It was nearly noon when I left City Hall. I found a phone, checked in with my secretary, and returned calls. When I finished, I still had an hour before a court appearance at the Criminal Courts Building, so I called home to invite Josh to lunch with me. All I got was his voice on our answering machine, urging me to leave a message. I hung up.
There had been a time when the course of his day was as familiar to me as mine. Now, I stood there for a moment, wondering where he might be. It was spring break at UCLA, so I knew he wasn’t in class, but beyond that, I could only guess. I headed to a sandwich shop in the Civic Center mall. It was warm and smoggy. The only sign of spring was the flowering jacarandas, bleeding purple blossoms onto the grimy sidewalks.
I passed a bookstore. Displayed in the windows was a book entitled Vows: How to Make Your Marriage Work. I stopped and read the book jacket, which promised new solutions to old marital problems like disputes over money, sex and child-rearing. What about when one of you has a terminal disease and the other doesn’t? What was the solution to that? Each time Josh’s T-cell count dropped, I felt him drift farther away from me, into his circle of Act Up friends, and his seropositive support group. He had become an AIDS guerrilla, impatient with my caution, contemptuous of my advice. Just that morning, bickering again over the wisdom of outing closeted politicians—he said we had to expose their hypocrisy, I said it would only drive others deeper into the closet—he’d snapped, “Spoken like a true neggie,” as if being negative for the virus was a defect of character.
Our arguments were no longer intellectual disagreements. He had adopted an “us vs. them” mentality over AIDS, and the more anxious he felt about his own health, the more strident he became. There might have been less ferocity in our quarrels if we had been able to talk about his anxiety, as we once had, but he had decided that even this, or perhaps especially this, was beyond my understanding. I reacted with my own anger at being treated like an enemy by the man with whom I’d shared the last five years of my life. I went into the bookstore and bought the book, suffering the sales clerk’s sympathetic glance as he stuffed it into a bag. Over a limp ham sandwich I flipped through the chapters. Finding nothing relevant, I buried it in my briefcase and set off to court, the one place where I knew the rules.
I arrived in court a few minutes late. The deputy district attorney, an amiable man named Kelly Miller, who had been chatting with the clerk, said to me, “Your kid’s a no-show, Henry.”
My ‘kid’ was a twenty-year-old gay man named Jimmy Dee, Deeds on the street, where his deeds were legion. He was a handsome black boy with a luminous smile, undeniable charm, a four-page rap sheet for hustling and theft, and a romantic attachment to heroin. His last boyfriend, a much older man, had had him arrested for stealing from him to support his habit. After grueling negotiations, I had persuaded the boyfriend, Miller, and the judge to let Deeds plead to trespass on condition that he enter a drug rehab. The purpose of this hearing was for him to submit proof that he’d found a bed somewhere. He was being given a break, a fact that I impressed upon him at every opportunity. When I did, he would turn his klieg light smile on me and say, “I know, Mr. Rios, I know. God put you in my life.”
“He’s not that late,” I said.
“Fifteen minutes late.” Judge Patricia Ryan strode out of her chambers, arranging the bow of her blouse over her judicial robe. She was a patrician black woman with an acute street sense. “I don’t know why I let you talk me into this, Henry. I should have had your client dragged away in manacles when I had the chance.”
Although she was joking, I could tell she was irate.
“The case would have fallen apart without this deal,” I said. “The boyfriend is deeply in the closet. He wouldn’t have testified.”
Miller said, “Your kid copped. I could’ve convicted him on his statement.”
“Juries aren’t buying confessions from black defendants in L.A. these days,” I replied.
Judge Ryan said, “Save this, gentlemen. I’m going to issue an arrest warrant.”
“Wait, Judge, will you hold it one day? I’ll go out looking for him.”
She narrowed her eyes. “We’ve given him every opportunity.”
“So what’s one more, Your Honor?”
“Mr. Miller?” she asked.
Kelly shrugged, “Why not? I’m sure Henry’s not getting paid for this extra work.”
She took her seat on the bench. “OK. People versus Deeds. The defendant is not in court. I will issue an arrest warrant to be held until tomorrow morning. Good luck, Mr. Rios.”
“Thank you, Your Honor.”
I called Josh from a phone in the corridor and caught him at home. I explained that I was going in search of Deeds and might not be in until late.
“I won’t be here anyway. There’s an Act Up demo at Antonovich’s house,” he said, referring to a particularly reactionary county supervisor.
“This is the first I’ve heard of it.”
“I can’t tell you everything.”
That solved the mystery of where he had been when I’d called earlier.
“Is this a lawful demonstration, or am I going to be bailing you out of jail again?”
Coolly, he replied, “The worst that ever happens is that they hold us overnight.”
“It’s LAPD, Josh,” I said, annoyed at his nonchalance. “I’ve seen what they’re capable of with prisoners.”
