Beauties, Awake

By Joe Baumann


When Thomas cannot sleep, he walks to the house of beautiful boys.  The Missouri air is syrup, prickling fresh sweat on the back of his neck.  The breeze is oven exhaust.  He stares from across the street, imagining the house full of boys, all sleeping, piled like kittens on four-poster canopied beds.  Curled in pairs on couches.  Sprawled, heaped, tangled on shag Berber carpet.  Drooped on wing-backed chairs.  Their hair is mussed.  Their armpits give off a cloying stink.  Their muscles are taut and young, their skin fresh and clear.  They are beautiful boys, waiting to be awoken.

Thomas has tried staring up at the ceiling of his dingy bedroom until his eyes water and his bedsheets strangle, overheat.  He has tried herbal teas, melatonin, Tylenol PM, off-brand Tylenol PM, cough syrup.  He has tried masturbation and alcohol and exercise and reading.  But nothing works.  So he walks down streets, the sky blue-black, streetlamps cutting through the grim like tiny fireflies growing larger as he approaches.  He always stops beneath a willow tree across the street from the house.  Night winds rustle the long vines of branches.  The bark is cool against his skin.  He leans and stares, imagining the boys emerging from the depths of their dreams to frolic through dark rooms.  Thomas closes his eyes and pictures the flounce of their bodies, the rich chortle of their laughter, their grunts as they play, wrestling and shoving.  He zooms in on their mouths as they eat or suck down water, bodies heaving for breath after bursts of anaerobic exercise, muscles tight and screaming.  He feels hard heat in his center, a bursting waiting to happen.

Thomas works as a barback in a popular Italian restaurant that claims everything is authentic and handmade but the walk-in refrigerator and its boxes of dried pastas would beg to differ.  He keeps his mouth shut and washes out beer steins, rinses wine glasses, ices bottles of pinot blanc.  His favorite bartender, Vivian, teaches him how to make the more complicated cocktails: Ramos Gin Fizz, Vieux Carre, Pisco Sour. She tips him out the best, and in return he makes sure her segment of the bar is always well-stocked, her mixers fresh and supply of coasters never close to running low.  When she’s on the close shift he stays late to help her sweep and take nightly inventory even though he doesn’t have to.  She only ever says thanks and cuffs his bicep with a grateful squeeze.  Vivian lives with her mother, Thomas knows, a woman who’s been bound by a wheelchair for ten years thanks to long-undiagnosed MS.  If this has weighed on her, Vivian doesn’t show it; she is always chipper and cheery, her face molded into a perpetual smile.  Her skin is smooth, glowing, and although he can’t be sure, he’s almost positive she never wears makeup; at most, she brushes her lips with gloss and her eyelashes with mascara.  Her voice is a boxy growl, like a smoker’s, even though he never sees her light up—she certainly doesn’t join most of the waitstaff for cigs out the back door of the kitchen, even though it means that, like Thomas, she rarely gets a moment away during a shift—and she’s constantly laughing, her chuckling sounding genuine, not the manufactured stuff tipped employees have to use to woo customers into giving a better chunk of change at the end of their meal.

Thomas works himself to exhaustion, trying to deplete the buzzy energy in his head.  Vivian tells him to slow down when he nearly slips on the non-skid rubber mats behind the bar that grow slick with spill anyway.  He half-smiles when she says this and works twice as hard, arms achy from how vigorously he scrubs drinkware.  Vivian shakes her head, clucks at him, and pours martinis.

He leaves each night smelling of mid-list vodka, red wine, the char of steaks.  His armpits are glazed with sweat and his feet throb, but no matter what, he can never sleep.  It is only after visiting the house of the boys, after slicing through the night, his footsteps on the sidewalk gonging, after the slink back to his apartment, a studio above a boutique gym that features seven am Zumba classes and lunch-hour Crossfit, that he falls into fitful sleep, where he dreams of nothing but the boys: boys around, boys above, boys below.


Girls come to the house.  They brings gifts of silver thread spun from their enchanted hands.  They carry piles of glimmering hair on their heads.  They flute songs from their elegant throats, powerful enough to make the worst overlords weep.  To their hands come birds and chipmunks, mice and kittens.  They breathe warmth and love and hope as they observe the beautiful boys, wandering room to room, oohing and ahhing over the slumbering youth.  They reach out their willowy fingers toward their foreheads and curled hair, brush their hands against their hips and abs, run palms across their shoulders and backs.  The boys never wake, though sometimes they snarfle, flop over, kick each other gently in the groins as they turn.

