The Plague

Leigh Camacho Rourks

When Cora caught the lawn guy smoking weed in the backyard instead of mowing, she wanted to say something cool, to ask for a drag or a hit or whatever you asked for if you were young and wonderful. She wanted to stand there next to him in the incredible heat and ponder the St. Augustine and dollarweed and cracked dirt and breathe it all in. But he was Al’s kid, down the way, and so she did what she always did now. Nothing. She just stood there, dying of AIDS, and knocked on the widow to let him know she saw him, made him so scared she’d tell his dad that he fumbled the joint. She worried for a second it would set the yard on fire.

And then, watching the kid bend over looking for it, his low-slung pants slinging ever lower, cool leaking out of him like helium pissing its way out of a balloon, Cora laughed.

There was a lesion on her scalp, an angry red mouth hiding under her hair, a reminder to be more diligent in taking the pills. Not that she ever forgot. She remembered and didn’t take them anyway. Played roulette with the pills and jellybeans and little paper cups pilfered from Our Lady of Lourdes, a pair of red dice from Harrah’s acted as the dark hand of fate.

When it had been her job to hand out pills, to visit the old syphilitic man in Maurice and the fat diabetic couple two streets over, the both of them with wounds that wouldn’t heal—and even that cute bipolar cutter in Abbeville—back then, none of them wanted to take their meds. She’d never understood their reluctance. Had hated the way they all “forgot” on her days off, the way they’d clench their mouths like she might have to fight them, pry their stupid jaws open. She hated the way they seemed to want to march toward death and chaos instead of swallowing their damn medicine.

But she quit home health when she found out and became one of the marchers. “Fuck it,” she told the doctor and went home and tried to stab her husband in the right lung for giving her the plague. She missed the lung, though. Maybe it was because he moved. Or maybe she didn’t really want to kill him, to hear that sucking sound, to see the frothing blood. So she slid the knife below the lung and he lived.

The kid outside looked up, caught her laughing at him. She waved, wondering if his cupped hand meant he’d found the joint. She was amazed that his dad let him come over to mow, what with the cops and the plague and everything. Her face in The Advertiser that week. She’d even made it on the website: “Nurse Knifes Husband.” The DA ended up being more sympathetic than you might imagine, the plague and the old bruises making her a pretty bad bet for his conviction rate. The paper never ran anything about her release.

She thought about offering the kid some lemonade. She had the powdered kind, pink, and was pretty sure there was ice. But he was pulling the string on the mower now—he used her ex’s little pusher because his dad wouldn’t let him drive the John Deere. She paid him forty dollars to do the whole yard, trim the edges and everything, but this was probably the last week for that. The ex not wanting to send her any more cash, the lawyer telling her to give up the ghost. To not spend the rest of her life fighting.

When she stopped paying him, the kid would be the last one to not come by her house anymore. And she’d be alone, not bothered by anyone, so that was good.

She mixed the lemonade and cracked a few shrunken ice cubes into a plastic Mardi Gras cup. Wondered which parade she’d caught it at. If the ex had caught it for her. She couldn’t remember any of them anymore, the holes in her memory growing.

She made sure her hair was combed over the lesion, her nose clean and clear. She would make her mouth little, very little, to talk to him, keep her white tongue hidden, keep it all hidden.

“Hey, Mrs. Cora,” the kid said, looking everywhere but at her when she showed up with the cup.

She meant to smile and say, “Look, Jamie, I’m not telling anyone. It’s OK,” but instead she told him about how the house had been crawling with spiders when they’d moved in a couple of years back, “black widows, wolf spiders, those are the brown jumpers, you know? Even recluses.” She started coughing, wet and wheezy. Finally, “I’m pretty sure they were recluses.”

The kid nodded.

The smell of marijuana and cut grass filled her up and she coughed it out. “Anyway, now we have the lizards.”

He nodded again, like it made sense to him.

She wanted to stop talking about spiders, lizards, the yard, whatever. What she really wanted was to be sixteen with him, sixteen and alive and stoned. Anything but almost forty and dead. So she said, “Does your dealer deliver?” and watched him choke on the lemonade.

