The Leper’s Burlesque
John R. Guthrie
When Ali and Dr. Payne made rounds together the next day, Damien was conscious. His mother stood at bedside, holding his left hand. Damien, who could hardly speak above a whisper, motioned for Ali and Aaron to come closer. He nodded toward his Mom who handed him a small brown paper bag package from his bedside table. ”Recital…” he said. Dr. Payne opened it. It was a CD, labeled;
Sacred and Secular
Damien Frey in Concert
Austerity First Baptist Church
“For you and Ali,” Damien said. “Play it sometime. To remember…”
“We will, Damien. We really will,” Aaron said. Ali nodded in agreement.
“Mary, the church pianist organized it a year ago because Damien helped so much,” his mother added.
The thank yous were said. Damien’s examination continued. Aaron listened to Damien’s chest. The bed scales that had showed a 6 pound weight gain that morning. Dr. Payne said, “Let’s check your legs, Damien.” He pulled the thermal blanket to the side enough to press his thumb down over Damien’s shin bone for a few seconds. Then he withdrew his hand, there was a deep indentation where his thumb had been. “Damien,” Payne said. “You’re retaining some fluid. I’m going to ask the nurse to give you some diuretics to help get rid of it and a little digitalis to slow and strengthen your heart beat. Also, I’d like to get the cardiologist to stop by and take a look also.”
Damien spoke, his subdued voice muffled by the oxygen mask over his nose and mouth. “Sure, Doc. Whatever you think.” Ali reached over he raised the bed rails and squeezed his right hand. Damien smiled.
“I want to ask you…” he stopped and coughed slightly.
“What’s that Sweety?” Ali said, leaning closer.
“I’m 21. I signed a paper. Planned…every thing. Please…I want you two to scatter my ashes at Connestee Falls.”
His mother nodded, “I’d appreciate that too,” she said, “If you possibly can. Things are …so difficult at home, that would make everything easier.”
“Connestee Falls?” Payne replied.
“I know where that is, “Ali said. “Right across the N.C. line off the state highway.”
“Near Brevard,” Damien added.
“Depend on it, Sweety,” Ali said, squeezing Damien’s hand once more.
“Brevard,” Damien said, “was the best thing…in my life.”
“I see,” Ali said.
“Mixed drink…” he said.
Ali leaned closer. “Say again?”
“When I was 21,” he said in a near whisper, “I’d planned on buying a mixed drink, just to show that I could. I never got to do that.”
Ali smiled, and said, “Hey fellow, name it. It’ll be on me.”
There was a rap at the door. Aaron’s mother said, “Come in.”
It was Floyd, Aaron’s father. He stood there in the doorway for a moment looking sheepish as Damien turned his face toward him. He walked over and saying nothing, bent down and embraced Damien. Ali and Aaron stepped back. Damien, the oxygen mask still over his face, mouthed thanks as they turned and left.
And I looked, and beheld a pale horse:
and his name that sat on him was Death…
The wall clock behind the nurse’s station of Austerity Regional’s 3 South skipped through the final seconds until noon. Light through the window at the end of the long hallway reflected down the center of the vinyl-tiled floor. Food carts rattled by, the scent of the meals they carried combining with that of the ever-present perfume of the industrial strength cleaning agents and the sharp scent of rubbing alcohol. The charge nurse was on the phone, trying to clarify a set of orders so hurriedly scribbled and painfully crabbed and they may as well have been hieroglyphics.
Dr. Payne and Ali were attending to paperwork, trying to stay out of the way in that busy nursing station by using only a small corner of the elongated desk.
The floor nurse in charge of caring for Damien walked briskly from Damien’s room, closing the door behind her. She leaned over and spoke in a low voice to the two of them. “Damien just expired,” she said. “His parents are both still in the room.”
Ali and Aaron looked at each other grimly, nodding, then sat their paperwork aside and stood to return to Damien’s room to carry out the formalities of pronouncing him dead. His mother stood on one side holding one hand, his father leaned on the elevated bedrail on the other. They started to step back as Aaron and Ali entered.
