Book 3: The Centre

by Rick Beck

Chapter 23

Careful Planning

On the way home from the river house, Adam and I sang and talked. I was at ease with him. The pressure of moving the money men had passed. Adam worked for Ben-Al's Foundation and he told me what he knew of the building they were donating to my crusade. He drove me by it on the way home and it was surrounded with construction materials. He said they'd been working on it for several weeks.

This was further evidence that there was progress and when placed beside the feed-the-street kids operation, my mission was in good hands. I could still furnish details that would implement the assistance that could be offered the kids on day one. Once the organization was in place, everyone would know where they could best serve the cause.

On Monday morning Argyll and I were off and running early to make our rounds. We went back to our usual routine. As we delivered the hot morning meals, I told Argyll about the building and I might have mentioned Adam a few more times than necessary. Argyll remembered Adam but nothing beyond the fact he delivered me home after one of the meetings, or so he said.

By early afternoon I was in the kitchen with the boys, Matilda, and Ms. Cho. I needed to write Carl and do some more reading on historical gays. I missed the boys so much I wanted to watch them study. The hazard here was smelling Matilda's cooking. I checked the size of my stomach as I sniffed. With all the food I'd eaten over the weekend I was going to weigh a ton.

The cornbread came out steaming and was loaded with corn kernels, some red and some green pepper pieces. The butter was lathered heavily on each piece as we made all gone with the cornbread before she could bring the exotic bean stew.

The boys could eat and study and never miss a bite; it amused me that they were so adept at the life Argyll had provided them. I thought there was a doctor, a lawyer, and maybe an astronaut among them, but I was a dreamer and what I wanted them to be was happy. I thought I was happy, even when I knew all this was temporary for me. This was what happened to me on my way to somewhere else.

My heart was full of joy and my worries evaporated with the news that the 'moneyed interests' were indeed interested in doing the right thing. Their involvement meant as much to me as anything since my return to San Francisco. We were getting close to reaching the vision I'd come back with.

That night we watched a movie from Argyll's Film Noir collection. The boys protested, when they found out it was in black and white. The Big Sleep drew them in by the time Bogey had spoken his first lines. I was surprised they all sat still and stared into the screen as the mystery unfolded. The story was a bit thin by today's nonstop standards, but the boys were mesmerized by its simplicity.

Then we had three kids all talking like Humphrey Bogart. Danny had him down to a T by the time the movie ended, even though he'd never heard of him. I thought it funny how timeless some things were. I remembered being drawn to him as a boy. Bogey was a man, always. He was mostly likeable, but not always.

We were up late winding the kids down and Argyll had trouble getting me to get up the following morning. I was still a bit worn out from the river weekend. I'd spent a great deal of the day Sunday running down the pier and jumping into the water with the younger boys and Adam holding hands.

We'd swum down the river, up the river, and across the river. I hadn't had that much exercise since I couldn't remember when. It was almost like I was a boy, except on Tuesday morning I was tired and dragged along while Argyll encouraged me.

As we put off the final meals around the corner from Market Street, there was the young man pimp, leaning against a wall, cigarette dangling from his lips, and his hand patting the wall like he was keeping time to some strange beat in his head.

"You ready for work?" I asked Argyll casually.

"Am I ready for work? You know I go in as quick as I drop you off. I better be ready."

"I know. Go ahead and drop me off. I'm ready to go home," I said, as he glanced at me as if he could see motive.

I wanted to get back to where I saw the guy and see what he was up to. It was still in my mind that there was a way to keep him off our kids. There had been no such character in my time on the street. Each of us took care of our own dates without it requiring middle management.

When I rounded a corner, I caught sight of him a block away from where he'd been before. I raced to the next corner once he disappeared around it, easing my face in a position where I could see where he went. I was curious about who he met and what he did. Each time I waited for him to turn off the street he was on before I raced to continue my surveillance. My heart raced and I breathed hard as my one eye looked down the next block, but it was empty. Where did he go that quick?

