Sal and Violet
"Listen Rob, I don't want to rape you, and I don't want you to rape me," Mr. Varona said, squinting at the prices scribbled on a faded envelope. He had a classic roman nose and eyebrows, like black caterpillars poised above probing eyes. He dusted his hand-made Italian shoes with a tissue. A single diamond glittered from his small finger. It was noon, and he was drinking scotch, on the rocks.
"I want to be fair about this," he said, and thrust both hands above his head like he was fielding a baseball. "I said low, Bluebook price, didn't I?" He tilted his head. "Does this say thirty-one hundred?" He was about seventy, but looked younger.
"Sal simply refuses to wear his reading glasses," his wife, Violet, said. She strolled into the living room, perched her slim body on the arm of the chair, and smoothed her husband's silk smoking jacket with her long fingers.
"Yes Mr. Varona, it's thirty-one hundred," Rob replied, trying not to sound too eager. It was a steal at that price.
"So, we got a deal," he said, and shook Rob's hand.
"Violet, bring us another drink. What are you drinking?" he asked Rob.
"Seven-up. Can't have any alcohol with the medicines I'm taking."
Rob had met Mr. Varona earlier that day in the lobby of their apartment building.
In the elevator, the distinguished white haired man told him he was selling a vintage Volvo, cheap. Was he interested? The car belonged to his son, Marco, who was very sick and dying of AIDS. He and his wife were here to take care of him and settle his affairs. Rob's condo was right next door to Marco's.
Violet came back with the drinks, set them on the coffee table. An attractive woman in her fifties, she had hazel eyes set in a mask of heavy makeup. A fountain of auburn hair crowned her long face, and large gold hoops brushed against her neck when she turned. She took a cigarette from her leather case and lit it. Another smoldered in the ashtray. A mute television on the walnut bookcase flashed footage of the aftermath of the Loma Prieta earthquake: fires, buildings toppled, and collapsed freeways.
Rob looked away. Nothing was certain anymore. Ten residents in the condominiums had died from the plague that year. He too, had tested 'positive' but was perfectly healthy. He followed a daily routine of exercise, rest and meditation, looked good for thirty-eight, but had stopped work a year earlier.
"I wrote a lot of contracts when I was in the longshoremen's union in New York City," Mr. Varona boasted. He read aloud from a legal pad, "$100. Deposit. The balance, three-thousand, when the pink slip, is transferred."
"Can I take it for test-drive?" Rob asked, counting out five twenties on the coffee table.
"No problem," Sal said. "I'll be in Reno till Thursday. Get the keys from Violet. Don't worry, it runs great," He slid the bills into a money clip. "But, you can't have it right away. It's our only transportation, until we leave."
"No problem, Mr. Varona." Rob lied. He wanted the car right then. "I'll be glad to drive you and Violet to the airport," he added, to sweeten the deal.
"Call me Sal," Mr. Varona said. His voice was softer. "I'll walk you to the door,"
He took Rob's hand and pressed it between his thick palms. A lifetime of hard work was etched into the rough texture of his skin. Sal led him past glass cabinets filled with crystal and oriental sculpture and into Marco's room. A tall hospital bed strung with a web of cables and pulleys dominated the darkened space. It smelled of chemical disinfectants and talcum powder. Marco slept. He labored to breathe, an oxygen tube hung from his nose. An untuned television blinked blue and gray; no words, just the watery hiss of static.
"How is he?" Rob whispered.
"He sleeps most of the time. Eats only ice cream and melon, smokes cigarettes and watches TV. Did you know Marco very well?"
"Not really. We had coffee a couple of times."
"Wait, I think he's waking up?" Sal smiled.
But Marco didn't stir.
"It hasn't been easy. I never thought I'd see my son die before me." Sal turns off the TV. "He was the best lawyer the business ever had. But, thank God, everyone's been terrific: the doctors, the nurses, his co-workers."
"Does he have a partner? A lover?" Rob asked, even though he knew that Marco's boyfriends didn't stick around very long.
"No, I don't think so. I don't know much about his personal life. Live, and let live, I always say." He looked at Rob with an uncertain smile. "But, you know what? I've never really understood what two men do in bed together." He cleared his throat.
"Did you ever sleep with Marco?"
Rob was stunned by this question. But suddenly, Marco began to cough violently, rolled over on his side, and pulled off his oxygen tube. His narrow eyes searched for their voices. "Hey, Pop. Light me a cigarette," he said with a slanted smile.