“You’re welcome to stay where you are if you’re comfortable being here,” Aaron said. “I need essentially to check Damien’s eyes and listen to his chest.”
Floyd stepped out into the hallway to wait. Polly, tearful now, nodded and continued to hold Damien’s hand.
Denial is one of humankind’s oldest and strongest defenses against unthinkable truth. It could be a mistake, Polly thought, squeezing her son’s pale hand. Sometimes that happens. You read about it. It could be that he’ll wake up yet. Please Jesus, let him say something. “Damien?” she called. Damien was far beyond the summons of his mother’s voice or that of the long dead rabbi. Dr. Payne stood by as Polly hesitated, then wept, face in hands. Ali stepped over and put her arms around her and hugged her close.
Payne stepped closer to the bedside, opened a half-closed eyelid gently and checked with his penlight to see if Damien’s pupils responded to light. They were fixed and dilated. Thorough his ophthalmoscope he saw that the veins in the back of his eyes were segmented, the “Box Car Sign” of death. He then listened with his stethoscope to Damien’s chest. There was the faintest of sounds which Aaron recognized as the posthumous settling of blood and body fluids. He readjusted the stethoscope to hang around his neck and pulled the blanket up neatly beneath Damien’s. Ali folded it neatly to support his chin. Floyd returned from the hallway. Aaron and Ali expressed their commiseration to the parents, said their goodbyes, hugged them both and walked back toward the nursing to fill out the death certificate and related paperwork. There, Aaron just sat for a moment, saying nothing. He turned to Ali and said, “Out, out, brief candle!”
The memorial was held at the Rose Family Funeral Home and Crematory. There was no minister. The family, followed by Aaron and Ali filed in. “Looks like just us and immediate family,” Aaron whispered to Ali.
Charlie Rose, a short man, dark suited, stood at the back of the chapel. He hit the “play” button for the music system. The first piece of music Damien had chosen was “We are the World.” The insistent beat and the choir of USA for Africa drove home the message of love and redemption to the people in the chapel.
As the music began, there was a rustle in the back. It was Mary, the pianist from First Church. She was a woman of late middle years, considerable girth, and even greater musical talent. She was followed by a dozen more members of the Young Adult department at First Church, then a dozen, twenty some with Brevard emblazoned on their shirt fronts, then more young mourners with a sprinkling of parents came behind them, men and women who cared about Damien in spite of all.
Aaron smiled broadly. “I feel like standing up and cheering,” he whispered to Ali. Ali seized Aaron’s hand and squeezed. The newcomers settled in, filling every pew.
After several minutes, the music died. As Damien had requested, Dr. Payne stood to speak. Gripping the sides of the lectern, he glanced around and began. “I appreciate the splendid musical selection Damien selected for this day of remembrance and celebration.” Looking at Damien’s parents, he continued, “Damien of course, was a person of considerable musical ability himself as those of you from First Church know better than I.” He looked at Mary, who nodded in agreement. “It was Damien, after all, who filled in for the regular pianist more than once. He was majoring in music at Brevard College, but the further contributions he would have made, had he survived, are denied us by the disease that swept him away.
From Damien’s loss though, we learned something of HIV and the illness it causes. We know better now what to expect. We know better how to help. In times to come we can have a good and bright hope of recognizing this new malady more quickly and treating it more appropriately and effectively.
“Brothers and sisters, I believe with all my heart that some bright and glorious day, from what we learn from Damien and others like him, a cure will be found, a vaccine developed. And friends, what a day of jubilation that will be!”
Someone in the audience said, “Ah-men.”
“Damien's illness is to our times much the same as leprosy was in biblical times. If you look into that splendid compendium of myth, history, struggle, superstition and survival, the Bible, you find that in the furthest reaches of its history, lepers were cast out. They had supposedly so offended God that they couldn’t even be buried in the same cemetery as the righteous. That attitude toward lepers in those long ago times is piercingly like that demonstrated by certain members of the community today towards those who suffer from HIV related illnesses. But that attitude, that grim and petty meanness born of fear, of ignorance, was certainly not the final and definitive attitude toward lepers, nor is what we see today related to the HIV disease the end of that story. And for that matter, what we’ve seen is not the final and definitive attitude of a society that yearns to be just toward our friends and neighbors and family members who are gay.
