Monday, May 9, 2011

Emerald Mountain excerpt by Victor J Banis

Emerald Mountain by Victor J Banis. A homophobic, hate spewing evangelist. A gay messiah, who brings people back from the dead, and whose own past is shrouded in mystery. An empty asylum in the Ohio farmland. And the Emerald Mountain, the legendary haven for lost souls. A burned out reporter tries to unravel the threads. "We are all hearts in exile," he writes, "stumbling alone in the dark..." Hailed as a modern classic

Emerald Mountain
MLR Press (April, 2011)
ISBN: 978-1-60820-33-8 (ebook)

Excerpt:

Castro Street was a kaleidoscope of wet hues. On the far corner, in the brightly lit windows of the Twin Peaks, the young men watched the passersby, and the older men watched the young. A lone pedestrian, too impatient for the light, darted into the street, skirting cars and their spray. A chorus of horns scolded his audacity.

The Walk sign flashed. Simon crossed, playing Dodgem with a multicolored sea of umbrellas, and paused outside the bar. He felt a twinge of expectation, that peculiar sense of something special impending that sometimes seizes one, for no discernable reason.

The rain began to come down harder just then, as if to convince him to take shelter. Like a ghostly hand at his back, a gust of wind nudged him forward and, without consciously making a decision, he stepped through the open door.

Inside the overheated room smelled of damp clothes, of sweat and beer and too many, too different, colognes. Glasses clinked, and a chorus of male voices competed with one another. He made his way to an unoccupied table by the window.

At least, he would have sworn there was no one there when he sat down, until a voice said, almost in his ear, “I was afraid you wouldn’t get here in time.”

Simon started and turned, and found himself looking into the face of a stranger, a craggy face, tawny in color, with a majestic nose and deeply cleft chin—and electric green eyes, the eyes of a hawk, fastened directly on his own, compelling attention.

“I’m so sorry,” Simon stammered, and half rose to his feet. “I thought the table was empty.”

“No, please. I insist.” The stranger laughed and spread his long fingers. “The table is large and my drink is small.”

Simon paused to glance around the room. All the other tables were full and men stood two and three deep at the bar. Really, what could he have been thinking, it would have been a miracle to find an empty table on a day like this. It was share this one with a stranger, or fight his way to the bar.

“Well, if you don’t mind." He smiled and sat, and looked out the window, to discourage conversation. Outside, a queue of passengers jostled at the curb to board a steaming Muni bus. A Latina woman with a crying baby in her arms pressed back against the bar's window in a vain effort to shelter from the rain.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” the stranger said.

Which, as pick up lines went, was not very original, Simon thought. Maybe, after all, the bar would be the better choice. He sighed and was half out of his chair, when a young man with a tray balanced on his hip came up and asked, “You want a drink?”

“Yes, only…."

“The way you’ve been bobbing up and down, I wasn’t sure.”

Hawk eyes said, “Order a drink. And do sit down, please. People are staring.”

“Look, I don’t even know you. I’m sure,” Simon said. Or did he? Something familiar…but, surely he would have remembered those eyes, they might have been glittering emeralds, the brows above them like gray-brown caterpillars.

The waiter shifted his weight and tapped his tray with a cerise fingernail. “Most customers don’t need an introduction before they order," he said. "But you can call me Mary if it makes you feel better.”

“I meant him,” Simon said.

The young man cast a quick, bored glance around the crowded room. “There’s a roomful of guys, honey, and I don’t do introductions. If you’re interested in somebody, send him a drink. Or blow a kiss, it’s cheaper. What'll you have?”

“I’m Michael,” the stranger said, and added, “he can’t see me.”

Simon asked, "What do you mean, he can’t see you?”

The waiter took a nervous step backward. “On second thought, sweetheart, I don’t think you need another drink,” he said. “How about some coffee? Fresh brewed. No charge. My treat.”

Simon's senses felt oddly heightened. He knew the people on either side of them were watching, he seemed to see them without looking. The music was louder than before and from the bar snippets of conversations swirled about him like aural confetti.

“Is this some kind of a joke you guys cooked up?” Simon asked.

The waiter took another step back and cast a nervous glance in the bartender’s direction. “Honey, we don’t like trouble here. Maybe you should try another place. How about The Cove, it’s just across the street. You could get a bite to eat while you’re there.”