"Damn!" I said, thinking he went into one of the shops along the street.

I went from door to door for the first three shops and I didn't see him in any of them. Just as I was about to turn around and head back home, I found him or I should say he found me.

Before I was aware of him he had me pinned against the window of the Greek Bakery, his elbow was across my windpipe and there was just enough pressure to tell me not to move. At which time he expressed his displeasure with my sloppy tailing technique, spitting out his words with his face up close to mine.

"I don't know what you want, but I want you to steer clear of me. I know who you are and you aren't the only one with protection. You keep toying with me, boy, and your ass is going to be mine. You understand me?"

"Yes, sir," I mumbled, my voice breaking as it took all the air I had to answer.

I felt myself shaking. He felt me shaking.

"That's better," he decided, moving his arm. "You don't want to fuck with me, boy. You're in over your head. Now, back off or you're going to get hurt."

He was gone that fast. It took maybe a minute and at the most two for him to make his point. I felt stupid, exposed, and I didn't know why I did things without thinking about the consequences beforehand.

I vowed I'd change.

I was never happier to get home. I realized how wonderful it was having the kids in the house. Matilda was singing and the kitchen was filled with exquisite smells. I had a cup of coffee, holding the cup in both hands so no one could see them shaking. Denny reciting a poem from memory and he impressed me. Danny and Donnie were writing in their notebooks and I was happy to be there where we were all completely safe from the world beyond our front door. I thought about going to write about my confrontation in my journal. I wondered if I should tell Argyll about the threat. By the time he got home I knew I should, because it had to do with more than me.

"Something happened today," I said, once Argyll and I were alone in the library, where we talked away from the boys.

I closed the door behind us to make sure and Argyll noticed my caution.

"What?" he asked concerned, sensing something was wrong.

"I saw that guy. The one you say is a pimp. I wanted to see where he went. I thought I was being careful. It's what I'd seen them doing on television. It always worked on TV."

"Joe!" he growled, as unhappy as I'd ever seen him.

"He caught me. He told me I wouldn't like what he did if I crossed paths with him again. He said he'd hurt me."

"Joe! I'm the cop. You leave Page Cross to me. I know who he is. I know who he works for. I know where he lives and I know where he's from. I'm a cop. It's my job to keep an eye on guys like that. He's a small fish in a big sea, Joe, but he's dangerous if he's cornered."

"You know about him? You didn't tell me you knew anything. I was afraid for the kids. I can't let him hurt them."

"It's none of your business. I did my job, Joe. Now, I've got to do it again. What did he say? I want to know exactly what he told you. I want to know where he went."

I recalled the short conversation for him. Argyll seethed at the unnecessary risk I'd taken. He was sparse with his words and I felt a further cooling between us. I didn't know what to do about it. I kept fucking up and his patience was going to run out. It was hard for me to leave such things up to someone else. I wanted to know what that guy was up to with which kids. What good it would do me wasn't so clear.

As usually happened when I hit a rough spot, Carl called. He seemed to have keen radar when my life was going through changes. Didn't I know better was what he wanted to know; so much for him taking my side. I was ready to believe Argyll called him, only Carl relied on phone cards to call me and he didn't have a phone. We talked for over an hour and we agreed we missed each other and it would be better for both of us if I finished what I was doing so I could return to him.

I always felt a lift after speaking to him. I wasn't feeling quite as stupid, because I was smart enough to fall in love with Carl. Talking about being together always appealed to me.

The following night I walked to Adam's for dinner, once the boys were fed. I kept looking over my shoulder imagining Page was now following me. That was stupid. He didn't want anything to do with me, and that had been his point. I was still fearful and happy to get the hug and kiss from Adam at his door. I didn't let on that I was out of sorts.

