The Roar: A Short Story. The Authors Collection

The nation's capitol, a powerful place to die.
The nation’s capitol, a powerful and defiant place to die.

Ron Filmore’s only suit was black.  It hung within easy reach in his closet – behind the leather bomber jacket and in front of his 15-year-old high school letterman’s sweater.

He bought it in the winter of 1984 and wore it to 38 funerals in two years.  The ages of the deceased ranged from 22 to 48.  All had died of AIDS.  The majority had received help from the support group Ron organized in the Virginia suburb outside Washington D.C. where he lived.

Robert B. Lowe
Robert B. Lowe

When he came down with a sore throat, swollen lymph glands and a recurring headache, Ron waited ten days and until he felt the bitter sting of a mouth sore.   He called his mother in Alabama.

“I love you, Mama,” was all he said after listening for 15 minutes to the latest gossip from his hometown which he hadn’t visited in more than a decade.

Then he went in for the test.

His reaction to the positive result was surprisingly blasé.

It reminded him of being called for jury duty and waiting to find out if you are among the 40 assigned to report in Courtroom 10 downstairs.  There were so many.  How upset can you be when your name is included in the roll call? When you learn that you aren’t so special after all?

Having watched the decline of so many, Ron realized that his own deterioration was extremely quick. It was more of a plunge than a spiral.

He received the same help from his support group that he had given to dozens of others.  They cooked meals, picked up prescriptions, arranged movie outings and smoothed over new living arrangements.  They found a future home for Jake, his cat, which was Ron’s chief concern.

In three months, he was in the hospital.  A month later, the support group began the vigil.  They brought in jokes, neighborhood news and candy that he never ate.  They read books aloud when he became too weak to hold his own.  They gave him back rubs.  Ron knew how it felt to them.  Bony ribs and not much else.  Just some loose skin.  The muscle and flesh wasted away.

When Michael, an original member of the group, told him about the new movement to accelerate AIDS research and drug approval, Ron didn’t understand at first.  He knew it was too late for him.  Then Michael explained that activists wanted to leave AIDS victims at the entrance to key government buildings.

“What we’re saying is, ‘We’re queer.  We’re here.  We’re dying,’” said Michael.  “‘See us.’”

“I’m in,” said Ron without a second thought.  He marshaled the little energy he had left to chuckle when Michael added that the events were to be called “die-ins.”

Over the next few days, Ron mostly slept.  During his lucid moments, which were becoming fewer every day, he realized that his time was very limited.   He knew the signs.   Often he could barely open his eyes, much less lift his head.  But he clung to the idea of the die-in movement.   Any discomfort would be worth it – the chance to go out with a final roar.

They came to get him in the early morning using an old-fashioned stretcher consisting of two poles and white canvas.  Their voices and even the touch of their hands were familiar and reassuring as they packed blankets all around, put a ski cap on him to keep him warm, and carried him out of the hospital.   Everything was white.  The stretcher, his blankets, even the ski cap.  He vaguely recalled someone saying that a New York set designer had been consulted and had recommended white and rustic.

“Think Christ,” the designer had said.  “The ultimate martyr.”

He heard a woman – probably one of the nurses – say, “What are you doing?  You can’t do that.”  Then, they were through the doors and into the dark.  He could feel the cool air on his face.  It felt good.

They must have put a mattress in the van because it was soft and comfortable.  He felt someone’s hand on his arm as he drifted off.  It was still there when the van stopped and he woke up.

They had him out quickly.  There was a slightly rhythmic swinging as they walked with the stretcher.  Then, he was at a fairly steep angle and bouncing more.  It must be the Capitol steps.  Finally, they stopped.  He heard the scratchy sound of the concrete blocks being positioned on the ground beneath him.  He was lowered and the ends of the stretcher poles set on the blocks.

Someone lifted Ron’s right hand and put something hard around his wrist.  He heard the metal crunch of handcuffs being closed.  He knew that the other end would be attached to a very strong chain locked to one of the sturdy hand rails embedded in concrete.  They hoped he wouldn’t be moved until well into the morning – at least long enough for passersby to gather and television cameras to record the scene.

He felt hands tucking the blankets in tightly around him.

“Are you okay, Ron?” Michael said.

“Good,” he managed to say.

Michael squeezed his arm and kissed his cheek.   Ron could taste his tears.  Then, the footsteps moved away from him.  He heard the van leave.  Ron settled in to wait for whatever would come next.  He could see the sky and saw that it was starting to lighten as day approached.  He heard birds chirping.

But, soon he heard something else as well.  It was footsteps again.  But, from a different direction than where his friends had gone.  And heavier, too.  Sturdy boots.  And, there was a metallic sound.  Men wearing equipment that creaked and rattled as they moved.

They surrounded Ron and he rolled his head enough to see that they wore black uniforms, dark visors and looked huge.  He guessed they wore something extra – shoulder pads or something.  He heard the sound of the chain being moved and, after a few seconds, a loud grunt.

“Damn,” one of them said.  “They’ve used something special.   Case hardened or something.  I don’t think this will cut through.”  Silence for a few seconds.

“Let’s try the cuffs,” someone else said.

“Excuse me, sir,” said the second voice as the speaker lifted the blankets and carefully extracted Ron’s arm.   The hands were gentle but strong.  He was beyond resisting anyway.   Ron heard the bolt cutters easily get through the links connecting the cuffs.   The heavy chain was moved out of the way.  They lifted his stretcher and began walking him back down the Capitol steps, his head leading the way.

Through his weakness and the fog of pain medication, Ron knew one thing with absolute clarity.  He wanted to die here.   Not quietly in a hospital or a hospice but here.  Out in the open.  In public view.  A testament to the disease and an affront to his country’s indifference.  As they trudged down the steps – left, right, left, right – and the stretcher dipped from side to side with each step, he rocked back and forth.  He shifted what little weight he had left.  One way.  Then, the other.  Then, back.  Finally, as the stretcher dipped to the left, he threw his arm and shoulder past the pole and managed to shove his leg over as well.

“Oh, Christ,” he heard one of the bearers mutter as they stopped their descent.

Ron dropped head first onto the Capitol steps.  Hard.  His head bounced once before he came to rest face up.  Ron could see the last stars lingering in the early morning.

He smiled.

***

Please click the book cover image to read more about Robert B. Lowe’s Divine Fury.

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    A powerful story, Bob, one that attacks the conscience of us all. What is being done? Why can’t more be done? Deaths that should not happen are the hardest ones to take, and those who can face the end with defiance are my heroes.

  • Darlene Jones – Author

    OMG You’ve got me in tears.

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