"Brisk and buoyant, this engaging debut captures big-city hustle with small-town heart."
"Witty and wrenching, Yield is required reading for anyone who wants to know what it means to be young, gay and without a roadmap in today's world."
--Vestal McIntyre, author of Lake Overturn
"Yield is a bold and shocking story concerned with humanism--it's a dazzling and sometimes dangerous foray into post-queer realism."
--Charlie Vázquez, author and blogger
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By LEE HOUCK
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Lee Houck
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMy high school chemistry teacher was also a forensics investigator. He specialized in arson, burned bodies, and flammable chemicals, and he entertained us with sometimes-gruesome stories from more than twenty-five years of duty. There was the skeleton of a woman, average height-which is to say five-foot-four-somewhere around thirty years old, reduced to blackened bones and cinders in a house fire. He gave us two clues: "For example, the middle finger on her right hand has a large calcification on the top section, like you might have if you wrote heavily with a pencil, for example." He said "for example" at the beginning and end of everything. "For example, she also has a tiny indentation, a notch, in her front tooth, also the right one, for example." It was our job as eager students, wound up by the grisly details, to figure out her occupation.
Work changes you. It shows itself on your body. In the same way that a carpenter's hands are tuned to the nuances of hammer and nail, the way wood can talk to you through your arms, my hands listen to numbers on files, to injection records and saturation levels, to painful and courageous histories. I filter through the hundreds of thousands (could be millions) of dead medical records at St. Vincent's Hospital, and line them up in ascending order by year of admittance.
The files begin with a complaint. Something like "My back hurts and I don't know why," or "My leg is broken," or worse things-usually only one sentence, typed up by someone in Admitting. Then a social and family history, which is dictated to the nurse by the patient, and handwritten. This is where the nurses fill in what's really happening, the stuff that doesn't show up in the complaint: "Woman claims to have walked into door," or "Child has bruises on back and legs, father says they are from falling off the bed." Then a medical history, a list of procedures performed, if any, and finally billing information. Sometimes there are X-rays, sometimes there are sonograms. Sometimes there's hardly anything-a blurry carbon copy and illegible signature. The files are stored vertically on shelves in thirty-two rows. They're accented by six different color-coded stickers (green for first-time emergency visit, orange for same-day dismissal, red for DOA, yellow, brown, and light blue for what I haven't been able to figure out yet).
My fingertips are tough, callused by the constant shuffling and reshuffling of paperwork and paper clips, removing the tiny staples, and my cuticles are often rubbed red and raw from jamming my hands in between two folders, cut open on the sharp edges of the files.
I work alone. I don't talk to anyone, don't see anyone. I don't know who deposits the manila folders into the wire in-box. I only know that when I arrive, the box is full, and the files are sometimes spilling over into two or even three stacks on the carpet. I work when I want to, so long as I've made a hefty dent at the end of the week. I don't make enough money to get by on this job alone, so I hustle. Truthfully, I was hustling before I took this job, and if you ever see a documentary film about strippers, or prostitutes, or hustlers, they always say something like: "I couldn't make enough money waiting tables, so I started turning tricks and here I am."
With me it was the opposite.
The fact that I work alone also means that, in some ways, I have no proof of the work at all. I have no product. Other than my fingers, I have nothing to show for it, no physical manifestation of time passing. Hustling is the same. If I flatten myself out enough (in my head, I mean) then it's easily forgettable. And because it's a secret, an almost invisible transaction between strangers, it doesn't really exist. But I will-reluctantly-say this: all the anonymous numbers, all those forgotten histories, the injuries and surgeries and remarkable recoveries, they hide in my fingers. Where the sex work goes, I don't know.
The burned woman? She held a pair of scissors that pressed on that knuckle, and she tucked bobby pins in that tooth, where over the years they carved out a little nick in the enamel. She was a hairdresser.
Right now I'm sucking this guy's cock in his rented BMW, and as he starts to fuck my face his balls tighten up like he's going to explode, and it's shoved too far down my throat for me to practice my practiced technique.
