Book 3: The Centre

by Rick Beck

Chapter 21

Church & Dates

The rest of the week was routine. Argyll worked Saturday morning and I went out with Father Flannery to hand out breakfast. George Carroll called to say he'd be in shortly after noon to accompany us on our rounds. We always handed out a hot meal and a bagged meal to help them get through Sunday, when the church was pretty busy with services and food preparation wasn't practical.

Argyll was in the shower when George arrived. I had him leave his camera on a table in the entryway before escorting him into the kitchen, where we were preparing to eat before going out on our rounds. George was immediately sniffing the air while I poured him a cup of coffee.

"Smells good," he said agreeably, sipping from the steaming cup.

"There's sugar and half & half on the counter if you like."

"No, I like it black this time of day. Keeps my eyes open."

"Late night last night?" I asked.

"You could say that," he said with a mock smile.

When Argyll came in, he came over to shake George's hand. Argyll was still drying his hair and wore the black and white floor length robe he used around the house before he dressed to go out.

"You ready to serve meals," Argyll joked.

"I think I'll simply watch. Something smells mighty good."

Argyll went to stand behind Matilda as she introduced ingredients to the big bubbling pot in front of her on the stove. Denny stood next to her, one arm around her waist with his free thumb shoved in his mouth. He watched each ingredient she introduced to the mix.

"This is the cat's paws and puppy dog noses?" Argyll asked, sniffing at the pot of food from behind Denny.

"Don't you be pokin' no fun at Matilda's recipes. I'm not being responsible if you do, Mr. Argyll. There be forces at work poor Matilda can't be controlling. You be sitting down over there and I'll serve this for you boys before you go to work. This be my lamb curry with rice and collards with fatback; cornbread's in the oven. You big boys sit at the table. I'll feed the youngsters once you be gone."

George poured himself a second cup of coffee and remained next to the coffee pot.

"You be temptin' fate you don't get yourself over here and eat what Matilda's fixed," she advised, carefully eyeballing George.

"My stomach hasn't gotten up yet. I was out late last night."

"Just humor her, George. We can't risk offendin' de recipe," Argyll said in a fair imitation of Matilda.

"Okay, just a little. I'm not fond of lamb," he said.

"I be givin' you what you wants but the spirits be tellin' me, you'll be wantin' more," Matilda said, dropping a single spoonful of the lamb concoction into the middle of George's plate. "They ain't tellin' me if I'm to be givin' you no more."

"Why do I feel like I've walked onto the set of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil?" George asked, dipping the tip of his fork into the steaming mixture. "This is good. I don't even like lamb. While you're here I'll take some more."

Matilda glared back at George once she'd dished out a helping for Argyll and me. She dished up a full helping for the reluctant reporter.

"Where did the boys come from by the way?" George slipped in between mouthfuls.

"Joe, maybe you should handle this?"

"Nice try, Mr. Carroll," I said. "Just because you got the interview doesn't mean the conditions have changed. Be happy we agreed to take you along today. This definitely has more to do with what Father Flannery has accomplished than it's about the guys handing out the meals."

"Why so formal? We know each other now," George said with familiarity. "Just call me George, Billie Joe."

"Nice try, George," I said.

"It's okay. If you think I'd talk to the cops about the boys being up here, I won't. You can trust me to be discreet. Those boys live better than I do. I wouldn't presume to interject my sense of morality into your lives."

Argyll raised his hand as he chewed a mouthful of food, putting it down before he spoke.

"I'm the cops," Argyll said with a curt little smile.

"You're what?" George asked, being thrown off balance by the revelation.

"I'm a cop. I'm the Gay Liaison Officer."

"As I was saying, I'd have to report anything unusual to the police."

"That's what I thought you were saying. I have legal custody of the boys. I intend to adopt them," Argyll revealed.

"Aren't you a little young to have three nearly grown boys?" George asked facetiously.

"No, I'd say I'm exactly the right age to raise these boys. Fatherhood didn't occur to me the normal way. It was thrust upon me," he said, glancing at me before he smiled.

By the time we'd dug into the collards and cornbread I was bursting at the seams and Argyll was ready to get going. For George Carroll there was always one more question.

"Before… your friend killed himself, what was life like at home? You've never mentioned before."

"Everything was fine. My life added up as I went along. I was this goodie two-shoes all my life. I followed the plan my parents had for me but mostly did what I wanted. It was easy as long as I stayed within the guidelines that were put there for me."

