At 7 on this particular evening, shirt pockets around the table emitted a loud beeping noise. Almost all of the men were taking AZT every four hours and had alarm-pillboxes to remind them.
But with all the pillboxes, no one could tell whose was beeping, who was due for medication.
For an instant, Tom looked confused.
"Aren't we a pretty group?" he said.
Tom first met Johnnie at the office of Dr. Ronald White, their shared physician, and then later at a support group meeting. Johnnie, from a small town in Alabama, developed AIDS just two years after he came to Atlanta and, for the first time, acknowledged his homosexuality.
Johnnie's move to Atlanta marked a decision that tore his life in two.
Until 1984, he had trained horses - appaloosa show horses. His life had been built around horses ever since his grandfather sold a cow for money to buy Johnnie an appaloosa named Vendetta when the boy was 12. He won gold medals in world competition in 1979 and again in 1981.
Before he came to Atlanta when he was 30, Johnie had suppressed his interest in men and been essentially celibate. After he arrived, he kept his change of life secret from his parents until his diagnosis.
His mother, Patsy Ruth, was a member of the Eagle Forum and a supporter of conservative Phyllis Schlafly. She remember the conversation word for word, and how anguished she felt.
He said, "Mother, I'd rather kill myself than tell you this because you're going to hate me. I'm homosexual and I have AIDS."
"Nothing you could do could make me hate you, " she said.
Johnnie began to cry.
"I don't want to die, " he said.
He told his mother, "Don't blame yourself and Daddy."
"But I do, " his mother said.
Johnnie shared an apartment with Pat, an accountant who was on medical leave from his job at the Genuine Parts Co., and Pat's lover, Ron. Ron did not come to the Shrine dinners because he did not have AIDS.
Tom had known Pat for years. Soon after Tom had come to Atlanta in 1979, they had had a brief fling. The two did not meet again until October 1987 - when Tom walked into AID Atlanta's Wednesday night support group and saw Pat next to Johnnie.
Pat was as jolted to see Tom as Tom was to see him.
In his heart, Pat blamed himself for Tom's illness.
"We all feel a little guilty, I think, " he said.
To his relief, Tom blamed no one.
For someone with AIDS each milestone may be the final one. With his 32nd birthday approaching, Tom persuaded Johnnie, Pat and Ron to take a trip to Key West. In May 1988 they embarked on a trip they called their first "toxic vacation."
Their room at the Lighthouse Inn Guesthouse was white, with blond pine flooring and parchment trim. Sable palms draped razor-edged shadows through the skylight and across the floors.
"Welcome to the gay world, " Tom said. "No television, no phones, just plenty of white walls and ceiling fans."
In a brown American Tourister train case, Johnnie had brought provisions. It was filled with pills - and nothing else. Sleeping pills, painkillers, antibiotics, antifungals, even acyclovir for the herpes that appeared eight months after his AIDS diagnosis.
And AZT - lots of AZT, blue and white capsules in a bottle the size of a honey jar. It was worth about $600, more than Johnnie's rent. The train case contained a month's supply: 365 pills.
"Think we'll run out?" Johnnie asked. He laughed.
On Monday evening, Tom, Johnnie, Pat and three friends from Atlanta barbecued hamburgers on the guesthouse grill.
Out of earshot, Ron said he was sick and tired of being around people with AIDS. It was a refrain familiar to every one of the group. They wished they had never heard of AIDS either. But Ron would not abandon Pat; he would nurse him until the end.
Pat had just recovered from a bout of pneumocystis that had kept him in the hospital for weeks. He had taken pentamidine intravenously, and now he - like Tom and Johnnie and the others - inhaled it once every two weeks to prevent the disease.
Pentamidine had become so much a part of Pat's life that Tom nicknamed him "Pentam Pattie."
"Where's that delicious pie? Will you cut it, Pentam?" Tom asked in his nicest little girl's voice.
It was the first Tuesday in June 1988, bright but not too hot.
The Shrine supper crowd was growing along with the AIDS epidemic. In the kitchen, volunteers were cooking for more than 80 men.
Tom, Johnnie, Pat and Jeffrey Triplet had arrived early. They were sitting on a brick wall talking as a social worker and regular, George Sophy, walked up. Tom still was tanned from Key West.
He didn't show any signs of fatigue, though he had had a fever of 101 degrees after the 18-hour ride home.
George, who is married and has children, had learned to talk "the talk" as fluently as his charges.
