Thursday, November 13, 2008
I lifted my head slowly from my chest and began to look around, lost. The fog in the meadow below was beginning to dissipate, patches of green grass could now be seen. The sheep were beginning to scatter out, bleating out their complaints as they ambled off to the far corners of the property to begin another day. Roc, my Australian Shepherd rumbled through the brush on the trail of some non-existent rabbit; fat gregarious birds called to one another from the tree by the birdbath, a surreal scene presented. Even though my world had crashed down around me and ground to a screeching halt this very morning, the day had the dare and the gall to unfold before me.
I’d been wakened at 4:00 am this morning by the stupid Too Sexy For My Shirt ring tone that Brock had programmed into my phone the other day when I went to the bathroom at Wendy’s. I cursed him and grabbed it off my computer desk before it had time to start over.
Thinking it was that stupid heavy-breather; I offered a somewhat weak greeting, “Heeeello?” Nothing. “Hello…who the fuck…” I stopped when I heard a long sigh.
“Ah…ah, Ken? I…. Ken?” It was a voice I recognized but I couldn’t place it. Oh wait; it sounded like Tonya, Norton’s 17-year-old sister.
“Hey Tonya, what’s up? Is something wrong with Norton?”
Norton had gone into the hospital with flu-like symptoms two days before but he’d been fine around suppertime last night. Aside from occasionally using oxygen, he’d even sat up and made jokes about Raynelle, the extremely busty night nurse and fussed at me for not getting out of the house and dating more. I’d playfully socked his arm and said, “Nothing but a bunch of bottoms around here anyhow…” I could see Norton trying not to smile and read his thoughts, “Shut up, I know what you’re thinking, I can be versatile…” He just chuckled and said, “Uh huhhhhhhh.”
The phone jerked me out of my reverie, “Yes, I’m Norton’s sister…” She started crying, her voice quivering now.
“Yes, Tonya, I know. What’s wrong?”
When she didn’t say anything for a heartbeat, I panicked, “What? Oh God, just tell me.” My stomach sank quickly and for a moment I worried that I’d have to put Tonya on hold long enough to hurl.
“Nortons’ dying, he can’t breathe anymore, they say his lungs just can’t fight it off anymore, his heart too, Oh God, Ken...”
“Who said that?”
“First, the nurses, then Dr. Feinstein, he told me to notify everyone quick as I could. But you know what, Ken? There’s just you. Norton made me promise not to call any of those vultures that share a surname with him, as he put it. Not even momma.”
“Oh God,” I quietly replied, “I’ll be right there, dear.” I dropped the phone and hurriedly threw some clothes on.
I remembered the phone and picked it up again. “Tonya, where are you?”
“ICU, first floor.” I heard crying again.“Tonya, you tell that drama queen I’ll kill him if he thinks he’s going to make some big splashy exit and leave me all alone in the god-forsaken place. We're supposed to be here for each other, watching each other’s backs. Tell him, Tonya, tell him that…make him hold on!”
“You should see the way the treat him. All of them, the nurses, the doctors; they act like they’re scared to touch him. I never saw one of them come near him without at least three layers of protective clothing and masks. It's almost as if they think they can catch it by just being in the same room. You can’t, can you, Ken?" She whispered, "I know they’ll all be relieved when he dies, I can see it in their faces…” Tanya remained quiet, apparently drained from this long speech.I didn’t know what to say. I knew she spoke the truth.
“Tanya, this is BFE, in western North Carolina, no less. The staff at this hospital doesn’t see alot of AIDS patients. A big day for them is treating a hammertoe or delivering the occasional baby. You and I probably know more about HIV than those guys.”
“I know, Ken, I know. I just wish…” Her heart was sinking; I could hear it in her voice.
“I just wish, too. Sit tight. I’ll be right there.”
