by Robin Crawford
The morning breeze came soft as a feather, giving breath to the blue-checkered curtains. They billowed in and out, in and out, as the shades clacked and rattled against the pane.
Waking to the sound after only five hours’ sleep, Topper Brown cracked his eyes open to check the time and instantly slammed them shut again. It can’t be morning already, he thought. His entire body screamed in protest. Daylight crashed into senses raw from overuse. The breeze became a howling gale.
Topper groaned to himself. A stirring in the bed beside him reminded him that he wasn’t alone, and he changed the groan to a moan that could be heard. A hand fell on his shoulder and pulled him onto his back.
“I had too much wine last night,” Topper said, at once diagnosing, excusing and apologizing.
“You had too much me last night.” Christopher knelt beside him on all fours and bent his head close to Topper’s chest. He puckered a nipple between his lips. The rough stubble of beard tickled Topper’s sensitive skin.
The old man squirmed in pleasure. He hesitated to push his lover away, even though he had to piss like a racehorse.
Chris was twenty-eight. Too young and much too good-looking to be messing around with a man nearly twice his age. Yet Topper had lucked out on this one—or had it been the wad of cash he’d pulled out of his pocket to pay for the drinks the night they’d met? Whatever the reason, two Saturdays ago Topper Brown had been the one to take Christopher home with him from the Crawlspace, amid stares of disbelief, congratulations, and envy.
“Let’s go for a swim,” Chris said, coaxing Topper’s eyes open with a kiss to each brow.
Topper reluctantly rolled out from under his young lover.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” he said, easing himself into a sitting position. The mention of swimming conjured watery thoughts and he absolutely had to get up.
He stood, became self-consciously aware of his semi-flaccid erection, and experienced a vague wave of satisfaction. Things down there still work pretty good for an old coot like me, he thought. Feeling Chris’ eyes following him as he headed for the bathroom, he couldn’t help adding silently, They’re still looking pretty good, too.
He made a mental note to try and find time for the gym today if his arthritis would allow. It was just a little pain, once in a while, but enough to prevent the schedule of daily workouts which had been at the top of his list the past New Year’s Day. It was the fourth item on that list he now considered as he stood shaking the last stubborn drops into the porcelain bowl: Stop killing every man I sleep with.
Christopher hadn’t seen the list yet, of course. And he wouldn’t. Not until just before the event, like his brothers already gone before him. And when he did see it, he would laugh, thinking it a joke, just as the others had.
But Topper would show him at the proper time, as he had Danny, Phil, Scratch (his real name was William, but because he suffered from a case of chronically-unresolved hangnails, Topper had bestowed upon him a fond yet devilish nickname), and Martin, of course. Dear, sweet Martin, who loved cats and strawberry ice cream, and gave killer foot rubs, had been the most recent, over a month ago. Topper sighed feeling dangerously close to regret.
Each year, Topper started afresh, forgiving himself every indiscretion, mistake, and F U, as he sometimes called them. He always vowed to try harder, to pay closer attention to the warning signals, and to be a better person. Each new resolution allowed him to lay them all to rest—a year’s worth at a time—and erase them from his memory and his conscience.
Forgive and forget, as his mother used to say. Tabula rasa.
And he did forget. He couldn’t name a single one of the men who had vanished from his life the year before, much less during the past five. The last one had been a Christmas party pick-up. They had spent four glorious days and nights in guilty seclusion, enjoying every excess the holiday season had to offer, and more.
The four who had so far slipped through the crack of Topper’s good intentions since January first, however, remained vivid and lively memories. Clearly imprinted on his brain were the full names, phone numbers, and vitals of each. If he closed his eyes, Topper could still taste their bitter and musky flavors, each one unique and distinct from the others.
He tingled with excitement to recall how each had felt lying beneath him, on top of him, and beside him, their bodies drenched in sweat, their muscles heaving and rippling with strength and youth. For not one had been over thirty years old. This was a rule Topper had made five years ago when the whole thing had started. What better way to explain their abrupt, yet inevitable disappearances, his frequent losses at the game of love? How better to garner sympathy, rather than suspicion, for his pathetic life of heartbreak and emotional frailty? He cried on shoulders, moped and sighed, railed at the cold heartedness of humanity–until the next one came along.
Topper’s a great guy, Topper’s friends and family all thought. He’s got some money, and keeps himself in shape, he’s a good dresser, neat, well-read. But there’s no way he’s ever going to hold onto any of those young hunks he seems to prefer for any length of time. Of course they leave, one after the other, quickly tiring of having to revive the old man’s tired, stiff body every morning, of navigating the rabble of pill bottles just to get to the coffeecake on the counter; of running their fingers across dry, dead scalp instead of thick, soft hair like their own; of trying to coax new life into a dick that’s increasingly more interested in eight-straight than four-on-the-floor.
Poor Topper, they commiserated, shaking their heads. When will he finally give up and settle down with someone his own age? Someone he can grow old with?
Christopher was face down on the bed, his face pushed into a pillow, pouting silently when Topper came out of the bathroom. He’s too easily spoiled, Topper thought. Only two weeks and he’s already used to getting exactly what he wants.
