East on St James
by Rick Beck
Dury knew all about AIDS, how it spread, and the consequences of having it when the consequences were death. Dury took it upon himself to read everything written on AIDS. He likened it to watching walnuts grow and ripen so you can bake the first pecan pie of the season.
Asking for the latest articles and papers released on AIDS got him a blank stare from most librarians. He learned which librarian would have the list ready for him when he returned for the most recent papers published the following week. Dury knew about AIDS. He was probably one of the leading experts on the subject who wasn't in the medical field.
Every day he couldn't go home and tell his wife he'd found out something new, meant another day his wife agonized over her sister's decline. Information came painfully slow back then.
Between the first cases of the illness and AZT were too many years of meanness for the sick and the dying. Before being diagnosed, Brenda went from doctor to doctor, unable to get a definite diagnosis. If any of them suspected AIDS, they weren't telling her. After all, AIDS was a gay disease, and his sister-in-law was married after all.
Dury had no reason to keep up with the advances in AIDS treatments. He knew it was no longer the death sentence it once was. It was a shock to have Keith bring it back out of the closet. It was a relief when he no longer had to read about it, after Brenda died.
"Go ahead, Keith. You need to stay hydrated. Coffee isn't ideal but I can get you some juice or bottled water before we part company," Dury suggested.
Keith sipped the warm brew after Dury offered it to him the second time. He was tempted by the offer of a cool beverage, but he was already eating the kind gentlemen's food. There were limits to accepting favors from strangers.
Keith took a second sip and smiled. He wasn't able to have coffee at the hospital. He couldn't imagine hospital coffee tasting anything like what was in this cup.
"Thank you," Keith said, handing the coffee cup back.
Dury drank from the cup to make sure Keith knew he knew it was safe to drink after him. AIDS was a serious disease to have but it wasn't transmitted by casual contact.
Trust was important to Dury. It was the most important element between an attorney and his client. Why he wanted Keith to trust him, he didn't know. He hadn't had much company since retirement and he was enjoying the conversation. Keith was a pleasant mystery. He sounded like he had nothing to hide. Dury found him refreshing.
Sharing a $7.50 deli sandwich for lunch had yielded up far more information than he'd get spending $50.00 over lunch with a client. It was also a reminder of an episode in Dury's past, when he'd worked as hard as he'd ever worked, and took no pay for learning all he could about AIDS.
"My sister-in-law had AIDS," Dury said, after chewing on it and a bite of his sandwich for a long time. "She died back in the dark days of the disease.
"The doctors lacked the knowledge to diagnose her for too long. By the time we got her into the hands of Dr. John Marshall, an Atlanta physician, who devoted his practice to the treatment and study of AIDS, it was late in the game. With the CDC (Center for Disease Control) being in Atlanta, he was able to keep up with the latest recommendations and theories on AIDS.
"I'm sorry about your sister-in-law," Keith said, sounding sincere.
"AIDS was a gay disease, you see. The religious prophets who were holding conversations with god, made it clear to anyone who listened, "It's god's plague on the gay."
While people died, the usual research and analysis was slowed by years because of a lack of funding. AIDS was ignored by powerful people who should have known better. The people who had to deal with contagious disease, figured out how it was most likely spread. It couldn't be proved as scientific fact, because the CDC didn't have the money to do an appropriate study to confirm their findings."
"It's obvious you have strong feelings about it. You're a passionate man," Keith observed.
"After Brenda died, I let go of it. There was no reason for me to stay on top of it. It was too depressing and my work was suffering. My partners knew about Brenda and never said I should get a little work done. Sorry, it wasn't a very good time and it is a lot better today."
"I'm sure your sister-in-law was strengthened by your efforts on her behalf. You didn't have to get involved."
"Oh, you don't know Beverly, my wife. She was right on top of it. If I wanted time with my wife, I had to get involved. I did it because it was the right thing to do. Life and death is a far bigger issue than trying to sort out financial difficulties between litigants. My legal work was mostly routine by that time."
"I was aware of AIDS. I'd known I was gay since always, I guess. I had a crush on Little Timmy Tucker in the first grade. During the part you're talking about, I wasn't paying much attention. I was in my twenties before… before I came out, but I didn't discuss my sexuality with anyone I didn't date, and I didn't date much. I was always busy earning a living."
"Then you missed the little fat Evangelical preacher who was on CNN every night to remind everyone about the immorality of the gay? You didn't miss much," Dury said, sipping his coffee to wet his dry mouth.
