For one thing, there was the newspaper. For years, Johnny and Eric had divided it up at breakfast, with Johnny taking the Metro section, and Eric taking the rest. After they moved to the farm, the paper was delivered every morning to the container at the mailbox. Eric would go out to get it while Johnny fed the animals, and they'd divide it up and eat. As time went by, and Eric began to get up a little later each day so he could sleep more, he'd pick the paper up on his way out of the driveway and leave the Metro section in the container for Johnny to retrieve later.
At some point, Eric noticed that Johnny had begun to leave it there. He asked Johnny why. It was too much to walk out, he said. So Eric made sure to bring it in before going on to work. But then, by the beginning of January, Johnny turned to Eric and said it wasn't worth leaving it any more. Actually, he hadn't read it in a long time. Not to bother anymore, he said.
There were the ducks, of course. When Johnny and Eric had moved to the farm, they'd found a wonderful shed already there, built for breeding dogs. Johnny fixed it up for the ducks with feeders and water pools and incubators all set out in a row. And then he brought the ducks over from the stables. They made a great fuss and took right to the place. After all, their mama was right there.
In September, Chani the filly had given Johnny a kick. It wouldn't heal properly, and then a hematoma set in. Finally, Johnny developed cellulitis. He was rushed off to the emergency room.
Johnny fought back hard and was released after a week. Over the years, he'd been in tighter spots than this. They both thought Johnny would snap right back, but instead, he slowed down. One day in October, he turned to Eric and said simply that it was time to get rid of the ducks. Just like that. Tona and her husband Don were visiting at the time. Johnny made arrangements for a neighbor with a pond to take them. On the appointed day, a Sunday, Eric and Tona and Don watched as Johnny gathered the ducks up. He was already partially immobilized, hobbling around on a leg that wouldn't heal.
There was the issue of what Johnny would eat. He'd always been a meat and potatoes man. That fall, Eric noticed he'd begun to eat less. At first he thought that Johnny had been snacking too much on the candy du jour in the afternoons. Then he realized that Johnny had begun to avoid red meat and favor chicken and fish, foods that he'd never particularly liked, and then from these to vegetables, foods in fact that had been next to anathema for all their time together. The last time they went out to eat, at Gambellini's Saturday-night-$10-a-head-all-you-can-eat- country buffet in Charlotte Hall, Johnny took a heaping plateful from the steam table, but only vegetables. Eric had been used to Johnny's quirks over the years, his sudden shifts in interests, and so discounted this as just another passing fancy. He was secretly pleased, believing that he'd finally prevailed on Johnny's taste.
There was the hay. Johnny and Eric had been buying the horses' hay a month at a time. Johnny didn't want Eric pitching too many bales around at one time, he said. Eric had a herniated disc, and so Johnny kept the number in storage low. But then, one day in November, he came back to say that he'd found a neighbor with almost 200 bales to sell and had purchased it. Eric didn't understand the sudden change in direction. He balked at the idea of having to store away so many heavy bales. Luckily, another neighbor offered to do the work for a bit of cash. It worked out fine, and they had hay to last well into the spring. But Eric didn't understand why so much.
For his part, Eric witnessed his own sign as he was preparing for the incoming hay. The previous owner of the farm had let years of scattered hay decompose on the barn floor. Almost immediately under the surface it had begun to mold and was dangerous for the horses. Both Johnny and Eric worried that the new hay would become contaminated, and so on the weekend before the hay was to be delivered, Eric went out to the barn to clean up the floor. Johnny was too tired to help and stayed inside that day.
Eric set about pitching old hay into a back stall, to be cleaned out later, maybe in the spring. At any rate, in the back it wouldn't do any harm. As he worked, the pitchfork hit something under the covering of hay. He bent over to scrape the hay aside and look. He found an old pile of mail: postcards from the 1980s, circulars, ads. Someone must have forgotten them there, where eventually they were covered by hay. Then he found a box.
It was a small cardboard box, wrapped in plain brown paper and tied with string. It had been sent in the mail to the farm address, but Eric didn't recognize the addressee. The postmark was at least fifteen years old. The return address was a funeral home. He opened it. Inside was an urn filled with cremains. An insert gave the name of the deceased - a woman unknown to him.
Eric considered what to do. Ordinarily, he would have taken it to Johnny, but this time, for whatever reason, he was unwilling to do so. Finally, he decided that the cremains were meant to be here with the property, and in respect to the deceased, he took the urn and scattered the ashes in the shadows of the trees behind the barn, well out of sight of the house. He could only hope that was the deceased's wishes. It unnerved him, but he wasn't sure why.
For years Eric called Johnny every day at 2:30 PM from wherever he was. Time to take your pills, he'd say, and Johnny would tell him what he was doing at the time. They both treasured those few moments stolen in private from the business of the day. They had converted the burdensome requirements of HIV pill schedules into a little ritual of love.
It was several months after they'd moved into the farmhouse. Eric called as usual at 2:30. This time, Johnny told him that the buzzards were circling for him. The farm was in a rural area, and there were buzzards. They would slowly circle around whenever they found carrion on the road or in a field. But this time, he said, they were circling around the house. Nothing new, Eric thought, must be something dead nearby, and he promptly forgot it. Later, once again, Johnny said the same thing, and Eric played it was a joke. A third time, after Eric got home in the evening, Johnny told him that the buzzards had come down and rested in the tree right outside the back window. He was afraid.
But the most potent sign of all was Papaw. Papaw was his grandfather on his father's side, a man with Native American background from an unregistered tribe. He'd come from the east Tennessee mountains and was buried with Johnny's grandmother Leona in Gatlinburg.
Papaw loomed large in Johnny's life. He was a figure of authority and spirituality. It came as a great puzzle to Eric, then, that three times, Johnny told him he'd had a waking vision of Papaw while he was working at the tack room at the old stables. Papaw, he said, had sent a bird to fly over him and circle back over his shoulder to Papaw. Then Papaw offered Johnny a bag with a pattern of black, white and yellow beads. It was very specific. And for Johnny, so real. He had, Tona later said, already begun his journey, way back then, back before anyone but Johnny himself had realized.
Johnny tried very hard to find out what the bead pattern meant. He was convinced it would tell him something. He went to several powwows to seek out the meaning, but ultimately to no avail.
So many signs! Poor Johnny, who struggled to fashion his own means to let Eric know about his journey to the end. Poor Eric, who struggled to decipher his mute testimony to that journey.