"Hey baby, " George said to Johnnie. "Johanna sweetheart."
Johnnie looked at him sourly. "Hi, George, " he said.
Johnnie was in no mood for small talk. He'd had a headache for three days. "Pressure's so great it feels as if my teeth are going to pop, " he said. Two analgesics had done little. "If the Percocet doesn't work, " he said, "maybe a pistol will."
"George Hollowell died, " someone said.
"Kerry Monarch died Saturday, " another man said. His voice was emotionless, matter-of-fact.
"Oh really, " Johnnie said. He grimaced. "Sounds like they're talking about bowling scores."
Jeff said a friend named Darrell Gilkey also had died. Tom, who scrutinized each day's obituaries, said he saw the death notice. One day Darrell looked fine, Tom said; the next day he died.
Somebody noticed that Jeff had shaved his upper lip.
"Hey Squid, " Tom called - because he preferred to call the diminutive
Jeffrey "Squid" rather than "Shrimp" - "What happened to your mustache?"
"Fell off, " Jeff said. "That damned AIDS."
The special meeting of an AID Atlanta support group, July 10, 1988, was held for the benefit of a reporter and a photographer. At the regular Wednesday evening meetings, only people with AIDS are permitted to attend.
The men arrived one by one, joking with one another: Johnnie; Kenny Fleischman, whose face, under a layer of pancake makeup, was an unbroken mask of purple Kaposi's sarcoma; Lee Springfield, who had a purple lesion on the tip of his nose; Bill Phillips, who felt so good that he had just bought a one-man sailboat; Jim Gilley, who was bald from chemotherapy and so thin at 93 pounds that he looked like a boy in men's basketball sneakers; Pat Heinrich, and Jeffrey Triplet.
And Kevin, Richard, Michael, Don, Pierce, Dave, Scott and Tye.
As the men settled on the floor, in chairs and on the sofa, Tom carried onion dip and a platter of carrots, celery and cauliflower to his round dining room table. A visitor set up large plastic bottles of soft drinks near ice, paper plates and plastic cups. Johnnie said he was grateful he could take part in a support group with people willing to listen.
"When I was diagnosed two years ago there was never anything like this, " he said. "I didn't know any other PWAs. One day I saw an ad in Creative Loafing, and I was even thinking of cutting it out and calling that number.
"It said: 'One PWA, lonely, looking for another PWA.' " Johnnie laughed. "Some days, I wonder who that person was and how he's doing, " he said.
Bill Gillaspie, a tall, quiet therapist who had listened to AIDS sufferers since 1985, invited the men to speak in order around the circle and say whatever they chose. For two hours, Bill Gillaspie did not interrupt.
Lee Springfield, a student, said: "I'm tired of being a professional AIDS patient. I was filling out a questionnaire the other day; I got to the line marked 'profession' and I caught myself writing down PWA."
Kenny Fleischman unbuttoned his shirt before he spoke. His chest was a mottled mass of purple Kaposi's sarcoma lesions, and it was scarred by radiation:
"This is what I'm dealing with on my chest and back. My face makes me feel hopeless. Makeup helps, but not enough. I went in to see my doctor, crying. I told him I don't want to live like this. I don't know if anyone here has seen the remake of the movie, 'The Fly, ' where the hero changes his molecules into a fly's molecules. I feel like 'The Fly.' I get tired of looking in the mirror."
Even Tom, normally cheerful, was depressed. Sitting on the floor, he dragged his hand against the nap of the carpet: "I have been very, very tired lately. I wish I didn't have to go through this. I don't want to go to work, I don't want to live a regular life. I am taking care of my friends' dogs, and when I went over to their house the other day I had to lie down on their bed, I was so overwhelmed by tiredness. I was depressed. I didn't want to go on. I tried to talk my body into death, into this state of no heartbeat, no respiration."
Then he expelled his breath, releasing tension. "I didn't make it, " he said. "I had a little snooze instead. The heart's a strong organ."
The talk had gone on for more than two hours. People began getting up, stretching and sauntering over to get soft drinks and vegetables with dip. Bill Phillips was limping slightly. He said he cut his foot while he was mowing the lawn. It scared him - but not for the usual reasons.
"I looked at that blood coming out and, suddenly, it looked like poison. I was scared of leaving it there. It's scary to see part of yourself and think - it's so toxic."
"I was thinking about that the other day while I was picking blackberries for my mother, " Lee said. "I thought, 'What happens if I get bit by a snake? Who's going to cut my leg and suck the venom out?' "
"What about the snake?" he said. "I'd feel sorry for the snake."