“They’re not going to beat us up,” he said. “They won’t even touch us without gloves and masks.”
“What if you had a health crisis? Do you think the cops would rush to call for medical help?”
“I’m fine,” he snapped.
“I’d like you to stay that way by not putting yourself in dangerous situations.”
“You want me to stay home and let someone else do my fighting for me.”
“That’s not what I said.”
“This is my fight. This is my life. What do you not understand about that?”
I took a deep breath. “Fine, Josh. In that case, do whatever you want.”
“I will,” he said, and clanged the receiver down.
I hung up and immediately called back, but the line was busy, and stayed busy until I finally gave up.
Eight hours later, after searching for Deeds in his usual haunts I found myself pulling into the parking lot of the Santa Monica Motel in West Hollywood with my investigator, Freeman Vidor. It was a perfunctory, two-floor stucco building wedged on a small lot just off the boulevard within walking distance of the gay bars; the kind of place where the vacancy sign was perennially lit and rooms could be rented by the hour.
“This it?” Freeman asked. “A hot sheet hotel?”
“According to his dealer, Deeds turns tricks here sometimes.”
We got out of the car and went into the dimly lit office. An Asian woman stood behind the desk watching us apprehensively.
“Yes,” she said.
Freeman produced a mug shot of Deeds and his private investigator’s license. “We’re looking for this kid.”
“Police?” she inquired, holding up his license to the light.
“I’m a private cop,” he said. “This is Mr. Rios, the kid’s lawyer.”
She took stock of me in my sincere blue suit, trying to puzzle it out.
“We’re not here to make any trouble,” I told her. “The boy calls himself Deeds. He has to be in court tomorrow morning and I promised the judge he’d be there.”
We all stood there for a moment while she weighed her options. An air conditioner hummed loudly. Although glossy brochures advertised Gray Line tours and fun at Disneyland from a metal rack on a table in the corner, I doubted whether this place attracted that kind of trade.
“Twenty-three,” she said, wearily. “Don’t kick in the door.”
We found the room. I knocked a couple of times, then called him. I tried the door. Locked.
“We’ll have to ask her to let us in,” I said.
“Go admire the view,” Freeman said.
I walked over to the railing and watched the traffic stream up and down the boulevard. A blond in a Jeep cruised by slowly, his cassette player blaring a disco tune from the seventies. Ah, the hunt, I thought, remembering the nights I had stood in San Francisco bars listening to that same song while I ingested a little liquid courage. Or, rather, a lot of liquid courage. Most nights I would stagger out alone and take the train back to school. Once in a while someone would pick me up, or I would pick him up, and I would toil in a stranger’s bed for a few hours, trying to get out of my skin by going through his. I imagined that I was having fun, and sometimes I was, but not nearly often enough to justify the effort.
I watched the blond disappear into the night and thought, Josh is hooking up with someone. The thought had been in the back of my mind for months but only now, as I stood in the sexy airs of Boystown, did it all fall into place: the element of evasion in his behavior which had never been there before, the vagueness about where he was going, and when he would be coming back.
I knew he had occasionally slept with other men. He was thirteen years younger than me and while we’d been monogamous for the first two years, he got hit on all the time, and it wasn’t realistic for me to expect that he wouldn’t be tempted by at least some of the offers. Also, I suspected his HIV-status held him back, part of his shame at having been infected and I wanted him to overcome it, even if it meant he slept around a bit. So, we talked it out and came up with some rules—don’t bring anyone to the house, no staying out overnight and remember where home is. Josh was discreet, but this was different. This wasn’t being discreet, this was hiding something and I feared that what he was hiding wasn’t that he was having sex with another guy, but that he was in love with him.
I glanced back at Freeman. He was holding the door open.
We stepped inside to a darkened room.
“Deeds,” I called. A sliver of light seeped out from beneath a door at the other end of the room. I went over and knocked. “Jimmy, are you in there?”
When there was no answer, I turned the knob and shoved the door open.
“Oh, shit,” Freeman muttered.
A naked Jimmy Dee sat sloppily on the toilet, his head tilted back at an angle that would have hurt had he been alive. A needle was still jammed into his arm. His mouth was open and he stared up at a water stain on the ceiling in the shape of Africa.
I closed the door and said to Freeman, “Go call 911.”
After he left, I switched on the light and looked around the room. Deeds’s clothes were in a pile at the foot of the unmade bed. There was a twenty on the nightstand, wages for his last trick, no doubt. On the dresser was a little pile of papers. I examined them and found my card, some phone numbers and an envelope addressed to Judge Ryan with the return address of SafeHouse, the same rehab that Gus Peña had been in. I tucked the envelope into my pocket.
Josh had left the kitchen window open and the room smelled faintly of the anise that grew wild down the side of the hill from our house. He wasn’t there. I poured myself a glass of water and sat down at the kitchen table with the envelope I’d taken from Deeds’s room. Inside was a letter from Edith Rosen, M.F.C.C., attesting to the fact that Deeds was scheduled to enter SafeHouse the following Monday, three days hence.
