Jan/Feb 2013  •   Fiction

Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control

by Thomas Kearnes

When Corbin returned to Austin, navigating the dark acres between shame and freedom, he promised himself he wouldn't go back. Before his aborted stint at rehab, he often saw a sweaty black troll named Jermaine. The big man worked at the bathhouse and possessed an endless supply of crystal meth.

The building crept into Corbin's view like the moon, large and full, ascending from the skyline. He pulled into the parking lot, surprised to discover so many cars. It was a weekday, not long before midnight. He missed the erotic charge of the hunt, missed the men, missed the oblivion. He was forty-two. Two weeks ago, Lex forgot his birthday. No calls, no text. As Corbin crossed the lot, gazing at the few stars, he called Lex—sweet, sensible Lex. Lex didn't answer, and Corbin felt the flutter in his stomach overwhelming him each time he heard Lex's voice asking callers to leave a message despite the fact Lex rarely checked it.

There was always Alvy. Corbin didn't think of him until he pushed open the glass door, nearly colliding with a short, thin man. The moment Corbin sent a text or returned his call, Alvy would emerge from the night-drenched city. This fact comforted Corbin. He'd compromised himself. The man he truly wanted, truly loved, would never travel the 200 miles south to rescue him, making Corbin question whether he deserved redemption.

Wearing only a white towel around his waist, Corbin examined himself in the mirror, content with his face and body. He towered over most men, his eyes shimmered, his torso was long and lean, taut as a trampoline spring. He enjoyed the unending desires of men. The slender man he had encountered at the entrance slipped out from a stall and joined Corbin at the mirror. He beckoned Corbin closer as if to share a secret. Instead, he told Corbin his room number and stroked his chest. The man left, and Corbin hesitated to follow; the man was too bold, too brazen, too much like Alvy. Corbin tried to calm himself with a trick from rehab. He mouthed "I love you" into the mirror. He kept doing this until a voice on the loudspeaker advised the man in room 210 to check out or renew. Corbin left the bathroom.

Most days Alvy left Corbin a message on voicemail or sent a text. He'd followed Corbin to Austin, but Lex had not. Despite Corbin's numerous hints and outright pleas, Lex refused to budge—he returned to Dallas after graduating the rehab. Alvy offered convenience, devotion, and wit. Corbin had no qualms about stringing him along until more acceptable offers cleared the horizon.

Jermaine clucked in surprise when Corbin stepped into his lair of pungent odors, dark corners, and whispered negotiations. He teased Corbin about his long absence. Ducking his head to avoid the doorframe, Corbin muttered some nonsense about an ailing mother. In truth, his mother died five years ago in a room with white lace curtains and bed able to fit three. This shit will knock you on your white ass, Jermaine said. Corbin forced a laugh and knotted his hands behind his back, unsure what to do. Jermaine shook a clear, tiny bag of crystals high above his head as if Corbin were about to swing at a piñata. With his other hand, he undid his fly and beamed at Corbin with a certainty that made Corbin sick yet grateful. Corbin fell to his knees, but it wasn't enough. He has too tall, so he leaned forward, Jermaine's pimply, swollen cock awaiting his lips.

Barry was not the first man Corbin brought to his rented room. He was not the second, nor the third. As Corbin led him to room 325, he schemed for a way to check his voicemail without offending Barry. Three hours had passed. Corbin doubted Lex was awake. Barry stumbled behind Corbin, his flat feet smacking against the concrete floor. While plotting a way to detect whether Lex thought of him tonight, Corbin recalled the first voicemail he left after Corbin's sudden exit: Call whenever you can. I don't care whether you're high or sober. Alvy and I miss you.

Alvy and I—Corbin's only regret about leaving. The thought of Alvy and Lex alone together terrified him. Corbin stopped abruptly at the door of 325, and Barry crashed into him. Barry laughed and dropped his head upon Corbin's shoulder. He looks a bit like Lex, Corbin thought. Thinner, younger. He kissed Barry, but Barry backed away, eyes wild and dimming.

Corbin trotted across the parking lot, clothes foreign against his damp skin. Lex hadn't called. The crystal meth, however, provided Corbin a safe harbor, his doubts and suspicions whimpering in a far corner of his psyche. Once behind the wheel of his dented, vintage Camaro, Corbin struggled to recall the men he'd taken to his room: Eddie, Bruce, Steve, Barry—nothing. He remembered the flecks of the amber in the fifth man's green eyes, the downward curve of his cock. He tried but failed to forget the fact each man left room 325 disappointed.

Alvy had left a message, sometime between Eddie and Bruce. It was half past three in the morning. Corbin pictured Alvy waiting by his phone, thoughts bopping like bumper cars. Once Alvy arrived in Austin, he and Corbin relapsed together, Alvy commenting on the perverse romanticism of the moment. You and me, Alvy said, high and naked like we fantasized. Corbin didn't respond except to take another hit.

