Plaster of Paris; chapter seven, part one

I turn to the computer where there is an email from my sister.  More blathering about her wedding and what I must and must not do.  Suddenly, it doesn’t seem so important, and I delete it.  There’s also a nice email from Vashti just saying she’s thinking of me and to call her when I have a minute.  That one I save.  I frown at the next email because it has an unfamiliar address:  I click it open, expecting it to be spam though we have a good filter system.  It’s from Ursula.  She wants to know if I’ve figured anything out yet.  I lift an eyebrow.  It was only yesterday afternoon that I saw her, so I’m not sure what she thinks I might have accomplished since then.  I don’t have the same  antipathy towards her as does Lyle—I actually enjoyed her—but I’m wary of her strident interest.  Granted, Paris is her biological son, and she did just discover him two days ago, but the concerned mother bit is a bit heavy-handed given that she hasn’t laid eyes on the boy for twenty-eight years.

The day has a surreal feel to it as my coworkers avoid me as much as possible.  If they have work they want me to do, they either quickly drop it on my desk and scurry away, or they email me their needs.  Nobody actually talks to me unless they are forced to explain what they need.  Even Quinn avoids me, which is highly unusual.  I don’t miss the constant interruption, but I’m still rather hurt by the snub.  My colleagues are acting as if it’ll rub off on them—the murder bug.  At least, Derek, a coworker tangentially involved with the last murder case is no longer working here; that would make a bad day even worse.  Only the kids treat me the same because in their world, death—even murder—is no big deal.  I would bet that at least ninety-percent of the kids have had someone close to them die—many of them, more than one person.  So for me to be close to three murders is not unusual to them—in fact, it gives me street cred in their eyes; I have the same as experiences as they, to some extent.  Too bad I’m not getting paid to be a counselor rather than an admin assistant.

People ask me how I can work in a place like A Brighter Day with juvenile delinquents.  Aren’t you scared, they ask?  They are the ignorant ones.  The people who bother me, however, are the ones who can’t put themselves in the kids’ shoes, who consider themselves superior.  The people who can’t understand how any kid can turn to crime or live ‘the way they do’.  One particularly obnoxious person wanted to round up all the kids like the ones at my agency and put them on an island somewhere..  I finally let him have it after he pontificated for a good half hour.  I’ve seen some of the case files—I have to organize them periodically—and I’m surprised the kids aren’t more screwed up then they already are.  One has a mother who locked him in the closet every night so she could service men without him bothering her.  One’s stepfather visited her bed frequently and promised to kill her younger sister if she told.  One male was gang- raped with a broken bottle by a bunch of older girls who were high on crack..  The guy I told this to wasn’t quite so ebullient in his criticisms after I shared a few cases with him..

“Hey, Rayne, whassup?  Wanna piece of gum?”  Leila, a young Native American girl with a quick smile and a quicker temper holds out a stick of Big Red to me.  I take it with a grateful smile.  At this point, I’ll take camaraderie wherever I can find it.  “I heard about your boy.  That’s rough.  They find out who did it?  Bet it was some chick he dissed.”

“You could be right,” I say with a smile.  I don’t bother explaining that it might also be a guy Paris dissed because one thing most of the kids have in common is that they’re homophobic.  I do not hide my orientation, but I’m not loud about it, either.

“When my best friend was knifed, I felt pretty bad about it.”  Leila is chomping on her gum and leaning on my desk.  I usually don’t allow the kids to do that, but I decide to let it slide this time.  “I wanted to fuck someone up bad, know what I’m saying?”  A hard look flashes in her eyes before disappearing.  She has a tear tattooed under her right eye, which is a signifier that she’s killed someone.  I don’t ask because I don’t want to know.  Unfortunately, she wants to tell me.  “That’s how I got this,” she says, touching the tear.  When she sees the expression on my face—I don’t know whether to scold her or to call Alicia—she laughs.  “I’m just funning.  I wanted to kill the bastard, but I didn’t.  This is just to remember my girl.”  She nods reassuringly at me before wandering off, but I’m not sure I believe her.  In the end, I decide to accept her explanation because otherwise, I’ll have to do something about it, and I don’t want to get her in trouble.

