"Who is Spencer?" I asked.
"Oh, for God's sake, you know Spencer. He's about 8 feet tall and has a wicked tongue," Dick replied, peering over his glasses.
"Oh yeah," I said. Except to chat with him at Starbucks, I didn't really know Spencer. The last time we chatted -- maybe a week earlier -- he asked me to work out with him.
"So what's the news?" I asked Dick.
"He's alive!" Dick, who is 78, exclaimed. "They took him off life support yesterday and he didn't die."
He looked at me like he'd just announced the resurrection of Lazarus.
"Jesus," I said. "I knew he was HIV-positive, but I didn't know he'd gotten sick."
"Oh yeah," Dick said. "He got sick very suddenly. You know, he used to tease me about reading the obituaries every day. Now I'm going to be looking for his."
I left that afternoon for a long weekend in the mountains with my partner Wayne. The leaves had begun their transformation and the sky was blue, the air sweet. On the radio, there was a lot of excitement about the opening of deer-hunting season. I told Wayne how I dreaded the season when I worked for weekly newspapers in rural Georgia. Nearly every day for weeks, someone drove by with a dead buck in his pickup truck, and my job was to take a picture of him holding the beast's head up by its horns. We published these in the paper.
The most disturbing were the ones when a father brought his son by for a picture of the boy displaying his first kill. Looking through the camera lens, I often felt convulsed with emotion. I certainly never had a wish for my father to take me hunting, but the sight of father and son bonding in this ritual -- bloody as it was -- reminded me of how little I'd bonded with anyone in my own family.
Wayne said his father took him rabbit hunting in the snow when he was a kid. But he couldn't bear the idea of killing rabbits. Wayne's father, whom he loved deeply, died last year.
I thought of my aging parents. I wanted to cry, but I made myself think about other things.
When I returned from the mountains, I ran into Dick and asked about Spencer. Spencer had died, he said, and the funeral would be in a few days.
"That sucks," I said.
Another friend sitting nearby said Spencer had lived 20 years or so with HIV, that he was one of the lucky ones. Dick said his body was going to be cremated and his ashes spread in Piedmont Park. "We scattered the ashes of several friends in the lake there," I said. "And I think I later learned it's not legal. Well, we kind of suspected that and pretended we were having a picnic."
"I think it's weird the way they divide ashes sometimes," Dick said.
"At one point," I said, "I had the ashes of four friends in my house, each in a box inside a different shopping bag. Sometimes the family wanted a handful. I got very used to handling the ashes of the dead."
A few days later at Starbucks -- which has come to feel like Floyd's Barbershop for middle-aged gay men -- I ran into someone who lived in the apartment under me over 20 years ago. "You had a parrot and you asked me to take care of it while you were out of town. I told you I didn't know anything about birds." That parrot, Jade, had been with me 10 years. He died while I lived there, and I cried for two days.
My first partner, Rick, lived with me there. God, we were young. The apartment was on Blue Ridge, behind the old Plaza Drugs on Ponce de Leon. We awoke Sunday mornings to hear the Salvation Army Band playing in front of the drugstore, and we walked to the Majestic to have lamb for lunch. We had broken up earlier. Then I got scarlet fever and nearly died at Piedmont Hospital. We got back together, but it didn't work out.
A year after we broke up, Rick learned he had AIDS. This was when AZT was just becoming available, but his doctor lost the paperwork and he didn't get the drug in time to help him. I had moved to Houston. One day, several boxes arrived. They included glassware that we'd collected together and he'd gotten in our bitter division of property. I called him in a panic. "I don't want those glasses; I want you to live forever," I wanted to tell him.
He'd already died.
My friend Rose gave me a massage recently. While I was on the table, I relived countless deaths. I have no idea why. It was like that experience of having your life flash before your eyes. I couldn't stop crying.
"This, all this dying, haunts everything I do," I said.
Cliff Bostock's website is www.soulworks.net.