The girls offer themselves, their skills, their money, their powers.  They bargain and they plead, and sometimes they are heard.  Sometimes a boy awakens, stretching and yawning and uncurling himself from his bunkmates, careful and polite as he slithers out from their grasps, flexing his quads and fingertips.  He pads downstairs to the foyer, guided by something invisible, a knowing where to go without being told, and he sees a girl waiting there, perhaps a girl with a magical voice, or a heap of gold, or a face shot with more natural beauty than a mountain lake.  He walks out the door with her, leaving the other beautiful boys behind, the girl leaving something behind, too, their hands intertwined, his feet bare, her urgency palpable like a fog, and they vanish from the house.  The other boys keep sleeping.


Is Thomas beautiful, too?  He knows the answer is yes.  Thomas takes care of himself, not just by going to the gym and lifting heavy weights for hours at a time and then running on a treadmill faster than anyone around him, setting his core muscles on fire with planks that last two minutes each.  He also spreads moisturizer across his elbows and knees, runs it over his forearms.  He owns a special jar for his face, which is clean of acne scars or skinfolds.  If he keeps himself whippy with youth long enough, he thinks, something is bound to happen.

“What’s your story?” Vivian asks him one slow Saturday night, the bar dead, the dining room three-quarters empty.  The manager has told Thomas to clear out the floor mats and refill anything Vivian needs for close and to then clock out early.  Although he has nowhere to go, would rather spend another hour of another sleepless night losing time to cleaning martini glasses and learning wine and food pairings from Vivian, he does as he’s told.  Then Vivian stops him at the POS computer.

“My story?”

She leans against the bar top, her white shirt crinkling at her throat.  The collar is starched, her uniform-regulation black tie cinched tight.  “Yeah.  Your story.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Clock out,” she says, waving at the computer.  “Then saddle up.  A drink on me.”

Thomas has always liked direction, having someone else tell him what to do.  For his workouts at the gym, he’s written down pre-made set lists he’s found online and never deviates from them.  When his manager has a task outside the bounds of his usual duties, Thomas immediately acquiesces, never making complaint about unclogging a toilet or sweeping up a heap of broken glass in front of the expo line.  If the bar is particularly slow, he offers no compunction about being asked to fill ramekins of crème brulee or helping to dice chicken.

“What’ll ya have?” Vivian says when he sits on the stool, work apron snaked in a heap in his lap.  Her eyes glint auburn in the sconces dangling from above the bar.

“Um.  Whiskey and coke?”

“Sure thing,” Vivian says, showing no displeasure at the simplicity, the childishness, of such an order: so many options, and Thomas chooses something so crass.  She disappears down the bar, which is a long horseshoe, dark wood and soft lights meant to be romantic and, Thomas assumes, reminiscent of somewhere in Italy.  Thomas has never left the country.  He’s never left Missouri.  He went to college only twenty minutes from home.  It took all he had—materially, financially, mentally—to not move back into his parents’ house when he graduated.

Vivian returns with his drink, and he can smell the sharp cut of whiskey when she sets it down.  Before sliding it to him, she says, “It’s not free, you know.”


She laughs.  “Well, I mean, you have to tell me your story instead of a pay a bill.”

Thomas bites his cheek.  He’s suddenly, for once, quite tired.


The boys sleep through rain and crashes of thunder, the hard slash of lightning.  They do not stir when hail batters the windows and knocks shingles from the roof.  Siren wails do not pierce their dreams.  Screaming children, the honks of car horns, blasts of music.  Nothing pulls the boys from sleep before they are ready.  Once each week, at the stroke of midnight that births Sunday, the boys wake of their own accord.  They shuffle through the house, taking turns in the bathrooms, scrounging through the refrigerator, gnashing at sandwiches and bags of chips.  They belch and drink water by the glassful.  They smack their lips and rub at their eyes.  They share their dreams, voices creamy with remembrances of flight and sex and circus freaks, islands in the sky, volcanos, car accidents.  They trade places, finding new spots to slumber, new mates to cuddle up with, and, when dawn approaches, fall back asleep.


