East on St James

by Rick Beck

Chapter 4


The two men sat at the small table in the kitchen with the casserole dish filled with lasagna a few feet away. The cookie sheet with the garlic bread sat beside the lasagna. Dury was more than half way done with his first plate, but not his last.

"This is good. This is very good, Keith. This was the best idea I've had in a while. Thank you."

Keith smiled. It was easy to see Dury was pleased with the taste. That was always Keith's first worry, someone wouldn't care for his way of preparing a dish.

"The seasonings blended well," Keith said.

The beer was the perfect match for the meal. It was cold and refreshing.

Dury also drank a Samuel Adams with his meal. The dark color indicated the richness of flavor. It wasn't a beer you wanted every day, but with spicy dishes this was the perfect beer.

"Another slice of garlic bread? I'll eat it all if you don't take another slice."

"No, I'll be lucky to finish what I have. My appetite hasn't caught up with me yet. The best part is that the lasagna will taste better tomorrow," Keith said.

"Not if I don't stop eating it. It's quite good. I haven't enjoyed a meal this much in some time. You do know what you're doing in the kitchen."

"Glad you are enjoying it. I'd be embarrassed if it didn't turn out the way it was supposed to taste. I always worry I'll leave something out or put too much of something in it."

"You never looked at a recipe. You keep it all inside your head?"

"Yes, as a cook I travel light. Most Italian dishes I fix the most start with a tomato sauce. The trick is to remember how to prepare the sauce and the rest is about blending whatever flavor the dish your making requires. In good Italian restaurants, the chef creates the sauce to his taste, and no matter what dish it is, you recognize the sauce."

"I'll take your word for it. I couldn't remember half of what you put into it to have a flavor this distinctive."

"That's the reason why I cook. Of course, no matter where Jan is today, his sauce is here."

"I must confess, I've tried lasagna at the area restaurants and I don't have any I liked as well as this."

"Making a small batch allows me to control the seasoning better. A larger batch might not measure up to this, but it was good enough for people who came to eat Italian food in New Orleans. I'm also not familiar with the items your grocer had. His suggestion about what tomatoes to use was a big help. It all depends on good tomatoes."

"That's the last time you fixed lasagna?"

"I've had a number of jobs since New Orleans. Once I've established that I'm the cook at a restaurant, I sneak some of my favorites onto the menu. One thing is for certain, if a dish tastes good, people will ask for it again. Italian food is a universal favorite, but I've got some recipes for southern dishes people ask for more than once."

"Bev made spaghetti more often than she made lasagna. As long as we had garlic bread, I was happy. She made spaghetti with Italian sausage or meatballs," Dury said, beginning to eat his fill.

"It's surprising how easy it is to make something I haven't made in years. I never learned from cookbooks. Everything I know about cooking, I learned by watching cooks cook. By the time I got around to making the dish myself, I knew the ingredients and the steps involved."

"I'd say you haven't lost your touch, Keith. I haven't enjoyed a meal this much in a long time," Dury said.

The trip to Atlanta took five hours and Dr. Marshall greeted Dury warmly, after sending Keith back to an examining room with his nurse.

"Since we're working under the assumption that Keith has AIDS, I've had my secretary pull the paperwork that he'll need to get him into the system. There are benefits available to our AIDS patients. There is a list of services available to him and a paper I wrote about how to live with AIDS.

"We'll know more in a week when I'll have a complete workup on him," Dr. Marshall said. "I'll be able to offer him some preliminary results today. I can call you after all the lab reports come back. Now I better get to work, Dury."

Dr. Marshall walked Dury out to the hall, as they made small talk.

"Pam, will you show Mr. Lane to the employees' lounge. You'll have coffee and books. I remember you like books. I'm sure you'll find something you like."

"Yes. Thank you, John. I feel good about putting Keith into your hands," Dury said, as they parted.

In the late eighties, when Brenda came to Dr. Marshall, the options were limited and Brenda was too sick for anyone to think she would recover. Dr. Marshall still did all he could for her, even trying some experimental drugs to see if they might give her more time. Dury appreciated that John didn't give up or tell her she would die soon.

