed and sucked down soda. He hated telling Kyle no. Often truant and unabashedly fond of marijuana, Kyle didn't need an automobile making these vices shimmer even more seductively. Hogan sighed and raised his brows, pretended to consider it. Kyle rolled his eyes, grimacing. That's when Hogan saw him.

            The boy was still in high school, no older than Kyle. Blond hair spilled down his neck, all but the ends hidden by a Rangers cap. A gray sleeveless tee showcased his biceps, their thickness incongruent with his tall, slender frame.

            "Do you feel that?" Kyle said, rubbing his bare arms.

            "What?" Hogan didn't look at Kyle.

            "It got real fucking cold real fucking fast."

            The passing boy glared at Hogan with such naked hostility, he wondered if faggot was stenciled on his forehead. Still, his gaze followed the faun-like specimen slouching past.

            He then sat across from Mama.

            The color drained from Hogan's face. His hands balled into fists. Despite being born after her death, Kyle might see her; he'd probably never noticed her framed photos in the townhouse. Silence fell. Kyle bit his burger as if Mama weren't there. She would not look at Hogan. Surely, she knew he watched her. Surely, he would see her again.

            "Try not to hit the pipe with some random dude before you decide."

            Hogan jerked back in his seat. Everybody knows, he thought. They knew before me.

            "I have to think about it."

            "Would a blowjob convince you?"

            Hogan's voice hardened. "Don't joke like that."

            "If I was joking, you'd be laughing."

            When they said goodbye, Kyle offered Hogan his hand. Hogan sadly shook it, wished him a early happy birthday, receiving no thanks. He'd turn seventeen next week. Hogan slumped beside the door, watched him drift into the chilly night. Before he settled into this emotional purgatory downstairs, Trevor announced from upstairs that Meredith waited on the land line.

            "Why not call my cell like everyone else?"

            "I like to set myself apart," Meredith said. "You know that."

            "Before he tells you, I said I would think about it."

            "Think about what?"

            "Getting him a car."

            "Fucking hell. That's just what I need."

            "This wasn't your idea?"

            Meredith's piercing cackle mocked Hogan. Of course he was susceptible to Kyle's schemes; only a real father could smell his son's bullshit.

            Hogan and Meredith had met in an undergraduate art class over two decades ago, before he'd first put on a blindfold. They'd studied figure drawing; a dumb freshman boy posed on a stool. His chin rested upon his hand and his right thigh dipped, revealing a greater gift than most men could claim. Hogan was no artist. The professor, though, had been so encouraging that dropping the course seemed rude. He'd gazed in wonder at the model. It hadn't been until Meredith giggled that he realized his frank admiration drew its own stares. Both had felt an instant kinship.

            They'd met for coffee, scoped out men in bars, held each other through the tears following break-ups. He was the only one Meredith would trust with her child. As Kyle neared manhood, however, Hogan noticed a stirring within himself that would shatter their friendship forever.

            "Baby," she said, "please tell me you didn't need me to figure that out."

            "I was just keeping you informed."

            "Sure, Hogie." Over the line, he heard ice clink against a glass. At least she sounded sober. "That boy always gets your to grab your ankles."

            "Your little jokes are worse than his."

            "I'll burst his bubble on your behalf."

            "Tell him I wanted to say yes."

            "With that boy, it's the only word you know."

            Hogan blushed. He prayed that Meredith never deduced how badly he desired the boy to confide in him. "Maybe he won't be too pissed…"

            Upstairs, Trevor slammed his bedroom door and stomped into the bathroom. Another slam. Hogan knew his ex-lover's route to perfection. Strung out so many nights on the downstairs sofa, he'd listened to his past lumber overhead.

            After the call, Hogan sat on the sill of their picture window, gazing into the starless night. Even with the cloudbanks drifting past, the moon shone through like an unwanted truth. He tried not to follow the thumps and bangs upstairs.

Still, nights not spent with Kyle and Meredith or lurking the dank bathhouse halls found him listless against the window, wishing he were invited into the blackness.

            Trevor rarely lacked male company. At first, Hogan was glad to see his ex-lover "moving on," the phrase absurdly inadequate to describe this separation stagnating under one roof. Hogan had tacit permission to do the same. Still, nights not spent with Kyle and Meredith or lurking the dank bathhouse halls found him listless against the window, wishing he were invited into the blackness. He debated opening the window, letting the cold blast him.