Even before it happened, Simon had stood, turned to look outside, as if he knew the Latina woman on the other side of the glass was going to scream, as neatly as if they had rehearsed it. She held her baby at arm’s length and shook him.

“My baby,” she shrieked, “he’s stopped breathing.” She looked around frantically, and suddenly stared through the window, directly, beseechingly, into Simon’s eyes. “Gran Dios. Save him, save my baby.”

People moved toward the door, not a stampede, exactly, but enough that Simon was swept along with them. Without knowing exactly how he got there, he was outside, part of the crowd collecting around the sobbing woman. She was on her knees now, kneeling. The baby lay on the sidewalk before her, crimson faced, not breathing. Surely, Simon thought at a glance, the child was dead.

Thunder rumbled distantly. Simon shivered. It reminded him of—of what? The thought was gone as quickly as it had come. It was just a rainstorm. Just thunder. His hands felt cold and numb. He had no consciousness of moving them and yet, when he looked down at them he saw them stretch, as if of their own volition, in the direction of the infant. He seemed to be watching from some place outside: he saw himself lean over the child, and asked himself, what is he doing, he’s not a doctor?

The lightning struck right where he was standing. He thought, it's supposed to come before the thunder. It exploded inside his head, a blinding blue-white light. Electricity crackled along his arms and out his fingertips. His senses, preternaturally heightened an instant before, shut down completely.

The same as before…the blackness...the rain…lightning…

It might have been seconds or hours before he became conscious of himself again. He felt as if a tornado had lifted him up and carried him a great distance, like Dorothy in that movie. Where was he? Was he dead? Didn’t people die from lightning strikes?

But no, he was just where he had been, outside the Twin Peaks. The rain still fell. A frenzy of Saturday afternoon traffic rushed up and down on Castro Street. Everything was as it had been.

Except, a baby was crying and—he realized this more slowly—people were staring, staring wide-eyed at him, mouths agape. He looked down. It was that baby, the one who had surely been dead a moment before, howling lustily and kicking his feet.

“You saved my baby.” The mother scooted around clumsily on her knees and fell against Simon’s legs, seizing them so violently she nearly knocked him over. “He brought my baby back to life!” Her voice rose to a shout.



Bruno and Nate lived in a pseudo-Spanish confection on Sanchez Street—called, appropriately enough, Casa Sanchez. I had called them in advance and they were waiting to welcome me into their apartment.

Bruno was six foot of gay male fantasy. Nate was the boy-next-door, good looking if you like that type and weren't lusting after his partner. He wore a pale green robe that matched his eyes. There was a friend there too, whom they introduced as Jake.

They offered drinks, which I declined, for the moment. I like to keep a clear head, at least when I begin an assignment. Later—well, later generally took care of itself, one way or another.

We settled on tea, and sat in the living room. The tea was minty. The aroma of lamb roasting wafted from the kitchen. It was very domestic, ordinary. No one looked loopy. Maybe Joe had made it up. Only, Joe wasn't imaginative. He had never made a pass at me, which I think pretty well illustrates his lack of imagination.

“Joe wanted me to talk to you,” I said, to break the ice.

“I thought Joe would know what to do,” Bruno said.

“What exactly is it you want him to do?”

He looked puzzled. “People ought to know, about what happened. It was a fucking miracle. Isn’t that news?”

“We’re a gay weekly,” I said. “We consider every issue a miracle. What makes your miracle so special?"

Bruno took a moment, clearing his throat. I waited him out. “Nate was dying,” he said finally. “That’s why we brought him home from the hospital. The Meds didn’t work. He couldn’t handle them. We talked about it and decided we'd both rather he die here.”

“I begged Bruno," Nate said, "No IVs, no drugs. Forget it all. I was ready to go. I’d made my peace.”

I must have looked unimpressed. “Show him,” Bruno told Nate.

Nate stood and untied his robe, and let it fell open. Now I was impressed.

“Very nice,” I said, all too lasciviously, and waited for Bruno to pound me senseless.

“You don’t get it,” Nate said. “A week ago, I was lesions, head to foot.”

“Do you see anything wrong with him now?” Bruno asked.

“Not a thing,“ I said. Nate closed his robe and sat down again. I gulped a mouthful of tea, scorching my tongue.

