The phone rang just as I’d finished lacing my brand-new Nikes. “Ben?”
“Yeah, I’m downstairs in the lobby.”
I glanced out the window. It was just getting to be dusk. “Still hot outside?” I asked.
“Not too bad. It’ll be nice and fresh by the river.”
“Give me five minutes.”
He was downstairs, looking nervously out of place in his black running shorts and Los Robles Police Department singlet. He smiled when I appeared, and I was again struck by the contrast between his heavily muscled body and round, little boy’s face—he looked like he’d stuck his head through one of those muscleman cardboard cutouts.
“You ready, Mr. Rios?”
“If we’re going to parade down River Parkway half-naked,” I said, “you’re going to have to stop calling me Mr. Rios. Try Henry.”
“Sure, Henry. Ready?”
It had been months since I’d run. “As ready as I’m going to get.”
We walked the few blocks from the Hyatt to the river’s edge.
“Where’s your friend?” Ben asked abruptly as we approached Old Towne.
I glanced at him, but he looked intently ahead. “Josh? He went back to LA.” I hesitated, then added, “Listen, about that crack he made, Ben. I’m sorry if it embarrassed you.”
“Different strokes for different folks,” he said, with forced nonchalance.
I couldn’t think of an appropriate platitude to answer him with and we walked on to the river in awkward silence.
A bike path went upriver from the newly renovated waterfront to a park about seven miles away. I figured I was good for three.
“I need to stretch,” I said. “You?”
“No, I’m good.”
While he stood watching, I went through my stretching routine waking slumbering joints and muscles. They weren’t gracious about being called back into service, but slowly, and sullenly, they responded.
“Okay,” I said. “I’m ready.”
We started at a slow warmup trot, passing the T-shirt shops and fast-food restaurants that now occupied the brick structures that had been the original city. It was warmish, still, and the air was thick with light the color of honey. Briefly, a motorboat shattered the green surface of the river. Soon we were out of Old Towne and into a wooded area between the river and a levee.
Away from the cars and businesses and people, the air was fresher, and the odor different, mixing the smell of the muddy earth and anise, and some underlying scent of vegetable decay I’d never smelled anywhere other than by the banks of this river and took me back, as if each step carried me into the past. Stands of bamboo obscured the river at points, but then we would pass an open space and it reappeared, leaves and spores of cottonwood glancing its surface. The sky was beginning to change, darken, and the sun was slipping out of view in a slow smoke of red and orange and violet.
Our pace had steadily increased and now, as we passed a wooden mile marker, I felt my breath deepen, my legs relax and my arms develop a rhythm instead of simply jerking at my sides. We’d been running abreast but I knew that if Ben increased the pace I’d have to drop behind. I found myself remembering my boyhood runs along the river with Mark Windsor.
Except for the methodical rasp of our breathing, Mark and I had run in silence. Occasionally one of us would see something at the side of the trail, a covey of quail or a skunk or some hippie’s marijuana patch, and would nudge the other to alert him to the sight. Mostly, though, we just ran, side by side as if yoked together, and I had the absolute certainty that everything I was seeing, Mark was seeing at the same moment with the same eyes. I’d never felt so much a part of another person as I did then; it was what sex was supposed to be like but, as I discovered soon enough, seldom was.
When we stopped one of us would say, “Good run,” or “Hard run,” and we’d strip off as much of our clothing as we thought we could get away with and dash into the river. There for the rest of the afternoon we’d swim and float, sit on the bank, again not saying much. In fact, I never knew what Mark was actually thinking or how he felt. I just assumed that he was as happy to be with me as I was to be with him. At twilight we’d get dressed and go to our respective houses for dinner and I wouldn’t see him until the next day. Sometimes it was only the thought of the next day’s run that got me through those tense meals with my volcanic, disapproving father.
Ben and I were coming up on two miles. I was still holding my own, but I could hear the rattle at the end of my exhalations. It seemed as good a time as any to get on with my purpose in having suggested this outing.
“What did you think about the prelim?” I asked.
Ben glanced over at me, sweat beading at his hairline. “It was real interesting. I never testified before except one time for drunk driving. How come you didn’t ask me any questions?”
“Were you disappointed?”
He managed a quick laugh. “Relieved. I saw how you went after Morrow.”
“There was nothing hinky about your testimony. Morrow, on the other hand.” I stopped talking to catch my breath before adding, “I didn’t expect those pictures, though. Had you seen them before?”
He worried his brow. “Should we be talking about this?”
“What’s the harm?” I panted. “Everything was laid out at the prelim.” I jogged a couple of steps before adding. “Wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, sure.” He speeded up a little, forcing me into overdrive.
