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the heart breaks and breaks

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It's 1986 and Prior Walter is going to die. He's beginning to enjoy his occasional nightly communion with his faithless ex-lover's lover's jack-Mormon grass widow. It's nice to have visitors.

"You know, I really feel like I can talk to you." She's not augmented tonight — good for her. Her hair is pulled back into a stubby braid at the nape of her neck. "Is that funny, or what?"

"What else are neighbors for? Just don't ask to borrow a cup of sugar."

They're only neighbors in some arcane spiritual sense. He has no idea where this woman is living, or if she is living, or if her fragmentary appearances are only a ghost's footsteps. It's like — being in an adjoining room. Prior's only ever been an only child, and it wouldn't surprise him to know that weird, wispy, doped-out Harper is one too.

Or it's like having a cat all over again. The poor bedraggled thing comes and goes. She's curled up in her pyjamas at the foot of his sickbed — stage furniture, trucked in off a backlot somewhere on a dolly, fake as fake can be even in his dreams — soliciting his pearls of wisdom. He doesn't have anything to give her. The well's run dry; the bank's closed. Even in his sleep, his face feels stiff with salt, his joints ache, every permeable place on his body feels worn raw. But in his dreams it doesn't hurt him to look any more.

Even when she's not stoned out of her mind, Harper looks stoned, like something out of the diorama room of the Mormon Visitors Center. Only the face moves; the rest of her is very still. She has wispy blonde hair hanging close to her face, free from its braid, and big hypnotic eyes.

"You know, I could have been a prodigy. I could've gotten really good at chess, or figure skating, or maybe ballet. Of course, they'd never let me wear the dresses, and I couldn't afford all the pairs of shoes."

"It's never too late to follow your dreams."

"I could go some place and start a farm. Grow things. Vegetables and grains and herbs. I've never been very good at that kind of thing, but I can learn. I'll move to California and grow dates. I'll keep a beehive. Just me and my bees. Planting seeds for early harvests. I'm not even hungry any more."

"I ate half a pot brownie, but I felt sick, so I stopped. You should come over and have the other half. It's better for you than Valium."

"I can't. What if I get fat?" Harper laughs, a hard nasty cough of a laugh. "Can you believe I used to think that was the problem? Why he didn't want me any more? When actually he never wanted me at all."

Prior bares all his teeth; he feels like a skeleton. "Must be tough."

Prior had been gaining weight steadily, but with difficulty. Now he's losing it again. One week you're up and the next you're down. That's Dame Fortune's wheel for you; sit and spin.

"I'm sorry, I forgot—"

"In San Francisco there's this lady who bakes magic brownies for AIDS patients and stencils designs on the little bags. Isn't that sweet? My friend put mine in a bakery bag. I thought that was a nice touch."

"That is sweet."

He can't remember if he's even been to San Francisco; his brain is fucked, in a fog. It's not the worst it's ever been, but it's difficult, and it makes focusing on Harper here in this intermediary place a little bit like trying to squeeze glass marbles, or keep a coin spinning on its edge.

"He's like that. He can be like that." No one has ever accused Belize of being huggable before, but he knows every sharp edge of this disease intimately. "This is the kind of dream you don't remember when you wake up, isn't it?"

"Your friend — what's he like? I've never been an easy person to get along with, so most of my friends are imaginary."

"Like me. My friend is like I am, only he isn't dying. One day, maybe, but not right now. He's an ex-drag queen with this fabulous, terrible laugh and no patience."

"He brings you pot?"

"At my request. I'd smoke it, but my lungs are fucked up. I can't risk it. I used to smoke these really skinny black cigarettes, because they looked great, but Louis wanted—"

If he had a photograph of him now he'd stub out one of those little black cigarettes right on it. High drama. Christ, he doesn't even have a picture of him. There's got to be one around there somewhere, in a frame or a book or something. Stuck between the pages of a book. Or on an undeveloped roll of film somewhere in another dead guy's storage unit. Louis and Prior, way back when.

No pictures, please. No angels. Harper's look is fixed on him. “He was your lover before the lover who left you.”

“Long before. And he wasn't my lover, we just — how macho. How weird is that. I thought Louis was going to be the last person I ever went out with. I thought we were going to get old and awful together. He was my fucking boyfriend, not my lover. You don't get it."

