Page 58 of Ford County

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After the second cup she started giggling. It was dark and the street was quiet.

"Somethin' I've wanted to ask you," she said.

"Anything."

"When did you realize that you were, you know, different? How old were you?"

A pause, a long sip of wine, a story he'd told before but only to those who understood. "Things were pretty normal until I was about twelve. Cub Scouts, baseball and soccer, camping and fish-ing, the usual boy stuff, but as puberty loomed down the road, I began to realize I wasn't interested in girls. The other boys talked about girls and girls, but I just didn't care. I lost interest in sports and began to read about art and design and fashion. As I got older, the boys got more involved with girls, but not me. I knew something was wrong. I had a friend, Matt Mason, a great-looking guy who drove the girls crazy. One day I realized I had a crush on him too, but, of course, I never told anyone. I fantasized about the guy. It drove me nuts; then I started looking at other boys and thinking about them. When I was fifteen, I finally admitted to myself that I was gay. By then, the other kids were beginning to whisper. I couldn't wait to get out of here and live the way I wanted."

"Do you have any regrets?"

"Regrets? No, I don't regret being what I am. Wish I wasn't sick, but then so does everybody else with a terminal illness."

She set her empty cup on the wicker table and gazed into the darkness. The porch light was off. They sat in the shadows, rocking slowly. "Can I tell you somethin' private?" she said.

"Of course. I'll take it to my grave."

"Well, I was sorta like you, except I never liked boys. I never thought about bein' different, you know, and I never thought somethin' was wrong with me. But I never wanted to be with no man."

"You never had a boyfriend?"

"Maybe, one time. There was a boy hangin' around the house, and I felt like I needed to have a boy, you know. My family was gettin' worried 'cause I was almost twenty and still single. We went to bed a few times, but I didn't like it. In fact, it made me sick. I couldn't stand bein' touched like that. You promise you won't tell, now."

"I promise. And who would I tell?"

"I trust you."

"Your secret is safe. Have you ever told anyone else?"

"Lord, no. I wouldn't dare."

"Did you ever fool around with a girl?"

"Son, you just didn't do thangs like that back then. They'd ship you off to the nuthouse."

"And now?"

She shook her head and thought about this. "Ever' now and then, there's some gossip 'bout a boy over here who won't fit in, but it's kept real quiet. You hear rumors, you know, but no one ever comes out and lives openly, know what I mean?"

"I do indeed."

"But I've never heard of a woman over here who goes for other women. I suspect they keep it hidden and get married and never tell a soul. Or they do like me - they just play along and say they never found the right man."

"That's sad."

"I'm not sad, Adrian. I've had a happy life. How 'bout just a touch more wine?"

"Good idea."

She hurried away, anxious to leave the conversation behind.

*

The fevers returned and did not go away. His skin leaked sweat, then he began to cough, a painful hacking cough that gripped him like a seizure and left him too weak to move. Emporia washed and ironed sheets throughout the day, and at night she could only listen to the painful sounds from his room. She prepared meals he could not eat. She put on gloves and bathed him with cold water, neither bothered by his nakedness. His arms and legs were like broom handles now, and he was not strong enough to walk to the front porch. He no longer wanted to be seen by the neighbors, so he stayed in bed, waiting. The nurse came every day now, but did nothing but check his temperature, rearrange his pill bottles, and shake her head gravely at Emporia.

On the last night, Adrian managed to dress himself in a pair of twill slacks and a white cotton shirt. He neatly packed his shoes and clothing in his two leather suitcases, and when everything was in order, he took the black pill and washed it down with wine. He stretched out on the bed, looked around the room, placed an envelope on his chest, managed a smile, and closed his eyes for the last time.

By ten the next morning, Emporia realized she had not heard a sound from him. She pecked on the door to his bedroom, and when she stepped in, there was Adrian, neatly dressed, still smiling, eternally at rest.

The letter read:

Dear Emporia:

Please destroy this letter after you read it. I'm sorry you found me like this, but this moment was, after all, inevitable. The disease had run its course and my time was up. I simply decided to speed things up a bit.

Fred Mays, the lawyer, has taken care of the final arrangements. Please call him first. He will call the coroner, who will come here and pronounce me legally dead. Since neither of the funeral homes in town would handle my body, a rescue-squad ambulance will take me to a crematorium in Tupelo. There, they will happily incinerate me and place my ashes in a container made for the occasion. Standard container, nothing fancy. Fred will then bring my ashes back to Clanton and deliver them to Mr. Franklin Walker at the funeral home here in Lowtown. Mr. Walker has agreed, reluctantly, to bury me in the black section of the cemetery, as far away from my family's plot as possible.

All of this will be done quickly, and, I hope, without the knowledge of my family. I do not want those people getting involved, not that they will want to be. Fred has my written instructions and plans to deal with them, if necessary.

When my ashes are buried, I'd be honored if you would offer a silent word or two. And feel free to stop by my little spot occasionally and leave some flowers. Again, nothing fancy.

There are four bottles of wine left in the fridge. Please drink in remembrance of me.

Thank you so much for your kindness. You've made my last days bearable, even enjoyable at times. You're a wonderful human being, and you deserve to be what you are.

Love, Adrian

Emporia sat on the edge of the bed for a long time, wiping her eyes and even patting his knee. Then she collected herself and went to the kitchen, where she threw the letter in the trash and picked up the phone.

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