"You heard right. My cousin's daughter was in school with that boy, said he was always on the queer side, a regular sissy, and soon as he could, he got outta here and went off to the big city. I think it was San Francisco, but don't quote me on that."
("Don't quote me on that" was a defensive ploy aimed at disclaiming what had just been said. Once properly disclaimed, others were then free to go ahead and repeat what had just been said, but if the information turned out to be false, the original gossiper could not be held liable.)
"How old is he?"
A pause as calculations were made. "Maybe thirty-one, thirty-two."
"Why's he comin' back here?"
"Well, now, I don't know for sure, but they say he's real sick, on his last leg, and ain't nobody in the big city to take care of him."
"He's comin' home to die?"
"That's what they say."
"Isaac would roll over in his grave."
"They say the family's been sendin' him money for years to keep him away from Clanton."
"I thought they'd gone through all of Isaac's money."
Whereupon a digression was begun on the topic of Isaac's money, and his estate, his assets and liabilities, his wives and children and relatives, the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death, and it was concluded with the general agreement that Isaac had died just in time because the family he left behind was nothing but a bunch of idiots.
"What's the boy sick from?"
Rasco, one of the bigger talkers in town and known to embelish, said, "They say it's that queer disease. No way to cure it."
Bickers, at forty the youngest present that morning, said, "You're not talkin' about AIDS, are you?"
"That's what they say."
"The boy's got AIDS and he's comin' to Clanton."
"That's what they say."
"This can't be."
The rumor was confirmed minutes later at the coffee, shop on the east side of the square, where a sassy waitress named Dell had been serving breakfast for many years. The early-morning crowd was the usual collection of off-duty deputies and factory workers, with a white collar or two mixed in. One of them said, "Say, Dell, you heard anythang about that youngest Keane boy movin' back home?"
Dell, who often started benign rumors out of boredom but generally maintained good sources, said, "He's already here."
"And he's got AIDS?"
"He's got something. All pale, wasted away, looks like death already."
"When did you see him?"
"Didn't. But his aunt's housekeeper told me all about it yesterday afternoon." Dell was behind the counter, waiting on more food from the cook, and every customer in her cafe was listening. "He's a sick boy, all right. There's no cure, nothin' nobody can do. Won't nobody take care of him in San Francisco, so he's come home to die. Very sad."
"Where's he livin' ?"
"Well, he won't be livin' in the big house, that's for sure. The family got together and decided he couldn't stay there. What he's got is contagious as hell, and deadly, and so they're puttin' him in one of Isaac's old houses in Lowtown."
"He's livin' with the coloreds?"
"That's what they say."
This took a while to sink in, but it began to make sense. The thought of a Keane living across the railroad tracks in the black section was hard to accept, but then it seemed logical that anyone with AIDS should not be allowed on the white side of town.
Dell continued, "God knows how many shacks and houses old man Keane bought and built in Lowtown. I think he still owns a few dozen."
"Reckon who the boy'll live with?"
"I don't really care. I just don't want him comin' in here."
"Now, Dell. What would you do if he walked in right now and wanted breakfast?"
She wiped her hands on a dishcloth, stared at the man who asked the question, tightened her jaws, and said, "Look, I can refuse service to anyone. Believe me, with my customers, I think about this all the time. But if he comes in here, I'll ask him to leave. You gotta remember, this boy is highly contagious, and we're not talkin' about the common cold. If I serve him, then one of you might get his plate or glass next time around. Think about that."
They thought about it for a long time.
Finally, someone said, "Reckon how long he'll live?"
That question was being discussed across the street on the second floor of the courthouse in the offices of the chancery clerk, where the early-morning coffee crowd was nibbling on pastries and catching up with the latest news. Myra, who was in charge of filing land deeds, had finished high school one year before Adrian Keane, and of course they knew even back then that he was different. She had the floor.
Ten years after graduation, Myra and her husband were vacationing in California when she gave Adrian a call. They met for lunch at Fisherman's Wharf and, with Alcatraz, and the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, had a delightful time talking about their Clanton days. Myra assured Adrian nothing had changed in their hometown. Adrian talked freely about his lifestyle. The year was 1984, he was happily out of the closet, though not attached to anyone in particular. He was worried about AIDS, a disease Myra had never heard of in 1984. The first wave of the epidemic had roared through the gay community out there, and the casualties were heartbreaking, and frightening. Changes in lifestyles were being advocated. Some die within six months, Adrian had explained to Myra and her husband. Others hang on for years. He had already lost some friends.
Myra described the lunch again in great detail before a rapt audience of a dozen other clerks. The fact that she'd actually been to San Francisco and driven across that bridge made her special. They had seen the photographs, and more than once.
"They say he's already here," another clerk said.
"How long's he got?"
But Myra didn't know. Since the lunch five years earlier, she'd had no contact with Adrian, and it was obvious she wanted none now.
The first sighting was confirmed minutes later when a Mr. Rutledge entered the barbershop for his weekly trim. His nephew threw the Tupelo daily each morning at sunrise, and every house in downtown Clanton received one. The nephew had heard the rumors and was on the lookout. He rode his bike slowly down Harrison Street, even slower when he approached the old Keane place, and sure enough, that very morning, not two hours earlier, he came face-to-face with a stranger he would not soon forget.
Mr. Rutledge described the encounter. "Joey said he's never seen a sicker man, frail and gaunt, skin pale as a corpse, with splotches on his arm, sunken cheekbones, thin hair. Said it was like lookin' at a cadaver." Rutledge seldom encountered a fact he couldn't improve upon, and this was well-known to the others. But he had their attention. No one dared to question whether Joey, a limited thirteen-year-old, would use a word like "cadaver."
"What'd he say?"
"Joey said, 'Good morning,' and this fella said, 'Good morning,' and Joey handed over the newspaper, but he was careful to keep his distance."
"And then he got on his bike and hurried off. You can't catch that stuff just from the air, can you?"
No one ventured a guess.
By 8:30 Dell had heard of the sighting, and there was already some speculation about Joey's health. By 8:45, Myra and the clerks were chattering excitedly about the ghostlike figure who'd frightened the paperboy in front of the old Keane place.
An hour later, a police car made a run down Harrison Street, the two officers in it straining mightily to catch a glimpse of the ghost. By noon, all of Clanton knew that a man dying of AIDS was now in their midst.