When I look over at my hand holding the armrest of the door, my fist is clenched tight around the brown leather and the dust starts to settle over my eyes. I reach down and start rubbing my finger across his asshole, then pushing it up until I can't get in any farther. He squirms, then moans. Not pleasure or pain. It's a moan of not knowing, of losing control. There is no before and there is no after, there is only now, like the queasy instant just before you sneeze.
He shakes, stops thrusting, grabs my ears, presses my head down. His cum squirts in three short bursts into the back of my throat and it's sour and acrid and awful.
Tomorrow, I think, it won't be so bitter.
Chapter TwoWhen I get back to my apartment my friend Louis is playing Nintendo and he offers me the second controller. "I challenge you to an all-night tournament of endurance," he says.
I make a joke about whether he means playing Mario Kart or having sex. His eyebrows rumple into a dark V, and he pushes the controller into my open hand. I kick off my shoes and take off my shirt. "One game," I say. Without looking at each other, only watching the screen, we start talking. "How long have you been here?"
"Most of the day," he says. "I thought you would be home. I played Nintendo mostly."
"You're at a disadvantage then, already worn out."
"Nope. I'm in the zone. Plus, I got past the Water Fortress. You steal the flute, play the Song of the Wind, and then the door explodes."
"Cool," I say. "I could never figure it out."
"A fairy in the Dark Lands tells you how to do it."
"Which level should we play?"
"I think there's something wrong with the Flower Cup. It gets fuzzy and blinking somewhere around the fourth heat. But I've been playing all day, so I don't know."
"Star Cup it is."
"Let's not argue over who gets to be the Princess."
"You're always the Princess."
"She has the best acceleration of all the cars in her class."
"Her cornering sucks."
The little cartoon carts line up on the screen, the balloons fly, the crowd roars, and the little Nintendo traffic light begins its countdown to go. "Louis, my dear, prepare to die."
We tear through the mud, slinging banana peels and turtle shells at each other, sliding off the track, through tunnels and over secret ramps. I eat a mushroom, which hits me with a burst of speed, and I dash across the screen. Sound effects explode into the room.
"I found a box of Jell-O in your cabinet, so I made that," Louis says. "And then I thought what if they could engineer Jell-O to include all the necessary vitamins and minerals. So that a person could live solely on Jell-O. Forever and ever."
I met Louis five years ago when a basically good-looking white-collar guy from Cleveland hired us to fuck while he watched. We cabbed up to the W Hotel and waited in the blue-haloed lobby, talking about whatever-the weather, a new restaurant, other small talk I've forgotten. Mr. Cleveland arrived only a few minutes late (not uncommon) and we fucked and he got off and it was very vanilla, only what he asked for. Then he paid us an extra hundred bucks to sit around with him and talk about ourselves. Mostly when they pay you to sit around and talk what they really want is for you to sit around and pretend to be interested in their boring-as-shit lives while they fondle your nipple or smell your hair over and over. Pretty icky.
Louis and I exchanged numbers, figuring if we ever have to fuck while somebody watches, we'd be glad to fuck each other. And it happened a few more times, but not too many. And then, almost invisibly, instantaneously, Louis graduated to legit model status, signed an exclusive contract with Calvin Klein, and started to get paid buckets of money for doing what he used to do for a lot less-stand around in his underwear. All of a sudden, he was plastered all over bus stations and subway cars. He stopped hustling and moved into a loft in Tribeca.
Louis zaps me with a lightning bolt and I shrink to the size of a pea, puttering across the grass where I've skidded off the road.
"Take that, Princess!" he shouts, and zooms across the finish line.
Chapter ThreeWe're sitting in Central Park listening to the Metropolitan Opera do Tosca for the Fall Festival. The grass in all directions is covered with quilts, sheets, blankets, people sitting on flattened out garbage bags. The music is blaring and families are sitting all around us, eating picnic dinners and talking to each other.
