There is blood on my hands. I look down at a body, a body that’s become a thing: monstrous, ugly, inanimate. It could be a sculpture, a figure formed from wax or porcelain. The soul inside is gone, leaving a shell. I wipe a line of sweat from my forehead with a trembling hand, trying to tell myself these things, trying to believe that what lay at my feet is nothing more than an object, something to be reviled, something not worthy of further consideration.
It’s not easy to believe. Although the corpse at my feet does not have a twinkle in its eye or the simple rise and fall of a chest, it’s hard to remove myself from the plain fact that the body possessed those movements, those simple signs of life, just minutes ago. Distance, for now, seems more a matter of location than of feeling. The body at my feet wears the badges of its untimely demise: a dented face, a split open skull, blood and grayish pink matter seeping out. The bruises have already begun to rise, ugly yellow/pink things all over the body.
I stoop, plunge my fingers into the deepest hole, the one on the belly, to feel the warmth and the entrails. Amazed that the breathing has stopped. Amazed that I have such power.
I lift a finger to my mouth and slowly run it over my lips, the blackish liquid warm and viscous, metallic to the taste. I recall the vampire films I loved as a youth, never really believing such a thing could exist.
Now I do.
I have stolen a life so that my own might continue. There is something vampiric in that, isn’t there? Because without this theft of a beating heart and an expanding and contracting pair of lungs, I would have been unable to live.
Wasn’t that the real essence of the vampire?
It seems too quiet here: deep in the basement of a high rise. A dull clanging is my only accompaniment: pipes bringing warmth and water to tenants above, whose lives continue, ignorant, untouched by my murderous hand. And that’s the amazing thing, the thing that causes my breath, when drawn inward, to quiver.
Life goes on, in spite of this monumental act, just a quick, surprised scream and a heartbeat away.
There is blood on the walls, spattered Jackson Pollack style. Who can say what is art and what is murder?
This so-called victim who now lays in final repose on a cold concrete floor, staring vacantly at nothing or perhaps at the Hell that will one day consume me, can no longer chastise me, can no longer beg me to drop to my knees with him and pray, pray for forgiveness, imploring Jesus to lead me down the path of the righteous.
It’s not too late he said, before I brought the mallet down on his skull, cracking it open like a walnut, slamming it into his windpipe, his gut, an eye socket, his shoulders as he fell, anywhere the mallet would ruin, destroying, sucking life.
He was wrong. The final irony of his existence, I suppose, is that he thought he had the power to do anything, to change another person, whom I must admit, he cared very deeply about.
No, that power rests in my hand, the death-dealing claw that changed him. And people whine about how change never really lasts when it comes to others, how they always unfortunately revert to their old ways, the ways you don’t want them to be. Anyone who has ever tried to change another knows this to be true. Oh certainly, the change may last a week, a month, even a year. But soon, the real person comes back, the one who has been waiting in the wings for just the right cue: the one that will allow him to say, “Ah fuck it, I’ve had enough.”
But the change I’ve wrought in my friend can never be undone. He is dead and always will be. I have a power of which psychiatrists and psychologists can only dream. And I accomplished my transformation in a matter of seconds, behind a red-tinged curtain of rage.
Pretty sly, eh? For a man who’s spent most of his life doing nothing but looking after his own selfish needs and pursuing his own pleasures, it’s a pretty accomplished thing. Decisive. For once, a man of action.
I nudge him with my foot and am amazed at the heaviness my friend has taken on in death. His body doesn’t want to give, to roll; it has become a body at rest...forever.
I turn and head back upstairs. There are matters to attend to...clothes to be burned, an alibi to be concocted. People will want answers. And conveniently, I will have none. Knowledge is a dangerous thing. What was it my other friend once told me: “The only people worth knowing are the ones who know everything and the ones who know nothing.”
I know nothing about this. And now, I must go back into the realm of the living to ensure my ignorance remains secure.
But alone, I know that ignorance is one of the few luxuries I can no longer afford. Alone, I have only the luxury of time to contemplate how it all began.
He was beautiful. Beauty is so seldom ascribed to men, too often incorrectly attributed to men with feminine features: wavy blond hair, fine cheekbones, teeth cut from porcelain. But I’ve always thought of beauty as a quality that went deeper than the corporeal... something dark, dense, inexplicable, capable of stirring longings primal, longings one would be powerless to resist.
He was beautiful. I sat on a Red Line el train, headed downtown, bags of heavy camera equipment heaped at my side, one arm resting protectively over them. I watched the young man, unable to train my thoughts on anything other than this man who had entered through train doors to blot out the reality of the day, magical and transforming. Beauty, especially so rare a beauty, can do that. The young man was an eclipse: his presence coming between myself and the reality of the day hurtling by outside train windows.