If there were blessings in disguise, that's what Brenda's death was. There was no reason for her to continue living with a body that had become her worst enemy. To know her struggle was over was a relief. Even his wife said, 'she won't suffer anymore.'"

It was after Bremda's death that Dury began to realize how important religion was in killing her. Labeling AIDS a gay disease assured no one was going to get too excited about finding treatments.

After Brenda died, Dury slowly withdrew from the AIDS wars, no longer feeling the need to read everything written on the subject. He felt some guilt that he didn't continue to read everything on AIDS. He might have known more and would be better prepared for helping Keith.

There had been a lot of experimental drugs and Dr. Marshall knew all of them and he knew which were likely to cause dangerous side effects. For Brenda it wasn't extending her life but keeping her comfortable that drove John.

Ten years after the AIDS epidemic began, AZT became available. People could learn to live with AIDS instead of dying from it. Tens of thousands were already dead and AZT was only the beginning of drugs in the pipeline. The ten years it took was testimony to the indifference of a nation. Led by religious leaders who picked the people they wanted dead, created a long period when the disease was left to run its course. Was it really god they spoke to who authorized them to teach their followers to hate the dying.

Brenda wasn't part of the target group. She was collateral damage. The ten thousand hemophiliacs were collateral damage. Didn't god mention that a lot of kids were going to die too? Dury wondered if it was the same god as his Catholic god? He knew it wasn't. His god was a kind god.

When claiming dominion over life and death, you are responsible for the collateral damage, or does god forgive a few misfires, as long as you get them gays? How did the religious leaders, who were so wrong about AIDS, explain that little slip up? Did god make them do it?

None of the thoughts were anything new for Dury. At one time it was an endless chain of reasoning that tied him in knots while he did all he could for Brenda. The circle of facts he knew, ran continuously through his brain, especially while he waited for Brenda to see the doctor.

Dury decided to run for political office to change how government works. Any new disease that's capable of killing humans, would have maximum funding to assure it wouldn't get out of control before doctors knew exactly what it was.

Dury smiled. He'd realized he was an honorable man, and he wasn't about to be associated with his government. They weren't simply corrupt, they were capable of doing a lot of harm because too many felt no compassion. They sat silent and watched tens of thousands of people die. No, Dury couldn't be a politician. He smiled again, holding his finger in the book he hadn't started to read yet.

Brenda died and his wife took it surprisingly well. Beverly had practically moved in with Brenda in the final weeks of her life. It took its toll on her, but she refused to leave her sisters care to strangers, even after Brenda no longer knew her and she'd stopped talking or responding.

A blessing that they no longer had to deal with human misery. The idea of Brenda being at peace, no matter what that means, allowed them to have a peace of their own.

Dury felt the pleasure in seeing John again. He was one of the few bright spots during that period. He was always upbeat, always hopeful. Seeing him again brought back the old chain of thoughts that ran through Dury's mind each time Brenda reached a crisis.

Dury didn't resolve the chain of thoughts that ran on a continual loop through his brain, while he waited. His religion didn't call AIDS 'god's plague on gays.' He didn't need to give up his religion because of the stupidity of others.

For a time he let his religion off the hook. He went to his church on the way home from work on some days. He prayed often. He prayed for justice. He prayed for everyone to do good work. His prayers to spare Brenda went unanswered. Why did god speak with the hateful preachers, who didn't seem aware of Jesus and not him? He was a good Catholic boy after all. What was he doing wrong?

"The virus was in the blood and the CDC knew it but didn't have the money to scientifically prove it. Even though they warned that transfusing infected blood would spread the disease. It took years for them to come up with a test to single out the infected blood. That was no help to the people who got AIDS after receiving a blood transfusion.

AIDS wasn't a gay disease. Gays took the biggest hit, but they were merely the beginning of the victims. Tainted blood had doubled the death toll.

With Keith being diagnosed with poor liver function, Dr. Marshall was well qualified to treat him for a liver disorder. During their conversations about Keith, John didn't mention Keith's illness as being life threatening. The one thing he did say was, 'Keith would get better and live a healthy life. Keith was worried that they'd find he was sicker than they thought, but he did notice the upbeat nature of his doctor.

