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T. B. Bower

Dear Mayor Schmoke,

Let me start by saying, I hope this letter somehow makes its to you, and if it has, and you find yourself reading it, well then, praise the Postmaster General. I write to you today requesting special municipal subsidy. Some call it welfare, but not me. I prefer catastrophic personal salvation funding. I'll explain.

It's still baffling.

My own father choked to death from AIDS (perhaps you read his obituary in the Sun?), and there I sat a week later in the reception room of a free clinic at GBMC, waiting to be tested for HIV.

Six(fucking)teen . . . pardon my French.

An arrogant, invincible little shit!

Richard never admitted how he got infected, but I bet he got it from screwing some crack-ho on Baltimore Street. He worked as a copywriter for Stokely & Williams advertising firm on Charles Street, not a block away from the red light district. His bosses worked him like a sharecropper. He barely had enough time to buy groceries, let alone find a woman to take care of him and me.

Father didn't tell me what he was dying from until he was laid out at the hospital like a broiled flounder.

The first time I had sex I didn't use a rubber. I was too afraid that she would have seen I had more hair on my knuckles than my nuts. I'd been taking care of Richard for months: feeding him, helping him to the bathroom, and sometimes washing him. But he never said a word..

Thinking back on it, I must have been too caught-up playing lacrosse and drinking cheap beer to ask him what was wrong.

Like I said . . . arrogant!

When the counselor called me into his office, and sat me down on a plush red leather chair, I wanted to level him with a quick upper-jab. I didn't though.

My friends kept asking me what was wrong with my dad: Is he a fag? Does he have cancer? Why does he never get out of bed? Why does his room stink? There was nothing for me to tell them. I'd kick, fight, curse, and spit . . . whatever it took to get them to shut-up.

The first question out of my HIV counselor's mouth calmed me.

"What's up?" Simple, and straightforward; I liked that-it wasn't expected. . . even though his long wavy blond hair, and Abe Lincoln beard, made me wonder if he was some kind of hippie motherfucker.

It was late August when Richard died. I'd quit my job at Video Americana in early July, and spent my remaining days of summer taking care of him. His face was as shriveled as a deflated volleyball, and his arms were as thin as my wrists. While in the hospital, he liked for me to read him articles from Playboy.

As the weeks grew closer and closer to his destruction, I started to take long walks through Sandtown and other broken-down black neighborhoods in West Baltimore. I found myself relating to their destitute and hopeless circumstances. The more indisposed Richard became, the more I found myself walking their streets, stepping through doors never opened by white fingers, thinking that I was one of them through my sheer willingness to be there, with them, in their own sad, soulful world.

Michael, my counselor, proceeded to ask me something along the lines of: "When was the last time you had unprotected intercourse?" When I answered, "Last night," he didn't flinch. I was dating-if you could call it that-this girl Tisha. She had the juiciest ass. Pardon the jargon sir, but I'm telling you, it was that nice. I did anything she wanted.

When I was forced to call an ambulance-when I could no longer deal with changing his sheets, wiping his ass, sticking Milk Dud sized pills down his throat-to take Richard to the hospital, I knew it was over. But Richard still, at first, refused to let me call his brother . . . who at the time was unaware of Richard's situation. I didn't want the entire burden; I forced Richard to allow me to call my uncle.

It was a fucking real-life nightmare on my hands.

I wanted to choke down a six-pack of Michelob and jump naked into the harbor with the crabs.

I called Calvin to tell him Richard was dying. He called me a liar. I hung up. "He wasn't home," I told Richard.

"I don't know man . . . she's never asked me to strap one on, so I don't bother." I told Michael. He replied. "Well, why don't you suggest using protection?" I answered. "Would you?"

I asked myself again and again what my mother would have done if she had found herself in my shoes. But, that was unrealistic, and flat stupid. She died giving birth to me. I've never even heard her voice.

"Did you leave a message?" Richard asked. "No." That was the end of that. He knew better than to push it further; the truth would have only made things worse.

"Seriously," I answered, "I've never used a condom. Not once."

Michael rubbed his eyes. "How come?" I answered. "It's never come up."

I curled around my father's slackened body as he gurgled through an entanglement of tubes. The skin around his eyes was as pink and puckered as a rotten grapefruit. I wanted it to end. His mouth smelled like a soggy shower rug.

"Believe me, " I said, "I'm the first person to realize the risk I'm taking, but goddamn it, old tricks are hard to crack." Michael chuckled.

"Old tricks, you're only sixteen." I roared.

Richard watched the rain smack against the window he shared with the ashy elderly woman dying of lung cancer in the bed next to him. They never spoke. The air conditioning worked if you complained enough to the nurses, otherwise, it felt like you were in the Puerto Rican rainforest.

I couldn't sleep at night. Sometimes I'd wake in a midday sweat with my head perched on the edge of Richard's stiff metal hospital bed, but other than that, I remained silent with my eyes crusting around the edges..

When I told Tisha my father was dying-withering to death from AIDS-she stopped talking to me. I couldn't blame her. It wasn't as if we were in love. Even though, when I found myself buried deep inside her, starring down at her creamy thighs and full breasts, I would have married her if she asked.

"So," Michael said, "If your results come back negative, are you going to think about changing your actions? You know, start using protection?" I couldn't lie. "Probably not."

You must be asking yourself Mayor Schmoke what is wrong with me. Well, quite a lot. Since Richard died I've found myself flipping burgers, painting houses, mowing lawns in Homewood, and selling fruit at Lexington Market. I have descended into the underbelly of the city, mingling with black folks like yourself everyday.

Can't you see . . . I'm looking for salvation, and you're the only one that can help?

Richard died in the early afternoon. The old woman nesting in the bed next to him snored loudly, farted incoherently, waiting her turn. There were no last words, only the flat line whistling of a boiling kettle.

I left Mercy Hospital, and walked 5,894 steps back to Bolton Hill to an empty apartment.

"SO, if you or your girlfriend, Tisha, never use condoms, and have no plan to . . . and you tell me she's already tested negative . . . why are you here?" Michael asked.

"My father died from AIDS last week." I said. Michael started crying.

Is this making sense, sir?


Your Humble Citizen,

Frederick P. Brown


T. B. Bower is a published author living in Brooklyn, U.S.A.

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