“You little shit,” I said aloud, more in grief than anger. In my work, I was used to losing, but I thought I’d staked out a tiny victory with Deeds.
But then, I’d had a weakness for junkies, for their defeated, helpless charm. Of course, I knew better. My own fight with the bottle had taught me intimately everything there was to know about addiction. Drunks and junkies all had a big hole in their gut that sucked in panic like Pandora’s box in reverse unless it was filled by booze or a fix. Eventually, that stopped working, and the panic went out of control until the only thing left was dying. Sometimes, like Deeds, death is what you got and sometimes, like me, you were given a reprieve, but there was no logic about it. Even if you lived, the panic was still there. It only faded when you began to see it for what it was, the long drop from darkness to darkness, and you stopped fighting.
At that moment I could feel the panic elbowing me, tossing up the image of Deeds in that grisly motel bathroom, reminding me of every grisly room through which I had stumbled drunk, so close to dying myself. And when that didn’t get me going, the panic asked, “Where’s Josh?” a surefire tactic. I got up from the kitchen table and went into the bedroom, switching on the lamp and stretching out on the bed, still unmade from that morning. A book was half buried in the covers, the paperback edition of Borrowed Time, Paul Monette’s moving tale of his lover’s death of AIDS. Josh had been reading it.
It was after eleven. The demonstration was certainly over by now.
I sat up and fumbled for the TV remote control, flicking on the set at the foot of the bed. I switched channels until I found some local news, looking for a report about the Act Up demonstration. Instead, I found myself watching Gus Peña, standing against the backdrop of the city council chamber, his arm draped around his son. Peña was saying, “My kids have always made me proud, now I want them to be able to say the same thing about me.” Little Peña didn’t seem to be buying it.
Watching them, I thought of my father, and about pride and about betrayal. I shut off the TV, got undressed and into bed, ready for a long night.
“How was the demonstration?” I asked the next morning, pouring myself a cup of coffee as I waited for my bagel to toast. I had been asleep when Josh came in. Waking beside him, my face against his bare back, I had breathed another man’s smell on his body.
Shaggy-haired and heavy-lidded, he sat at the kitchen table in boxers, mixing an assortment of liquid vitamins into his organic cranberry juice.
He looked up at me. “It was great! The cops turned up in riot gear. You could tell they were terrified that one of us might bite them.”
“Anyone get arrested?”
He finished mixing his holistic cocktail. “No, the cops told us that Antonovich wasn’t even in town, so after an hour we split.”
The toaster oven clicked and I retrieved my bagel. Buttering it, I asked, as casually as I could manage, “What did you do then?”
“Drove Steven home,” he said, straining for equal nonchalance. “Sat and talked to him for a while. Did you find your client?”
I sat down at the table. “Yes, as a matter of fact. In a motel room in Boystown. He was dead.”
“Murdered?” he asked, putting his drink down.
“I’m sorry. I know how much you liked that kid.”
I crunched into the bagel. “Not as much as I like you.”
I watched him take a slug of juice, watched the muscles in his neck contract as he weighed a response. “What do you mean?”
“Who are you sleeping with?”
Without hesitation, he replied. “Steven.”
I thought back. Our house had become a kind of activists’ clubhouse and frequently I came home to find a meeting raging in the living room. Though Josh had introduced me to many of the men and women who attended these sessions, their faces blurred in my mind into a single youthful face flushed with excitement and anger. Steven?
Then I saw him. About my height, muscular, good-looking. Not one of the big talkers, but the others listened when he did speak. Josh had mentioned once that Steven was one of the oldest surviving PWAs in the group, having been diagnosed five years earlier.
Josh was speaking, “I kept meaning to tell you, but it seems like we never see each other anymore…”
“Are you saying this happened because I’ve neglected you?”
“No,” he said. “It happened because I fell in love with him.”
“Are you sure it’s not because you fell in love with his diagnosis?”
He stared at me in disbelief, and then fury.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I didn’t mean that.”
“You meant it all right,” he said, pushing his chair back from the table. He stalked out of the house. I heard his car start up. I didn’t think he would be coming back soon.
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” writers. In The Hidden Law, Rios delves deeply into his Latino identity as he defends a young man charged with assassinating a prominent Los Angeles Latino politician. The San Francisco Chronicle hailed the novel and its author: “A beautifully conceived but gritty novel . . . . Nava writes the kind of small, clean, powerful novels that build in emotional power almost invisibly, leaving us breathless at the end.”
More about 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 Reviewhas called Nava “one of our best” writers. He is also the author of an award-winning historical novel, TheCity of Palaces, set at the beginning of the 1910 Mexican revolution. In addition, he is the writer/producer of the Henry Rios Mysteries Podcastwhich 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.