“In the book of Mathew, one finds a final passing reference to leprosy. It was that great teacher, Jesus, while in Bethany, who ate at the house of one known as Simon the Leper. There is great hope for us all as well as a sterling example in this. Here, compared with the vicious ostracism of Leviticus, is evidence of evolution; not that of our physical selves, but an evolution of the human heart. That the young Jewish revolutionary, that troublemaker Jesus, deigned to eat with a leper isn't surprising. After all, it was Jesus at his very best who befriended the ‘fallen’ woman. He showed in the beatitudes his compassion for the poor, the weak, the outcast, the prisoners in their dungeons of despair who were exiles in their own land.
“And similarly, this time of ours is a time of sometimes troubling change. There is much hope provided by the bright and unflinching light cast by scientific advances. Yet for some HIV sufferers like Damien and for many others, it is still a time of despair and suffering. Thus as we say our final goodbyes to Damien, more than ever, there is the need for the gospel of the redemptive power of love. There is the need for a willingness to break bread with the Leper of Bethany. Damien, we love you and bid you farewell.”
He had spoken for four minutes. He turned from the lectern and returned to his seat. At the back of the chapel, Charlie Rose dabbed at his eyes, blew his nose and cued the final song. Stevey Wonder’s poignant voice rang through the chapel: No summer's high/No warm July/No harvest moon to light one tender August night…. The music was breathtaking in its poignancy as the blind singer’s voice filled the room.
Charlie Rose, standing at the controls for the sound system, now had tears streaming down his face. Sobbing was heard throughout the chapel.
When it was all done, the tears shed, the hugs, the sharing of the grief over Damien’s loss, Dr. Payne and Ali spoke with Floyd and Polly and Polly’s nurse sister as did Ali. “Mom, you made a big difference for Damien during his illness,” Aaron said. “Thanks for being here for Damien. He loved you dearly for that.”
Ali looked at Damien’s father who stood back, looking a little embarrassed. “Hey, Floyd,” she said. “I’m so glad you came in and were there at the end. Damien wanted to see you so much, and you came through for him.” Aaron reached over and grabbed Floyd’s hand in both of his and shook his hand. Floyd choked up, couldn’t speak, just nodded. Dr. Payne indicated to Ali, who was still speaking with family, that he’d be waiting outside. He stepped out into the parking lot and stood on the edge of the pavement. He saw a lone hawk in the distance, winging its way toward the mountains that rose from Austerity’s foothills. In that moment, he identified with the hawk, a solitary creature that rode the cold currents of air to some unknown place. No matter the circumstances, it always grieved him when he lost a patient. Moreover, it gave him a sense of failure He kicked a ping-pong ball sized pebble, scuffing the toe of his best wingtip shoes in the process. The pebble skittered across the pavement and on to the grass.
He looked back quickly as someone slid their arm around his. “Hi, Doc.” Ali said.
He looked at her, nodding, lips tight to keep from breaking into tears. He managed only a tight grim smile when he saw her.
“Yeah,” she said, “Things are sort of shitty right now.”
“We always lose in the end,” he said.
Ali said, “I dunno, Aaron. Loving someone hurts at a time like this. But I believe we never lose by loving.” She leaned closer, the warmth of her permeating his very marrow. Aaron found it comforting, an affirmation of life in the solemn presence of death. Then remembering the impropriety of such acts, he drew his arm away. Unspeaking, she looked at him, took his hand and draped his arm around her shoulder again. They stood there, looking toward the sun sinking in glory in the western sky.
The ashes arrived at Payne Family Practice Clinic the next Thursday during the lunch recess. Charlie, that scion of the Rose family, brought them.
Ali escorted him to Doc Payne’s office holding a rounded black urn the size of a soccer ball. Aaron, eating a Stouffer’s microwave meal, nodded, wiped his mouth with a brown paper towel and stood. “Charlie Rose! Good of you to come by. Ali, could you stay with us, please?”