The drink is strong; Vivian has mixed in some kind of bitters to augment the whiskey, which is definitely not the bottom shelf stuff reserved for the plebian consumers who don’t think to ask for a particular brand.  Thomas muffles a cough.

What he’s given up to Vivian is his insomnia, his stories about being unable to sleep through the night, a years-long battle with his brain.  This, apparently, was a good answer; she nodded and slid the glass forward, though she added, before checking on the last of her bar patrons, “That’s only enough for a few sips.”

While she’s gone, Thomas tries to decide what else to tell.  He has not mentioned his nightly sojourns to the house of beautiful boys.  That, he knows, would at best make Vivian shake her head and cluck, and at worst think he was an obsessive, stalker-like weirdo.

But the problem is that, as far as Thomas can say, he has no other story.  He’s boring, graduate of a BA in Marketing program of which he remembers next to nothing; he went to college because he was smart enough to and everyone he went to high school with was doing the same.  He doesn’t care about marketing.  He doesn’t care about a whole lot.

When Vivian reappears, she smiles at him and tugs at the coaster beneath his drink, causing the glass to move away from Thomas.

“Well?” she says.

Vivian returns the drink when Thomas admits he hasn’t ever had a serious girlfriend.  She looks pouty, doubtful, and Thomas is glad she can’t see the flare in his cheeks thanks to the low light.  She disappears again to run a plate of fried calamari to the “one jackass still drinking” on the other side of the bar.  Thomas can’t remember a time Vivian spoke like that about a customer, even people who ran her ragged, asking for one thing after another, forcing her to trot to the kitchen for the parmesan cheese or an extra plate and then a fresh roll of silverware and then another glass of malbec and then a to-go box and then a refill on their water.  When someone leaves a bad tip or breaks a glass, sending expensive Beaujolais slithering across the bar top, she shrugs it off—literally—and keeps on keeping on.

Thomas takes a large sip, the whiskey burning as he holds it in his mouth, the carbonation of the coke popping against his tongue.  He swallows and sips again, deciding he’ll finish the drink before Vivian comes back.  He succeeds, barely, the back of his throat feeling sour and raw, his stomach gurgling in protest; Thomas realizes he hasn’t eaten since before his shift, and his insides slosh at the poor anchorage in his gut.  Upon her appearance Vivian says nothing, takes the glass, and fills it back up.  She says, “So no girlfriends, huh?”

Thomas says, “What about you?”


“No girlfriends of your own?”

Vivian laughs.  “You’re funny.”  She pushes the drink toward him, encourages him to drink, and he does, sucking it all down.


Sometimes when a girl emerges with her treasure, Thomas feels a leaping desire to clobber her on the head and run off with her prize.  On other occasions he wants to slip inside as they depart, join the boys, that cavern of bready bodies.  What a miracle that would be.  What a terrific resolution to his story.  Thomas knows he has no gifts to give, no magic, nothing special to spin out of his hands in return for a boy.  So he stares with a jealous tinge in his mouth.  Thomas watches the girls trot off, arm-in-arm with their newly-awakened beautiful boys, who look like foals discovering the world for the first time.  He wants to bowl the girls over and clutch the boys himself, bring them back to his apartment and feed them cereal, lead them to his bed where they can lie in warm comfort, where Thomas can feel the tight shape of their bodies up close, can smell the sweet-sour of their sweat.  Where he can feel anchored and no longer alone.  Where he can finally sleep.


Because he drinks too much and staggers to and from the bathroom, Vivian offers to drive Thomas home.  When she turns out of the parking lot, he points out that she’s going the wrong way and she replies with, “I have a better idea.”

Her house is a tiny bungalow in a seedy neighborhood full of wrought-iron fences and crumbling porches.  On the way to the front door, he says, “You never told me your story.”

“Let’s just say,” she says, sticking her key in the lock, “that it’s tragic.”

A small foyer opens into a cozy living room with hardwood floors and a pair of floral-upholstered couches separated by a low coffee table the color of well bourbon.  A television is on but muted, casting the room in an aquarium glow.  Vivian waves for Thomas to follow her past the furniture and through a small archway leading into a kitchen, where she pulls a pair of glasses from a cabinet.  The appliances are white to match the Formica countertops.  Instead of mixing cocktails, Vivian pours water from the sink and hands one of the glasses to Thomas, who drinks half of it without pause.  The room smells faintly of a past meal, something starchy and garlicky.

