Should he find he couldn’t work it there would still be time enough.
—Henry James, The Wings of the Dove
The grumblings of their stomachs were intertwined and unassignable.
“Was that you or was that me?” KC would ask in bed, and Dench would say, “I’m not sure.” They lay there in the mornings, their legs moving at angles toward each other, not unlike the ashes she could see through the window outside, the high branches nuzzling in the late March breeze, speaking tree to tree of the thrilling weather. Her dreams of eating meals full of meat, which caused her teeth to gnash in the night—surely a sign of spring—left the insides of her cheeks bloody and chewed, one saliva gland now swelled to the size of a raisin.
Shouldn’t they be up and about already? Morning sun shot across the ceiling in a white stripe of paint. She and Dench were both too young and too old for this close, late-morning, bed-bound life, but their scuttled careers—the band, the two CDs, the newsletter (turned e-letter turned abandoned cyber litter) on how to simplify your life (be broke!), the driving, the touring, the scrambling, the foraging in parks for chives and dandelions, the charging up of credit cards, the taking pictures of clothes and selling them on eBay (“Wake up!” she used to exclaim to him in the middle of the night, sitting up in bed, “wake up and listen to my IDEAS!”)—had led them here, to a six-month sublet that allowed pets. Still in their thirties, but barely, they had bought themselves a little time. So what if her investments these days were in pennies, wine corks, and sheets of self-adhesive Liberty stamps. These would go up in value, unlike everything else. Beneath her bed was a shoe box of dwindling cash from their last gig, where they’d gotten only a quarter of the door. She could always cut her long, almost Asian hair again, as she had two years ago, and sell it for a thousand dollars.
Now, as she often did when contemplating wrong turns, she sometimes thought back to when it was she had first laid eyes on Dench, that Friday long ago when he had approached her at an afternoon sound check in some downtown or other, his undulating tresses not product-free, a demeanor of arrangement and premeditation that gussied up something more chaotic. Although it was winter, he wore mirrored sunglasses and a thin leather jacket with the collar turned up: 150 percent jerk. Perhaps it was his strategy to improve people’s opinions of him right away, to catch an upward momentum and make it sail, so when the sunglasses came off and then the jacket, and he began to play a song he had not written himself, he was on his way. He lunged onto one knee and raced through a bludgeoning bass solo. At the drums he pressed the stick into the cymbal and circled it, making a high-pitched celestial note, like a finger going round the edge of a wineglass. He smacked the tambourine against his head and against the snare, back and forth. When he then approached the piano, she stopped him. “Not the piano,” she said quietly. “The piano’s mine.”
“Okay,” he said. “I just wanted to show you everything I can do.” And he picked up an acoustic guitar.
Would it be impossible not to love him? Would not wisdom intervene?
Later, to the rest of the band, whose skepticism toward Dench was edged with polite dismay, she said, “I don’t understand why the phrase ‘like an orchestra tuning up’ is considered a criticism. I love an orchestra when it is tuning up. Especially then.”
From the beginning, however, she could not see how Dench had ever earned a living. He knew two Ryan Adams songs and played guitar fairly well. But he had never done so professionally. Or done anything professionally that she could discern. Early on he claimed to be waiting for money, and she wasn’t sure, when he smiled, whether this was a joke. “From whom? Your mother?” and he only smiled. Which made her think, yes indeed, his mother.
But no. His mother had died when he was a teenager. His father had disappeared years before that, and thereafter for Dench there was much moving with his sisters: from Ohio to Indiana to California and back again. First with his mom, then with an aunt. There was apparently in his life a lot of dropping in and out of college and unexplained years. There had been a foreshortened stint in the Peace Corps. In Swaziland. “I’d just be waiting at a village bus stop, reading a book, and women would pretend to want to borrow it to read but in truth they just wanted a few pages for toilet paper. Or the guys they had me working with? They would stick their hands in the Porta-Potties, as soon as we got them off the trucks: they wanted the fragrant blue palms. I had to get out of there, man, I didn’t really understand the commitment I had made, and so my uncle got a congressman to pull some strings.” How did Dench pay his bills?
“It’s one big magic trick,” he said. He liked to get high before dinner, and seemed never without a joint in his wallet or in a drawer. He ate his chicken—the wings and the drumsticks, the arms and the legs—clean down to their purple bones.
And so, though she could not tell an avocado plant from flax (he had both), and though she had never seen any grow lights or seeds or a framed license to grow medical marijuana from the state of Michigan, KC began to fear he made his living by selling pot. It seemed to be the thing he was musing about and not saying. As she had continued to see him, she suspected it more deeply. He played her more songs. Then as something caught fire between them, and love secured its footing inside her, when she awoke next to him with damp knots in the back of her hair like she’d never experienced before, the room full of the previous night’s candles and the whiff of weed, his skin beside her a silky calico of cool and warm, and as they both needed to eat and eat some more together, she began to feel okay that he sold drugs. If he did. What the hell. At least there was that. At least he did something. His sleepy smiles and the occasional flash of a euro or a hundred-dollar bill in his pocket seemed to confirm it, but then his intermittent lack of cash altogether perpetuated the mystery, as did his checks, which read D. Encher, and she started to fear he might not sell drugs after all. When she asked him straight out, he said only, “You’re funny!” And after she had paid for too many of his drinks and meals, as he said he was strapped that week and then the week after that, she began to wish, a little sheepishly, that he did sell drugs. Soon she was close to begging. Just a little sparky bark, darling.
