MAMA IS ALWAYS ONSTAGE

By Thomas Kearnes

—for my mother

Hogan tried to concentrate on his task. The checkered blindfold started to slip down his nose. The Hispanic with the thick, uncircumcised penis didn’t slow the rhythm of his hips bopping closer to Hogan’s face. Hogan felt compelled to please men he would never see. This desire overwhelmed him at least once a week, sometimes more. The approval of these men, the satisfaction that Hogan measured by the amount of semen pumped down his throat, allowed him to believe—until he entered the glaring light of morning—the gay men of Dallas accepted him. All it cost was the dignity he auctioned to them with savvy. The blindfold finally fell in a heap upon the concrete floor. Hogan couldn’t respond to the bronze-skinned, irritated man—his lazy eye, his acne scars, his widow’s peak. It was too late for Hogan to close his eyes.

“I’m so sorry,” Hogan said, grabbing the blindfold. “I can still suck you off.”

“You’re sweet,” the Hispanic said, backing toward the door, “but I check out soon.” Before Hogan sank to his knees, the man had mentioned his recent arrival. Hogan didn’t mind. He was grateful the Hispanic spoke at all; so few did after they came.

Hogan’s knees ached. Earlier chugging two caps of GHB at The Neon Outlaw no longer seemed like the best idea. He craved acceptance like inmates crave mail from lonely women. Sex filled this void quickly. While sucking on the Hispanic, he’d felt relieved as his own penis swelled against his thigh. Sometimes the shame paired with the ecstasy was so pungent that his penis didn’t stir at all. He embarked on this ritual at the bathhouse nearly twenty years ago. He left the door open so men could behold him stroking himself. Even at age forty and after twenty-five years of hitting the pipe, he hadn’t lost his looks.

As the attendant announced over the loudspeaker that room 325 needed cleaning, Hogan groaned with the pleasure he gave himself, not wanting to climax unless someone watched. He didn’t hear the knock.

“Need some help with that?” a man asked. Hogan didn’t stretch his neck to learn the man’s identity. He believed happiness derived from ignorance, especially during sex. Finally, his manners forced him to meet the stranger’s gaze. He was well into his middle years, hair almost gray, jowls forming, the bottom of his ass collapsed into a series of wrinkles. Hogan hoped his impish belly, the scattered gray hair on his chest and his crow’s feet didn’t alienate younger men. Before he welcomed the stranger, the man stepped inside and slapped his hand over his fist like a little league coach describing a play. Suddenly, he stopped. His face wrenched in confusion, and he wrapped his arms around himself.

“What’s wrong?” Hogan asked.

“Don’t you feel that?”

“I can’t feel anything.”

“It must be fifty degrees in here.”

Hogan chuckled, tugging his own cock. “You got some bad shit, handsome.”

“I’m serious.” The man spun around, arms still folded. He glanced at Hogan over his shoulder. “Come to 313. We’ll smoke some shit and fuck around. Too fucking cold in here.” The man left. Hogan dropped his head, this rejection much like the humiliation from moments ago. He had enough dope for another bowl.

”My Lord, child, you don’t have enough room to change your mind.” The voice was high and melodious, like an ice cream truck on an August afternoon.

Shit, Hogan thought. Not tonight. I wanna suck dick and bend over for hot guys.

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

“Does this door lock?” she said. “I don’t want one of your friends barging in.” She fiddled with the knob. It clicked, and Mama hooted in triumph.

“You’re not real.”

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

“You’re not my mother,” Hogan said.

“Who else would come all this way while you slut around like some groupie?”

He rubbed his temples, turned his back. The image, however, would not vanish. Mama 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 from long ago all wore the same outfit.

Hogan lit his pipe and blew a sinister bank of smoke at Mama, hoping it would demolish the illusion. She waved her hand until the smoke vanished.

“Was that supposed to impress me?”

“I can’t talk right now.”

