The Skateboarder with the Maori Tattoo
From the forthcoming novel, Death in Venice, California.
Alighting from the taxi, Jameson Frame saw what must have been intended to be a Venetian canal. To his eyes, it was a culvert of sorts. Manmade.
But, like so many of the things he had encountered here, the fake was, perhaps, prettier than the real. With Japanese bridges, box hedges and red rowboats floating in clear water, tied to the hedges with a single gold cord, it all suggested a wholesomeness of sorts, so unlike the dark Italian waters.
He turned and crossed the tiny road, slipped between the bumpers of two tightly parked cars, checked the house number, and pushed open the little white gate in the picket fence.
Just inside the fence was a garden of scents: lavender, sage, old tea roses. Rising from the center of the lawn was a small Japanese maple, under which a very rickety bench had been placed. Beyond the tree was a small white cottage.
It was as if it had been family-sized and was then shrunken, miniaturized by a third, so that everything, the gate, the yard, the porch, and the house itself, was all rather tenderly reduced to the point of being almost too small for human habitation.
Yet, here it was, with two small chairs on the porch, one of which had an old, tattered pillow lying across the seat.
Jameson Frame stood, dressed in his fine silk suit, with one foot on the single step up to the porch, his attention lost on the wild clumps of bleeding hearts that grew from boxes and cascaded over the edge of the porch. Someone, it seemed to him, had rather lovingly watered these just as the sun faded opalescent on the horizon.
He looked up. Elsa stood in flowing batik dress. He could see the outline of her body through the sheer fabric. She was, he noted, barefoot.
She held the screen door open.
“Jameson, come in. We were waiting for you.”
He approached her as she opened the door wide. “You have such a lovely yard,” he said, “that I got quite caught up.”
“How very nice, Jameson. Welcome,” she said to him, as she craned her neck upward and kissed him softly on his lips. Her kiss, like her touch, was like butterfly wings alighting softly, briefly. She smelled like the lavender in her garden.
“Hello, everyone,” Elsa said in a wispy voice that was lost over the sound of the ancient stereo in the back of the room.
Looking past the crowd, Jameson Frame caught sight of Vera dancing a slow cha cha with a very tall, dignified woman who would later be introduced to him only as “Frau Schmidt.”
Vera, seeing Elsa’s hands aloft, lifted the needle off the record and quite suddenly her little singsong sounded very loud.
“My dears,” said Elsa, “this is our new friend, Mr. Jameson Frame, who has left dreary New York behind to spend some time with us here. I hope you will greet him, because I know you will soon be as fond of him as Vera and I are.”
Soon, Jameson had been welcomed over onto the long low couch, where he sat in some discomfort between Kiki, who appeared to most likely be a young, slender man dressed as a sort of chanteuse, and a very large exotic gentleman named Bobo, who had promised Vera that he would, later in the evening, entertain everyone by playing his drum. Seated on the coffee table facing him, with his knees intertwined with Frame’s was Kiki’s friend, who, in passing, seemed to have introduced himself to Jameson Frame as “Smack.”
It was his presence that Frame found to be particularly oppressive, both because of his smell and because he so often favored Frame with a little friendly pressure from his bare knees.
Bend and twist though he might, Frame seemed quite incapable of escape until a large yellow cat chose to jump into his lap.
Startled, Frame let out a bit of a yelp, to the entertainment of those around him. From the edge of the room, he heard Vera growl, “Oh, that damned cat!” while Elsa hurried over to apologetically lift him from Frame’s lap.
Jameson Frame took this opportunity to try to lift himself off the couch, the dense softness of which made it difficult for Frame to pull himself up and onto his feet.
With sudden assistance from Smack, who leaped to his feet, pulled Frame to his and then replaced him next to Kiki on the couch, Frame found himself able to maneuver around the crowded little room.
The front screen door swung shut behind Elsa who, having put the cat out, apologized repeatedly. Jameson Frame smiled and waved and nodded to her, and moved on to explore the rear of the home.
He walked past the doorway to the dining room which held an old, very large picnic table with two long benches and several mismatched seats, and entered the kitchen just in time to walk directly into someone who had just entered through the back door.
Apologizing and stepping back, Frame recognized the beautiful young man whom he had seen the day before at his hotel’s outdoor café. The skateboarder with the Maori tattoo.
