About The Book
Johnny Rio, a handsome narcissist no longer a pretty boy, travels to Los Angeles, the site of past sexual conquest and remembered youthful radiance, in a frenzied attempt to recreate his younger self. Johnny has ten precious days to draw the “numbers,” the men who will confirm his desirability, and with the hungry focus of a man on borrowed time, he stalks the dark balconies of all-night theaters, the hot sands of gay beaches, and the shady glens of city parks, attempting to attract shadowy sex-hunters in an obsessive battle against the passing of his youth.
HE LEFT PHOENIX in the morning, in the early dawning moments when the world is purple; and he saw, on the highway, bands of spectral birds clustered on the pavement searching for God knows what–certainly not food, not on the bare highway and so near the sleeping city.
Expecting them to take flight quickly, he did not reduce his speed; but even as the car dashed dangerously toward them, they remained there as if mysteriously involved in some suicidal ritual–until Johnny Rio, who would have brooded grayly about killing anything (he would prefer to swerve off the road), smashed at his brakes and sounded his honk–the long sound spreading emptily, lonesomely, into the caverns of the still morning.
Only then did the strange birds scatter–but very, very slowly, reluctantly; they flew away–gliding like pieces of dark paper abandoned suddenly by an erratic wind; gliding, but quite low, just barely above the hood of the car: as if in a deep trance.
Again and again, as he drives now much more slowly (the car hardly moving, Johnny himself caught in the hypnotic mood this phantasmal morning has spread over the birds and the highway), he encounters other, similar birds, always small, always shadowy, always in groups of eight or nine, always as if courting a harsh, inevitable destiny, either reluctant to move away from or unaware of the crushing path of the car.
Within a distance of perhaps a mile, the birds were gone.
Once again, Johnny can slash the desert in his speeding new car, as he has done from Texas to New Mexico, into Arizona–the country he has traveled from Laredo, through the burned desert, the level lands leprously spotted with dried bushes; and he’s rushing to Los Angeles for a reason he does not know: knowing only that he’s returning for ten days.
Exactly ten days.
To avoid the yellow heat of the Arizona desert, a heat remembered from other, distant times, he left Phoenix early (after arriving there yesterday afternoon: renting a room in one of those synthetic “luxury” motels which seem to be made of layers of colored sugar; and he lay by the pool glancing admiringly and often at his slenderly muscled body stretched sensually turning dark tan under the raging summer sun, the hairs on his legs gold despite his dark-brown hair); but already, now that he’s many, many miles into the desert, the heat is panting at the windows in recurrent smothering breaths.
He removes his shirt. He never wears underclothes, and so his chest is bare. He feels free and sexual.
The sun has whitened the desert, transforming it paradoxically into that snowy, icy spectacle created by the sand and the trembling waves of steam released by the pavement in the distance. A car ahead of Johnny (but not ahead for long: he has a compulsion to pass) augments the sense of unreality which has not yet been lifted; that car seems to float on the horizon as if on a frozen lake.
Deliberately to shatter the mood, Johnny turns the radio on, hoping for one of those miraculously lunatic stations that spew out the blessedly mesmerizing wailing of young groups with lovely names, the hopped-up disc jockeys making bad jokes; or hoping for a biblestation from which a Negro preacher will moan out ineffable rocking blue damnation. But Johnny has already traveled too far from the cities, and all the radio picks up is one of those square stations you inevitably get so inappropriately as you speed frantically in the daytime along the highways of America toward an urgent destination.
He’s going 90 miles an hour.
The amorphous heat is fierce.
Far, far away he sees a shadow slice the air before him sharply like a scythe ripping the sky: perhaps a vulture swooping down on something dead in the desert. Johnny imagines it perched humped over the bleeding flesh. Appalled by the cruel image, he futilely tries the radio again.
But death, which he avoids thinking of, seems determined to permeate his awareness; it does like a knife in his flesh.
Behind him are memories of dead birds smashed by other cars along the highways–of the red, red freshly spilled blood smeared on the concrete pavement. The crushed feathers.