Dury smiled, remembering Keith's resignation to die, when the were in the square.

Once Keith entered the lounge where Dury was waiting, his voice was animated as he dispensed information.

"You can get AIDS in your twenties and live a full life in years, but the years can take their toll if you don't take positive steps to stay healthy," Keith said excited.

"I bet that makes you feel better?"

"Yes, he said I was generally a healthy young man. Oh, Dr. Marshall was called to the hospital for an emergency. He sends his regrets about dinner. He said, 'You guys should get together soon."

"I was looking forward to dinner. We'll eat on our way home. You look none the worse for wear," Dury said.

"I've never had a physical before. They asked me a lot of questions I couldn't answer. They wanted to know about the people I'd slept with. It was quite a going over. I've never dated much. I didn't come out to anyone until I was in my mid-twenties. I mostly worked. From time to time I met someone where the connection was unmistakable. It rarely lasted long and it didn't happen often."

"Contagious disease requires they collect a sexual history on STDs. It's the law."

A few minutes later a nurse came to guide them out through the waiting room. She carried a bag with the drugs Dr. Marshall was prescribing for Keith to take. There was a thirty day supply. That was time for Dr. Marshall to find a doctor near where Dury lived to continue treatment.

"Do you have any questions about when and how to take your medication. It's written on the bottles and there's a sheet of paper that explains it all," the nurse said.

"Yes, I understand his instructions," Keith said, taking the medication.

Dury took his time driving back to the Interstate. He needed to pay attention so he didn't miss it and end up driving around Atlanta the rest of the evening.

"He said I have low liver function. Many men with AIDS also have Hepatitis C. He gave me an antibiotic to help my liver recover. There are other treatments he will consider once the results for the tests come back. He knew everything. I don't know if I'll remember it all."

Dury held up the envelope with all the information they'd provided.

"In here are the instructions to help you get control of your disease and your life. I'll help you sort through it. Between the two of us we should be able to get it done."

"They've got it all down to a science," Keith said, feeling the size of the envelope but not opening it in the car.

"When Brenda was sick they could write all the information on one page and not use the whole page. I think AIDS was one of the biggest mysteries the medical world has faced in a long time."

"Sounds like it took a long time for them to put it in gear," Keith said.

"The evangelicals called it the gay plague. I believe if people claim to speak for a religion named after Christ, they should be forced to say something, anything, consistent with Christ's message and actions," Dury said with hostility.

"Makes me glad I missed that show," Keith said. "Being raised in rural North Carolina, we hardly ever listened to the major news sources. I don't remember any of that."

"Even with the religious hex on anyone with AIDS, Dr. Marshall didn't let it stop him. I don't know how many doctors might have gotten involved if religion hadn't made it a disease sent by god."

"It's easy to see he's dedicated," Keith said. "I liked him. He treated me like I was someone he was going to help. He let me tell my story and he listened."

"He's a good doctor and a good man. I wouldn't take you to him if I didn't have confidence in him."

"You don't sound too happy about the religious involvement in a disease. You aren't religious at all?"

"I was raised a Roman Catholic."

"Raised, as in past tense?"

"I didn't know I was that transparent," Dury said. "You keep surprising me, Keith. You may have only gone to school until you were sixteen, but you have more sense than a lot of people who graduated college."

"You pretty much indicated religion has no place in medical matters," Keith said. "I read that as a limited indictment of a specific religious group who injected themselves into the response to AIDS."

"You got all that out of what I just said?"

"You told me about your sister-in-law on the square the day we met. You've made references to how unnecessary her death was and you knew who to blame."

"I better be careful what I say around you. I don't want to mislead you or say things that aren't perfectly clear. While my anger over Brenda dying, while this fat self-righteous preacher condemned her as a victim of god's wrath. No matter how ill informed he was, he was a serious impediment to the study and treatment of AIDS, while people like Brenda were dying horrific deaths."

"I understand that. You were raised Catholic. There is a finality in that I couldn't miss. I don't recall it being in anything else you said before. I don't mean to pry."