 

She started trading her pain pills for weed, but Cora didn’t smoke it. She didn’t exactly throw it away. She stored it. She emptied out the oregano shaker, the sage, the Herbs de Provence and slowly filled the pantry with the contents of the little sandwich bags Jamie’s guy brought over. His guy, because “no one has a dealer for crissake, it’s not like real drugs.”

She’d smoke with the guy though, with BD, her guy now too. If BD stayed and watched a little TV on the couch with her, packed a bowl in the glass pipe she bought from him, then she’d smoke.

“So, Jamie says you got the hivey.” BD was paunchy and fuzzy, with freckles showing under his almost beard. She guessed he was maybe twenty-five years old. He lounged on her couch with his arms wide against the back, petting the microfiber a little. Completely comfortable.

“The what?” Cora looked at him. He didn’t look like a dealer or someone’s guy even. He looked like he’d make pizzas for a living. Like he’d show up in the ER with his knuckles blown to shit and a grin and a story about fireworks. A stoned guy, sure, but some hardcore dealer, no.

“The hivey. The hivs. The H-I-V.” He passed her the little, glass pipe, packed and ready. Fucking thing was pink and sparkly. “Cheerful,” he’d called it.

Cora sucked in and waited for her teeth to itch. The first time she smoked, she told BD she hated the way her teeth felt. He laughed and told her she was one weird bitch. Now she waited for them to itch before she answered the question. “Full blown AIDS,” she said finally, figuring why not tell this guy. Someone should know. “Rapid onset. It’s rare, like I won the lottery.”

“Fuck.”

“Yeah. Jamie tell you I stabbed my husband?”

He shook his head, looked impressed. “Dick monkey gave it to you?”

“Yeah.”

BD laughed, “Hope you shanked him good. You seen this episode?”

“No.” Cora looked at him. “Not afraid you’ll catch it from me?”

“Nah.” It took him a while to say that, the one syllable a million miles long in his mouth. “My mom’s a doctor. Besides my cousin’s girl’s sister had it and we got hi-igh all the time.” He did this thing with his lips. A grimace, Cora guessed. “I hear we got more AIDS than like Africa here.”

Cora touched the spot on her head with the lesion. There were two more now. “No, but a lot.”

They watched the show for a while, a cop drama, BD laughing every time someone got smacked in the back of the head. “Not like you have to die from it now.”

Cora nodded. The bad guy on the show got shot and his body flew backward, blood showing up when he hit the ground.

“You kill him?” he said.

She imagined doing it now. Going to his trailer and finding him, his body just a reservoir for the disease at this point, his virus load huge. She thought of him sitting there, all of the things the girls loved about him oozing out in the same thick mucus that made it hard for her to breathe. “No,” she said.

BD shook his head, “It’s a damn shame.” They watched the guy on TV bleed a neat puddle onto the ground. A perfect squid of thick red stain. “Damn shame.”

 

BD figured shooting the ex in the balls was the solution to all her problems, and he and Jamie would spend afternoons smoking up her house and talking about it. Their punishments getting ever more extreme, making her laugh pizza bits across the room. The two of them over a lot now.

When she asked him why they called him BD, he said “I dated this girl in high school. She had a sense of irony,” and laughed until he couldn’t breathe, then couldn’t even laugh proper, making a high-pitched, girlie sound instead.

Cora raised her eyebrow.

“Big Dick,” he finally got out and then she was laughing with him. The cough making it hard but still good.

She knew now that he was more than thirty, his fuzzy hair sliding backwards on his forehead, his stories of high school and some college told in that way so that you knew they were beginning to be blurry around the edges for him, bits smearing like stained photographs. One night after Jamie left, BD stayed late telling her those stories, but not the funny versions. The real ones. He told her how he got a girl pregnant in high school. How the girl’s dad tried to have him arrested for statutory rape.

“But, you know I wasn’t old enough. I’d lied when I told her I was eighteen.” He shook his head, “She was the one who was older, right?” The girl miscarried, he said, and Cora knew that meant she had an abortion. He put his hand on her knee and left it there. Put his head on her shoulder after awhile.

And she knew if things were different he’d just be a loser. But there was a rash the color of strawberries crawling across Cora’s skin, eating her alive, and things weren’t different.