"Sorry, I'm not properly dressed yet, Rob, but lately the days and nights just run together," Violet said.
She was standing in the doorway, wearing a tangerine-colored silk robe with fur trim and matching slippers. The thin fabric hung on her nipples and outlined her seasoned breasts. Her hair was furiously teased and combed, and she was holding a cup of coffee in one hand, a cigarette in the other. She let him in and they went into the kitchen. Rob had come for the keys to the Volvo. He had just been to the gym. His curly blonde hair was still wet and his faded jeans ripped at both knees.
"Please sit down. I'll pour you some coffee."
"Sal's not back yet. He spends more time on his business then he does here, helping out like he should."
"What kind of business is he in? Rob asked.
She paused, and then answered coldly. "It's a family business. My father is the President. Sal works for him. And so did Marco. He was the brightest of the whole bunch. But he didn't want to be married like them. So he moved to San Francisco to live his own kind of life."
"How is he doing?"
"He's much weaker now, needs twenty-four hour nursing care," she said, tears filled her eyes. "I honestly don't recognize the person in that bed. He doesn't look like Marco at all. Would you like to see some pictures of my Marco?" she asked, smudging her wet mascara with a hankie. "You remind me of him when he was your age."
"I'd love to see them, Violet."
They went in the living room and sat on the sofa. Violet balanced the thick leather-bound album on her lap and turned the thick pages. "Here's Sal and I, dancing with each other at our wedding reception. I was nineteen. He was thirty-five. My father arranged the marriage. Al, my oldest brother, stayed away from the wedding. The twins, Marco and Vicki, were born two years later. I had to take fertility pills. Some people said that it was Sal's fault I couldn't get pregnant. He wasn't man enough."
"Here, we're at the house on the shore." She pointed to a family portrait taken in front of a Christmas tree complete with miniature nativity scene, shepherds, angels, and the three wise men.
"That was the last time Vicki was at home with the whole family," she said. "When she graduated from law school, she married some guy she met at a rock-concert. Later, she joined his religion of born-again's and they moved to Tennessee. It broke Sal's heart. She was his little girl."
Violet's nails burrow into the leather bound album. "He never hit her."
"Has Vicki come to see Marco?"
"Hell no. When he told her he was gay, she stopped speaking to him. When he got sick, she said AIDS was 'God's retribution' in her religion. But she's still my flesh and blood. I love her and I forgive her. She'll be back, someday." Violet turned another page, and moved the photo album to Rob's lap.
In the faded prints, Marco's clothes were always neat. His short blonde hair was neatly combed, and parted on one side. In one snapshot, he was clowning around; in another, he was the big-time lawyer in court. In a glossy 8 x 10, he stood in front of a burned-out storefront, talking to the police.
"Was this one of Sal's businesses that burned?" Rob asked.
"What?" she replied absently. The room got very quiet. She refilled their coffee cups, then tossed two blue pills into her mouth and washed them down with the hot liquid. She lit another cigarette, took a deep drag and let out a sigh.
"I'll get the keys" she said, and went into the bedroom.
While she was out of the room, there was another tremor. The walls creaked, cups rattled in their saucers. Rob's arms bristled. He ducked under a beam, and prayed it wasn't the big one. But, in a few seconds, the shaking stopped.
Violet came back into the living room as if nothing had happened.
"Here's the key. Sal asked if you'd please, dump all the trash in the trunk."
"No problem," Rob said. His hands were clammy. His armpits dripped. He grabbed the keys and ran down three flights of stairs to the basement.
In the garage, he found Marco's car parked in its narrow stall. The original Dijon mustard paint job was dusty but in excellent condition. He tried the key in the trunk, but it wouldn't open. The interior of the car smelled of stale tobacco and beer. He opened the doors to ventilate the toxic vehicle and windexed the windows. They were heavily coated with nicotine and nitrates.
He drove in clogged city traffic to the freeway. The Oakland Bay Bridge was closed; the roadbed had collapsed in the quake. Rob headed South on 101. The car ran great, especially at high speeds. He exited at Highway 1 and headed for the beach. He parked at the vista point overlooking Devil's Slide, and checked the tires, the engine, and even crawled underneath to look for oil leaks. Everything was in good shape. He tried the key in the trunk, again. It opened.
Inside, beneath layers of old newspapers and a soiled blanket, he found three cardboard boxes filled with latex toys, lube, poppers, porno videos, a bong, and other drug paraphernalia. Near the bottom of one box, he discovered a frayed leather harness, studded collar and leash.
