Saga of the Elizabethton Tarheels
The day I was to take Mrs. Smith to the clinic,
I got to Justin's place a few minutes before nine. Ms. Smith had fixed her
hair and was neatly dressed even though her clothes just hung on her she had
lost so much weight. Justin helped her to the car. I had tilted the
passenger's seat back a bit and arranged the pillows I brought, hoping it
would be comfortable. His mother in the car, Justin kissed her on the cheek
and asked, "Sure you don't want me to come with you?" There was a wistful
tone in his voice, but his mama smiled and shook her head. As we walked
around the car, out of sight, Justin said, "Marc, find out all you can. I'm
really worried." I wanted to put his head on my shoulder, hold him tight and
tell him everything would be all right, but all I could do was give him a
When I got back in the car, Ms. Smith as dozing,
or so I thought. Then as soon as we were on our way, she opened her eyes,
sighed deeply and said, "Marc, Hon, I need to talk to you."
"I'd like you to know what is going on with me
and where it will end. I haven't been able to talk to Justin about it. I
know I should, but I just can't. Maybe you can do it for me."
I said nothing.
"This trip to the clinic today is not about a
cure. It's about making the end as easy as possible. I know you are a man
and while you might not have had a lot of experience, I know you're not
ignorant of the ways of the world. Over nineteen years ago now, a rodeo, pow-wow,
amusements, kind of thing came to town. Not much of a show I now know, but I
was a sixteen-year-old girl, living with an abusive old man and a nagging
mother. I was looking for escape and when that kind of thing came to town, I
went looking for excitement, dreaming of escape. One of the rodeo performers
was an Indian, a Sioux, or so he claimed and I see no reason to doubt it.
Anyway, he was handsome as all get out. Hot, very hot -- I'm not
embarrassing you am I?"
I kept my eyes on the road and "No," which
wasn't entirely true. Adults -- I mean grownups... I mean, you know, older
people -- weren't supposed to talk about having sex, especially with
teenagers, even older teenagers.
"As I said, I was just sixteen, thought I knew
all about men and was ready for adventure. He showed me a wonderful time
after the show, a real wonderful time. He gave me feelings I didn't know a
women could have. He took my virginity -- don't get me wrong, I had freely
offered it to him. Virginity gone, I knew I couldn't go home. If I did and
my old man found out what I had done -- and he would have -- he would have
killed me or, at best, made me wish I was dead.
The show was in town for four more days. Chayton
said I could stay with him in his tiny trailer and I did. The next few days,
we had sex before breakfast, before the show in the afternoon, after the
afternoon show and before and after the evening show. Marc, you're
blushing!" she laughed softly.
"Yes, Ma'am," I replied, still not looking at
her. Sometimes I wish I wasn't so fair and blushed so easily. This was one
of those times.
"You're sweet. Anyway, the sex was great and I
was prepared to move on to the next town with Chayton, but he had other
plans. I was left alone, a sixteen-year-old, with no place to go. I didn't
know what I was going to do. I had been without food for a whole day and
night when I finally got up courage to go to the back door of the Blue Bird
Cafe and beg for food.
When I knocked on the back door, old Mrs.
Crawford, who owned the Blue Bird Cafe, came to the door and when I told her
I hadn't had food since the night before, she just about had a fit. She took
me inside, fed me, and asked why I didn't go home. I broke down in tears and
told her everything."
"She called my old man and he, as I expected,
disowned me. Mrs. Crawford took me in, giving me a place to live. In
exchange, I had to go back to school and work in the cafe after school. A
couple months later, I knew there would be more results from my few days of
great sex. I knew I was pregnant. I wanted to keep it a secret from Mrs.
Crawford since I didn't know what she'd do. I thought she'd never
guess -- I mean I was a sixteen-year-old who
could fool herself real easy. I was barely starting to show before she knew.
I managed to finish out the school year and worked until the month before
Justin was born."
"Marc, the cost of those four days has been
high, very high at times, but I'd not change a thing because it would mean
there'd be no Justin. Justin makes it all worthwhile, makes it more than
worth it. He is the light of my life. He IS my life."