Instead he joined her band.
It had been called Villa and in the end it had not worked out—tours they had paid for themselves with small-business loans, audiences who did not like KC’s own songs (too singer-songwriter, with rhymes—calories and galleries—of which she was foolishly proud—dead and wed), including one tune she refused to part with, since briefly it had been positioned to be a minor indie hit, a song about a chef in New Jersey named Jim Barber with whom she’d once been in love.
Here I am your unshaved fennel
Here I am your unshaved cheese
All I want to know is when I’ll—
feel your blade against my knees.
Its terribleness eluded her. Her lyrics weren’t sly or hip or smoky and tough but the demure and simple hopes of a mouse. She’d spent a decade barking up the wrong tree—as a mouse! Audiences booed—the boys in their red-framed spectacles, the girls in their crooked little dresses. Despised especially were her hip-hop renditions of Billy Joel and Neil Young. (She was once asked to please sing down by the river, and she’d thought they’d meant the song. She told this sad joke over and over.) Throughout the band tours she would wake up weeping at the edge of some bed or other, not knowing where she was or what she was supposed to do that day or once or twice even who she was, since all her endeavor seemed separate from herself, a suit to slip into. Tears, she had once been told, were designed to eliminate toxins, and they poured down her face and slimed her neck and gathered in the recesses of her collarbones, and she had to be careful never to lie back and let them get into her ears, which might cause the toxins to return and start over. Of course, the rumor of toxins turned out not to be true. Tears were quite pure. And so the reason for them, it seemed to her later, when she thought about it, was to identify the weak, so that the world could assure its strong future by beating the weak to death.
“Are we perhaps unlovable?” she asked Dench.
“It’s because we’re not named, like, Birth Hearse for Dogface.”
“Why aren’t we named that?”
“Because we have standards.”
“Is that it,” she said.
“Yeah! And not just ‘Body and Soul’ as an encore. I mean we maintain a kind of integrity.”
“Integrity! Really!” After too many stolen meals from minibars, the Pringles can carefully emptied and the foil top resealed, the container replaced as if untouched back atop the wood tray, hotel towels along with the gear all packed up in the rental truck whose rear fender bore one large bumper sticker, with Donald Rumsfeld’s visage, under which read does this ass make my truck look big?—after all that, she continually found herself thinking, If only Dench sold drugs! On hot summer days she would find a high-end supermarket and not only eat the free samples in their tiny white cups but stand before the produce section and wait for the vegetable misters to come on, holding her arms beneath the water in relief. She was showering with the lettuces.
She and Dench had not developed their talents sufficiently nor cared for them properly—or so a booking agent had told them.
Dench took offense. “You forget about the prize perplexity, the award angle—we could win something!” he exclaimed, with Pringles in his teeth.
The gardenia in KC’s throat, the flower that was her singing voice—its brown wilt must be painstakingly slowed through the years—had begun a rapid degeneration into simple crocus, then scraggly weed. She’d been given something perfect—youth!—and done imperfect things with it. The moon shone whole, then partial in the sky, having its life without her. Sometimes she just chased roughly after a melody—like someone kicking a can down a road. She had not hemmed in her speaking voice, kept it tame and tended so that her singing one could fly. Her speaking voice was the same as her singing one, a roller coaster of various registers, the Myrna Loy–Billie Burke timbre of the Edwardian grandmother who had raised her, a woman who had trained at conservatory but had never had a singing career and practically sang every sentence she uttered: “Katherine? It’s time for dinner” went flutily up and down the scale. Only her dying words—marry well—had been flat, the drone of chagrin, a practical warning: life-preserving but with a glimpse of a dark little bunker in a war not yet declared. “Marry well” had been uttered after she begged KC to get a teaching certificate. “Teaching makes interesting people boring, sure,” she had said. “But it also makes boring people interesting. So there’s an upside. There always is an upside if you look up.”
Dench’s own poor mother couldn’t leave him—or his sisters—a dime, though he had always done what she said, even that one year they lived in motels and he obligingly wore a nightgown identical to his sisters’ so that they might better be mistaken for a single child, to avoid an extra room charge, in case the maid walked in. His young mother had died with breathing tubes hooked right to her wallet, he said, just sucking it all up. Dench made a big comedic whooshing sound when he told this part. His father’s disappearance, which had come long before, had devastated and haunted her: when they were out for dinner one night his father announced that he had to see a man about a horse, and he excused himself, went to the men’s room, and climbed out the window, never to return. Dench made a whooshing sound for this part of the story as well.
“I can’t decide whether that is cowardice or a weird kind of courage,” Dench said.
“It’s neither,” KC replied. “It has nothing to do with either of those things.”
Motherless children would always find each other. She had once heard that. They had the misery that wasn’t misery but presumed to be so by others. They had the misery that liked company and was company. Only sometimes they felt the facts of their motherless lives. They were a long, long way from home. They had theme songs hatched in a spiritual tradition. There was no fondling of the gold coins of memory. The world was their orphanage.
But when they moved in together he had hesitated.
“What about my belongings?” he asked.
“It’s not like you have a dog who won’t get along with mine,” she said.
“I have plants.”
“But plants are not a dog.”
“Oh, I see: you’re one of those people who thinks animals are better, more important than plants!”
