She walked slowly, with the deliberate, almost flat-footed tread of a dancer, toes turned slightly outward. She was humming a song. Her knee-length plaid skirt swayed a little as she walked, but she held her back straight and still. The white blouse she wore had two sweat-spots below her shoulder blades. Burke could picture her leaning back against the plastic seat on the bus, drowsing in the swampy air as men stole looks at her over their folded papers.
The tone of her humming changed, grew more rhythmic, less tuneful. Her hips rolled under the skirt, her shoulders shifting in subtle counterpoint. On the back of her right calf there was a dark spot the size of a penny-maybe a mole, or a daub of mud.
She fell silent and reached into her bag. It was a large canvas bag, full to bulging, but she found what she was after without looking down and brought it out and slipped it over her wrist, a furry red band. She reached both hands behind her neck and gathered her hair and lifted it and gave her head a shake and let her hair fall back. She was moving even more slowly now, languorously, dreamily. Again she reached back and lifted her hair and began twisting it into a single strand. In one motion she gave it a last twist and slid the red band off her wrist and up the thick rope of hair, pulled it forward over her shoulder, and commenced picking at the ends.
Burke stared at the curve of her neck, so white, so bare. It looked damp and tender. She went on in her slow glide and he followed. He had been walking in time with her but such was his absorption that he lost the beat, and at the sound of his footsteps she wheeled around and looked into his face. Burke was right behind her-he had closed the distance without realizing it. Her eyes went wide. He was held by them, fixed. They were a deep, bruised blue, almost violet, and darkly rimmed with liner. He heard her suck in a long ragged breath.
Burke tried to speak, to reassure her, but his throat was tight and dry and not a sound came. He swallowed. He couldn't think what to say.
He stood looking into her face. Blotchy white skin, the pathetic hipness of the black lips. But those eyes, the high and lovely brow-beautiful; more beautiful even than he had imagined. The girl took a step back, her eyes still holding his, then turned and began angling across a lawn toward a large white house. Halfway there she broke into a run.
This somehow released Burke. He continued on his way, deliberately holding himself to a dignified pace, even stopping for a moment to put on his suit jacket-shoot the cuffs, shrug into the shoulders, give a tug at the lapels. He did not allow himself to look back. As the tightness in his throat eased he found himself hungry for air, almost panting, and realized that he'd taken hardly a breath while walking behind the girl. How frightened she seemed! What was that all about, anyway? He put this question to himself with a wonderment he didn't actually feel. He knew; he knew what had been in his face. He let it go.
Burke walked on. He had just reached the top of the hill, some nine or ten long blocks from where he'd left the girl, and was about to turn right toward the law office, already in view at the end of the cross street, when a siren yelped behind him. Only one sharp, imperative cry, nothing more-but he recognized the sound, and stopped and closed his eyes for a moment before turning to watch the cruiser nosing toward the curb.
He waited. A gray-haired woman glared at him from the rear window. The girl was beside her, leaning forward to look at him, nodding to the cop in front. He opened a notebook on the steering wheel, wrote something, then laid the notebook on the seat beside him, set his patrolman's cap on his head, adjusted its angle, and got out of the cruiser. He walked around to the back door and held it open as the woman and the girl slid out. Each of these actions was executed with plodding deliberation, performed, Burke understood, as an unnerving show of method and assurance.
He nodded as the cop came toward him. "Officer. What can I do foryou?"
Burke could have objected to this, but instead he shrugged, fetched his wallet from his jacket pocket, and handed over his driver's license.
The cop examined it, looked up at Burke, lowered his eyes to the license again. He was young, his face bland as a baby's in spite of his wispy blond mustache. "You're not from here," he finally said.
Burke had a business card ready. He held it out, and after eyeing it warily the cop took it. "I'm a lawyer," Burke said. "Here to take a deposition, in, let's see . . ." He held up his watch. "Three minutes ago. Four-thirty. Right down there on Clinton Street." He gestured vaguely. "So what's the problem?"
