The day I was to take Mrs. Smith to the clinic, I got to Justin's place a few minutes before nine. Ms. Smith had fixed her hair and was neatly dressed even though her clothes just hung on her she had lost so much weight. Justin helped her to the car. I had tilted the passenger's seat back a bit and arranged the pillows I brought, hoping it would be comfortable. His mother in the car, Justin kissed her on the cheek and asked, "Sure you don't want me to come with you?" There was a wistful tone in his voice, but his mama smiled and shook her head. As we walked around the car, out of sight, Justin said, "Marc, find out all you can. I'm really worried." I wanted to put his head on my shoulder, hold him tight and tell him everything would be all right, but all I could do was give him a hug.
When I got back in the car, Ms. Smith as dozing, or so I thought. Then as soon as we were on our way, she opened her eyes, sighed deeply and said, "Marc, Hon, I need to talk to you."
"I'd like you to know what is going on with me and where it will end. I haven't been able to talk to Justin about it. I know I should, but I just can't. Maybe you can do it for me."
I said nothing.
"This trip to the clinic today is not about a cure. It's about making the end as easy as possible. I know you are a man and while you might not have had a lot of experience, I know you're not ignorant of the ways of the world. Over nineteen years ago now, a rodeo, pow-wow, amusements, kind of thing came to town. Not much of a show I now know, but I was a sixteen-year-old girl, living with an abusive old man and a nagging mother. I was looking for escape and when that kind of thing came to town, I went looking for excitement, dreaming of escape. One of the rodeo performers was an Indian, a Sioux, or so he claimed and I see no reason to doubt it. Anyway, he was handsome as all get out. Hot, very hot -- I'm not embarrassing you am I?"
I kept my eyes on the road and "No," which wasn't entirely true. Adults -- I mean grownups... I mean, you know, older people -- weren't supposed to talk about having sex, especially with teenagers, even older teenagers.
"As I said, I was just sixteen, thought I knew all about men and was ready for adventure. He showed me a wonderful time after the show, a real wonderful time. He gave me feelings I didn't know a women could have. He took my virginity -- don't get me wrong, I had freely offered it to him. Virginity gone, I knew I couldn't go home. If I did and my old man found out what I had done -- and he would have -- he would have killed me or, at best, made me wish I was dead.
The show was in town for four more days. Chayton said I could stay with him in his tiny trailer and I did. The next few days, we had sex before breakfast, before the show in the afternoon, after the afternoon show and before and after the evening show. Marc, you're blushing!" she laughed softly.
"Yes, Ma'am," I replied, still not looking at her. Sometimes I wish I wasn't so fair and blushed so easily. This was one of those times.
"You're sweet. Anyway, the sex was great and I was prepared to move on to the next town with Chayton, but he had other plans. I was left alone, a sixteen-year-old, with no place to go. I didn't know what I was going to do. I had been without food for a whole day and night when I finally got up courage to go to the back door of the Blue Bird Cafe and beg for food.
When I knocked on the back door, old Mrs. Crawford, who owned the Blue Bird Cafe, came to the door and when I told her I hadn't had food since the night before, she just about had a fit. She took me inside, fed me, and asked why I didn't go home. I broke down in tears and told her everything."
"She called my old man and he, as I expected, disowned me. Mrs. Crawford took me in, giving me a place to live. In exchange, I had to go back to school and work in the cafe after school. A couple months later, I knew there would be more results from my few days of great sex. I knew I was pregnant. I wanted to keep it a secret from Mrs. Crawford since I didn't know what she'd do. I thought she'd never guess -- I mean I was a sixteen-year-old who could fool herself real easy. I was barely starting to show before she knew. I managed to finish out the school year and worked until the month before Justin was born."
"Marc, the cost of those four days has been high, very high at times, but I'd not change a thing because it would mean there'd be no Justin. Justin makes it all worthwhile, makes it more than worth it. He is the light of my life. He IS my life."