She studied him, his eyes large with protest or with drugs or with madness. There were too many things to choose from. “Are you serious?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he said, and turned to unpack his things.
Now she rose to take the dog for his daily walk. She was wearing an old summer dress as a nightgown, but in the mornings it could work as a dress again, if you just tossed a cardigan over it and put on shoes. In this risky manner, she knew, insanity could encroach.
The sublet she and Dench were in now was a nice one, a fluke, a modern, flat-roofed, stone-and-redwood ranch house with a carport, in a neighborhood that was not far from the hospital and was therefore full of surgeons and radiologists and their families. The hospital itself was under construction and the cranes bisected the sky. Big-jawed excavators and backhoes worked beneath lights at night. Walking the dog, she once watched as an excavator’s mandibled head was released and fell to the ground; the headless neck then leaned down and began to nudge it, as if trying to find out whether it might still be alive. Of course there was an operator, but after that it was hard to think of a creature like that as a machine. When a wall was knocked down and its quiet secrets sent scattering, the lines between things seemed up for grabs.
The person who owned their house was not connected to the hospital. He was an entrepreneur named Ian who had made a bundle in the nineties on some sort of business software and who for long stretches of time lived out of state—in Ibiza, Zihuatanejo, and Portland—in order to avoid the cold. The house came furnished except, strangely, for a bed, which they bought. In the refrigerator they found food so old it had dust on it rather than mold. “I don’t know,” said Dench. “Look at the closets. This must be what Ian was using. With hooks this strong maybe we don’t need a bed. We can just hang ourselves there at night, like bats.”
With Dench she knew, in an unspoken way, that she was the one who was supposed to get them to wherever it was they were going. She was supposed to be the GPS lady who, when you stopped for gas, said, “Get back on the highway.” She tried to be that voice with Dench: stubborn, unflappable, keeping to the map and not saying what she knew the GPS lady really wanted to say, which was not “Recalculating” but “What in fucking hell are you thinking?”
“It all may look wrong from outer space, which is where a GPS is seeing it from,” Dench would say, when proposing alternatives of any sort, large or small, “but on the ground there’s a certain logic.”
There were no sidewalks in this wooded part of town. The sap of the stick-bare trees was just stirring after what looked like a fierce forest fire of a winter. The roadside gullies that would soon warm and sprout pye weed and pea were still just pebble-flecked mud, and KC’s dog, Cat, sniffed his way along, feeling the winter’s melt, the ground loosening its fertile odor of wakened worms. Overhead the dirt-pearl sky of March hung low as a hat brim. The houses were sidled next to marshes and sycamores, and as she walked along the roads occasionally a car would pass, and she would yank on Cat’s leash to heel him close. The roads, all named after colleges out East—Dartmouth Drive, Wellesley Way, Sweetbriar Road (where was her alma mater, SUNY Binghamton Street?)—glistened with the flat glossy colors of flattened box turtles who’d made the spring crossing too slowly and were now stuck to the macadam, thin and shiny as magazine ads.
hospice care: it’s never too soon to call, read a billboard near the coffee shop in what constituted the neighborhood’s commercial roar. Next to it a traffic sign read pass with care. Surrealism could not be made up. It was the very electricity of the real. The largest part of the strip was occupied by an out-of-business bookstore whose plate-glass windows were already cloudy with dust. The D was missing from the sign so that it now read borers. In insolvency, truth: soon the chain would be shipping its entire stock to the latrines of Swaziland.
Cat was a good dog, part corgi, part lab, and if KC wore her sunglasses into the coffee shop he could pass for a seeing-eye dog, and she for a blind person, so she didn’t have to tie him to a parking sign out front.
The coffee shop played Tom Waits and was elegantly equipped with dimpled cup sleeves, real cream, cinnamon sticks, shakers of sugar. KC got in line. “I love this song,” the man in front turned to say to her. He was holding a toddler and was one of those new urban dads so old he looked like the kidnapper of his own child.
She didn’t know what she felt about Tom Waits anymore: his voice had gotten so industrial. “I don’t know. I just think one shouldn’t have to wear goggles and a hard hat when listening to music,” she said. It was not a bad song, and she didn’t feel that strongly about it, only sorry for her own paltry tunes, but the man’s face fell, and he turned away, with his child staring gloomily at her over his shoulder.
She ordered a venti latte, and while she was waiting, she read the top fold from the uppermost paper in the stack below the shrink-wrapped CDs by the register. When she finished, she discreetly turned the paper over and read the bottom fold. This daily, fractured way of learning the front-page news—they had no Internet connection—she had gotten used to. Be resourceful! So their old newsletter had advised. This way of bringing Dench his morning coffee (she drank her half while walking back, burning her tongue a little) and getting the dog a walk was less resourceful than simply necessary. Sometimes she missed the greasy spoons of old, which she had still been able to find on the road when the band was touring and where a single waitress ran the register, the counter, all the tables, calling you “honey”— until you asked for soy milk, at which point all endearments ceased.
Now she walked back via Princeton Place, a street she didn’t usually take, but one that ran parallel to her own. Taking different routes fortified the mind, the paper had said today. This street contained a sprawling white-brick house she had seen before and had been struck by—not just its elegance and size but the magical blue sea of squill that spread across its sloped and wooded lot. She had once seen two deer there, with long tails that flicked like horses’ and wagged like dogs’. Only once before had she seen a deer close-up, along the road’s edge on Dartmouth. It had been hit so fast it had been decapitated, and its neck lay open like a severed cable bundle.