Finally, the day ends without me having  meaningful interaction with any of my coworkers.  I decide to cut out fifteen minutes early since I’m sure no one would miss me, and they’ll be better able to talk about me when I’m gone.  The day has turned cold and blustery, which well matches my mood.  I am halfway home before I remember that I drove to work today.  Sighing, I retrace my steps and find the car.  I go home to change into workout clothes before going to the gym.  It’s in a nondescript building with minimal dazzle.  The clients, for the most part, are dressed in sweats with no makeup or perfume.  They are there to workout, not to pick up dates.  The gym has a strict policy about bothering other clients when they’re working out which I usually heartily endorse, but which is a potential obstacle to my pursuit.  I stop at the front desk to talk to Mr. Benedict, the owner of the place.  As usual, I feel a frisson of electricity as I look at him.  He is sexy for an older man and isn’t above plying the charm.  He turns his gaze towards me and beams in recognition.

“Rayne!  How the hell are you?  It’s been so long!”  He smirks as he scrutinizes me—a trait of him that can be either unnerving or flattering dependent on my mood.  “You need a workout ASAP.”  I don’t take offense as I know he’s right.

“I hear you’re thinking about running for mayor,” I say with a smile.

“Toying with the idea,” Jimmy flashes a high-wattage smile at me.  “Would you vote for me if I did?”

“I’d have to hear your platform,” I say, winking at him.  “Isn’t it a bit late to be throwing your hat into the ring for next year’s election?”

“We’ll see,” Jimmy shrugs, not looking concern.  “If nothing else, it will be good preparation for further elections.”

“Well, good luck to you with that.”  I pause before adding, “Jimmy, have you heard about Paris?”  The corners of his mouth pull down.

“You here to tell me he quit?  That’s why he missed his shift today?  He better have a good excuse.”  Jimmy crosses his arms in front of his chest and glowers.  It is so out of character for him, I lose track of what I’m going to say.

“I guess you haven’t heard, then,” I say, more to myself than anything else.  “Paris is in the hospital.  He’s been in an accident.”  I watch Jimmy carefully to catch his reaction.  A flicker of something crosses his face, but quickly disappears.

“Is he OK?”  Jimmy’s tone is even, but there is some emotion behind it.

“No, he’s not,” I say bluntly.  “He’s in a coma, and the doctors don’t know if he’ll ever come out of it.”  Jimmy flinches, but doesn’t react otherwise except to mutter something under his breath that I don’t catch.

“Well, that’s too bad,” he says briskly, fiddling with a pen.  “Is there anything else?  I really need to get back to my work.”

“Is something wrong, Jimmy?”  I’ve never seen Jimmy this aloof, and it bothers me.  Not that we’re close, but he’s always liked Paris so I can’t think of why the sudden turnaround.  “Do you have a problem with Paris?”  I sense an undercurrent, something Jimmy doesn’t want to talk about.  “I heard on the radio that Paris is under suspicion for embezzlement.  You don’t believe that, do you?”  Jimmy looks at me for a long minute, his arms still crossed in front of his chest.  This man is tense, I realize, and has been ever since I mentioned Paris.

“I really don’t have time for this, Ms. Liang,” Jimmy says formally, dropping his eyes.  “So if you’ll excuse me….”  He lets his sentence trail off as he turns back to the computer behind him.  I shrug and walk away, ready to acquiesce for now.  A thought strikes me, and I head back to the desk.  Jimmy doesn’t hear me coming as he’s immersed in an email.  All I can make out of the sender’s name is ‘sin’.  Lovely name.  Jimmy quickly minimizes the window once he realizes I’m back.  He doesn’t say anything but just looks at me with a pout on his full lips.

“I wanted to know if Paris had any trouble with his clients.  Did any of them complain?”  It’s a long-shot, but what else do I have?

“No.”  Jimmy is laconic to the point of mute.  I realize that I’ll get nothing more from him and leave him to his porn.  At least, that’s what I’m assuming he’s doing.  Maybe Paris caught him surfing porn websites and that’s why Jimmy is upset with him.  I spot Roger, another trainer and a friend of Paris’s.  I hurry over to him just as he’s finishing with a plump woman who has an adoring look in her eyes.  I’ve seen many of Paris’s clients look at him in the same way—occupational hazard.  She waddles away after a pat on the arm from Roger.  I bet she doesn’t wash that arm for a week.

“Roger, hi!”  I put on my best smile as I greet Roger.  It’s not hard to flirt with him as he’s one hundred and eighty pounds of solid muscles with mahogany-colored hair and matching eyes.  He’s only five-seven, but makes up for his lack of size with his big mouth.