Eve refused to sell street drugs, offering only medications a doctor might prescribe: uppers, downers, painkillers. She welcomed her customers with arms wide across the doorway, hand gripping the frame, an easy smile and high, scratchy voice. Hey there, lovely. What took you so long? Corbin shed his wool pea coat as he stepped inside. The stagnant heat in Eve's apartment seeped underneath his skin. He collapsed onto the sofa, offered her a tight smile. He wanted to be done, to drive home. Alvy belonged to him, he knew this. Eve returned Corbin's smile. You're goddamn high, handsome. She winked, her eyeliner caked and thick. I know what you need. She swished out of the room, allowing Corbin to collect himself.

During their rehab days, Corbin enjoyed torturing Alvy with stories of his trysts with Lex. Alvy never questioned the veracity of Corbin's lurid tales. In truth, Corbin and Lex achieved an odd intimacy only once. It rained that day, and Corbin appreciated the company. Thunder still scared him.

Crossing the rehab courtyard, Lex's stroll resembled back tires on an unpaved road. His laughter belched forth like fumes from an exhaust pipe. He rubbed his belly when digesting new information or speculating about the future. When still, Lex blossomed—his translucent eyes, two days of stubble and lips so full and inviting, one hardly noticed the thin, white scar intersecting his upper lip, vanishing just below his nostril.

Corbin knew his sexual prowess was poor at best. No matter how intensely he focused, semen shot forth moments after the start of each encounter. He'd been desperate to please Lex on that afternoon months ago, to prove the risk Lex had taken by joining him wasn't foolish. Lex waited on the twin bed, unable to respond to Corbin's request: stay there, just watch. Through the fabric of his cargo shorts, Corbin rubbed his crotch. Soon after, his erection appeared. Lex watched, his face betraying his bewilderment. Corbin studied this excellent man, wondered how many hearts he'd broken with a quick laugh or easy flirtation. The nervous host's orgasm arrived and ended so suddenly, he didn't have time to alert Lex, who then asked Corbin what happened. After sliding down the wall until he hit the floor, Corbin bunched his knees underneath his chin. He asked Lex to join him in Austin. We could be neighbors, he said. We'll have a wonderful life.

Eve returned, face flushed. She held a pill bottle, Xanax rattling like metal balls on a roulette wheel. Corbin reached for his wallet, but Eve shook her head, dirty blonde hair spilling onto her shoulders. Gesturing toward the bedroom, she bore her teeth. Corbin knew her tactics. After college, he survived a year-long marriage to a woman by routinely fucking her up the ass. Show me how your hair does that, he said. It's sexy.

Five minutes later, Corbin stood before the bathroom mirror. The bottle of Xanax fit snugly against his thigh in his pocket. Perhaps it would work now. "I love you," he said, breath shallow. I'm so lost without him, he thought. "I love you." Eve called out from the bedroom, said another customer was due. Gorgeous like you, she said.

Headlights filed past Corbin on the interstate, bleary soldiers drifting toward unknown fates. Alvy answered on the third ring. He often answered sooner. Corbin didn't ask if it was too late to call. He knew Alvy would drive directly to his place and wait in the raw November wind. Hands moist and cramping around the steering wheel, Corbin worried he might not have enough dope for both of them. Fortunately, Alvy's rapid speech and dropped consonants indicated he'd started without Corbin.

When he moved to Austin, Alvy wasted no time contacting Corbin. Alvy crossed the welcome mat with his resentments and delusions, his frayed denim and soiled Converses. He greeted Corbin by leaping into his arms and wrapping his legs around Corbin's waist. Alvy was small and bony like a starved dog. Even as his number of conquests ticked higher, Alvy possessed no faith in his charisma. At rehab, Corbin often praised Alvy's charms, both physical and otherwise. Eventually, however, Alvy's epic neediness swallowed Corbin's benevolence. It was no coincidence this shift in their dynamic occurred mere days after Lex's arrival.

Alvy paced the lot where Corbin always parked. He didn't trust Corbin, and Corbin knew this. Alvy waved as if signaling for help, his smile eager as he hopped in place. After Corbin rolled down his window, he flashed Alvy the same smile that triggered all those men, all those women to concede defeat. Alvy leaned over and announced he was nowhere near high enough. Corbin chuckled and shushed him. We live in low-income housing, Alvy said. Everyone is fucking high.

Despite the late hour, Alvy wanted to dance. Corbin declined his invitation to join, but he searched his music collection until he found a Donna Summer CD, over one hour of remixes. He wore his boxers, having slipped into them the moment after he came inside Alvy. The dope shot through his veins, sweet and ruthless. Alvy spoke softly but his voice betrayed a hard edge: Move with me, handsome. His feet remained rooted in place, but his hips swayed like the needle of a metronome as he ran his hand through his dark hair. He asked about Lex. When Corbin pretended he hadn't heard, Alvy asked again. It's been over a month, Corbin said. Have you spoken to him? Nope, Alvy said. Not recently. He caught Corbin by surprise, gazing directly at him. I can't believe we shit on each other over a fat man who will die in five years, Alvy said with a laugh, one Corbin felt was forced. He wasn't that fat, Corbin said. He wasn't that thin, Alvy replied.

