The Loss of the Shepherd Boy
By Sebastian Fortino
It was a chilly Christmas season on South Beach, and the locals were happy to serve soup. To the natives, it was a novelty, bowls filled with piping hot soup, instead of ice cream. A warm, hearty scent filled kitchens, instead of light salads, and grilled proteins. While my friends were being creative with their tureens, at his house it was always the same damn soup! Homemade vegetable beef soup. It was salty, with a metallic tang to it. The potatoes did not hold much form, yet the broth didn’t infuse them with any real flavor. The green beans were obviously frozen, prior to this incarnation. There was never any garlic in it, not even one miserable chunk. There were not any herbs, fresh or dried. Finding the crumbs of beef — in this watery grave — was a challenge. I’d search out the odd pea, and pretend the carrot rounds had some bite. He served this always with small dinner rolls, sliced open, stuffed with ham or summer sausage, or spread with a non-descript, soft, white cheese, and a faint shitstain of mustard. There was also a hint of butter. “I’m English, well we came from there centuries ago,” he said, “we always butter our sandwiches. Even if butter is so dear to buy these days.” They reminded me of the little sandwiches served in the department store dining rooms of my early childhood with my grandmother. There were always two little sandwiches for each of us, but he’d always save one of his “for teatime.”
The he in question was Dickinson McPherson, but everybody unfortunately called him Dickie. His mother, wanting a girl, originally intended to name him after Emily Dickenson, her fourth or fifth cousin something-removed. When it was revealed she had produced a male, she quickly decided to call him after her literary cousin’s surname. I came to know him out of personal desperation, as I was newly arrived in Miami. There was a new boyfriend at first, new job, there were parties every night, we went to Art Basel, there was champagne, well, cava actually, and of course cocaine. Lots, and my my my my my do I mean lots of cocaine. However, like late-night highs, chased with tiny bubbles, all of it faded into reality. The company I worked for suddenly closed, then the boyfriend suddenly dumped me. I found a gig house sitting but I knew that wouldn’t last forever. Dickie was a dealer of antiques and artwork. In the Northeast I’d worked in several auction houses. So, on a lonely afternoon in mid-December, at a strange little French cafe owned by Franco-Argentines on Biscayne Boulevard, I met him after answering an ad online to be his assistant. Simple work, I’d be researching items for provenance, cleaning them if necessary, accompanying him to estate sales or auctions, and putting things online.
There was also the eventual option to earn less cash, but move in with him. I, aware of my low estate, put myself into the primrose path of surrender for assistance. Not like a sheep to slaughter. More like someone trying to relax on uncomfortable furniture. I didn’t want to consider it, but what was I to do? His forthcoming offer was something I suspected from the moment he laid eyes on me. If I lived with him, of course, I was welcome to walk around in any sort of undressed state I preferred. Or, he preferred. He preferred me in jockstraps.
“Of course, when I’m at home, I generally wear nothing at all…or maybe just a light robe. I do, I do love a guy in a, you know,” he said, as he sipped a three-dollar glass of sugar water, masquerading as a champagne happy hour special. He blushed. He waited for me to ask, and I played naive.
“In, in a bathing suit?” I believe I even added a fake swallow, and a raised eyebrow, implying trepidation.
“No,” he laughed, tittered at me as he sashayed his flute de champagne in a just-so spot above the upper right corner of his placemat. “Silly, that’s silly, no. In a,” and here he lowered his voice, “in a jockstrap. One of those new, sexy ones.” He pulled the word out into an elegant thing. Yet, hearing him say it I didn’t think of hot men, with their butts exposed. I thought of turds. Not nice, easy to pass turds, but…something rough. Something unpleasant. Perhaps undigested kashi, spelt, pomegranate seeds. Sand?
Despite being the ripe old age of thirty, I pretended I was twenty-one. “Oh, really. That’s so hot.” I closed my eyes as I said “hot,” which I deliberately trailed into something sexy, as elegantly as he enunciated jockstrap.
He smiled, and even that was unsettling. There was something unpleasant about him. Like, a lingering smell which you didn’t hate but didn’t care for either. Not creepy. He did not have the wits to be creepy. He was a prude. Creeps are generally not…prudes. I could tell any move he’d make on me — beyond seeing me in a jockstrap, of course — would be so grandmotherly an attempt that I could easily pretend not to notice it. He would retreat, never mentioning it. His only creepiness would come to fruition as caresses, attempted caresses, as I slept.
One day, a few days before I officially moved in with him, I arrived and found he was “out on an unexpected errand,” according to the note taped to the door. He hated cell phones, even having to call or being called by someone on their cell phone offended him. The concept of an Android or “smart phone” mystified him. He called them “computer phones.” I let myself into the apartment. There was another note in the kitchen, telling me to enjoy some lunch. “I put it for you in the crockpot, I know you young people hate microwaves,” he wrote. “I so want you to be happy.” It was a bit of cursive thought from him. It was clearly his sticky-note version of the cinematic offer of a young Norma Shearer entering a room in a neglige.
There was the frigging crockpot, covered by a glass lid with beads of moisture on the convex of the dome. Midwest in Miami. Once again, the homemade vegetable beef soup. Everyday, the same damn soup. I never went through his cabinets before, but it seemed appropriate at the moment. Inside the pantry there were more than a dozen cans of so-labeled beef stew. I don’t remember the brand, but knew I’d never seen it before. It was the kind of pantry good, the kind of dismal thing, sourced at one of the remaining bodegas or gas stations on the Upper East Side of Miami. Next to the cans of stew were cubes of bouillon. I looked in the trash, as he didn’t recycle. “Because I’ll die long before Miami gets swallowed up by the ocean,” as he used to say.
He told me the story of how he arrived in Miami. An uncle of his, a carpenter had to deliver, of all things, a coffin he constructed for a widow who was dying in the Florida Keys. She had ordered it from him years ago, before she and her husband moved to Key West for their retirement. They were driving down in winter. There was snow and ice, everywhere. Everywhere there was winter, until they reached South Georgia. Dickie didn’t like his uncle, who sexually abused him from the time he was ten years old. By the time he was fifteen he knew, not only did he like it, but he wanted to do it with someone other than a relative. Dickie knew Key West, even back then in the 1950s, was known as a hotbed of homosexuality. So, the day they arrived and dropped off the coffin they checked into a hotel. They intended to make a vacation out of it.