“We need to talk about these bad choices.”

He laughed. “That ship has sailed, Mama.”

Mama’s mouth flattened into a slit, her spooky, violet eyes narrowed. “You were always a quitter. Boy Scouts, football, so many great jobs.”

“Then leave before I disappoint you again.”

“Still got a smart mouth.”

“Come back when I’m not tweaked, okay?”

Mama looked stricken. “I can’t wait that long.”

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

She tried to leave, but the door was locked. She twisted the knob. Hogan exhaled roughly. Mama fluttered her hand in his face when he stepped toward her. “I locked it myself. I’ll unlock it myself.” He jiggled the knob and the door swung open.
“There’s my special boy.” She kissed his forehead and left the room. Hogan froze, his heart racing. Ghosts can’t touch you, he thought. She hadn’t before. He peered into the hall, but 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 are the same eerie violet.

Little shit ain’t got a dad. No man would marry that slut. He’s a pussy. They sleep in the same bed. She buys his nightshirts in the ladies’ section at J.C. Penney. One shove and he’ll run to Mommy. Crybaby, crybaby, crybaby.

Followed by the women, 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 him–it is certain like the sunrise.

* * *

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

“Baby,” Hogan called. “See who it is.”

After a moment, Trevor replied, “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. The coming weekend marked six months since Trevor’s split from Hogan. 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. Now Hogan couldn’t remember Kyle’s embrace. Hogan released him but caught 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 desire palpable like a spasm gripped Hogan, a desire to show his godson the world, the wonders and the winters. All he hoped were that girls and not boys had left their marks on Kyle. He wouldn’t wish his life, even the heydays with Trevor and those before him, on anyone, let alone a child who loved him.

“Let’s get out of here,” Kyle said.

“You hungry?”

“If you’re paying.”

Kyle’s fondness for fast food provided Hogan a respite from the pretentious bistros and cafés swarming his neighborhood. He feigned indecision, but he knew what he wanted before pulling into the Whataburger lot.

“Mom wants me to ask you a question,” Kyle said.

“Why not ask me herself?”

“If you put up half the cost, Mom will match it. I’ll finally have some wheels.”

Hogan swallowed his bite before it was ready. He coughed and sucked down soda. He hated telling Kyle no. With his penchant for truancy and unabashed affection for marijuana, Kyle didn’t need an automobile making these vices shimmer even more seductively. Hogan sighed and arched 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.”

Hogan dropped his voice. “I wondered why you weren’t wearing a jacket.”

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

He sat across from Mama.

The color drained from Hogan’s face. His hands balled into fists. Kyle see her despite was born after her death; he probably never noticed her photos in the townhouse. Silence fell over the restaurant. The boy 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 happy seventeenth birthday next week, receiving no thanks. Hogan slumped inside the doorframe, crushed to watch him drift into the chilly night. Before Hogan settled into this emotional purgatory, 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 met in an undergraduate art class two decades ago. They 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 had reconciled himself with being no artist. The professor was so encouraging that dropping the course seemed rude. He gazed in wonder at the model. It wasn’t until Meredith giggled that he realized his frank admiration had drawn its own stares. Both felt an instant kinship. They met for coffee, scoped out men in bars, held each other through the tears after break-ups. He was the only one to whom Meredith would entrust her child. As Kyle neared manhood, however, Hogan felt 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 sounds sober so far, he thought. “That boy always gets your to grab your ankles.”

“Your little jokes are worse than his.”

“What jokes?”

Hogan paused, heart fluttering. Meredith knew a great deal about her child—but Hogan knew the rest. “Nothing, dear.”

“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 hoped Meredith never deduced how badly he needed the boy to consider him a confidant. “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 listened to his past scurry overhead.

“Tell the little shit good night,” he said.

“Good night, little shit.”