“The pictures surprised me, that’s all. Makes me kind of wonder if the DA has anything else up his sleeve.”
“Don’t know,” he replied, uncomfortably. Eyes forward he added, “I don’t know much about the case. They just brought me in on the search.”
“I know,” I said. It was getting harder for me to keep up my end of the conversation as we passed the two-mile mark. “You know, Ben, getting a conviction’s not too hard in most criminal cases. The hard part is making it stick on appeal.”
He looked at me. “What do you mean?”
I slackened our pace. “The DA has to win fair,” I said, “or it’s no good. I figure I’ve already got three or four grounds to appeal if Paul gets convicted.”
We slowed even more. “Like what?” he asked, intently.
“There’s that bogus search warrant,” I replied, “and then the way the judge ran all over me at the prelim. But the biggest thing is those pictures. Paul says he didn’t take them. He says that roll of film had pictures of something else.” We were trotting now. “I have a witness who’ll back him up.”
“Uh-huh,” Ben said, and quickened the pace. “Who?”
“I’m afraid I can’t say. It gets into his alibi.” For a few minutes we ran in silence. My knees were complaining. To shut them up, I said, “I believe my witness. So, I also have to believe that someone switched the film you took from Paul’s car with the film those pictures at the prelim came from.”
“Uh-huh,” he repeated, increasing his speed again. Sweat ran down his face, and soaked his singlet.
“Can we slow down?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, but didn’t.
“Are we at three miles yet?”
“Let’s turn around.”
“One more mile.”
“There’s still three miles back.”
“One more,” he said, and spurted off.
Watching his thick legs pumping, I muttered, “Jerk,” took as deep a breath as I could and pushed on, managing to stay a few draggy paces behind him. Now, though, it was painful to breathe and my legs were cramping. Meanwhile it was also getting dark and there were small eruptions of sound from the riverbank, crickets, frogs, muskrats slithering across the mud and into the water. We passed a lacy railroad bridge, unused for decades.
“I’m done,” I shouted, when we got to four miles. “I’m heading back.”
He looked at me over his shoulder. “Two miles to the park,” was all he said.
“Asshole,” I thought and prepared to turn around and start back. I figured this was his macho revenge for my having impugned the integrity of the cops. The sight of his broad back as he stripped off his singlet enraged me. I’d been running this trail when he was still in grade school and I was damned if I was going to give up. I pushed on, waiting for that moment when my body’d go into overdrive and break through the pain. It had been a long time since I’d called upon it to break that barrier and I wasn’t sure I could do it anymore. But I carried less bulk than he did and I’d been at this for a lot longer. Long enough to know that he had speed but no strategy for a long run. Strategy was all I had left.
At about four and a half miles, just when I seemed to be losing sight of him in the darkness and the distance, my breath evened itself out and the pain in my legs subsided. Up ahead, his pace slackened, all that muscle weighing him down. Resisting the impulse to spend everything in a sprint to overtake him, I increased my speed just to the edge of pain and kept it there, testing that limit, accustoming my body to it.
At five miles I was close enough to see that his running was getting sloppy and wayward. A moment later I was alongside of him, listening to his shaky breath. Glancing over I saw sweat pouring down his chest, the strain in his face. Although I knew that it must be almost chilly now, my skin was so hot that I dried up my own sweat.
And then the pain lifted and I saw with incredible clarity the pavement beneath my feet, the curl in Ben’s fingers, the dark leaves in the bushes along the trail, the moon rising above the levee. I felt myself smile and with a choppy breath surged forward a step, then two, then three, until I was running ahead of him, high on the euphoria of the effort. It no longer mattered whether he caught up or not, or how long I ran or that my body was knotted in pain just beneath the euphoria—I was ready to run until I dropped.
At mile six I turned around and could no longer see him. Ahead was the entrance to the park. I came in at a jog and then slowed to a walk. Tomorrow would be torture but at that moment I was sixteen again. A few minutes later, Ben shuffled in, veered off toward some bushes and threw up.
He came up to me, wiping his mouth on his singlet.
“Good run,” I said. “Are you ready to head back?”
“You’re shittin’ me, right? I can barely walk.”
“You’re the one who pushed it.”
“Let’s head up to the road and flag down a black-and-white. They patrol the park every half hour.”
When he’d recovered, we walked up the levee road and stood there shivering in the darkness. On the other side of the levee a field stretched away into the night beneath the moon. Although my knees ached and my chest was wracked with pain each time I drew a breath, I still felt wonderful.
“You okay?” I asked Ben. His face was tense.
“You run pretty good for an old man,” was all he said. A few minutes later, a black-and-white came down the road and he flagged it down. It took us back to the Hyatt.
