Page 56 of Ford County

Carver still couldn't move, couldn't force himself to reach up and take the cash.

"No need to worry, Carver," Emporia said, suddenly anxious to help with the transaction. "Trust me."

"I swear you'll be fine," Adrian said.

Carver began shaking his head, then began backing away. "I'm sorry," he mumbled, almost to himself.

Adrian returned the cash to his pocket as he watched Carver disappear into the night. His legs were weak, and he needed to sit, maybe to sleep. He slowly squatted, then came to rest on the top step, where he leaned his head on the rail and for a long time said nothing. Emporia moved behind him and went into the house.

When she returned to the porch, she asked, "Does 'tequila' have a q or a c in it?"

"Forget it, Emporia."

"A q or a c?" She brushed by him and went down the steps onto the walkway.

"No, Emporia. Please. I'm not thirsty anymore."

"I think it's a 'q,' am I right?" She was in the street, wearing an old pair of white sneakers and moving away at an impressive gait.

"It's q," Adrian yelled.

"I knew it," came the reply, two doors down.

*

And often the rumors were completely false, outright fabrications created by those who either enjoyed watching their little lies sweep around the town or found pleasure in causing trouble.

The latest one began in the courthouse, on the second floor, in the office of the chancery clerk, where the lawyers came and went at all hours of the day. When a group of lawyers gathered to do title work, there was no shortage of gossip. Since the Keane family was getting more than its share of attention at the moment, it was only natural that the lawyers played an active role in the discussions. Even more natural that one of them would start trouble.

Though variations of it cropped up immediately, the basic rumor was: Adrian had more money than most people thought because his grandfather had set up some complicated trusts before Adrian was even born, and upon his fortieth birthday he would inherit an impressive sum, but since he wouldn't see his fortieth birthday, the inheritance could be transferred by him through a last will and testament to any beneficiary he wanted. And the good part: an unnamed lawyer had been hired by Adrian to draft his last will and testament, with directions that this mysterious future inheritance would be given to (a) Emporia Nester, or (b) a new gay rights advocacy group that was struggling to get started over in Tupelo, or (c) a boyfriend back in San Francisco, or (d) a college scholarship fund for black students only. Take your pick.

Because of its complexity, the rumor got little traction and almost sank under its own weight. When people whispered about, say, who's seeing someone else's wife, the issue was fairly straightforward and easily grasped. But most folks had no experience with generation-skipping trusts and inheritances and other lawyerly creations, and the details became far more muddled than usual. By the time Dell finished with it at the coffee shop, the boy was due a fortune, of which Emporia would get the most, and his family was threatening to sue.

Only at the barbershop did a voice of reason ask the obvious. "If he's got money, why is he dyin' away in an old shack down in Lowtown?"

Whereupon an argument ensued about how much money he actually had. The majority view was that he had little, but was counting on the inheritance from the trusts. One brave soul mocked the others, claiming it was all nonsense, claiming to know for a fact that the entire Keane clan was "as poor as Job's turkey."

"Look at the old house," he said. "They're too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash."

*

In late June, the heat rose to a new level, and Adrian kept to himself in his room, near the noisy air conditioner that barely worked. The fevers arrived with greater frequency, and he simply could not survive the heavy, suffocating air on the front porch. In his room, he wore nothing but his underwear, which was often soaked with sweat. He read Faulkner and wrote dozens of letters to friends from his other life. And he slept, off and on, throughout the day. A nurse stopped by every third day for a quick exam and another supply of pills, all of which he was now flushing down the toilet.

Emporia worked hard to put some fat on him, but he had no appetite. Since she had never cooked for a family, she had limited experience in the kitchen. Her small garden produced enough tomatoes, squashes, peas, butter beans, and cantaloupes to keep her fed throughout the year, and Adrian gamely tried to enjoy the generous meals she prepared. She convinced him to eat corn bread - though it contained butter, milk, and eggs. She had never met a person who refused meat, fish, chicken, and dairy products, and more than once she asked, "All them folks in California eat like that?"

"No, but there are a lot of vegetarians." "You •was raised better."

"Let's not talk about the way I was raised, Emporia. My entire childhood was a nightmare."

She set the table three times a day, at the hours he chose, and they worked at prolonging the meals. Adrian knew it was important for her to make sure he was properly fed, and he ate as much as he could. It was obvious, though, that after two weeks he was still losing weight.

It was during lunch that the preacher called. Emporia, as always, answered the phone, which hung on a wall in the kitchen. Adrian was certainly permitted to use the phone, but he rarely did. There was no one to talk to in Clanton. He did not call anyone in his family, and they did not call him. There were friends in San Francisco, but they were almost all gone now, and he did not want to hear their voices.

"Good afternoon, Reverend," she said, then turned away and stretched the cord as far as possible. They talked briefly, and she hung up with a pleasant "Til see you at three o'clock." She sat down and immediately took a bite of corn bread.

"So how's the reverend?" Adrian asked. "Fine, I reckon."

"He's coming by at three this afternoon?"

"No. I'll run by the church. Said he wants to talk about somethin'."

"Any idea what?"

"You're right curious these days."

"Well, Emporia, I've lived in Lowtown for two weeks now, and I've realized that everybody's business belongs to everybody else. It's almost impolite not to pry a little. Plus, gay people are nosier than straight people. Did you know that?"

"Ain't never heard such."

"It's true. It's a proven fact. So why won't the reverend stop by and see you? Isn't that part of his job, making house calls, checking on his flock, welcoming newcomers like me? I saw him three days ago over on the porch chatting with Doris and Herman. Kept looking over here like he might catch a fever. You don't like him, do you?"

"I liked the other man better."

"Me too. I'm not going to church with you, Emporia, so please don't ask me again."

"I've only asked you twice."

"Yes, and I've said thanks. It's very nice of you, but I have no interest in going to your church or any other. Not sure I'd be too welcome anywhere these days."

She had no comment.

"I had this dream the other night. There was a revival service at a church, white church, here in Clanton, one of those rowdy hell-fire-and-brimstone affairs with people rolling in the aisles and fainting and the choir singing 'Shall We Gather at the River' at full throttle, and the preacher was at the altar begging and pleading for all sinners to come on down and surrender all. You get the picture."

"Ever' Sunday."

"And I walked through the door, dressed in white, looking worse than I look now, and I started down the aisle toward the preacher. He had this look of terror on his face, couldn't say a word. The choir stopped mid-stanz;a. Everyone fro2,e as I kept walking down the aisle, which took a long time. Finally, someone yelled, 'It's him! The guy with AIDS! Somebody else yelled, 'Run!' And all hell broke loose. There was a stampede. Mothers grabbed their children. I kept walking down the aisle. Men jumped out of windows. I kept walking. These really large women in gold choir robes were falling all over their fat asses trying to get out of the sanctuary. I kept walking toward the preacher, and finally, just as I got to him, I reached out my hand. He didn't move. He couldn't speak. The church was empty, not a sound." Adrian took a sip of tea and wiped his forehead.

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