AIDS is an expensive way to live.
For Tom Fox, the price would reach $203.52 a day, every day, or $74,285 a year. In the end, his bill would exceed $133,000 for about 21 months of care, and he was one of the lucky ones.
He had employee health insurance.
Each dose of chemotherapy cost $900, in advance. A single prescription of one antibiotic cost $700. A month's supply of AZT was $640.
"AZT alone is more than my mortgage payment, " Tom said.
As a sales representative in classified commercial sales at the Journal-Constitution, Tom earned about $21,120 - $240 a week in salary with an additional $150 or $200 a week in commissions.
Because he split his bills with his roommate, Tom's monthly expenses were a mortgage of $300; car payment of $180; utilities, phone and cable bills totaling about $100; security company payment of $75; Psychiatric Institute of Atlanta payment of $50; and an Atlanta Hospital payment of $20. After taxes, that left him with about $200 a week for medicine, groceries, car insurance and gas.
When he went on medical leave, his commissions stopped and he had to survive on his salary of about $1,000 a month - before taxes. By then he had credit only on his Discover card - two others had reached their limit.
Mail delivery became a daily trauma of bills. Tom lived from insurance check to insurance check.
A successful month was one in which he stayed out of the hospital and had checks coming in as quickly as his checks went out.
"I don't know why I do it, " he said. "Some people lose track and throw their bills in the trash when they come."
AIDS turned Johnnie from a barber earning $36,400 a year into an indigent.
Shortly after he was diagnosed on July 4, 1986, the proprietor of his shop, Hair Innovations in Marietta, confessed that she was afraid he would scare customers away. Proprietor Judy Butler said Johnnie understood her predicament and quit; Johnnie said he was let go.
Either way, he lost his insurance when a representative for the insurance company, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, came in for a haircut. As a barber was wrapping him in a smock, he asked why Johnnie's chair was empty, his belongings gone.
"AIDS, " someone said. "He can't work anymore."
The agent checked the shop's policy, found that Johnnie was still named in it and threatened to cancel the policy if his name wasn't removed, Judy Butler said. She told Johnnie she had no choice.
Frightened, his parents sold an acre of land near Cheaha Mountain State Park in Alabama for $3,500 - far less than its worth. The camper on the land brought another $5,000.
The money helped - but not enough. His employee insurance had cost $70 a month, with a $500 deductible, and his monthly share had been just $35. The price of his new policy was $470 a month, with a $1,500 deductible.
By September 1987, the money from his parents was gone.
"What do I do?" he said. "Am I going to start in a new shop with two or three clients a day, wind up with $30 a day, and pay taxes on it? Am I going to go in and bust my butt for six months to establish a clientele and get sick? I don't know how long I'm going to live."
He qualified for $445 a month in Social Security. And he made his first appointment for a visit to the infectious disease clinic at Grady Memorial Hospital. Until January 1989, the taxpayers of Fulton and DeKalb counties would pay for his care.
After that, he qualified for Medicare. Most AIDS patients don't live long enough to qualify.
Tom's funeral had been on his mind for months.
His will was signed and seconded, a song list readied for the party he was planning after his funeral. All that remained was to make formal arrangements with a funeral home.
Tom had known one of the embalmers at H.M. Patterson & Son socially for nearly a decade. Roger already had made arrangements like this for 20 friends. By now, almost half of them were dead.
Now Tom and Pat wanted Roger to help them.
Their appointment was Aug. 29, 1988, at 1 p.m.
Roger found both sitting silently in armchairs in one of Patterson's sitting rooms at Springhill, surrounded by draperies and soft furniture in orange and green pastels.
Roger brought in the necessary forms. Name. Mother's name. Father's name. Birthday. Survivors. Tom's job was simple - he checked a box that said "Cremation" at a cost of $675.
Pat specified that he wanted a more traditional funeral. His family planned to place his casket in a crypt overlooking a lake in Cincinnati.
Pat specified that he would be embalmed in Atlanta, dressed, placed in a casket, and shipped home. He named his lover, Ron, among his list of "significant others."
He asked if he could look at caskets.
Walking through showrooms inspecting and touching casket after casket with Pat, Tom joked to lighten the mood. "Wouldn't I look good in pink?" or "Maybe this lavender? Or this one with the flowers in it?"
Pat was silent. At 34, he was choosing his future.