Cat nosed along the gullies and up the driveways, whose cracks were often filled with clover.
She stared at the wings of the white-brick house which were either perfectly insulated or not heated at all, since there was still unmelted snow on the roofs. Suddenly an elderly man appeared by the mailbox. “Howdy,” he said. It startled her, and his stab at gregariousness belied his face, which bore a blasted-apart expression, like a balding, white-haired Jesus on the cross, eyes open wide and worried, his finely lined mouth the drawstring purse of the aged and fair.
“Just getting my newspaper,” he said. “Nice dog.”
“Hey, Catsy, get back here.” She tried to pull the leash in but its automated spring was broken and the leash kept unspooling.
The man’s face brightened. He had started to take his paper out of its plastic sleeve but stopped. “What’s the dog’s name? Cathy?” He did not scrunch up his face disapprovingly when he failed to hear what you said, the way deaf people often did. But he did have the recognizable waxen pee smell of an old man. It was from sweat that no longer could be liquid but accumulated like scaly air on the skin.
“Uh, Cat. It’s part family name, part, um, joke.” She wasn’t going to get into all the Katherines in her family or her personal refrigerator-magnet altar to Cat Power or the general sick sense of humor that had led this dog, like all pets, to be a canvas upon which one wrote one’s warped love and dubious wit.
“I get it.” He grinned eagerly. “And what’s your name?”
“KC,” she said. Let that suffice.
“Yes,” she said. A life could rhyme with a life—it could be a jostling close call that one mistook for the thing itself.
“We live the next block over. We’re renting.”
“Renting! Well that explains it.”
She didn’t dare ask what that explained. Still, his eyes had a wet dazzle—or an amused glint—and were not disapproving. Cat started to bark loudly at a rabbit but then also turned and started barking at the man, who took a theatrical step back, raised the paper over his head, and pretended to be afraid, as if he were performing for a small child. “Don’t take my crossword puzzle!”
“His bark is worse than his bite,” KC said. “Get over here, Cat.”
“I don’t know why people always say that. No bark is worse than a bite. A bite is always worse.”
“Well, they shouldn’t make rabbits so cute or we wouldn’t care if dogs ate them. Why are rabbits made so cute? What is nature’s purpose in that one?”
He beamed. “So you’re a philosopher!”
“No, not really,” she murmured, as if in fact she thought she might be.
“I think the rabbits are probably only accidentally cute to us. Mostly they’re cute to each other. The purpose? More rabbit stew for everybody.”
“I see. So you’re a sort of Mr. McGregor kind of guy. I was always scared of Mr. McGregor!” She smiled.
“Nothing to be scared of. But it does seem of late that there is some kind of apocalyptic plague of rabbits. Biblical bunnies! Would you like to come and finish your coffee inside?”
She didn’t know what to make of this invitation. Was it creepy or friendly? Who could tell anymore? Very few people had been friendly to them since they’d moved here two months ago. The man’s tea-stained teeth made a sepia smile—a dental X-ray from the nineteenth century.
“Oh, thanks, I really should be going.” This time the leash caught and Cat came trotting toward her, bored and ready to move on.
“Well, good to meet you,” the old man said and turned and walked back toward his house, with its portico and porch and two stone chimneys, its wings that stretched east and west and one out back smaller and south-facing, with a long double sleeping porch she could barely see. Over here on Princeton Place things seemed bigger than they were on Wellesley Way. She hated money, though she knew it was like blood and you needed it. Still, it was also like blood in that she often couldn’t stand the sight of it. This whole let-them-eat-cake neighborhood could use a neat little guillotine.
“Good to meet you,” she said, though he hadn’t given her his name.
“Here’s your coffee,” she said to Dench, who was still in bed.
“Yum. Tepid backwash.”
“Hey, don’t complain. You can go next time and bring me back half.”
“I’m not complaining,” he said in a sleepy stretch.
She took a brush sharply to her scalp and began brushing. If she waited longer with her hair she might get twelve hundred. She threw it back and arched from her waist. Only in the mirror could she see her Decatur tattoo, put there one night in Britannic Bold in the crook of her neck, when they were playing in Decatur and she wanted to be reminded never to play there again. “That’s a strange way to be reminded,” Dench had said, and KC had said, “What better.”
“Was there a big line at the coffee shop?” Dench asked, smacking his lips.
“No. I stopped and talked to some guy. Cat is going up every driveway that ever had a squirrel or rabbit dash over it.”
“Hey, this backwash is good. There’s something new in it. Were you wearing cherry ChapStick or something?”
“Have you noticed that there are a lot of people with money around here?”
“We should meet them. We need producers.”
“You go meet them.”
“You’re cuter. Of course, time is of the essence in these matters.”
She loved Dench. She was helpless before the whole emotional project of him. But it didn’t preclude hating him and everything around him, which included herself, the sound of her own voice—and the sound of his, which was worse. The portraits of hell never ceased and sometimes were done up in raucous, gilded frames to console. Romantic hope: From where did women get it? Certainly not from men, who were walking caveat emptors. No, women got it from other women, because in the end women would rather be rid of one another than have to endure themselves on a daily basis. So they urged each other into relationships. “He loves you! You can see it in his eyes!” they lied.
“Casey!” the old man shouted the next morning. He was out in his front yard pounding together something that looked like a bird feeder on a post.