“As much a vacation as one could have, dropping off a coffin,” he said. “Well, that night I snuck out of my room. I thought it was curious my uncle didn’t just keep me in his room, in his bed. The whole family knew what he used to do to me, well, by fifteen, what we used to do together,” Dickie said, with a smile both filled with regret and nostalgia. “I snuck down to the front desk. I’d heard things about Key West, Mr. Tennessee Williams was there, Mr. Truman Capote, came often. Well, I was going to look on my own, to find other likeminded men. But, I didn’t have to try too hard. The young man at the front desk was gorgeous. He wasn’t like me, short, wearing thick glasses, with weak arms. He was tall, muscled, with biceps, and blond hair. Yet, the tight pink shirt, and the shorts he wore, and his manner of speaking let me know that he’d know where to go.”
Dickie loved to recount this story. It was one of his happier tales. The hunk at the front desk knew what he wanted when Dickie, now eighteen years old, said, “I’m looking for a place. Something like I don’t have back home in rural Illinois.” The young man smiled and told him where he could find such an establishment. Adding, “You don’t have to hide here, not too much. Just if you do meet someone, make sure you keep your hands to yourself should you go outside. They might be accepting on Duval Street, but we still try to be discreet.”
Young Dickie then marched out of the hotel. He walked the three or four short blocks to a small bar, just off of Duval Street. In it, he hoped to find the luminaries who flocked to Key West. Alas, there seemed to be no celebrities that night. He ordered a drink. He stood in the smoky room, smiling, trying to make eye contact with the right “fella.” He was there an hour he said when he heard a familiar voice. There, a few feet down the bar, was his uncle.
“He was telling this young man about the drive down from Illinois. How he’d got stuck with his queer nephew. ‘My retarded queer nephew. So what, yeah, I like men too but, he’s a dirty fairy. Ugly too. He likes to get fucked by his uncle though. Takes it good up that ass, only nice part of him,’ he told the guy. They both laughed at me, but I wasn’t there to defend myself. I was an ugly, retarded fairy. I was stupid. I was practically blind. I had a mole on the top of my head, beneath my thinning hair. I watched as he, and I admit, my uncle got all the good genes from my grandparents, insulted everything about me. He was short like me, but he was built beautifully, had all his hair at nearly forty. He didn’t need glasses. He mocked me and I heard it all. I had another drink. I slipped to the other end of the bar, farther away from him. I saw in movies, all the time, about people sending a drink to someone they like. So, I told the barman to send my uncle a drink, but I asked him not to say who it was from. After he’d had about four drinks, and the bartender still wouldn’t tell him who was buying them, I finally told the bartender, ‘Tell him it’s from your ugly fairy, dirty queer nephew, who doesn’t like getting fucked by you.’ I watched. I waited. That’s when I learned to do it, to watch, to wait. When my uncle heard the drinks were from me, the group of men he was talking to burst out laughing. Now him, not me, was humiliated. He scanned the room and he saw me. He came marching over, anger lighting up his face, burning his eyes. He grabbed me by the shirt. He lifted me off of the floor. ‘What the fuck are you doing here, you miserable little bastard,’ and, and he was about to punch me. That’s when a strapping, gorgeous man, came over to us and pulled my uncle off of me. This stranger knew the bartender and told him he was ‘taking out the trash.’ My uncle resisted, and tried to get me to leave with him, saying, ‘You stay here, don’t expect a ride back with me to Illinois. You son-of-a-bitch queer.’ The man, that handsome man, had had enough of my uncle. He punched him dead in the face. He went crashing down to the floor. A minute later, the other gay fellas had had enough of him too, calling other people queer. ‘Who you callin’ queer, sister,’ they said to him. They made a wall separating us, they then brought me forward, ‘You wanna go home to Illinois with this faggot uncle of yours,’ one of them asked me. I said no. ‘The only way I’m leaving is in a box, and we already dropped one off.’ They all laughed. My uncle left. I never saw him again. The handsome man who helped me turned out to be the boyfriend of Tennessee Williams, the famous Frank Merlo. Mr. Williams was out of town, but Frank took me back to their little house. I tried to make love to him but, despite him being my hero, he wasn’t interested in me. Then, a few days later, as I was trying to get a job, I met Gustavo, my Cuban. He moved me to Miami. And, well, this is where I’ve been, ever since,” he sighed. “I never got to meet Mr. Williams. I was lucky already but I wish I’d gotten to meet him.”
He was the epitome of the older, urban gay. Or, no, it’s more apropos to say, the older, urban, single person. A life, or at least an adulthood, lived in the city. Granted, Miami was not the subways of Manhattan, nor the super-traffic of Los Angeles, but…all cities have these living personifications of urbanity. These staunch, non-driving, bearers of city living, of libraries and the best thrift stores, of happy hours with shitty free-with-cocktail buffets, of monthly gallery visitations with wine and cheese, of that perfect dry cleaner, and often of heartbreak. Yes, these people exist in every city. Desolate, they exist, inwardly superior to everyone, outwardly shy. Yet, they are happy in their weekly lunches at the same restaurant with the same constant frenemy. Some are kind, most are too withdrawn to be so inclined.
Anyway, in the trashcan, there were two bouillon cube wrappers, and yes: an empty can of beef stew.
It made sense then, as to why his soup was so salty. The “homemade” vegetable beef soup was a can of third-rate beef stew, mixed with water, and two cubes of bouillon to enrich it. No, stretch it. Dickie didn’t enrich anything. This was of course to save money. Even the way he pronounced expensive betrayed how he felt about spending anything. He did not say ex-PEN-sive; instead, he seemed to say, ex-PAIN-sive. It was as if the very thought of dispersing money – whether his or someone else’s – caused him physical pain. He called canned salmon, “a luxury;” he called cable TV, “a racket;” going out to eat, “a fool’s errand.”
