It had come to this: a studio in a run-down apartment building. She didn’t give a damn. (She was too old to “give a fuck”.) She’d been there long enough for her room to become a sort of Edwardian tumble of ruined fine furniture, stacks of books, and paintings nearly overlapping rusty old mirrors. What counted was the library table in the middle of the room with its neat piles of manuscript and the radio tuned to the classical music station that kept her roughly aware of the time. Over the years she’d added more and brighter lights, mostly hanging from the ceiling to keep from taking up space, so that the tabletop was a glowing island where she sat day after day turning a stack of yellow legal pads at her left elbow into a stack of written-on yellow paper in folders by her right elbow, each folder neatly labeled with the title of a book. She thought someday she might get a laptop but that day had not come yet. She could keyboard but liked slow writing. Her agent paid someone to get them into edited print.
For the first few years that the man lived across the hall from her, she paid no attention. Then she began to be aware of a steady stream of beautiful young men who came to visit. Once in a long while they got the door wrong and knocked on hers. She directed them back across the hall, not thinking about them much. Finally one day by accident she met the man himself at the mail boxes. She was a little surprised to realize that he was Oriental, maybe with a little African blood. He wanted to speak to her.
“I thank you for your kindness,” he said.
“In redirecting my boys.”
“Oh. Think nothing of it.” She was sorting the mail in her hand.
“I think you think they’re whores.”
She had not. “What of it?”
“They ARE whores, but I am not their client. They are mine. I counsel them.” He saw her eyebrows go up. “So they will not kill themselves.” Now he had her attention.
In her mind she reviewed the mental snapshots of the young men she had seen. They were on the cusp of adolescence, mostly, just emerging from their childhood, some of them into a “world of hurt” as the phrase goes. A few almost preternaturally beautiful -- “angels of delight” no doubt. None of her business. Yes, they all could be whores. Now and then there was a rough, brutal type or a sly, oily one, but then, who knows what people want? Not her, or she’d have had a best-selling book years ago.
The man from across the hall watched her face closely but couldn’t read it. The boys had told him they could see her writing table but he never heard sounds of either a typewriter or a computer. “Do you write?” he asked.
She brushed by him and went back up the stairs without answering. (The elevator never worked.) Now he was genuinely curious.
If she had known he would react that way, she’d have stayed and given him a cover story. She didn’t realize that he was interested until he knocked on her door to offer some fresh baking. He loved to bake and had a small kitchenette in his rooms. As reciprocity demanded by her long-ago academic life but against her present better judgment, she invited him for tea. She kept an electric kettle. (Her agent had her food delivered.) “Black, green, Earl Grey, or Constant Comment. I have no herbals. I drink the stuff for the caffeine.”
“Green, please.” It came in two mugs. They sat at a cleared corner of the table (She put the papers on the floor.) with a saucer between them for the tea bags. They barely talked. He saw that the room was dark with no view and she said she liked it that way because if she had a sunny window, she would feel obliged to grow plants and fussing over them would take too much time. Neither had children. “Displacement,” he thought. “Her children are books. Mine are boy whores.”
After that, but rarely, they visited each other. His apartment was monastic, Nearly stripped in the Japanese style. And sunny but no plants.
One day he startled her by pounding hard on her door and even trying to open it, but she kept it locked always. When she opened up, she saw he had a scarlet banner of blood down his front. The open door of his room showed a pale bloody boy on the floor. “Please! Come over and be with us! He’s hemorrhaging internally. I’ve called the EMT’s but they know him and will assume we were fucking -- or worse. I need to change clothes for the hospital. Besides if a woman is present, the EMT's will assume something a little different. He didn’t say “an obviously dignified gray-haired old lady” but she knew that’s what he meant.
“Of course,” she said, crossed the hall and knelt by the boy in the pool of his blood until she heard the EMT’s pounding up the stairs. They came rattling through the door with their stretcher, talking to dispatch, unpacking supplies, not asking many questions. They were efficient rather than kind. It was all routine to them. They did give her a curious sideways glance.
The man, now in clean clothes, supplied facts and found out where they were taking the boy. He seemed as experienced as they and she supposed that he was. The EMT’s asked, “HIV?”
He said, “Both of us. I’m on meds. He’s not.”
"Protocol. Had to ask." Then they were gone. She closed the man's door.
The blood on her hands washed off easily. Her pants knees would have to soak. She didn’t worry about it. She did worry about the boy, his hair in a forelock long enough to cover his eyes.
In the evening the man knocked again, much less urgently. “Do you drink at all?” He held up a bottle of 100 Pipers Scotch. “The boy died an hour ago.” He was a very worthy boy and his passing should be marked.”
“Come in.” She had had an unsettled afternoon, trying to capture the crisis on paper. Mostly succeeding. Not entirely. It would need to cool.
They sipped their drinks from the tea mugs. He asked, “Do you hold onto the past?”
“Only as evidence.”
“A person can analyze too much.”
She agreed. “And re-live to the point of obsession.”
“I try to get the boys to see the pattern at the beginning and how it repeats when a person is at the bottom, since that’s where they are most of the time. I always have the idea that if they just understand how these beliefs about themselves formed in the first place, then they will be able to stop repeating and repeating. I suppose it’s an old-fashioned psychoanalytical way to think.”
“Beats drugging them out of their minds. Better than shocking them in aversion therapies or convulsing them with electroshock. Better than incarceration.”
“There have got to be more ways. Better ways.”
“We can think about it. In the meantime, I’d like more Scotch. I haven’t had any for decades and this is a very high end brand.”
He poured. “A toast?”
“We don’t need to get fancy. Survival is enough.”
“What do you write?” he asked for the first time, looking into her eyes.
She looked steadily back, her scanty old eyebrows up. She smiled.