Chapter 1

 

 

THE sign hung crooked atop the six-story apartment building. It read “BELLADONNA ARMS.” The sign was rendered on a rusty metal frame with old-timey neon tubing, and nothing looks tackier in the daylight than old-timey neon tubing on a rusty metal frame. Stuck in the dead grass by the front steps leading up to the entrance of the apartment building was another sign. This one was handwritten on a slab of cardboard and stapled to a wooden stake pounded into the ground. The lettering on this sign was rendered in pink Magic Marker. It read “VACANCY.” And under that, this time scrawled in magenta Magic Marker and sprinkled liberally with glitter, were the words “TO APPLY PLEASE BE CUTE.”

The young man reading the sign turned away to take a gander at his reflection in the nearest car window, trying to see himself as a stranger might see him. In faded blue jeans, flip-flops, and Van Halen T-shirt, his reflection was not encouraging. He seemed to recall a trick once telling him he was cute, so that was encouraging as far as it went. Of course, the trick was so drunk he had ended up vomiting in his own sock because he couldn’t find a paper bag. Poor guy. Our young man took a half turn to check out the reflection of his ass. Yep. Still there. And still pretty much his best feature, or so everyone always told him. The pricks.

Facing the car window again, he licked the palm of his hand and slathered some spit over his cowlick, trying to make it lie down. Didn’t work. He figured the best thing he could do to improve his appearance was to remove his geeky black glasses and spit on them instead. So he did. Then he wiped them dry with the tail of his shirt and stuck them back on his head all nice and clean.

The young man’s name was Stanley Sternbaum. On this particular morning, he was twenty-two, stood five foot seven, had blue eyes and reddish-blond hair (with a cowlick; two actually) and weighed one hundred thirty pounds with a hard-on. Oddly, without a hard-on he still weighed one hundred thirty pounds. You’d think you’d weigh less, wouldn’t you?

He knew he should put on a few pounds. He knew because his mother told him so every time she saw him. But let’s not get started on Stanley’s mother.

For now, Stanley decided to stop staring at himself in the car window and take another look at the Belladonna Arms.

Did he really want to move into this joint? It wasn’t seedy, exactly, but it certainly wasn’t chic, not that this bothered him. Stanley wasn’t chic either. In fact the Belladonna Arms and Stanley Sternbaum seemed to have one spectacular commonality. They were both resoundingly dorky. The Arms, with its tacky old neon sign and dead grass, and Stanley, with his geeky glasses and recalcitrant cowlicks.

The Arms was built in the shape of a box. Perfectly square and perfectly centered atop the only hill in downtown San Diego. A scraggly eucalyptus tree standing at one corner appeared to be about to topple over from age and ennui. It must have been one of the first botanical emigrants to migrate its way up the globe from Australia. That one lonesome tree was all the decorative foliage the Belladonna Arms had to boast of.

Not that there wasn’t lots of color splashed around. The color came from the dozens of curtains dangling in the windows that overlooked the street. There were twenty-four windows on this side of the building in neat little rows, six up and four across. Stanley counted them. And every one of them had a curtain dangling in it. It was the gayest, gaudiest collection of curtains Stanley had ever seen in his life. And on this white-hot August morning, those curtains hung limp in their open windows like so many varicolored tongues panting for a breath of fresh air.

Stanley could hear Tejano music blasting through one of the windows. He couldn’t tell which window. Interspersed between the strains of Selena crooning her Mexican version of the blues was the wailing counterpoint of some Latino dude with no musical skills whatsoever, singing along in a god-awful screeching falsetto that made the hairs on Stanley’s forearms wave around like cockroach antennae. The invisible atonal singer also seemed to be operating a vacuum cleaner as he sang. The vacuum cleaner was actually more on key than the man running it.

Stanley couldn’t help but wonder if the singer was the one who sprinkled the glitter on the sign. He certainly sounded gay enough to glitter-bomb something every now and then.

And now that Stanley thought about it, the whole apartment building looked a little gaily Tijuana-ish, with its loudass curtains dangling in the sweltering morning air and the loudass Tejano music pouring out onto the sunbaked street through those multicolored orifices.

Stanley craned his neck to look at the neon sign overhead. The Belladonna Arms. He wondered if whoever it was who named the building had known the belladonna plant was actually poison, a toxic little fucker that could kill you dead in twenty minutes? Or had the owner simply thought it sounded romantically Italian, so he slapped it on his roof as a cutesy moniker hoping to draw in tenants?