He selected a $2,000 casket of polished cherry with carved wooden handles and a plush lining.
Afterward, both Pat and Tom were subdued. The process had been less a relief for them than an acknowledgment of the inevitable.
It had been difficult for Roger, too.
"When you see your friends die and die and die, it's as if you see your whole world folding in around you, " he said. "And you can't do anything about it." "Wait. One more thing, " Tom said to Roger in parting. "Pick me up in a hearse. No ambulance. I want one last smooth ride."
Oct. 2 was Tom's first anniversary as an AIDS sufferer.
He celebrated by beginning chemotherapy. The drug was known as VP- 16, and it was so toxic a nurse prepared his infusion with her gloved hands under a stainless-steel and glass hood.
The chemical has to be toxic to kill cancer cells. But it has severe side effects: hair loss, fever, flushing, an overwhelming feeling of malaise. The side effects began after Tom's first three-hour infusion.
Two days later, Tom still had a fever.
He consulted Dr. Daniel Carr, an Atlanta oncologist. The doctor suggested that Tom call off the trip he had planned to Washington to see the Names Project quilt - a giant patchwork memorial to people who have died of AIDS - and spend a few more days undergoing tests at Crawford Long.
Tom was shaken. He wasn't ready to go into the hospital again.
"I'm feeling fine, " he protested.
The doctor smiled, but his eyes showed concern.
"Are you really fine or are you lying to me?" the doctor asked, good- naturedly.
Tom waited for his flight to Washington at an Eastern gate at Hartsfield International Airport with Johnnie; Pat and Ron; Don and Mike; Roger, Tom's friend from Patterson's funeral home; Scott Ayers and 20 others.
Before he said hello, he said, "Look at this."
He reached up and effortlessly pulled a lock of hair from his head. It seemed as if it were no longer rooted in his scalp. He did it partly for shock value and partly to demonstrate that he was taking the latest crisis in stride. When did that start?
"Today, " Tom said.
Tom was carrying with him the blue plastic doctor's kit he got during his last trip to the hospital. On the kit it said, "Tom Fox, Atlanta Hospital." He opened it, displaying its contents.
Tom had emptied it of everything but a toy stethoscope and turned the bag into a "FIRST AIDS" kit, complete with Mycelex for thrush, AZT for AIDS, a Brethine inhaler. "Never leave home without it, " he said.
When the flight attendant called the flight number, many of those who filed aboard the plane had AIDS; the rest seemed to be going to a dental convention in Washington.
Tom had been cooped up in the hospital or hooked to an intravenous line flooding his system with toxic chemotherapy for days. It had been nearly five months since the Key West trip.
He decided to act up a little.
As soon as the plane was airborne and the seat-belt light had gone off, Tom was out of his seat, walking down the aisle with his plastic stethoscope, acting the medical flight attendant offering pills from his medical kit. "Jim, anything you need in here before I put it away?"
He waved a bottle of AZT.
Three perplexed businessmen in seats 10D, 10E and 10F watched the proceedings suspiciously from over their paperback spy novels.
"What's he got in that little box?" asked a blond dental technician from Bradenton, Fla.
"It's AZT. Some of those guys have AIDS."
The woman, who had been introduced to Tom and had shaken his hand, shrank back into her seat.
"Really?" she asked. "But they all look so healthy."
From a distance, the quilt looked like nothing so much as a huge, flat, crayon-colored drawing on a vast green lawn.
In a quiet voice, a woman on a small platform to one side of the quilt read the names of the dead into a microphone. "Bud Castleman. Dave Clarris. Bob Darrell. Jon Syms. Our friend Doug Sanford. Our son Doug Leiber." Her voice broke; another voice took over. "Jeff Long . . . "
Tom's breathing had become so labored he had to stop every few feet and rest. "Where's Drew?" he asked, looking up the long lines of grave- sized panels that resembled stained glass. He talked of the panels as if they were people and began following the sailcloth paths that divided the quilt into squares. His eyes were intent on the panels.
He was looking for a friend named Drew Wideman.
Instead he found a panel for Gary Dollar. Johnnie said he, Ron and Pat had been pallbearers at his funeral. "We swore when Gary died we weren't going to another funeral, " Johnnie said. "Ten in two years is 10 too many." But Johnnie went to Noel's funeral, and he went to Pierce's funeral. They never end, he said.