Dinner was broiled chicken, grilled asparagus, and roasted red potatoes. It was neither catered nor did a cook prepare it for him. Each item had a delicately delicious taste and I probably made a pig out of myself. Adam merely smiled, poured more wine, and traded chit chat with me. We were like old friends.

I was blown away when he took me to his bedroom and in one corner was a pile of clothing several feet high with shoes beside the pile.

"You need to do laundry," I quipped.

"No, this was collected by several of the guys from The Center. For the homeless kids. Isn't that the nicest thing?"

I picked up a few pieces of the designer clothing and realized I had never been able to afford clothes like these. A few showed a small amount of ware, but the colors were bright and gay and it was going to appeal to some of the gayer boys if not all of them.

'Nothing like designer wear for dumpster diving," I thought.

"Do I get first pick?" I asked.

"Billie Joe, you're such a character. What do you think of their doing that on their own? That's how important it is for people to hear your story. They respond to you, Billie. They want to help you."

"We could open a thrift shop, sell this stuff, and buy them practical clothing, but I doubt you'd get any objection form the kids. It's all great looking stuff."

Adam and I joked and rolled on the bed together. He reminded me of Simon and how close we'd become before my final school year ended. My life seemed filled with meeting people and saying good-bye to them. For the first time I wondered if I really wanted to say goodbye to Argyll and the boys. San Francisco wasn't that bad the second time around.

I called Argyll to come and pick me up. I neglected to tell him I was scared to walk home alone in the dark. He didn't ask me for a reason.

"I'll be right there. Do you want me to come up to his apartment?"

"Yeah," I said, my mind racing a mile a minute. "I want you to come up. You can park out front. I'll be ready."

I let Adam answer the door without getting up, but I knew it was Argyll coming to fetch me. I was in no hurry and left them to their own device for a short time.

"Oh, high, you're Argyll. I'm Adam," Adam said, as they shook on it. "He's finishing his soda. Come on in."

I told Argyll I was ready to go five minutes after he arrived, but I could see his disappointment. I still made him leave, but I'd brought them together for the first time and I sensed they liked each other, even if neither said so to me. I told Argyll how nice Adam had been to me at the river house and on the way home. I wasn't about to give up on the idea of getting my two best friends together, whether they liked it or not. Once I got something in my head it was difficult for me to let go of it.

Adam called the following day to tell me there was a meeting that night and I would want to attend as they discussed logistics. They were reworking the plans for the hotel's kitchen and dining area to make room for several small classrooms. The idea of tutoring the kids had caught on.

Even on short notice there were eighteen men, three women, and me. Adam started out giving the summary of where we were in dealing with the problem. No one had anything to say to that and Ben-Al stood to speak.

"We are toying with the idea of tutoring the kids in-house. Home schooling is popular in many places, like Minnesota for instance. We're thinking lesbian teachers would make good tutors and great female role models in a house full of boys. There may be a live in opportunity with some supervisory role. We're thinking retired gay women who could alternate these responsibilities. We're shooting in the dark here, so feel free to offer your suggestions. Maybe former teachers or just intelligent women who want to do what's necessary to bring the kids up to the standards that will be required for them to receive a GED. We want a major female presence at the facility at all times. Lord knows there are enough men to go around."

"Retired teachers come as male and female," an older fellow added. "You need strong productive males to furnish a balance."

"There are legal considerations. The less chance of impropriety the better, do you all agree?"

"Ben, the god-damn building is in The Castro, or butted up damn close to it. You think those kids aren't going to be able to find a little something on the side if they have a mind to? Strong male teachers aren't the enemy. The idea that we all can't keep our dicks in our pants is the lie floated by the god-damn right wingers and as long as you people keep repeating their god-damn lies, they don't need to say a word. When the hell do we tell them to go get screwed. These kids are out on the street because of those same right wingers.

"You let the best teachers volunteer to teach them. You never allow one teacher with one student at any time, no matter male, female, purple kangaroo. It's not about failing to trust each other, it's a matter of doing the right thing. These kids are abused and we've got to protect them in all instances from anyone who might have it in mind to take advantage of one. You do this by always having the proper supervision, when adults and children are in close proximity. It's not complicated.