"Anyway, I continued working at the Blue Bird
and living with Mrs. Crawford. She adored Justin and even after she sold the
Blue Bird and retired, insisted we stay with her. Justin was the grandbaby
she always wanted and never had, and she was not about to have him move now
when she had loads of free time to spend with him. That's one reason Justin
did well in school: she had taught him more than most first or second
graders knew before he started school."
"The new owners of the Blue Bird gave me a
substantial raise -- after all, Mrs. Crawford provided room and board for me
and Justin -- and allowed me first choice of working schedules. That's when
I started working breakfast and lunch. So I stayed at the Blue Bird and Mrs.
Crawford's until she had to give up and go to the nursing home. Her house
had to be sold to pay for the nursing home and Justin and I had to find a
place to live. Since I had very little to spend money on -- clothes and toys
for Justin were about it -- I had saved a surprising amount of money and had
a sizable down-payment to put on the place where we still live."
"I guess I had always assumed Justin would just
get some kind of job and live out a life here. It never occurred to me he
might be able to do otherwise. Mrs. Crawford had different thoughts and
always reminded me and him he could do whatever he set his mind to. Anyway,
when he started talking college, I didn't discourage him, but did caution
him not to set his sights too high. Then his counselor told me there was no
reason he couldn't get all the scholarship help he needed. I finally looked
at him and realized he was grown and it took a while for me to face it, but
I knew he would be leaving, and in the not too distant future."
"I was very lonely, feeling sorry for myself and
facing a life alone when, suddenly, there was a man in my life. Oh, to be
honest, there have been short flings in my life from time to time, but
nothing serious. This was different."
"Archibald Jenkins is -- was -- a farmer who had
been coming into the Blue Bird for breakfast with a bunch of cronies on
Saturdays for years. About three years ago, his wife was diagnosed with
advanced breast cancer. She had treatments in Greenville which slowed its
progress, but didn't stop it. Then she started being in and out of the
hospital here for, I guess, six months. When she was in the hospital, Archie
came to the Blue Bird for breakfast and sometimes for lunch."
"After he finished his meal, he'd sit at the
counter, nursing a cup of coffee, gazing into space. Between customers we
chatted -- about his wife and their life together, about how hard it had
been when the only child they had, a son, was killed in a tractor accident
when he was twelve, the things they had enjoyed doing. He was reliving a
life that was slowly slipping away."
"As much as he hated to have her leave the farm,
the last time she came to the hospital, the doctors urged him to place her
in hospice where her pain could be better controlled. They both knew the end
was near and he spent all his time with her except for coming to the Blue
Bird for breakfast and lunch. She died a week after she entered hospice. He
came by to tell me she was gone and asked if I would
attend her funeral. I did, and it was obvious
Archie was devastated."
After a couple weeks, he started coming in for a
late breakfast a couple times a week -- he explained things were slow on the
farm that time of year and after he did the morning chores, he had been
sitting around brooding. So, he said, he decided he'd come into town and
have breakfast. By the time he came in, things were slow at the Blue Bird
and we'd talk. He talked about how lonely he was, how he missed his wife,
and how he couldn't seem to get over her death. Before long he was coming in
more and more frequently."
"I guess that was about six months after his
wife had died, he came in all dressed up. 'Wanted you to know I haven't been
kidnapped,' he laughed. 'Becky' -- his late wife -- 'and I talked about
traveling round the world, but she was never ready to do it. I've decided to
do it for her -- and myself. See you when I get back.'"
"I didn't see him for a couple months and when
he came in, he looked years younger. There was a sparkle in his eyes and he
seemed more alive that I had ever seen him. He was back on a fairly regular
late breakfast schedule and we talked about where he had been and what he
had seen. It was pretty exciting to someone who had barely been out of the
county. Then, after he had been back for a month or so, he asked me to have
dinner with him. He laughed and said he thought we could do a little better
place than the Blue Bird. I saw no reason why not and before I knew it, we
were seeing a great deal of each other."
"Justin knew I was going out with a friend
occasionally -- when we went out at night. Actually, we seldom went out at
night. Since I worked breakfast and lunch shifts, Archie'd come in for lunch
and when I finished up, we take in a movie, go to the beach, do fun things.
Then -- I guess about a month after he first asked me out to dinner -- we
ended up in bed at his place. That was definitely not something you want to
talk to your grown son about!"