Back in the City, he headed for the south-of-market area and parked in an alley near the Cauldron, a defunct sex club for men that flourished before AIDS. Shattered glass littered the sidewalks; a brick wall had fallen across one end of the alley. Rob lugged the boxes to a green dumpster next to the backdoor of the club, and emptied them over the side. A plastic dog-food bowl with Marco's name embossed on it rolled across the trash heap and careened against the dumpster wall.
When he got back to the apartment, Sal greeted him at the door, wearing only a white tank top, silk boxer shorts, and socks. A thick gold chain hung around his neck.
"Well son, like the car?" He had a full drink in his hand. Fragrance of bay leaf, garlic, and oregano escaped into the hallway.
"For Christ's sake, Sal, put your pants on," Violet yelled from the kitchen door. Her hairdo was crushed, lipstick smeared.
"Yes, Sal. It runs great," Rob said. He hung-on to the keys.
"Did you bring the rest of the money?"
Rob nodded, yes, and reached in his pocket for the cash. But Sal motioned for him to follow and started down the hall. They went into the guest bedroom, and he closed the door. The first thing Rob saw was an automatic pistol strapped to a shoulder holster and hanging on the headboard of the unmade bed. He felt his pulse quicken. Smells of sex lingered in the room. Sal sifted through a pile of papers on the dresser for the car's registration slip and casually grabbed his crotch.
"Did you empty the trunk?" he asked, not looking up.
"Yes, no problem, Sal." Rob just wanted to pay him and get the hell out of there.
"I found all that shit in Marco's closet," Sal said, "I didn't want Violet to see that faggot crap, so I stashed it in the car." He took back the keys and held Rob's hand longer than necessary.
Rob pulled away. His mind flashed on the dildos and cock rings lying amidst the household garbage. "I really have to go, Sal." His voice cracked. He counted out three thousand dollars on the ravaged bed sheets. His hands shook. Sal splashed Old Spice on his palms, and rubbed the fragrance all over his face, hairy shoulders and armpits. Its sweetness filled the room.
Rob felt a rush, his thighs burned.
"I've got to go now, Mr. Varona," he said, firmly.
"Sure, Rob." Sal frowned. He jammed his hairy legs into the wrinkled trousers and noisily zipped the fly.
Neither of them spoke as he finished dressing. Rob walked to the window and pretended to look at the downtown skyline.
"How's Marco?" He asked.
Sal didn't say a word.
Finally he whispered, "It won't be long now. The doctor said four days to a week." He massaged his thick arms as if to squeeze back the tears.
"Look Rob, please, stay and have dinner with Violet and me, tonight?"
Rob couldn't refuse. So, precisely at 7:00 pm he came over with a bottle of wine for Sal, and a bouquet of flowers for Violet. She had cooked quite a feast, pork roast, mashed potatoes, vegetables, artichokes to dip in garlic butter, a Caesar salad, and flan for desert. Rob sat at the head of the table. Sal and Violet faced each other.
"She won't eat her mashed potatoes and vegetables if they're touching. Now, ain't that stupid?" Sal said, refilling their wine glasses. Rob was savoring a second helping of everything on the table, drank only iced tea.
"I've had enough booze, Sal," Violet said. "Maybe it's time you slowed down, too." She faked a smile and nibbled on her salad.
"Don't' tell me when I've had enough," he said in a loud voice, and drank the whole glassful to defy her. No one said another word for several long minutes.
"Look Violet, let's get right to the point," Sal said, crushing a plaid napkin in his fist. "Are you going to sign-off on the sale or not? Time is running out."
Rob might as well have been invisible.
"I'm not sure Sal, I have to think about it," Violet said in a casual tone.
"Goddamit, make up your mind. You fuckin' girls are all alike."
"No, Sal." Violet snapped. "Some girls are more 'girl' than others."
At this, Sal lost it. He jumped to his feet and toppled his chair into the glass doors of the China cabinet. "Fuckin' bitch," he yelled. He reached across the table, grabbed Violet by her sprayed hairdo and shook her from side to side.
"Stop!" Rob yelled. "Stop it, Sal!"
Sal looked around to see where the voice was coming from. When he saw Rob, he froze, but hung on to Violet's hair. She pulled loose and fell back into her chair. Sal wiped his hands on his pants and walked into the living room, his arms rounded like an ape's, and cursing in Italian. He stumbled on the card table where Violet had assembled a thousand-piece puzzle and scattered it across the floor.
