Monday, December 19, 2011
In the short story Salvation by Lloyd Meeker, a closeted and deeply religious man is rescued from a life of torment in a surprising encounter with an angel.
Erotica Exotica: Tales of Sex, Magic, and the Supernatural, Richard
Bold Strokes Books (October, 2011)
The California synod he had traveled to attend had finished on a high and sacred note, but tonight William would dance for the devil. He stared at his reflection with disgust. He looked young, in a blond, Midwest collegiate way, even though he was 31. Fit, slender, just a little too pretty for comfort. Like Dorian Grey—a comely shell housing a deformed soul. He dismissed himself, turning away.
He’d searched the online guide for the place he could get to quickly tonight—must get to. Google maps had given him the street grid to memorize, and William was ready.
He was going out for a long walk, he’d told his elderly hosts, just to get a better feel for their neighborhood. He’d reassured them he would be perfectly fine on his own, and urged them not to wait up for him since they’d given him a key. Dear Mrs. Griffin had just looked up at him from her crossword and smiled, chirping out her usual goodbye. “Angels watch over you, dear.”
He almost jogged to the street corner and over to a thoroughfare, where he flagged down a cab and gave the driver the address. Adrenaline made his limbs taut and ready, his breathing quick, his senses electrified, acute, as if he were a jungle cat hunting its prey.
Hunting for abomination, he admitted without flinching. Phrasing it more nicely didn’t matter—he was already lost. His body was starving again for the sin that would send him to hell. He had prayed and struggled, but his flesh had beaten him yet again. There would be plenty of time for remorse later, for the too-familiar self-loathing and anguished repentance. Again. William sat in the cab, trembling, watching the passing streets as if they were breadcrumbs he was leaving behind in a darkening forest.
He felt serene even as his heart hammered in his chest; he had surrendered control to his body. He was a mere observer of his flesh, which like a drug addict was stealing him again to get its fix. He would have a drink or two first, make it easier to bear the shame. Temporarily.
The cab stopped. William paid, got out and started walking. Herndon Street would be the next intersection. Ten o'clock and the streets still radiated a sensuous warmth from the summer sun. The air was soft with promise, heavy and metallic, intoxicating. Like the taste of the gun barrel, months ago, he realized. This smoggy air had the same ugly sweetness to it.
But William had been a failure in suicide as well as a failure in faith. He’d really wanted to die that winter night back home in Minneapolis, but somehow couldn't bring himself to pull the trigger. He’d paused when he imagined some angel had whispered to him to stop—that his particular road to hell would be paved not with good intentions or even his sins, but with his own brain tissue splattered across the bathroom wall. At the time he’d told himself the voice had been divine wisdom, but he knew deep down it had been mere cowardice—one more weakness to despise in himself. He’d sold the gun at a pawnshop the next day.
562 Herndon Street—he’d arrived. The website listing had promised this place had a dark room downstairs. His gut twisted and coiled. William knew with certainty who and what waited inside, beyond the battered black door only partly lit by the stylized neon phallus above it. The door may as well have been the hell-mouth for the morality play he’d produced back in seminary, inscribed with the grim words over its lintel: "FORSAKE ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE." Shaking with need and excitement, William entered.
He strode to the bar, quickly downed a scotch and then ordered a double before turning to check things out. He looked for the dark room. There, that must be it—behind those black strips of vinyl. Oh! William stopped breathing. The man standing next to the entrance… damnation had never looked so hot. William suppressed a snort at the perfect irony. He walked over to the curtain, pulled the strips aside and looked down into the abyss. The odor of amyl nitrate and male sex surged up, grabbed him by the throat. He coughed, and let go of the plastic as if seared by brimstone.
“It’s not as scary as all that,” rumbled a voice right behind William. “I can show you, if you want.” Damnation Man was standing so close that William could feel his body heat pushing through his shirt into his spine. He turned, and slowly backed away until he bumped against the wall. Damnation Man advanced, and then there was no escape. But William didn’t want escape. He stared at Damnation Man’s bearded face. He wore a conqueror’s smile–confident, enigmatic, ruthless. William looked down. The man was wearing heavy-soled black work boots, Levis and a snug white athletic undershirt. Dark hair curled over its neckline, and a brilliantly colored dragon clawed its way out from behind the cloth, winding across one shoulder. Handsome devil.
“Show me?” William swallowed. His voice was strangled, barely audible.
