Page 57 of Ford County

"Go on. What happened then?"

"Don't know, I woke up, and I had a good laugh. Dreams can be very real. I guess some sinners are too far gone."

"That's not what the Bible says."

"Thank you, Emporia. And thank you for lunch. I need to lie down now."

At 3:00 p.m., Emporia met with Reverend Biler in his office at the church. Such a meeting in such a place could only mean trouble, and not long after the initial pleasantries the reverend got to the point, or at least to one of them. "I hear you've been seen in Willie Ray's whiskey store."

This was no surprise whatsoever, and Emporia was ready. "I'm seventy-five years old, at least thirty years older than you, and if I choose to buy medication for a friend, then I'll do so."

"Medication?"

"That's what he calls it, and I told his family he'd be properly medicated."

"Call it whatever you want, Emporia, but the elders are upset over this. One of our senior ladies seen in a whiskey store. What kind of example is that for our youth?"

"It's my job, and this job won't last much longer."

"There's a rumor you've invited him to worship with us."

Thank you, Doris, Emporia thought but didn't say. Doris was the only person she'd told about inviting Adrian to church. "I invite everyone to worship with us, Reverend. That's what you want. That's what the Bible says."

"Well, this is a little different."

"Don't worry. He ain't comin'."

"Praise the Lord. The wages of sin is death, Emporia, and this young man is paying for his sins."

"Yes, he is."

"And how safe are you, Emporia? This disease is sweeping across our country, across the world. It's highly contagious, and, to be honest with you, there are grave concerns in our community over your safety. Why are you running this risk? Why take this chance? It seems so unlike you."

"The nurse tells me I'm safe. I keep him clean and fed, and medicated, and I wear rubber gloves when I do his laundry. The virus is spread through intercourse and blood, both of which are being avoided." She smiled. He did not.

He folded his hands together and set them on the desk, very piouslike. His face was hard when he said, "Some of our members are uneasy around you."

She had anticipated everything but that, and when she realized the meaning of it, she was speechless.

"You touch what he touches. You breathe the same air, eat the same food, drink the same water and tea, and God knows what else these days. You clean his clothes and laundry and bedsheets, and you wear rubber gloves because of the virus. Shouldn't that tell you how great the danger is, Emporia? Then you bring the germs here, to the house of the Lord."

"I'm safe, Reverend. I know I'm safe."

"Maybe so, but perception is everything. Some of your brothers and sisters here think you're crazy for doing this, and they are afraid."

"Someone has to care for him." "These are wealthy white people, Emporia." "He has no one else."

"We'll not argue that. My concern is my church."

"It's my church too. I was here long before you came, and now you're askin' me to stay away?"

"I want you to consider a leave of absence, until he passes."

Minutes dragged by without a word. Emporia, her eyes wet but her head high, stared through a window and watched the leaves of a tree. Biler remained motionless and studied his hands. When she finally stood, she said, "Then let's call it a leave of absence, Reverend. It'll start now, and it'll be over when I decide it's over. And while I'm absent, I'll walk in the whiskey store anytime I choose, and you and your little spies can gossip all you want."

He was following her to the door. "Don't overreact, Emporia. We all love you."

"I feel the love."

"And we'll be prayin' for you, and for him."

"I'm sure he'll be pleased to hear that."

*

The lawyer's name was Fred Mays, and his was the only name in the yellow pages that Adrian recognized. Adrian spoke briefly with him on the phone, then wrote him a long letter. At four o'clock on a Friday afternoon Mays and a secretary parked in front of the pink house. Mays unloaded his briefcase. He also un-loaded a case of wine from the nicer liquor store on the other side of the tracks. Emporia walked across the street to visit Doris so the legal matters could be tended to in private.

Contrary to the varied rumors floating around, Adrian had nothing in the way of assets. There was no mysterious trust created by long-dead relatives. The will prepared by Mays required all of one page, with the remnants of Adrian's dwindling supply of cash going to Emporia. The second document, and the more important one, set forth the burial arrangements. When everything was signed and notarized, Mays hung around for a glass of wine and some idle talk about Clanton. The glass of wine didn't last long. Mays and his secretary seemed anxious to conclude the meeting. They left, good-byes and nods but no handshakes, and as soon as they were back in the office on the square, they were describing the boy's dreadful condition.

The following Sunday, Emporia complained of a headache and announced she would not go to church. It was raining, and the weather gave her another excuse to stay home. They ate biscuits on the porch and watched the storm.

"How's your headache?" Adrian asked.

"It's better. Thank you."

"You told me once you haven't missed church in over forty years. Why are you staying home today?"

"I don't feel too good, Adrian. It's that simple."

"You and the preacher have a falling-out?"

"No."

"Are you sure?"

"I said no."

"You haven't been yourself since you met with him the other day. I think he said something to offend you, and I think it was something to do with me. Doris comes over less and less. Herman, never. Isabelle hasn't stopped by in a week. The phone doesn't ring as much. Now you're staying away from church. If you ask me, I'd say Lowtown is giving you the cold shoulder, and it's all because of me."

She didn't argue. How could she? He was telling the truth, and any objection from her would ring false.

Thunder rattled the windows and the wind turned, blowing rain onto the porch. They went inside, Emporia to the kitchen, Adrian to his room, with the door closed. He stripped to his underwear and reclined on the bed. He was almost finished with As I Lay Dying, Faulkner's fifth novel and one Adrian had seriously considered skipping, for obvious reasons. But he found it much more accessible than the others, and unexpectedly humorous. He finished it in an hour, and fell asleep.

By late afternoon the rain was gone; the air was clear and pleasant. After a light supper of peas and corn bread, they drifted back to the porch, where Adrian soon announced that his stomach was in disarray and he need some wine, per First Timothy, chapter 5, verse 23. His designated wineglass was a cracked coffee mug with permanent chicory stains. He'd taken a few sips when Emporia announced, "You know, my stomach is a bit unsettled too. I might try some of that."

Adrian smiled and said, "Wonderful. I'll get it."

"No. You sit tight. I know where the bottle is."

She returned with a similar mug and settled into her rocking chair. "Cheers," Adrian said, happy to have a drinking buddy.

Emporia took a swallow, smacked her lips, and said, "Not bad."

"It's a chardonnay. Good, but not great. The best they had in the store."

"It'll do," she said, still cautious.

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