"I must have missed that. I didn't watch much television," Keith said.
"Any half-witted moron, and I'm not intending to insult that group, knows a disease has no sexual component. It's governed by its characteristics. If it's killing gay people, it's going to get around to killing straight people. All those conversations these folks claim to be having with god, and he didn't bother to mention that a virus is a virus and a virus is not gay?"
"That sounds logical," Keith said.
"We knew it was in straight people early on. Brenda hadn't been with anyone but her husband. Harry was okay, but we found out he was seeing men on the side. He traveled a lot. He didn't get sick when he got AIDS, but he gave it to Brenda. Took us a long time to figure it out."
"That's so sad," Keith said. "What did he say about it?"
"Don't know. He disappeared once we knew it was AIDS. I suppose he was ashamed. He wouldn't have gotten a very good reception in those days. I understand it was tough being gay. I heard he died a year or two after Brenda died. I would have helped him, but he didn't give me a chance. Brenda talked to him and he apologized to her. I'm sure he felt bad and she never spoke ill of him."
"Secrets are a terrible thing to keep," Keith said.
"I almost went into politics because of AIDS," Dury admitted. "Sure glad I didn't make that mistake."
"I thought lawyers became politicians?" Keith said.
"Most politicians start out as lawyers. Another reason why I'm glad I didn't do it. Once Brenda died, my reason for caring about AIDS was gone. I wanted that part of our life to be over. It took a lot out of my wife."
"You know more about it than I do. I know I'm sick and not likely to get better. It took them some time to get from a liver infection to AIDS. I started in the ER and ended up in a hospital bed, after passing out on the street. I was out of it for a long time."
"There are standard treatments now. If you follow the regiment religiously, you might never get sick again. If you haven't been on meds, the first step is to get on meds and stay on them," Dury said with certainty.
"I don't know where I'll be tomorrow. They put my things out on the curb where I was living. The landlord is in the process of evicting the other people there.
"I talked to my friend Lisa. Her mother is real sick so I didn't call her again, but everyone in the building is being evicted."
"That's illegal, Keith," Dury said. "Your landlord could find himself in jail soon. You can't simply throw people out on the street because your horoscope says, 'make a change today.'"
"He's the landlord and he does what he wants. He plans to have the building condemned from what Lisa says. There were other guys with AIDS living there. They were moving out before I got sick. They need to be where they can feel secure and get their meds."
Few things angered Dury more than the mistreatment of people who didn't have anything to begin with. Keith was right, it was rare for a landlord to be challenged for abusing residents of rental property.
"Where is this place?" Dury asked.
"North Charleston. It's about four miles closer to town than this square. It wasn't a bad place to live but we have a new owner. He thinks the property will be worth a lot of money once he gets rid of the people and knocks the building down. That's what we've heard."
"Meeting someone… like you… makes me see how unfair life can be. I've never wanted for anything. My parents put me into the best schools. I wanted to be a lawyer when I was ten. As far as they were concerned, it was up to them to make sure I became one."
"Life is something that happens to you on the way to someplace else," Keith said.
"John Lennon," Dury said.
"You know Lennon's music? I listened to the Beatles for the first time when I was twenty."
"My parents played the classics and opera in the house. My father had a collection of all the great operas. I grew up reading with classical music playing. When I was waiting to go to Columbia Law School, I did some traveling. I spent a lot of time seeing and hearing things I didn't know about. The Beatles being part of that discovery."
"My parents, who had no taste at all, did leave their vinyl records lying around. Beatles, Stones, Doors, I listened to them all. There was good music in the 70s but Dylan and the Beatles ruled. No one did it like they did."
"Peace and love almost caught on back then."
"How did we get here from there?" Keith asked. "We do have something in common."
"People are harder now. Stuff is more influential than the idea of peace or love. I don't know where we got lost. When people become secondary to things, we're seriously lost. When money trumps compassion, we're desperately lost. When children are left to go hungry in the richest society in the history of the world, we're terminally lost."
"Sounds like an argument for a jury," Keith said.
"Once an attorney, always an attorney, but the only thing I can tell you is getting treatment for AIDS is better today. That's one area where we've gotten better."
"I wasn't expecting to get advice in the park over lunch," Keith said. "It's nice to talk to someone who understands. So when did you listen to the Beatles music the first time?"
"Keith, that's a story that is so far out there, I'm not sure I believe it anymore. Let's just say I took a ride with someone who was playing the Beatles music and leave it at that."