"Anyway, I continued working at the Blue Bird and living with Mrs. Crawford. She adored Justin and even after she sold the Blue Bird and retired, insisted we stay with her. Justin was the grandbaby she always wanted and never had, and she was not about to have him move now when she had loads of free time to spend with him. That's one reason Justin did well in school: she had taught him more than most first or second graders knew before he started school."
"The new owners of the Blue Bird gave me a substantial raise -- after all, Mrs. Crawford provided room and board for me and Justin -- and allowed me first choice of working schedules. That's when I started working breakfast and lunch. So I stayed at the Blue Bird and Mrs. Crawford's until she had to give up and go to the nursing home. Her house had to be sold to pay for the nursing home and Justin and I had to find a place to live. Since I had very little to spend money on -- clothes and toys for Justin were about it -- I had saved a surprising amount of money and had a sizable down-payment to put on the place where we still live."
"I guess I had always assumed Justin would just get some kind of job and live out a life here. It never occurred to me he might be able to do otherwise. Mrs. Crawford had different thoughts and always reminded me and him he could do whatever he set his mind to. Anyway, when he started talking college, I didn't discourage him, but did caution him not to set his sights too high. Then his counselor told me there was no reason he couldn't get all the scholarship help he needed. I finally looked at him and realized he was grown and it took a while for me to face it, but I knew he would be leaving, and in the not too distant future."
"I was very lonely, feeling sorry for myself and facing a life alone when, suddenly, there was a man in my life. Oh, to be honest, there have been short flings in my life from time to time, but nothing serious. This was different."
"Archibald Jenkins is -- was -- a farmer who had been coming into the Blue Bird for breakfast with a bunch of cronies on Saturdays for years. About three years ago, his wife was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. She had treatments in Greenville which slowed its progress, but didn't stop it. Then she started being in and out of the hospital here for, I guess, six months. When she was in the hospital, Archie came to the Blue Bird for breakfast and sometimes for lunch."
"After he finished his meal, he'd sit at the counter, nursing a cup of coffee, gazing into space. Between customers we chatted -- about his wife and their life together, about how hard it had been when the only child they had, a son, was killed in a tractor accident when he was twelve, the things they had enjoyed doing. He was reliving a life that was slowly slipping away."
"As much as he hated to have her leave the farm, the last time she came to the hospital, the doctors urged him to place her in hospice where her pain could be better controlled. They both knew the end was near and he spent all his time with her except for coming to the Blue Bird for breakfast and lunch. She died a week after she entered hospice. He came by to tell me she was gone and asked if I would attend her funeral. I did, and it was obvious Archie was devastated."
After a couple weeks, he started coming in for a late breakfast a couple times a week -- he explained things were slow on the farm that time of year and after he did the morning chores, he had been sitting around brooding. So, he said, he decided he'd come into town and have breakfast. By the time he came in, things were slow at the Blue Bird and we'd talk. He talked about how lonely he was, how hemissed his wife, and how he couldn't seem to get over her death. Before long he was coming in more and more frequently."
"I guess that was about six months after his wife had died, he came in all dressed up. 'Wanted you to know I haven't been kidnapped,' he laughed. 'Becky' --his late wife -- 'and I talked about traveling round the world, but she was never ready to do it. I've decided to do it for her -- and myself. See you when I get back.'"
"I didn't see him for a couple months and when he came in, he looked years younger. There was a sparkle in his eyes and he seemed more alive that I had ever seen him. He was back on a fairly regular late breakfast schedule and we talked about where he had been and what he had seen. It was pretty exciting to someone who had barely been out of the county. Then, after he had been back for a month or so, he asked me to have dinner with him. He laughed and said he thought we could do a little better place than the Blue Bird. I saw no reason why not and before I knew it, we were seeing a great deal of each other."
"Justin knew I was going out with a friend occasionally -- when we went out at night. Actually, we seldom went out at night. Since I worked breakfast and lunch shifts, Archie'd come in for lunch and when I finished up, we take in a movie, go to the beach, do fun things. Then -- I guess about a month after he first asked me out to dinner -- we ended up in bed at his place. That was definitely not something you want to talk to your grown son about!"
