The boy was in the dumpster. As though it were his coffin. He looked like Eddie Redmayne except not. Those saint’s pale blue eyes, that shock of red hair, that vulnerable mouth, except ear rings and metal cuffs, eyebrows — full sleeve tattoos with Celtic figures, Maori tatts around his neck — and the red hair was bleached white in streaks. His open shirt showed two tit rings and two words tattooed on his chest, a little off center because they were supposed to be over his heart. “Jesus wept.” He had wanted, paid for and endured these embellishments. Now the blood caked on him was not requested but it was contagious. He had late stage AIDS, which meant he was fragile in the first place, vulnerable to many things but maybe hatred most of all. The real infection was self-hate.
Let’s make him Irish. That way we can import a whole stereotypical backstory and won’t have to write it out. Let’s call him “Mordecai” but he’ll need a nickname. The father, of course, was abusive and deserted them; the mother had had too many children too close together and might have seemed very pious but maybe was only dependent on the parish for help. All the children were pretty, when they were clean, but Mordy had a different quality, kind of other-worldly, floaty. He was a good student, intellectual but mystical, and mixed the pagan stories in with the Christian stories, even though he was an altar boy. (Of course he was — what did you expect?)
His priest was his hero. He was a large bitter man, but fond of Mordy. More than fond. He’d run his hand through that red hair, take the boy by the chin to tip up his face so he could see into his eyes, but no one thought anything of it. At first. Until the day the priest kissed him on his soft mouth. Mordy already worried a bit about being too girlish. He was twelve. He’d never thought about men who abused boys sexually because he didn’t know such a thing was possible. His brothers and playmates were rough in their play and took for granted the hard-ons that were just there — didn’t mean anything. When the priest initiated him — let’s be honest — raped him, he told the boy it meant that he was chosen, special, that it was a beautiful thing that God approved of, that it meant love. But Mordy didn’t quite believe it and suddenly the priest left the parish.
Things were bad at home — no money, not even enough food — so Mordy took off. As easy as a river eel he slid into sexwork. But he didn’t stay out of libraries and one day he was picked up by an American professor, an older guy on a research sabbatical, looking for his youth. The professor took him back to his American university, treated him well, and gave him books to read: “Lolita” (Mordy thought she was a spoiled little snot.) and “The Persian Boy,” which he loved. It was a liberal urban university and no one was very shocked by Mordy. They loved his accent and hinted that they knew secret things about the IRA. He didn’t hang with students, but the ones he met shared drugs. He thought of himself as enrolled in a special course, rather elite.
Then one night the professor gave a dinner party, everyone got more drunk than usual, and the professor’s rival colleague took Mordy into the bedroom. The next morning the professor bundled the boy into the car, stopped at an ATM for some twenties that he stuffed in Mordy’s pocket, stopped at a sports supply place to buy him a warm jacket and a backpack, and drove a long ways while Mordy slept off his hangover. He woke when the professor pushed him out of the car along a highway like a cat no longer wanted, and drove off. For a while the boy just sat there and wept. He was fifteen.
Life was never as good after that. “Jesus wept” was his first tattoo. You can find the rest of the story in many places: the do-gooders love them. Misery eaters. The short version is that the older he got, the tougher his clientele became and the more he defiantly embellished his identity.
The next marker was the day he was diagnosed with HIV. He wasn’t making enough money for the meds but he found clinics and programs, which was more complex and ambiguous than reading at the library about the search for the cure. Finally he saw that the economic collapse meant that all poor and needy were going to be losers. After that, powerless, he went for long spaces without prescribed meds, depending on street drugs to keep from committing suicide. At least he thought he wasn’t committing suicide — he remembered it was a sin. But how would Hell be different?
Beatings were part of the job, some in order for the trick to get it up and some afterwards as regret or expiation or projection — whatever. He just looked away with his pale eyes and left his body. His nickname became “Sky Eyes.”
Eventually he ended up in that dumpster. It was winter and all the street guys had the flu so they were dosing on Nyquil and meth to keep working. They’d duck back into the alley to shit and puke behind that dumpster. It was as close to a toilet as they could get and they did have a little modesty left, even then. Sky Eyes, who was a natural caretaker, kept telling the tens and twelves to get liquids into themselves before they passed out from dehydration and were taken to a hospital where they would be surrendered to juvvie authorities. When the real dangerous guys came, the kids scattered.
This isn’t real, you’ll remember. It could be. But mostly I’m just making all this up as I go along. Now I’ll tell you about something real. I was living in Portland, working for the city, and living in an apartment across the alley from a bigger, more luxurious apartment building where a couple of gay guys lived. I was ironing a blouse to wear to work. The ironing board was set up in front of the kitchen window, which faced onto the gay guys’ back porch. A different man came out and sat down on the steps to put on cowboy boots. He was tough-looking, shirtless until he shrugged into an old leather vest. He checked a wad of bills from the pocket of his cut-offs and lit a cigarette, the smoke curling up. Then he looked over and saw me across the sunken service alley where the dumpsters were. Maybe forty feet across. Window open. Curtains back. Me in my underwear, holding the iron, a little steam wandering around.
Nothing happened. We just looked at each other. No thoughts, no words. Just two human beings early in the morning, starting the day, equals. Empty and innocent as deer in a misty field.
So did Mordecai survive his ordeal in the dumpster? I have no idea. You finish the story and then ask yourself why you finished it the way you did.