And already his windshield is speckled heavily with those tragic moth-creatures that descend from the sky to crash against the glass–each tiny life transformed mercilessly in one instant into a powdery smear, perhaps a dot of blood on the pane–to be wiped off with a moist paper towel at the next gas station.
Are those dusty insects aware of the windshield? Do they lunge from the sky, welcoming their destruction? Or are they trying to enter the car to escape the powerful currents created by the plunging cars? Deceived by the glass, they crash against an invisible destiny–a destiny unperceived until the fatal moment.
Not that Johnny would equate destiny with death, which may be only an anticlimax in the curve of life; no, his awareness is not so much of death as of a welcome extended to fate, of the suicide that doesn’t involve the taking of life: of the infinite ways in which your “number” (so many penultimate numbers!) comes up every single day.
Thinking that, Johnny accelerates his speed to 95–as he lunges toward the foggy city of lost angels.
Unconsciously, he’s begun to count the number of bugs slaughtered by his speeding car.
Splash! . . . One. . . .
Two . . . three. . . .
He’s about to count four, but the tiny fluttering speck veers away from the windshield, escapes. Its number wasn’t up.
But when it is–. . .
He imagines a roster, with everyone in the world–past, present, future–numbered (as in that book of the Bible in which Moses is commanded by God to take a census of his people): all listed neatly in long, thin, tight columns. Say that your number is infinite-billion, six million, eight hundred and sixty-six thousand, three hundred and seventy-three. That means you’ll go immediately after number infinite-billion, six million, eight hundred and sixty-six thousand, three hundred and seventy-two. If you could only determine the numbers of those before you, then you’d know almost to the instant when your own would come up. (A sure way, Johnny can’t help thinking with amusement, of insuring that you will, indeed, be your brother’s keeper!)
Splut! . . . Four.
He imagines God poised behind an automatic rifle sniping each “number” down–though on occasion He might, for expediency, use a machine gun to topple the ranks like dominoes.
Johnny notices the fifth crushed bug since he began counting.
When your number comes up–. . .
Suddenly aware of what he’s been counting, and angered by it, he tries once again to shut off that area of his mind obsessed with death and self-destruction–that area opened by the shadowy birds outside of Phoenix, the crushed feathers glued with blood to the pavement, the mothy bugs on the windshield.
And this is how he tries to shut those thoughts off: He looks down at his shirtless chest, which–deeply, deeply tanned–gleams with sweat. Pleased by the sight, he runs his hand over it, brings that hand to his mouth, and he licks his own perspiration, feeling excitement burgeoning between his legs. He spreads his knees, arches his body. His foot on the pedal accelerates the speed still more: one hundred miles an hour.
Triumphantly, the thought of sex has driven away the thought of death, at least for now.
He has counted the number of cars he has passed on the highway from the time he began to encounter some light traffic. Three cars so far. The fourth now coming up.
Four. He’s passed four cars.
And not one has passed him!
He sees the fifth ahead, approaches it. Now he inches to the left, to begin passing; but the driver in front of him, challenged, accelerates his own speed. Johnny sees the blond head of what appears to be a youngman–he too shirtless. Johnny Rio is about to steer sharply to the left, to force the other to allow him to pass–begins to do so in a swift, swerving arc; but a car rushing in the opposite lane–its panicked honk blaring, echoing itself into the desert–forces him to retreat. The driver of the car which Johnny is even more determined now to pass is keeping to the left, almost flush with the line dividing the highway; he’s seizing strategic advantage of the narrow, single lane to block Johnny’s car. Enraged, Johnny watches his speedometer wavering uncertainly beyond the 100 mark.
A distance away, on a gradual ascent, a heavy truck moves slowly like an enormous red-striped insect along a no-passing stretch. Approaching it, both Johnny and the driver of the car ahead–brakes protesting shrilly–are forced to decelerate suddenly: 95 miles . . . 90 . . . 80 . . . 70 . . . 65 . . .
