I woke to find the bed shaking. Somewhere in the house, glass came crashing down, and on the street car alarms went off and dogs wailed. The bed lurched back and forth like a raft in the squall. The floorboards seemed to rise like a wave beneath it, and for one surreal second, I thought I heard the earth roar, before I recognized the noise as the pounding of my heart in my ears. My stomach churned and fear banished every thought except Get out. And then it stopped, as abruptly as it had begun, the bed slamming to the ground, a glass falling in another room. Outside, the car alarms still shrilled, the dogs whimpered and the frantic voices of my neighbors called out to each other, “Are you okay? Are you okay?” I sat up against the headboard and drew deep breaths. My pulse slowly returned to normal. I was aware that someone else was in the room. I reached for the lamp, but the power was out.
I called out, “Who’s there?”
My eyes accustomed themselves to the darkness, but I could not see anyone among the familiar shapes of the room. Yet I was sure someone was there, hovering at the foot of the bed, watching me. It moved, and then a great wash of emotion passed over me. Sadness. Regret. Relief. I felt them but they were not my feelings. I reached out my hand, but there was nothing. The room began to rattle, shaken by an aftershock. It lasted only a few seconds and when it was over, I was alone again.
I hopped out of bed and ran into the closet door which had been shaken open. The blow stunned, then focused me. “Think,” I commanded myself. Clothes. Shoes. Flashlight. Get outside. I pulled on a pair of pants, a sweat shirt, sneakers and headed to the kitchen for the flashlight. The usual hum of appliances was stilled. Glass crunched beneath my feet as I crossed the room to the small pantry, where I found the flashlight in a utility drawer. I shot a beam of light across the kitchen. The cupboards had swung open, cans and boxes spilling out of them. The refrigerator had been knocked a couple of feet from the wall. I opened the refrigerator to find its contents spilled and shaken. I drank some orange juice out of the carton and thought of Josh, alone in his apartment. I picked up the phone but, as I’d expected, the line was dead. I got out of the house.
The street where I lived ran along the east rim of a small canyon in the hills above old Hollywood. On maps of the city, it was a curving line off Bronson Canyon Drive, hard to find and seldom traveled. My house, like other houses on the block, dated back to the 30s. It was down a few steps from the street, behind a low hedge, the bland stucco wall revealing little of the life that went on there. Until thirteen months earlier, I’d lived there with my lover, Josh Mandel. Now I lived alone, Josh having left me for another man who, like Josh, was HIV positive. It was Josh’s belief that, because of this, Steven could understand him in ways that were inaccessible to someone like me who was uninfected. But then Steven died and Josh’s own health began to deteriorate. I would gladly have taken him back but he insisted on living on his own. Still, we’d had something of a reconciliation, drawn back together by memories of our shared life and the impending end of his.
As I closed the door behind me, I considered driving to West Hollywood to check up on him, but I doubted I would get that far. The quake had likely knocked out traffic signals and the roads would be filled with panicked motorists and nervous cops turning them back. I remembered the spooky presence in my bedroom and wondered anxiously if it had been Josh, but that was absurd. It had been nothing more than a trauma-induced hallucination; a momentary projection of my terror.
I went around the side of the house and turned off the gas. When I returned to the street, my next-door neighbor, Jim Kwan, approached me, flashlight in hand, and asked, “Hey, Henry, you okay?”
“So far,” I said. “Of course, the night’s still young. How about you?”
“We came through in one piece. Knock on wood,” he said, rapping his forehead. “I’m going to check on Mrs. Byrne down the street.”
“I’ll come with you,” I said, wanting to keep busy.
We passed a group of our neighbors huddled around a radio. The radio voice was saying, “. . . is estimated to be a six-point-six quake centered in the San Fernando Valley, with the epicenter near Encino …” I was relieved to hear that because it meant Josh was at least as far away from the epicenter as we were and there didn’t seem to be any major damage to the hill.
I heard the clatter of metal against the street and trained my light on Kwan’s feet. He was wearing cleated golf shoes.
“What’s with the shoes?”
An embarrassed smile crossed his round, good-natured face. “I was scared shitless, man. I grabbed the first shoes I could find.”
I shone the light on my own scuffed Nikes and recognized them as a pair Josh had left behind.
“Is your phone out?” I asked Kwan.
“Look across the canyon,” he said. “Everything is out.”
Through a gap between two fences I could see the west rim of the canyon, where far grander houses than ours commanded breathtaking views. Darkness. The October night was beautiful, cool and mild. Without the distracting blaze of city lights, the stars glittered in the deep blue sky. A damp herbal smell came up from the undergrowth. Rosemary. Back in his naturopathy phase, Josh warmed rosemary oil in a diffuser because he claimed it reduced anxiety. I tore a sprig from a bush, crushed it between my fingers and sniffed it.
“Spooky, huh?” Kwan said. “Like the city was clubbed in its sleep.”
“Did you feel anything strange in your house after the quake?”
“You mean besides my life flashing in front of me?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Like a ghost?”
Kwan laughed. “Something must’ve come down on your head, Rios.”
I felt the bump on my forehead where I’d hit the closet door. “Maybe so. Maybe I just imagined it, but, for a minute there, it sure felt like there was someone in the room with me.”
“Maybe it was Jesus,” Kwan joked. “The Second Coming. Mrs. Byrne will know.”
We found her sitting on her porch steps reading her Bible by candlelight. She was an old woman, her mottled, veiny face framed by stiff white tufts of hair. She had lived in Los Angeles, which she pronounced with a hard Midwestern “g,” for over forty years. Once or twice a month she went door to door with a sheaf of faded religious tracts of the hell-and-brimstone variety, and raved at the neighbors polite enough to let her in about God’s coming and wrathful judgement on our Sodom of a city. I barred the door when I saw her coming but Kwan, whom she usually caught while he was out gardening, suffered her rants with good humor. When I kidded him about it, he said she was lonely. With good reason, I replied.