"We talked about getting married and, thinking about how soon I would be left alone with Justin in college, I was all for it, but neither of us were in any hurry. Then one night as he was taking me home, he said, 'Naomi, I'm going to be gone a couple weeks again. After my around the world trip, I got connected with a group helping third-world country farms. I hate to leave, but I think I might really make a contribution.' Of course, I told him to go."
"When he came back, he didn't mention marriage, but I guess I thought we had already discussed that and would go ahead with it when we were ready. Anyway, there was another trip to Asia, then one to South America. I was actually proud of him and when he said he'd like to finish his trips before we were married, I agreed."
"Shortly after Archie came back from a farm trip, I thought I had a pretty bad case of the flu and went to see Doc Jakes. He agreed that it was the flu and sent me home to bed. I guess men don't know a lot about yeast infections, but I kept having them and couldn't seem to get rid of them. Then -- well, let's just say that I needed to see Doc Jakes for a different problem and he diagnosed me with syphilis. He also insisted I have a test for HIV."
"Unprotected sex? Obviously. Archie had insisted he was clean and we'd both enjoy bareback better than with a condom. After we had slept together a few times I gave in. I hope I don't have to add that the only way I could have contacted syphilis was from Archie. I was devastated. Then the HIV test came back positive, I was ready to kill Archie. Fortunately for him, he was on one of his trips, but was supposed to be back in two days. I was put on the HIV drug cocktail right away and told that HIV/AIDS was now, not curable, but controllable."
Ms. Smith fell silent and when I glanced at her, I thought she had fallen asleep until she said, "I need to rest a minute." She rode with her eyes closed for ten minutes or so, then picked up her story.
"Archie didn't show and apparently disappeared off the face of the earth. Finally, I received phone call from a lawyer asking me to come by his office 'in regard to a matter concerning Archibald Jenkins.' Seems Archibald had ordered his farm sold and his debts paid. Any money left was to go to me 'to help pay medical expenses.'" Ms. Smith laughed a bitter laugh. "Archie had lived high on his travels. There was a whole $5,000 left after his debts were paid and, of course, the lawyer's fee had to be deducted. The lawyer gave me a check for $3,000 and a letter, postmarked in Brazil, addressed to me in care of the lawyer."
"The letter was pretty long, but boiled down to Archie saying he guessed he was bisexual. He liked sex with women -- at least with Becky and me since we were his only heterosexual partners -- and he had a thing for boys -- young boys, twelve or thirteen. Living on a farm outside a small town, he kept his lust for boys under control until he made the around the world trip and discovered there were places where you could have your fill of boys for a few dollars a day. True to what he had said to me -- and in spite of knowing it was at best dumb and probably deadly -- he had unprotected sex with several young male prostitutes in Thailand. He picked up syphilis and, while he didn't know it at the time, HIV/AIDS."
"He ended the letter, 'Naomi, there is no way I can come back home. I have arranged to sell the farm and you will be getting a little money to help with your medical bills should you have any. I'm going up the Amazon tomorrow and I'll not be coming back. Sorry.'"
"As if that wasn't bad enough, there is more. I took my medicines religiously and thought everything was under control, then about the time you left for camp, I got up one morning with a high fever. I panicked, thinking I had full-blown AIDS. Might as well have been, I guess. I had an infection, not good when your immune system is weakened, but antibiotics would clear that up, right? Wrong. Doc Jakes gave me first one, then another. He increased dosages with no results."
"He had taken a culture, but the local lab found nothing. He finally sent a culture to the lab in Greenville and they asked him to send one to CDC -- Center for Disease Control -- in Atlanta. When the results came back, he couldn't believe it. It was another gift from Archibald; I had been infected with a bug that is practically unknown in this country and for which there is no, and I mean no, effective treatment."
"Now it is a question of whether I will develop full-blown AIDS before the bug kills me. It looks like the bug is winning." Ms. Smith said with a bitter laugh. "Marc, I don't want to die, you know that, but neither do I want to be bedridden with Justin tied down wiping my ass and feeding me. I am on a last-ditch drug which may very well -- likely in fact -- do nothing against the bug and may kill me. That's the long and short of it. Today, I find out if the drug has done anything -- I'm positive it hasn't -- and learn what I can expect in the short time I have left." She fell silent again and I remained silent. I found I had nothing to say.