After ending the call, Hogan sat on the sill of a picture window, gazing into the starless night.  Even with the cloudbanks drifting past, the moon shone through like an unwanted truth. Two more days and it would reach fullness. Hogan tried not to follow the thumps and bangs upstairs; Trevor rarely lacked male company. At first, Hogan was glad to see his ex-lover “moving on,” despite believing the phrase absurdly inadequate to describe the impending separation, two paths snaking from one point toward distant ends of the same deep forest. If Trevor were moving on, Hogan had permission to do the same, given by Trevor himself, if not wittingly. Now, the nights not spent with Kyle or Meredith and not spent lurking the dank halls of the bathhouse, Hogan slumped listless against the window, wishing he were invited into the blackness surrounding this prison of beige walls and thrift-store furniture  He debated opening the window, letting the cold blast him like it did others before Mama appeared. The silence upstairs spooked him; Trevor soon would leave and Hogan soon would miss him—as desperately as he missed everyone, missed them even as they stood before his eyes.

* * *

Mama’s hair doesn’t spin madly anymore. She cut it, 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. It’s what every child needs.

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 but also without insult; at their young age, they believe such passion to be a rare thing, 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 the blond boy.

Mama stomps the linoleum stage, her shoes banging before the children like a god’s promise. She and the other dancers lift their arms as a cacophony of horns washes over them. She has sacrificed her gorgeous hair but never her smile. 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 him—it is certain like the sunrise.

* * *

Less than twenty-four hours, that’s all Trevor had to pack and prepare for a one-week trip to Fiji. Hogan waited for Trevor to ask for help, to assure him it wasn’t at all spooky a random guy with a cock of considerable girth had invited him out of the country after a wild weekend at the bathhouse. I just have a good feeling about him, Trevor informed his ex-lover after rhapsodizing for ten whole minutes about Warner’s sly smile and toned physique. Unfortunately, the same fear of ridicule that shackled him to Kyle’s deceptions also silenced his dismay over Trevor’s voyage into the unknown.

“Baby,” Trevor said, “you got a spare box of rubbers? I’m not going out in this cold.”

“Since when do you suit up before battle?”

“Bathhouse rules don’t apply here.”

“Just poke around my room when I’m gone, bud.”

“He’ll think I’m a whore. He’ll think I have diseases.”

“I doubt he cares.”

Trevor snapped up and faced his housemate, an overflowing duffel bag before him. Hogan at first returned his gaze, but his chin listed, his eyes falling to the floor. Soon the symptoms of shame offered comfort but no chance of escape. Hogan wouldn’t know where to go it they did.

“You know what I’m waiting for,” Trevor said.

“I’ve said it enough times. You wanna hear it again?”

“No one’s forcing you.”

“You don’t know the first fucking thing about this guy.”

“I know everything about you.” Trevor stuffed a wad of black bikini briefs into the bag. “Look what it got me.”

“I’m sorry, baby.”

“You’re forgiven.” Trevor held up a silk turquoise pajama set, inspected it. Hogan recalled the first night Trevor slid into bed, the sleeve slipping over his waist. Don’t strip me bare too soon, Trevor told him. You don’t need me naked to feel good. Hogan’s eyelids fluttered as Trevor wrapped him in a plaintive embrace.

“You look great in that,” Hogan said.

“Even better out of it.” Trevor shrugged one shoulder and folded the garments crisply like a retail veteran, his face a slate. “Before I forget,” he said, “I’d rather you not call me that.” His cold gaze stunned Hogan like a splash of ice water. “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 sharp corners stretching the vinyl fabric. He watched him pluck a bottle of cologne from the nightstand, said nothing upon realizing it belonged to him. He no longer loved Trevor, perhaps never did. Hogan, however, loved his company. If at least one man deigned to share a roof with him, perhaps his hope would not prove foolish.

Trevor stopped folding a pinstripe shirt, 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 had witnessed countless times these righteous parades between rooms. Despite this, fear always seized his heart that Trevor would never return. He gave chase; Trevor had left him no choice.