Norton had been dead fifteen minutes by the time I reached his little ICU cell on the first floor. A harsh-looking Latino nurse was already covering him up with a thin cotton blanket as the other nurses were quietly unplugging the various machines and monitors. Tonya was in the only chair, staring at the floor and rocking herself slowly back and forth to some internal calming lullaby. When she raised her red and blotchy face, a strange rattling wail rose up from her small shaking chest when she saw me standing there. Almost as if some secret button had been silently pushed, a young nurse rushed into the cell, hypodermic in hand and quickly rolled Tanya’s sleeve up. Watching the drug being dispersed into her veins seemed to wake her up.
“God, what are you doing?” She faintly protested before giving into it and just groaned rubbing at the spot after the nurse left.
I’m afraid I wasn’t much help at the point. I went to her, laying my head into her lap and quietly cried as she stroked my hair.“You loved him, didn’t you, Ken?”
“Yes. God, yes.”
“He loved you too, but you knew that, didn’t you?”
“I guess I did.”
“Why didn’t you and Norty…?" I held up my hand to stop her, I knew where this was going.
“I think we always meant to, we were just too busy living our own lives. Plus, I was in California and he was in New York.”
She looked at me kind of dazed, the drug already kicking in, “Oh,” she said simply and looked wistful for a second.Even though my heart was writhing in anguish, a small part of me was glad that it was over. Norton had always been larger than life to me. Watching my hero and best friend wither away into nothing had scared me, shaken me bad and made me wonder about my own future. I began to realize that life was a very tentative thing and that tomorrow wasn’t promised to us. One had to appreciate every moment because it could be taken away in an instant.
Tonya’s eyes closed in drug-induced sleep within moments. After a nurse rolled her away into the depths of the hospital, I was left alone in the cell with just Norton. Yes, it was still Norton to me and not “The Body”. I laid a hand on his foot, surprised by its intense warmth, still. For a second I was thrilled, it was all a mistake, Norton couldn’t be this warm and really be dead. Then I remembered the savage fever that has gripped him the past two days, no wonder the poor guy was still burning up even in death. I said a short prayer to the Heavens and willed ever once of love in my soul to go to Norton wherever he might be. Someone cleared his throat behind me. It was two young orderlies in hospital scrubs; time to take Norton away. I stroked his foot one more time and returned to the chair by the bed. They scowled when they saw that I wasn’t going to leave, thinking perhaps that I was the repenting culprit that had done this horrible thing to him. They rolled him out and away, gone. I was alone finally.“I love you, Norty.” I whispered and exited, passing through the maternity ward. I quickened my steps so that no one would meet the sad miscreant moving through this happy place of birth and new beginnings when so much had ended for me that very morning.
When I returned back to the house on Confederate Road, I sat down on the back stoop to ponder Norton’s death. Time passed; images and thoughts flooded my brain. I cursed, I pleaded, I craved and I began to wind down slowly. Soon, I heard the stirrings of Clark waking up from his fitful sleep on the old sofa bed. I listened to his slow steps as he got ready to make his daily run to Bojangles to have a sausage biscuit and a black coffee with his buddies before heading to work at the local furniture factory where he’d worked since he was a teenager.
Finally he came out the back door, shining his flashlight into my eyes and said flatly, “You’re up early.”
“Norton died, Clark.”
“Norton, he died!” I almost screamed and resisted the urge to jump up and pummel the information into his thick, slow-thinking skull.
“Ahh, he was that sick one, right?”
“Yes, he was sick.”
“Well, it just goes to show you, the wages of sin are death!” Clark, though a kind man, never resisted the urge to let me know that God disapproved of gay people.
“Oh, shut the hell up, you moron…” I mumbled and lowered my head back in to my lap. The words were a skewer into my soul. I reeled from the same ineffable sense of horror that came over me every time I heard ignorant comments issuing forth from people that claimed to be my friends and love me. The people in this little southern town truly amaze and scare the shit out of me at the same time. God, my gene pool is has to be so polluted. I laughed wryly.
‘Want me to bring you a ham biscuit or somethin’ before I head to work?”
“No, just leave me alone.”