"Doesn't she throw herself off the parapet?" I say.
"Not tonight. It's in concert only," Farmer says, rustling in the blue zippered bag that he always carries with him. I have never seen him without it.
"Well, that's a disappointment. There should still be a big jumping scene."
"Quit complaining. I think there are fireworks later." The grass brushes against my legs and forearms. It smells fresh and moist. I like it. "Hey, Simon," he says. "There're some red balloons floating away."
"Where?" I bend my neck around.
"Over there." He points. "Let's watch them until we can't see them anymore."
Farmer's lips tighten into a tiny grin. Wispy clouds and birds crowd the violet sky, which is framed on all sides by the skyscrapers, Central Park South and Central Park West and the Fifth Avenue penthouses. I squint, refocusing, as the balloons shrink and drift away. They get lost in my eyes, and I lie back down, frustrated.
"I can't watch anymore," I say.
Farmer's side is pressed against mine. He takes a breath and I know what's about to come out of his mouth is going to be something honest and sweet, and whatever it is, I probably won't understand. Farmer is everything good about humanity rolled into a squat, wrestlerlike package. He has read every one of the one hundred greatest books according to the Modern Library Association, even the boring ones, and he must read the entire New York Times every day-the print edition. His glasses are broken, not in the middle, but at the hinge, and he's repaired them, flawlessly, almost invisibly, with a piece of curved paper clip.
Also, Farmer has the smoothest chest in all of Manhattan.
Farmer speaks: "Did you ever tie a note to a balloon with your name and your address and a little postcard that says something like 'whoever finds this please mail this postcard and tell us where you found the balloon' or something like that? Then you wait and wait until you finally give up and you think that you'll never see that postcard again. Then months later you get your postcard back and it's from a little blond girl somewhere in Maine."
I am lost in the sounds of mothers telling their children what not to do. "No, I never did that."
"It's amazing," he says, his voice quiet and young. "Let's do it. Let's tie a postcard to a balloon and let it go floating away."
I don't really answer, just touch his elbow, thinking he'll let it go. He waits a moment, and then says in this other voice, this collegiate voice, this voice that comes out of nowhere, "I'm so afraid for these families. I wonder if they know that their biology is programmed to work differently. All this talk of marriage and morality, and I'm not even sure that marriage is the correct organizational structure to begin with."
Farmer's apartment is covered in books-huge cabinets of books, their shelves sagging in the center. It looks like they are stacked here and there, wherever things might fit, in no particular arrangement, but I know that Farmer's books are delicately sorted in a kind of invented Dewey Decimal System. I know that he has tiny, emotionally draining dramas about why a book might remain on a certain shelf-at eye level or not, on the end or in the middle. Farmer loves not just the stories but the books themselves, as objects. He even loves the ones in other languages-the languages he can't even read.
I notice the grass against my ankles again and sit up. Jaron, a good friend of ours, an undereater, emerges from the chaos.
"Hello, boys," he says, drawing out the words for as long as his breath will let him. Jaron is fond of appearing when you least expect it-and always from the opposite direction. Wherever you're going, Jaron has just been there and, bored of it already, has decided to leave.
"What are you two doing out here among the people?" he says. Even in the dim light of dusk, Jaron has brought sunglasses. He pulls them off; his eyelids look wrinkled.
"It's good to see you," Farmer says.
"There never was a more lovely sight. Simon and Farmer sitting together on the grass listening to the happy music."
"Want something to eat?" I say.
"You know, I'm so hungry I could eat the ass out of a rag doll."
On any given day, Jaron might ingest five to ten no-salt crackers, a banana, a gazillion pills of various sorts, and a gallon of water. Perhaps some days he eats less. Your typical binge and starve. Once I caught him at my refrigerator with a soup spoon in the grape jelly, the purplish goop smeared across his lips and snaking down his chin. He smiled back at me, embarrassed, his mouth full of glossy indigo teeth. If we go out to dinner, which is historically rare, Jaron has a salad, removes the tomatoes ("The acid is bad for my stomach," he says), and proceeds to slowly, methodically, clean his plate. I wonder how he stays alive.