“We’ll have to stay quiet because of my mother.”  Vivian nods toward one of the walls.  “Her bedroom’s right there.”
Thomas isn’t exactly drunk, but he’s not exactly sober.  He’s not quite clear on what Vivian wants, though he has ideas.

“How is she?” he says.

Vivian finishes her water and upends the glass in a drying rack next to the sink.  She holds out her hand for his and he does the same.

“As well as she can be,” she says, then waves for him to follow her.  Thomas expects that they’re headed for her bedroom and his heart starts to pound, his gait wobbling, but instead she leads him to a sliding glass door and out to a small back patio.  The night air is dense with humidity and the chirp of bugs.  Vivian throws herself down in a wicker chair.  Thomas sits in the other.  Between them is a glass-topped table.  For a long time, Vivian says nothing.  She cranes her neck up toward the sky and stares, so Thomas looks too: the black is cloudless so stars twinkle bright.  He’s never learned the constellations, so he can’t piece together anything worth seeing aside from their shimmery jewel-like light.

Eventually, Vivian says, “It’s not easy, you know?”

“What isn’t?”

“Any of it.”

Thomas swallows.  He nods, but then, realizing Vivian is still looking up, says, “I know.”

“What do you dream about?”

“You have to sleep to dream.”

She finally looks at him.

“Almost every night I lie awake for hours.”  He’s not sure why he’s repeating all of this, but as soon as he starts, he feels a pressure release somewhere inside him.  Maybe it’s the whiskey, still whirling through his blood, but whatever it is, he keeps going.  “If I do sleep, it’s when it’s nearly morning.  Sometimes I go out and—”  He pauses.  Then he tells her about the boys, feeling a tart tinge at the back of his throat when he imagines being there, among them, joyfully slumbering and then being chosen.  His voice breaks on that word, just a little crack: chosen.

“Oh, Thomas,” Vivian says, her voice suddenly coated thick with sorrow.  “We all want to be chosen, don’t we?”  She looks up at the stars again, but this time only briefly.  She slaps both of her knees, and he thinks she’s going to stand, boot him out, but she just says, “But what happens when we get chosen for the wrong thing?”

Thomas shakes his head.  He tries to picture her mother, some tiny, crooked woman, an older version of Vivian that the real Vivian always has on her mind, a list of tasks a mile long always waiting to be ticked off one at a time, all for nothing but to keep her mother alive.

His tongue has suddenly stopped cooperating.  Everything has gone dry.

Vivian vaults up from her seat.  “Come on,” she says.

“Where are we going?”

She turns and looks him in the eye.  “To get you one of those boys.”


New arrivals materialize as if from nowhere.  After all, there can never be too many beautiful boys.  When the boys wake, they are sometimes pressed up against a brand new body whom they will treat like an old friend.  They will lead him on a silent tour, pointing out the washroom and the kitchen, which cabinet holds their cups and plates and where the trash can is.  He will be wearing as much clothing as he needs for comfort and will have very few questions.

Because the boys are clean-slated, wiped blank, minds set on nothing but sleep.

What else, after all, does a beautiful boy need?


The house of the beautiful boys is only a few blocks from Vivian’s, so they walk.  Thomas teeters from whiskey and shot nerves, and Vivian pats him on the arm a few times.  They stop under the same willow tree Thomas usually uses for cover.  He feels both a comforting familiarity and a knifing disappointment.  Vivian stands on the sidewalk, hemming him in next to the tree.  He looks at her looking at the house, her eyes appraising, squinched, lips pursed.

On his first day at the restaurant, she told him to call her Viv, something everyone else did but he simply couldn’t.  Thomas still doesn’t know why the clipped nickname clogs his throat, even now, when he’s spangly with drink and slick with night sweat.  He should be loose, willing, happy to uncinch the buttons that dig into his body, his tautest self coming unthreaded.  But even now, as then, there’s something about the implicit intimacy, the immediate friendliness that he couldn’t and can’t convince himself he deserves.

Thomas has no idea what time it is.  He could look at his phone, but that feels somehow sacrilegious, disallowed, as if he’s standing on a rickety plank that will split if he lets such an invasion occur.  Thomas looks toward the house: perhaps this is the hour during which the boys are awake, their beautiful bodies bounding through the house like kittens at play, at feast.  He feels saliva gather in his throat.