The gray-haired woman had come up close to Burke and was staring fiercely into his face. The girl lingered by the cruiser, pallid, hands dangling awkwardly at her sides.
"We have a complaint," the officer said. "Stalking," he added uncertainly.
"Stalking? Stalking who?"
"You know who," the woman said in a gravelly voice, never taking her eyes off him. She was handsome in a square-jawed way and deeply tanned. Ropy brown arms sticking out of her polo shirt, grass stains on the knees of her khakis. Burke could see her on the deck of a boat, coolly reefing sails in a blow.
"Theyoung lady there?" Burke asked.
"Don't play cute with me," the woman said. "I've never seen anyone so terrified. The poor thing could hardly speak when she came to my door."
"Something sure scared her," the cop said.
"And what was my part in this?" Burke looked directly at the girl. She was hugging herself, sucking on her lower lip. She was younger than he'd thought; she was just a kid. He said, gently, "Did I do something to you?"
She glanced at him, then averted her face.
In the same voice, he said, "Did I say anything to you?"
She stared at the ground by her feet.
"Well?" the cop said sharply. "What'd he do?"
The girl didn't answer.
"Aren't you the smooth one," the woman said.
"I do remember passing her a while back," Burke said, addressing himself to the cop. "Maybe I surprised her-I guess I must have. I was in kind of a hurry." Then, speaking with absolute calm. Burke explained his business in New Delft, and the forty-five-minute break, and the route he'd taken and the necessity of moving right along to get back on time, even if that meant overtaking other people on the sidewalk. All this could be confirmed at the law office-where they'd be already waiting for him-and Burke invited the cop to come along and settle the matter forthwith. "I'm sorry if I surprised you," he said in the girl's direction. "I certainly didn't mean to."
The cop looked at him, then at the girl. "Well?" he repeated.
She turned her back to them, rested her elbows on the roof of the cruiser, and buried her face in her hands.
The cop watched her for a moment. "Ah, jeez," he said. He gave the driver's license another once-over, handed it back with the card, and walked over to the girl. He murmured something, then took her by the elbow and began to help her into the backseat.
The woman didn't move. Burke felt her eyes on him as he replaced the license and card in his wallet. Finally he looked up and met her stare, so green and cold. He held it and did not blink. Then came a flash of bursting pain and his head snapped sideways so hard he felt a crack at the base of his neck. The shock scorched his eyes with hot, blinding tears. His face burned. His tongue felt jammed back in his throat.
"Liar," she said.
Until Burke heard her voice he didn't understand that she'd struck him-he was that stunned. It gave him a kind of relief, as if without knowing it he'd been gripped by fear of something worse.
He heard the doors of the cruiser slam shut, one-two! He bent down with his hands on his knees, steadying himself, then straightened up and rubbed at his eyes. The cruiser was gone. The left side of his face still burned, hot even to the touch. A bearded man in a black suit walked past him down the hill, shooting Burke a glance and then locking his gaze straight ahead. Burke checked his watch. He was seven minutes late.
He took a step, and another, and went on, amazed at how surely he walked, and how lightly. Down the street a squirrel jabbered right into his ear, or so it seemed, but when he glanced up he found it chattering on a limb high above him. Still, its voice was startling-raw, close. The light in the crowns of the trees had the quality of mist.
Burke stopped outside the law office and gave his shoes a quick buff on the back of his pant legs. He mounted the steps and paused at the door. The blow was still warm on his cheek. Did it show? Would they ask about it? No matter-he'd think of something. But he couldn't help touching it again, tenderly, as if to cherish it, as he went inside to nail this witness down.
Down to Bone
He had an appointment at a funeral home and was itching to leave. His mother was dying, here in her own bed, as she had wished, with him in attendance. He'd been feeding her ice chips. It was the only thing he could do for her anymore. She seemed to be sleeping again, but he forced himself to wait a little longer before he left.