He had come in behind three foreign people, a bright counterpoint to their drab clothes, colorless, already wilting in the August humidity. They chattered to one another in a language unrecognizable, Polish maybe, and I was annoyed at their yammering, unable to block it out sufficiently enough to concentrate on the book I was reading: a biography of William Blake.
I almost didn’t notice him. It wasn’t like me to pay much attention to what went on around me, especially when I was preparing for a shoot. Usually, I used the time on the train to set up the photographs I would take, the way I would manipulate light and shadow and how it fell on my models, to arrange the props, set up and test the lighting.
But something caused me to look up when the doors opened, perhaps I was struck by the dissonance created by the unknown language...and saw him. Close cropped brown hair, a bit of stubble framing full lips, a bruise fading to dull below his right eye. The bruise did not detract from the man’s beauty, but served to enhance it, making of the rough features something more vulnerable. The bruise was the embodiment of a yearning for the touch of a finger, the whisper of a kiss. The boy wore an old, faded T-shirt with a Bulls logo, black denim cut off just above his knees and a pair of work boots, the seam on the left beginning to separate. In spite of the workman’s garb, there was something intellectual about the boy, an intensity in his aquamarine eyes that portended to deeper thought.
At that moment, I made a decision. I don’t know what caprice seized me. I have always led an orderly life, completely without surprise. But when the train pulled to a stop and the young man stood, I acted on an impulse that was as sudden as it was uncontrollable.
I gathered my things together, stood and hurried off the train. He was unaware that I was following. He traipsed down the stairs at the Belmont stop, summer light making slanted rectangles on the concrete floor of the station. Another el train rumbled overhead.
I watched him go through the turnstiles, then hurried outside, into the heat, humidity, traffic and voices raised above the hubbub. He had almost vanished into the crowd, but his beauty, a beacon, found me and I stayed behind him, save for a few paces, unnoticed.
We walked for several blocks, east, toward Lake Michigan. As we got off the more commercial boulevards and the storefronts gave way to apartment buildings fashioned from brick, from old gray stone, I trailed him down an alley.
He paused to light a cigarette. Even in this simple act, there was a quiet grace, a sureness of movement and purpose. He stood, exhaling, face cauled in a screen of pale gray smoke, before the wind dispersed it.
I noticed suddenly we were alone. Things were quiet, here in the heart of the northside of the city. Insects chirped and a breeze off the lake rustled the leaves. Rain had been promised for days and perhaps the wind signaled its arrival.
Finally, almost alone with him in the alley: a beautiful young man and one, older, laden down with heavy, awkward equipment and a completely illogical plan that was no plan at all...what would I do if he paused to ask what the hell I was doing? He remained, I think, blissfully unaware of my existence as he headed down the alleyways, stride purposeful.
I suddenly had a presentiment and the feeling persisted...that of fear, a feeling that this young man held a sort of menace. I knew then he was a threat. All the sensible voices in my head formed a chorus, singing to me songs of urban tragedy, songs of pathetic older men lusting after younger ones. Death in Venice. This seemed to be a Midwestern sort of Tennessee Williams play, fraught with danger, bound to be wrapped up in disaster.
What if the man knew I was following and was leading me somewhere where my screams wouldn’t be heard? What if when we were more alone, he would turn to me and with the cunning smile of the serial killer, would remove a knife from his workboot and spill my life all over the brick cobbled streets? He would leave me, after slipping from me the burdens of my wallet and my camera equipment, my blood to drain into the bricks until some unsuspecting passerby spotted my prone form on the pavement and alerted the authorities. I could see it all: a Technicolor nightmare.
Photographers have visual imaginations like that. We have to, it’s how we make our living.
I began to be seized with fear, a real, cold terror masquerading as common sense that told me to get back on the train and on with my orderly life. But something made me press on, something in the sway of his hips as he walked quickly, heading further and further east as if he were a lemming and Lake Michigan’s bouldered front his destination. His beauty made me feel I would follow him anywhere, even toward my own demise.
I had the feeling he knew I was behind him. His steps slowed, faltered. I thought I could catch peripheral movement of his eyes, as he strained to look behind him without turning his head.
He would be one of the boys, I thought, who enjoyed a good fag bashing and this older man, only in his thirties really, but already showing the signs: the thinning patch at the top of my head, fragile lines appearing around my mouth and on my forehead, strands of gray in my goatee, the last vestige of the hip, would make a perfect victim. After all, didn’t I deserve to be punished for my inverted lust?