            The prolonged silence upstairs spooked him. Trevor would soon leave and Hogan would miss him—this was the routine.

* * *

            Mama's hair doesn't spin madly anymore. She hacked it off. Raising a child alone, she says. No damn time for silliness. She finds time to dance, however, the staccato beats from her taps bouncing through the auditorium like calls across a canyon. Still, the children giggle and roll their eyes. Still, the teachers resist their urge to smack a brat—that's what children need.

            She dances another solo. Every year, another solo. Arms wide, her fingers tickle the air. Tap, tap and
smile! Tap, tap and grin! A savior's fervor flashes in her violet eyes. The children watch without comprehension; at their age, they believe such passion to be a rare and good thing. One day, the teachers sadly must inform them otherwise.

            The boy is growing older, growing taller. He is secretly pleased to be among the class arriving last, stuck in the back row, the coffin-sized speakers booming and crackling behind him. A blond boy slips him a baseball card featuring a lesser-known player from a lesser-known team. Worthless, guaranteed to attract no serious collector. The boy, however, plucks from his pocket his most treasured card. The blond boy's face reminds him of an unwrapped lollipop: sweet, immense and endlessly his to explore. The boy with violet eyes would've traded all the men in his deck for one grin from that blond boy.

            Mama stomps the linoleum stage, her shoes banging like a god's promise. She and the other dancers lift their arms as a cacophony of horns washes over them. The children applaud, including the boy. He doesn't clap as passionately as he did when smaller; the blond boy might award him the sort of attention no child wants. Mama winks at him. He is nine years old. Mama loves the boy—it is certain like the sunrise.

* * *

            Trevor rushed about, packing for a one-week trip to Fiji. Hogan wanted to offer help, to assure him that it wasn't at all spooky how a random guy had invited him out of the country after a wild weekend at the bathhouse. I have a good feeling about him, Trevor had informed his ex-lover. He'd then rhapsodized for ten whole minutes about Warner's sly smile, toned physique and… other attributes. Hogan had tried not to weep. He tried still.

            "Baby, you got a spare box of rubbers? I'm not going out in this cold."

            "Since when do you suit up for battle?"

            "He'll think I'm a whore. He'll think I have diseases."

            "You don't know the first fucking thing about this guy."

            "I knew everything about you." Trevor stuffed a wad of black bikini briefs into his bag. "And look what it got me: a house I'm desperate to leave and my ex sleeping in the next room."

            "I'm sorry, baby."

            Trevor held up a silk turquoise pajama set, inspected it. Hogan recalled the first night Trevor slid into their bed, the sleeve of his top slipping over Hogan's waist. Don't strip me bare too soon, Trevor had cooed. You don't need me naked to feel good. Hogan's eyelids fluttered, and it took his a moment to notice Trevor waiting.

            "You look great in that," Hogan said.

            "I look even better out of it." Trevor shrugged one shoulder and folded the garments crisply, like a retail veteran. "Before I forget, I'd rather you not call me that." His cold gaze startled Hogan. "We've discussed this before. I'm not your baby."

            Hogan watched his ex-lover select Birkenstocks over shiny black loafers. He watched him jam three Dean Koontz paperbacks into the duffel bag, their corners stretching the vinyl fabric. He watched him pluck a bottle of cologne from the nightstand, said nothing even though it wasn't his. Trevor stopped folding a pinstripe shirt and scolded his ex-lover. “Stop it, you're creeping me out.”

            "I thought—what do—?"

            "Staring a hole through my head won't bring me back."

            "This guy could be crazy," Hogan said.

            "I survived you, didn't I?"

            "I'm serious."

            "I know, I know. You're always serious." Trevor threw down his shirt and stormed out. Hogan knew to perfection these righteous parades between rooms. Always, though, he feared Trevor wouldn't return. He sped after him.

            Trevor charged down the stairs, Hogan on his heels. But Trevor's next announcement stopped him cold. "After Fiji, I'm looking for my own place." Hogan's face collapsed—so much for living in a house he couldn't leave. "Don't pretend you're surprised."

            The staircase yawned before Hogan. Every step would bring him closer to the man who'd thoughtlessly changed his fate yet again. He despised himself for bestowing that power upon Trevor. He'd let Kyle exert a similar influence over him. And the men hidden by his blindfold, he couldn't forget them...