Emboldened, I realized I never before opened the fridge. He always rushed to serve me water, or iced tea, or a glass of chilled white wine spritzer made with boxed wine and generic lemon-lime soda in the late afternoon. Inside his icebox, as he called it, there were all sorts of cured meats, along with square, triangle, and log-shaped packages of hard or soft cheeses. Of course, the boxed wine was present. But it was eclipsed by the bounty lining the shelves. A mass of tiny containers of mustard, exotic mayonnaises, spreads and dips, small jars of olives, tapenades in multitude and one from Croatia, tomato sauces with roasted wild mushrooms, dainty clay pots of pâté, tuna in olive oil and herbes de provence in jars you could reuse as they were “that pretty,” petite vitrines of fancy pickled things, anchovies with capers, cheap caviar, and even port in small bottles with portuguese ribbons and single serve bottles of cheap, but real, champagne! It was a horde of gift basket novelties! I never asked about his technique de cuisine for his soup, but I did ask about the assortment of unbasketed goods in his refrigerator.
“Oh,” he said, in a grand manner. “You see every Christmas I buy as many gourmet gift baskets as I can — with discounts and coupons — and that gets me through at least a month, some years until the end of February. I don’t have to worry about the sodium because I only really eat once a day, then a simple teatime, then a little snack before bed. I drink a lot of water, so yeah, I love salt. When I go out, I’m careful. If I order a steak, I order a salad with it and hope my friend orders the French fried potatoes. Or any kinda’ potato. The way I don’t cook, a potato is a treat,” he said with the smile of a declasse gourmand.
He was so delighted to share these tidbits of dietary advice that well…I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. He blushed. He didn’t think of eating as a pleasure. He denied himself even that. Dickie took not the smallest, not the least interest, in feeding himself well. All he cared for were his pieces of art, his porcelain ladies, and his many plates, cups, bowls. Even how he displayed his treasures was miserly. The furniture on which his delicate bibelots were placed came from the Bombay Company. Some of which he sourced used on Craig’s List, requiring cabs with deep storage to fetch his pieces. He ran to K-Mart whenever there was a sale on picture frames, to house even his so-claimed priceless etchings. Next off to the framer to mount them. I witnessed him begging for scraps of acid-free matting, “In any color,” he said to me on our way there. “I’m not shy. Gets me a deal by paying cash, in full, upfront.”
The smallish apartment was a miserly treasure trove. Yet, such stunning things. There were rooms, there are rooms, in England like his. A gentleman’s room. The mismatched, often eccentric pairings and varieties of colorful mats around the antiques should have lent it some solid character. It did, but it was lost. Betrayed. Because while, like its cousins across the pond, the room held some potentially priceless pieces, it was still sadly tricked out with fake mahogany. It came off as campy. It could and should have looked distinguished. He did not even love his prized pieces enough to praise them with adequate furnishings. It betrayed, revealed, exposed just how truly little he just didn’t enjoy anything. Not even those things which he should have treated best of all. True, Dickie spent much of his time staring at his things. Possessing them, never enjoying them. Beholding them. I don’t think he was capable of loving them, not even what he considered to be sacred. This is not how he should have lived. Dickie’s business was quite successful. He had a magical touch when it came to finding valuable paintings and etchings, rare prints and drawings, porcelain figurines and all sorts of objet d’art. There was one grand wall in the apartment. There was a van Gogh sketch, a Renoir sketch as well, an Icart, a Beardsley, and treasured 15th C etchings, some from the Florentine school. There were even a few modern pieces, a Salvador Dali, a Chagall, peppering the lot. He bought everything from people who “didn’t know what they had.”
There was one piece in particular which one could call the ring to his Gollum. The piece was very tall. It sat upon a stand in his bedroom. The bedroom was rather a communal affair. I slept on one of two full-sized beds which made up the room, you see. That’s how he caressed me while I slept. This particular piece was all beautifully, finely made. In a frothy, sort of Baroque or Rococo manner, it depicted a shepherd boy dressed like a courtier at a costume ball. It was the kind of piece a master maker of porcelain would be commissioned to produce, or perhaps make for a showroom display. Really, it was a masterpiece of white paste, painted, flourishing. Handsome, a piece of delicate pastry. It was 18th C., German, Meissenberg porcelain…or was it Sevres and French? It doesn’t matter. He claimed only four were made, one was lost in a war, one was in France, the other in London, and this was one of three remaining. It was not the kind of piece one would ever imagine seeing in the bedroom of an old queen in Miami. I handled a great deal of eighteenth-century porcelain at the auction houses. It was hardly the kind of thing you’d see in the neighborhood of Belle Meade, which was only just up-and-coming once again, thanks to the hipsters. That it was in the bedroom was especially odd. It was about the height of a toddler child. The bedroom was as large as the living space. Still…it was invasive in a bedroom. It was almost like having a Christmas tree not far from the foot of one’s bed. It intruded, it didn’t belong there. Still, it was a stunning piece.
“Priceless,” he whispered to me the first time he showed me. This priceless piece he added “came from someone who didn’t know what they had.” I was of course standing looking at the shepherd boy in only a jockstrap at the time. He was in a short, silk, Japanese robe. Yet, the story he told me was far creepier than our attire.
“She was going out of business a few years ago. Ten years before she wanted to go into business with me, right after she met me, but I didn’t like Phyllis. I met Phyllis at a winter teatime party for,” and he paused and swallowed bitterness, “for another bitch at her rich bitch house. They never invited me to the parties at the country clubs. Well, I didn’t like Phyllis but I knew she had money though…her dead husband left her loaded,” he said enviously, with a silent stupor of hatred. “Well, set-up-rich-bitch dropped me like a hot potato when she left Miami for Palm Beach. I wasn’t good enough to visit the country club. The bald, wig-wearing, ugly, queen of the bitches.” I laughed. I wasn’t sure if he was describing himself or Phyllis, but he thought I was laughing at his description of her.
According to him, he recognized the piece when Phyllis displayed it in her shop, and she called him for advice. He advised her to price the piece fairly high, telling her it was rare. Secretly however, he told her to price it so no one would be interested. This, while he told her it was a merely a good late-nineteenth century piece. “Perhaps a late copy of an earlier piece,” he told Phyllis. “Or, maybe even 1920s,” he said menacingly. “Probably made to go with a suite of custom made, reproduction antique style furniture.” When she sold her business a decade later he told her the reduced price of $4,000 was too much but he’d pay $400.