“Neither do I," Bruno said. "It’s like he was never sick, like he never got infected in the first place.”

“That happens with the new Meds.”

“You weren’t listening," Nate said. "I couldn’t take them. I got severe reactions. I stopped taking them altogether, three months ago.”

“Spontaneous remission.” It sounded lame even to me.

“No fucking way,” Bruno said. He got up and began to pace like a tiger in a cage. “That night, when it happened—he'd already said goodbye and closed his eyes. He was dying. I knew it. He knew it. I held his hand and watched him go.” His voice cracked. I felt ashamed of those lewd thoughts. Still, I wanted to ask for another look, for journalistic reasons.

Jake had been silent up till now. “It’s true," he said. "I work at the hospice. I’ve watched others let go. It was a matter of minutes. Seconds, even. And all of a sudden there was this knock at the door."

“I told Jake,” Bruno said, “Get rid of them, whoever, tell them to come back some other time. I couldn’t deal with anyone, not then. Not with Nate…not with what was happening.”

Jake said, “I went to the door, and there was this guy standing there, I’d seen him around in the complex, the laundry room maybe. An ordinary looking kind of guy. Only, he didn’t look ordinary just then. He looked, I don’t know, spaced.”

“What did he say?”

“He said—I swear it, he said, 'I’ve come for Nate.' That’s all. No hello, no Avon calling, nothing. Just, 'I’ve come for Nate.'”

“And you let him in? A stranger, he looks spacey, he’s talking weird? Weren’t you scared?”

“Scared? You don’t know the half of it. I almost dropped a load then and there. Listen, you know how people talk about their hair standing on end? Well, it’s true, I could feel my hair stand right up. And something else: the hall light in here was off and with the outside light behind him, it looked like he was glowing, like he had a halo or something. All I could think was, Jesus, it’s the Angel of Death. I didn’t say anything, I backed out of his way and he came in, he went straight to the bedroom, like he’d been here before.”

“I looked up,” Bruno said, “and here was this guy, this neighbor. I knew him on sight but I’d never talked to him. I said something like, what do you want, but he just ignored me, he went to the bed.” He turned to Nate. “Tell him," he said, “the way you told me."

Nate looked up at the ceiling. “It was just like people describe it. I was in this tunnel, moving toward the light, the way they say it happens when you die, you know, and somebody called my name. I looked around, and there was this person, I didn’t have a clue who he was."

“Nate had never met him,” Bruno said.

“And he, he didn't exactly come toward me—it’s hard to describe, exactly, but he became everything, like, the sky, the whole universe. Me too, even, like I had soaked right into him. And then, there was this, I don’t know, this explosion, inside me.”

“Like lightning, you mean?” I said.

His eyes came around to me. “Yes, sort of, I guess. I opened my eyes, and there he was, leaning over me, the guy in my vision. The same guy. And, somehow, he had brought me back. From the tunnel, I mean. I was healed, completely. Just like that. The sores were gone, the fever, the pain—everything. I felt…I felt like I had before. Before I got sick."

“I think I will have that drink now,” I said. “Bourbon. Don’t bother with the ice.”




I really did not want to go any further with this. Something about it scared me. I thought seriously about going back to the office and telling Joe I quit. Only, we both knew, nobody else was going to hire me if I did that.

I crushed the cigarette under my foot and climbed the stairs to Peter Simon’s apartment. When he opened the door, I handed him a card and said, “I’ve just been talking with your neighbors, Bruno and Nate. I wonder if you could spare me a couple of minutes. I’d like to ask some questions.”

He was an ordinary looking thirty something—average build, brown hair, clear skin. Really, nobody's dream of masculine perfection, but I thought he probably made out pretty well; or could, if he chose. There was something of the ascetic about him, though. Or maybe that was the circumstances, meeting him just after hearing Nate's story. I sort of expected—well, I don’t know what. Jesus, maybe, with a wreath of thorns atop his head.

He seemed not very surprised to see me, but of course he must have known they’d tell people. You couldn’t run around bringing folks back from the dead and expect it to remain a secret.

"The place is a mess," he said. The living room was cluttered, mostly books, journals, newspapers. It prejudiced me in his favor. Good journalists aren't supposed to entertain prejudices, but books get to me every time.