"Now, you're going to do exactly what you want, but that's what I think," the angry man said. "I'm a retired teacher and I'll donate a couple of days a week to the kids. Make that into something dirty if you can."

"Thank you, Lewis. Your candor is always refreshing. Retired teachers are an excellent idea, male, female, but no kangaroos please. Do they need to be LGBT? I think as long as they're friendly to the community, all teachers are welcome. We can explore that," Ben-Al said softly. "Are there anymore ideas on this issue?"

"Vets. Disabled Vets. Use them to supervise the buildings. I assume there's to be more than one hotel if this effort is successful. Some of these guys would love to have a purpose," a guy stood up to say. "I have a friend who lost his legs and he'd be perfect with kids. He's perfectly capable, simply disabled."

"How do you figure? They're not exactly trained for childcare. Kids would eat them alive if you mean crippled guys."

"That's a myth. These kids aren't Attila. They've been abused, thrown out like garbage. They eat out of dumpsters and sell themselves for food. They know hardship," Paul Jefferson said, smiling at me when he stood to talk. I hadn't heard from him since shortly after the first Board meeting. "Give them a vet to look up to and look after, and you may be surprise how well they respond to each other."

"Come on. We're talking military men. It's not a good idea to put throwaway kids with disabled war vets. There's bound to be an explosion."

"I like it," Ben-Al said, immediately stopping the discord. "I like that very much. You think the kids would accept someone seriously disabled and will the vet accept gay kids?"

"These kids are seriously disabled. We just can't see it, Mr. Stein. The kids will relate to their vet, being able to see his disability outright. They'll want to help. You can bring back their humanity by trusting them to let a vet influence their lives. It would need to be supervised. We don't want someone dangerous, but like the kids, we can't predict who is going to go off one day, but what better way to make sure they don't? We won't get any guarantees on any of these issues."

"What you have here are self-emancipated minors. It's not a legal status but is the government going to go after their parents, force them to restore their kids into a happy home or else? No, they aren't. It's a problem of invisibility.

"We provide the organization and structure to get these kids off their streets before the street becomes part of them, and you've taken a losing proposition and eliminate it as a social problem. The wing nuts will always be there criticizing us no matter what we do, but they don't want anything to do with gay homeless kids. Once they get wind we're tackling the problem, they'll be coming out of the woodwork on full attack mode.

"In San Francisco the people will support it as long as taxpayer money isn't paying the tab. The gay community is certainly financially capable of doing the job and my law firm is at your disposal on this matter. Each child we take on files for emancipated status and he agrees to a custodial arrangement that furnishes room, board, and education. I think it's got everything. It would represent one of the most progressive movements in any city in recent history with it being privately financed. We can talk in more detail as we are close to opening the facility."

"Thanks, Brad," Ben-Al said, smiling with approval. "We can do this if we work together and your help is always a comfort to me and the Foundation."

The interaction continued and while there were several naysayers, they didn't keep the floor for long before someone came up with a positive response to their fear. It was about all of them working together for the same outcome. None of it was about an individual and it was all about the result. Ben-Al smiled approval as he listened to the many new and exciting ideas.

Once the meeting ended, Paul came to walk out with me.

"I'm sorry I didn't call, Billie Joe. I met a man. We've been together every minute. I read about you. When I saw there was a meeting tonight I just had to come to explain. I'm really in love," he assured me.

"That's wonderful, Paul. I've been really busy myself. Goodnight, Paul."

I found Argyll waiting for me out in front of The Center. He sensed my fear and he was being extra attentive, which was nice. When he saw Adam, he left the door he was holding open for me to go to speak to him. I felt like I was part of the conversation, even though I stayed out of earshot. After a minute he came back and we were on the way home.