Tearing his eyes from the sign for a minute, Stanley did a slow 360-degree turn to scope out the view of downtown San Diego offered by this one out-of-place hill Mother Nature had stuck here on the coastline.

To the southwest, Stanley could see the gray Pacific, looking still and somnolent on this hot summer morning. And just an eye flick to the left, he could see the blue sweep of the Coronado Bridge, connecting the city proper to Coronado Island. At that particular moment, there was a Navy destroyer, flags proudly flying, sliding through the water beneath the bridge, heading for a berth at the 32nd Street Pier, where most of the Navy ships resided between tours. Stanley saw every one of those ships from his vantage point now, with a hundred gray masts poking out of a hundred gray superstructures like a spindly thicket of dead trees.

Turning to the right, Stanley had a wonderful view of the San Diego skyline. Countless high-rises were scattered here and there, standing tall, reaching proudly into the cobalt sky as if eager for the sun to warm their waking heads after enduring the coolness of the coastal night. Some offered high-end office space and others offered high-end living space and every one of them was well out of Stanley’s low-end price range.

Next, Stanley’s gradual spin showed him the curve of a freeway, packed with cars at this time of day, the hum of which could be heard even here, half a mile away. Beyond the freeway, somewhere on the horizon, Stanley knew, the museums and prados and quaint haciendas and cardboard shacks of Tijuana sat perched, visible only at night, really, when the lights blinked on and the Mexican nightlife began to stir.

Stanley sucked in a great gulp of blistering hot air and wiped the sweat from his brow. Yep. It was a hell of a view.

Then he turned in the final direction available to him. East. At the very foot of the hill he was standing on sat the meandering complex of Beaumont University, a rather elite institution of higher learning that Stanley had long wished to attend.

With his bachelor’s degree in anthropology securely under his belt after four years at San Diego State, it was at Beaumont Stanley had chosen to chase down his master’s degree in archeology, specializing in Mesoamerica. He would also be pursuing several unit hours of fieldwork on archeological digs pertaining to local Indian traditions and had signed up for a series of lectures on the Cahokia Mound-Building Culture of the Mississippi Valley as well as the Hopewell tradition of mounds in central Ohio, courses unavailable at San Diego State.

The proximity to Beaumont University was, of course, the reason Stanley set his sights on the Belladonna Arms to begin with. Much to his mother’s horror, he might well add.

He could still hear his mother now, from that morning as a matter of fact: “Why in God’s name would you want to live in that hovel downtown when you can stay here in the condo with me? It’s not like I’m annoying or anything. And by the way, here’s five dollars. Go get a haircut. You look like a hobo. And where did you get that shirt? If I’m not mistaken, it was your father’s, God rest his philandering soul—or not, I’m sure it’s all the same to me. But that shirt is older than you are, Stanley. Here’s another five dollars. Go buy yourself a shirt too. And get something with a collar, for God’s sake. A T-shirt is not a fashion statement, Stanley. It’s fucking underwear.”

Oh, no. The woman wasn’t annoying at all. Plus, she cursed like a sailor. Fuck this. Fuck that. Which was okay, except when it was your mother doing it. Shudder.

After he finished shuddering, Stanley stood in the frying-hot sun in front of the Belladonna Arms and giggled. Only his mother would think he could buy a shirt and get a haircut on top of it for ten measly bucks. The woman lived in an alternate universe, and most of that alternate universe was centered around her only son, Stanley. Stanley loved her for that, he truly did, but after twenty-two years of smothering, it was time to come up for air. And that’s exactly what Stanley was doing. His mother no longer needed to pay Stanley’s college tuition, and one would think she’d be grateful for that. But no, she still wanted Stanley stuffed in her purse where she could get at him anytime she wanted, like her ever-present pack of Marlboros.

But Stanley had other ideas.

In this final two years of Stanley’s education, his living and schooling expenses could be covered with the money his father left him when he died during Stanley’s senior year of high school. His father had cut the apron strings from Stanley’s mother several years before his death, for which Stanley did not blame the man at all.

Still, it was now time for Stanley to cut his own apron strings. He didn’t have to cater to his mother’s checkbook any longer, and that meant Stanley was free! Sort of.

He would always be grateful for his mother’s financial help getting him through school, but still, if Stanley didn’t get out of her clutches right this very minute he’d be building his own mound and burrowing under it like some dying Cahokian just to get the hell away from her.

So here he was. The Belladonna Arms.