He eased himself onto the couch he'd been camping on and resumed leafing through one of her photo albums. It had been his favorite when he was a boy, because it showed his mother when she was a girl, in a sepia world of flapper dresses and frilly-legged bathing suits and Franklin touring cars. Here she was at her first communion, the very image of his own young daughter. The resemblance made him homesick; it was that close. His mother stared heavenward in an unctuously reverent pose surely dictated by her father, for neither unction nor reverence formed any part of her nature. She'd always treated his own bouts of religious faith with plain puzzlement.
And here, a little older on the fantail of a ship, flanked by her frail sweet-faced mother and her father, a short man in Navy uniform, arms crossed over his chest. A right prick, that one. A tireless pedant, a cheapskate, a bully. When her mother died he made her leave school and turned her into a house slave. She ran away at seventeen, after he fired his pistol at a boy hiding in their backyard, waiting for her to sneak out. She rarely spoke of him, and then with tight lips. At his funeral she had worn an expression of rare, adamant coldness, almost of triumph. Why had she gone at all? Just to make sure?
Ah, and this one, the best one, his mother standing before a long surfboard stuck in the sands of Waikiki Beach, where she'd been taught to ride the waves by Duke Kahanamoku himself. She was lean and lovely and faced the camera with a bravado that made him stare. This was his mother, the great friend of his youth.
He was going to be late for his appointment. It was Friday afternoon, and if he didn't go now he'd have to wait till Monday. The thought of not getting out touched him with a kind of panic. He stood over his mother and looked down at her thin white hair, a mist above her scalp. Her shoulders rose and fell with the shallow rasp of her breathing. He whispered to her. Waited, whispered again. Nothing.
On his way out he stopped in the staff room and asked Feliz, the young woman on duty, to look in now and then and feed his mother some ice chips if she woke up before he returned. She agreed, but he could feel her resentment. She was new on the staff and afraid of his mother's wasted body, as he was; he'd seen her timidity that morning when the two of them sponged his mother down, and he supposed she'd seen his.
"Please," he said. "I won't be gone long."
"Yes, okay," she said, but she would not meet his eyes.
Christ, it was good busting out of there-firing up the lollipop-red Miata he'd rented and gunning it out of the parking lot, the sun on his face. The travel agent who'd booked his flight to Miami had gotten him a bargain rate on a midsize Buick sedan, but once he stepped out of the terminal and into the warm twilight he was overcome by the idea of a convertible; and when he went back inside and the beautiful Latina at the counter mentioned she had a Miata available, he took it without hesitation, though it was ridiculously overpriced and, given the occasion, maybe a little festive.
He'd never driven a sports car before. He liked being close to the road and open to the sky, feeling the velvety sea air wash over him.
During his hours in the darkened, lavender-scented apartment he was aware of the car outside and the thought of it pleased him.
He hadn't found much to be pleased with, least of all the long hours of useless witness to his mother's dying-not being able to reach her, not knowing what to do or say. None of this was as he'd hoped-the two of them recalling old times as the shadows lengthened, reclaiming their partnership, abolishing the wariness that had somehow grown up between them. He tried; he talked brightly of his wife and children, all the while knowing she was beyond curiosity, if she could understand him at all. He did it, he knew, to drown out the hard work of her breathing, to fill his own head with the sound of ordinary talk and distract himself from his impatience for the end-for her sake, he tried to believe: for her release.
He felt he'd been cast in a low part, as when he ransacked the apartment for her jewelry. He had done this after a funeral-home director told him that others with access-caregivers, building staff-might help themselves if he didn't get there first. "It happens all the time," the man said sadly. It was a ghoulish business, rifling through every drawer and cupboard while his mother lay curled on her bed. Now and then she stirred and he froze like a thief, hand in a coat pocket, under a pile of sweaters, holding his breath. It was all there, everything he remembered, anyway, and none of it worth stealing; maybe his daughter could use this stuff for playing dress-up. And he'd given himself yet another reason for feeling morally dwarfed by the underpaid women who'd looked after his mother and liked her and now simply and helplessly grieved for her.