"You were happy?" George popped that question again.

"I was numb. I knew what I knew and I had no curiosity about what went on beyond what I knew. I was a good boy."

"How'd you feel when you first went home?"

"Hardest thing I ever did. I was like a wild child at first. I'd been free. I was caged back up in the house. I think my parents thought I might cut their throats one night while they slept. I adjusted and finished school. I knew I had to get a whole lot smarter. I did what I could with my senior year of school."

"We've got to get going. We'll need to take the limo so we've got room for Mr. Carroll," Argyll said, drinking down the rest of his glass of milk meant to ease the presence of Matilda's wonderfully spicy food in his stomach.

"How did you end up with Argyll? I won't write about it. I'm just curious to how you two met."

"He arrested me," I said.

"I did not. I held you for questioning."

"That, too," I said, smiling as George looked from one of us to another.

"What did he arrest you for?"

"Being too cute for his own good, as I recall," Argyll said. "Come on. I've got to get my uniform on and we need to get out of Matilda's way.

While Argyll went into the bedroom to get into his uniform, I took George into the library, which I hoped would entertain him, but he always had another question.

"What if Carl says, enough is enough, I want you home with me."

"I haven't crossed that bridge yet. He's my man, George. I plan to be with him for the rest of my life. But I need to finish this."

"So, you'd defy him?"

"Carl is my man."

"Argyll? For the life of me, I don't know where he fits into this picture."

"A guardian angel in a uniform? He loves those kids."

"He's quite a guy to be in love with you and he still backs you up, knowing you're in love with Carl."

"I don't know he is in love with me," I objected unconvincingly.

"All you need is to look at the way he looks at you. The man loves you," George Carroll informed me.

"Mr. Carroll, would you like to walk or do you want to ride with us?" Argyll said in a most unfriendly humor. "You've been given parameters. Violate them at your peril. The interviews will stop if you persist in going where you aren't welcome. It's time to go."

George followed us around the church as we talked to the kitchen brigade and loaded lunches into the car. While he flashed a few pictures in the church, I wasn't in the line of fire. He stood and talked to Father Flannery for a few minutes, after which the father stopped to talk to us.

I watched Argyll and wondered how hard it was on him. I'd tried not to think about his feelings for me. After George brought it up, it was difficult not to think about it.

We spent a couple of hours putting out fifty-one meals and an equal number of bagged lunches. George Carroll stayed out of the way, until we were down to the final tray and bag. We passed a guy with a shopping cart as we eased back toward the church.

"Stop," George said firmly. "I want to give him the last meal. Do you mind?"

He got out of the car and caught the man, who was pushing the cart up hill with his head down. George taped on his bent shoulders. The man made a sudden swing around, locking his leg against the cart so it couldn't roll backward. As George spoke to him, the man stood motionless, staring at him. George set the meal down in the top of the cart and walked away.

He didn't say anything about the experience and I didn't ask. We'd developed a routine, which kept us moving and unless one of the people receiving the food wanted to talk, we moved on to get the food out while it was still hot. This was what we were there for.

George had us stop at a newsstand near Market Street and he brought back five copies of The San Francisco Chronicle. He opened one copy and folded a section back, handing it to me.

"Boy Crusader Takes The Center"

There was a picture and it went into detail about the facts I'd given at Wednesday evening's meeting. The more in-depth interview wasn't part of the article and I didn't ask when it would be in print. He got out on a corner before we got back to our building and he walked away.

'Billie Joe's Journey' didn't appear until the following Saturday. It covered two full pages under that banner with a picture dominating each page. One picture was of me handing out meals. Reading the words gave me chills. It was my story appearing in the middle of a major newspaper. I was both elated and saddened. I wasn't able to explain either feeling. Fame was not my purpose but it didn't hurt.

I was asked to attend a meeting of a subcommittee for the Board of Supervisors on the issue of street kids on Tuesday night the week before the largest article appeared. I was asked to meet with Supervisor Henderson and his staff on Thursday afternoon. It was the first time I'd spoken to the supervisor since we'd fallen out at dinner the month before. He was polite and professional and left after the first ten minutes.

These discussions were "fact finding" events. I was questioned about everything I knew about living on the streets of San Francisco. I did all I could to give them all the information they asked me for. Mostly it was repetitious and I repeated the same information several times.