Frame excused himself once more. Looking directly into the young man’s nighttime eyes.
“I am so sorry,” said Frame. “So clumsy of me…”
“Hey, no problem, man.”
The youth both showed no signs of recognition and displayed no need to move on. He stood, rather vacantly, as if waiting for Frame to say something more. He wore overlarge shorts and a sleeveless low-cut pullover that displayed his muscled arms.
They heard Vera’s voice and each turned to see her standing in the kitchen doorway.
“Oh, you two found each other? Good,” said Vera. “Elsa! Chase is here.”
Elsa hurried to join Vera in the doorway of the kitchen.
“Oh, I did so want the two of you to have the chance to get to know each other,” said Elsa, with a broad cat smile on her face. “I gave this little party hoping that you could become acquainted.”
“Chase, this is Jameson Frame. He is a very important and influential writer from New York City and a very good new friend of ours. I hope you will tell him all about yourself. He may want to write a book about you.”
The boy snorted and gave Frame what could only have been described—were he indeed writing the book about the boy—as an enticing grin.
Suddenly, a ghostly figure emerged from the darkness and pressed itself hard against the outside of the kitchen screen door.
“Hey, where are you?”
“That’s just my brother. Mikey,” said the youth. “I came in for beer.”
Vera went to the refrigerator and pulled out two cans of cold beer. She threw them to the boy. “Dinner’s in about twenty minutes,” she said, “so don’t go far.”
The youth caught the cans as he pushed against the door, shoving his brother out into darkness.
“We’ll be right back,” he said, before pointing his chin in Jameson’s direction and adding, “Good to meet you, man. Later?”
“Later,” answered Jameson, almost as a question. His face reddened in the kitchen’s glaring overhead light, as he thought of the boy, and pondered the internal engine that drove him to say such a thing as “later.”
For what seemed to Frame like hours, Oscar Peterson’s Pastel had been playing again and again thanks to the stereo’s upraised arm.
Most of the guests were now seated around the picnic table, with paper plates mounded with sections of stuffed eggplant that had turned chocolate brown in baking and yellow aromatic rice covered in pumpkin seeds.
Jameson Frame picked at the food on his plate with the white plastic fork he had been provided, along with an ancient slightly bent steak knife and an iced-tea spoon and a paper towel for a napkin. Frame had managed to get himself a seat on the far end of the table facing by dawdling in the doorway. Thus, it was only Kiki beside him to his right and Elsa who sat across the table from him who were his dinner companions.
In the intervening time since he himself stood in the kitchen, unable to breathe in the presence of the beautiful youth, Jameson Frame had, in a spirit of bonhomie, divested himself of his suit jacket, which he slid oh, so, carefully onto the back of the couch, folding it lovingly. He had made something of a show of this, in that he had hoped that he would be offered a hanger and a place in a closet somewhere by one of his hostesses, both of whom watched him fold his coat gently and offered him only a smile and a nod.
He sat now, wishing that he could lean back on this ridiculous bench. And wishing as well that Chase, the beautiful youth, would come back into the party, with his brother or without.
Chase. He chewed the word along with a mouthful of fragrant rice.
In that moment, as if in wish fulfillment, Chase and his brother entered through the back door, slamming it and walked into the room, laughing. They sat at the far end of the table in two mismatched chairs by the kitchen door, the brother in a plastic folding chair and Chase, as if he himself were host, on a plush cushioned throne.
As the boys came into the room, Elsa ran into the kitchen to pile food on two more plates. She brought them in and placed them in front of the boys, offering them either more of the beer that they had had earlier or some of the wine that the rest were drinking from cups, bowls and glasses of various sorts. The brother, eating fast, said only, “Beer.”
Chase, for his part, requested wine with a gentle “please” and was given a large flagon of red glass that was chipped on the rim. He sloshed the red wine around in his glass and emptied it, belched, red wine running down the corners of his mouth, and was rewarded with another glass, this time filled to the rim. He laughed, looked at each face seated around the table with a expression of complacent beneficence and began to eat.
He stared at the boy as much as he safely could, making sure to look from time to time over at Kiki and to remark to Elsa on the quality of the food.
Once, the youth looked up just as Frame was staring at him, measuring the movements of his jaw as he worked the food.
