“I think they should have a card, or a sign, you know.” Lois said. “A brooch maybe, those men might even like it, a dash of color!”
Jane giggled nervously along with the other woman working in the back kitchen of River Oaks Baptist church.
“We need to know, to keep ourselves safe.” Lois continued.
“It's God's hand, punishing that immoral behavior. It's as plain as day.” Barbara said, unwrapping a large chocolate sheet cake. “Don’t you agree Jane?”
“Did you wash your hands Barbara?” Jane said as she focused on removing the saran wrap on the homemade plate of cupcakes in front of her.
Barbara frowned, but walked over to the sink pushing up the sleeves of her bright pink blouse, and began washing her hands. “I won’t even drive down Westheimer any more, it is too dangerous.” Barbara said. “I heard you can get it from the air, one of those homosexuals just breathes it out and - bam you got the gay cancer.”
“You all know Morty right, Suzanne’s cousin?” Lois leaned against the chrome refrigerator, taking a big draw on her cigarette. The body waves of her permed hair gently rested on the shoulder pads of her metallic blue suit jacket. “He was at the high school with your kids.”
Jane finished unwrapping and pricing the donated baked goods in front of her, and moved over to the covered plates Lois had left undone.
“Morty was living down in Montrose. He got a pneumonia, and he’s real sick.” Lois continued. “Suzanne said he got it from the airplane ride he took back from California, but I think it's more than that.” Lois and Barbara shared a wide eyed knowing look. “There were always rumors, and we know what goes on down in Montrose!”
Barbara cackled as she accepted the offered cigarette and leaned in for Lois to light it.
“Now Morty’s living in Suzanne’s garage. She leaves food for him at the door.”
“I don’t know if I could do that.” Barbara said, shaking her head.
“Ladies, please keep the smoke away from the desserts.” Jane said, waving the two women away from the food.
Lois popped her lips, but both women moved toward the open back door.
“Jane, you are the biggest germ-a-phobe I have ever met.” Lois laughed. “I'm surprised you ever leave the house!”
“Germs build up immunity.” Barbara said, nodding at her own wisdom.
“Well, there is no immunity for the AIDs.” Lois said. “That's why the gays should wear a sign. To protect us." Lois pointed her cigarette at Jane. “I told Suzanne we just could not come by her house while he was staying with her.” Lois said. “My little Jenny can’t see her best friend, but we have to keep them safe you know?”
“Jane.” Lois spoke, her voice light. “Your boy knows Morty.”
Jane’s hands slipped and several brownies spilled onto the table. She carefully tossed them in the garbage can.
“They used to be thick as thieves when they were younger.” Barbara added. “My Jennifer used to pal around with them too. They all came over that one year to make costumes on my sewing machine." Barbara eyes went to the floor. "Until she met Danny. Now they're down in San Antonio. She’s taking a break, but she’s going to go to go back to A&M, she wants to be a nurse.”
“How’s the baby?” Jane asked.
Barbara looked up sharply, and then at Lois before her eyes went to the floor. “The baby is fine.” Barbara breathed out a long trail of smoke. “Since Danny left, Jenny is on her own. But that's what she wants so-” Barbara kicked the floor with her white Keds.
Michael didn’t stay in touch with Morty?” Lois said.
Jane just shook her head no as she kept her hands working.
“What is Michael doing now?” Lois asked.
Jane felt both women watching her, waiting. Her work was done, but she went back through all the plates, organizing each one. She needed to keep her hands busy.
“Michael is working now, and looking forward to college next year.” Jane said, keeping her eyes on her work. “He's going to UT, going to be a Longhorn.”
Jane’s shoulders clenched and she felt tears welling in her eyes. She blinked and put on her best smile.
“Just like his daddy.” Barbara said. “What is he going to be studying?”
The smile froze to Jane’s face. “I don’t know- engineering. Yes, engineering.” Jane thought of her wish for a different son. A son who would take after his father and want to play baseball, go to prom with a girl, and want to study engineering. She prayed every night to have that son. But God works in mysterious ways.
“I would've guessed the theater.” Barbara said. “He was so wonderful in the high school play. He was magical as Hamlet.”
Jane took a step back from the two women and the conversation. She looked around for a distraction and saw the case of bright red soda cans on the table.
“Should I bring out the sodas? I bought the New Coke this time, I thought the teens would like it-” Jane needed something to do to get out of this kitchen.
“Hello, is the food pantry open?” A man leaned into the kitchen from the bright morning light of the back door. Thin, his face was mottled with purple bruises and his eyes were bloodshot red. He wore a long sleeve shirt, under a Members Only jacket. He shivered even though it was a hot, Houston summer day.
“No, the Church has the food pantry on weekdays only.” Lois said. “Today is the bake sale. Want a cupcake?” She waved toward the loaded serving table.
He took a step toward a plate of cupcakes and took one.
Jane’s eyes went wide. “No! You need to leave, right now!”
The man grimaced, his eyes blazed at Jane before he put his head down and left the kitchen, holding his cupcake.
Jane looked around, and grabbing a towel, she picked up the entire plate of cupcakes with outstretched arms and threw it in the garbage can.
“What the-” Lois’s eyes went wide, her hands flew up in confusion.
“Didn’t you see him,” Jane said, her breath coming fast and hard, pointing at the open door. “He had the AIDs. His face, those bruises. We can not have him in here!”
Barbara looked out the door, and back at Jane. Her eyes narrowed, her hands on her hips. “How did you know?”
Jane left the Bake Sale carrying a plate wrapped in clear plastic.
She unlocked the front door and placed her keys carefully on the key hook.
She walked down the hall, through the house and to a closed door. She set the plate on the side table next to the door, and then took down a thin cotton robe off a nearby hook, and put it on.
She pulled out white gloves from one pocket and then a surgical mask from the other. Jane wiped her eyes on a napkin, and took two big breaths before she adjusted the mask over her mouth and nose. Picking up the plate in one hand, she knocked and opened the door without waiting.
The large poster of two smiling young men and the word ‘Wham!’ greeted her as it did every time she walked into the dark room. The thick air was filled with the stench of sweat, sickness and human waste. The man in the small bed turned toward her, his thin body barely noticeable under the thick covers. He reached out a pale hand, marked with purple bruises. Sores on his mouth blistered as he smiled.
“I couldn’t make it to the bathroom, I'm sorry-” His voice is hoarse.
Jane pulled clumps of hair off his pillow, and brushed her gloved hand over his forehead.
“Hello Michael. How are you feeling today!” Jane said, buoyant cheer straining her voice.
“We’ll get you cleaned up, and then I have your favorite, chocolate cake.”