“Sure. I’ll show you anything you want to see,” the man whispered, raising the back of one hand to brush William’s chest, knuckles dragging down to his stomach, landing to hook heavily on his belt and pulling his hips forward. “What do you want, boy?”
Need so urgent it was almost nausea blocked William’s throat. His tongue flattened, pushed his mouth open, but no sound came out. He shuddered. With a brash honesty all its own, his hand reached out and grasped the denim-covered bulge in the dragon man's crotch. Oh, that sweet firmness, the mysterious softness, the wild, smoldering promise…
“Yeah, I’m gonna give you what you need, boy,” dragon man muttered, cocking his head toward the dark room. “Let’s go.” He turned and disappeared behind the curtain without looking back. William lurched to follow, down stairs he could barely see, keeping his eyes on a white athletic undershirt descending into the darkness in front of him. He angled away from the stairs, and stopped when the shirt stopped. William could barely make out Dragon Man leaning against the wall, unbuttoning his jeans.
Spellbound, William approached to stand between the man’s splayed legs. Again, he reached down to grasp. This time he found the electrifying heat of silken skin, the scrape of pubic hair. William knelt in worship, his reverence ancient as a tribal drum. The scent of Dragon Man’s crotch was incense to carry away his devotion. Leaning forward, William filled his mouth with the man’s hardening cock, pushing back the soft mystery of foreskin with his lips. He reveled in the veined skin sliding, and the wild salt on his tongue was unspeakably sweet. He steadied himself against the man’s thigh, and reached to fondle his balls. They rolled heavy and slow in his hand, the most exquisite things on earth. In a frenzy of need, William dove forward, sucked and tongued and tasted and gagged.
“Hey! No teeth!” the Dragon Man commanded. He reached down and shoved a bottle against William’s nose. “You need to loosen up some, boy. Here.”
Stinging fumes broke the spell. Coughing out the man’s penis, William let go and stood, terrified. “No! No!” was all he could gasp. William bolted—up the stairs, out the hell-mouth, into the street.
Carrying the scent of popcorn, fast food, garbage and cigarettes, the soft night air curled around him, cooling his slimy lips, banishing the popper fumes. He stood rooted to the cement, panting, unable to think of what to do next. But he had escaped. Angels were indeed looking after him. Finally his feet came free and he began to walk.
A familiar harsh voice shamed him. What had he been doing in a bar like that? A man of God, caught in the devil's snare, risking everything now and forever for brief and sleazy pleasure. William shuddered, disgusted. He whispered a prayer of thanks and headed for Beach Avenue.
Bright light from behind a wall of glass flooded the palms in planters on the sidewalk ahead of him. Yes—safety, a decent hotel. William pushed through the revolving doors into garish, startling normalcy. So much light, clatter and chatter. No danger. So many people here, simply being normal. William headed for the bar. He needed something to calm him down, and to celebrate his deliverance.
A waiter with extravagant blond-streaked hair passed in front of him and smiled. “Good evening, sir,” he said, and moved on. William sighed. The waiter was obviously gay, but William didn’t mind. He was safe in this busy brightness. He sat and ordered scotch.
Oh, God. The handsome guitarist on the tiny stage had winked at him. William knew the wink had been for him, because his heart had begun to pound frantically again the moment their eyes had met. That smile meant new danger. Was there no such thing as safety? Transfixed, William sat and drank, hopeful, hopeless. When the set was over, the guitarist came over and sat without asking permission.
“Hi there, I’m Rafe,” he said in a voice as strong and gentle as his music had been. “What’s your name?”
Rafe seemed to think something over for a moment. “Yes, William. Thank you for not lying to me.”
William recoiled, afraid and suspicious. “Lying? How could you possibly tell?”
“Oh, I can tell lots of things, William.” Rafe grinned like a farm boy whose hog had just won first prize at the county fair. He pushed shoulder-length auburn hair behind one ear. “F’r instance I can tell you’re one hurtin’ unit tonight, that’s for certain.”
“How on earth…” William began in protest, but stopped, held in the beauty of Rafe’s gaze.
“What can I say?” Rafe shrugged. “I got the Gift. Bothersome, sometimes, but I came to terms with it long, long ago.”
“Long ago? But you’re even younger than I am!”
Rafe laughed, a knowing, tender laugh, throwing his head back so the long hair escaped his ears and tumbled around his shoulders. “Well, maybe in some ways.” He shook his head. “Not so much in others”. He leaned forward, his flowing hair framing high cheekbones and coruscate eyes, eyes that bathed William in kindness. “I can lift your torment from you, if you want.”