“Doctor! Ms. Broome, my commiserations. The Rose Family wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t know when I’ve ever heard a more touching memorial service, Dr. Payne, even when Rabbi Feinstein conducted my own father’s eulogy.”
Dr. Payne said, “Thanks, Charlie. I’ve got a long way to go before I’m in Rabbi Feinstein’s league, though.”
Charlie continued, “Young Damien’s cremains are in a plastic bag inside the urn. You’re certainly welcome to carry the ashes in the urn if you choose. Simply return it to Rose Family Funeral Home and Crematorium when Mr. Frey’s last sad pilgrimage is done.”
“Thanks, Charlie. I’ll do that. And I appreciate your kindness.”
“The Rose Family Funeral Home and Crematorium, Doctor, is always there for you, and for any of your patients who might need our services.” He sat the urn down on Dr. Payne’s desk, flipped an embossed business card out of his watch pocket. Nodding, he snapped it down beside the urn with an audible “click.”
“Again, Doctor, my commiserations.” He turned and left. Aaron glanced at the card. It had prayerful hands holding a rose embossed on it.
After Charlie departed, Aaron said, “Ali, how about a getting away early tomorrow and get this taken care of?”
“Let’s do” she replied.
By rearranging patient schedules, they were able to leave shortly after noon the next day. They left the clinic in Aaron’s 1985 Jeep Wagoneer, a garnet red station wagon-like vehicle with synthetic wood paneling on the side. Ali’s black Land Rover remained in the next space. They were soon on the Interstate that snaked into the mountains in a series of grand curves visible from the hills below. They passed the “Welcome to North Carolina” sign, the mountains and valleys becoming increasingly dramatic as they ascended.
Ali withdrew the CD Damien had given them and inserted it into the player in the dash. The music began, barely audible. Ali turned up the volume. The grand strains of Bach’s Prelude Number I from The Well Tempered Clavier sounded. Each of them could see Damien again, wearing his Sunday suit, well nourished again, his long hair neatly swept back into a ponytail as he masterfully progressed through his selections. The articulations of the music were crisp yet fluid and lyrical as the notes evolved from First Church’s Steinway grand. When the final notes sounded, Aaron said only, “Wow.” Ali, head bowed a little shook her head and, “We lost big, didn’t we.”
They rode on in silence, each lost in their own thoughts and reminiscence. Eventually they turned left onto the state highway that would take them to their Connestee Falls.
As they passed the Good Luck Trout Farm, a well-stocked series of ponds where one caught trout and paid by the pound, Ali finally spoke, “I never caught a fish,” Ali said. “We lived there on the ocean in Charleston for years but never went fishing.”
Aaron commented, rather absently, “We had a GP, a Dr. Blalock. After he semi-retired, he’d come up here and catch his trout, have them cleaned, ice them down and bring them home. He’d put them in the freezer and then have a fish fry for everyone in Chickasaw County Medical Society.”
They continued to chat as they went, the urn nested on a thermal blanket from the clinic on the back seat. Aaron swerved suddenly, tires squealing, to avoid hitting a fox that was trotting across the roadway. She undid her seatbelt and arched, lithe and lean, over the back of the seat to make sure the urn was still secure. Aaron glanced at her and smiled a little as he focused on the road ahead again. The buckle of her seatbelt clicked as she settled back. They watched the road in contemplative silence for a while.
“Hey, Connestee Falls!” Ali said, pointing to the roadside sign announcing that the falls were one mile ahead. Aaron slowed, and as they rounded a curve, they saw the falls to the right, the cascade and the plume and spray plunging across the glistening rocks and boulders from well over a hundred feet into the pool formed below.
“You know the story, Aaron? How it got its name?”
“Not really. Tell me.”
Ali continued. “According to legend, Connestee was a Cherokee Princess back in the 1600’s. She married an Englishman. He already had a wife in the seaport city of Plymouth, England. Eventually he left Connestee to go back to his English family. Connestee had a son by then. When she finally realized that her Englishman would never return, she cut her four-year-old’s throat, then committed suicide by leaping over the falls, thus getting them named in her honor.”