Trevor charged down the stairs, Hogan too cowardly to follow. He tossed off his next confession like lint from a sweater. “After Fiji, I’m looking for my own place.” He never looked back to see Hogan’s face collapse in shock. “Sorry, Hogie. Don’t pretend you’re that surprised.”

The staircase yawned before Hogan as if a gas chamber loomed at the bottom. Every step would bring him closer to the man who carelessly would change once more his fate. He despised himself for offering Trevor such power, offering it to Kyle, to the men hidden by Hogan’s blindfold. He despised himself for mistaking pleasure for necessity.

“You can’t do that.”

Trevor paused at the bottom of the stairs, gripped the banister as if he might launch from the Earth as it spun. “I’ll make this month’s payment.”

“Baby, please—”

“Don’t call me that!”

“Where are you going?” Hogan swallowed and ventured onto the first stair. He tried to think, but all he envisioned was another lonely night in a rented room, a needle hanging from his arm. His choices—Mama had wanted to discuss his choices.

Hogan descended, watching Trevor turn to face him. “To Fiji. You know that.”

“We’ve sunk too much money into this place.” Hogan hoped logic would accomplish what emotional pleas had not. His heart pounded, his palms grew clammy. “I can’t afford this house alone.”

Trevor’s face softened and his shoulders fell. Hogan’s breath caught, an absurd and naïve optimism overflowing. He didn’t notice the downstairs phone ringing until Trevor withdrew from the staircase and disappeared into the living room.

“You could always shack up with her,” Trevor called out. He listened to Trevor answer the phone. Meredith liked to flirt with Trevor despite, or perhaps due to, his disdain for her son. Hogan grimaced hearing him attempt to extract himself from the conversation. Sensation returned to his feet, and hurried to the phone. Trevor passed him the receiver. “She’s drunk,” he said. “Not my problem anymore.”

“Have you seen Kyle?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

Kyle enjoyed being the source of worry, making Hogan and his mother fret. At least, this was Meredith’s opinion. Hogan hoped his godson’s motives were less corrupt. Each time she called Hogan to report her son’s disappearance, Hogan instinctively 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 said, his tone flat from distraction. “It’s a head game. That’s all.”

“Jesus, Hogan,” Trevor shouted. Hogan clamped his hand over the mouthpiece. Meredith knew how badly Trevor mistreated him—the fights, the insults, the silences. Despite his myriad betrayals, Hogan felt compelled to protect his ex-lover. After all, Trevor was a dear friend. “Call the fucking repairman tomorrow,” Trevor continued. “It’s colder upstairs than it is outside. Goddamn furnace.”

“Where are you?”

“You said you had condoms, right?”

Meredith’s voice seeped through Hogan’s fingers. He’d forgotten her. Even cruel men inspired in Hogan a steadfast and exclusive devotion.

“Baby,” Hogan said. “I’m sorry. You there?”

“I don’t know why I give shit…”

“He’s your son. Of course you—”

The horrible hum disoriented him like staring into the sun. Meredith never had hung up without a goodbye. You lose, you lose, you lose—the pains pile up, and then you lose again.

“Hogan, what the fuck is this?!?”

Trevor rushed down the stairs, gripping a small stack of glossy photos. His eyes bulged, his breath sputtered; Hogan couldn’t help recalling the last time he and Trevor made love, the complete exhaustion, the sweet reward, Hogan had coaxed from him. How could the furnace have blinked out so suddenly, he wondered. It had been toasty when he’d watched Trevor pack moments before.

“You’re a sick fuck,” Trevor cried as he reached the ground floor. “I should’ve known when you wanted to take that twink home from the club.”

“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. Trevor’s disgust fumed like exhaust from a tailpipe on a cold morning. Hogan couldn’t explain to himself why his ex-lover’s sudden rage boggled him. He thought he’d witnessed the nadir of Trevor’s contempt; he had not.