“Hi!” she said.
“You know my name?”
“Old family joke.” He still seemed to be shouting. “Actually my name is Milt Thahl.”
“Milt.” She repeated the name, a habit people with good memories supposedly relied on. “They don’t name kids Milton anymore.”
“Too bad and thank God! My father’s name was Hiram, and now that I’m old I find my head filled up with his jokes and stories rather than very many of my own, which apparently I’ve forgotten.”
“Oh,” she said. “Well, as long as you don’t actually come to believe you are your dad, I suppose all is well.”
“Well, that may be next.”
“Probably that’s always next. For all of us.”
He squinted to study her, seemed to be admiring something about her again, but she was not sure what. No doubt something that was a complete mirage.
“Nice to see you again,” he said. “And you, too,” he said to the dog. “Though you are a strange-looking thing. It’s like he’s been assembled by Nazi veterinarians—a shepherd’s head, a dachshund’s body, a— ”
“Yeah, I know. Sometimes he reminds me of the dog in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
“The remake of what?”
“Frankenstein!” she yelled. His deafness could give her a heart attack. Perhaps this was nature’s plan for old people, to kill each other in an efficient if irritating fashion.
She could feel the heat leaving the coffee and entering her hand. “He’s like a dog made in Frankenstein’s lab!” Sometimes she hated the dog. His obliviousness to the needs of others, his determined, verbally challenged conversation about his own desires—in a human this would indicate a severe personality disorder.
“Oh, he’s not that bad,” said Milt. “And wouldn’t we like his energy. In tablet form.”
“That would be fantastic.”
“But you’re young; you wouldn’t need something like that.”
“I need something.” Was she whining? She had never made such an announcement to a stranger before.
“In lieu of that, come on in and have a blueberry muffin with me.” Again, the lines between neighborliness and flirtation were not clear to her here. She knew in this community you had to do an extroverted kind of meet and greet but she had heard of divorced soccer parents wandering off from their children’s games and having sex in the far parking lots of the park, so the guidelines were murky. “And while you’re at it you can help me with the crossword puzzle.”
“Oh, I can’t. I have to get home. Lot of things to tend to.”
“Well, it’s not ten to. It’s ten past.”
“To tend to,” KC repeated. Perhaps his deafness had exhausted all the other neighbors and this accounted for his friendliness to her. On the other hand, no one seemed to walk around here. They either jogged, their ears stuffed with music, or they drove their cars at murderous speeds. One old man could not have single-handedly caused that. Or could he have?
“Gotta get home.”
“Oh,” he said and waved her on.
“Maybe tomorrow,” she said out of kindness.
He nodded and went back to work.
She stopped and turned. “Are you making a bird feeder?”
“No, it’s a book nook! I’ll put books inside and people can help themselves. Like a little library. Now that the bookstore is closed. I’m just adjusting the clasp.”
“How lovely.” It was a varnished pine angled to look like the ski chalet of a doll.
“Giving the old guy a thrill? Good idea.”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“I’m just saying,” said Dench in a hushed tone. “He’s probably loaded. And gonna keel soon. And . . . ”
“Stop.” This was the grifter in Dench, something violent in the name of freedom, like his father who had fled through the men’s-room window. “Don’t say another word.”
“Hey, I’m not talking about murdering him! I’m just saying you could spend a little time, make him happy, and then the end result might be, well . . . we’d all be a little happier. Where’s the harm?”
“You’ve really gone over to the dark side.” He could be shameless. Perhaps shamelessness kept bitterness at bay. Not a chance Dench could ever be bitter. Bitterness came when one had done the long, good thing and then gone unrewarded. Dench would never operate that way. She, on the other hand, had been born with a sort of pre-bitterness, casting about for the good and unacknowledged deed that would explain her feelings—and not coming up with it. So instead a sourness could beset her, which she had to appease and shrink with ice cream and biographies of Billie Holiday.
“Hey, wasn’t it you who wrote, ‘Get your hands on some real meat?’ ” Now he began to sing. “ ‘An old shoe can be made chewy like game / but it takes a raftload of herbs and it’s just not the same.’ You wrote that.”
“That was a love song to a chef. Before I knew you.”
“It’s good. It’s got existentialism and culinary advice.” His eyes avoided hers.
“You’re pimping me. Is this what you call your ‘talent for life’?” He had once boasted he possessed such a thing.
“It’s a working view.”
“You’d better be careful, Dench. I take your suggestions seriously.”
He paused and looked at her, sternness in one eye and gentleness in the other. “Well, my first suggestion is don’t take my suggestions. And there’s more where that came from.”
“There’s a smell in the house. Yeasty and sulfuric. Can you smell it?” She looked at Dench with concern, but he seemed to have none.
“Something rotting in the walls.”
“Meat or shoe?”
“Something that died in the winter and now that it’s spring is decaying in the floorboards or some crawl space or one of the walls of this room.”
“Maybe my allergies are acting up. But I think I have smelled it along this side of the house, on warmer days, out there trying to get bet- ter cell-phone reception. A cabbagey cheese smell: goaty with a kind of ammonia rot.”
She reached for a sip of Dench’s coffee.
“He probably has adult children.”
“Probably,” said Dench, turning away and then looking back at her to study her face.
“What?” she asked.
“Nothing,” he said.