“Mrs. Byrne, are you okay?” Kwan asked.
She looked at him with rheumy eyes and said, “Didn’t I tell you, Kwan, it’s the last days. Earthquakes, fires, plague.” Her voice got high and a little crazy. “Jesus is coming.”
“Just in case he doesn’t come tonight, I’m going to shut off your gas,” he said. “Keep an eye on her, Henry.”
She squinted at me. “Who are you?”
“Your neighbor from down the block,” I said. “Henry Rios.” I sat down beside her and asked, “The quake scare you, Mrs. Byrne?”
“Knocked me clean out of my bed,” she replied. “But I’ve been through worse, and worse is coming, young man.” She rattled her Bible. “Now you take this AIDS—”
I trained my light on her Bible and said, “Why don’t you read to me until Kwan gets back?”
She opened the book and began reading in her high, shaky old woman’s voice: “‘And I saw a new Heaven and a new Earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.’” As I listened, I felt the kind of euphoria people feel when they survive a disaster. I realized then that I’d thought I was going to die in the quake. My mind drifted back to that moment after the quake ended when I’d imagined there was someone else in the room. Was it just a hallucination? It had seemed so real. Mrs. Byrne’s voice broke into my ruminations. “‘And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying; neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away.’”
“What part of the Bible is that?” I asked.
“Revelations, young man.”
“I thought that was all about the destruction of the world.”
“It is,” she said, “and then what comes after. The end of all suffering. The end of death.” With an unexpectedly sweet smile, she added, “You don’t know what the word gospel means, do you?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“It means the good news. Whatever we suffered here on earth, there is joy with Christ when we die. That’s why I wasn’t afraid tonight. I’m not afraid to die. Are you?”
“I’m hoping I won’t have to answer that question for many years, Mrs. Byrne.”
“Silly boy,” she said. “You don’t know how many years you have. Best to be ready now.”
Then Kwan came around the corner, gave the all clear, ending our conversation.
For the rest of the night, I huddled with my neighbors around the radio, listening to reports of the damage. Most of the city was dark and there were reports of fires, leveled buildings and downed freeways, but the worst of the damage was confined to the valley. To my relief, damage to West Hollywood was reported as minimal. For a while, the echo of sirens reverberated on the hill from the streets below, but by dawn it had quieted down. As the sky began to lighten, our little disaster party broke up and we trudged back to our houses.
A boy was sitting at my front door, asleep. I came down the steps and stood above him. Occasionally, homeless people wandered up the hill, but he was too clean and well-dressed for that. His arms were wrapped around his knees and his head was down, long, black hair covering his face. I had no idea who he was, but I was pretty sure he hadn’t stumbled into my doorway by accident. I’m a criminal defense lawyer and accustomed to strangers showing up at my door at odd hours of the day and night.
I didn’t particularly welcome these unexpected visitations; I’d always seemed to attract a class of clients who were, as a disgruntled ex-partner once put, “from hunger, Henry.” I was a magnet for the desperate, frightened and reviled, who somehow or other had heard about the fag lawyer who was a sap for a sad story and let you pay on installment. Josh used to tell me, “You’re a lawyer, not a social worker.’’ After he left, I had plenty of time to wonder if he would’ve stayed had I spent less time on my clients’ troubles and more on ours; that question and the other mysteries of my midlife. I’d gone into therapy like a good Californian, and learned that in all probability the reason I’d devoted myself to the legal lepers of the world was because I felt like an outcast myself – “queer,” in every sense of the world—and I struggled to compensate with good works.
In the end I’d taken this insight and decided, so what. I was forty- two years old, and law was all I knew or cared about, apart from Josh and a few friends. I threw myself back into my practice. Occasionally, a fellow defense lawyer would refer me a particularly hopeless case. I wondered which one I had to thank for the sleeping boy.
I hunched down on my heels, shook his shoulders gently and said, “Wake up, son.” He raised his head and his eyes fluttered open. They were unusually blue, which was surprising, given his dark coloring. I judged him to be in his mid-twenties and he was strikingly handsome: long hair, dark skin, blue eyes and a silver loop in either ear. Wearily, he got to his feet. He was medium height, five-seven or -eight, but tightly muscled, a featherweight. Beneath loose-fitting jeans and a black pullover sweater, his slender body radiated tension and fatigue.
“Are you Henry’ Rios?” he asked nervously.
“Yes. Who are you?”
“Zack Bowen,” he said. “I’m . . . Chris Chandler’s boyfriend. Can I talk to you?”
For a moment, I was too astonished to answer. Chris Chandler’s boyfriend?
“Come inside,” I said.
As soon as I stepped into the house, exhaustion hit me. I’d been running on adrenaline since the quake and it was all used up. I left Zack Bowen in the living room and went into the kitchen to figure out some way of making coffee that didn’t require either electricity or gas. There was still some hot water in the tap, so I mixed two cups of muddy instant and carried them into the living room. Zack was stretched out on the couch, asleep again. I sipped the vile brew and thought, Chris Chandler’s boyfriend. Well, well. That was certainly a long time coming.
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. Originally published during the darkest years of the AIDS epidemic in the gay community, The Death of Friends received extraordinary praise both as a mystery and an eloquent work of witness. Publisher’s Weekly said, “This is a brave, ambitious and highly impressive work.” The San Francisco Chronicle described it as “A beautifully executed novel, with a classic whodunit at its core.” And People magazine said, “Nava can devise as canny a plot as he can a defense motion. His latest, though, has something special – the scent of memory that lingers as poignantly as a departed lover’s cologne.”
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 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.