Outside the hotel I asked, “Where did you park, Ben?”
“In the lot,” he said, “downstairs.”
“I’ll walk you to your car.”
We went into the lobby and took the elevator to the parking lot, saying nothing. I walked him to his car, an old Chevy lovingly cared for. He leaned against the driver’s door and grinned at me.
“Man, you’re a ringer.”
“Were you trying to kill me out there?”
“I guess I got kind of pissed off at you when you were talking about those pictures.” He wiped sweat from his forehead. “Anyway, it doesn’t make sense, about switching the film. Morrow booked it right away.”
“Two hours after the search,” I corrected him.
“It takes that long to do the paperwork.”
I didn’t want to admit that I’d also thought of this. A car skidded around the corner. “I just wanted to give you something to think about.”
“Why me?” he asked. “Morrow’s the one you should talk to.”
“I know. I was talking about Morrow.”
He frowned. “I told you, Morrow’s my compadre,” he said, using the Spanish expression that described a friend whom one thought of almost as kin.
I persisted. “Morrow was the investigator the last time Paul was arrested. You’re the one who told me he was pissed when Paul got off. Maybe he’s trying to make up for that.”
“I don’t know anything about that.”
“Think about it,” I replied, shivering in the chilly subterranean air. “You know, we’re all ultimately on the same side, Ben. We all want to see that justice is done. People who commit crimes should be punished, but only for the crimes they actually commit.”
“The dirtbags get off all the time,” he said. “Thanks to guys like you.”
“Are you thinking of a particular dirtbag?”
“You’re cold,” he replied. He opened the door of his car, reached in and pulled out a sweatshirt and handed it to me.
“Thanks,” I said, slipping it on.
He stood irresolutely for a moment. “Can I ask you something?”
“Are you really like that?”
“Like what?” I asked, genuinely confused.
He looked at me. “You know, someone who likes guys.”
“Oh, that. Yeah, I’m gay.”
He turned his face away slightly not, it seemed to me, in disgust, but because he didn’t want me to see what was going on in his eyes.
“And the guy who came to the door in his skivvies, you were in bed with him?”
“Josh. Yeah. He’s my partner.”
“Why did he say that thing about me joining you guys?”
I studied his expression. He seemed neither particularly upset nor even especially embarrassed.
“He was joking, Ben.”
He considered this for a moment and in a low voice asked, “What if I had said yes?”
“Are you trying to tell me something?”
And then, as if awakening himself, he shook his head, opened the door of his car again and said, firmly, “I have to go.”
“Here,” I said, taking off the sweatshirt.
“You can give it back to me next time,” he said, getting into the car. He rolled down the window. “Thanks for the run.”
“See you, Ben.”
“Yeah, see you.”
I stood aside and let him back out. He waved and drove off. I waved back and headed up to my room, thinking I owed Josh an apology. Standing next to the car, talking about Josh and me, Ben had been getting a hard-on. Bl
Winner of six Lambda Literary awards, the Henry Rios mystery series is iconic and Michael Nava has been hailed by the New York Times as “one of our best” crime writers. Upon its original publication, the Los Angeles Times said of Howtown and its author: “ Nava’s mysteries are faithful to the conventions of the genre, but they are set apart by their insight, compassion and sense of social justice . . .. How Town is Nava’s bravest and most ambitious novel to date.”
This 2019 edition from Persigo Press has been revised and an author’s note added.
Howtown finds Rios back in his hometown of Los Robles, California defending Paul Windsor, a boyhood acquaintance accusing of murdering a pedophile. Windsor is himself a pedophile and the police believe the murder was the result of an extortion scheme gone wrong. It’s up to Rios to prove otherwise, if he can. To do that, he has to confront the ghosts of his past that still linger in the sleepy river town. Simultaneously, the novel explores Rios’s relationship with his HIV-positive lover, Josh Mandel.
This is a revised edition with an author’s end-note.
More About Author Michael Nava
Michael Nava is the author of an acclaimed series of eight novels featuring gay, Latino criminal defense lawyer Henry Rios who The New Yorker,called “a detective unlike any previous protagonist in American noir.” The New York Times Book Review has called Nava “one of our best” writers. He is also the author of an award-winning historical novel, The City of Palaces, set at the beginning of the 1910 Mexican revolution. In addition, he is the writer/producer of the Henry Rios Mysteries Podcast which adapted the first Rios novel, Lay Your Sleeping Head into an 18-episode audio drama. In 2019, he also founded Persigo Press, through which he hopes to publish LGBTQ writers and writers of color who write genre fiction that combines fidelity to the conventions of their genre with exceptional literary merit.