I was only out once when Argyll came in from work and I got home shortly after he did. There was nothing said but I knew there was something that wasn't being said. With the boys staying close we went to bed without having said whatever it was that needed saying.

It was Monday after taking the boys to the park for some exercise before the tutor was due that Argyll met me at the door, immediately sending the boys to the kitchen to get ready for their lessons. He was unusually short with them and shorter with me.

"Adam Crest left a message for you to call. His number is on the message," Argyll said, handing me a sheet of paper. "John Stone wants you to call his number. It's on this message. George needs to come by for a chat about this week's story. He mentioned Adam Crest, so he probably knows all about something I don't know anything about."

"Who are these guys?" I asked, holding the two messages I didn't relate to anything.

"Adam is with The Center. I don't know the other guy. You better tell them not to give this number out to casual admirers. They'll be coming out of the woodwork, Joe."

"They will?" I asked, trying not to sound stupid.

"Yeah, it's your fan club. Get used to it. The pictures will get you more admirers. You're an item. It creates security concerns if they find out where you live. You need to be careful."

"I didn't bargain on this," I said, watching Argyll's remote manners. "What did I do?"

"You've got kids. You can't start running off every time someone wants some of your time. You need to organize your time so these kids don't need to ask me where you are, Joe."

"Argyll! I know what I'm doing. I'm with the kids when Matilda isn't. I don't leave them alone."

"You used to be with the kids even when Matilda was here. They notice you aren't here as much. They were certain you were leaving with Carl. They got over that and now this."

"Is this about the kids or you?" I asked, wanting the words back as quick as I spit them out.

"I'll pretend you didn't ask me that. Those kids come first with me. They've been abused, deserted, and ignored. They don't need any more pain."

"I know," I said, feeling hurt by the tone in his voice.

"They've begun to trust us. They'll stop trusting anyone soon. We could be the last chance they have."

"I'll do better," I assured him, not sure what I'd done wrong.

I called Adam. He wanted me to come to a cocktail party that night. I told him I'd come for an hour, but I had kids to take care of. He gave me the address and that was that.

"What about Carl?" Argyll asked, when I told him of the invitation.

"It's business," I explained. "It's men from The Center. I've got to get to know them."

"A cocktail party isn't business," he explained harshly.

"Why are you being like this?" I asked.

"You are going to get in over your head. You've never been involved in the gay scene, Joe. It can overwhelm you. People are going to want into your life. They'll want to be part of your crusade, and then they are going to want in your pants. They'll wine you and dine you and expect you'll bed them in the end. You'll let them because you've never been exposed to that kind of rush before."

"It's not going to happen. I'm here for one reason."

"I hear what you're saying, Joe. I hope you believe it."

Adam's cocktail party was attended by at least fifty people. I was introduced around by Adam shortly after I arrived. Everyone knew who I was. I was a celebrity, at least among his guests.

I made an effort to spend a few minutes with all of them, but it got too hectic and having cocktails wasn't the smartest idea I'd ever had. I decided to eat some of the snacks to dilute the liquor.

Each time I was alone, someone whose name I couldn't recall would come over to chat. I wasn't cut out for high society or cocktails but I had the high part figured out. It was about the time I was planning on staggering for the door, when Adam came to get me, guiding me to a room on the second floor.

He kept talking as we walked and I never had time to ask him what we were doing. We went into a room with four older men sitting around a table smoking big black cigars and sipping booze from a bottle of Johnny Walker with a blue label. They looked and smelled like money.

These guys were all older by a generation than the downstairs party goers. They were well dressed in suits, well mannered, and precise. While I'd forgotten all of the names of the people downstairs, I knew I hadn't been introduced to any of these guys. They had a presence the casual crowd lacked.

"Randolph Cohn, Ben-Al Stein, Horst Manheim, and Claude King," Adam introduced them one at a time and each man nodded at the mention of his name.

I found myself nodding back. I'm not sure why. I didn't remember their names either and the longer the introductions went on the dizzier I got.

"Please, Mr. Walker, take a seat," Ben-Al Stein suggested.

There were two of us and one chair was left. I didn't expect a game of musical chairs to break out, so I looked at Adam to see if it might be his chair.

"Well, you men have a pleasant conversation. I've got to return to my guests. Sit down, Billie Joe," Adam said before leaving me alone.

"How are you doing, Mr. Walker?" Ben-Al asked.