“…but I knew it was priceless,” he said without any shame in his voice. “I had to have it. It had to come home with me. I was ready. I deserved it.”
“How were you ready,” I asked him.
“I bought the stand five years before I got ahold of the statue,” he said. “It’s a real antique, seventeenth-century, Parisian.”
There was a chair, sitting in front of the shepherd boy as if he were a television. I went out to the local gay bar that night. Later, as a guy named Moses put a line of cocaine for me on a small mirror, and his boyfriend Juan went down on my hard, yet coked-up cock, I imagined Dickie at home. Staring at his shepherd boy, recounting what he thought was my envy. Instead, I was disgusted by how he acquired the piece. Not only had he gotten something for a steal – he premeditated it all. For years he’d seen it in Phyllis’ shop, lusted after it, waited quietly, never saying a word about its importance. For five of those years a vacant altar sat at the foot of his bed. I despised him but strangely, I felt sorry for him. It is one thing to lust after a person, or to long for someone. They can disappoint you with their actions. They can tell you “no.” Dickie longed for something eternal, something he could just get his hands on if only he had the money, if only he lied. It offered him no opposition, it was a rape.
“Maybe, maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on him,” I thought, now going down on Moses while I fucked his boyfriend. “Maybe it’s none of his fault, maybe Phyllis wronged him, and this was just his way to win.”
After I slinked home, unable to walk because Moses insisted on fucking me with his ten magnificent inches, I slept for a few hours on the full-sized bed opposite Dickie’s. When I got up, he was out again. At lunch, for me breakfast, more of the soup, more of the little sandwiches, and more iced tea, which was actually the only thing he made from scratch. Dickie was in an unpleasant mood, talking about a terrible designer he was working with, supplying her things for an apartment on Palm Beach’s famed Worth Avenue. I was unsurprised to learn it was Phyllis, the same Phyllis of the shepherd boy. She became a designer when she moved to Palm Beach. She worked with the very rich, but not general celebrities or Miami housewives. Phyllis catered to the gray-haired descendants of the “real rich.”
“It’s just not fair. I have to give her a dealer’s discount, and I bet none of the people in that apartment on Worth Avenue will have ever heard of Dickie McPherson. I’ll never get invited to the country club. They’ll never have me to the unveiling of the finished place. If only, if just once I’d get just some of the recognition these designers get, that Phyllis gets. It’s so easy too, these rich bitches want the same look, Palm Beach Aristocrat. It’s really just shopping, not designing,” he said, angrily. “You know, I had a chance to be somebody. I could have gone to the country club. Did I? No. I stayed in Miami serving food and earning my keep for a man who ended up dying on me. Then, when he died, did he leave me any of his millions? No. He left it to his children. He didn’t think of me, if he loved me, I didn’t have any proof, not right away anyway.”
He then looked onto his things. His wall of stunning art. His little porcelain cups from the eighteenth century. The porcelain deer, the thistles, the mermaids. The lonely sadness of beautiful things. There were so many speeches like this, it was sometimes hard to pay real attention to him. However, in the few weeks since I’d known him he’d never really talked about Gustavo. Instead he referenced him, like a fictional character.
“You, mean, he left you nothing,” I asked him, cautiously. I knew a long story would follow.
“Not a thing. He never told me what I was to him. His wife died a few years before I met him in Key West. Soon after, I just moved right into his place in Miami, this place.” My heart skipped a beat, much like the shepherd boy, he did something to get this place; something calculated. “His children knew about us, but it was never spoken about the few times a year I had to meet them. Gustavo, never said love, or boyfriend, or lover, not to me. In those days a boy like me – a boy from Illinois who’d never left the farm – doesn’t really know what to ask for from a man he loves. Gustavo, the Cuban, did teach me everything I know about the antiques business. Oh, I had to earn my keep though, you believe me. He sent me out to do catering work, at the country club. Sometimes if the snowbirds were here they’d send me to The Breakers,” he said mournfully, in a discreet, overwhelm of envy. “He used to sell Cuban rums, before art, so he knew all the restaurant people, catering companies. We were together for thirty years,” here Dickie blushed, whispering he didn’t want me to dwell on his age. I’d later learn the last time anyone recounted his age was for a 40th birthday party in the early 1970s. “Then, Gustavo just died. I went to the neighbor’s for a cup of coffee. Came home. There he was, the Cuban, lying dead in his favorite chair.”
“I’m so sorry, Dickie,” here I reached out and put my hand over his. He pulled back. I did too, in another jockstrap, a black one this time. He had a fetish for buying me a new one every week.
“It’s fine. I had my time with him, then since had my years to heal, even though I never got to go to the country club,” and here that discreet overwhelm of envy flashed into a panicked rage. “He used to go, but not with me,” he said, sobbing. “Someday, someday I’ll find another man to take me to the country club. I’ll show them all. Even if I wasn’t in the will.”
It dawned on me, from whence his fascination arose with country clubs. Since he used to work at them, and their elegant sisters The Breakers, and the Fontainebleu, La Forge, and the Eden Rock, no one invited the help, and he had no one to take him. He expected someday perhaps the Cuban would have taken him. Perhaps after he retired from earning his keep. But no. Gustavo betrayed him even in that, as he died before Dickie retired. He had not been an attractive youth, and Dickie in his later years was still of course short. He had a small, noticeable paunch. He had a completely bald crown, with an immense mole on the top of his head, and spoke with an affected lisp. I felt sorry for him, he looked like what people once called a twerp. His mannerisms, like his lisp, were decidedly those of a classic queen. He did not however possess any great wit. He was not rich, for if he was wealthy, he could have cultivated these defects, deflected those defects, into assets. With a decidedly marmish personality and no mansion, and no yacht, and no place in the Bahamas of his own, he could not excuse the lisp. Dickie was, decidedly, not country club material.
“What did you do? How did you manage, not being in the will and all,” I asked. “You know in my last breakup I was out on my heels.”
“Oh,” he laughed. “You’re lookin’ at it, told you this was his place! I stayed. I won.”
“I thought you said he didn’t leave you any…”
A smile beamed out across his face. “Here it comes,” I thought.