After we rode in silence for a while, she said, "Sorry to dump that load on you, Marc, but you are Justin's best friend and I thought you needed to know and, yeah, I'd like for you to tell him. I don't think I can do it. I know I can't. Promise me you will. And, yeah, promise me you'll never have unprotected sex unless you are absolutely, positively, hand-on-the-Bible sure you both are disease free."
I didn't answer right away. She had asked an awful lot of me, maybe more than I could deliver. About telling Justin I mean. When I finally spoke, I said, "I promise no unprotected sex unless I am sure we are both clean," and asked myself how I would ever know. "And I'll do my best to tell Justin about, you know, but I won't promise. I love him too and maybe I can't hurt him that much."
"I understand," she replied, "I sure do."
I expected the clinic to be a small building, probably rundown, in a poor neighborhood. That's what clinics were to me, but this was part of a very large hospital and had dozens of people dressed in scrubs running around. We went up to the fourth floor where I was shown to a nice waiting area and Ms. Smith was taken in hand right away by a nurse. An hour later, an orderly wheeled her into the waiting area and said he would take her downstairs. I was amused when I thought, "She was strong enough to walk into this place, but too sick to walk out."
When I said as much, the orderly laughed and said, "It's about lawyers, not disease. Someone is always ready to sue."
I had seen an O'Charley's on the way into town and asked if she'd like to go there for lunch. She said, "Sure," but I suspect she would have agreed to anything. After we were seated and had given our orders -- she just ordered soup -- she looked at me and said, "Well, both diseases are doing very well, thank you. The drug MIGHT have slowed the progress of the infection -- the doctors were about equally divided about that -- still, it's going to be a real race to the finish line and we'll not know which wins until then. Guess I never will. All we do know is at this point is it's about over. The doctors -- there must have been half a dozen -- all agreed that I need to get things in order and be prepared to have someone caring for me around the clock soon -- probably in not more than two weeks. Justin, it appears -- will start his senior year alone. The money Archie sent me will be gone in no time with around the clock help -- much quicker if I need nurses. Doc Jakes has told me he'd get me in hospice when I need to go and I think that is any day now. I'm dying and my time is short -- a few weeks, a month, no more. So that's that." She, then, asked about my plans for the future and talked about her dreams for Justin and those two subjects occupied us on the way home.
Just outside town she said, "Justin, could you drive me by Doc Jakes'? I need to give him a report and tell him I need hospice soon -- now."
After talking with Doc Jakes, she seemed a bit less down. In the car, she said, "A hospice nurse will be coming to my place, starting tomorrow and I will have the next bed in hospice."
After I had helped her into the house, I drove to the marina and, before I launched my boat, I called Clarisa and asked her if she could take supper to Ms. Smith -- Justin had talked to Clarisa a lot while I was in camp, so she knew his mama wasn't well. Of course she said she would. I also told her I needed to talk with her tonight. That arranged, I sailed into the sound and dropped anchor. It was three in the afternoon so the sun was less intense than it had been, but I still used sunscreen. When you are as fair as I am, you don't forget that many times.
I stretched out on the deck, my hands behind my head, and stared at the few white fluffy clouds drifting overhead. I must have been holding my breath all day, because I gave a great sigh and the tears started streaming. How could someone who had as hard a life as Ms. Smith and who had raised a young man as fine as Justin, get the shit kicked out of her as she had? I hoped Archibald Jenkins fell in the Amazon and piranha ate him bit by bit, slowly, starting with his cock and balls! What had Justin done to be hurt the way he was about to be hurt? How was I going to tell him life as he knew it was about over? What if he decided to 'kill the messenger'? From across the water I heard the courthouse clock strike the half-hour and was surprised when I looked at my watch. It was 4:30 and Justin would be getting off work in half an hour. I'd never make it back to the marina under sail, so I got up, started the motor and headed for shore and Justin.