"We talked about getting married and, thinking
about how soon I would be left alone with Justin in college, I was all for
it, but neither of us were in any hurry. Then one night as he was taking me
home, he said, 'Naomi, I'm going to be gone a couple weeks again. After my
around the world trip, I got connected with a group helping third-world
country farms. I hate to leave, but I think I might really make a
contribution.' Of course, I told him to go."
"When he came back, he didn't mention marriage,
but I guess I thought we had already discussed that and would go ahead with
it when we were ready. Anyway, there was another trip to Asia, then one to
South America. I was actually proud of him and when he said he'd like to
finish his trips before we were married, I agreed."
"Shortly after Archie came back from a farm
trip, I thought I had a pretty bad case of the flu and went to see Doc
Jakes. He agreed that it was the flu and sent me home to bed. I guess men
don't know a lot about yeast infections, but I kept having them and couldn't
seem to get rid of them. Then -- well, let's just say that I needed to see
Doc Jakes for a different problem and he diagnosed me with syphilis. He also
insisted I have a test for HIV."
"Unprotected sex? Obviously. Archie had insisted
he was clean and we'd both enjoy bareback better than with a condom. After
we had slept together a few times I gave in. I hope I don't have to add that
the only way I could have contacted syphilis was from Archie. I was
devastated. Then the HIV test came back positive, I was ready to kill
Archie. Fortunately for him, he was on one of his trips, but was supposed to
be back in two days. I was put on the HIV drug cocktail right away and told
that HIV/AIDS was now, not curable, but controllable."
Ms. Smith fell silent and when I glanced at her,
I thought she had fallen asleep until she said, "I need to rest a minute."
She rode with her eyes closed for ten minutes or so, then picked up her
"Archie didn't show and apparently disappeared
off the face of the earth. Finally, I received phone call from a lawyer
asking me to come by his office 'in regard to a matter concerning Archibald
Jenkins.' Seems Archibald had ordered his farm sold and his debts paid. Any
money left was to go to me 'to help pay medical expenses.'" Ms. Smith
laughed a bitter laugh. "Archie had lived high on his travels. There was a
whole $5,000 left after his debts were paid and, of course, the lawyer's fee
had to be deducted. The lawyer gave me a check for $3,000 and a letter,
postmarked in Brazil, addressed to me in care of the lawyer."
"The letter was pretty long, but boiled down to
Archie saying he guessed he was bisexual. He liked sex with women -- at
least with Becky and me since we were his only heterosexual partners -- and
he had a thing for boys -- young boys, twelve or thirteen. Living on a farm
outside a small town, he kept his lust for boys under control until he made
the around the world trip and discovered there were places where you could
have your fill of boys for a few dollars a day. True to what he had said to
me -- and in spite of knowing it was at best dumb and probably deadly -- he
had unprotected sex with several young male prostitutes in Thailand. He
picked up syphilis and, while he didn't know it at the time, HIV/AIDS."
"He ended the letter, 'Naomi, there is no way I
can come back home. I have arranged to sell the farm and you will be getting
a little money to help with your medical bills should you have any. I'm
going up the Amazon tomorrow and I'll not be coming back. Sorry.'"
"As if that wasn't bad enough, there is more. I
took my medicines religiously and thought everything was under control, then
about the time you left for camp, I got up one morning with a high fever. I
panicked, thinking I had full-blown AIDS. Might as well have been, I guess.
I had an infection, not good when your immune system is
weakened, but antibiotics would clear that up,
right? Wrong. Doc Jakes gave me first one, then another. He increased
dosages with no results."
"He had taken a culture, but the local lab found
nothing. He finally sent a culture to the lab in Greenville and they asked
him to send one to CDC -- Center for Disease Control -- in Atlanta. When the
results came back, he couldn't believe it. It was another gift from
Archibald; I had been infected with a bug that is practically unknown in
this country and for which there is no, and I mean no, effective treatment."
"Now it is a question of whether I will develop
full-blown AIDS before the bug kills me. It looks like the bug is winning."
Ms. Smith said with a bitter laugh. "Marc, I don't want to die, you know
that, but neither do I want to be bedridden with Justin tied down wiping my
ass and feeding me. I am on a last-ditch drug which may very well -- likely
in fact -- do nothing against the bug and may kill me. That's the long and
short of it. Today, I find out if the drug has done anything -- I'm positive
it hasn't -- and learn what I can expect in the short time I have left."