Now the driver in front turns to look at Johnny. In that swift instant they see each other, and what Johnny sees is a blond youngman in his 20’s with wild, wind-tossed hair.
I’ve got to pass him! Johnny thinks urgently.
He notices that only a few feet ahead, beyond a curve on the ascending highway, the double, no-passing line breaks for a short distance. There are no cars on the opposite lane. At exactly the right instant he depresses the gas pedal, moves quickly into the left lane, is now parallel with the car he’s been trying to pass (the two drivers glance at each other once more, swiftly, like charioteers), moves ahead of it (wishing strangely for the wild beat of rocking music on the radio to accompany the speed), is parallel with the truck, passes it–and glides into the right lane feeling almost sexually released.
I’ve passed five cars, one truck! he exults.
The number on the speedometer is 105.
He tells himself to slow down, but he doesn’t. He feels carried on a current–not so much he who is driving as he who is being driven–as if the highway is pulling him.
Faster than time!
He leaves his foot pressed tightly to the pedal.
Yet despite the urgency, at the thought of his destination (I am returning to Los Angeles after three years!), his heart protests in terror, his body chills the perspiration, his mind howls with echoes.
As he speeds ineluctably to the foggy city of dead angels (even when he lived there, he often thought of Los Angeles–with its ubiquitous advertisements for interment–as a ‘swinging cemetery,” a “graveyard of fun”; have-a-ball-on-your-own-gravesite!), Johnny Rio appears moody, almost sinister, like an angel of dark sex, or death.
He looks like this:
He is very masculine, and he has been described recurrently in homosexual jargon as “a very butch number” –a phrase invariably accompanied by a great rolling of the eyes, a nervous, moist flitting of the tongue along the lips. A supreme accolade in that world, “butch” means very male and usually carries overtones of roughness; a “number” is a potential or actual or merely desired partner in vagrant sex.
But Johnny’s is an easy masculinity–not stiff, not rigid, not blundering nor posed–although, when he wants to, he can look tough: unapproachably tough when he carries it to a self-defeating extreme. The fact is that, as with all truly sexually attractive men, there is something very, very subtly female about him; and only at first does that seem a semantic contradiction: because, although, yes, there is that something which is vaguely female, there is nothing feminine, there is nothing effeminate.
He walks gracefully, weightlessly, like a panther–and with just the slightest trace of a cocky swagger. (A girl he went out with told him once that she waited at her door to watch him walk away.) His eyes are green–but if he wears blue, they assume that color, become unbelievably azure; and they’re rimmed by thick, full, curled, almost ridiculously long lashes. He constantly flirts by glancing down through sleepy lids, then looking up quickly. He has dark-brown wavy hair. A slight crook in his nose keeps him from being a prettyboy and makes him, therefore, much more attractive and masculine. He has a tremendous smile, which he has often observed himself while looking into a mirror–but only after many people had commented on it (so it is not ‘studied”): It begins, his smile, almost shyly as the barest hint of a grin–then, disappearing entirely for an instant as if he has decided not to smile after all, it spreads suddenly–bursts radiantly–very wide, revealing white, even, dazzling teeth.
So the “femaleness’ has to do with the fact that he moves sensually, that his eyes invite, that he is constantly flirting (although this is not conscious), and that he is extremely vain.
And, also, it has to do with a harrowing sensitivity about age.
One should therefore merely say that Johnny looks to be in his early 20’s. He has even been asked for identification when, on very rare occasions, he has bought liquor during the past three years. (And he’s firmly convinced that–largely through sheer determination–he’ll never age.)
Neither tall nor short (though closer to short than tall), Johnny has a slender, muscular body. In the past few years he has exercised diligently with weights–not in order to become one of those rigid grotesques with coconut muscles that bear no relation whatever to the natural lines of the body, but to keep lithe and hard. This he has accomplished eminently.