"Okay, tell me which of the Beatles songs did you hear first?" Keith asked.
"A Day in the Life, Pepper."
"That was one heavy hit of Beatles," Keith said.
"Yes, I wasn't sure I liked it, but I listened to a lot of contemporary music while I was at Columbia Law. While it is a conservative learning institution, the times demanded you expand your horizons or parish. Besides, it was a time that might have changed the world."
"It didn't?" Keith asked.
"Not for the better. Not the way that would have improved things. It looked like we had a shot and it just went away. And that's really depressing."
"Sounds serious," Keith said.
"It was a long time ago, but along with the music, there were the people. Oh, lord, there were the people."
"People are everywhere," Keith said.
"Are your parents alive?"
"We're obviously done talking about that. No, mother died of lung cancer. I was 15 or 16."
"A smoker!" Dury said.
"Exactly. My father died in a car crash ten years later. We were never close. I wasn't going to stay in school. My parents wouldn't let me quit. I went my own way after Mom died. I got a job in a restaurant about 30 miles away. I was too restless to stay in school. Mom was already dead and I never saw my father again."
"You look better than you did a half hour ago."
"I feel better. I just wanted to be left alone to die when I came into the park. A little conversation and a little tuna and I'm feeling stronger," Keith said. "I felt like I was closer to being dead in there than I am out here. I've always loved being outside."
"I'd give up on the waiting around to die idea. That never goes well," Dury said.
"No future in it," Keith said with a smirk. "You're a good looking man, but I didn't think you were gay. You are married?"
"Oh, no. I'm not gay. I was married to Beverly for close to thirty years," Dury said. "We met in college and married once I passed the bar exam. I wouldn't marry her until I knew I was going to be able to support her."
He felt like it was only yesterday Beverly died and the pain was still fresh in his heart.
"We had a beautiful daughter together. She was quite bright. Beverly said she took after her father, only she was better looking. We lost her in an automobile accident the year before Beverly's death of breast cancer.
"It's what killed my wife. She got cancer after Cindy died. She was gone in a year. All very quick. All very sad. I had a family, then there was none. The doctors said she had a couple years, maybe three, but they didn't see her broken heart. She never stopped mourning Cindy."
Keith didn't know what to say to this list of tragedies. Keith's worst tragedy was his present crisis. Before that it was just a matter of keeping on the move, until he got another job and started over again. If he could cook his world was okay.
"I'm sorry. I know words don't help, but I am sorry. You're a nice man. You deserve good things."
"We all deserve good things," Dury said.
Keith always considered himself lucky that he didn't let anything tie him down. Hearing Dury's story, he wasn't sure he wasn't the lucky one. If you love too deeply, it can't help but hurt you sooner or later.
"You lived near here?" Dury asked, using his handkerchief to blot tuna from the corners of his mouth.
"Three or four miles, but I just started walking once I left the hospital. I wasn't conscious when they took me there. I have no sense of where I am."
"The hospital is a mile to the east of here," Dury said.
"I didn't want to die in the hospital. I've always had a fear of that. I don't know where it comes from. I was never in a hospital before. I could feel myself getting old."
"Old? My word, you're hardly past boyhood," Dury said.
"I probably feel older than I look. Being sick can do that to you. I do feel better being."
"I've been doing nothing but gathering cobwebs. I've been sitting home bored to tears. My maid comes in twice a week and she's company, but I can't get the woman to sit still. She's got a schedule and she doesn't stop to chat. Isn't that sad? I can't even get my maid to talk to me."
"You said you hadn't decided what to do next. I've always found that when it's time for me to make a change, I just do it. Listen to me telling an attorney how to make a change. It's easy when you have nothing to lose. At times all I've had is the shirt on my back. Like now."
"No, it makes a certain amount of sense. I want a complete plan dropped in front of me so all I have to do is go to work on it. Life doesn't work in well-developed plans."
"I never have far to go. For me it's all about cooking. Up until now I've always had a job when I wanted one. It's funny that I liked being a short order cook about as much as I liked being a chef. A short order cook is near the people. There's always someone to talk to, especially late at night. You really learn something about people when they're sitting in a diner after everything else is closed.
"A lot of lonely people in the world. I never felt lonely," Keith said thoughtfully.
"My wife did all the cooking. She knew what she was doing in a kitchen," Dury said.
"Certainly the ladies are knocking on your door, wanting you to date them?" Keith said, admiring the man's natty appearance.