He took a deep breath and headed for the front steps. The mechanics of applying for a place to live were mind-numbingly terrifying to Stanley because he also suffered from such a horrendous infusion of shyness he could barely function in everyday life. He often thought that might be why he had set his sights at a fairly young age (second grade) on a career that dealt mainly with people who were already dead. Dead people are hardly judgmental at all.

Pursuing a career with dead people was probably the most sensible thing Stanley had ever done. And after burying himself in the study of archaeology for the past four years, Stanley knew he’d made the right decision. He loved it. Every bone, stone, and tomb of it. Even the serene silence of dead people pleased him. It pleased him no end, really, especially after spending twenty-two years with his mother, who was never silent for a minute.

But back to now.

Stanley climbed the steps in rhythm to the eerie caterwauling of that screaming Latino queen who was still singing along to Selena like a squeaky brake drum somewhere in the bowels of the Belladonna Arms. It was a funny thing, but compared to Stanley’s mother’s annoying voice, the queen really didn’t sound so bad. Stanley got a pretty good chuckle out of that thought. Maybe he owed his mother more than he really knew. Hell, compared to her, everything seemed better than it actually was. Two weeks with Stanley’s mother could make the Valentine’s Day Massacre seem like a skeet shoot. The sinking of the Titanic a mere act of baptism for fifteen hundred people. A flesh-gobbling case of leprosy little more than diaper rash.

Yes, Stanley owed his mother a lot. The simple act of being far away from the woman made the world look all rosy and promising, and who can ask for a better testimonial than that?

As he climbed the stairs, Stanley somehow managed to trip on the last step going up. He knew he would, and by God he did. Sometimes he was psychic that way. He landed hard on his knees and hands and was back on his feet a nanosecond later, hoping no one had seen him fall. This was a common occurrence with Stanley. He was clumsy. He was actually pretty used to it by now. If you do something twenty times a day, it ceases to be a catastrophic event after a while.

He merely rubbed his stinging knees with his stinging hands and went on, the fall forgotten in moments.

Stanley opened the Belladonna Arms’s front door and stepped inside.

It didn’t take Stanley long to realize the Belladonna Arms was just as depressing on the inside as it was on the outside. The lobby boasted two rows of rusty mailboxes embedded in the wall to the left with a wastebasket underneath packed to overflowing with fliers nobody wanted. One overstuffed chair, which had seen better days, was parked in the corner with a splayed-open copy of The Advocate resting atop it. Even The Advocate had seen better days. Dog-eared and wrinkled and stained with coffee rings, it looked as if it had been the main source of entertainment for all lobby-goers for the past five years at least. In the other corner stood a fake Ficus benjamina that went all the way to the ceiling. The plastic tree had plastic tinsel and plastic Christmas ornaments dangling all over it, as if blithely ignoring the fact it was now the tail end of August. The tinsel gave a glittery shudder when the opening of the front door created suction in the room, as if a fresh little breath of air had suddenly cooled the premises. Nothing could be further from the truth. The lobby was hot enough to roast a goose.

And speaking of roasting a goose, Stanley thought he could detect the aroma of one now wafting down from somewhere overhead. Or maybe it was fish sticks. He couldn’t be sure.

Through a passageway dead ahead, Stanley saw a flight of stairs heading up. That was it. No elevator. Just a flight of stairs. And Stanley knew with a flash of insight if he did manage to acquire an apartment here, it would without a doubt be located all the way up at the top of those stairs on the sixth fucking floor.

A tiny bell hanging over the door announced Stanley’s entrance.

A moment later, with a swish of sound like the rustle of a shitload of Japanese fans and silk kimonos, a swirling mass of orange taffeta came swooping into the lobby through a side door like a phoenix exploding from the wings into voluptuous flame. It took Stanley exactly four seconds to realize it wasn’t a flaming phoenix at all, but a flaming drag queen. And a fairly old one at that.

It took him another two seconds to realize he liked the old queen. Some people you just do. At very first glance. People are always going on and on about love at first sight, but Stanley figured there was a lot of like at first sight going on too. People just didn’t talk about it much because it was less grand, he supposed. Less… operatic.

The old queen was fluffing her bodice like a florist arranging a spray of daffodils. Looming above the orange taffeta bodice was the bulging, hairy chest and shoulders of a truck driver who had consumed far too many truck-stop specials in his day. The man was huge. Tall, broad, and rotund. The hands doing the bodice fluffing were as big as boulders and were swathed with hair on every knuckle, like an ape’s. The nails on those hands were painted a very lovely chartreuse.