Aaron replied. “It reminds me of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, in which the English naval officer married Madama and then abandoned and returned to a family he had in England. I saw that same theme play out more than once in Vietnam as troops left Vietnamese wives or girlfriends behind when they rotated back to the world.”
“Also the story of Medea in Greek mythology,” Ali said. “My Dad told us most of the Greek myths,” Ali said.
“I don’t know Medea,” Aaron said.
Ali began, “Medea was married to Jason of Golden Fleece fame. He cheated on her with Creusa, who was the Princess of Corinth. Medea took great offense at this.”
“Without hesitation, she poisoned Princess Creusa, killed all the children she’d had with Jason, sat the palace on fire and rode off to Athens off in her serpent-drawn chariot. Once there she took up with Jason’s rival, the King of Athens.”
“Damn,” said Aaron. “Spiteful little bitch, wasn’t she?”
“I dunno,” Ali said gravely. “Could be just major PMS.”
Despite the solemnity of the occasion, Aaron guffawed at this.
Smiling now, Ali continued. “I went up to New York and saw Madama Butterfly at the Met when I was a grad student. It was grand.”
Slowing, the turn signal clicked and flashed as he bumped onto the shoulder. Ali opened the door saying “I’ll get Damien’s urn.” They walked the path alongside Carson Creek to the pool at the base of the falls. The path was slippery in places where the mist and spray from the falls had saturated the grass and clay of the path. Still holding the urn Ali reached for Aaron’s hand for support. They made their precariously along, finally stopping to sit and rest, hands still joined, on a boulder near the pool.
Looking upward they saw two rainbows in the spray, the one in front vivid, and to the right and above one that was the other’s pale reflection. The breeze shifted and they felt the fine mist from the falls on their faces.
Ali spoke first, speaking loudly to overcome the roar of the falls. “Damien chose well.”
“Yeah.” Aaron said, looking around looking at a cardinal chittering as it sat in a willow nearby, “This is as close to being in church as I ever need to be.”
Ali handed the urn to Aaron.
He held his hands up in negation and said, “Why don’t you take a turn first? You meant a lot to Damien. He said so more than once. Just leave a few for me to scatter, please.” They stood. She released Aaron’s hand, scuffed off her shoes and uncapped the urn. She walked over and stood in the crystalline and shallow water near the edge of the pool. “Oooh, cold,” she said. She removed the plastic bag and handed the urn to Aaron. Using both hands, Ali began shaking the ashes into the water, gritty gray bits, the smaller of which the breeze carried to the far side of the pool. Some floated briefly, swirling away on the current. She paused and handed the urn to Aaron, who stood near the edge and completed the process. They looked at each other and nodded, turned and sent back to the boulder they’d sat on before.
“Let’s sit for a moment,” Ali said. The small rivers of her tears traced down her cheeks as she pulled her canvas shoes back on. Aaron dabbed at his own eyes then handed her his handkerchief.
“We did what he asked,” she said.
They sat for awhile, then Ali broke the silence. “It’s so beautiful, but this rock is cold, Aaron.”
As they stood and walked back to the car, Aaron took the urn and put it under his left arm like a wide receiver carrying the ball towards the goal. Putting his other arm around Ali’s shoulder, he pulled her close.
“Dinner?” he said.
“If it suits you, let’s drive on up to Asheville. The Grove Park Inn has a classy restaurant. There’s an impressive view from the dining room. We should be there early enough to be seated without reservations.”
They rode toward Asheville, a charming mountain town favored by lovers, vacationers, artists and artisans alike. The Grove Park is ancient in appearance, built of native granite from its Sunset Mountain site. In its heyday, it had served as a retreat for presidents and other dignitaries.
They were greeted by the maître d'. “Good evening, Sir, Madam. Step right this way.” He showed them to a table next to the broad expanse of plate glass windows that overlooked the veranda and the mountain valley and the peaks beyond. The dining room was empty except for them.
