Unforgettable characters populate Visiting Hours

VISITING HOURS

By Jennifer Anne Moses

Formite, $15 softcover

Former Baton Rougean Jennifer Anne Moses has put Louisiana in her rearview mirror but it still has a place in her heart — and her writing. This collection of interrelated stories is set in Hope House, an AIDS hospice in Baton Rouge. The story arc is advanced voice-by-voice, character-by-character, chapter-by-chapter.

In the first chapter, Moses introduces Gordon, a philandering drug addict who has managed to contract HIV that then progresses into full-blow AIDS. He’s had a family but lost everything to his addiction. Hope House is his last chance.

“They’d picked him up off the side of the road, is what happened. That’s how low-down he’d become. Picked him up off the side of the road like some dead animal, like road-kill, and hauled him off to Earl K. Long. Pumped out his stomach. Shaved his face. Pumped him up with medicine, with antibiotics, with Norvir and Fortovase and Viracept. Fed him on cherry Jello and Pedialite until his stomach was strong enough and they could switch him to real food.”

Gordon has found help at Hope House and found God and Lucy — “skinny little white girl with a limp and that spaced-out, sideways-looking look of a newly clean junkie, which is what she was, he was sure of it.” He thinks he might even recognize her from her days working as a prostitute on Airline Highway. But Gordon and Lucy somehow find something together because, like all the remarkable characters in this collection, they have hit bottom but still have something left.

Moses’ language is frank. These are street people, junkies, homosexuals, hookers. Others are ex-cons and spouses of HIV sufferers who get the virus and progress to AIDS even as their partners go on with life. Moses has a remarkable ability to depict the inner life — in the manner of Thomas Wolfe — so that the characters she creates are as real as your next door neighbor or the girl behind the counter at the convenience store down the block. You feel like you know these people, especially when Moses lets you inside their thoughts.

There’s Donnie, the racist and homophobic redneck; beautiful Veronica, who has lived far longer than she was supposed to; Jerome, who sees an angel; Wilbert, who is very well educated; the white-bread volunteer Suzette, who comes to give the patients rides in her mini-van so they can buy toiletries; cross dresser Bunny, the whiny Veronica and many more.

Almost all these characters are doomed, and their demise hangs over them and the plot. Sadder still, they look at each other but don’t see the inner person that the reader knows is there. They are mostly alone except for visitors and staff and the priest who comes by regularly. Yet they are not unloved for their caregivers bond with them, especially the extraordinary Annie, who is the mother hen of all mother hens.

“There’s just something about some of them — the last one, for Annie, was Jerome — but now there’s Veronica, and Annie knows that when Veronica goes, she’s going to leave another hole in her heart, along with the holes she already has.”

Even Annie, everybody’s mama, has a past. All of the Hope House residents and staff are religious, most in a very charismatic way. All of the patients know that the facility is a hospice, and that this is where they will die.

Yet with the help of their beliefs and the communion of their fellow patients and caregivers, they can be healed, if only in a spiritual way. And that, Moses, suggests, is the best that they can hope for. It’s enough.

This collection is a remarkable feat of imagination. Moses’ stories are sometimes funny, ribald. They are often cloyingly sad. But each one is interesting and well-written. Read it, and you will share Annie’s wistful sense of loss when you come to the final page and say goodbye to the residents of Hope House.