“When I learned the will didn’t include me, swift action,” he said, pointing to himself, “on my part. I got those four brats to listen to me. They had the best schools, the best trips to Europe – I didn’t. Gustavo never took me to Europe, said he’d seen enough, said I wouldn’t like it. He wouldn’t even take me to Cuba before the revolution. Well, I told the four of them his grandchildren would receive a letter when they turned eighteen. This was the 1980s you know, people were still sensitive about those things. So, I told them that letter would have some special pictures of their dear old grandfather, and his business partner Mr. McPherson. I offered to show them the pictures but they refused,” he said, grandly. “Next thing I said — the very next damn thing I said — was to sell me the place in Miami for one dollar, just to transfer the deed, since he left behind close to two million to them. Well, they did, they gave me the deed the next day, my lawyer also negotiated for a cash settlement which I put away safely. Just enough to pay upkeep and taxes for two years, since the death was sudden.”
Well, bravo but, in effect, blackmail.
“So, you got this apartment…”
“No, the whole building,” he said, with a terrifyingly proud grin. “Six very beautiful apartments in total. They thought they got out easy. They thought this part of Miami would never clean up. Their father knew he was smart to buy here. The neighborhood was just alright, but it’s on a dead end street with only two other buildings. No one even can find me unless I am specific about instructions. Oh, would you look at it now,” he demanded, “just look at it when you’re next outside. I just knew Belle Meade would revive. It may have taken a while but I was patient. We never told the tenants that Gustavo, now I, own it. All the rent is collected, and the building is dealt with by a manager.”
“Well, aren’t you shrewd,” I told him. I was just vaguely angry. I mean, he cried poor and served me cheap soup. Yet, he owned six apartments and, knowing the rates in the area, was collecting at least a grand each month from them. “You’re a shrewd little queen, aren’t you,” I stammered. He was normally very sensitive. However, he basked in my words. He knew — he was proud of it — that he was a shrewd little queen. “But, how did you get pictures of you and the Cuban having sex? I mean, you didn’t have digital cameras, you certainly didn’t have cameras on phones. How’d you do it? Did you hire a photographer?”
He smiled. He let out a sigh. He sat back deeply in his chair at the dining room table. he was luxuriant in his memories. So much so that, even though it was not three o’clock, he got up, went to the kitchen, and poured two glasses of the sugary, cheap, boxed white wine, with three bright splashes of generic lemon-lime soda.
“Spritzer, cheers,” he lisped, he said, not offered, not asked, but ordered me to have the drink. I was captive as his audience. He wanted this to last. “Funny you should ask me that. You see…” but he paused.
I sipped my spritzer. Dickie just revealed his greatest accomplishment. He was now about to reveal more.
“I was angry before,” he said, falling back in his chair, a bit coquettishly. “You calmed me down, my boy. Every now and then a person must share their wins in life. Not just their defeats. You’ve made me happy, cheers.”
I smiled, as it was hard to not admire his glow. I sipped my wine. I fell back in my chair too, perhaps a bit coquettishly as well. I was here in his world, an objet d’art all on its own, which he created. A sort of Fabrege egg he made for himself through lying, manipulation, and deception on a grand scale.
“You know, you see, it’s a good damn thing those brats didn’t ask to see the photos. There were none. There were never any dirty photos,” he toasted me. “Cheers.”
A heavy stillness fell over the already quiet apartment. All the beautiful things surrounding me seemed trapped. The porcelains on their shelves, the artwork in their frames, the plates on the wall, all seemed yearning to be released. I raised my spritzer to my lips. He was not creepy. No, creepiness was not awarded him, even as I sat there in the skivvies of his choice. He was not evil, he could never be that clever. He was sad, and jealous, and shrewd, and self-serving, but not evil. Another few weeks passed. I was very careful about the money, what precious little, I had in my bank account. I decided to not mention the question of my hourly pay for the work I did. I decided to wait for a full month, to be kind as he had been kind. I carefully saved my hours into a spreadsheet. After a month of living with him I sat down and broached the subject.
“Now, since I am living with you, and not paying any bills or rent, I have tallied up my hours for a month. It’s been just shy of eighty-eight hours but, I’ll only charge you for eighty, since you said you’ll pay in cash. So, I would normally charge twenty an hour but, since I am not paying rent, I am willing to charge you only ten dollars an hour.”
He looked at me, this time wearing a thin-strapped tank top and a pair of what he called his “flirty boxer shorts.” I was wearing, of course, a jockstrap which he surprised me with that morning. This one was more complex to get into and, as it had a built-in cock ring, pushed my assets out rather pointedly. I therefore was standing at the dining table, my package pretty much sitting on the fake mahogany. I knew what I was doing. He smiled. He reached over. He gently, ever-so-gently, knowing I might lurch back, touched my balls over the cloth. I didn’t lurch back. I was giving him what he wanted.
“Oh, dear boy,” he smiled, still caressing my puch. “I can’t possibly pay you ten-dollars an hour. That’s eight-hundred dollars. It’s slow now, with the antiques market. Bad economy. It’s just past Christmas so people won’t be buying like they did leading up to the holidays,” he said, he pouted. “I just can’t do that right now. Tell you what,” he said, “I’ll pay you five-dollars an hour, but in cash, like I promised. You should have talked to me about the money right away. I would have told you that. I have the money all ready for you, in fact.”
He then got up, went into his bedroom, “our bedroom,” closed the door, locked it. I heard him rummaging through some things. A few minutes later he came out with four one-hundred dollar bills. “He’d planned this all along,” I thought. “He must just want to pay me one-hundred per week.” For the first time, I felt ashamed to be standing there in the jockstrap he bought me. I normally thought it was empowering. This man thinks I’m sexy, even if I was 30, even if I hadn’t been to the gym in six months. I absentmindedly put the four bills in the pouch of the jockstrap. This made him laugh.
“Do, do I get a strip tease,” he asked me.
“Those will cost extra,” I smiled back at him and said, as I turned to go to the bathroom. “I have to shower and change to meet a friend for lunch.”
Slowly, very slowly he said, “How much then? How much to see you shower and change.”
He was cheap. It wasn’t worth twenty-dollars for me to turn around and tell him he could watch me shower. So, to make myself feel as if I was offering the impossible, namely something he’d never pay, I said, “I think another one-hundred dollar bill would do it.” I smiled, I turned around to go to the bathroom.
