The sky is screensaver perfect, and the trees are just beginning to blush out of their summer greens–paintbox golds and oranges and scarlets tinge the trees that line the roadways. Dell is heading north to see her young friend Peter who is dying of AIDs.
Peter is a rascally, impassioned, deep-feeling, determined young man–young in Dell’s terms anyway, at 37. He has been HIV positive since he was very young, and he has had full-blown AIDs for at least 15 years…long enough that they all decided it was a chronic disease and not a deadly one.
Ah, life and its little tricks. Now the clock is loudly ticking.
Dell has a disposable pan of still warm brownies in the backseat and a plastic jug of lemonade, two things she knows will tempt Peter. And, since he is a long, attenuated bag of bones, she feels eating anything will be hopeful. A little energy, a little bulk. Has to help.
She has a mini scrapbook of clippings she has saved for him, articles about things he cares about–drama programs for disenfranchised youth; meals for street people; how libraries are supporting people with disabilities. Before Peter got so sick he had to stop working, he and Dell butted heads at the Linnville Library, where Dell ran programming and Peter volunteered. Dell did a great deal on a tiny, grant-funded budget; Peter wanted her to do a great deal more.
He dragged her into the realm of dreaming; she kept him grounded. Along the way, Peter’s family being loudly absent, Dell had–together with fifteen or so other motherly people of a certain age–unofficially adopted the boy.
And then Dell had moved seventy miles away with her family–new opportunity for Martin, better services for Jack: a no-brainer. But there were strong cords attaching her, still, to Linnville, and Peter was one of those cords. She wrote every week, and he often wrote back, or he texted jokes, or emailed photos of things happening at the library where he had, for a year or so, filled her old position. And once a month she tried to get back for a visit, but her old friends recommended she try a little harder and a little more often this Fall. This Fall, Peter’s medical options had run out.
There is no expressway to Linnville, and Dell enjoys the curving country roadways. They dip into Amish country, and she must, often, slow down to safely pass big buggies led by horses with hooves so sturdy they remind her of Clydesdales. On the country roads, too, it’s good to be mindful–Amish valley or no–that the chickens are generally free-range. The deer are, too.
She crests the hill toward her turn-off and brakes in dismay; the route she usually takes, an orange sign announces, is closed due to construction, and the detour will take her around and through a little industrial city and then on ten extra miles of country roads. She will be late.
She messages Peter and plunges on.
Traffic, at least, is not too bad, and she settles in to the unfamiliar route, enjoying the rural sights. There is a paddock with fat sheep guarded by vigilant llamas. Around a broad, sweeping curve, there is an enclosed meadow with goats–tiny goats standing on little structures and peering at the woods beyond, at each other. At her as she passes by.
The goats remind her of a photo she has of Peter, from a library outing. Not a country boy at all, but the teens cajoled him, anyway, into visiting a farm after they’d had a discussion about local food. The farm had goats, and one of the girls–Tabby, who was plump and insecure and worshiped Peter–insisted he come and pet them with her.
“Oh, no WAY,” said Peter, but Tabby was inexorable, and finally he stepped gingerly through the gate, his shiny loafers squinching in the warm muck of a post-rain goat yard.
And he fell in love. The little goats gamboled around him, came up to investigate him, clustered around Tabby, to her vast delight. Peter capitulated completely to the charm of the goats, and Dell has a photo of him from that day. As stick-like as Ichabod Crane, he is bent with one hand extended, his improbably brassy blond hair falling over his forehead. Little goats jump all around him, all except for one that has stopped, facing Peter, staring straight into his eyes. Peter’s grin is joyous, boyish, and surprised.
“The Goat Whisperer,” Dell dubbed him, and Peter scoffed it off, but he was secretly pleased, she could tell, to have crossed a barrier into a land he’d never thought to inhabit.
She drives around Burton, the little industrial city with its gray towers and billboards for bank loans and the benefits of breastfeeding.
After a long stretch of country, she hits another little town and recognizes it as Crete, famous for its family-owned chocolate factory. She passes the factory heading into town, rolling down the window to enjoy the rich scent of warm chocolate.
In the town itself, she stops at the one light–red, of course–and looks over at a beautiful little white church. It is polished and welcoming and, she thinks, getting a repair job. The yard is full of construction equipment, and a crew seems to be just assembling. The windows are empty, gaping holes, and Dell thinks they must be putting in new. She imagines beautiful stained glass, black-leaded, fitting snugly into those apertures.
The pretty little church, somehow, warms her heart. She finishes the trip to Linnville with some kind of undefined hope bubbling.
But it is not a good day; Peter feels terrible. He can’t eat the brownies, although he says, a little snarkily, that he is sure the visiting nurses will help him out there. He drinks a little lemonade. They talk about the elephant in the room. Peter tells Dell he is deeply, intrinsically weary, and not at all afraid. He asks her to read a poem at his memorial, and she does not even try to pretend it’s not looming.
Peter lays down but can’t settle, so she reads to him from his current book, a Wallace Berry, and by the time she is done with a chapter, he is snoring lightly, and the nurse has arrived, eyes lighting at the tray of brownies. Dell gathers up her purse and keys and phone, asks questions the nurse can’t really answer, and heads home.
Clouds clutter the sky now–not screensaver clouds, but ominous ones, and most of the animals on the roadside have gone in to shelter. It’s a grimmer ride; she turns on NPR and listens to war talk, talk of pain and devastation, and she forces herself not to shut the radio off.
And then she pulls into Crete, where, again, she hits the the red-light, and she is shocked.
The pristine church is gone, flattened: a pile of wooden rubble.
She makes it to the chocolate factory parking lot before she has to pull over. It is thirty minutes before she is fit, again, to drive.
Peter dies that Sunday, at 9:30 in the morning, with three good friends–one of them his beloved minister–at his side. None of his family made the trip.
They lay him out at the church, and the family finally does show up; they’re staggered by the lines of people waiting to say goodbye. Regret begins to seep through their anger and their guilt. It is a rough and ragged viewing.
The memorial service, in that conservative small town, has very little room of any kind left, standing or otherwise. Peter is eulogized by a wide and wacky range of people, from Tabby to Sister Camille from the Catholic church to the bank president. Some homeless folks talk about his presence at the library, and a few urban friends from his younger years tell tear-stained stories. Roy, the minister, is eloquently angry at the useless disease that stole away an essential life. Dell reads her poem without crying.
They all file once more past the open casket. When it is Dell’s turn, she slides the picture of Peter, grinning joyously at the little goat, into a space between his chest and his arm, pats his cold hand, and goes downstairs to help pour coffee.