The car door slammed and the motor started. I didn’t raise my eyes again until I was sure that certain that Clark was long gone in his little red Ford Festiva. Shortly afterwards, I noticed a figure in one of JoAnn’s pink nightgowns struggling to fill the birdfeeder from a large bag in the verdant area surrounding the birdbath. This couldn’t be JoAnn; I hadn’t laid eyes on her in four days. The only thing that let me know she was still with us and not dead from alcohol poisoning were occasional faint shouts of the Jerry Springer Show or bursts of gleeful swearing when she’d get a really juicy email for one of her Match.Com hook-ups. The figure noticed me and began to make her way across the lawn, dragging the half-empty bag behind her. It was JoAnn; I could tell that from the way the spike-heeled, pom-pom bedroom slippers kicked up little bursts of water from the dew-laden grass.
“Ken baby, what are you doing up so early?” I could tell from the look in her eyes that she was well today. When she took her medicine it was like having a wonderful, if slightly zany stranger in the house. I tried not to question these moments of clarity; they disappeared all too soon. I observe closely, basking in the insights that were to be gained on these rare occasions. Warily, she held out her hand to touch my shoulder.
“Are you okay?”I looked up, meeting her gaze. She turned away at once to face the birdbath.
“God-damn birds…all they do is eat, shit and sing. Then they shit some more!” She cackled wildly and rummaged through the small pocket on her gown, extracting a silver tube. Nimbly, she rubbed the shiny orange lipstick over her large mouth while she thought.
“You didn’t answer my question, baby. You okay?”
“Yeah, I suppose, just sad though,” wanting to say something to explain my presence on the stoop this early in the morning but not wanting to go into a long exegesis with JoAnn. A couple of hot tears slid down my face splattering the painted cement steps. I put one big foot over the splatters trying to hide them from JoAnn. Even though I’m 34, the little boy in me wanted to be comforted and yes, mothered even. But I had nowhere to turn anymore, so I held it all in locked away until I could be alone in my room.
“What’s wrong, what’s wrong? Ohh God!” She howled in my face now, clearly agitated. The smell of her sour breath and the sight of the gooey orange lipstick on her teeth began to nauseate me. I slid back out of her range slowly.
“Norton died, JoAnn…he died.” I tailed off in a slight whimper and stared down at my feet.
“Norton?” She tried to remember, "That pretty boy ?"
“Yes…Norton, my best friend.”
“Oh God, no.” She remembered, “He was such a good-looking boy! I loved those ads he did for that fancy underwear, what was it called ?”
"2Xist, I think." Norton had been a model since we'd both left North Carolina years ago.
"Yeah, that's it. I swear, I think that boy must have stuffed a tube sock down the front of his drawers before they took them pictures..."
“Well, he’s a dead, well-endowed boy now.” I said pointedly and laid my head back onto my knees.
“He had that HIV, didn’t he?”
“Yes, he full-blown AIDS by the time he died.”
We were both quiet for a moment. “You know, baby, that could have been you.”
I held up my hand to stop her. She continued, “In your lifestyle, well, honey... it’s only a matter of time!”
God, I so didn’t want to hear this. I was getting so tired now, too tired to even be mad, “JoAnn, I’m okay, really.”
I wasn’t about to tell her that I was HIV-positive as well. No good could possibly come of it. She’d start preaching at me about being gay because I’d been brainwashed by the media and I’d get pissed off at her and call her a old closet drunk and we wouldn’t speak for ages afterwards. She began to pull at her thick, brittle hair, “God, I worry about you, you’ll just never know how much.”
Oh Lord, she was pulling out the Bette Davis now, time to end this, “I think I’m going to go in and lie down, I’m tired, JoAnn.”
“Do you want a nerve pill to help you sleep?” She offered.“That might be a good ideal.” I considered. “I am still wired, I just need to turn my brain off right now.”
“Go, lay down, I’ll bring it into you.”
“Thanks, JoAnn. So am I.”