"Peter," I began.

"Call me Simon," he said.

I had walked automatically to the window, a San Francisco habit. All those views. This one was modest but pleasant, a glimpse of hills over the housetops. It was near evening. Some of the windows were lighted already.

"Everyone calls you Simon?" I asked.

"I don't know."

Which was certainly an odd answer. I turned back to him. At the door, he had been in shadow. Now, in the light, he was better looking than I had first thought. His complexion was remarkable; it almost seemed to glow. His lips were full, his nose small. I’d rate it a cute face.

Except for the eyes, wide, hazel—and utterly lifeless. If eyes are the mirror of the soul, as they say, and I were a little more fanciful, I might have said this was a man without a soul.

"Where are you from, Simon?"

"I don't know," he said again, embarrassed. Understandably.

"You don't know where you're from?"

"Look, I may as well get this over with. I really don't remember. Anything."

"Anything?" I must have looked as astonished as I felt. "You've got amnesia?" I couldn't help sounding skeptical. That was too easy.

"Maybe. I don't know. Sorry. I'm saying that a lot. But, really, I can't—I've tried to recall things, but nothing comes to me. There's this wall. I don't know what's on the other side."

"How far back can you remember? The Peaks, on Saturday? That was you, wasn't it?"

For a moment, I thought he would deny it; then, red faced, he said, "Yes. The baby, you mean?"

"They say you brought him back to life."

"I don't know." He grinned sheepishly.

The grin transformed him. Really, I had never seen so changeable a face. It seemed different each time that I looked at him. It was the grin, though, that made all the difference. It appeared slowly, hesitated for a moment about his lips and gradually made its way to his eyes.

How could I have thought his eyes dull? They gleamed with something I could only think of as sweetness. It was unbearably appealing. Overwhelming, even. I took him in my arms and kissed him.

He could not have been more surprised by the kiss than I was. Until I found my lips on his, the thought of kissing him hadn't so much as crept into my mind, and, here he was, kissing me back, embracing me tentatively at first and then, increasingly, as violently as I embraced him, until we clung together with an almost desperate ardor.

#

It was a sexual experience unlike any I'd ever had, and my experience could not be described as limited. Simon was more compliant than passionate, though that word too seems inadequate. He didn't just welcome me to him, he surrendered himself utterly, he became me in some way, melted into the very essence of me. We ceased to be two men making love, ceased even to be, in a sense, but simply became an act of pure orgasm.

I don't want to make this sound like some phantom fuck. That orgasm we became, which was how I thought of it when it was over, was The King Daddy of Comes. Appropriately, it was simultaneous. I'd had that happen once or twice. Usually it took careful timing, observation of your partner's responses, control over your own. This just happened.

We rolled away from one another, holding hands, getting our breath back.

It occurred to me that perhaps he had seduced me (which was ridiculous since I was the one who had initiated what had happened—whatever that was) to distract me. I turned to look at him, and was immediately ashamed of that thought. My bullshit radar is state-of-the-art. There was no guile in the face that looked back at me.

There was something sad and remote, however. He looked pained, frightened even. Frightened? I'm impressive, but not that impressive. My smile froze on my lips. "Was that okay?" I asked inanely.

His mouth said, "It was wonderful." His expression did not say wonderful.

"You look like you wish we hadn't," I said. "Please don't tell me that was your first time." He gave me another one of those blank looks. "Let me guess," I answered my own question. "You don't remember."

He smiled, that achingly sweet smile that managed in a twinkling to turn him from an okay-looking guy into something uniquely, irresistably desirable. I had to refrain from jumping his bones again right then and there. It had been years since anyone had made me that horny.

"Well, you may have forgotten the school," I said, "But you surely remembered the lessons."

He was no longer listening to me, though. He was staring into space. "Rain," he said, as if he were thinking aloud rather than speaking to me. "Lightning…"

"Simon?"

When he looked at me, his eyes were dead again.


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2 comments:

Lloyd Meeker said...

Fascinating! Had to run out and buy it...

Jardonn Smith said...

Victor, it's not fair how you sucked me into your story. I can count on one hand the writers who consistently do this to me, and you are one of my fingers.
Looks like I'll be further investigating this Peter Simon fellow you've created.