“Look at them, you fucking pervert,” Trevor said.

“Baby, what’s wrong?”

Trevor grabbed Hogan’s throat, and Hogan finally understood: he and Trevor were not lovers, not friends, not housemates—at least, not for much longer. He was the garbage Trevor planned to hurl from a speeding car.

“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 as if someone might spy them, knowing someone already had. He didn’t know their subject, but he did know he had lost any chance to win Trevor’s sympathy one last time. Trevor remained tall and erect before him; Hogan believed his housekeeping skills were in doubt. Finally, he dared glimpse at 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 as if it were a newborn delivered for the first time into her arms. To Hogan’s knowledge, no such photo existed; neither did the next one he studied. “You gettin’ hard, Hogie?” 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 boy splashed below in the rough waters, impervious to the likelihood the inflatable rings wrapped around his meaty arms might not keep him afloat. Sifting through these counterfeit memories, their pungency crushed him like a small child’s shame after disappointing his parent. The muscles in his calves and thighs cramped, his stomach stirred, he forgot to inhale until necessity demanded it. After the fifth or sixth photo, Hogan glanced up to discover Trevor gone. Footsteps thundered up the stairs. So enveloped in a private, confining agony was Hogan, his ex-lover’s disgust now existed on a plane no less distant than the moon. The last photo featured an older Mama, a woman whose beauty had faded but retained the ability to offer comfort, a needed solace. As in every shot, she wore her dance attire, sequins sparkling. Here she circled a teenage boy’s waist. The young man wore a navy blue cap and gown; he beamed with a pride Hogan himself could not recall experiencing recently enough to identify. 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 Trevor clomped down at that moment, dragging his bulging bags like mewling children from a candy store.

“I’ll send for my other shit later.”

“Is this a fucking joke?”

“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, produced a baggie of brittle white crystals. He flung it away like it hadn’t been the cornerstone of their romance, like he and Hogan were inept performers in an anti-drug spot. “It was this and the fucking house, right? Trevor and Hogan!” The regret soaking Trevor’s voice was far too much and not nearly enough.

Hogan consumed the baggie’s contents in moments; the high throbbed inside him like his desperation had required. The photos of Mama and the boy who was Hogan and yet not Hogan—they compelled him to revisit their faux warmth so strongly, no stick of furniture, no stitch of carpet, could dare distract.

Mama had vanished. Every last photo: gone.

Hogan recognized Kyle’s bedroom at once: the bed too wide for a single teenager; the Green Day and Radiohead posters; the open closet revealing an army of sleeveless T-shirts that clung to his lanky frame. Meredith occasionally sent him there to fetch Kyle if he refused to speak to her. Horribly, however, it was not the room’s décor that compelled Hogan. In the first photo, the first of what he knew were simultaneously the ones of Mama that Trevor bizarrely found revolting, Kyle sat on the corner of his bed, legs spread wide, his erection glistening and proud in his grip. So…now Hogan knew. When tweaked, his thoughts stubbornly refusing to leave his godson, he’d wondered about Kyle’s endowment. Kyle leered into the lens. One image followed another of Kyle aping provocative positions; toward the end of the stack, one photo depicted a man sucking Kyle, his back was turned to the lens, Kyle’s face frozen not in ecstasy but in cruel calculation. Hogan flipped through the stack, not sure whether he wanted the innocent (if impossible) shots of Mama to reappear or to enjoy the stiffness rising between his thighs.

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

The images tumbled from his hands. He knew this: neither the photos of Mama nor those of Kyle stirred a moment’s recognition, but they were all meant for his eyes. With each appearance, Mama materialized in more obscure ways. Hogan knew he needed help, but all he had was a disgusted ex-lover, an unstable best friend, a devious godson…and the menagerie of men congregated at the bathhouse.

* * *

Mama nears her middle years but still dances with more vigor and panache than any other woman in the troupe. 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.