But then a few days later Jamie showed up with his dad’s gun, the fucking thing fat and black and shining. Him boosting it because everything sounds like a good idea when you’re high and you’re seventeen and someone else says it. And BD was always talking about how “if they just had a gun.” Then things got really different.

 

They didn’t make it to the ex’s trailer, though. For a while they didn’t make it anywhere, just sat in the living room, the guys smoking, her thinking she might bake them cookies or muffins, thinking of them as her boys.

Jamie had put the gun on the table and BD stared at it like a specimen, his hands on his knees, his nose close, but not too close, to the weapon.

“Damn, that’s a big gun.”

“It’s a Judge.” They were eating Cora’s jellybeans. She had switched to just pills in the little paper cups, was taking all of them now, so she let them pick through the candy. Besides, there were no cookies or muffins coming. She didn’t even have flour.

“That ain’t for hunting.”

Jamie laughed. “My dad don’t hunt. Mostly, it’s for show.” He tried to pass his pipe to BD, but BD was transfixed by the gun.

“You ever shoot it?”

And they went on and on like that, Cora napping on the couch while they talked about the gun on the table. She wanted to tell them it was a stupid thing to have in the house, that Jamie’s dad would fall out if he knew, that no one was shooting anyone, that she didn’t care much one way or the other about the ex anymore. Instead she nodded. She laughed. She dozed. Too afraid if she spoke up they’d leave and not come back.

Finally sixteen again. Too stupid to speak up. So she got really high instead.

They would have stayed that way, maybe, high and running their mouths about the gun, doing nothing, if Cora hadn’t got so very stoned.

But she did, and then she told them about how she was already dead.

How she just looked alive.

BD didn’t laugh at that like he was supposed to. Instead, he said “That fucker,” touching the gun for the first time. The fascinated disgust gone now. “You’re a good chick,” he said. “Nice, you know,” he said. “It isn’t fair,” he said, all the while his hand on that gun.

 

When Cora was a kid, her dad had a camp on Lake Maurepas. They would stay there on summer weekends, her folks fishing and drinking beer, her and her cousins swimming or skiing. For all she knew her dad still had it. They didn’t talk much since her mom died. Her mom the glue between them. Cora never even told him about the AIDS.

The only air conditioning at the camp was window units in the two bedrooms, and the daytime temperatures reached all the way to 100 sometimes. So everyone stayed outside, catching little breezes off the water and swimming constantly, even at night. That was what she was thinking about when BD asked her where her ex lived now. Thinking about Lake Maurepas.

At night, you’d jump in the lake and it would be like a bath, not even cooled all the way off after the sun had long set. She loved that, how you slid in and the water was almost the same as the air, so your skin felt a lovely sort of confused. But that wasn’t the best part.

Every time you moved, comb jellies would catch fire all around you, lighting up the murky water like blue fairy dust. Their soft bodies bumped you just a little, and everything was magic. Her mom told people it was weekends at the camp that made Cora want to study science, running around with alligators, frogs, comb jellies. She was proud of her sciencey kid. But that wasn’t really true. There, making slow figure eights to excite the little Ctenophora, there Cora believed only in magic.

“Maurepas,” she said to BD, wanting more than anything to jump in with the jellies one last time. The doctor had told her that her that her CD4 T-cell count didn’t look good on the last visit out. “You should have been taking the meds,” he said. “You could have had years.” They had known each other before she’d moved to home health, back when she worked in the hospital. They’d been close enough years ago that he was comfortable sounding pissed at her. Then he told her that he wanted to test her for signs of dementia. Cora just made a joke about looking for billboards in her brain.

“Maurepas,” she said again.

Jamie whistled, “That’s like three hours out. And it’s late already.” He checked his watch. “Almost eleven now.”

But BD said, “That’s not bad.” His hand still on the Judge.

Jamie pointed out they were too fucked up to drive. The kid the only one saying anything useful. Cora was caught up in the idea of the lake, was not really paying the right sort of attention to the rest of it. She said something like, “It will be fine.”

Somehow BD convinced Jamie, and the kid got in his Corolla, picking off paint flecks where it looked like the door had scraped a pole before getting in, like maybe he was still thinking he might not go. The guys sat in the front. Jamie’s daddy’s gun was tucked neatly into the waistband of BD’s pants and no one pointed out how stupid that was, even as he shifted it around to get comfortable. Cora climbed in the back so she could stretch out her legs, keep the pressure off any one spot for too long. Her skin was such a mess there on the back of her thighs and calves.