The waiter brought them a complimentary glass of champagne which they consumed as they studied the menus. “That was good champagne,” Aaron said, “Care for a bit more?”
“I was hoping you’d ask,” Ali said.
“Interesting,” Ali said, “I think ultimately, as cranky as he was at first, we both identified with him, and him with us.”
“One way or another, we were all orphans,” Aaron replied.
Ali was silent for a moment. She then said, “Say, you rocked with your eulogy Doc. Everyone responded to it. Did you learn how to do public speaking like that when you were a Seventh Day Adventist?”
“No,” he said, still studying the menu. “Toastmasters!”
They were soon eating their Lobster Thermador, a lobster artfully removed from the shell and served with a rich Béchamel sauce nested on arugula with three nasturtiums on the rim of the plate.
After the entrée and the desert sorbet, Aaron asked “Care to step out on the veranda?”
“Let’s do.” Leaving a credit card on the table, Aaron signaled the waiter and pointed to it. Then they stood and stepped out to the stone and masonry porch. The last remnants of a sunset were visible over the mountains to the west, scarlet and copper and hints of green fading to charcoal and the onyx. Lights here and there across the mountains blinked on. Venus, the evening star, twinkled.
“Did you make a wish? Aaron said. “You betcha,” Ali said, “but I’m not telling what.” He put his arm around her shoulder, pulling her closer as they walked to the far end of the stone porch. They stood for a moment, looking out across the valley. Then they both turned, and held each other close, Ali placing her hands behind his head, pulling his face a little closer.
“Feels good,” Ali murmured.
“Yeah, you smell good,” Aaron said. He suddenly pulled back a bit, “But I worry, Ali. I mean, I mean, it’s like, we work together. This could be construed as me taking advantage. It could be unfair to you.” He was speaking quickly now, trying to convince himself to quit doing that which he desired most of all to do. “There are the issues of professionalism, of ethics. I mean, you are the most beautiful and the smartest woman I’ve ever known, definitely seriously beautiful and smart as a whip, and you smell like a flower which makes it difficult for me to say this, I mean, it’s really very, very hard, but…”
Nearly laughing, she leaned her head back and put her finger across his lips. “Aaron, I love it that you are so decent and considerate and ethical. But sometimes, Doctor, as a wise man once told me, sometimes it’s OK to listen to your heart instead of the rule book.”
“Aaron, you sweet fool, will you shut up and kiss me?”
To his everlasting credit, he did so, quite thoroughly and well.
To every thing there is a season,
And a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted
Damien’s mother, Polly, died of congestive heart failure four years after Damien’s death. Some say that she actually died of a broken heart. Two years after Polly’s death Floyd, Damien’s father, died at Austerity Regional Medical Center. A series of small strokes caused his hospitalization. He had a carotid endarterectomy—the surgical removal of cholesterol plaques from the inner wall of the left carotid artery. Post surgically, he developed a Methcillin Resistant Staph Aureus infection, or MRSA. In a final irony, he died in room 308 South, the same room that Damien died in several years before.
Pastor MacLeash of First Church retired just recently. Elsie, his first wife, died a year before. She died at home, sitting on the couch with the TV blaring. She remained there until next morning, still smiling. Then the maid, the same Mrs. Humphreys that cleaned twice a week for Dr. Payne, noticed that Elsie was unusually quiet and still. It was only with great effort that Charlie Rose at the Rose Family Crematory and Funeral home was able to adjust away enough of her fixed smile to give her a less manic appearance. In the end, when Elsie’s white coffin stood on its catafalque surrounded by wreaths and floral sprays, Charlie Rose, there in his official capacity, stood close by. His chest swelled a little as those passing by the said such things as, “Don’t Elsie look natural?” “Lord, yes!” “Like she could just open those eyes and sit right up.” Elsie MacLeash was indeed a tribute to the embalmer’s art.