As Vivian starts to cross the street, she says, “Let’s get you your boy.”

Thomas manages to yell out, “What about you?”

She stops and looks back at him, head cocked just so, eyes narrowed in a question.

“Don’t you want one too?”

For a second she says nothing, giving him a once-over of some kind, looking for Thomas doesn’t know what.  But then she laughs, craning her neck back and resting a hand on her stomach.  “Oh, Thomas.  I’m not into all that.  You didn’t know?”

He feels his face go hot.  “You’re—but you said.”  He swallows another thick wad of spit.

Vivian laughs again, this time a tempered chuckle.  She shakes her head.  “No.  When I say all that, I mean it.  All of it.”

Thomas feels a hot gust of wind tear his eyes.  He nods.  Vivian waves her arm for him to follow her.  “Now,” she says.  “About that boy.”


What must it feel to be a beautiful boy in a beautiful house standing among other beautiful boys and hearing a knock on the door when there should not be one?  What must the air in the room do, twisting and flipping into a sour concern, boys looking at one another, glancing at the door, breathing heavy and confused?  And then when no one goes to the door and the knock repeats itself, this time on a window covered in a heavy drape, the glassy noise echoing in the silence?  What then?

Do the hearts of those beautiful boys beat fast, and hard, a quickness and solidity they’ve hardly known?

Do they rub their eyes?  Do they try to laugh their fear away?

What about when the knocking comes at the rear of the house, at the sliding glass doors they never open, never peer through?

What if they are being haunted?  Or hunted?

And what, then, when the glass breaks into many tiny, jagged pieces?


Thomas isn’t surprised when no one opens the door at Vivian’s knock.  He isn’t surprised, either, that she tries the front bay window, her knuckles pinging off the glass with a high-pitched tink.  He isn’t entirely surprised by her frustration, or his disappointment, which is a flood of cool washing over his throat and chest.  But he is surprised when she waves for him to follow her as she stalks around the side of the house, past a thick row of pines blocking the view of the neighboring house.  Blooms of alstroemeria brush at his ankles, her knees, their feet.  Thomas is again unsurprised when her knock at the back door, the view of the interior obscured by hanging blinds, is unanswered.  He pictures the boys turning their heads, raising their eyebrows, thinking: this isn’t how things are to be.

But he is fully surprised when Vivian picks up a decorative rock, the size of a kitten, and heaves it at the glass.

The noise is like a world being swallowed by a whirlpool.  Thomas’s teeth grind.  His vision spins, as if he, and not the door, has been broken.  Vivian takes up another rock and uses it to clear enough glass that she can reach through the jagged hole she’s made.  She fiddles for the door’s lock, careful not to tear her skin on the toothy edge.  When she finds it, she turns to him with a terrifying rictus on her face and says, “Come on, Thomas.”

“I don’t—I’m not.”

She swings the door open.  It swishes on its track.  The blinds behind it flutter like a flock of scared livestock.  Vivian shoves them aside and gestures.  “In you go.”

Thomas steps forward.  The interior is dark and silent.  It feels like he is about to climb down into a narrow, trap-laced hole.  “You aren’t coming with me?”

Vivan looks almost sad as she says, “What’s in there isn’t for me, Thomas.  We both know that.”

He doesn’t want to admit that this is true.  Thomas feels a crushing weight: fear for himself, sorrow for Vivian, excitement for himself, loss for Vivian.  A dizzying hope for the boys beyond, hiding in the dark.

“Come along,” Vivian says, her voice hushed, like this is the end of something.  Perhaps, Thomas thinks, it is.  “It’s for the best.”

“I know,” he says, stepping up to the door.  He can still smell Vivian’s perfume, or maybe it is deodorant, smothered under alcohol and the sweat that rings her body each night as she plies her trade.  He wonders if she feels the same jamming throb in her joints that he does.  Of course she does, he decides.

“Don’t keep them waiting,” she says, but she is looking past him, up at the starry sky.

“I won’t,” Thomas says.

He steps into the dark.

Joe Baumann is the author of four collections of short fiction, most recently Where Can I Take You When There’s Nowhere to Go, from BOA Editions, and the novels I Know You’re Out There Somewhere and Lake, Drive. His fiction and essays have appeared in Third Coast, Passages North, Phantom Drift, and many others. He possesses a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. He was a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow in
Fiction. He can be reached at