            "You can't do that."

            Trevor paused, gripping the banister. "I'll make this month's payment."

            "Baby, please—"

            "Don't call me that!"

            "Where are you going?" Hogan ventured onto the top stair. He tried to think, but all he envisioned was another lonely night in a rented room, the blindfold slipping down his nose. His choices—Mama had wanted to discuss his bad choices.

            Hogan descended, but Trevor zipped across the room. "To Fiji. Try to keep up."

            "We've sunk too much money into this place." His heart pounded, his palms clammy. "I can't afford this house alone."

            Trevor's face softened and his shoulders fell. Hogan's breath caught with absurd optimism. He didn't hear the downstairs phone ringing until Trevor withdrew from the staircase, his ex-lover's optimism proven foolish, and disappeared into the living room.

            "You could always shack up with Lady Lush," Trevor called out.

            Hogan listened to Trevor answer the phone. Meredith liked to flirt with Trevor despite his disdain for her son, or perhaps it was because of that. He attempted to extract himself from the conversation. Sensation returned to Hogan's feet, and he hurried to the phone. Trevor passed him the receiver. "Drunk bitch is no longer my problem."

            "Have you seen Kyle?" she asked.

            "What do you mean?"

            Kyle enjoyed making Hogan and his mother fret. At least, Meredith thought so. Hogan hoped his godson's motives were less sinister. Each time she called to report her son's disappearance, Hogan initially believed her mistaken—she was drunk; he was joking; she was paranoid.

            Hogan checked to see if Trevor was eavesdropping. He relaxed to find his ex-lover gone. Footsteps clomped over his head. His gaze lifted to the ceiling, following Trevor's path.

            "I'm panicking," she said. "That's what the little shit wants."

            "That's right." Hogan's tone was flat. "It's a head game. That's all."

Each time she called to report her son's disappearance, Hogan initially believed her mistaken—she was drunk; he was joking; she was paranoid.

           "Jesus, Hogan!" Trevor shouted from upstairs. Hogan clamped his hand over the mouthpiece. Meredith knew how badly Trevor mistreated him—the fights, the insults, the silences. Still, Hogan protected him. Trevor was still a dear friend, he often said. "Call the fucking repairman tomorrow," Trevor demanded. "It's colder upstairs than it is outside. Goddamn furnace."

            "Where are you?" Trevor called to the ceiling.

            "You said you had condoms, right?"

            Meredith's voice seeped through Hogan's fingers. He'd let himself be distracted, and for longer than just this phone call.

            "Baby," Hogan said. "I'm sorry. You there?"

            "I don't know why I give shit…" She was crying.

            "He's your son. Of course you—"

            The horrible click, followed by a hum, jolted him. Meredith had never simply hung up. You lose, you lose, you lose—the losses pile up, but they do not cease, they cannot be stopped.

            "Hogan, what the fuck is this?!?"
            Trevor rushed downstairs, gripping a small stack of glossy photos. His eyes bulged with fury. Hogan couldn't process all this malevolence. How could the furnace blink out so suddenly, he wondered mildly. It had been toasty when he'd watched Trevor pack.

            "You're a sick fuck," Trevor cried as he finished the stairs. "I should've known, you wanting to take that twink home from the club last year."

            "What are you talking about? What are those?"

            Trevor shoved the photos into Hogan's chest. Hogan didn't look at the pictures; they fluttered to the floor. "Look at them, pervert."

            "Baby, what's wrong?"

            Trevor grabbed Hogan by the throat, and he finally understood: they were not lovers, not friends, not housemates—at least, not for long. He was an inconvenience and not one bit more.

            "You will never call me that again."

            "Where did those come from?"

            "Spare me the shit, Hogan."

            Hogan stooped to the floor, collecting the photos. He didn't know their subject. Trevor remained tall and erect before him; Hogan quietly wondered whether his housekeeping skills were in doubt. Finally, he glimpsed one of the images.

            Mama had never looked so beautiful.

            Trevor snorted, "Can't get enough, can you, pervert?"

            In one photo, Mama held an infant to her breast. She was young, eyes bright with possibility, no older than twenty-five. Despite her stage makeup and white sequined jacket, she cradled the infant boy delivered into her arms. To Hogan's knowledge, no such photo existed; neither did the next one he studied.