Dench’s sexiness, his frugal, spirited cooking (though he was no Jim Barber), his brooding gaze, his self-deprecating humor, all had lured her in. But it was like walking into a beautiful house to find the rooms all empty. In those beginning years she often saw him locking eyes with others, as if in some pact. At times he glanced at her with bewildering scorn. There was, in short, little conversation of tender feelings. Just attachment. Just the power of his voice when it spoke of things that had nothing to do with them. When it churned round and round on its loop about his childhood, parental misdeeds, and rages at his lot. Intimacy was not his strong suit. “Clubs and spades,” he joked. “Not diamonds, not hearts. Red cards—I just see red. They throw me out of the game every time.”
“Shut up and drink your beer.”
Where were the drugs?
He required a patroness but had mistakenly auditioned for her. If she possessed fewer psychic wounds than he had hoped for in a woman her age, or at least different ones, he would attempt to create some. But she was less woundable than he might think. She had not had a father who had to see a man about a horse. She, in fact, had had a father who’d been killed by a car named after a horse. Along with her mother. A Mustang! How weird was that? Well, she had been a baby and hadn’t had to deal with it.
Her grandmother had almost never mentioned her mother. Or her father. They had been scurrying across a street to get home, holding hands, which had fatally slowed them down.
Where were the drugs?
Patience was a chemical. Derived from a mineral. Derived from a star. She felt she had a bit of it. But it was not always fruitful, or fruitful with the right fruit. Once she had found a letter in Dench’s coat—it was a draft in his writing with his recognizable cross-outs, and it began, “It has always been hard for me to say, but your love has meant the world to me.” She did not read to the end but stuffed it back inside the coat pocket, not wanting to ruin things for him or the moving surprise of it for herself. She would let him finish his composing and choose the delivery time. But the letter never arrived or showed up for her in any manner whatsoever. She waited for months. When she finally asked about it, in a general way, he looked at her with derision and said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Inside the old man’s house, wide doorways led to shaded rooms; corridors to stairways to more corridors. Whole areas of the house were closed off with ivory quilts hung with clipped rings from fishing spears—to save on heating, she quickly surmised. There were stacks of reading material—a not uncozy clutter of magazines, some opened and abandoned, and piles of books, both new and used. On top of one was a dried-out spider plant that looked—as they used to say heartlessly of all their dying spider plants—like Bob Marley on chemo. She recognized the panic at even a moment’s boredom that all these piles contained, as well as the unreasonable hopefulness regarding time. In a far room she spied a piano, an old Mason & Hamlin grand, its ebony surface matte with dust, and wondered if it was tuned. Its lid was down and stacks of newspaper sat on top.
“Don’t mind the clutter, just follow me through it—the muffins are in the kitchen,” he said. She followed his swaying gait into the back of the house. Beneath the wisps of white hair his skull was shiny and his scalp had the large brown spots of a giraffe—if only they weren’t signs of looming death they would look appealing and whimsical and young people would probably want them—give me a liver spot!—as tattoos. Smaller versions freckled his hands. “I keep hoping this clutter is charming and not a sign of senility. I find myself not able to tell.”
“It’s like a bookstore or a thrift shop. That kind of clutter is always charming.”
“Perhaps you could go all the way and put little price tags on everything.” A shaming heat flushed her face.
“Ha! Well, that was partly the idea with the book nook out front. That I could put some of this to use. But feel free to add your own. All contributions welcome.” The muffins were store-bought ones he had reheated in a microwave. He had not really made them at all. “I shop sparingly. You never know how long you’ve got. I don’t even buy green bananas.”
“Is it?” He was searching her face.
“Well, I mean . . . yes, it is.”
“Would you like some coffee, or do you want to just stick with your own?” He signaled with his head toward the paper cup she still held, with its white plastic top and its warted brown vest made of recycled paper bags. She saw that it was instant coffee he meant, a jar of Nescafé near the stove. He turned the burner on and gas flamed into the blue spikes of a bachelor’s button beneath the kettle.
“Oh, this is fine,” KC said. What did she care if Dench got no coffee today? He would prefer this mission of neighborly friendliness, would he not?
They sat down at his table, and Milt placed the muffin on a plate in front of her. “So tell me about yourself,” he said, then grinned wanly. “What brings you to this neighborhood?”
“Do I stand out that much?”
“I’m afraid you do. And not just because of those tattoos.”
She only had three. She would explain them all to him later, which is what they were for: each was a story. There was Decatur, the vow never to return there. There was also a Moline one along her collarbone—a vow never to return there, either. The Swanee along her bicep was because she liked the chord ascension in that song, a cry of homesickness the band had deconstructed and electrified into a sneer. It had sometimes been their encore. When there was one. Sometimes it was also a vow never to return there. She mostly forgot about all these places until she looked into a mirror after a bath.
“My music career didn’t work out and I’m subletting here. I came back to this town because this is where I used to visit my grandmother in a nursing home when I was young. I liked the lake. And she was in a place that looked out onto it, and when I went to see her I would go into a large room with large windows and she would race over in her wheelchair. She was the fastest one there with the chairs.”
He smiled at her. “I know exactly the place you mean. It’s got a hospice wing in it called Memory Station. Though no one in it can recall a thing.”
KC stuffed the muffin in her mouth and flattened its moist crenellated paper into a semicircle.
“What kind of music do you play? Is it loud and angry?” he asked with a grin.