She fell silent again and I remained silent. I
found I had nothing to say.
After we rode in silence for a while, she said,
"Sorry to dump that load on you, Marc, but you are Justin's best friend and
I thought you needed to know and, yeah, I'd like for you to tell him. I
don't think I can do it. I know I can't. Promise me you will. And, yeah,
promise me you'll never have unprotected sex unless you are absolutely,
positively, hand-on-the-Bible sure you both are disease free."
I didn't answer right away. She had asked an
awful lot of me, maybe more than I could deliver. About telling Justin I
mean. When I finally spoke, I said, "I promise no unprotected sex unless I
am sure we are both clean," and asked myself how I would ever know. "And
I'll do my best to tell Justin about, you know, but I won't promise. I love
him too and maybe I can't hurt him that much."
"I understand," she replied, "I sure do."
I expected the clinic to be a small building,
probably rundown, in a poor neighborhood. That's what clinics were to me,
but this was part of a very large hospital and had dozens of people dressed
in scrubs running around. We went up to the fourth floor where I was shown
to a nice waiting area and Ms. Smith was taken in hand right away by a
nurse. An hour later, an orderly wheeled her into the waiting area and said
he would take her downstairs. I was amused when I thought, "She was strong
enough to walk into this place, but too sick to walk out."
When I said as much, the orderly laughed and
said, "It's about lawyers, not disease. Someone is always ready to sue."
I had seen an O'Charley's on the way into town
and asked if she'd like to go there for lunch. She said, "Sure," but I
suspect she would have agreed to anything. After we were seated and had
given our orders -- she just ordered soup -- she looked at me and said,
"Well, both diseases are doing very well, thank you. The drug MIGHT have
slowed the progress of the infection -- the doctors were about equally
divided about that -- still, it's going to be a real race to the finish line
and we'll not know which wins until then. Guess I never will. All we do know
is at this point is it's about over. The doctors -- there must have been
half a dozen -- all agreed that I need to get things in order and be
prepared to have someone caring for me around the clock soon -- probably in
not more than two weeks. Justin, it appears -- will start his senior year
alone. The money Archie sent me will be gone in
no time with around the clock help -- much
quicker if I need nurses. Doc Jakes has told me he'd get me in hospice when
I need to go and I think that is any day now. I'm dying and my time is short
-- a few weeks, a month, no more. So that's that." She, then, asked about my
plans for the future and talked about her dreams for Justin and those two
subjects occupied us on the way home.
Just outside town she said, "Justin, could you
drive me by Doc Jakes'? I need to give him a report and tell him I need
hospice soon -- now."
After talking with Doc Jakes, she seemed a bit
less down. In the car, she said, "A hospice nurse will be coming to my
place, starting tomorrow and I will have the next bed in hospice."
After I had helped her into the house, I drove
to the marina and, before I launched my boat, I called Clarisa and asked her
if she could take supper to Ms. Smith -- Justin had talked to Clarisa a lot
while I was in camp, so she knew his mama wasn't well. Of course she said
she would. I also told her I needed to talk with her tonight. That arranged,
I sailed into the sound and dropped anchor. It was three in
the afternoon so the sun was less intense than
it had been, but I still used sunscreen. When you are as fair as I am, you
don't forget that many times.
I stretched out on the deck, my hands behind my
head, and stared at the few white fluffy clouds drifting overhead. I must
have been holding my breath all day, because I gave a great sigh and the
tears started streaming. How could someone who had as hard a life as Ms.
Smith and who had raised a young man as fine as Justin, get the shit kicked
out of her as she had? I hoped Archibald Jenkins fell in the
Amazon and piranha ate him bit by bit, slowly,
starting with his cock and balls! What had Justin done to be hurt the way he
was about to be hurt? How was I going to tell him life as he knew it was
about over? What if he decided to 'kill the messenger'? From across the
water I heard the courthouse clock strike the half-hour and was surprised
when I looked at my watch. It was 4:30 and Justin would be getting off work
in half an hour. I'd never make it back to the marina under sail,
so I got up, started the motor and headed for
shore and Justin.