"You'll have to pardon me. Every time you say that, I look for my father. I'm afraid I'm not used to meeting a lot of strangers. I thought a drink would relax me, and believe me it would have if I hadn't had to spend so much time trying not to fall on my face. I'm afraid I'm a little out of sorts," I said as they chuckled together, dropping cigar ashes on the expensive looking leather-topped table.

"We'll do the talking," Ben-Al said. "Is there anything I can get for you to ease the effects of the alcohol?"

"Maybe a sandwich would absorb whatever I drank," I said, looking around the room.

"Excuse me," Ben-Al said, politely leaving the table to go to a top coat to retrieve his phone. "Yes, Raymond, Ben-Al, I need a turkey club with your special sauce. I need it an hour ago if that's possible. Oh, I knew you'd understand. I'm just around the corner at Adam Crest's loft. Just follow the noise and I'm upstairs. Thank you."

Ben-Al turned off the phone and put it back in the pocket of the coat, returning to the table.

"His turkey club is the absolute best made. He does a particularly nice dill sauce and I predict it will mellow out the impact of the alcohol in no time at all. I trust that'll be okay?"

"Thank you. I wasn't expecting a meeting of any kind. I wouldn't have had that drink," I said, as the four of them sat sipping their bourbon.

"I suggested it to Adam," Randolph said. "I knew Ben-Al and Claude would be coming and I called Horst to tap his wealth of knowledge. We are some of the moneyed Interests in and near the city. We do our best to fund projects The Center undertakes. This is something more than a usual project."

I was sadly ignorant about moneyed interests, but I could smell the money in the room. Horst was the youngest, ruggedly handsome, and dressed to kill. Ben-Al and Randolph were older men dressed in suits specifically tailored to their build. They were both graying and remarkably tan for San Francisco residents. Claude King was a bit rotund and his clothing, while expensive looking, was wrinkled in a way that made him look unkempt, even in his high-dollar casual attire. Claude was younger than either Ben-Al or Randolph but older than Horst.

My mind was a flutter with worry about my ability to say the right things. I knew I'd hit the mother lode but I didn't know what to do about it.

"Your crusade is unusual, Billie Joe," Ben-Al said, becoming more familiar. "The idea that this is the responsibility of the gay community isn't a popular view. I can see its validity. The four of us see the possibility of making some contribution to keeping the gay homeless children off the street. It's fraught with legal questions. But we are all privy to legal staff and we can attempt to keep the issue in a favorable light for The Center. The Center is gay oriented to which there are natural objections. Those objections will be heightened at any idea that The Center is involved with children under eighteen. Anything decided upon as practical must be above board and supervised in a way which is above suspicion. It's going to be a complicated balancing act if there is some aspect we can agree to fund.

"We are to remain anonymous and our involvement will be discreet. We are visible businessman. People will think they know where the money comes from, but people outside a small circle will only think they know. What we need from you is some of your guidance so we know what we're talking about. I would want to know enough about your experience, and the things you envision would be the best starting point without taking too much preparation as opposed to those things that may be more complicated, which would require a greater degree of planning.

"I don't know why you are telling me these things. I came here to talk to people about the problem on their streets. Gay, straight, priests, little old ladies with white hair, it's a problem for everyone. It's only your problem if you believe in its resolution. As businessmen I'd think you'd want to do something about it regardless of your relationship with the gay community. The kids don't have a relationship with the gay community or anyone else, but they inhabit doorways and street corners.

"The Board of Supervisors didn't understand and they're stalling me. They want a committee to take a look and their aids to examine the situation. I think they're doing that much for appearances. They aren't sure of who is paying attention. Otherwise, they wanted to know what the gay community was doing. If anyone asks them what they are doing that will be the answer: what's the gay community doing about it?

"If the gay community isn't doing anything about it nothing is going to be done to solve the problem. I'm here. I can tell you about my time on your streets, what I did to survive, what happened to the kids that didn't survive. It's a serious problem requiring a complete effort. Thanks to Father Flannery we're getting some of them fed, but that doesn't address the next generation of LGBT youth who will know the same fear and violence we've all grown up with," I said, identifying with them in terms of the experience of being gay. "We can start when and where you like."

"Would any of you like to add anything to what I've said? We've hardly had time to formulate a cohesive approach in getting your complete story. This will be the start. If we wait until we have time to hear all of Billie Joe's story, we will certainly be better informed about what we might be able to do in the way of making a positive contribution."