There is at least another reason for his determined exercising. Stripped down to trunks, alone in the room where he works out in his apartment in Laredo, he becomes acutely aware of his body–at first in opposition to the weights (himself overcoming the resistance), then in fusion and harmony with them (strength and power existing only in their actual manifestation, in the kinetic activity). His muscles pumped, flushed tight, rigid and filled with blood, the perspiration flowing in relief, he’s aware of whatever mysterious thing it is that makes him alive.
Johnny’s father, now dead, was Irish. His mother is Mexican. (“Rio’ is not actually his last name–it’s not even his mother’s maiden name, although hers is really Mexican. He assumed the name in Los Angeles because, especially in a world where no last names are given, it sounded romantic–like a gypsy’s.) From them he inherited a smooth complexion which sponges the sun’s rays easily, almost, one could say, adoringly: When he lies stretched under the stark gaze of the sun–and he does so religiously each summer–he feels that the heat is making love to him, licking his body with a golden tongue. Each summer his skin becomes like brown velvet.
Many people have told him that he’s very handsome. He likes to hear that, and he never denies it. But he knows that the designation is not exactly correct. Precisely: he is much more sexual than he is handsome; and that, for Johnny, is even better. There is something about him which exudes sensuality. He knows it, he may even have cultivated it. He has been told that there is a promise of ‘dark sex” that hovers about him.
Again, as with all truly sexually desirable men, he attracts both sexes–even, among his own sex, some who will never recognize that attraction, who will feel it, disguised, only as a certain anger and resentment toward him. Johnny is used to a type of man, usually married, who will try to quarrel with him instantly.
Added to the various paradoxes of his being, as well as to his attractiveness–there is–or so he has been told (but only by people who have not known him sexually)–a suggestion of something that remains pure and innocent about him, something of uncontaminability.
This perplexes Johnny because he has not–since he was a child–felt “pure.”
If you approach Los Angeles on the highway turned freeway, as Johnny Rio will soon be doing, you’re aware, perhaps as far as a hundred miles away, of the Cloud. It enshrouds the city. In the daytime and from that distance, the Cloud, which is fog and smoke, creates a spectral city: a gray mass floating on the horizon. At night, lit by the millions of colored lights with which the city attempts futilely to smother the dark, it becomes an incandescent, smoking halo; dull orange: as though the city were on fire.
In a curious trance at the awareness of his imminent return–sailing automatically, effortlessly, unconsciously, between cars, ahead of them, assuming a waltzing rhythm as he does so–Johnny Rio hasn’t yet noticed the ominous Cloud. He hasn’t even noticed that the traffic has thickened considerably for the last few miles on the long, long . . . long . . . entrance to Los Angeles.
He tries the radio once more . . . the electronic murmuring.
Suddenly, with a blast, a rocking L.A. station shatters the static. A male voice groans:
Wild thing, you make my heart sing–You make everything groooooveee. . . .
The music, by a group called the Troggs, with its persistent beat (like life imbedded in the record’s groove, to be played over and over–the same; what changes between the beginning and the end?), acts as a catalyst for Johnny’s buried despair; and despair flows in a confused mixture of panic and excitement which burrows between his legs; his cock begins to swell.
The moaning voice on the radio imitates the dark sounds of Negroes:
Wahld thang . . . Ah thank Ah loooove yew!But Ah wanna know foh SUUUUUUURE! . . .
As he speeds into that mushroom of gray mist ahead of him (the car devouring the highway), the foggy, smoky Cloud reaches out for him, begins to surround him more and more closely–although he’s still not aware of it, partly because it seems to recede as one nears it.
“Wahld thang–. . .”
The sky is still clearly blue; but the scenery ahead has begun to fade, buried beyond that foggy veil; the mountains appear unreal, like movie props. Each mile farther inward, the Cloud perversely shuts out more of the sky; and the spotty verdure assumes that patina of gray that settles on the city.
Wahld thang, Ah thank yew mooooooove me! . . .
Enveloped by the grayness, Johnny Rio suddenly realizes he has entered the Cloud.
On a Friday afternoon in summer.