But on the train, I felt there was something different about this one. Even with that small glimpse, I knew the old clothes and the work boots were a lie. This man was made of finer stuff.
Still, I could be wrong. Chill fingers ran a glissando up and down my spine, playing the discs like piano keys.
He flicked his cigarette away, where it sparked and sent out a shower of ashes when it hit a brick wall.
And then he stopped. He turned to face me and a smile played about his lips. His face was radiant! The smile served only to light up the perfect countenance: the fine cheekbones and perfect teeth, aquamarine eyes, a cleft in his chin...all these elements that came together to form something more ethereal. His beauty was difficult to describe in a language containing only twenty six letters.
And it was his beauty that, for the moment, obliterated my fear and the good sense with which I lived my life. But I have lived with common sense for far too long to ignore it. I wanted to turn and run and then the absurdity of the image assaulted me: a thin, balding man, running cockeyed down an alley, burdened with lenses, camera bodies, a tripod...all of these things banging against me, weighing me down and making my movements leaden, like in a nightmare. With my handicap and his youth...he could have overtaken me in seconds.
So I stopped too and stupidly, grinned.
He grinned back and I wasn’t sure if there wasn’t a hint of menace in that grin: the cat toying with the mouse just before he pounced. I felt the chill again...a cold that emanated from within, having nothing to do with the hot, fetid breeze that blew through the trees above us. I pictured it all: the grin never leaving his perfect face, my mouth opened in a surprised ‘O’, the embodiment of Munch’s The Scream. I would back from his smiling face, that evil devilish, grin, dropping my lenses, camera bodies...the tripod...stumble over them as he overtook me, as the sun moved into place behind him to cast a long shadow, to make of him a silhouette to my blinking eyes.
“What do you want?” There was no fear in his voice, if anything, there was only a hint of amusement in that musical inflection, deep, slightly scratchy. The grin continued, lessened, but there: playful.
I bit my lower lip, not sure what I should say. What could I say? I didn’t know what it was myself I wanted. A little voice inside me, whispered with a deep throaty laugh: “To have you invite me home, to let me worship you. No reciprocation needed. Just let me worship at the altar of your perfection.”
I felt like a fool. Where was the self-esteem I had worked so hard to procure? Psychoanalysts and therapy groups nothing more than wasted time and money.
“I...I...” Faltering, I stared, face burning, at the bricks of the backs of the three flats which walled us in together, a sheet of newspaper rustling down the alley until a brown-painted Dumpster arrested its flight.
The man shrugged, turned and began to walk away, stride faster now.
I caught up, inspiration and desire mingling: a way to redeem myself.
I laid a hand on his shoulder. Beneath the thin cotton of his T-shirt, I felt the bone wrapped in muscle, silken skin. That small touch was electric. He stopped and turned once more to look at me. “Yes?”
Stupidly, I smiled, fumbled for my wallet, withdrew a card: Liam Howard, Photographer. Custom Holograms. My address, phone and pager numbers. I held the card out to him like a gift, its white glare trembling slightly.
He took the card and read it over.
“I’m Liam...Liam Howard,” I stammered. “I’m a photographer.” Of course I was! Isn’t that what the card I had just handed him said? When did I become so helpless, reduced to a tongue-tied adolescent under this god’s aquamarine stare? But the truth was, and this is hard to believe, I was reduced by this beauty, a beauty unlike any I had ever seen. “I occasionally do exhibits,” I blurted. “You know, my own stuff...at the galleries down in River North. I work with holograms...pretty exclusively. Not like the stuff you see in malls, but full three dimensional images that I showcase in glass domes. ” I bit my lip and said it, feeling I had nothing to lose: “I’d like to make one of you. Do a portrait, you know? Have you ever done anything like that?”
He shook his head. “Not me.” He stared at the card, almost as if there was something he had missed, probably looking for the con that this odd man was trying to play. “What do you want in return? You want me to pay you or something?”
“No, no! I don’t want anything from you but some of your time. Listen, I have a show opening Friday at the Ling Gallery, down on Superior. Come and see my work,” I shrugged. “You’ll see I’m legit and you can get an idea of what I do.”
He stood silently. I could imagine what he was feeling: that this had to be some sort of come-on and that he would be better off to turn and go home before this ruse went any further. “I could pay you, if that’s what you want.” I was about to offer him $100.00 an hour, but before I could, he said:
“It might be fun. Sure, I’ll do it.”
“Do what? Come to the opening or pose for me?”
“I’ll come to the opening. We can go from there.”
“What’s your name?”
He smiled and again, I felt an electric surge.
“Gary,” he said, extending a large hand. “Gary Adrion.”