Dury shook his head at how quick Keith picked up on tiny clues that told far more than Dury intended to reveal.

"I went to church all the time. I prayed for Brenda. It wasn't my religion that put the roadblock in the way of helping people with AIDS. I didn't miss the fact she died in spite of my prayers. I lived with that knowledge. I lived with the silence that allowed her and a lot of others to die.

"I prayed every day for Brenda. She died anyway. Then my daughter was killed in an automobile accident. I prayed for her every day. The answer to my prayers was my mother's death before Cindy was cold. God and I were on the outs and Beverly died a year later. She was sick most of that time. It was cancer. They'd caught it too late.

"I got off my knees as my wife slipped away. If there's a god, he isn't listening to my prayers. If there is a god, he'll have to make it without me from now on. We're on our own and we best face that fact," Dury said with all the eloquence of a courtroom attorney.

"I believe you," Keith said, feeling more emotion coming from Dury than he'd seen in any man he'd known. Everything that Dury said was intensely personal but he'd answered Keith's question.

"I guess I got too close to the flame for too long. It burnt me out. I figure out what's right for me, and I leave it at that. I trust my judgment. I don't need some spook in the sky telling me what to believe. You aren't religious at all?"

"Nah. My mother went to church. My father wouldn't be caught dead in a church. I favored my father on that one. I stopped believing in Santa and the Easter Bunny when I was five. Fantasy wasn't my bag. It was too difficult to stay anchored to reality as it was. I didn't need to be listening to hear if someone out there was talking to me.

"I wandered a lot. I'd just go out and I'd end up wandering miles from where I lived. I was seven or eight and I loved to move. My house was no place for a kid. I liked being outside. I love the outdoors."

"You're an only child?" Dury asked.

"Yes. I think my parents only screwed once and they were pissed to get the booby prize right off the bat. They fed me and sent me to school, but there was no love. Why they stayed married, I didn't get it. They yelled at each other on a daily basis. I had to go to school to find out that's not how everyone talked to each other.

"They served no purpose. They got up and went to work and came home and yelled at each other. Then they yelled at me. They didn't beat me any more than usual, I guess. I deserved a good swat from time to time. I could do some dumb stuff. A swat could wake me up sometimes."

"Doesn't sound like a lot of fun," Dury said.

"Was your childhood fun?" Keith asked.

"My childhood was fun. My parents adored me. I was the smartest kid in the world. That was their opinion. They worked at making me happy. Their needs were secondary to my needs. Whatever I wanted, I got. I went to a private school until I was twelve. They put me in public school so I'd have that experience. I'd be around people who weren't all Catholic. It was all cool.

"I went to St. Albans after that. It's probably still one of the best schools around. It's where I leaned about the world in which I lived. I was old enough to appreciate that there were a lot of different people and places.

"I graduated a year early and my grades got me into Georgetown. It's another Catholic school. I was going to be a lawyer and I lived in a town of lawyers."

"Sounds nice," Keith said. "I can tell you liked it. I guess we aren't all supposed to grow up like you did."

"I was pretty quick on my feet. Learning was never much of a challenge. All I had to do was read something once, and I could recall most of it. Teachers loved me and I liked school. I knew I wanted to be an attorney, but I wasn't all that clear on why that sounded like what I wanted.

"I knew I wanted to be a cook the first place I stopped for food after running away from home. The owner fed me and put me to work. At first I washed dishes and stirred stuff she had on the stove, so she could get the days food ready for the customers. I liked it. I began watching her cook. I memorized it so I could cook it if she ever asked.

"She'd let me taste everything for her. Man she could cook. When she told me I could cook something if I wanted, I cooked one of the dishes I watched her cook all the time. She was more than a little surprised I could learn from watching her. We got along pretty well and she never yelled at me. I think she liked me. I liked her.

"Speaking of cooking, There's a Cracker Barrel. Do you like Cracker Barrel?"

"Don't know. Never ate at one. If you say it's good, I believe you. After all, you like my cooking," Keith said with a smile.

Dury guided the car off the ramp and turned into the Cracker Barrel parking lot.

It was crowded but the line moved fast and the food was good.

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