In theory at least, Joachim was the resident responsible adult. It was hard to tell with his long hair, beard and earrings unless you watched for a while and realized how often some boy was settled by him, talking feverishly while J listened. He seemed to doze a lot, but they understood that he was really listening. The boys were there because they were desperate and so were the authorities who were supposed to be managing them. Even in prison they made too much trouble. They were contagious but the HIV meds that would control that were expensive. Of course, there were also boys in the mix at J's who were not known to any authorities at all and probably never would be, until their bodies turned up in some inconvenient place. They just quietly appeared at J's and were not thrown out.
No one was entirely sure what J’s qualifications were, but evidently he had been a nurse of some kind because he handled the boys’ meds very strictly, with charts. Since they didn’t just have HIV but also -- because HIV destroys antibodies and they hadn’t exactly been living well -- everything from chiggers to malaria, including variations on STD’s. So far no rabies. And luckily, they were so vain about their hair that head lice had no chance. If it weren’t for needing meds to stay alive, the boys might not be there.
The strong centrifugal pull of the streets meant they sometimes took "French Leave" for a few weeks. They were a strange mix of black ghetto, university town, and Indian reservation with an increasing number of hispanics. None of them could survive 24 hours in any semi-wilderness, but given streets and decaying industrial buildings, they had the instincts of rats and would never come in to formal shelters. They knew that authorities would use any bait to capture them and then question them relentlessly, make a lot of rules, feed them poorly, try operant conditioning, and pretend they didn’t know the thuggier guards were raping them. The latter justified what they did by saying they were only collecting freebies, the same thing these feral cats were used to selling.
A surprising number of the boys had learned to play guitars, they all had skateboards, and some had bikes -- different ones on different days. The house was full of yelling, running, acrobatics, storm swirls of quarrel, and long mellow hours of talk and song. In the past there had been a room of desktop computers, but now they all had smart phones or tablets and even as they shouted at each other while slumping on second-hand sofas, their fingers were also simultaneously texting and cruising through images or music.
Most of the time J sat quietly with his dog. Often he worked on a clipboard holding his endless paperwork, figuring, budgeting, writing appeals. He fixed one big meal in the middle of the day for whichever kids showed up (usually most of them) and got his exercise by running the washer and drier constantly -- getting up to fill and empty, fold and sort, but never going around to invade rooms looking for dirty clothes. The clean clothes were just stacked on top of the machines, jeans on one pile and shirts on another. Unders rolled up.
One of the boys had a weird hangup that was very helpful, though it was a sort of self-imposed penance: he cleaned the bathrooms. Everyone was grateful because their GI tracts were often in uproar -- reversing, out-of-control -- so there was a lot of puking and squirting. Someone pointed out to Mr. Clean that he could make money scrubbing -- not much, but some. He said it wouldn’t be the same. His cleaning was like a service to the community, an act of belonging. Not for pay, not even to help pay his way in the house. When someone was kicking heroin, J himself went into the shower with them to hold them up and scrub them. Time was the only thing that worked, plus the crates of electrolyte-replacing drinks.
Most of the boys were gay, because that’s how they got kicked out of their families onto the street, and then had to do sexwork to survive and then drugs to survive the sexwork, but a few had been so badly abused that they had either shut down or were in some sex category that had no name, self-invented. Now and then a couple of the guys would fall madly in love and live in a bubble of intimacy. If that bubble turned iridescent, it meant they were sharing drugs and J would take them for a long walk-and-talk to explain that pharma drugs, plus street drugs, plus the endogenous molecules kicked up by adolescence, could mean permanent organ damage or merely blunt the efficacy of the anti-retrovirals. They either dropped the drugs or -- once in a long while -- simply left together. Sometimes only one came back.
The boys thought Joachim must be Italian or French or something because of his name, but mail came that addressed him as “Joe” or “Joseph” or just "J." The Native American boys were sure he was an Indian because they wanted him to be like them, so to them it was natural that his real name was secret or at least not public. No one ever snooped into his desk though they all studied the photos of past boys that were stuck to the wall above the desktop. They just weren’t readers, for the most part, and those who were had feelings about people who meddled. Joachim slept with his dog on his narrow bed and no boy tried to slip under the covers with him.
Then one day a little red car pulled up in front of the house and out bounced a woman. J went out to meet her and they threw their arms around each other. “Probably his sister,” suggested one boy. Then J told them he was going to stay with her in a nearby hotel overnight but leave the dog at the house. The boy who had hoped she was his sister slept in J’s bed that night “so the dog won’t be lonesome.” Even the toughest boys dreamt that J left them and then the house was shut down. They shuddered in their sleep. It didn’t help that J called the next day, said he would be gone a second night and left some instructions.
When he got back, the boys themselves called a “pizza consultation,” which was just a house meeting with pizza so everyone would come, but anyway no one wanted to miss it this time. J didn’t say anything. He sat in his chair waiting with the dog on his lap, though it was kind of a big dog for that. When they had slowed down with the eating, they shouted at him. He was betraying them. He owed them. Some wept. All the ghosts of their punishing pasts were in the room, taking up all the air and confusing them.
Finally they had nothing more to say and J began to talk. “Do you remember how suspicious you were when you first came and what it was that reassured you? It was that you knew I’d been where you were and even worse off than you. I’d been diagnosed poz after a car crash that broke all my bones, I was in the hospital totally penniless, and since I’d been traveling from one coast to the other and was only midway, no one I knew lived nearby. Anyway most of my friends had died in the AIDS plague. I didn’t really care whether I recovered. The docs had to study up in order to give me the right treatment and even then they weren’t confident. I thought it was the end.
“This woman saved me. She was the book lady in the hospital, pushing around a cart. We fell in love over the books, her recommending and me reading. I read a LOT of books there and in some ways they healed me more than the meds, because I was head-sick in the first place.”
“We thought you were gay!” the boys accused.
J looked sad. “Of all people in the world, are you guys going to put a label on me?”
“What’s her name?”
“I won’t tell you. I’m protecting who she is the same as I protect who you are.”
One boy whispered to the other, “We should have gotten the car license plate.”
His friend answered, “I wonder by what names they registered and what hotel they used.” Then the two looked ashamed of themselves. What were they -- characters on TV?
One of the university town boys actually raised his hand. “If you love each other, why don’t you get married?”
J rubbed the dog’s ears. “She’s already married. She has a family, children, a job of her own, a whole life and a husband she also loves.”
“That’s impossible if she loves YOU!”
“No. There are many kinds of love. Sometimes they double up.”
“Then she should choose!”
“Do you want a woman in this house? You guys who consider it so important to be gay?”
No one answered but every face showed shock at the very thought. They wouldn’t even be able to walk around naked anymore.
After a long silence J said, “It’s just that now and then she and I need to be together. Accept it as part of who I am.”
It took them days, but they did. They imagined that J and his lady spent the time in the hotel reading to each other. They were not far wrong. Eventually they began to wonder about books. Then it occurred to them that there were books on their handheld devices.