The Dish by Thomas Kearnes

Gregg sprawled across the hardwood floor like a lizard prone against the side of a child’s mesh-wire cage. Snores rumbled from his mouth. A fine film of moisture coated his skin. He could have been anywhere from his mid-thirties to almost fifty. His face was so puffy, so white and distended, it made any narrower estimate of his age impossible. His hair was curly. His eyes were closed. His boyfriend, Jack, reached down to pick up the cell phone flipped open in Gregg’s hand.

“Who was he trying to call now?” Leon asked.

Jack closed the phone and set it on the desk next to the laptop. “I don’t know.” He glanced at the screen and saw a photo of a naked man, his head cut off at the top of the frame. Jack glimpsed a few lines of the profile below the man’s image: I like to party, I like to play, can fuck all night, can cum all day. He wasn’t sure if he admired or pitied the literary effort the naked man had put into his ad.

“Was it the guy who rhymed?” Leon asked from the green velvet lounge chair across the desk from where Gregg had passed out. Jack looked at the slender man seated no more than a few feet away from him: Leon wore only underwear that clung to him like crepe paper. He was short and blonde. His smile promised things best kept secret.

Jack smiled and closed his boyfriend’s laptop. “Who knows?” he said. “Probably. If he’s cracked out, he’ll still be around when we’re done.” He kept his tone jocular—they were still flirting. “If you’re interested.” They had been kissing, almost finished undressing each other before being interrupted by the thump Gregg made upstairs after falling from his desk.

“Pity to expend all that effort getting a guy over here,” Leon said, “only to fall out when the goods arrive.”

***

This wasn’t the first jab Leon had made at Gregg. After he arrived, Leon listened to Gregg elucidate in frenzied, emphatic tones about antique furniture, old homes and older money. Jack recognized this breathless incantation of dates, facts and names as the last stage before his boyfriend crumpled face-first into whatever lay before him. Jack eavesdropped out of sight from his and Gregg’s bedroom.

Not much later, he saw in the doorway Leon’s long, fine-haired legs, the swift curve between his hip and ribcage. He nearly dropped his pipe in alarm. The bedroom was sacrosanct, the one room in the house meant for Jack and Gregg alone. Leon wore his T-shirt and shorts after having declined Gregg’s offer to get naked before he began his lecture.

“How did you—?”

“He was going on about Victorian something or another,” Leon said. “I told him with all these objects—all these things—in your home, it was a shame I didn’t get a proper tour.” He grinned and a moment later that grin widened still.  Jack wondered if he had not responded to his guest’s wickedness with some of his own.

“He didn’t offer to show off the house himself?”

“He did, but then he got an email alert.”

Jack groaned.

“No worries. I’m sure by the time he’s done salivating on his keyboard, you and I will have made our escape.”

Leon pulled Jack to his feet in one fluid motion. He took the pipe from Jack’s hand.

They went downstairs to the kitchen. They kissed. Leon whipped off his shirt and waved it above their heads like a white flag.

“Put that on the counter, not the floor,” Jack said. “The cats might get to it.”

Leon smiled and kissed him. “You need a refresher course in this.”

They laughed and kissed again. They rocked on their feet, circled each other in an elementary dance.

Then, from upstairs: Gregg’s thunk on the floor.

“We should go see about him,” Jack said. “Make sure he’s okay.”

“Fuck him—check the floor. That hardwood is gorgeous.”

Smiling, he pulled away from Leon. He let his hand trail on his guest’s waist. “Sometimes he hits his head on the table when he falls out.”

Leon held Jack’s gaze. “So this is a typical party.”

Jack opened his mouth to reply only to realize he had not been asked a question. He looked behind Leon toward the staircase as if there had been another noise. Suddenly, he felt himself unable to return his gaze to Leon.

“We’ll go up together,” Leon said, stepping ahead of Jack out of the kitchen.

***

Back upstairs Jack froze in apprehension. He had finished speculating to Leon on the availability of the rhyming naked man from the website. Leon placed his hand on the closed laptop to steady himself, stepping over Gregg’s body, and nudged him with his bare foot.