"How's Adam?" I asked, smiling.

"Oh, he's fine. Nice fellow."

"Yes, he is. Very nice," I agreed smugly before leaning to kiss his cheek.

"What's that for?" he asked.

"For picking me up. For being my hero."

Smiling broadly, he watched the street ahead.

When we got home the kids were camped out in front of the television watching Key Largo. Danny repeated each of Bogey's lines with perfect inflection as he practiced the tone and quality he tried to mimic. Denny and Donnie were busily eating from a huge bowl of popcorn and drinking sodas.

"Popcorn and soda?" I questioned.

"They're kids. They never ask for anything. They need their treats," he advised me as I smiled at the change in him.

"Okay, Carl," I said, remembering Carl's need to fill the boys with sweats and junk.

Argyll smiled.

The distance between us melted back to being more as it had been when Argyll first took me home. It was hard on him, knowing I loved Carl, but he'd adapted, never turning mean or vindictive. The presence of the boys had filled his life with a joy he'd never known before.

Now, with Adam appearing more frequently, Argyll noticed him and in spite of Adam's protests it was easy to see him light up each time he saw Argyll. Using every opportunity possible, I made certain their paths crossed often.

Having the boys in good hands before I could leave was essential. Having Argyll in good hands was something I was determined to do as soon as I suspected the mutual interest. Each time I spoke with Adam, I told him Argyll said to say, hello, and then, I'd tell Argyll that Adam said hello. I made sure Argyll answered the phone when Adam scheduled a chat. I could tell by the size of Argyll's smile, when it was Adam.

Film Noir became a regular feature at the Fiserelli household. Key Largo had introduced Edward G. Robinson and Danny was torn. He followed the Bogey lines with due diligence, but every once in awhile he slipped in one of Robinson's lines. I could see him thinking about the tone and the quality of the voice, which his voice was better able to duplicate.

Sensing the same thing I saw, Argyll put in Little Caesar as quick as Key Largo finished with Bogey winning out over Robinson in their life and death struggle aboard a boat.

There was a split among our boys with Donnie and Denny sticking with their man Bogey, imitating him poorly. Danny studied 'Edward G' with a new focus.

Danny was Little Caesar from the moment he heard the immortal words, "I'm Lit'l Caesar, See." We'd come to regret giving him the fuel for his fertile imagination. Danny said everything like his hero, 'Edward G.' It's true we all got a big laugh out of it the first few dozen times, but by bedtime we were ready to strangle Lit'l Caesar, see.

While Argyll and I tried to humor Danny, hoping it would go away on its own and Donnie and Denny simply held their hands over their ears, Lit'l Caesar didn't fair quite as well with Matilda. Danny came bursting into her kitchen the next morning, during my second cup of coffee. I knew what was coming, but Matilda was unsuspecting.

"I'm Lit'l Caesar, see," he announced to the world, thrusting out his chest and living the role.

Matilda pointed one long black finger in his direction, saying, "Boy, you going to be so little they'll not be able to find you, you be a messin' with Matilda this morning."

Danny made a fast retreat, forgetting about Eddie Robinson when Matilda was in the house. What a life we lived. There was never a dull moment.

Matilda still could be heard spinning her mystical tales of Caribbean intrigue and it was difficult to tell if the stories were rooted in fact or simply a well-developed part of her imagination. Danny had met his equal and he wasn't taking any chances on her ability to cast spells.

It was the following morning the shit hit the fan. It all started out routine. We were at the church a little after eight and helped to wrap the trays full of food. I carefully packed the hot box and Argyll drove toward the top of The Castro, where the early birds were waiting by nine.

We'd work our way up and down the streets and set off the meals as we found takers. By ten that morning we were down to two meals and Argyll turned in and out of the streets as we worked our way back toward the church. He turned a corner and walking on the sidewalk ahead of us was Page Cross, head down, smoking bellowing behind him.