            "You gettin' hard, sicko?" Trevor sneered.

            This image captured Mama, in sunglasses and full dance attire, perched at the ledge of a pier, hand poised over her eyes to block the glaring sun. A violet-eyed boy splashed below in the rough waters. Sifting through these counterfeit memories, their immediacy crushed him. The muscles in his calves and thighs cramped, his stomach stirred, he forgot to inhale. After the fifth or sixth photo, Hogan realized Trevor was gone. Footsteps thundered up the stairs. He'd been so enveloped in a private agony that his ex-lover's disgust felt no less distant than the moon. The last photo featured an older Mama, a woman whose beauty had faded but still offered comfort solace. As in every shot, she wore her dance attire, sequins sparkling. Here, her arm circled a teenage boy's waist. The young man wore a navy blue cap and gown; he beamed with pride. The young man must've been Hogan: violet eyes, full lips, cleft chin…

            But it was not him—none of these boys were him. Impossible, for reasons he knew as intimately as the steps leading up to the room he once shared with Trevor, the same steps upon which Trevor now stomped, dragging his bag like a mewling child from a candy store.

            "I'll send for my other shit later."

            "Is this a… joke?" Hogan gripped the cache of photos, incredulous.

            "I'm not living with that filth under my roof." At the door, Trevor fumbled with the locks, hands shaking. He dug in his pocket and flung a tiny bag of crystals at Hogan, like they were inept performers in a just-say-no campaign. "It was this and the fucking house, right? Trevor and Hogan! Together forever! Meth and a mortgage!" Regret soaked Trevor’s voice, too much but not nearly enough.

            After Trevor slammed the door behind him, Hogan consumed the baggie's contents in moments; the high throbbed inside him like he needed more than air. The photos of Mama and not-Hogan—he felt the urge to revisit their faux warmth.

            Mama had vanished. Every last photo: gone. At least, those upon which he'd gazed…

            Hogan recognized Kyle's bedroom at once: the bed too wide, the Green Day and Radiohead posters, the open closet revealing an army of sleeveless T-shirts. Meredith occasionally sent her friend to fetch Kyle if they weren't on speaking terms.

            In the first photo, clenched in Hogan's hand, Kyle sat on the corner of his bed, legs spread wide, proud of what stood hard between his thighs… So… now Hogan knew. When tweaked, he'd wondered about Kyle's endowment. Kyle leered into the lens. One image followed another of provocative poses. Toward the end of the stack, a man fellated Kyle, his back to the lens and Kyle's face blank. Hogan flipped through the stack, trying to will the innocent (if impossible) shots of Mama to reappear.

            Such a beautiful boy, he thought helplessly. Such a beautiful man.

            The images tumbled from his hand. The first set, the ones with Mama, had been meant for his eyes only. Kyle's lewd pictorial was intended for his viewing pleasure as well. At least, that's what he suspected. Trevor's discovery of the hardcore series was simply the latest in a lifetime of misfortunes.

* * *

            Mama nears her middle years but still dances with more panache than the others. Of course, she commands the attention of the grade-school children sitting grim and quiet like a dozen rows of industrious ants. The music hasn't changed: anonymous dance-pop all featuring some half-forgotten diva wailing the chorus at song's end, just in time for Mama to twirl and tap and pop her eyes like a lottery winner ambushed by a camera crew.

            No true performer would seek out a particular audience member during a routine. It's unprofessional, a guaranteed distraction. Her eyes, however, lose a bit of brightness when she can't find her son. Tap, tap and
smile! Tap, tap and grin! The children don't notice, or if they do, cannot comprehend the sting of loss a child inflicts on his mother every day until death.

            Finally, they enter the auditorium, stand beside one another by a speaker. Mama worries about her son's hearing. Coach Fell has been so good to her and the boy. Reminded her she was a woman long before she was a mother. So good and kind of him to escort her boy to the performance. The boy's eyes dart nervously back and forth, leery of the children. Or the coach. But yes, definitely leery…

            Mama's feet erupt in a series of staccato steps that remind the boy of an SOS signal. Help me, I'm dying. You're my only hope. He applauds, loud and deliberate, unsure whether the gesture is meant to appease Coach or Mama. Mama winks at him as the curtain closes. He is thirteen years old. His Mama loves the boy—it is certain like the sunrise.