The funeral home was just a few blocks away. This was the fourth one he'd arranged to visit. He was after the most basic plan: cremation, placement of ashes in a generic container, filing of death certificates. His mother wanted cremation and would certainly approve of his comparison shopping. She herself had a flinty incapacity for the pieties of mourning. Two weeks after her last husband's death she was on a cruise ship in the Aegean. When her cocker spaniel-Mugsy, dearer to her than any husband-got run over by a truck, she bought a life-size statue to mark his resting place in her backyard, yet the statue was of an Airedale; she'd picked it up for a song after the guy who'd commissioned it reneged on the deal.
Grolier and Sons Colonial Memorial Chapel had a Spanish-mission look that immediately put him on alert. Who but the bereaved would pay for the fancy tile roof, the faux bell tower? The prices he'd already been quoted ranged from eleven hundred to a ballsy eighteen hundred bucks for the same minimal service. What kind of nerve did Grolier and Sons have?
He was met at the door by a tall woman in a black suit. She had close-cut black hair with a streak of white across one temple, and her lips were painted a deep maroon. She regarded him so fixedly as he introduced himself that he stammered his own name and lost hers altogether. "Come," she said, and he followed her down the hallway in a trail of perfume spiced faintly with sweat. The building was cool and silent, hushed. The woman told him that eveiyone else was out on duty. They had two burials that afternoon, and she'd left one of them early to meet with him. If she seemed-"how does one say?-out of sorts, yes, out of sorts," it was because she'd been caught in traffic and reached the home only a few minutes earlier, late for their appointment. She thought she might have missed him. Most unprofessional! But it seemed he had been late too, no? So they were even. "Even-steven."
The woman showed him to a small office and listened while he described his mother's situation and what he had in mind. She kept her eyes straight on him as he spoke. He was again made awkward by the directness of her gaze.
"This is the hardest part," she said. "My old papa died last year and I know this is no picnic. You were close to your mother, yes?"
"We were close."
"I can tell," she said.
He asked her what Grolier and Sons would charge for what he wanted.
"So," she said. "Down to business." With a few practiced tugs she pulled off the black gloves she was wearing, then shrugged off her jacket and took a printed sheet from the tray on her desk and began to mark various lines with a highlighter. Her fingers were plump and bare of rings. Of course-the gloves. As he waited, her name came back from wherever it had gone. Elfie. It didn't fit. There was nothing elfin about her, nothing light or elusive. In this little room he could smell her plainly through her perfume, more salt than sour. Her breasts swelled the fabric of her sleeveless blouse, and her arms were heavy and rounded, not fat but with the fullness of forty-five, fifty years. She had a large, almost coarse mouth. She pursed her lips as she toted up her figures, then pushed the paper across the desk and sat back.
"You can do better," she said. "I can recommend other homes better foryou."
His eyes went straight to the bottom of the page. Twenty-three hundred. He was careful to show no reaction to this almost comical sum. "I'll think about it," he said.
"Grolier and Sons Colonial Memorial Chapel is a full-service home," she said. "Everything top drawer. You want Grandpa buried in a Viking longboat, you come to Grolier and Sons Colonial Memorial Chapel. Don't laugh. I could tell you stories. Now-shame on me! You will forgive me for leaving you high and dry all this time. Orange juice? Evian?"
He was about to refuse, but the juice sounded good, and he said so.
"Or beer? I have beer."
"Good," she said. "I shall join you." She rolled her chair to a small refrigerator in the corner. "Water," she said, rummaging. "Water, water, water."
"Water will be fine."
"No. Too late for that. Come."
She led him farther down the hall to a large office paneled in dark wood and furnished like a gentleman's club. Oriental rugs, red leather sofa and chairs, bookshelves filled with leather-bound books. Elfie waved him to a chair. She took a bottle and two tall glasses from a refrigerator built into the wainscoting. She poured the beer with some care, handed him a glass, and settled herself behind a massive desk covered with photographs in silver frames. "Salut," she said.
She took a long drink and ran her tongue over her lips. Then she bent forward abruptly and turned one of the photographs facedown on the desktop.
"This is good," he said.
"Czech pilsner. The best."