Tom found other panels of Atlantans who had died of AIDS. One panel, five or six times the size of the others, marked the deaths of several members of the Atlanta Gay Motorcycle Club. It was gray, with black letters and decorative flames. "Bill Brozak, " Tom said suddenly. "I remember everyone saying he died of the 'gay cancer.' " Near Bill Brozak were Norman Blaylock and Paul Killebrew.
There were Ralph Ginn and Tammi Walker, a tiny AIDS baby whom Johnnie and other AID Atlanta volunteers had taken turns cradling in their arms at Grady. Her panel was a pink fuzzy bunny with a red sparkle heart.
"Peter Johnson, " Tom said. "He found out he was HIV-positive and shot himself."
The woman who was reading the names began to cry, her voice echoing off surrounding government buildings, but she continued reading: "Bob 'Blanche' Dubois, Robert W. Tapia, and my beloved son Rick Dixon . . . "
Tom followed another sailcloth path to a block of panels labeled in his guide as "27-B." They were a rich, dark teal with treble clefs and notes in memory of members of the Atlanta Gay Men's Chorus: Fred Seal, Dan Crowfoot, Bob Rogan, Ralph Delgado, David Hart, Greg Lewis, John Stewart, John Martin, Richard Winfree, Ed Acree, Ted Lindsay (Johnnie: "I used to cut his hair"), Chester Clark, Glenn Breslin (Pat: "He used to be my roommate"), Lee Hopper, Jerry Pyszka . . .
"There's another one of my clients, " Johnnie said, walking over to another panel. The name on it was Carl Sowell.
"Beautiful, isn't it? . . . Tom went with me the last time I cut his hair. He was demented, he couldn't eat, he couldn't talk - and he had been the sweetest, kindest little person."
Tom had found the panel that read: "Drew Wideman: 1950-1986, Atlanta, Ga., " with its image of a multicolored jukebox, piano keys, candle flames flickering off crystal. Tom and several friends had made it.
A few steps away, Don and Mike stood looking down at the panel. Their cheeks were wet, their arms around each other's shoulders. Tom wasn't crying. "Next year you'll see my panel here, " he said softly, without inflection. Once or twice on his walk among the panels he had stopped short, thinking he had heard someone reading his name.
At 10 p.m., Tom's parents stopped for a brief visit. Tom was back in the hospital, this time at Crawford Long, with a suspected infection. They were driving to Greenville to sort through the belongings of Tom's grandmother, who had recently passed away. They drove the 10 hours because Doris Fox was afraid to fly. Both appeared tired and concerned.
"How's my hair look - thin?" Tom asked.
"Not too bad, " his dad said.
"This is where Bonny used to work, " Tom told his mother.
"In fact, the first day I came to Atlanta I drove her to work. Whenever I think of her I always associate her with the hospital."
His mother noticed a lesion on Tom's right bicep. "Is that new?" she asked with alarm. "They look like bruises."
Tom shrugged. Then he said he had similar lesions, Kaposi's sarcoma, inside his lungs.
The next morning, he said, a doctor would peer inside his lungs to see whether Tom's inability to breathe stemmed from an infection or his Kaposi's sarcoma.
Bob Sr. and Doris Fox listened to their son and promised to come visit early in the morning, so they could see him one last time before the doctors got busy on him.
Outside the hospital, Doris Fox was somber.
"He's getting into the terminal stages now, isn't he?" she said, her tone leaving no doubt about her conclusion.
Mrs. Fox came back to visit early the next morning before Tom's bronchoscopy. She was worried; she had been through this before.
"Can I see your legs, how swollen they are?"
Tom showed her, uncovering his leg. He looked distracted, as if his parents made him nervous. Paul had not visited the hospital.
Tom's father, wearing a red polo shirt and eggshell slacks, came in from the lounge, where he had been reading the newspaper, and sat down without interrupting, jingling the change in his pocket.
"This is the worst part of hospital stays, " Tom said.
"What?" his mother asked.
Tom's parents were scheduled to leave for Greenville that morning.
Before leaving, Tom's father paused, said, "Goodbye, son, " and kissed Tom on the lips. Moments later, an orderly wheeled Tom to the room where a doctor would examine his lungs from the inside using a long fiber- optic device known as a bronchoscope.
When he finished, the doctor looked shaken.
Out of Tom's earshot, he explained quietly, "All that purplish stuff is Kaposi's sarcoma. Everything from his epiglottis down."
Since she had learned of Tom's drug problem, Mrs. Fox had made an effort to face things that had to be faced - and now she told her husband they would have to begin to prepare their friends for Tom's death.