“Oh, I think that’s a great offer, to see a beautiful young man in the shower. So many pieces of great art from ancient Greece depict young, beautiful men bathing,” he said. I heard him get up out of his chair. “Go get the shower nice and hot. I’ll wash your beautiful back.”
Now, now I felt empowered again, despite my ass fully exposed to him, despite him caressing the pouch of my jockstrap. I did swallow guilt, and shame as I walked to the bathroom door. “But,” I thought, “it’s worth the money.”
So, that’s how we continued. Once a week, each Friday he paid me for twenty hours of work, at five-dollars an hour. Once a week, usually on a Wednesday afternoon, he would watch me undress, then get in the hot shower. I’d turn around, and he’d delicately wash my back. He didn’t want to wash anything on my front. He’d lovingly watch the soap lathering my crotch but, he never tried to touch me there. He’d give me another one-hundred dollars. Then, I’d dress in the living room, while he locked the bedroom door and tried to pleasure himself. He was not impotent, he claimed, but “it only happens occasionally.” Somehow, I didn’t feel dirty. I should have felt shame but, I knew just watching me in the shower, just washing my back, filled a lonely void in him that I would hope to never understand. When I met my few remaining friends from the break-up at the Deuce Bar, or Score, or Twist, or at the News Cafe, they must have had some idea as to what I was doing. That “it was dirty.” I know this because they never asked me any questions about where I was living, or what I was doing for money. Finally, my friend Margot who moved to Miami after our college days in New York, and was a reason I moved to Florida as well, cornered me in the corner of the Deuce Bar.
“Listen, everyone is curious, how exactly are you making any money? What, also what’s going on with this roommate who you supposedly work for? Everyone assumes you don’t want us to meet him. Juana and Bernadette said they offered to pick you up at your house a few times, but you insist on meeting them at the little French cafe around the corner. Luis, he found a shirt of yours which you left after his pool party last month, and when he wanted to walk it over to you, again, you met him at the cafe.
I told Margot everything. She was not surprised. She did however, get worried.
“Are you safe,” she asked me, putting a hand on mine.
“Yes, he’s a shrewd little queen but, he’s perfectly harmless.”
“Washing your naked back in the shower perfectly harmless. Touching your jockstrap pouch, harmless. Occasionally, caressing you while you sleep, perfectly harmless. Come on,” she said, “be careful. Promise?”
She did admit, as long as he kept the one request of watching me, and washing my back, he was probably perfectly harmless. Later that evening, she introduced me to a friend of hers. A friend looking for a proper gallery assistant. The pay would be only ten an hour, and only twenty-five hours a week. So, that meant, I would be making two-hundred-fifty dollars from work for her, and one-hundred from Dickie. Plus, the other one-hundred for “showertime,” as Margot named it, meant I would almost be earning an almost respectable amount of money.
That night, as a hot daddy from El Salvador laid out a line of cocaine on his glass coffee table off of Lincoln Road, I imagined how Dickie, who always wanted the best for me, would rejoice over my second job. I didn’t think too long about him though. How could I think about him? Here, now? No, not with this hot papi who fucked me silly, and came all over my balls, as he screamed “dio mio.”
Back in Belle Meade, I found Dickie in the living room, sipping his coffee.
“Good morning,” he said. “How was your night handsome?”
“Oh, fine. Well, great,” I said as I took off my shirt. “You see, a chick downtown wants me as her gallery assistant. It’s part-time so, I still have plenty of time to work for you.”
I was in the other room, taking off my pants, getting “undressed” for work. I heard nothing. Just silence. Then I heard the unexpected slam of the coffee cup. Dickie, he was angry. I turned around to find him standing at the bedroom door, wearing only the short silk robe. His face was pained, wracked with anger.
“I don’t think you can work for a gallery downtown,” he said. “That’s not real art. Your talents will be wasted. What will you be selling? Those awful saturated photographs they blow up on plastic, illuminated glass skulls, some photos of dicks turned into a collage? No. You can’t work there. Not, not in one of those modern places. I — I need you here. I need you as much as possible. I — I have inventory I have to move.”
He didn’t want to share me, I thought. He wanted me all to himself. The thought terrified me.
“You know, Dickie, I have to make more money. I came down here with a job, the place was doing some illegal practices with their customers’ credit cards, and they closed. I need another job on paper, for my resume, so people don’t think my only job in Florida is working for a shady company,” I said to him, shaking my head, feeling once again ridiculous in the sexy pink jockstrap he gave me the day before, my uniform. “You know I can’t live with you forever…”
He crossed the room, he sat in the chair opposite the shepherd boy. I was standing next to the statue. He held before him the boy in clay he could have entirely. Next to him was the boy, well young man, in flesh he could only have just a very little bit of, and for a price.
“Well, you do realize, part of your income is your room and board here,” he said. “Can your friend downtown, at her shitty gallery, can she give you a bed?” He motioned over to my bed. He was right, on this account. I could not afford a place to live. Surely he couldn’t forbid me from working at a gallery. Yet, that’s what he did. He slapped his hand against his knee. “All I have given, all I am giving you, you will not go show off downtown at one of these shitty art galleries. You can see your friends, but no jobs in galleries. Do you hear me? You don’t get to mix with all the modern artists while I stay at home. I never even got to go to the country club.”
He then began to weep, with no control over his tears. I actually felt pity for him. I was angry at him, I didn’t like being told not to work, then receive permission to see my friends. Yet, he was kind to me, and there was something so sad about him I truly felt bad for him. He didn’t get to go to the country club to socialize with all the swells. He wouldn’t let me go to the gallery to meet the swells either. It somehow made sense. I went over to him. I put my hand on his shoulder. His face was just even with my package, once again in a pouch equipped with a cockring, he liked these it seemed. He looked up at me, then he caressed my balls again over the pouch. I held him against my stomach, and I let him cry on me. Gently, just gently, he slid a finger into the band of the pouch so he could touch my scrotum. The actual flesh. He looked up at me and smiled.
He asked me, coyly, if the next time I showered, if he could wash my balls. “I’ll pay you another one-hundred dollar bill. Two-hundred a shower,” he said. He was a shrewd little queen. Somehow he’d get what he wanted, while keeping me from something I wanted, but giving me more money. I would be earning more money for the shower sessions than I would for his antiques business. The shrewd little queen had me in his web. What was I to do?