The flaming phoenix needed a shave badly, not only on his chest and shoulders (and probably his back) if he was going to wear low-cut taffeta, but on his face too. Especially with that red wig. The red lipstick did absolutely nothing to camouflage the beard. Besides, it sort of clashed with the chartreuse nails.

Stanley had to smile. This poor thing was the ugliest drag queen ever.

“I hope you brought the right curling iron this time, Ramon. I want ringlets! Ringlets!

Then the queen looked up and saw Stanley standing in the doorway.

“You’re not Ramon,” he said.

And Stanley stammered, “Sorry,” as the smile fell off his face.

“Well, whoever you are,” the queen said, regaining her composure. “As long as you’re there, can you tell me if this gown makes me look fat?” She proceeded to do a rather dainty pirouette that freshened the flames considerably as the orange skirt billowed out, exposing two filthy tennis shoes and two hairy expanses of chubby shin.

“You need to wax,” Stanley said, avoiding the “fat” question at all costs.

The queen stopped in midturn and let the folds of her skirt sway to stillness around her, rather like the quieting of a great bell. She eyed Stanley with one eyebrow hoisted so far up on her forehead it was lost in the bangs of the wig.

“Good Lord, son, I know that! I’m asking about the gown!”

“The gown is stunning,” Stanley stammered, and the queen’s fat face lit up like her stubble had caught fire.

She simpered very sweetly for a hairy three-hundred-pound man in a ball gown. “Oh, thank you, darling. But do you really think so? I don’t want to look cheap, you know. Or simply thrown together.”

Stanley swallowed hard. The last thing the man looked was simply thrown together. In fact, the construction job looked like it might have taken years. And it had still run afoul of perfection at every stage.

The only thing Stanley could think to do was beat a hasty conversational retreat into neutral territory. “I wonder if you might tell me where I can find the manager. I’d like to see the unit that’s up for rent. If I’m cute enough, that is.”

“Cute enough? What the—? Oh, is that stupid sign still out there? I told ChiChi to take it down. That fruit cup never took a direct order in his life. It’s his apartment the vacancy is next to, and he’s trying to assure he gets a hot neighbor. But good Lord, son, you don’t have to worry about being cute enough. You’ve got youth on your side. Hell, that’s half the battle right there.”

The queen whapped herself in the head hard enough to kill a cat. “Oh, well, for goodness sake. Here I am blathering on about my stupid gown and that stupid ChiChi and his stupid sign and you’re here to rent one of the units. I’m such a silly twit! Come on then, son. Let’s look at it together, shall we?”

She demurely faced away from Stanley and peered back over her shoulder. She even went so far as to bat her eyelashes. “Unzip me, will you, dear? I can’t climb all those stairs in this dress or I’ll drench it in sweat. It’s rather warm today, don’t you think?”

Stanley stepped up to the plate and pulled the back zipper down as far as it would go, all the while avoiding the fur on the man’s back like the plague. When he caught a glimpse of the guy’s hairy butt crack, he figured he’d gone far enough. He felt himself blush and quickly turned away, acting like he was studying the molding on the ceiling, which, in actuality, seemed about ready to fall off the wall. “Uh, what floor is the unit on, then?” Stanley asked, all too certain he already knew the answer. And the man immediately proved him right.

“Penthouse,” the drag queen gaily replied. “And a lovely unit it is too. And what a view!”

He stepped out of the flamboyant orange gown and Stanley almost fainted with relief to find he was wearing trousers underneath, albeit with the legs rolled up. The man’s protruding stomach was as hairy as his back and his breasts were far larger than Stanley’s mother’s, or any other woman in Stanley’s unfortunate family, which is how Stanley always thought of his family as being. Unfortunate.

“Let me just grab a shirt,” the man blushed, holding his hands over his tits like Mamie Van Doren being coy, and he ducked back through the doorway from which he’d come. A second later he reappeared tugging a dingy white T-shirt over his head.

When he had the shirt the way he wanted it, and it took some tugging to get it to hang correctly over that bulging stomach, the old queen stuck out his hand and said, “Hello, young man. It’s a pleasure to meet you, and thanks for the sartorial assistance. When I’m dressed like this, my name is Arthur. In high drag, you can call me Angie. Angie O’Gram.” At Stanley’s quizzical expression, the man patted his paunch and spit up a fatalistic giggle. “What can I say? Two heart attacks. One more and my drag name will be Nita Mortician. Anyway, I’m the head cheese around these parts.” And he giggled again.