Jaron also cuts himself-a self-mutilator, they call it. Knives, razors, nail files, thumbtacks, whatever he can find that will make a mark. His arms and hands are scarred from the constant nicking. We mostly ignore it. He's made it clear that we're not to ask. And the times when he ends up in the hospital, from a combination of cutting and not eating, we never ask, "What was it this time?"
Sometimes I read the files after he's been discharged. It occasionally takes years for files to make it to my stack, so by the time they get to me, they're practically ancient. But once or twice I have reached into the bin to find a folder with his patient number-433.533.3-this thing that makes you what you are in these endless rows of bureaucracy. And I know that this means that Jaron was in the hospital long before I knew him. The nurses often mistake the cuts for a suicide attempt, and sometimes they try to send him to the psychiatric unit-which is a pink sticker. Sometimes I take the files home with me and bury them under the mattress. It feels like spying, in a way. Or lying, because I never mention it.
"What did I interrupt?" Jaron says.
"I was just telling Simon how sad I am for these families," Farmer says. "I don't know why the system hasn't failed. Or failed in a more obvious way."
"Television," Jaron says, "has taught the American family a spiraling pack of lies. If you want something to blame, blame that. But I'm tired of people acting like the television is an invasion. It merely lies there. You're the one who has to sit in front of it and pay attention. People only do what they want."
Farmer and I lie back in the grass. The arias ebb and swell, like water.
"And furthermore, these people out here, these sad families, they aren't here because they are fans of Puccini, or they want to spend time with one another. They're out here because it was on the news, or they saw their neighbors going. Herd mentality, you know. It's disturbing."
Jaron situates his sunglasses on his face again, like a final fantastic stage exit. I've turned off. Farmer is tossing little stones into the air above his head and catching them. He's startled and sits up fast. "More balloons, look."
Jaron turns his head slowly, as if it were filled to the crown with lead. "Don't tell me he tired you with that postcard from the blond girl in Maine mumbo jumbo." Farmer keeps staring into the cooling air.
I say, "No, not really."
Excerpted from YIELD by LEE HOUCK Copyright © 2010 by Lee Houck. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Simon is a young gay hustler in New York, part time that is, his other job is filing medical notes in a hospital. As a hustler he is successful and has a number of well paying regular clients, but when he starts to have feelings for his newest client, Aiden, he begins to question his way of life.Simon has three loyal friends who are very much part of his life, but they each have their own problems too, and they try to help each other face these. There is also the ongoing threat of violence as a gang carry out a series of brutal attacks on gay men, something which directly affects our four young friends.Yield is an affecting and appealing story, narrated by Simon he frequently tries to convey how he feels about the various issues in his life, and his growing attachment to Aiden. The reader might question some aspects of the book; for example while there are a number of not too explicit sex scenes there is never any mention of condoms. There are several ways of reasoning on this but whatever it did not pose any problems for me, certainly it would seem out of character to assume Simon was taking any risks. The ending is inconclusive yet positive and satisfying leaving room for the reader to draw his own conclusions.The book includes questions for reader groups and also an interview with the author.
It was enjoyable to see this entire story unfold through the lead character's eyes. I usually prefer fiction told in the third person, but Simon's unique point of view made this interesting. He doesn't judge others (at least not his friends). He simply takes them as they are. That is difficult to do, and allows the person that can to live a very different kind of life. I liked that various types of gay people are represented. The characters are flawed, but likeable. Many of the scenes are short and intentionally ambiguous. I might have preferred that some of the action were allowed to play out on the page, so that we could sometimes KNOW what happened. Overall the story kept me well engaged, and provoked some serious thoughts. That's what I want from a novel. Also, in the current climate of awareness about bullying, this book's discussion of gay-bashing is important. Even in America, gay people still live in danger. Michael Travis Jasper, Author of the Novel, "To Be Chosen"