She knows 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 mother’s children inflict on her every day till she dies.

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 from the junior high across town to watch her perform. The boy’s eyes dart nervously back and forth, perhaps leery of appearing to enjoy the company of children young enough to find eating paste and cootie shots parts of their daily lives.

That pervert Fell isn’t fooling anyone. He may sleep with her in the evening but in the afternoons, he can’t keep his hands off the kid. Private showers to “help” him identify all those body parts when no one remembers the real names, wrestling practice because Coach believes it’s never too early to start training. You’ve got to learn your way around a man. That’s the secret—knowing the man beneath you better than he knows you.

Mama’s feet erupt in a series of staccato steps that remind the boy of someone a century ago sending 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 him—it is certain like the sunrise.

* * *

Kyle studied his fingernails, his face blank. Hogan watched him with both terror and desire. His loneliness felt so overwhelming, even the smallest overture from his godson might push him over the cliff into true perversion.

“I have a tiny confession to make, Hogie.”

“I’m listening.”

“I planted those pictures.”

Hogan swallowed his rage, felt a granny knot slide down his throat, toward his gut. “They were for me, right? Early Christmas present?”

“Why would you need to see them?” Kyle asked innocently. “I don’t need 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 so she could pass out reassured. Hogan had tried to shove under the sofa the lurid photos Kyle made of himself, but one had escaped his attention. The moment Kyle spied it at the far side of the living room, he’d invited Hogan to sit, Kyle taking a seat opposite him. There was no danger they might touch by accident, Hogan told himself. He was the adult in this situation; he had to navigate his own desires and Kyle’s motives deftly. Alas, all the meth he’d snorted before his godson’s arrival had retarded Hogan’s 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’ve scoped out.”

“Do you have any idea how much hell I’ve gone through over your stupid car?”

“Trevor was a hypocrite,” Kyle said as if explaining the concept of brunch to a homeless person. “You can do better.”

“What the fuck do you mean?”

Kyle’s eyes darkened. He tilted forward so quickly, Hogan feared he might cross the room and strike. “He’s been sucking my dick ever since you two hooked up.”

Nearly eighteen months. Kyle would’ve been fifteen when Trevor quickly swept Hogan past all sense and prudence. Hogan wished to leave the room, willing to let Kyle transform the first floor into his own private lair, anything so long as Hogan was elsewhere.

“He must’ve shown you only the photographs without him,” Kyle mused. Hogan noticed a new tattoo, a small one on his inner forearm: a cross with ivy crawling upon it. Rather common, he thought, considering the boy planned to wear it for life. “You were supposed to find them, freak out, threaten to show them to Mom and then squeeze whatever I needed from Trevor, telling Mom 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 me and him polish apples, huh?”

“Jesus!”

“You said he packed a bunch of shit for the Bahamas, right?”

“Fiji.”

“Whatever. I’m sure they followed him right out the door.”

What had Hogan thought with that question? Whatever forcing Trevor’s hand might have earned Hogan, those conditions would’ve been temporary, destined to crumble the moment Trevor slipped through his fingers once again. Still, he envied Kyle’s shamelessness and quick mind. Whether his encounters with men were mere rebellion or became the mainstay of his sexual life, Hogan sadly admitted that a boy young enough to be his son had astutely, and almost instantly, decoded a dilemma Hogan had found hopeless. It wasn’t his fault Trevor had proven himself a quick thinker as well.

Kyle rose from his chair and picked up the remote, seemingly done with silly photos and nasty Trevor. 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—”

“Relax, Hogie. Let’s watch some closet case recommend home remodeling no sane person would attempt. Mom loves Nate Berkus.”

It was European porn. More specifically, a product from one of Russia’s new countries in which the minimum age for performers was more a suggestion than law. On the screen, a lithe and blond boy penetrated a shorter, tan boy atop a workout bench. As for the music—well, anyone who complains about elevator music has obviously never watched pornography.