Stanley grinned as Arthur’s ham-like fists swallowed his outstretched hand like the Blob devouring the mechanic’s head in that old horror movie with Steve McQueen. Only Arthur’s handshake was a lot gentler than the Blob ever dreamed of being. That Blob was a mean motherfucker.

“I’m Stanley,” Stanley said. “Penthouse, huh?” He really did like this guy. The prospect of running up and down six flights of stairs several times a day he wasn’t so sure about.

Arthur gave Stanley’s fingers a friendly pat, then excitedly clapped his hands in front of his nose, obviously concerned with losing the sale before he ever cornered it. “Now just wait until you see the apartment! It’s to die for. Truly it is. So cute and compact and sunny and windowy. I just put up new butter-yellow curtains in the unit too. And a bedspread to match. They’re sooooo cute!”

Stanley had to laugh at the hairy giant flapping his hands like obese butterflies. “So it’s furnished, then.”

Arthur laughed right back. “Oh, yes, honey. Furnished with everything you need, except for maybe someone to cuddle on those lonely nights when—oh, but never mind about that. I’m sure you know more about cuddling than I do. I myself didn’t come out until late in life. Two years ago, in fact. I’m trying to make up for lost time.”

“So I see,” Stanley said. After all, the man was still wearing lipstick.

“Onward and upward!” Arthur announced. “Let’s show you that apartment, shall we?”

And before Stanley could even nod, Arthur had taken him by the elbow and dragged him toward the stairs. “You don’t mind a little exercise, do you? A young handsome buck like yourself? It’ll keep you in shape, you know. Yes indeedy, it will.”

Then Arthur cast a nervous glance up the long flight of stairs, sucked in a large gulp of air like a man about to dive off the high board, and began lumbering skyward, Stanley in tow. Half a flight up, Arthur was puffing and blowing and sweating like a steam engine. His dingy T-shirt was already stuck to his fuzzy torso like a soggy stamp on a moldy envelope.

“I’m glad I took my gown off,” he muttered to himself. “Perspiration simply ruins taffeta.”

Perhaps to take his mind off the stairs, Arthur said, “You know I don’t dress in drag that often, but the big Belladonna Ball is coming up, and I want to do it right this year. I’ve been dieting for almost a year now, and I’ve already lost two pounds. Two pounds! I’m so thrilled about that. Ramon—he’s one of the tenants, a beauty student, don’t you know—he said he’d wax me before the ball. Just like you said! See? I’m really on top of things this year.”

He stopped on the landing and looked around, squinting through the sweat soaking his face. “Are we there yet? Christ, I think I’m having a stroke.”

Stanley pointed to a sign on the wall that read “2.” “Uh, I think this is the first landing. Four more to go.”

“Oh, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph on pogo sticks. Okay. Let’s not stop now or I’ll never get going again. I’ll have to take an apartment on the second floor myself and start life all over again.”

Stanley laughed.

Arthur didn’t. He grabbed Stanley’s hand and lugged him up another flight. Somehow between the panting and an ongoing spate of bitching about the steps and the heat, Arthur still found the breath to give Stanley a running tour of the premises.

“We’ve got plenty of hot water. Utilities are included, don’t you know, so that’s always nice. There’s a laundry room in the basement. Don’t use the washer in the middle, it chews up clothes like a cow eats grass. We have four units on each floor, all one bedrooms. As far as I know, everyone who lives here is as gay as a cotillion.” Arthur batted his lashes in Stanley’s direction and snickered. “I interviewed them myself to make sure.” With a beat of afterthought, Arthur added, “Well, except for Ingersol. Straight Mr. Ingersol. On 3. Shiver! But he was here before I moved in, so I can’t just toss him out on his sneaky little ass, now can I? Would but that I could!”

Stanley wondered what was so sneaky about Mr. Ingersol but didn’t get a chance to ask.

Arthur pulled himself up the last step to the next landing and clutched his heart, which startled the shit out of Stanley. He thought the man was maybe having a third and final heart attack. But instead of keeling over dead, Arthur asked in a somber tone, “I’m assuming you’re gay, right? Not that it matters, of course. It would be illegal to deny you an apartment just because you were one of those. You know. Like the pervert in 3B.” He cupped a hand around his mouth and whispered the final words in Stanley’s ear. “Heterosexual, I mean.”