MacLeash then took up with the widow of the former solicitor. That solicitor was known to have owned the largest connection of pornographic movies in the state, items purloined from the collections of people he helped jail for violating obscenity statutes. Mrs. Humphreys confided to Ali that that remarkable cinematic collection of polymorphous sexual variety resides yet with Preacher and his new wife. “I went in that day to clean,” Mrs. Humphrey said. “I didn’t think anyone was home, so I let myself in. Ali, Honey, they usually locked that spare bedroom door. That day, though, they left it open, so I stepped in, thinking I maybe should clean. There that stuff was, on steel shelf after steel shelf, from, ‘Adultery for Beginners’ to ‘Zelda’s Zulu Dream.’ On the other side of the shelves, Pastor was lying face down on the carpet wearing high-heeled patent leather pumps and pink lace panties and nothing else. His wife had on high-heeled boots and a Nazi uniform. She had a little short whip in her hand. God as my witness, Ali, the new Ms. MacLeash yelled, ‘You want sin, you slut, I’ll show you sin.’ She put her boot heel on his back and whipped him good on his big ol’ rear end with that little whip. Then he started licking her boot tops saying, ever so pitiful, ‘Please Mistress, mercy, mercy.’ I started to back out the door when Preacher saw me. He turned red as a strawberry and said, like he was talking to a dog that had just wet the carpet, ‘Mrs. Humphreys!!!’ Pastor was frowning now. ‘Please excuse yourself, Mrs. Humphries. This is a family matter. Mrs. MacLeash and are studying nature of sin in order to fight it better.’”
The youth minister, Pastor MacLeash’s nephew who was Damien’s sexual consort: When he became sick a year after Damien died, his downward progression was much the same as Damien’s.
But there was a difference. Preacher announced from the pulpit one Sunday that his nephew had contracted Drug Resistant Tuberculosis while in the Lord’s service some years previously while on one of First Church’s mission trips to Nigeria. For that reason, preacher explained that they needed to make up “a generous and sacrificial offering, a love offering from the heart” to help him move to a dryer climate, one more salubrious for his damaged lungs. Perhaps he did have tuberculosis. Several who died in that AIDs hospice in Los Angeles had TB and other illnesses as well as AIDs.
Aaron and Ali: It seemed only natural and right to both of them that that they would stay in Asheville that long ago weekend after the trip to scatter Damien’s ashes. Now, over twenty years later, their lives made richer by the presence of each other, they look back on that first Asheville weekend as one of the highlights of their lives together. It wasn’t the rich and over-priced meals, or the stay in a ritzy and expensive suite at the Grove Park Inn that made it so special. It was the evening walk on the grounds, hand in hand, cares swept away by the presence of each other, or the visit to the Farmer’s Market in Asheville the next day. As they walked between the displays of summer squash, pole beans and melons, Ali murmured, “Aaron, love, it’s the little things.”
“Little things? Aaron said.
“Yeah, that actually are the big things.”
Smiling, nodding, Aaron pulled her close enough to kiss her on the corner of her mouth. They stopped at the nearby carnival where they shared elephant ears, kiełbasa on a bun and cotton candy. At Aaron’s insistence, they rode both the carousel and the Ferris wheel twice. The Ferris wheel stopped with them at the top their seat swung gently back and forth. Aaron, peering westward, hand shading his eyes, said, “It’s so clear. I can see all the way to Tennessee.”
Their two children are practically grown up now. As Aaron fantasized long ago, one is aspiring to be an officer in the Marine Corps, the other aiming toward medical school.
Alice Lucia, “Lucy,” is an undergraduate at Duke University, a Naval ROTC cadet who is intent on being a Marine Corps pilot. She has the grades, the stamina, and the moxy to pull it off.
Andrea Marie, known as Andrea, is in the premed program at Columbia University, majoring in honors biology with a minor in environmental studies. She hopes to take her medical degree at the College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific in Pomona, California. She intends to specialize in surgery.
Never one to stand around, Ali took that Masters in Literature that she’d wanted by commuting to the University of South Carolina in Columbia in her Land Rover. Later, when both of the children were in school, she went to Columbia University, commuting every weekend between LaGuardia Field and Charlotte’s Douglas International Airport. She completed a Certified Gynecologic Nurse Practitioner program with high honors. She and Aaron continue to practice in Austerity.