Chase winked at the older man. As he chewed, his left hand slipped down to his stomach and slowly slipped up this sleeveless tee, exposing the perfection of his abdominal cavity and the rope of dark fur that ran down into his shorts.
He smoothed his hand over his stomach, simulating a very slow “yum yum” motion, before coyly lowering his shirt once more. Then he yawned, showing a quantity of food still in his mouth and laughed suddenly, realizing it.
“So, uh, Jimmy,” he said, and all eyes flew to him.
“Vera says you are pretty famous, huh?”
“Well,” said Jameson Frame, flustered.
“Now, Chase, darling, don’t embarrass Mr. Frame,” said Elsa tenderly. She placed a fluttering hand on Frame’s. “He is a man of letters. Of words. A poet.”
Jameson Frame thought perhaps that he heard Chase’s brother snicker as he continued to eat. He was now eating the food that his brother had left on his plate.
Chase inclined himself toward Jameson Frame.
“Man,” he said, on perfect eyebrow rising above the other. “A poet. Cool.”
Vera spoke to Elsa, “I think it’s high time for salad and cheese, huh?”
The two women arose and gathered up the paper plates, which were tossed into the large open garbage bin by the sink in the kitchen. Elsa wandered back in with a large cracked wooden bowl in which a series of greens were mixed and Vera brought a large rough-hewn wooden tray, the top of which was wrapped in banana leaves and covered with various cheeses.
New paper plates were filled and glasses refilled.
Jameson Frame noticed that now it was the youth who stared at the older man. He looked at Frame and touched his hand to his mouth.
The rest of dinner consisted of things that were either sticky, sweet or both.
Elsa, from time to time, ran into the kitchen, coming out with various things to offer. She went missing for a time, and then returned, as the smell of baking chocolate filled the room.
Jameson Frame drank entirely too much wine from his little tin cup, as the cup seemed to be magically refilled each time he drank from it, like something from a children’s story.
From time to time Kiki or Smack or the gentleman who was dressed in something African said something in his direction. Not hearing or understanding them, Jameson Frame nodded, and, once, giggled, which seemed sufficient to satisfy the conversation.
His eyes locked once more with those of the youth at the other end of the table. The boy raised his flagon to Frame, who raised his tin cup in return. Both drank deeply. Frame sighed.
He felt the room shift as the music changed from the stereo to the sound of a soft drumbeat in the living room.
Elsa went into the kitchen once more and came out with a pan of warm brownies, the scent of which had underscored the party for the last half hour. There was general cheering at the sight of the platter.
“Take one to Bobo,” instructed Vera. Elsa complied, piling two onto a bunched piece of paper towel, handing the tray to Vera, who arose to serve the others.
Elsa walked—floated really, on the sound of the drumbeats—into the living room and fed a brownie to Bobo, a piece at a time. His head nodded in the rhythm of his drumming. She kissed him then, lightly, sweetly, first on this forehead and then on his wide and eager lips. And she began to feed him again, slowly, in small pieces, one at a time, as if to ask with each piece, “Is this enough?”
In the dining room, Vera came to where Frame was sitting and said, “Alice B. Toklas brownie, Jameson?”
Happy at the mention of a familiar name, Jameson Frame helped himself, and, again finding the there was no back on the bench, leaned his weight a bit onto Kiki next to him, as he began to more powerfully feel the effects of the cheap wine.
Down at the end of the table, the boys laughed and pointed at each other as they showed their chocolate teeth.
“Barf,” said Chase, punching his brother on the arm.
It was then, in that moment, that a golden light entered the room, filled it and filled each guest assembled with a saturating sensation of delight.
Time slowed, and the sound of the drumbeat with it.
There was the rumble of conversation, comprehended and, more and more, not. And the ongoing, softly insistent sound of the drumbeat that instructed their hearts in when to beat, teased breath in and out of their lungs.
Soon, they sighed as one. Jameson took his shoulder away from Kiki, who blew him a kiss as he put his head down on the table, having no other way to relieve his back.
When his head again arose, it was not unlike a periscope arising from beneath the sea, and slowly scanning in a circular motion.
The table had been largely emptied; the party had returned to the living room.
Seeing him stir, Elsa gently reached under Frame’s left arm, helping him to his feet. Glad of her help, he pushed off from the corner of the table, got up and tottered a step or two.
Elsa walked with him and whispered, “Chase has gone out onto the front porch and he especially asked that I should tell you when you when you awoke.”