Alvy's stepfather had died two weeks ago. Had he told Corbin? Perhaps he hadn't been listening, or perhaps it had slipped Alvy's mind. Covering this variable, Corbin said no. Three husbands in a row, Alvy said. Can you imagine? Mom went insane from grief. Corbin cranked up the volume. A stomping bass, the trickle of a mandolin, the blast of a clarinet—Corbin lost himself in the music. He hardly remembered fucking Alvy a half-hour ago but shuddered to recall the silence blooming among the cries and moans of both. Corbin didn't love Alvy and never would, but he cherished whatever hours he wasn't alone in the apartment. The idea of spending his life enveloped by quiet chilled him. I wanna get higher, Alvy called, breaking Corbin's reverie. I'm not sure we have enough shit, Corbin replied. Liar, his guest said, laughing again.

Corbin passed through the kitchen, his leg grazing a cloth carrier stuffed with white plastic bags from Wal-Mart. In the bedroom, he spied his large mattress draped in the patchwork quilt his grandmother made. Like his mother, she'd died from cancer. Donna Summer's wail filled the apartment: Corbin almost missed the ringtone—a flaccid Maroon 5 number—from Alvy's phone. When he arrived, Alvy had laid both his cell phone and his wallet on the nightstand. The familiar gesture irked Corbin. Five months ago, he'd invited Lex to his room for the first and only time. Four weeks before that, Alvy had crossed his threshold. The tiny bag of dope lay innocently on the bureau. There was plenty; Corbin had misjudged his supply. The phone kept ringing.

Corbin answered Alvy's phone with a lukewarm greeting. The caller sounded younger than either Alvy or himself. He asked for Alvy, and Corbin offered to take a message. The line went dead. Corbin glanced over his shoulder only to discover himself in the mirror. Mouthing "I love you" would only delay what he needed to do.

He accessed Alvy's voicemail with little fuss, guessing Alvy's password on the first try. It was the same one Alvy used for his email account. After his sudden exit from rehab, Corbin sent Alvy's mother a series of vile messages, each loaded with profanity and condemnation. Alvy forgave him. I had no choice, he told Corbin after descending on his doorstep.

There were three messages. Alvy didn't vanish after their encounters, Corbin knew. He had dreams and ambitions. Corbin fondly recalled their impassioned discussions while lying in the courtyard at rehab—before matters grew complicated, before Lex arrived, before Corbin fled in a flurry of apologies and regrets.

The first message came from Alvy's mother, her accent thick and soothing like honey. He hadn't called in four days. Was he safe? Did he receive the money she sent? Corbin wished she were his mother. The mysterious caller from moments before left the second message. He cooed about how much he enjoyed last night. When might he see Alvy again? The Rainbow Room planned a special on dirty martinis that weekend. Corbin's mouth grew dry, his pulse quickened. He was always distressed to learn a lover conducted a life outside of him. And then Lex spoke.

Corbin's eyes widened. The sinister heat from his vent bore down upon him. The message had arrived at four that morning. Alvy, sorry to call so late. It happened, it finally happened. Sean wants me to move in. Finally, I'm out of this shitty boarding house. Be happy for me. Be careful with Corbin, little brother. I miss you. The beep roused Corbin, and he finally comprehended the allegedly happy news. An automated voice inquired whether he wished to save or delete the message; he chose the latter option.

Corbin again noticed the carrier full of white plastic bags, but the silence distressed him more. It had bloomed in an instant, as silence always does. From the living room, Alvy announced he was starting a new CD. I can't believe I know a guy who remembers Nine Inch Nails, he said. You brought the dope, right? A bass beat, rich and tense, preceded the chaotic notes of a synthesizer. Corbin removed a plastic bag from the carrier. In the next room, Alvy danced in his briefs, his movements grand and erratic. The open bag between his fists, Corbin entered the room. Alvy danced and danced, ignorant of his fate.

Corbin wrapped the bag over Alvy's head. It covered his head completely, its edge collected around his neck; Corbin began to squeeze. The Nine Inch Nails song mocked him: I wanna fuck you like an animal. Alvy's knees gave way. Only Corbin's grip kept him upright. The bag clung to Alvy's face like wet grass to shoes. Alvy gasped and choked, anything he might be trying to say forever lost. Instead, Corbin heard only the song: I wanna feel you from the inside. After Alvy stopped struggling, Corbin eased him to the floor. He retreated to the doorway and observed the small, fragile corpse. He knew Alvy once loved him, perhaps still did. He had lied, however, about Lex contacting him. The most dangerous man in the world is the one sleeping next to you.

Be happy for me!

After snorting the rest of the dope in the bathroom, he stumbled toward his full-length mirror. Several weeks ago, he'd bent Alvy over and fucked him while gazing at his own reflection. Alvy took the assault with enthusiasm but fretted when Corbin didn't climax with his usual speed. After two minutes, Alvy lifted his head. Corbin saw the same confusion on Lex's face during their strange sexual encounter. Only one thing would calm the velvet hysteria of the dope, he thought.

"I love you," he whispered into the mirror. I wanna fuck you like an animal. "I love you," he repeated. Be happy for me! He said it louder. "I love you." It didn't work. It would never work. Corbin left the bedroom. He left the apartment. He left the city. He drove to Dallas, faster and faster, the sun rising to his right.