I emailed the girl with the gallery job, telling her I was needed for a special project for a few weeks. “A big estate sale in Palm Beach. We’re in charge of tagging the items, that sort of thing.” While the girl with the gallery was convinced, Margot was not. I didn’t tell her about Dickie washing my dickie. Instead, I repeated the same story about the estate sale in Palm Beach. She shook her head and told me to be careful, suddenly our maybe plans for dinner were now, “something came up.” That evening, I walked up the length of Biscayne Boulevard from a cafe in the mid-thirties. It was over thirty blocks, that walk home. I knew she knew something else was going on. She didn’t want to have dinner with me because she was perhaps afraid I’d tell her the truth. All of sudden she said her boyfriend wasn’t feeling well, and wanted her to have dinner with him. Back at home that night, as I was lounging on the sofa, wearing a jockstrap of course, Dickie came bursting in. His little face was full of excitement and anger.
“Oh, that bitch,” he said, as he sat down next to me. He didn’t even stop to notice I was wearing yet another jockstrap which he’d surprised me with a few days before.
“Let me guess, Phyllis?”
“Yes,” he said. “Oh, it makes me so mad I could…I could smoke.” I didn’t know he smoked. I’d been there over two months, I had never seen him smoke. He walked over to a particularly beautiful piece of Wedgwood, which sat high on a shelf. It was a jar, with lid. He took it down, opened it, and revealed Nat Sherman cigarettes in a plastic bag. What I thought was a small plate, and just a figurine, turned out to be a matching ashtray and lighter. He sat down, arranged the things on the coffee table. He lit a cigarette. I took the lid off of the jar. I pulled out a cigarette too, and lit it with the old lady lighter.
“I didn’t know you smoked,” he said.
“I didn’t know you smoked,” I replied.
“Fair enough, beautiful boy,” he laughed. “Yes, oh yes, it’s Phyllis. I was at a party given over on Golden Isles, big houses there, you know, famous people, rich people. Of course, it wasn’t an A-List party. I never get invited to those. It was a cocktail party with passed appetizers. Well, she’s been to Europe again. She, well, she went to Versailles, as she had never been. Well, she saw…she saw the shepherd boy. She is very, very angry. She, she wants to buy him from me for the proposed asking price she offered. She says if I agree to that she won’t press charges.”
He was hysterical. He wasn’t crying. He was smoking heavily, quickly, the ash getting everywhere, all over everything but on the little blue ashtray of the Wedgwood smoking set. “She can’t press charges. I paid her in cash, never got a receipt. She says though, she says she has proof it was in her shop for a decade. She says witnesses will agree I gave her misinformation. That I lied to her. That I manipulated her.” He finished his cigarette. He lit another, frantically. “She, she wants to take him away from me. I have only showed him to three people, you, a friend who sold me the stand, and another dealer I haven’t spoken to in years. He knows her, too. He can’t stand me. They’ll get him from me. They’ll take him from me.”
“Well, now, Dickie. You did manipulate her,” I said, drawing on the long, brown cigarette. “You did lie. She may have some rights to the statue, after all.”
He looked at me in disbelief, as if he’d never realized what he had done.
“Oh, Shepherd,” he said. If I haven’t mentioned my name before now, here is why: you may not have believed it. You see, my first name is Thomas, but my last name is Shepherd. Thomas, or Tom, never suited me. Soon after starting college everyone called me Shepherd, because I was always leading friends to parties. “Shepherd, you can’t mean that. You know, he’s my everything. He is my all. I have nothing in this world without him.”
I stood up, he noticed the pink jockstrap and he smiled. I was not however going to give him what he considered affection. “You have another Shepherd, a real shepherd,” I said. “I am here for you. I can be your friend, far better than a statue.”
“Oh,” said Dickie, now ignoring the cigarette, as it faded in the ashtray. “But Shepherd, you won’t ever love me, not like the real shepherd boy does.” In one slow, yet sudden movement, he ashed out the rest of the cigarette, and went to his, our, bedroom. “I am going to be with him now. He’ll tell me what to do. He always does.”
He closed the door. He locked it. For the first time in the few months I had been there he didn’t come out again for the rest of the night. I read. I heard him masturbate. It must have been successful because he shuddered loudly after what seemed like a very long time. I wanted a joint. Like cocaine, I kept this habit hidden from him. I smoked my weed outside of the house, where he couldn’t see me. I crept around to the side yard. He always had the bedroom drapes drawn so, he’d never catch me smoking out there. However, the moon was full and I could easily see the drapes were not drawn. Slowly, I moved to the bedroom window. He must have noticed the full moon, and noticed it would perfectly light the statue of the shepherd boy. For, inside the bedroom, through the drawn drapes, he was spread out on that chair at the foot of his bed. He was expired. He was kinkier than I thought. Around his spent penis was a cockring. There was a small bottle of KY jelly and a bottle of poppers on the table next to him. A dirty pair of my underwear, a jockstrap, was on the floor where I’d left it earlier. He hadn’t used them as part of his masturbation, I always assumed he did since he encouraged me to leave them on the floor. He claimed he liked putting them in the hamper, then washing them himself, it was his way to “play mother.” However, he hadn’t even noticed them. He masturbated over a shepherd, just not this Shepherd. He jerked off to the statue, to its soft glow in the dazzling moonlight. If Phyllis were successful, she wasn’t just removing something which belonged to her. She was removing his lover. A lover who could never criticize him. A lover with whom he would never have to worry about lisps or country clubs, bald crowns or moles on his head. After he reached orgasm in front of the altar of his obsession, he fell right asleep. He almost…he almost looked beautiful in the light. His bald head seemed to glow like a halo.
I went to sleep in the living room that night. He didn’t like me too but, the door to bed was locked. I didn’t want to disturb him. I woke up very early, well, early for me, at nearly eight o’clock. There was no smell of coffee. There was no sound of the radio in the kitchen. There was no singing coming from the shower, something Dickie delighted in doing. I went to open the door. It was still locked.