“Rayne!  Where you been, girl?”  Roger gives me a gigantic hug.  “You are so working that outfit!”  He snaps once, then grins.  “Where is that luscious Paris?  He’s missing his shift, naughty, naughty.”  Roger waggles his forefinger playfully.  “It’s good for me, though, because someone has to pick up the slack.”  He rolls his eyes theatrically, waiting for me to laugh.

“He’s in the hospital, Roger,” I say, watching his face.  I don’t know what I’m looking for, but it’s not the sudden deflation that Roger exhibits.

“Oh, man.  I didn’t know.  How long has he had it?”  I’m confused for a minute, then I realize that Roger thinks Paris has AIDS.

“No, no, no,” I say immediately, rushing to relieve his mind.  I marvel, not for the first time, how AIDS is the scourge of queer men.  “He was hit by a car.  On purpose.”

“What?  Get out of town!”  Roger screeches, causing a few heads to turn his way.  He lowers his voice and adds, “What happened?”

“Can I buy you a drink?”  I ask, nodding at the juice bar.

“Girl, better yet, let’s work you out.”  He doesn’t say I need it, but I can hear the thought floating in the air.  “My next appointment canceled, the heifer.”  He marches me around the track a few times at half-speed to warm me up.  As we stretch, I puff out the story.  Because it’s been so long since I’ve been at the gym, Roger goes easy on me.  As I rest between reps, I ask some questions.

“Paris said one of his clients was acting strange.  Any idea who that might be?”  I am resting after performing bicep curls for what seemed like an eternity.

“Girl, most of our clients are strange,” Roger says, rolling his eyes.  He drops the camp as he thinks a bit harder.  “I did see Paris getting into spat with one of his clients.  The guy was throwing a major hissy fit, thinking he’s a queen or something.”  Roger makes a moue with his mouth.  “A real muscle queen if I’ve ever seen one.  You know what they say.  The bigger the muscles, the smaller the equipment.  Overcompensation.”

“What does he look like?”  I ask eagerly.  This might be the client Paris mentioned to Lyle.

“Five-four, five-five, buffed-out.  Blond hair in a crew-cut.  The coldest blue eyes I’ve ever seen.”  Roger shudders.  “Yummy, but dangerous.  You know the type.”  Unfortunately, I do.  He might as well be describing half the inhabitants of the gym.  “Napoleon complex, you know.”

“Anything distinctive?”  I ask without hope.  This guy sounds like a type.  Even the shortness is not surprising since many short man lift in order to compensate.  Roger does a few crunches as he thinks.

“I got it!”  He bolts upright.  “He has a tattoo of a heart right here.”  He points to his right bicep.  I restrain a sigh.  Again, not that original.  I’m already disappointed in this guy without having yet met him.

“Is he a regular?”

“Very.  I see him here five to six times a week.  He usually comes in the morning, though.  I think his name is Billy or something like that.”  It is too much to hope that his name would be Leif or Igor or something a bit more distinctive.

“Do you see him now?”  It’s a long shot, but it’s worth a try.  Roger looks carefully around the gym then shakes his head.  I’m ready to call it a day, but Roger is a cruel master and insists I finish my circuit.  By the time he’s done with me, my body feels like a big bowl of green Jell-o.

“Girl, you better get your big butt in here more often,” Roger scowls playfully, swatting said butt.  “You used to whip right through this routine!”

“You know, I’ve been kind of, um, indisposed lately.”  I sigh and hang my head in shame.

“There’s no excuse!”  Roger says sternly, then his tone softens.  “It’s when you’re feeling down that you have to workout, Rayne.  You know that.  It’s an instant high!”  I don’t have the heart to tell him that for me, working out rarely makes me feel immediately better.  It’s only when I look in the mirror and see the burgeoning muscle that I feel good about myself.

“I’ll do better,” I promise Roger, squeezing his arm.  I’m about to leave when his voice calls me back.  “Yes?”  I say eagerly, hoping he has a clue for me.

“Give Paris my love, ok?”  Roger asks quietly, his face stripped of animation.  “Tell him I’ll be by to see him real soon.  St. Luke’s?”

“Yes.”  I squeeze his arm again, hating to see the pain in his eyes.  My guess would be that he’d been to St. Luke’s to visit more than his fair share of ailing friends.

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