In a velvety haze, Frame slowly made for the door. He glanced back at Elsa as he walked two steps, three, and saw her, standing, retreating backward as he walked forward, her head bobbing sweetly, as if teaching a child to walk.
Outside, Chase took his feet off the chair with the sagging cushion so that Frame could sit. He greeted Frame casually, as if he were expected. “Hey,” he said simply as the door had opened.
Frame sat on the ancient wicker thing and felt as if he might fall through to the porch floor at any moment. Chase stared off into the darkness, his chin pointing outward from time to time.
“Mikey’s out there on the canal in a rowboat,” he said. “Thought I better keep an eye on him.”
They sat silent for a moment. In the distance, Frame could hear quiet splashing in the water beyond.
Other sounds emerged as he listened. Music here and there, inside and out. And the sounds of televisions on multiple channels, and car radios moving toward and then past. Of electric fans and of conversations in the dark. A smattering of louder, richer sounds from the boardwalk not far away—the boardwalk that never quite slept but always, even in the darkest night, sparkled and spoke in myriad colors and voices.
Jameson Frame, perhaps buoyed by the night and the cheap wine and the Alice B. Toklas brownies, looked directly into the boy’s face. Not a furtive glance, issued in pulsing regularity, as was his habit, but a direct, appraising look. Chase, seeing him, looked at him and then averted his glance, fading it into soft focus, inviting Frame to look at his leisure. He shifted a bit in his chair, perhaps to become more comfortable, perhaps to allow his face to be more fully and completely illuminated by a shaft of light that the reading lamp on the table by the window threw.
Never had Jameson Frame seen such perfection. Not in art or life. It was a face chiseled in desire.
It had a slight lantern shape to it, with a strong jawline covered in a wire mesh of heavy beard. And loose, disheveled hair that suggested raw youth. And his eyes, again the eyes, serene and yet demanding, suggested the possibility of both.
But if the source of his shifting personal power lay in his eyes, the source of the Nile that was his beauty was in his lips. Lips that countered everything else on his face. Full, feminine lips that pouted and purred, that were colored a perfect, ridiculous pink and shaped in a flapper’s cupid’s bow. Placed within the context of his dark masculinity—the purest white skin set against jet black hair that disappeared, along with the inky mesh of his scruff, in the night—the pinky pink lips, a set that might have been dubbed kissable in a television commercial, were utterly, shockingly, endless enchanting when placed within the hard-jawed face of the youth.
There was, of course, more than a hint of the body under the clothes. His body issued heat.
The boy, Frame noticed, had shifted forward during his reverie. He sat now hunched forward in his direction, looking him in the eye, his own eyes filled with a most decorous mirth.
From the outer darkness, Mikey splashed. Chase ignored him. He leaned closer.
“You want to see my tattoos?” he asked.
Without waiting for an answer, Chase slowly pulled his shirt off and turned his back, displaying an intricate cross-etched onto the upper part of his back.
“This was my first tattoo,” he said, “I got it when I was like fourteen.” He moved as he spoke, bringing his body around to face front again. “It’s an Irish cross. I got it because I am Irish and Scottish and Welsh and Swedish or something. Pure whitey white.”
“Then I got this one.” He brought his leg up and placed a foot in Frame’s nervous lap, showing him up close the same leg tattoo that he had seen before.
“It’s not of Australian design, but rather from New Zealand. From the Maori people.”
“Yeah? Cool.” He flexed his foot in Frame’s lap, showing the dirt on his sole, and brought his knee around a bit to look again at his own tattoo, as if he had not seen it before, digging his toes into Frame’s groin as he did so.
“Thanks, man. Good to know.”
Vinton Rafe McCabe started his career as an award-winning poet and a produced playwright before he began what would turn out to be a twenty-five year detour from his life’s path by becoming a journalist, a radio talk show host and a television producer. During that time, he published ten works of nonfiction. After what he describes as “a doozy of a mid-life crisis,” he returned to his first love, fiction. Death In Venice, California was created in something akin to a fever dream, in that the author completed the work in just twenty-eight days as part of the National Novel Writing Month annual challenge. He has just completed a second novel, Glossolalia and is now polishing a series of interconnected works of short fiction, collectively titled Get Thee Behind Me. He also works as a literary critic for the New York Journal of Books.