"I didn't say that, so don't put words in my mouth. I can speak for myself."
And so it went.
He slept late and stayed in the bed for a long time, staring at the white board ceiling and wondering how many days were left. Then he again asked himself why he was where he was, but he knew the answer. He had watched so many of his friends waste away. Months earlier he had made the decision that those friends still living would not be burdened with watching him. It was easier to say good-bye with a quick kiss and a strong embrace, while he was still able.
His first night in the pink house had been the usual series of chills and sweats, memories and nightmares, brief naps and long periods of staring into the darkness. He was tired when he awoke, and he knew the fatigue -would never leave. Eventually, he eased out of bed, got dressed, then faced the chemicals. There were over a dozen bottles of pills, all lined up in a neat row, all in an order that the doctors had decreed. The first barrage included eight medications, and he washed them down with a glass of water. He would return several times during the day for more combinations, and as he screwed the caps back on, he thought about how futile it was. The pills were not advanced enough to save his life - that cure was so far away - but designed only to prolong it. Maybe. Why bother? The cost was $1,000 a month, money his family grudgingly supplied. Two friends had committed suicide, and that thought was never far away.
The house was already warm, and he remembered the long humid days of his childhood, the hot, sticky summers he had not missed in his other life.
He heard Emporia in the kitchen and went to say hello.
He didn't eat meat or dairy products, so they eventually set' tied on a plate of sliced tomatoes from her garden. A strange breakfast, she thought, but Aunt Leona had said to feed him whatever he wanted. "He's been gone for a long time," she'd said. Afterward, they fixed cups of instant chicory coffee with sugar and moved to the front porch.
Emporia wanted to know all about New York City, a place she'd only read about and seen on television. Adrian described it, talked about his years there, college, his first job, the crowded streets, endless stores and shops, ethnic neighborhoods, masses of people, and wild nightlife. A lady at least as old as Emporia stopped in front of the house and called out, "Hello, Emporia."
"Mornin', Doris. Come sit with us."
Doris did not hesitate. Introductions were made, without handshakes. Doris was the wife of Herman Grant, from across the street, a very close friend of Emporia's. If she was nervous around Adrian, it was not evident. Within minutes the two women were talking about their new preacher, a man they were not sure they liked, and from there they launched into church gossip. For some time they forgot about Adrian, who was content to listen with amusement. When they finished with church business, they moved on to the families. Emporia, of course, had no children, but Doris had enough for both. Eight, most of them scattered up north, with thirty-some-odd grandchildren and younger ones after that. All sorts of adventures and conflicts were discussed.
After an hour of listening, Adrian jumped in during a pause. "Say, Emporia, I need to go to the library and check out some books. It's probably too far to "walk."
Emporia and Doris looked at him oddly, but held their tongues. Even a casual glance at Adrian revealed a man too frail to make it to the end of the street. In this heat the poor boy would collapse within a rock's throw of the pink house.
Clanton had one library, near the square, and had never considered a branch in Lowtown.
"How do you get around?" he asked. It was obvious Emporia did not own a car.
"Just call the Black and White."
"Black and White Taxi," Doris said. "Use 'em all the time."
"You don't know the Black and White?" Emporia asked.
"I've been gone for fourteen years."
"Yes, you have. It's a long story," Emporia said as she shifted her weight and settled in for the tale.
"Yes, it is," Doris added.
"There are two brothers, both named Hershel. One black, one white, about the same age. I'd say forty, wouldn't you, Doris?"
"Forty's 'bout right."
"Same father, different mothers. One over here. One over there. Father ran off long ago, and the Hershels knew the truth but couldn't come to grips with it. Eventually, they got together and accepted what the whole town knew anyway. They sorta look alike, don't you thank, Doris?"
"White one's taller, but the colored one's even got green eyes."
"So they start a taxi company. Got a couple of old Fords with a million miles. Painted 'em black and white, and that's the name of the company. They pick up folks here and haul 'em over there to clean houses and shop, and they sometimes pick up folks over there and bring 'em here."
"For what?" Adrian asked.
Emporia looked at Doris, who met her gaze, then looked away. Adrian smelled some wonderful small-town dirt and wasn't about to back off. "So, tell me ladies. Why do the taxis bring white folks across the tracks?"
"They have some poker games over here," Emporia admitted. "From what I hear."
"And some women," Doris added quietly.
"And illegal whiskey."
"I see," Adrian said.
Now that the truth was out, the three of them watched a young mother walk down the street with a brown sack of groceries.
"So, I can just call one of the Hershels and catch a ride to the library?" Adrian asked.
"I'm happy to call for you. They know me well."
"They're nice boys," Doris added. Emporia left the porch and went inside. Adrian smiled to himself and tried to believe the story of two brothers named Hershel.
"She's a sweet woman," Doris said, fanning herself.
"She certainly is," he said.
"Just never found the right man."
"How long have you known her?"
"Not long. Thirty years, maybe."
"Thirty years is not long?"
A chuckle. "Maybe to you, but some of these folks along here I grew up with, and I grew up a long time ago. How old you thank I am?"
"You're full of baloney. I'll be eighty in three months."
"How old is Herman?"
"Says he's eighty-two, but you can't believe him."
"How long you been married?"
"Got married when I was fifteen. Long time ago."
"And you have eight children?"
"Got eight. Herman, he's got eleven."
"Herman has more children than you do?"
"He's got three outside children."
Adrian decided not to explore the concept of outside children. Maybe he understood this when he lived in Clanton, maybe not. Emporia returned with a tray of glasses and a pitcher of ice water. To ease her mind, Adrian had insisted, gently, that he use the same glass, plate, bowl, cup, knife, fork, and spoon every time. She poured ice water, with lemon, into his designated glass, an odd souvenir from the county fair, 1977-
"Got the white Hershel. He'll be here in a minute," Emporia said.
They sipped the ice water, fanned themselves, discussed the heat. Doris said, "He thanks I'm forty-five years old, Emporia. Whatta you say 'bout that?"
"White folks can't tell. There's the cab."
Evidently, business was slow for a Tuesday morning because the car arrived less than five minutes after Emporia called. It was indeed an old Ford Fairlane, black with white doors and a white hood, clean with shiny wheels, phone numbers on the fenders.