Word already had begun to spread from Atlanta to a friend in Oregon, from Oregon to a friend in Knoxville, Tenn. Soon the news would reach the Foxes' neighbors and co-workers as a rumor - a hushed question people would be too fearful, or too tactful, to ask.
My son is dying.
Four words that lodged in Bob Fox's throat like a bone. My son is dying.
Trying to speak those words seemed to choke off air, a sensation his son knew all too well - his son, who lately could not draw a breath without facing the horror of choking.
Confronting his son's illness was almost too much for this 62-year- old father of three. He had won television's highest honor, an Emmy, for programs designed to help children confront overpowering emotion. Now he found he could not bear his own.
He had been choking on grief, and for more than a year, he had been suffocating in silence.
He still did not know what to say. Perhaps, he mused, he could call a meeting, a business meeting, to "inform staff, " to tell the dozens of people he had worked with over the past two decades, "My son has AIDS; my son is dying." He wished, though, that someone else could preside.
In fact, someone else did: Benny Lucroy, Bob Fox's colleague and his closest friend in the office, and Suzanne Newland, Tom's friend from college, who was now working with the two older men.
Mr. Fox could not bring himself to attend.
"Bob didn't think he could be part of it without breaking down completely, so we decided to pick a time when he was away, " Mr. Lucroy said. "He was very curious. 'What will you say? Will you just walk in there?'
"He didn't want this to be a funeral, he didn't want it to be a prayer meeting, he didn't want AIDS to be a subject that was avoided. If anyone had questions, nothing was off-limits."
Doris Fox suggested that her husband break the news to the director and executive director. "So we went to a conference room, " Mr. Lucroy said.
"Bob made a valiant attempt to tell them and then broke down completely. He tried to talk and couldn't, and walked away.
"I took over.''
Bob Fox left town, and the staff meeting, held at 8:45 a.m. the next Thursday, went like clockwork. "The loss of a son is something that all parents can relate to, " Mr. Lucroy told the assembled staff members. "Tom has AIDS, and Bob has had to come to work for over a year and perform with full knowledge that his son is dying."
"This was the first experience any of us had had with AIDS. People were very startled, sad, and for the right reasons. It was one of the more difficult things I've done, " Mr. Lucroy said. "It proves this thing is not foreign any more. It is happening to us."
Christmas 1988 began with the news that former television anchorman Max Robinson - the first black anchor on a national network news broadcast - had died of AIDS.
Tom took little notice. He arrived at the airport in Indianapolis at 6:35 p.m. on Dec. 21 for his second AIDS Christmas. His parents, who met him at the gate, saw a stranger walking up to greet them.
"He looked so different, " Doris Fox said. "He was bald, wearing an old khaki cap and walking like a little old man, shoulders slumped, shuffling his feet. It was a shock for us to see him shuffling along."
In some ways, it was Christmas as usual.
No tears, no mention of AIDS. No one wanted to disturb the world's celebration of an eternal birth with talk of a death so close to home. But the joyousness was tempered by mourning. "In the back of each of our minds we knew that this was Tom's last Christmas, " she said.
When the Foxes thought of Christmas, they thought of Tom; as a child, he always seemed the most excited. He loved the look of Christmas, the glimmering lights, elegant decorations, reunions with friends and family.
One night, his mother heard him thrashing about in his sleep moaning and crying. "I went in there and sat with him and held him and talked to him, " she said. "I knew he wanted me there; he didn't push me away. It was the first time I had sat up with him and held him since he was a child."
Dec. 31, 1988, New Year's Eve.
Tom, Johnnie, Mike, Don, Dan Williams and a couple of other friends went to see "Torch Song Trilogy" at the Tara movie theater. The talk before the movie was of Ivey, who had died less than a week before. Kenny Fleischman was still in the hospital, but didn't want visitors, Johnnie said.
After the movie, everyone caravaned to Tom's house in Grant Park for sparkling grape juice at midnight. As Tom poured, Johnnie celebrated. At 12:05 a.m. he became one of the rare AIDS sufferers lucky enough to live the two years needed to qualify for Medicare. He no longer needed to go to Grady - he had government insurance.
By July, he would be sick enough to need it.
By Jan. 18, Dan Williams would be dead.
But in January, Tom also got an unexpected lift. Joe Yusca, once the resident adviser of his dorm at Indiana University and organizer of the dorm camping club, had heard Tom was sick and called to wish him well.
"Hi, Tom, " Joe said.