Lover sounds too arch and too earnest all at the same time. It doesn't describe Louis Ironson particularly well. Louis, who never loved, or who never loved very well at all.

And Joe never loved at all, so they're well-matched in that.

One of Harper's bony hands makes a fist in her lap. He can see it on her, like an aureole of light, like one of those little pincushions of light on a statue of a saint — no, like a zap, like one of those glass balls with the plasmatic orb of electricity inside, like a nerve impulse darting from here to there.

"He was the first one you thought you loved," Prior says.

"Yes. I mean, I guess so. There weren't any others before."

"Nobody at all?"

The irony has fallen away from her voice completely. "I thought he was the first person to love me. I thought he was the only person to love me. I was wrong."

You don't have to dig deep to uncover that the rampantly sexually-repressed pill-popping Mormon housewife has never been with more than one man in her life. That's not exactly prophecy talking. The man with the knives has been with her all her life, he was there with her in her cradle, in her bed at night — Joe is only the last, the latest. He's with her here and now — the man who made her.

Prior doesn't know who the fuck that's supposed to be, the man with the knives. What the hell happened? A father, an uncle, a stepfather, a neighbor. Who? What? Who left the mark on her? He can see the light of prophecy on her like a bruise. Tremorous, terrible.

Harper says, "If you live twenty years, you'll see things no one's ever seen before. You'll have lived so long you'll have to revise the foreword to your book, if you write one. The world spins forward. The seasons turn. Feast and famine. Boom and bust."

"I'm not going to live twenty more years. I don't know if I'm going to live to see next Christmas. I don't know if I'm going to see next week. You don't really have a grasp on this whole AIDS thing, do you?"

"You won't die — I don't want you to."

"I don't want it either, but here I am! It's happening to me every day!"

"You're not going to die, and I'm not going to be alone."

"Well, you'd better learn how."

He's too exposed here, he needs to be swathed — swathed in whatever the fuck prophets wear, some big black knock-off pashmina shawl he can't remember buying and a sweater because he's fucking freezing and a coat and a cowl and a shroud to tie it all together. He'll have forgotten all about this in the morning, who gives a shit?

He's not going to think about the future. It hurts too goddamn much to think about things just — going on, without him, somewhere there is going to be a Belize and a Louis but no Prior. To hell with it, neither of them is safe from this — there's going to be a world where nobody he knows is left alive.

*

It's 1995 and his leg only really hurts him when something good is about to happen. This doesn't seem very fair at all. Prior sits bolt-upright, grabbing at the bedside table for his cane — like the premonitory sense that rushes over him like a cold shower is because he left the stove on, or the fire alarm is going off out in the corridor, or something else terrible has happened.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

"Is there anybody here?" Oh, his voice in the dark sounds old. Really old. When you're calling out in the dark and there's somebody in your apartment and you don't know who they are but you kind of have a feeling — how weird is that?

"Yes."

Times like these, he'd really like — a big butch guard dog or a handgun to unload into the ceiling or something, anything at all to arm himself with against intrusion. All he has is the telephone.

Prior lives alone now, modestly but with great style. Hannah Pitt comes and sees him, helps out with the more unpleasant things. Cousin Doris still drops off his laundry for him, she brings big plastic bottles of supplements from health stores and other things he's only read about in photocopied magazines. Cousin Doris looks just like Lou only better-looking, but he won't hold it against her.

Eventually the money will be gone. What he'll do then, he doesn't know. He never thought he'd have to know.

He can hear a woman's voice down the hall, a woman's footsteps, and they're not Cousin Doris'. She wears loafers.

"She told me to come here, and I said, wouldn't it be a surprise, and she said you've learned to cope with surprises, so I came."

"Who told you? Did Hannah tell you?"

"She gave me a key."

"My eyes are sort of fucked up. Come closer."

He gropes for his glasses. They're not going to help much. Prior fumbles for it in his mind too, just a little wisp of information, only a crumb. Something about San Francisco.

The woman's in his doorway with no fanfare attending her, as abruptly as she'd vanished. She is wearing a man's raincoat and a child's backpack with a bandana tied in her hair like Rosie the Riveter. Big as life.

"Don't I know you already?"