* * *

            Kyle studied his fingernails, his face slack. Hogan watched with both terror and desire. Loneliness plagued him with such tenacity that the smallest overture might push him over the cliff, headfirst into perversion.

            "I have a tiny confession to make, Hogie."

            "I'm listening."

            "I planted those pictures."

Loneliness plagued him with such tenacity that the smallest overture might push him over the cliff, headfirst into perversion.

            Hogan swallowed, felt a granny knot slide down his throat, toward his gut. "They were for me, right? Early Christmas present?" He couldn't let the boy know he'd felt damned even before the boy's scheme unfolded.

            "Why would you need to see them?" Kyle asked innocently. "Doesn't take a GPS to know you want my ass."

            Hogan caught his drooping head, shook it in disbelief, hand over his eyes. Ten minutes earlier, Kyle had arrived unannounced, and Hogan welcomed him inside, not thinking once to call Meredith. Hogan had tried to shove under the sofa Kyle's lurid photos, but one had escaped him. The moment Kyle spied it, he'd invited Hogan to sit, Kyle taking a seat opposite him. There was no danger they might touch, Hogan told himself. He was the adult; he had to navigate, with precision, his desires along with Kyle's sinister motives. Alas, the meth retarded his faculties.

            Finally, Hogan cleared his throat. "That's a long way to go for a cheap thrill."

            "There's nothing cheap about that car I want."

            "Do you have any idea how much shit I've gone through, in a single day?"

            "Trevor was a hypocrite," Kyle said. "You can do better."

            "What the fuck do you mean?"

            His eyes darkened. He slid forward so quickly, like a cobra, Hogan feared he might strike. "He's been sucking my dick ever since you two hooked up."

            Nearly eighteen months. Kyle would've been fifteen when Trevor had quickly swept Hogan past all prudence and sensibility. Hogan knew he must leave this room, let Kyle transform the first floor into his lair, anything so long as he can leave.

            "He must've shown you only the photographs that didn't include him," Kyle mused. Hogan noticed a new tattoo, a small one on his inner forearm: a cross with ivy crawling upon it. "You were supposed to find them and freak out. Then, you'd threaten to show them to Mom and I'd squeeze whatever cash I needed from Trevor. Mom would think it came from you."

            "Where are those pictures?" Hogan asked. "The ones including him?"

            "Oh, yeah…" Kyle cackled. "I bet you'd like to watch him polish my apple, huh?"

            He envied Kyle's cunning. His encounters with men might've been mere rebellion or a prelude to his adulthood sexual desires. Hogan sadly admitted to himself that a boy young enough to be his son had adroitly untangled a granny knot Hogan had found hopeless. Trevor had proven himself a cunning and devious man, to be sure. Hogan had never been a match for him. His gaze emptied, he simply listened to his godson recount his failed plot.

            Kyle rose and picked up the remote. He grinned at Hogan, a grin his godfather recognized all too well. "So how were you spending your busy Friday night?"

            "Kyle, no, I need to—I didn't—"

            "Let's watch some faggot remodel rich people's bathrooms. Mom loves Nate Berkus."


            It was European porn, from one of Russia's new countries, in which a minimum age for performers was more suggestion than law. On the screen, a lithe blond boy penetrated a shorter, tan boy atop a workout bench. The music irritated, sounding distinctly Slavic.

            "You're too young for this, Kyle."

            "If I'm old enough to attempt extortion, I can handle overseas ass-pounding." Kyle drifted toward Hogan. "I brought a surprise." He produced from his messenger bag a black case small sized to carry eyeglasses. He lifted the glass pipe from the case and inspected the bowl.

            "Thanks, I've had enough." Hogan pretended the teenage boys having sex onscreen completely absorbed him. "I promised your mother we'd never do that."

            "But I never promised the reverse."

            Kyle offered the pipe to Hogan, white smoke still trailing from the bowl. Hogan took it with the trepidation of a thirsty man reaching for an oasis. He wanted this. No one was there to say no. As Hogan drew in the smoke, Kyle slipped off his shirt. It dropped to the floor. Hogan exhaled onto Kyle's naked torso as it glistened hairless and tight. He kept his gaze focused there, terrified of meeting Kyle's eyes.

            "What would happen if things were different?" Kyle asked.