"Well, hey Joe, how are you doing?" Tom said.
The call took some fortitude - Joe had kept his distance from Tom for a decade because he suspected that Tom saw him as more than a friend, and that made Joe nervous. "I think he was in love with me, or maybe it was hero worship, " he would say later.
Tom was as confused about his feelings - and what to do about them - as Joe was. He never made any sort of sexual advance to Joe, but he knew he wanted to be close to him.
Joe was astonished to find that neither time nor distance had erased him from Tom's memory.
"I can't believe you recognized my voice after all these years, " he
"You were my best friend, Joe, " Tom replied.
"Hey, Foxy Tom, " said social worker George Sophy. "It's good to see you." It was the first Shrine dinner Tom had attended in a while.
"Thank you, George, " Tom said seriously.
Without pausing, he said, "I have a new goal."
Survive until July, and take another "toxic" trip - this time to Oregon. Live six months. It seemed simple enough.
Bonny Barr Baratta, his high school sweetheart, had invited him to visit her; her husband, Tom; and their baby, Sam, at their home in Cottage Grove, Tom said. His father said he would pay the plane fare using his frequent-flier plan. George looked bemused, as if he did not think that Tom would make it.
On Feb. 21, Tom drove himself to Atlanta Hospital. He was frightened; he was feverish and felt awful. Dr. White told him that he was not sick enough to be hospitalized and sent him home.
On Feb. 22, Kenny Fleischman died.
On Feb. 23, Lee Springfield died.
Both men died of complications of Kaposi's sarcoma. Lee's face was disfigured by lesions and swelling. He had covered all the mirrors in his apartment and put a photograph of himself in a tuxedo by his bed, something he could remember himself by.
"I wonder if that will happen to me, " Tom said. "Lee had been near death all night. In a coma. I guess his body tired out. What can you do? You can only give so much. It's hard to imagine he's gone. I saw him so infrequently - given the way he looked, he stayed at home mostly.
"You know he really hated that. I saw him at Dan Williams' funeral. He looked like a monster, his eyes swollen up into slits. He was real skinny, had lost a lot of weight and looked real tired."
At the funeral, both men had been wearing warmup suits.
"They were hanging off us. Bags of bones, " Tom said.
"I really just feel numb. I keep seeing this happen to all my friends - recently it's just been amazing how many people who have gotten sick and died, but I refuse to put myself on that list. I don't see myself being here. But everybody I've known has gotten sick.
"You have to realize how scary it is to be sick and want someone to take care of you. Every time I blow a fever at night or have any problem out of the ordinary I want to go right to the hospital and stay there. I've done it, and I didn't want to leave. I wanted someone to take care of me."
Three days later, Tom had his first appointment with a physical therapist at Atlanta Hospital named Lisa Niederhiser. Everything was wrong. Tom had lost 20 percent of the muscle mass in his legs. They were swollen. His tendons had contracted and turned his feet out.
The physical therapist began leading him through some exercises to stretch out his tendons and taught him to line his feet up with seams in the floor to bring his feet back in line. For balance, she gave him a stainless-steel walker - and told him there was a good chance he would need it forever.
"In three weeks, we'll know, " she said.
He hated the walker. It was the first evidence that Tom was becoming a cripple. He did his exercises scrupulously. If his legs hurt, he sneaked a Percodan and did some more. Soon, he had stopped waddling and started walking. One week later, on a Saturday night, Tom went to dinner at Morrison's Cafeteria. He did not take his walker. He would never use it again.
One day in April, while Tom was hospitalized with one of the unexplained bouts of fever and chills that had become so common in recent months, his bedside phone rang. It was his favorite uncle, the man who had fearfully barred Tom from the family's Easter reunion a year ago.
He and his wife were calling from the Cyclorama - for directions to Atlanta Hospital. Over the past year their desire to see Tom had overwhelmed their fear of his disease, and now they had come for an unannounced visit. After hesitating, they would later attend Tom's memorial service in Atlanta, even though Tom's friends - many of whom had AIDS - would be there.
Paul had become The Invisible Man in Tom's life. He would turn up some mornings, sleep for a while and leave, staying out all night. Sometimes he would stay home all night, repainting rooms or making repairs.
Then came the alleged Interstate 20 rest stop incident.
Tom learned of it when Paul called about 1 a.m. on March 28 to tell him that he was being held in the Rockdale County Jail for alleged possession of narcotics. In his pocket, police found $500 cash; on his belt, a beeper; in his pickup truck, a ledger with initials and thousands of dollars of alleged transactions.