The door opened and a restaurant fellow in one of those caps to keep his hair out of the food was summoned to the table. I reached into my pocket for some money and Ben-Al flipped out a twenty dollar bill and handed it to the young man.

"I have no change. I'll have to bring it back," he apologized as Ben-Al accepted the food.

"You keep the change for pampering us. Tell Raymond it's greatly appreciated. I'm in his debt."

Adam stood at the door to lead him back downstairs. Ben-Al opened the bag and removed the wrapping to set the plate with the sandwich out in front of me.

"I don't have twenty," I said, looking up at his smiling face.

"No matter. My treat. You didn't know we'd trap you here without notice. I'd avoid the pickle. It is deadly with spices. Delicious if your stomach is up to it."

"Thank you," I said, starting to feel a bit more alert after listening to Ben-Al's rapid fire presentation.

Once I was done with half the sandwich, Adam slipped back in the door, bringing a bucket of ice for the table. Immediately cubes tinkled into glasses and the bottle of bourbon moved around the table.

"Adam, I'm late. I need to call Argyll. I should be home already," I pleaded.

"Argyll?" Ben-Al chuckled after saying the name. "Fiserelli?"

"Yes, sir," I said.

"Let me take care of it. His father and I are business partners. I'm well situated in his bank. I've known Argyll since he was a boy."

Ben-Al didn't need to ask for the number. He ran through an index and in no more than a minute he had Argyll on the phone.

"Argyll, Ben-Al, how are you? Oh, I'm fine and your father? I see. He is. I knew that. I'll tell you why I called. I've got your boy with me, Billie. No one told him we'd want to discuss his issues tonight. I'm going to keep him for awhile and I'll have him delivered to your door in an hour or so if that's suitable? Fine, Argyll. I'll stop over for a chat. You are keeping handsome company, you know, but I don't need to tell you. Okay. Okay, I will. Goodnight.

"His father and I were in business together for many years. He's made a lot of money with my money. It's certainly a small world. That takes care of that," he said, happy with himself or with the idea I was connected to someone with whom he was connected.

I'd finished the sandwich by the time Ben-Al sat back down at the table. There was more smoking and drinking. My stomach was fine and my head was way better, but there wasn't anything more said about what these men hoped to do. I did give them a rundown on how Father Flannery's operation worked. It was also Claude King's church and he was pleased to say he knew Father Flannery very well.

Adam drove me to the door and walked me upstairs, claiming Ben-Al told him not to leave me, until I was safely home. Adam was a pleasant sort and not at all pushy, which wasn't the impression I got at The Center. Argyll met us in the entryway and thanked Adam for the special delivery. I would like to have invited Adam in, but I didn't question Argyll's wanting to say goodnight to him. It was getting late.

"I don't believe you," he said, once the door was closed and I was sorry Adam hadn't stayed.

"I didn't know they were there. I was getting ready to leave just after nine and they ambushed me. How could I say no to those guys? They might be the key to success."

I gave Argyll the names and he knew all of them but Horst, and he knew of him. He knew the rest of them through his father's business. We went into the library to talk.

"It didn't take you long to find the money?" he said in a way that sounded like he thought I'd come looking for money.

"I didn't find them. They were waiting for me."

"Are they going to do anything?" Argyll asked firmly.

"They talk in a non-specific language. There are obstacles and hazards. Mostly what you and I have already discussed, but they say it differently than we do."

"I hope you know what you've getting yourself into. They see something in it that benefits them."

"Argyll, you know everything I'm into," I argued.

"These guys don't do anything for nothing, Joe. Don't forget that. They aren't rich because of wanting to help anyone but themselves. If they get involved in what you want to do they have a motive. Just be aware of that fact."

"There's a party on the Russian River this weekend."

"I knew it," Argyll blurted disgusted.

"I'm telling you in plenty of time. I couldn't say no."

"No, of course you couldn't. You don't have meals to put off or kids to care for? I do."

"Argyll, I'm just trying to accomplish what I came to do. Why are you mad all the time?"

"I know. Go ahead. I'll do the meals and I'll be here with the boys. You enjoy yourself," he said without meaning it.

It hurt to have Argyll angry with me. I couldn't turn down the invitation. This might be my best shot at achieving what I came to do. Didn't he see that?

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