“Okay, let’s go,” Topper said, smacking Christopher on the butt with the flat of his hand. He noticed the red imprint it left just below the bruise he’d sucked up to the skin the night before. Evidence. The word sprang to his mind and he shook it away.
“Race you to the lake.”
Christopher turned onto his side, smiling his crooked smile–the impish grin which, two weeks ago, Topper thought he could easily handle seeing every morning for the rest of his life.
“And I’ll go for the croissants after,” Christopher said, generously making his own concession. Topper shrugged, wrapped himself in a robe, and tossed one to Christopher.
At lakeside, some five-hundred feet from the back door of Topper’s estate, the two men shed their robes and dropped them along with their towels onto the grass before wading into the shimmering water. To their right and left, startled frogs leapt invisibly from rocks and lily pads where they’d crawled to catch the first warmth of the early morning sun. A snake slithered off the bank and Chris shrieked.
“I know, I know,” he said, registering the look of impatient disgust on Topper’s face. “Not poisonous–more afraid of us than we are of them–I know. It’s still not something I’ll ever get used to–swimming with snakes. Sounds too much like ‘swimming with the fishes,’ you know?”
He laughed and dove under the water.
Topper watched the glistening smooth skin slip beneath the surface like quicksilver.
“Yes,” he said quietly to himself. “You never know what you’ll find in this lake.”
A splash hit him in the eye as Chris wiggled his foot in a teasing wave just before disappearing completely. Then Topper felt the arms encircling his knees and he toppled into the shallows. He was mildly annoyed, but prepared this time to enjoy the sensual horseplay. Not like the first time they had been in the water together, when Christopher had surprised him with his adolescent antics and had come close to setting a record for the shortest of Topper’s doomed relationships—barely twenty-four hours.
But it wouldn’t have been fair. Chris hadn’t seen the list of resolutions yet, hadn’t been given the same chance as the others. It had always been their choice, either to laugh or to be warned.
This pretty boy with the sandy hair and crooked grin was thus granted a reprieve and Topper hadn’t regretted one moment of the past two weeks. Just the night before, as he was pulling the cork out of their second bottle of Shiraz, he caught himself thinking that Chris might be the one—the one that gets away . . . and gets to stay.
Fifteen minutes later, they crawled out of the water much like the frogs, and lay on the bank to let the sun warm their backs.
Christopher rested his cheek on the back of one hand while idly running the fingertips of the other up and down Topper’s spine.
“You know, Toppy, I’ve been thinking about last night.”
Topper took a deep breath and relaxed into Chris’ touch, noticing with amazed relief that his hangover had vanished.
“Me too, sweetie,” he said with a chuckle. “Can’t seem to remember much except for the feeling good part. I do remember feeling very, very good.”
Chris rolled over onto his back and squinted up at the sky.
“That, too,” he said. “But I was thinking about that thing you showed me. You know, your New Year’s Resolutions.” Topper’s blood ran cold as he tried in vain to remember why on earth he would have shown Christopher the list the night before. With a laugh, Chris added, “I didn’t think people did that anymore.”
“I’m just an old-fashioned guy,” Topper said, swallowing hard.
“Yeah, I guess. But that one though, about killing the men you sleep with . . . ”
“Not killing,” Topper hastily corrected him.
“Yeah, whatever. Guess that’s the important part, huh? Anyway, you had me for a minute there, but then I looked at you sitting there at the table all serious one minute, and then sleeping with your chin bouncing off your chest the next, and I figured it must be a joke.”
“Why is that, Chris?” Topper had calmed down. He rested his forehead onto crossed arms, allowing logic to cool his irrational passion. It was unfortunate, but since Chris had seen the list, he’d have to be next. Rules were rules.
Christopher turned onto his side and leaned down to brush a kiss along Topper’s shoulder blade.
“I just couldn’t picture you stepping on an ant, much less strangling a man to death, or putting a bullet into his brain, or . . . ”
“Cutting their throats, Chris. That’s how I do it. With a stiletto. They bleed to death in a matter of minutes.”
Chris grinned and slapped him on the butt.
“There, see? You’re such a kidder. But I’m warning you—you’re starting to freak me out.” He scrambled to his feet. “Let’s go in again. Do we have time?”
Topper smiled and sat up.
“Just a quick one. I’d like to get to the gym before it gets crowded. Go on. I’ll be right in.”
Christopher trotted back to the edge of the water and splashed in, scaring more frogs and watching for snakes. Keeping an eye on him, Topper reached for his robe and pulled something from the pocket. He followed his lover into the lake and soon caught up to him.
“How about a kiss, sweetie?” he asked, grappling the younger man into an embrace. Chris swooned with happiness as he leaned back against Topper’s chest.
“Can I spend the rest of my life with you, Toppy? Forever? Here in the water forever with you?”
“Of course, my love.” Topper brought the blade up and swung it around with a flick of his wrist at the last minute. “You can spend every last second with me.”