            "If I wasn't your godson." Kyle dropped his jeans, revealed black thong underwear, reserved only for the very young or very fit. "If I was just some trick from the bar." He guided Hogan's free hand to his crotch, manually manipulated the older man's fingers. "I could be anyone, Hogie. Your boyfriend told me all about your blindfold fetish."

            Hogan yanked his hand away. He couldn't squelch the hurt and betrayal. His ex-lover had betrayed him in so many ways—Hogan felt a perverse urge to select a favorite. He demanded the remote from Kyle, but, perhaps sensing the shift in dynamics, Kyle instead knelt before him, arms crossed. He rested them atop Hogan's knees, his head tilted upward in mock surrender.

            "Forget every other fucker. This is about me and you. I need a man. I need you, Hogie."

            It was going to happen, Hogan thought. He was letting it happen. It had been so long since a man had wanted him, Hogan, and not just a willing orifice, that he succumbed. Kyle took him into his mouth, and Hogan leaned back, staring at the ceiling.

            Kyle stopped. "No, I want you to watch me. Remember what I'm doing." Hogan obeyed. "One more thing," Kyle said. "Sing me 'Happy Birthday.' Mom's drunk. You're the only one who really cares." Hogan detected a note of sorrow in the boy's voice, but he was too aroused to realize this had been his godson's one moment of true vulnerability, at least for tonight.

            Hogan began to sing, the notes sharp as pleasure surged through his body. He watched Kyle's head bob atop his lap. He glanced at the porn, and his brow clenched with bafflement.

            The actors milled about, confused. They shivered, began to clutch one another for heat. If Kyle noticed their silence, he didn't let it interfere. From a doorway behind the actors, Mama emerged. She looked lost. She glanced once at the freezing, huddled actors. Her eyes still unfocused, seeming to recognize nothing, she stumbled past them. "Where's my son?" she asked the room. "Has anyone seen my son?" Hogan reached for the remote, but it lay too far away.

* * *

            Mama is tired. So many disappointments in love, false friends and fiendish rumors. She has decided this will be her last year to dance. Of course, the children do not know this. Likely, most will not notice her absence next year. Mama knows this, but it doesn't stop her. Tap, tap and smile! Tap, tap and grin! The choreographer picked a song especially for her. The Supremes' "Someday We'll Be Together." Mama dances with a renewed purpose, fingers straight like sabers, feet loose and powerful.

            She looks for him in the audience. He would be hard to miss, an older boy among all these children. He looks more like his father every day; she never tells him this. Mama has danced so long that she can scan a crowd, face by face, and never miss a step. Surely, she thinks, he'll be here by curtain. He has his own car; coming and going as he pleases.

            The boy and the track star he refuses to call his lover wallow naked in a bathtub full of bubbles. The bubbles were the boy's idea. The track star says he loves that about him—his spontaneity. He doesn't use the word
love, of course, but he conveys the feeling. They ditched class and hustled to Mama's house. The track star wished to make love in every room, a sexual odyssey often suggested in soap operas and trashy novels.

Not Mama's room, the boy says. Never there. The hours pass.

            Mama winks at the audience as the curtain closes, just in case he's there and she missed him. Some of the children think the wink was for them. They giggle. They point. They hope they never become this crazy old woman in sequins and bow tie begging for children's applause.

            The track star panics when he hears a pounding at the door. The boy instructs him to hide in his closet, and then he answers. The state trooper asks his name. He asks about Mama. Yes, she's my mother. The trooper gives the details of the accident. Does the boy have relatives who might come to stay? No, it's always been just me and Mama. After the trooper leaves, the boy flattens himself against the closed door. He can't breathe: so many routines, so many corny melodies, so many rude children. In his mind, Mama winks as the curtains close. He is seventeen years old. Mama loved the boy—it was certain like the sunrise.

* * *

            The checkered blindfold slid down Hogan's nose. He knew to replace it but had no clue about how to tell the difference between adequate blindfolds and defective ones.

From a doorway behind the actors, Mama emerged. She looked lost. She glanced once at the freezing, huddled actors.

            The man currently thrusting himself between Hogan's lips was not a nice man. He’d flung the door all the way open, the wham spooking Hogan. This man liked poppers. Hogan had never understood the drug's minimal, transient allure. A steady succession of snorts overhead kept Hogan focused. The man had not asked his name, if he was tweaked, when he'd arrived.