Argyll's focus intensified. I wish I hadn't told him about my run in with Cross. The scowl on his face made him unrecognizable. My head hit the side bar as the Jeep bounced over the curb to cut off the prey, but he adroitly leaped across the hood, tossing down his cigarette, he took off like a deer with Argyll dashing after him.

The distance between them was no more than a few yards, but when Argyll stopped, I thought the pursuit was over. Withdrawing his nightstick from his belt, Argyll's arm came back before he threw the stick at the sidewalk behind the runner. It took one bounce and leaped between his churning legs and Cross sprawled, sliding to a stop on the sidewalk.

Argyll was on him before he could get back to his feet. Argyll yanked the stick out from under him as Cross rolled over to look at his tormentor. Argyll came down hard on top of him and I saw the stick being applied to the prone young man's throat. I cringed not certain Argyll wasn't out of control. I'd rarely seen him angry but he appeared to be possessed.

He put his face very close to his captive's face before summoning me.

"Joe," he screamed and it shook me hearing the yell.

I slid out of the Jeep rubbing both sides of my head. I walked to where I was staring down at a helpless animal.

"You see him?" Argyll screamed into his now purple face.

Page Cross tried to nod but the stick prevented that much motion.

A faint squeak emerged in a poorly formed affirmation, "Yes."

"He comes home with so much as a hair out of place, I'll be looking for you, asshole. If I were you I'd get out of this town before you really piss me off. You hear me?" Argyll yelled into his ear by yanking a handful of hair to get the ear against his lips.

"Yes," he squeaked.

"Argyll, you're killing him," I objected as his eyelids fluttered and his face turned a darker purple.

Argyll swung around to look at my horrified face. He pulled the stick away from the young man's throat, standing up, brushing off his uniform. He replaced the nightstick in his belt.

He reached down to yank Page Cross onto his feet, ready or not. Brushing him off in a mock reconciliation, Cross stood as far away as Argyll's grip on him allowed, waiting for the next act in the drama. He was dazed and began coughing.

"There, I knew I could reason with you, Page. Beat it."

Cross beat it, but before he did, he cast one ugly glance in my direction. My blood ran cold but I didn't dare mention it for fear Argyll would go off again and get himself into some serious trouble on my account.

"That should take care of that," Argyll said with confidence.

I followed him to the jeep and he backed it off the curb and we were under way again.

"You scared me," I protested. "It was only words. He didn't hurt me."

"Some one like him only understands a powerful message," Argyll explained in a precise measurement of words. "He'll think twice before he comes near you again."

"Violence never solves anything," I said, feeling as if I'd just been part of something ugly.

"It's all that type understands, Joe. He won't bother you again. It's all I was after. I won't have you hurt. I'm a cop. Give me the benefit of the doubt. I do have experience with bad guys. I know what I'm doing. For you he's a puppy. For me he's a coiled snake."

"I told you about what happened, because I tell you everything. I didn't tell you so you could feel justified in hurting someone. I wish I hadn't seen that side of you. I didn't believe you capable of that kind of violence," I argued.

Argyll looked at me with disbelief on his face. I could see he thought he was doing something for my benefit. He thought he was protecting me, but his actions left me as cold as Page Cross's final look. If looks could kill I was a goner. I kept it to myself.

I didn't have much experience with overt violence, but I knew violence led to more violence. I thought about Sal and how what he said about buying me a boy so thoroughly disgusted me. I'd known Argyll a lot longer than I ever knew Sal, but I had the same kind of cold feeling down inside me. If not for the kids, I don't know that I wouldn't have left him that day. I'd try to forget what I'd seen.

I believed I was close to succeeding in a way that would allow me to go home, and I'd do my best to forgive what Argyll had shown me. I was living in his house and my work wasn't finished yet. It was in my best interest to put this behind me.

The ride back to the church was silent and I left the two hot meals in the jeep. I slid off the seat and turned my back to walk away. Neither of us said goodbye.

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