“Still out?” Jack asked. He imagined how Gregg’s breath must have felt against the bridge of his foot.

As out as before.”

Jack exhaled with relief and sank into the green velvet chair.

“You’ve conducted this test before?” Leon asked.

“What?”

He tapped his foot against Gregg’s head. Jack tensed in his seat. Leon smiled.

“Yeah, he just gets to going on the computer or talking about tables, or chairs, or drapes, and…”

“So it’s not the drugs then?”

The drugs?”

He puts himself to sleep.”

Jack looked at Leon as he laughed.

Leon perched on the desk. “If you don’t lighten up, we’re not going to have much fun.”

Jack looked down for a moment but then he lifted his head and met Leon’s gaze. “We were. Downstairs.”

“Then let’s return to the scene of the good time.”

Leon plunked down on the floor and reached out for a deep and wide heavy-glassed casserole dish containing a potpourri of white powders ready for snorting. Jack jerked his hand over the desk, his fingers fanned.

“What is it?”

“That dish.”

“It’s a casserole dish.”

“It’s an antique.”

“Gregg failed to mention that in his syllabus.”

“I’m serious.”

“Jack, look into it.”

“What?”

Leon pushed the dish closer to Jack. It slid across a mess of documents and other papers. “Stand up and look into it.”

Under the two lines cut and ready and a mound of powder in the dish, Jack’s reflection bubbled in the unevenness of the glass.

“See the scratches?”

He saw them, giving his face a grainy appearance in addition to the distortion.

“How valuable can it be if he uses it to cut dope?”

Jack sat down. He had carried the pipe upstairs with them when they came to investigate—or, rather, ascertain—Gregg’s early exit from the party. He lifted a cut-off portion of a drinking straw from the inside of the casserole dish and scooped up a few granules of the white powder.

“What’s in there exactly?” Leon asked.

“You haven’t done any? You seem wired to me.”

His leg swung madly beneath the desk. “I did right after I got up here.”

“How much?”

Leon smiled.

Moving the pipe over the dish, Jack guided the straw end with the granules clinging inside over the pipe and loaded it. He handed the instrument to Leon along with a cigarette lighter from the desk. “You need to catch up,” he said and tried to smile. It flickered and fell. He looked at Leon, his eyes wet with resignation.  Leon leaned back, as if the volume of Jack’s gaze required extra space. Leon let the lighter flame burn just shy of the pipe’s bottom. Smoke from the granules rose and swirled.

Jack watched the breaths of white smoke billow from Leon’s lips, thicker and more insistent than cigarette smoke. Each exhalation clung together, dense and bright, till it reached the ceiling and finally dissipated with nowhere left to climb. Even as Leon pursed and bowed his lips in comic exaggeration, Jack felt while watching him a stirring within himself. He wanted Leon. He wanted to push him flat against the desk. He wanted Leon to feel the weight of him. He wanted to feel Leon’s body rise to meet his as he surged inside him. He wanted to know Leon’s last name. He wanted to know the name of his hometown.

But more than anything, Jack wanted to tell Leon a story. He wanted to tell the sly, exquisite boy perched above his sleeping lover that he had lied.

“It’s not an antique.”

As another bank of smoke escaped his lips, Leon said, “Not anymore at least.”

“Gregg and I—that was the first thing he bought for me.”

“He bought you a dish?”

“Well, gave. He gave it to me, my first time here.”

“This is his house?”

“Our house.” Jack remembered why he never told this story. He knew what other men would think—only dating a few months before moving in, playing at domestic life before even having been with Gregg a full year, contributing sometimes little and more often no money to support them. But this was still their house. Their house: his and Gregg’s.

“You moved in?”

He nodded. Leon’s posture sitting on the desk reminded Jack of a coil descending a staircase, the slink of his head and neck and narrow torso down to his hips. He held Jack with his eyes as the smoke cleared. Jack felt like Alice admitting her confusion before Wonderland’s caterpillar as he blew smoke and derision from his hookah. Jack reached for the pipe.