"Would you think me Japanese had I given you Asahi? No. I am fromWien. Have you been?"
"Twice. Beautiful city." He was pleased at knowing that Wien was Vienna.
"I suppose you went for the opera."
Tempted to lie, he decided against it. "No," he said. "I don't like opera."
"Nor do I. I find it preposterous." She reached out and turned another photograph over.
"So," he said, "how did you end up here?"
"Miami, USA? Or Grolier and Sons Colonial Memorial Chapel?"
"That's a long story."
"Ah, the old Foreign Legion dodge."
She cocked her head and waited.
"When you ask a legionnaire about himself, he always says, 'That's a long story.' They tend to have histories that don't bear much scrutiny."
"As do we all."
"As do we all," he said, not unhappy to be thought the owner of such a history.
"Wereyou a legionnaire?"
"But you were a soldier. I can tell."
"A long time ago."
"Oh, a longtime ago! You are so old."
"Thirty years ago."
"It leaves a mark," she said. "I can always tell."
They talked on, and all the while it seemed to him that they were having another conversation. In this parallel conversation he was saying, I do like the way you talk, and she was saying, I know you do, and what else do you like? He was saying, I like your mouth and how you look at me over the glass when you drink your beer, and she was saying, I have my momentary weaknesses, and I think you may be one of them, and so?
He'd sensed this kind of communion before. Now and then, when he was younger, it proved to be not entirely one-sided. He felt it less often these days, and when he did he tended to discount it as wishful thinking. Soon enough he would ridicule himself for imagining that he was an object of desire to this woman, who after all was simply winding down after a long hot day and enjoying-playfully, to be sure-the interest he couldn't conceal.
That's how he'd see it later on, leaving some room to wonder, naturally. But in the instant he had no doubt that he was indeed her momentary weakness, that if he stood and took his glasses off she'd smile up at him and say, Yes, and so? He had no doubt that if he came around that desk she would stand and meet him with that loose-looking mouth of hers, then sink with him to the floor, onto that nice Bokhara, her hand at his belt, her breath in his ear, Ah, my Legion-naire!
And why not! They were both realists, they hated opera, they knew what was waiting for them in another twenty, thirty years, if not tomorrow. Why shouldn't they kick off their clothes and come at each other and make love-no, not make love: fuck! Fuck like champions in the sight of heaven and earth, just because they wanted to, without a thought in their heads but yes yes yes!
All he had to do was take off his glasses and stand up.
Why didn't he, then? All sorts of reasons, no doubt: a long habit of fidelity, if not the actual virtue; the absolute trust of his children;
perhaps even a childish sense of being watched by the God he lazily believed in. Any of these might have been at work below the horizon of his awareness. What he was aware of, all at once, was the irritation of finding himself in a play he disliked-Freud's play. Freud! Why did he have to go and think of him? He could just see the Viennese smarty-pants stroking his beard in smug recognition of the part he was playing, abandoning himself to Eros to obliterate his fear of death. The Great Explainer would have a field day with his mortuary lust, his deep pleasure in a drink by the beach, in sunlight and the sound of breaking waves, in fleeing his mother's apartment late at night to cruise down Collins Avenue in a red sports car, watching the girls in their slinky dresses and towering heels shimmy and sway as they moved from club to club.
He had, that is to say, a picture of himself enacting the most exhausted and demeaning of cliches. It offended him. It chilled him. He finished his beer, thanked the woman for her time, and shook her soft hand at the office door. He insisted on seeing himself out so he wouldn't have her at his back, watching him cross the empty parking lot toward that gleaming, ridiculous Miata.
As he approached his mother's apartment he heard raised voices speaking Spanish. Her door was open. No, he thought, no, not while I was gone. But he found her still alive; she didn't die until later that night, while he was down the street eating a plate of fried plantains. At this moment she was thrashing weakly back and forth between Feliz, who looked coldly at him, and an older woman named Rosa. His mother was shouting, the same word: "Daddy! Daddy!" Her eyes were open but unseeing. Rosa crooned to her in foreign singsong while Feliz tried to hold her hands.