“When people get depressed,” I thought, “they sleep in late. Makes sense. I’ll make coffee. Maybe that will wake him up. I’ll do showertime in the morning for a change, that’ll make him happy.”
I made the coffee. The smell did not bring him out of bed. I put the radio on, classical of course. The sound did not wake him. I smoked a cigarette, one of his, and used the smoking set. I hoped the smell, and the sound of opening the container, lighting the cigarette, would wake him. I hoped he’d come and yell at me for making a habit of smoking indoors. This also did not wake him. I began to grow nervous. Perhaps, perhaps he was lying awake, nervously staring at him, at the statue. Thinking only of that awful moment when Phyllis would march in with their mutual friend, or her lawyer, to take him away.
I went to the side yard again to smoke a morning joint, I was nervous about Dickie. I didn’t look at the window at first. I was halfway through the joint when I absentmindedly walked past it. The drapes were still wide open, as they were last night. I looked through the window. There was Dickie, unmoved from last night. His face was frozen, his eyes wide open, in the better light of morning I saw his right hand was covering his heart, his left hand was limp in his crotch. He must have died as he reached orgasm, and tried to clutch his heart. I dropped the joint and went running into the apartment. He told me there was a key for the bedroom door underneath a lamp. “Should it accidentally lock, it does that,” he told me. I found it, opened the door, ran to his body. He was stiff. He was cold. He was quite dead. The muffled climax I heard last night was not an orgasm alone, but a heart attack. His eyes were wide open when he died. He died at climax, as he stared at the one shepherd who could love him. He said he had trouble reaching orgasm, all his life. I could make out, on the upholstery, he had been successful.
I was very scared. I put on clothes. I put all the jockstraps in my suitcase, out of the underwear drawer he’d given me. I feared if the police saw them, they might have questions. I finished the joints I had pre-rolled, and buried the rest of the pot fittingly into a pot out back. Of course, I had every right to be there. He went with me to the DMV to get my new ID with his address. I knew I had done nothing against him, nothing to hurt him. Reluctantly, I called the ambulance. The police did question me, but only because there was a dead body in the bedroom. They saw I had legal rights to live there. Apologized for the stress of it all, then they wrapped up poor Dickie, zipped him into a bag, and put him in the ambulance.
“The only way I’m leaving is in a box,” he said when he first got to Key West in the 1950s. I smoked all the cigarettes. I sipped the cheap white wine. I felt like a widow with the old lady Wedgwood smoking set, with the absence of the dead man with whom I shared a bedroom, if not a bed. I didn’t want to be there, but where could I go? The Miami sun got brighter. I realized it was almost two o’clock, that’s when the sun really becomes high noon in South Florida. It was a warm enough day to turn on the air conditioner. The remote for it was on or in his desk. This one was not an antique, but it wasn’t Bombay Company either. It was a reproduction from the 1940s of something from the 1780s, something shipped down from Illinois when his mother died. I went through the little drawers and “pigeonholes.”
“Oh, come on, where did you keep it this time,” I asked aloud. “Dickie,” I called out, then remembered he was no longer there. Would never be there again. I sighed. Then, in one of last pigeonholes of the desk, I found the remote for the air conditioning. It was sitting next to a long, envelope. The envelope was thick with paperwork. There, noted in Dickie’s handsome script,
“Last Will and Testament.”
A few weeks ago he said he was drawing up a new one. He claimed he didn’t have an heir in mind. He said he did one every year, because as he sold or acquired pieces, the inventory of valuables and accounts changed. I wondered, I wanted to know, who got the statue of the shepherd boy. I didn’t look at the first page of the real will, but went through hoping to find an inventory. There was such a list, but it wasn’t very long. It was a list of mostly bequests to art museums around the country. He liked smaller institutions, although it mentioned nothing of the shepherd boy. Maybe he mentioned it in the letter part, the actual last will and testament. Although I felt like I had no right to do so, even less right to do so than opening the inventory list, I read it.
“I Dickinson McPherson, being of sound mind, do hereby leave and bequeath the whole of my estate to Mr. Thomas Shepherd, who as of the creation of this document lives with me at my primary residence. Certain bequests have been made to museums, a list is enclosed. However, all assets, including the apartment building in Belle Meade, and all of the objects, funds, and monies associated with my name will pass to Mr. Shepherd.”
Dickie, who never got to make further love to me than through a shower loofa, had bequeathed me his entire estate. I walked into the bedroom. I imagined I could smell death. I imagined it lingered in the air. I forgot about the remote for the air conditioning, and opened the window. I looked at the statue of the shepherd boy. There were two things I could do, take the damn thing he coveted so much and bash it on the floor, into a thousand pieces, then bury them with Dickie. Or, or I could call Phyllis and tell her the shepherd boy was for sale, and it had killed Dickie. I looked at him, at it, as he glowed pastel and white in the sunshine. He was a beautiful shepherd boy, and Dickie’s last memory was for him a beautiful one: an orgasm, as he looked at the object he most loved. I couldn’t make this decision alone. I picked up my phone, I dialed Margot, “You were saying, you wanted to see my living situation? Well, today is a perfect day,” I told her. “No, he won’t be here. Well, you could say I have the place by myself, indefinitely.”
The will was read, there were no disputes from any living relations. I sold the statue to Phyllis for the four-thousand Dickie initially refused to pay. I donated the money to one of the museums, one I learned was from his hometown in Illinois. I got rid of all his furniture.
Then sold most of the fussy porcelain, he would understand they weren’t my “cup of tea.” The multi-colored matted picture frames stayed in their spots. They let me build a proper backdrop for my “gentleman’s room.” I continued to run his business, and wouldn’t have to add more inventory for at least six months. The one piece of his furniture which remained was the stand upon which Dickie kept the shepherd boy. His will stipulated he be cremated, and his ashes kept by me. There was one piece of Wedgwood which I refused to sell. Of course Phyllis wanted it, knowing its value. It was a large vessel, a ginger jar with a lid, one of his best pieces. “That’s one I’m afraid to realize the value of,” he once said. “So, I know it’s very old, and rare, but I just love it too much to give it up. If I heard an extravagant amount I might sell but no, I want to keep it with me, forever.” It made a fitting urn to hold his ashes. I set the Wedgwood onto the stand, where once before stood a priceless shepherd boy.