“Sometimes,” she said, chewing. “But sometimes it was gentle and musing.” Past tense. Her band was dead and it hadn’t even taken a plane crash to do it. They’d hadn’t been able to afford to fly except once. “I’ll come by and play something for you sometime.”
His face brightened. “I’ll get the piano tuned,” he said.
There was that smell again, thawing with the remnants of winter, in their walls. This was the sort of neighborhood where one could scarcely smell a rancid onion in a trash bag. But now this strange meaty rot, with its overtones of Roquefort.
“What do you really think that is?’” KC asked Dench through the bathroom door. The change of seasons had brought new viruses and he was now waterboarding himself with a neti pot.
“The smell,” she said.
“I can’t smell anything right now—my nose is too congested.”
She peeked into the bathroom to see him leaning sideways with the plastic pot, water running down his lips and chin. “Are you disclosing national security secrets?”
“The netis will never learn a thing from me,” he said.
“You can take a book or leave it. There is a simple latch, no lock.” The honey-hued hutch might indeed attract birds if it didn’t soon fill up with books and the clasp were not shut.
“Let’s see what you have in there already.” She moved in close to him. His waxy smell did not bother her.
“Oh, not much really.” An old copy of The Swiss Family Robinson and one of Infinite Jest. “I’m aiming for the kids,” he said. He had put up a sign that said, “Take It or Leave It Book Nook: Have a Look.” Like a community bicycle, you could take one and never have to bring it back. Dench himself had a community bike from several communities ago. “Now that the bookstore has gone under, and with the hospital so close, I thought people might need something to read.”
There was something antique and sweet in all this—far be it from her to bring up the topic of electronic downloads.
“Probably there is a German word for the feeling of fondness one gets toward one’s house the more one fixes it up for resale.”
“Hausengeltenschmerz?” said KC.
But he was thinking. “My wife would have known.”
His wife had been a doctor. He told KC this now as she ate another muffin in his kitchen. It had been a second marriage for his wife, so there was a bit of sunset in it for them both: he had been stuck in his bachelor ways and hadn’t married until he was sixty.
(“Bachelor ways!” Dench would seize on later. “You see what he’s doing?”)
“She was a worldly and brilliant woman, an oncologist devoted to family medicine and public-health policy,” said Milt.
There was a long silence as KC watched him reminisce, his face wincing slightly while his mind sifted through the files.
“I never got on with her daughters much. But she herself, well, she was the love of my life, even if she came late to it and left early. She died two years ago. When it came it was a blessing really. I suppose. I suppose that’s what one should say.”
“Thank you. But she was brilliant company. My brain’s a chunk of mud next to hers.” He stared at KC. “It’s lonely in this neck of the woods.”
She picked off a moist crumb from the front of her jacket. “But you must have friends here?” and then she put the crumb quickly in her mouth.
“Well, by ‘neck of the woods,’ I mean old age.”
“I sort of knew that, I guess,” she said. “Do you have friends your age?”
“There are no humans alive my age!” He grinned his sepia teeth at her.
“Come on.” Her muffin was gone and she was eyeing the others.
“I may be older than I seem. I don’t know what I seem.”
She would fall for the bait. “Thirty-five,” she said, smiling only a little.
“Ha! Well, that’s the sad thing about growing too old: there’s no one at your funeral.”
She always said thirty-five, even to children. No one minded being thirty-five, especially kindergartners and the elderly. No one at all. She herself would give a toe or two to be thirty-five again. She would give three toes.
He looked at her warmly. “I once studied acting, and I’ve kept my voice from getting that quavery thing of old people.”
“You’ll have to teach me.”
“You have a lovely voice. I take note of voices. Despite my deafness and my tinnitus. Which is a nice substitute for crickets, by the way, if you miss them in the winter. Sometimes I’ve got so much whistling going on in my ears I could probably fly around the room if it weren’t for these heavy orthopedic shoes. Were you the singer in your band?”
“How did you know?” She slapped her hand down on the table as if this were a miracle.
“There’s a way you have of wafting in and hitting the sounds of the words rather than the words themselves. I mean to clean off this piano and get you to sing.”
“Oh, I’m very much out of tune. Probably more than the piano. As I said, my career’s a little stalled right now: we need some luck, you know? Without luck the whole thing’s just a thought experiment!”
“My musical partner.” She swallowed and chewed though her mouth was empty. He was a partner. He was musical. What was wrong with her? Would she keep Dench a secret from him?
Dench would want it. “What can I get for you?” she had asked Dench this morning, and he had stared at her balefully from the bed.
“You have a lot of different nightgowns,” he’d said.
“They’re all the dresses I once wore onstage.” And as she got ready for her walk, he said, “Don’t forget the coffee this time. Last time you forgot the coffee.”
“It’s good to have a business partner,” Milt said now. “But it isn’t everything.”
“He’s sort of a genius,” she lied. Did she feel the need to put Dench in competition with his dead wife?
“So you’ve met some geniuses,” Milt smiled. “You’re having fun then. A life with geniuses in it: very good.”
She lived with so much mockery this did not bother her at all. She looked deeply into his eyes and found the muck-speckled blue there, the lenses cut out from cataracts. She would see the cut edges in the light.
“Do you think Ian would miss a few of his books?”
“No one misses a few of their books. It’s just the naked truth. Look at the sign down the road.”
The missing D of the bookstore: perhaps Dench had stolen it for himself, stashing it under the bed; she didn’t dare look.
“Old Milt has a little book nook—I thought I’d contribute.”