"Putana!" he yelled, and went into the bedroom, slamming the door with a bang.
The gun. My god! Rob's mind raced, his heartbeat stifled all other sound. He jumped right out of his chair when Marco's call-button went off.
"I'll get it," Violet said, her voice cool and detached. She straightened her curls, and stood up. She was perfectly calm, not a single tear. In fact, she looked pleased with herself, as if she were savoring a victory. She lit another cigarette.
"Goodnight, Rob. I'm sorry you had to see us like this."
A week later Marco died. Rob hadn't called the Varona's since the night of the dinner. He was afraid they might think he was only calling about the car. But, he went with them to the memorial service at Mission Dolores. A few of Marco's friends, co-workers and caregivers came by. Sal and Violet were the only family members present. Vicki never showed up. Rob cried the minute the music started. After the mass, Sal told him they'd be ready to leave for the airport by ten o'clock, on Friday morning.
Traffic crawled past the Candlestick Exit. No alternate route, all double-decker freeways were closed and scheduled for demolition. Sal had insisted on driving the Volvo one last time. He'd had the car washed and detailed, inside and out. It will be all yours when we get to the airport, he told Rob, who sat next to him. Violet was in the back, her elbow resting on a make-up case. She hadn't said a word since she got in the car. She was wearing a pastel cotton suit and a Panama hat with a long feather sticking out of the headband. Big, blue-rimmed sunglasses covered her eyes. No seat belt for her.
"Which airline are you flying?" Rob asked to break the silence. He turned to look at Violet.
"We're on two different airlines," she said. "I'm on United and he's on American Airlines." She took off her sunglasses. Rob noticed a bruise above her right eye. It was turning purple.
"Different flights? How come?" Rob asked, as she applied more makeup to her face.
"She's going to visit her sister in Florida, and I'm headed back to New York," Sal interrupted, keeping an eye out for the airport exit. Violet said nothing.
At the American terminal Sal stopped at the curb and left the engine running. Rob carried his suitcase to the baggage check-in. Sal put his arm around Rob's shoulder, and hugged him long and hard. Rob could feel the weight of his grief.
"Thank you. Thank you for everything, Rob," Sal whispered. He held Rob's face and kissed him fully on the mouth. Rob expected the old man's lips to feel coarse, his manner rough. But Sal was soft and tender. His mustache smelled of whiskey. He waved goodbye to Violet, who never left the car. But she wasn't looking. Then, he sighed and walked away. He never looked back. The automatic glass doors of the terminal slid closed behind him.
"That son-of-a-bitch. He didn't even say goodbye," Violet yelled, above the roar of jet engines. They were stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic between terminals, but Rob didn't care. He was overjoyed to be in command of his new car.
"And don't believe any of that crap about 'visiting my sister' in Florida," she continued. "I don't have a sister. I have my own home on the beach in Ft. Lauderdale. He's living in New York with the same slut he's been with since he left us."
"Is she a younger woman?" Rob blurted, without thinking.
"Christ, no." Violet was really wound-up. "She ain't even a woman. She used to be a man, but had a sex change when she moved in with Sal. He paid for the operation. No, sir, she ain't no woman. Her voice is deeper than yours." She laughed with gusto.
"Legally, Sal and I are still married, but we haven't spoken in years. Not until Marco got sick. But, now that he's in trouble, the bastard wants to pretend that we're still a happy couple."
"What kind of trouble?" Rob asked, knowing that no matter what she said, in a few minutes she'd be gone from his life forever.
"He owes a lot of money to the family business. Gambling debts." She continued in a loud voice. "He wanted to sell the house on the shore to pay them off. But I said, no, sir! No way! When I get to Florida I'm putting everything in a trust for Vicky, the only child I have left."
The traffic stood still. "What time is it? Hey, Red Cap!" she yelled from the car window.
Rob parked the car in the traffic lane, and opened the trunk for the porter.
"I can walk the rest of the way," she said.
He followed her to the curb and they hugged.
"Thanks for all your help, Rob," Violet said, near tears. "I'll always be grateful to Marco for bringing us together. You're a very decent man."
Rob choked. He realized he was going to miss Sal and Violet.
"Now, move your new car, before it gets towed." She raised her sunglasses and winked with her good eye.
He laughed and wiped his face on his sleeve.
"Long life. Have a long life, darling," she said, and walked away, her white patent-leather heels clicking on the uneven sidewalk. In her tropical outfit and feathered hat she looked like a proud, solitary bird wading through the sea of travelers.
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