Handing it to him, leaning across the desk, Leon said, “But it’s still here. I’m sitting right beside it. When did he give it to you exactly?”

“My first time here. Last year.”

“First date?”

Jack felt his face flush at this joke. He wanted to look away, but to look away meant soon submitting again to Leon’s gaze with whatever new ripple of insinuation it held. He could not bear that.

“So it was like this?” Leon asked. “Like you and I right now.” He let the implication sit pregnant between them a moment. “Were you snorting from it with him?”

He had not lit the pipe Leon handed him. This was an interrogation. His eyes fell to Leon’s foot, still rocking back and forth under the desk. His toe came within an inch of Gregg’s head with each swing. But when he finally did look back up at the man Gregg had invited into their home, he saw that his face had softened. The sharpness of Leon’s features receded from prominence and Jack noticed the slight downward curve of his full lips, how his eyes dimmed as if in response to a distant tragedy.

“He gave it to me. Just as I was going out the door to leave, he called me back up here.”

“Back upstairs?”

“He said to take it. For the next time when I wanted to party, I’d have the surface to cut the dope.”

“So how did it wind up back here?”

Jack took in a deep inhalation. He held it for a moment, aware of the suspense in which he had placed his guest. He had finally reached the end of this story, a story he had told up until that moment to no one but himself. It had been his charm against the doubts roiling under the surface of any relationship, a litany Jack repeated to himself when Gregg passed out before reaching their bed or insisted on inviting over other men.

“When I moved in, it was the first thing I brought from the car.” Jack felt a rush through his dilated veins, a release, the long-anticipated opening of a sliding showroom door. “I walked inside, and Gregg saw the dish in my hand. He said, ‘You kept it.’”

“He remembered…”

Jack nodded, his smile wide, his eyes clear. “It had been three, four months since he gave it to me, and I just—I just assumed he had been too high then to remember. But he said, ‘You kept it. You kept it.’”

For the first time in their conversation, Leon looked away. He seemed from what Jack could tell to be taking in the room—fully, truly—for the first time. The Oriental rug hung on the wall, its mesmerizing oval-and-rectangle pattern for a moment bewitching Jack as well. The several bookcases filled with volumes on art collecting and antique furniture. And among it all, the closed laptop, a floating mine in a quiet pond.

“Come over here,” Leon said.

Jack rose from the chair and circled the desk to where Leon sat. He stood not only inches from Leon but from Gregg’s unconscious body as well. Leon reached out his arm and pulled Jack’s head to his. Their kiss at first was hesitant, their lips touching as if sampling something exotic, but after a moment of unease, they embraced and their kiss deepened. Jack felt a connection he had never felt with any of the men Gregg invited, and the last words of his story to Leon echoed through his own head: You kept it. You kept it.

Leon inched his lips away first. His smile now was one of empathy, perhaps regret. He placed his fingertips on Jack’s cheek. “Let’s take it with us,” he said. “We’ll do some more downstairs. Let Gregg sleep.”

Jack beamed, ecstatic as a child blindfolded for a party game. “We’ll snort it through a dollar bill.”

“Dollar bill?”

“It’s old-school. You’ll like it.”

Jack reached out and collected the heavy dish with one hand. But he was jittery and his muscles tense, his coordination blunted. Had it not been for Leon’s quick hands, the dish would have tumbled from his grasp and bashed Gregg’s head.

Leon held the dish in both hands and watched the shock slowly invade Jack’s face. But Leon smiled sweetly. That was nothing, he said. A crisis averted.

He handed the dish back to Jack. He said, “Be careful this time.”


Thomas Kearnes is a 36-year-old author from East Texas, now living in Houston. His fiction has appeared in PANK, Storyglossia, Word Riot, Eclectica, Ampersand Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, A cappella Zoo, JMWW Journal and numerous GLBT venues. He is a columnist for Flash Fiction Chronicles and a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee. He has two collections debuting this year: “Pretend I’m Not Here” from Musa Publishing and “Me Love You Long Time” from JMS Books. He runs like a girl.