"They can go on knocking. I was already married. I loved my wife. I adored my wife. We were perfectly matched. Oh, she thought I worked too much, but besides that, we had a wonderful life together. I had the best."
"Sounds like a movie," Keith said.
"I'm not in the market to replace Beverly. My memories are all good. Anyone else would be a disappointment. I am not about to do that to another human being.
"When you are lucky enough to find true love, and it lasts as long as our love lasted, you don't expect to replicate it, Keith. I've never considered it."
"True love! That's a nice concept. I've never experienced love," Keith admitted. "I guess I never knew what love was."
"I'm sorry you haven't. It's a most wonderful thing to find and a most terrible thing to lose."
"You've had a lot of things you've lost," Keith said. "I don't know I could endure what you've endured. Probably best I didn't find love if it meant giving it up one day."
"I think you might be part philosopher, Keith."
"I can't believe I ate that entire sandwich. Thank you. I didn't know I would eat today. Haven't thought that far ahead. I barely made it this far before I had to rest."
"The hospital is a mile from here. You did pretty good for a sick man, and you're the one who feeds hungry people," Dury said.
"Yes I did."
"And you only ate a half sandwich. I could offer to buy you one for later if you like?" Dury said. "I can't remember enjoying a conversation more than this one."
"You are a nice man. No, that's more than I've eaten in two days. It was perfect. I feel stuffed. I think I'll be okay. I've enjoyed talking to you too."
"A little more coffee? It's cooled to a good temperature. It'll be too cold to enjoy in a few more minutes."
"Yes, a bit would be good. I'm dry again."
Each man sat silent on his end of the bench, as the sun peaked around the extended branches of the oak tree that shaded them. It was a warm sun.
Dury reached into his vest pocket to take out his watch. He flipped it open to see that it was after one. He'd never been there so long. The sun felt good on a moderate day.
Dury wasn't comfortable leaving Keith in the park. He'd offered him a sandwich and he'd offered to by him a cold drink. Keith turned both down. They could just stay there for the rest of the day.
"What happens tonight?" Dury asked with concern.
He was sure he'd worry about this pleasant young man.
"Tonight is a long way off. I want to enjoy being outside, sitting in the sun. I'll think about tonight when tonight gets here. No rush. I'm in no hurry."
"Will the sheriff bother you? He patrols the square at night. I used to work late. He'd be parked over by Leo's when I left for home."
"Can't say. Haven't slept here yet. Signs say park closed after dark. Ask me tomorrow and I'll know more," Keith said without alarm or concern. "If they arrest me, I have a place to stay either way."
"You're qualified to get assistance, Keith. Certainly you qualify for some kind of housing. The assistance is more comprehensive these days."
"Since I was sixteen I've been taking care of myself. I've never lived high on the hog, but I've managed. I don't want assistance. If I'm going to die, I'd just as soon get to it. I appreciate your concern. You're a kind man, but I've got to do what works for me, Dury. Stop worrying about me."
Dury sat feeling helpless. The man didn't want his help. He'd made it clear and Dury didn't feel comfortable trying to change his mind.
Then Dury had a thought that might work.
"My wife made the most incredible lasagna. I miss her cooking. She'd tell me a day in advance that she was working on lasagna for the next evening. All day long I'd sit at work with a loaf of Italian bread I'd buy from Leo. I must have garlic bread with lasagna," Dury said. "Makes my mouth water thinking about it."
"I can taste it," Keith said. "Lasagna is one of my favorites to prepare and to eat. Haven't had it in an age."
"Me either," Dury agreed. "I can taste it too. Since you won't let me do anything for you, how would you like to do something for me?"
"Name it. IF it doesn't require me to sprint anywhere, I'm game," Keith said.
"I was thinking I could stop over at Leo's for some Italian bread. We'll stop at the grocer where my wife got all the fixings for her lasagna. Are you strong enough to make a batch of lasagna for dinner?"
"Me cook?" Keith said, closing his eyes to think. "I'd even sprint to your house to be able to cook. It's hard not to be able to do what you love doing."
"I think we've got ourselves a deal. I just ate and my mouth is watering. Let's go."
"Dury, we need to have an understanding. I can make my lasagna and it'll melt in your mouth, but it won't be your wife's lasagna. I don't want you to be disappointed."
"Lasagna can never disappoint me, Keith. I know it won't taste like Beverly's. I'll be happy with Keith's lasagna."
Lasagna would be a good place to start.
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