            "I know how much you want that, little bitch."

            Hogan moaned his assent.

            "Bet you can go twice with that mouth."

            Coughing, Hogan jerked the man from his mouth. He was tired of playing the whore. He'd drafted his godson into that same role two hours ago. Upon climaxing and watching with dread as Kyle swallowed, Hogan rushed him from the house, thanking his godson for treating him so well, for telling the truth. At least, Kyle's most recent version of it.

            The cash had fled his wallet as if by magic. Kyle looked at him, perplexed, the first point that evening, perhaps, in which matters hadn't followed his outline. Five hundred dollars, that's what Hogan shoved into the lovely boy's hand. I'll talk to your mother, he promised. Kyle's wide grin, so free of irony or calculation, stunned his godfather. Kyle embraced Hogan, his arms still tight as Hogan insisted again that he return home. Once alone, Hogan gazed listlessly about the townhome. There was only one place he could think to go.

            "What the fuck was that?" the man demanded, glaring down at Hogan.

            "I'm sorry, I must be—could you come back later?"

            The man clubbed Hogan in the temple, his fist lifting to strike again. Hogan haltingly placed his palm over his ear, acclimated again to the insistent techno beats. He should keep apologizing, before the scene turned nasty, but the words refused to depart. He was done apologizing. There was nothing sorry about him. He'd told himself that countless times, but now he actually believed it. He felt light, the weight of shame falling from his frame.

            "A college boy wouldn't try this shit," the man said. Hogan stared blankly ahead as the man softened. "Where's your stash?" he demanded.

            "My what? My—?"

            "Least you owe me for these fucking blue balls."

            "I got tweaked at home. I don't—"

            "Shithead faggot!" He shoved Hogan to the concrete floor, ransacked the gym back where Hogan kept his clothes, lubricant, bottled water and other items needed for serial sex. The man was bigger, younger, more aggressive. He simply wanted a stronger buzz, Hogan told himself with a rush of relief. After scattering his things to the floor, the man batted Hogan's head with an open palm, glared at him cowering at his feet, shaking his head in disgust. Hogan closed his eyes. As the man left, he bitched about the sudden cold, promised the empty hallway he'd find the manager. Once Hogan opened them, he was alone, the door left wide open. A couple of twinks with shaven chests and twittering voices paused at the doorway.

            "Hey, asshole," one said. "You're bleeding."

            "You don't have AIDS, do you?" the other asked.

            Without answering, without looking, Hogan swung shut the door. His head throbbed, especially his inner ear. The pain would worsen once the dope wore off. He leaned into the closed door. He swore to himself that there was no need to be sorry, but his instant of self-worth was already waning. As always, she appeared with no warning.

            "Hogie," Mama said. "You can't let boys rough you up like that."

            The bow tie, the sequins, the tap shoes.

            "I'm fine, Mama."

            She tenderly tilted his head this way and that. "Can you hear me good?: she shouted into his ear. He nodded, the tears starting to fall. He felt so thankful that at least one person knew him.

            "I fucked up, Mama."

            "That's all in the past."

            "You were right. I can't make a good decision to save my life."

            "Open the door, son."

            "I can't, Mama. Those assholes are all outside."

            She took his hand from his ear and held it between hers. "Open the door."

* * *

            Mama dances alone onstage. No music, just the mesmerizing rhythm of her steps against the stage. A harsh white spotlight washes the age from her face, gives it a hard sheen. A five-year-old boy sits in the front row amidst a sea of empty seats. Mama strikes her final pose and grins as if the whole auditorium were applauding, not just the boy.

            She gestures for him to join her onstage. Without hesitation, he dashes up to the one person in his life who would always love him, never leave him. Mama picks up her son, and he melts into her arms' surprising strength. Despite the empty chairs, applause thunders around them. The spotlight grows more intense, but its light is warm and welcoming. Mama loves her Hogan—it is certain like the sunrise.

Thomas Kearnes graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with an MA in film writing. His fiction has appeared in Hobart, Berkeley Fiction Review, PANK, BULL: Men's Fiction, Split Lip Magazine, Night Train, Word Riot, Storyglossia, Driftwood Press, Adroit Journal, Eclectica, wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, Sundog Lit, The Citron Review, The James Franco Review and elsewhere. He is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee. Originally from East Texas, he now lives near Houston and works as a cashier.