Stanley watched a dastardly smile cross Arthur’s face, and he laughed, realizing he was being teased. Arthur knew Stanley was gay as well as Stanley did. He gave Arthur a gentle punch in the arm like one locker-room buddy prodding another. “Me, straight? Oh, that’s a good one.”

Arthur’s eyes opened wide; his brightly painted lips formed a perfect O. “Did you say ‘Odessa Goodwyn’? Ooh, what a lovely drag name. Odessa Goodwyn. Maybe when I lose a couple more pounds I can use it. Mind?”

Stanley shrugged, and he kept shrugging long enough to figure out what Arthur was talking about. Then he got it. “It’s all yours,” he said, magnanimous as hell.

Arthur’s fat hand came out to pinch Stanley’s cheek. He smiled very sweetly. “Oh, you’re cute enough, Stanley. I think you’re going to be a very popular addition to the Belladonna Arms roster of inmates.” Then he pulled a cigar from his trouser pocket and popped it in his mouth. The cigar was already half-burned, one end slimy with spit, the other end’s cold ashes stinking to high heaven.

“Mind if I smoke?” Arthur asked. “It helps me breathe.”

“Well, I’m not sure it would actually help you bre—”

“Thanks. I knew you wouldn’t.” And Arthur lit the cigar. Odiferous fumes invaded the stairwell immediately. Stanley clamped his jaws tight, trying not to barf. He concentrated on the stairs to take his mind off the stench.

At the rate they were going, Stanley figured it would take them the rest of the day to reach the top floor. Oops, sorry. The penthouse. But he supposed asking Arthur to hurry it along, and then quite possibly having to call the paramedics to revive the man after his heart exploded, would take even longer. So Stanley held his tongue and plodded along. Arthur was still holding his arm, but he wasn’t leading Stanley now, he was hanging on him. Sweat was starting to pop out all over Stanley, just like it was Arthur. The stairwell was hotter than hell, and the stinky, soggy cigar Arthur had clamped between his teeth was making Stanley wish he had a gun. He could never shoot another human being, but he might seriously contemplate blowing his own fucking brains out. Of course, that would only prove his mother right in her condemnation of the Belladonna Arms, so Stanley pushed away all thoughts of suicide and concentrated his energy on not letting Arthur’s three hundred pounds drag him down to the floor.

Arthur seemed to get a second wind on the third-floor landing, so he resumed his duties as the Belladonna Arms tour guide.

“Sylvia lives on this floor. 4B. She’s lovely. A transsexual, you know. Ooh, and her Toll House cookies are to die for! Don’t let her ask you to dinner though. Cookies are the only thing she can cook. Sylvia is having a bit of a slowdown on her reassignment surgery due to lack of funds, although her hormone supplements have swelled her breasts up nicely. Perky little buggers. You’ll see. She’ll probably show them to you the moment you meet. She loves showing them off. Sylvia is one of the reasons for the Belladonna Ball this year. We’re raffling off a trick for the night to help with her expenses. Oh, Lord, and wait until you see who we’ve lined up to be auctioned off. You won’t believe it, darling!”

Stanley didn’t know what to say to that, so he simply said. “Poor Sylvia. It must be hard.”

Arthur gave a shudder. “If she gets the money together for that final round of surgery, it won’t be hard for long. They split it down the middle and tuck it up inside, you know.” Arthur gave another shudder, just to get his point across. Then he groaned, obviously creeped out by the very idea of it all.

“That wasn’t what I meant,” Stanley said, appalled Arthur would think it was.

But Arthur wasn’t listening. He was watching his feet plod up the next flight of steps. Even Stanley thought the steps were getting steeper and farther apart, although he admitted it might just be his imagination. One more flight, he kept telling himself. One more one more one more.

At the landing with the number “5” stenciled on the wall, Arthur announced between gasps for air, “Roger and Ramon live on this floor. Not together of course, although Ramon sure would like to. Roger’s a dreamboat. God, wait’ll you see him. He’s a nurse. Everybody wants Roger, but he’s a little above the rest of us. Gods don’t usually canoodle with the mortals you know. They just don’t. I don’t know how many times I’ve asked Roger for a sponge bath, but he just laughs it off. Ramon is the beauty student I told you about. He’s so cute and girly and sweet. I just love Ramon to death. Although he won’t give me a sponge bath, either.”

Arthur molded his face in a hopeful expression and aimed it in Stanley’s direction.