Chris closed his eyes and smiled as the razor sliced a neat, quick line through the skin and muscle above his Adam’s apple. He barely had time to open his eyes, for his smile to fade into resignation, before it was over.
“Topper, I can’t believe it. Another one gone.”
Topper nodded sadly as he sat at the bar with his friend, Jasper.
“Yes, I just woke up this morning and he was gone. No note, no explanation, no anything.”
“The little shit.” Jasper signaled the bartender for another round. “It’s his loss.”
“You say that every time, Jas.” Topper mustered up a smile. “You must think me the biggest fool.”
“Well, it does seem rather odd that you keep getting—well, there’s no other way to put it—dumped. And you keep going back for more. This one, though—I really liked Chris. I thought he was the one. It’s a crime, really. An awful crime.”
Topper didn’t answer. He sipped distractedly at his Bacardi and Diet Coke. Chris had been unplanned. It had happened so unexpectedly that he wasn’t sure he’d done everything properly this time. He’d burned the belongings to ash in the kiln in his potting shed. The piranha had been collected, counted, and put back into the aquarium in the cellar. And the knife had been soaked in bleach.
Neither one of them had been wearing any clothes at the time, so there was no blood evidence unless, of course, the fish had spattered themselves as they tore at the corpse, stripping the skeleton clean of every last trace of human flesh.
The skeleton. Now that was always a problem, but Topper would do what he always did. First thing tomorrow morning he would put on his diving mask and collect the bones from the bottom of the lake. He knew exactly how many to look for—two-hundred-six—and he would do a careful inventory before taking the last remains to the kiln.
He made the wry observation to himself that perhaps the only thing that would stop all this would be his inability to do the legwork afterwards. But how far in the future was that–five? ten years? If he stayed healthy he might have as many as twenty good years left.
“You know who would be perfect for you?” Jasper was saying as Topper refocused his attention on the present.
“No, Jas, I don’t think I want to . . . ”
Jasper cut him off and pulled a napkin from the stack on the edge of the bar.
“Here, let me give you his number. Pen.” He snapped his fingers. “Pen.”
Topper handed over his faithful Waterman.
“Arthur . . . Arthur Murphy—not Murray.” Jasper grinned and pushed the napkin across the bar to his friend. “He’s a professor at the University. Now, he’s not as young as all your others, not as old as us, either, but it’s a little more realistic proposition. He, uh, did ask me once for your number, but you were hooked up at the time. He’ll be thrilled if you call. And you might find you have more in common with someone like Art–if you know what I mean.”
Topper was insulted, but he knew Jasper meant well. He folded the napkin and stuffed it into his pocket. Then he snapped his fingers at Jasper to recover the pen and went back to nursing his drink. He wouldn’t call Arthur Murphy. The guy was probably in his mid-forties, looked more like mid-sixties, and drove a Buick, for Crissake. Not his type. Not his type at all.
Besides, he’d already decided that after tomorrow morning’s final clean-up, he would try to keep things quiet for the rest of the year. It was early September, and he felt certain he could be good for four months. It disturbed Topper that he’d been so bothered by Christopher. Maybe it was because he had thought he was the one, too.
Two and a half months later, Topper stared into a plate of Thanksgiving turkey and cranberry sauce. Seated next to him at Jasper’s eight-foot cherry dining room table was Arthur Murphy, along with a host of their friends and acquaintances, most of whom Topper knew, and none of whom were under the age of forty. He scowled as Jasper raised his wine glass in a toast. Their eyes met. Jasper smiled with a knowing nod. Topper decided he would develop a headache as soon as the pumpkin pie had been served.
But Arthur was not as bad as he’d thought, and they had a fine conversation during dinner about the differences between country and city living. One thing led to another, and by the time the dessert dishes had been cleared and the brandy was being poured, Topper had discovered that he and Arthur shared many interests–Impressionist art, historical novels, and tropical fish, to name a few.
The following evening, Topper parked his car behind the powder-blue Regal in the driveway next to Arthur’s split level home. He felt a weight lift off his shoulders. There was a certain freedom in knowing that this relationship would not end the same way as every last one he’d had in the past five years. Arthur was, after all, forty-seven. Even if this lasted one night, even if the sex sucked, it wouldn’t be tainted by the nagging possibility that one of them would die before it was all over. Whistling, Topper rang the doorbell and looked straight into the peephole with a confident, light-hearted smile.
That night, for the first time since Christopher, he had too much wine, and again for the first time since Christopher, he felt good—very, very good. And afterwards, when Arthur handed Topper the typewritten list to read, he wasn’t quite sure why he laughed when he read the second line—Resolution Two: Stop killing every man I sleep with.
They cuddled, and then at Arthur’s suggestion, went in to shower together. There was no shower curtain. Two one-gallon bottles of bleach stood in one corner. Opposite these stood a fifty-gallon aquarium, air filter bubbling merrily as the piranha fish swam and circled the glass in a hungry swarm. How did Jasper know, Topper wondered as he watched his own blood swirl down the bathtub drain? How did he know Arthur and I had so much in common?