“You’re too young for this, Kyle.”

“If I’m old enough to attempt extortion, I think I can handle a little ass-pounding.” While the film played, Kyle eased himself to Hogan’s side of the room. He landed on the sofa, the side adjacent from Hogan. “I know you’re well on your way to the land of milk and honey, but I brought a surprise. We’ve both earned it tonight.”

He produced from his messenger bag a black case small enough to carry a pair of eyeglasses. He lifted the glass pipe from the case and inspected it for any dope left in the bowl.

“Thanks, I’ve had enough.” Hogan pretended the teenage boys having sex onscreen was utterly absorbing. “I promised your mother we’d never do that.”

“But I never promised the reverse.”

“You know, Kyle, highly intelligent people are often miserable.”

“Until they find other intelligent people to console them.” Kyle offered the pipe to Hogan, white smoke still trailing from the bowl. Hogan took it from him with the trepidation of a thirsty man reaching for an oasis. “And you won’t find any smart guys in Fiji,” Kyle said.

As Hogan drew in the smoke, Kyle slipped off his shirt. It dropped to the floor beside his foot. Hogan exhaled onto Kyle’s naked torso, hairless and tight. He kept his gaze focused there, terrified of meeting Kyle’s eyes, knowing his desire would amplify Hogan’s own.

“Do you think about what would happen if things were different?” Kyle asked.

“How?”

“If I wasn’t your godson.” Kyle dropped his jeans, revealed black thong underwear reserved only for the very young or very fit; Kyle met both requirements. “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 among his genitals. “I could be anyone, Hogie. Your boyfriend told me all about that blindfold thing you do.”

Hogan yanked away his hand. His couldn’t camouflage the hurt and betrayal. Trevor was a monster; Hogan loved a monster. He harshly asked Kyle for the remote but perhaps sensing the sudden shift in dynamics, Kyle instead knelt before his Hogan, crossed his arms. He rested them atop Hogan’s knees, his head tilted upward, giving away the power.

“Forget Mom. Forget Trevor. Forget all those assholes who won’t show you their faces. This is about me and you. I need to be with a man. I need to be with you, Hogie.”

Kyle unfastened Hogan’s jeans, clawed through the dark pubic hair he found. “No underwear,” he sighed. “Trevor told me that too.”

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, he succumbed. Kyle took him into his mouth, and Hogan tilted back his head, staring at the ceiling.

Kyle stopped. “No, watch what I’m doing. Remember what I’m doing.” Hogan obeyed. “One more thing,” Kyle said. “Sing me ‘Happy Birthday.’ You’re the only one who will.”

Hogan began to sing, the notes sharp as pleasure surged through his body. He watched Kyle’s head bob upon his lap. The house was not empty. He glanced at the porn film. The actors had stopped fucking. They shivered, held one another for heat. If Kyle noticed the sudden silence in the room, he didn’t let it interfere with his quest. Mama emerged from a doorway behind the actors. She looked lost. She glanced at the freezing actors once then stumbled elsewhere. “Where’s my son?” she asked the men. “Has anyone seen my son?” Hogan instructed Kyle to stop and grab the remote. He’d heard enough from Mama tonight.

* * *

 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 when the troupe performs. 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, such an older boy among all these children. He looks more like his father every day; she never tells him this. Mama has danced for so long, 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 now; he comes and goes as he pleases. He seemed to so enjoy her performance every year before.

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 manages to convey the feeling. They both ditched class and retreated to Mama’s house. The track star wished to make love in every room of the house, as is often suggested in soap operas and trashy movies. 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 a bow tie begging for a child’s approval.

The track star panics when he hears a pounding at the door. The boy instructs him to hide in his closet and 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 me and Mama. After the trooper leaves, the boy flattens against the closed door, can’t breathe. So many routines, so many corny dance beats, so many rude children. In his mind, Mama winks at him as the curtains close. He is seventeen years old. Mama loves her Hogan—it is certain like the sunrise.