William’s stomach convulsed as if to vomit. “What?” he gasped, swallowing hard. “What do you know about me, about what I’m feeling? You can’t possibly make a promise like that!”
Rafe shrugged and leaned back in the chair. “It’s part of the Gift. I’m a healer. I know exactly what you’re fightin’, bro. I can help.” He leaned forward again, patted William’s hand gently. “But you got to decide. You gotta decide if you really want to be free of that pain, no matter what.” Rafe stood, smiling down. “Tell you what—you sit here while I do my last set. If you’re still here when I finish in thirty minutes, you and I can go to my place, and I’ll heal you. That’s a solemn promise, guaranteed.”
William sat. Rafe’s music washed over him, playful, sweet, enchanting. When the waiter came around, he ordered water. He knew what he wanted, more than anything. He wanted his torment—and its cause—taken away.
Rafe popped the case latches shut on his guitar and came over to sit next to William, draping an arm around his shoulders. “You’re a good man, William. I can tell. Brave. Worthy of healing. Let’s go.”
William stood, tentative, looking for signs of menace in Rafe’s face.
“Naw, William. I for sure ain’t gonna hurt you. You have my solemn word on that.”
Blushing, William nodded, still unable to speak, and followed Rafe out into the sultry night.
They walked in silence for blocks. With alarm William realized he had lost his way, that the street grid he had carefully memorized was now useless. “Is it far? I mean, your place. Is it near?”
“Yup, we’re here,” Rafe chuckled, pointing ahead at a modest apartment block—white stucco, red tile and wrought iron, one of countless others like it, decently lit. They climbed stairs to the third floor, past big pots of bougainvillea, jasmine and bird of paradise. Rafe unlocked his door. “C’mon in, William. This is it.”
Inside the apartment, Rafe put down his case, took off his jacket and kicked off his shoes with a sigh. William stood just inside the door, mute, tense, ready to flee.
“I’m sorry, Will. My manners are plumb terrible. Don’t get enough visitors, I guess, to keep me in practice.” Rafe waved to the sparsely furnished living room. “Make yourself comfy! Would you like a glass of water? I don’t think I’m gonna offer you any booze. I want you clear-headed for the healing.”
“Water would be perfect, thanks.” William sat on the edge of the couch, and looked around, pretending his heart wasn’t beating like a madman’s drum.
“So tell me…” Rafe’s voice floated over from the open fridge. “When did you first have sex with a man?”
William jumped up from the couch, panicked. “What did you say?”
“Now you just set yourself back down, Will.” Rafe’s voice was friendly and firm—patient, as if explaining something to a child. “I told you I knew, didn’t I?” He came out of the kitchen, two tumblers of ice water in hand. “It’s all good—but I heal folks only when they want healing.” He shook his head in sad disbelief. “You’d be amazed how many people don’t really want healing, though. Most just want fixin’, and I surely ain’t no mechanic.”
William sat. He liked being called Will. Nobody ever had, until now. It sounded right to him. Real.
“So when was your first time?” Rafe asked, more gently this time, handing him one of the glasses.
“In seminary. Eleven years ago, now. One of my teachers.”
“Seminary, huh? Those people—sometimes I just…” Rafe shook his head and looked away, swallowing hard. He turned back to William. “The sex, though. You liked it?”
“They were the most wonderful, magical, moments of my life. Even though I knew it was a sin.”
“You loved him?”
“I adored him.”
“And then it got complicated.”
The burn of shame made his throat constrict. “Yes. Very.”
“And then he told you that it had to stop.”
“How did you know?” William stared at Rafe and took a long drink of ice water. “Yes.” He put down the empty glass, feeling lost. “He said that it was wrong and we had to stop seeing each other.”
“You were betrayed, bro.” Rafe sat beside William, holding his eyes with a fierce stare. “Do you want that wonderful magic back again? Without the pain?”
William’s answer caught in his throat. Sobbing, he dropped to his knees in front of Rafe. “Oh, Rafe—can you really make me normal? I’ve hoped and prayed so hard, wept, begged to be made whole! Can you really take this awful sickness from me?”
Rafe eased William off his lap, stood, then drew him up to face him. “Now listen to me, Will. This is real important. I said I could lift the torment from you. But the Good Lord made you the way you are. I’m surely not gonna try to undo what God has done—that’s plumb against my nature. Besides, you’re already just right the way you are. What you got in mind is gettin’ fixed accordin’ to some goofy ideas that just ain’t true. What I’m offerin’ you is true healing. The real McCoy.”
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