She spent most of the drive flicking her mossy tongue against some sores in her mouth and thinking how Al wouldn’t even let Jamie drive that John Deere to do lawns. Knowing that was an important fact, but not quite getting to why. Not even after she started to sober.

Mostly she wanted to feel the lake confusing her skin, so she didn’t try real hard to figure anything else out.

BD lost some of his steam on the drive, but even after Cora admitted there was no need to shoot the ex, she got him to keep driving, watching Jamie’s blond head bobble and nod from her spot in the backseat.

When he started to snore, it was a baby sound, and it kept right on when the flashing lights flickered behind them. It kept right on even when BD started saying “shit, shit, shit” under his breath and the car drifted sideways onto the shoulder.

From the back, Cora thought the cop lights looked just like the comb jellies, and she waved her fingers around a little, a sort of small figure eight.

BD was shifting in his seat, wiggling and contorting. “Shit, shit, shit,” he said again and then, “Wake up. Take it. Take it, man.”

Later she understood that BD was trying to get the Judge off his body before the cop got to the car: no guns on parole. But in the back seat, half-dreams lighting up her struggling synapsis, it seemed like a game, BD squirming, Jamie rubbing his eyes, putting his hands up, then shoving at BD, saying, “no way, no way.” Just a game of hot potato.

But then Jamie said, “Get off me,’ his voice high, panicked, BD all over him. He opened the door, and for a second Cora thought they were still moving, that Jamie would slip into traffic, and she was suddenly very afraid. He slid out of the car backwards, his hands invisible, blocked by the seat until he fumbled, fell completely out, and Cora saw them through the window, empty and grasping at air, at the same time that the world cracked. A sharp blast and then ringing silence. A gunshot.

Her father was a hunter but she’d never heard a gun fired so close to her head. It was like diving into the water, the way sound changed when you hit the surface and, if you went far enough down, seemed to disappear completely, leaving only the rhythmic noise of your own blood buzzing past your ears.

Later she realized that BD didn’t really know anything about handling a weapon, anyhow. That he should never have picked it up. That he’d shot Jamie in his panic. That he hadn’t meant to.

But he had shot him.

Before the trial, BD would call, write, even knock on the door when he was out on bail and tell her over and over and over that the Judge went off in Jamie’s hands. But she’d seen Jamie’s hands as he fell backward out of the car, empty, holding nothing, just trying to right his body seconds before the cracking. Not after. Before.

In the car, though, in the car that night she understood none of it. Her ears hurt and she was shaking like mad. And when she looked out the window, there was such a mess. The sort of mess you saw in the ER only on the very worst nights. Little flecks of white bone or maybe gravel, maybe grass in the mess.

Jamie’s thigh was not really a thigh anymore. His femoral artery spewing itself empty, and in her deafness Cora though she heard the life hissing out of him. Even though he was on the ground outside the car. Even though she was pushed up against the glass of the window that separated them. She could hear him. This kid. This kid that did her lawn.

Direct pressure, she thought. I need to apply direct pressure.

But she didn’t move.

I need to stick my hand in there. Clamp the artery. Stop the bleeding.

But she didn’t move.

He was bleeding everywhere. There was no neat squid of thick red ink on the gravel. There was just that mess. Everywhere. She should check his vitals. Start compressions. He was going to bleed out.

She started to name the muscles, pectineus, sartorius, semimembranosus, semitendinosus, adductor magnus, adductor longus, adductor brevis, but she couldn’t hear the words, just a high pitched whine.

Jamie dead in front of her. All bled out.

Cora alive but not moving. As still as Jamie. Al had let this boy, this almost man, HIS almost man come over. Mow her lawn. Al had not been afraid of her and her dying.

As the cop pulled her from the back seat, she saw that the bloom of Jamie’s blood was so much darker than the rashes eating her away, so much darker than anything she’d ever seen.

Sometimes, when BD called, when the new home health nurse left, when she sat on the porch watching nothing, she would understand the ways it was her fault, her mind so thin around the edges, her thoughts like lace unraveling.

She was not sixteen. She was almost forty and she was dying, but not dead.

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