***

The checkered blindfold slid down Hogan’s nose like it had last time and numerous times before that. He knew he should replace it but had no clue about the difference between an adequate blindfold and a deficient one.

The man currently thrusting himself between Hogan’s lips was not a nice man. He’d flung wide the door, causing a jolting bang, the door Hogan always left ajar, exposing him to countless potential dangers and humiliations; none of them gave him enough pause to stop, to stop, please God, stop. This man liked poppers—Hogan had never understood the substance’s minimal, transient allure. A steady succession of snorts overhead kept Hogan more focused on his task. The man had not asked Hogan for his name, if he was tweaked, when he’d arrived. No, not a nice man.

“I know how much you want that, little bitch,” the man said.

Hogan moaned his assent.

“Worship that thick cock.”

Hogan moaned again.

“Bet you can go twice with that mouth.”

Coughing, Hogan slipped the man from his mouth in one jerky motion. He was tired of playing the whore—no, whores are actually paid. After all, he’d drafted his godson into the role less than two hours ago. Upon climaxing and watching with dread as Kyle swallowed his load, Hogan rushed him from the house, making sure to thank his godson for treating him so well, for telling the truth. At least, Kyle’s current version of it. Hogan felt desired and hopeful; the cash fled from his wallet as if by magic. Kyle looked at him, perplexed, perhaps the first point that evening in which matters hadn’t proceeded to 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 clutching him as Hogan demanded that he return home. Once alone, Hogan gazed about the townhome, heard all the sounds that had fled: the ringing land line, Trevor’s footsteps, Kyle’s barbs and candor. Only one place would claim him without these reminders of the life rollicking past, leaving him.

“What the fuck was that?” the man in Hogan’s rented room said. “I thought you loved to take loads.”

“I’m sorry, I must be—could you come back later?”

The man clubbed Hogan’s temple, left his fist in midair as if it could survey the shock and damage. After a moment, Hogan haltingly placed his palm over his ear, acclimated to the eerie ambience of the techno music after being struck. He knew he should apologize again, apologize before the scene turned nastier, but he couldn’t. The words refused to arrive.

“I could have some little college boy doing twice as good with half the bullshit,” the man said. Hogan stared blankly at the man’s softening erection but only because it fell in his sightline from his position on his knees. “Where’s your shit?” the man demanded.

“My what? My—?”

“Least you owe me for 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 necessary for serial anonymous sex. The man was bigger, younger, more aggressive the Hogan. He was simply relieved the man truly wanted nothing more than a better buzz. After scattering his things to the floor, the man batted Hogan’s head with his open palm, glared at Hogan cowering at his feet then shook his head with pity. Hogan closed his eyes; he’d never developed a more sophisticated means of dealing with hurt. As the man left, he complained about the cold, promised the hallway he’d find the manager. Once he opened them, he was alone in the room, the door 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 shut the door upon them, his head throbbing, especially his inner left ear. He didn’t doubt the pain only would worsen once the dope’s effects wore away. He leaned into the closed door, focused on the pain. 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 approached him, tenderly tilted his head several different directions. “Can you hear me good?” she said loudly into his damaged ear. He nodded, the tears starting to fall. In that moment, he felt so thankful that at least one person in life, dead or alive, truly knew him.

“I fucked up, Mama.”

“Ssh. That’s all in the past, Hogie.”

“You were right. I always make the wrong fucking move.”

“Open the door, son.”

“I can’t, Mama. I know what those assholes think of me.”

She took away his hand from his ear and held in both of 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 sat 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 that 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 from somewhere above. The spotlight grows more intense, but its lights warms and welcomes. Mama loves her Hogan like the sunrise loves the sky.

 

Thomas Kearnes

https://www.facebook.com/thomas.kearnes.1
trkearnes@yahoo.com

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