Page 52 of Ford County

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The deal was cut with little negotiation. Bickering back and forth was futile under the circumstances. The parties were not on level ground, and so it was no surprise that the white woman got what she wanted.

The white woman was Leona Keane, Aunt Leona to some, Leona the Lion to the rest, the ancient matriarch of a family long in decline. The black woman was Miss Emporia, one of only two black spinsters in Lowtown. Emporia was up in years too, about seventy-five, she thought, though there had never been a record of her birth. The Keane family owned the house Emporia had been renting forever, and it was because of the privilege of ownership that the deal was done so quickly.

Emporia would care for the nephew, and upon his death she would be given a full warranty deed. The little pink house on Roosevelt Street would become hers, free and clear. The transfer would mean little to the Keane family since they had been depleting Isaac's assets for many years. But to Emporia, the transfer meant everything. The thought of owning her beloved home far outweighed her reservations about taking care of a dying white boy.

Since Aunt Leona would never think of being seen on the other side of the tracks, she arranged for her gardener to drive the boy over and deliver him to his final destination. When Aunt Leona's old Buick stopped in front of Miss Emporia's, Adrian Keane looked at the pink house with its white porch, its hanging ferns, its flower boxes brimming with pansies and geraniums, its tiny front lawn lined with a picket fence, and he looked next door to a small house, painted a pale yellow and just as neat and pretty. He looked farther down the street, to a row of narrow, happy homes adorned with flowers and rocking chairs and welcoming doors. Then he looked back at the pink house, and he decided that he'd rather die there than in the miserable mansion he'd just left, less than a mile away.

The gardener, still wearing pruning gloves to ward off any chance of infection, quickly unloaded the two expensive leather suitcases that held all of Adrian's things and hurried away without a farewell and without a handshake. He was under strict orders from Miss Leona to bring the Buick home and scrub the interior with a disinfectant.

Adrian looked up and down the street, noticed a few porch sitters hiding from the sun, then picked up his luggage and walked through the front yard, along the brick "walkway to the steps. The front door opened and Miss Emporia presented herself, with a smile. "Welcome, Mr. Keane," she said.

Adrian said, "Please, none of this 'Mister' stuff. Nice to meet you." At this point in the pleasantries a handshake was in order, but Adrian understood the problem. He quickly added, "Look, it's safe to shake hands, but let's just skip it."

That was fine with Emporia. She'd been warned by Leona that his appearance was startling. She quickly took in the hollow cheeks and eyes and the whitest skin she'd ever seen, and she pretended to ignore the bony frame draped with clothing much too large now. Without hesitation, she waved at a small table on the porch and asked, "Would you like some sweet tea?"

"That "would be nice, thank you."

His words were crisp, his southern accent abandoned years ago. Emporia "wondered what else the young man had lost along the way. They settled around the wicker table, and she poured the sugary tea. There was a saucer with gingersnaps. She took one; he did not.

"How's your appetite?" she asked.

"It's gone. When I left here years ago, I lost a lot of weight. Got away from all the fried stuff and never really became much of an eater. Now, with this, there's not much of an appetite."

"So I won't be cookin' much?"

"I guess not. Are you okay with this, this arrangement here? I mean, it seems like my family forced this down your throat, which is exactly what they do. If you're not happy, I can find another place."

"The arrangement is fine, Mr. Keane."

"Please call me Adrian. And what should I call you?"

"Emporia. Let's just go with the first names."

"Deal."

"Where would you find another place?" she asked.

"I don't know. It's all so temporary now." His voice was hoarse, and his words were slow, as if talking required exertion. He wore a blue cotton shirt, jeans, and sandals.

Emporia once worked in the hospital, and she had seen many cancer patients in their final days. Her new friend reminded her of those poor folks. Sick as he was, though, there was no doubt that he had once been a fine-looking young man.

"Are you happy with this arrangement?" she asked.

"Why wouldn't I be?"

"A white gentleman from a prominent family living here in Lowtown with an old black spinster."

"Might be fun," he said, and managed his first smile.

"I'm sure we'll get along."

He stirred his tea. His smile vanished as the moment of levity passed. Emporia stirred hers too and thought: This poor man. He has little to smile about.

"I left Clanton for a lot of reasons," he said. "It's a bad place for people like me, homosexuals. And it's not so wonderful for people like you. I loathe the way I was raised. I'm ashamed of the way my family treated blacks. I hated the bigotry in this town. I couldn't wait to get out of here. Plus, I wanted the big city."

"San Francisco?"

"I went to New York first, lived there a few years, then got a job on the West Coast. I eventually moved to San Francisco. Then I got sick."

"Why'd you come back if you have such strong feelings against the town?"

Adrian exhaled as if the answer might take an hour, or as if he really didn't know the answer. He wiped some sweat from his forehead, sweat caused not by the humidity but by the sickness. He sipped from his glass. And he finally said, "I'm not sure. I've seen a lot of death recently, been to more than my share of memorials. I couldn't stand the thought of being buried in a cold mausoleum in a faraway city. Maybe it's just the Southern thing. We all come home eventually."

"That makes sense."

"And, I ran out of money, to be honest. The drugs are very expensive. I needed my family, or at least its resources. There are other reasons. It's complicated. I didn't want to burden my friends with another agonizing death."

"And you planned to stay over there, not here in Lowtown?"

"Believe me, Emporia, I'd much rather be here. They didn't want me back in Clanton. For years they paid me to stay away. They disowned me, cut me out of their wills, refused to speak my name. So, I figured I'd upset their lives one last time. Make them suffer a little. Make them spend some money."

A police car drove slowly down the street. Neither mentioned it. When it was gone, Adrian took another sip and said, "You need some background, some of the basics. I've had AIDS for about three years, and I won't live much longer. I'm basically safe to be around. The only way to catch the disease is through the exchange of body fluids, so let's agree right now that we will not have sex."

Emporia howled with laughter, and she was soon joined by Adrian. They laughed until their eyes were wet, until the porch shook, until they were laughing at themselves for laughing so hard. A few of the neighbors perked up and looked from far away. When things were finally under control, she said, "I haven't had sex in so long I've forgotten about it."

"Well, Miss Emporia, let me assure you that I've had enough for me, you, and half of Clanton. But those days are over."

"Mine too."

"Good. Keep your hands to yourself and I'll do the same. Other than that, it's wise if we take some precautions."

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