The story, as Paul told it, was that he had gone to cruise the rest stop in hopes of encountering someone interested in some impromptu sex. The person he encountered turned out to be an undercover policeman who allegedly said he wanted to get high first.
"I can't believe this hasn't scared him, " Tom said. "I don't want the hassle of this - it puts me in a real quandary. How will I pay the mortgage? I need someone to take care of me now, and I'm getting tired."
Although his parents had often told him he would be welcome to come home, his doctors - all experienced in caring for AIDS patients - were in Atlanta. And there was something else. He had never quite given up on Paul, and nurtured the small hope that he would change into the companion Tom had hoped he would be.
The 1989 Inman Park Festival began with an April thundershower that poured down in torrents.
Tom and Bonny sat on Tom's porch and watched the rain fall. Bonny had come for a visit. It was the first time they had seen one another in five years, and both seemed a little uncomfortable, as if they were still getting reacquainted.
Sam, Bonny's 10-month-old son, sat up against Tom in his lap and greedily sucked milk from his bottle, as comfortable with Tom as with a favorite uncle. "We never have thunderstorms in Oregon, " Bonny said. "Just rain that hangs there like you're walking through soggy air."
"Nice day for a funeral, " Tom said offhandedly, as if talk of thunderstorms naturally turns to funerals.
"A funeral?" Bonny asked.
"A friend of ours, Tony Fulkerson, died over the weekend. His funeral's today. He's the 114th person I know who has died of AIDS. But I'd rather spend time with my friend Bonny."
"You can always go to a funeral, " Bonny said. "When you come to think of it, most people only go to four or five funerals in their whole lives. That's sure changing."
Without warning the sun came out, and within a few minutes it became so hot that steam rose from the streets.
At the festival, the two walked down Euclid Avenue through a sea of walking shorts and polo shirts, and Tom seemed invisible. Nobody appeared to notice the young man with the visible purple tumors as he hobbled alongside a woman carrying a baby and pushing his stroller with her hand.
On Tuesday, Tom and Bonny met for their farewell dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Little Five Points.
Bonny was flying back to Portland the next day, and Tom was in a talking mood. He said his doctors had told him that radiation would not help him anymore. His Kaposi's sarcoma was so diffuse that killing the tumors would destroy his lungs.
"The radiation will cook the lungs like it does my legs, " Tom said. "Like a Mrs. Paul's fishstick."
Dr. White had asked him whether he could stand "systemic treatment" - more chemotherapy.
"I told him it would probably kill me, " Tom said.
The doctor had suggested that Tom go back on AZT, which had stopped helping him months ago.
"He didn't know what else to do, " Tom said.
Tom was accustomed to giving these sorts of updates. He offered them repeatedly to friends who were going through much the same thing. But Bonny had never heard anyone, particularly someone close to her, so coolly abandoning all hope that doctors could help him.
She started to cry, resting her head on his shoulder, her shoulders heaving.
"What's wrong?" Tom asked, sincerely puzzled.
"I just can't stand it, " she said, sounding almost angry. "You talk about it - about dying - as if you're so detached."
"It upsets me too, but what am I going to do?" Tom said.
"I don't want to leave tomorrow. I want to stay."
Bonny, crying, got up and left the restaurant.
He continued eating. "I'm sorry she's so upset, " he said. "I thought I was just being normal.
"People die and we aren't even surprised, " he added. "It happens so often. But Bonny hasn't seen me for years.''
In a moment, Bonny returned to the restaurant, put her arms around Tom's neck, and lay her head on his shoulder. "I love you so much, and I don't want to lose you, " she said.
In mid-May, Tom decided that he wanted to try something to arrest the tumors growing in his lungs, rather than simply wait to die. Dr. Carr, the oncologist, said there was nothing more he could do.
"You've already confounded the odds. Nobody would have guessed when you first started this that you'd be up and around now."
"Dr. Carr, I know you've never treated anyone this far along as me but I was hoping there would be something you could say that would make me feel better . . . "
Then, after a few words of reassurance, the doctor gently said, "Good luck, " and left the examining room.
In June, a ghostly X-ray of Tom's lungs seemed to show that one was larger than the other. Dr. White said the Kaposi's sarcoma was draining fluid into the pleural sack encasing the right lung.
Twice, a lung specialist drained the fluid. Both times, he siphoned off more than 1 1/2 quarts. The next time he would have this done would be in Oregon.