“I’d only take a few. I can’t donate my own since they all have the most embarrassing underlinings. In ink.” Plus exclamation points that ran down the page like a fence by Christo. Perhaps it was genetic. She had once found an old copy of The House of Mirth that belonged to her mother. The word whoa appeared on every other page.
“Come here. Lie on top of me.” His face was a cross between longing and ordering lunch.
“I’ll squash you. I’ve gained five pounds eating muffins with Milt.” He grabbed her hand but she gently pulled it away. “Give me some time. I’m going to cut out the sweets and have a few toes removed.”
She had put on a necklace, of freshwater pearls so small they were like grains of arborio rice decorating the letters of Decatur. She combed a little rat’s nest into the crown of her hair to perk it up. She dabbed on some scent: fig was the new vanilla! As she went out the door, Dench said, “Win them with your beauty, but catch them off guard with your soul.” Then there was the pregnant pause, the instruments all cutting out at once—until he added, in a chilly tone, “Don’t even bother with my coffee. I mean really: don’t bother.” After that she heard only her own footsteps.
“I brought you a couple books,” she said to Milton. “For your nook.”
“Well, thank you. Haven’t had any takers yet, but there’s still room.” He looked at the titles she had brought: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed and Lady Macbeth in the Gilded Age. “Excellent.”
They once again went inside and ate muffins. Forget coffee: this time she had not even brought the dog.
She began to do this regularly, supplying Milt with more of her landlord’s books. He had taken to looking so happy to see her, his eyes bright- ening (blue, she had read once, was the true color of the sun) so much she could see what he must have looked like when he was young. He was probably the bachelor that all the old ladies were after. He had the look of a gentleman, but one who was used to the attention of women, even as the uriney smell had crept over him. “Here we are: two lonely fools,” he said to her once. It had the sound of a line he’d said before. Nonetheless, she found herself opening up to him, telling him of her life, and he was sympathetic, nodding, his peeled-back eyes taking on a special shine, and only once or twice did he have to lean forward disconcertingly to murmur, “Say that again?” She didn’t mention Dench anymore. And the part of her that might consider this and know why was overshadowed by the unknowing part, which she knew in advance was the only source of any self-forgiveness. Ignorance ironically arranged for future self-knowledge. Life was never perfect.
When she twice stayed into the afternoon to fix Milt something to eat and once stopped by later to cook a simple dinner, Dench confronted her. “What are you doing?”
“He’s a frail old man on the outs with his stepdaughters. He could use someone to help him with meals.”
“You’re fattening him for the kill?” They were looking into the abyss of the other, or so they both probably thought.
“What the hell are you talking about? He’s alone!”
“A lone what?”
“A lone ranger! For Pete’s sake, what is wrong with you?”
“I don’t understand what you’re pretending.”
“I’m not pretending. What I don’t get is you: I thought I was doing what you wanted.”
He tilted his head quizzically the way he sometimes did when he was pretending to be a different person. Who are you doing that head-tilt thing for, she did not say.
“I don’t know what I want,” he said. “And I don’t know what you’re doing.”
“You know exactly what I’m doing. ”
“Is that what you think? Are we always such a mystery to ourselves and to others?”
“Is a disappointment the same as a mystery?”
“A disappointment is rarely a mystery.”
“I’m starting to lose confidence in you, Dench.” Losing confidence was more violent than losing love. Losing love was a slow dying, but losing confidence was a quick coup, a floor that opened right up and swallowed.
Now he lifted his face beatifically, as if to catch some light no one else could see. His eyes closed, and he began rubbing his hands through his hair. It was her least favorite thing that he did in the head-tilting department.
“Sorry to interrupt your self-massage,” she said and turned to go and then turned back to say, “and don’t give me that line about someone has to do it.”
“Someone doesn’t have to. But someone should.” The muttered snark in their house was a kind of creature—perhaps the one in their walls.
“Yes, well, you’re an expert on should.”
It broke her heart that they had come to this: if one knew the future, all the unexpected glimpses of the beloved, one might have trouble finding the courage to go on. This was probably the reason nine-tenths of the human brain had been rendered useless: to make you stupidly intrepid. One was working with only the animal brain, the Pringle brain. The wizard-god brain, the one that could see the future and move objects without touching them, was asleep. Fucking bastard.
The books she brought this time were Instinct for Death and The Fin de Millennial Lear. She and Milt stood before the nook and placed the volumes inside.
“Now you must come in and play the piano for me. At long last I’ve had it tuned.” Milt smiled. “You are even allowed to sing, if you so desire.”
She was starting again to see how large the house was, since if they entered through a different door she had no idea where she was. There were two side doors and a back one in addition to the front two. Two front doors! Life was hard enough—having to make that kind of decision every day could wear a person out.
She sat down at the piano, with its bell-like sound and real ivory keys, chipped and grainy. As a joke she played “The Spinning Song” but he didn’t laugh, only smiled, as if perhaps it were Scarlatti. Then she played and sang her love song to the chef, and then she did “Body and Soul” and then her version of “Down by the River,” right there inside the house with no requests to leave and go down by an actual river. And then she thought that was probably enough and pulled her arms back, closed her mouth, and in imitation of Dench closed her eyes, lifted her face to the ceiling, and smoothed back her hair, prepping it for the wigmaker. Then she shook her arms in the air and popped her eyes open.
Milt looked happier than she’d ever seen him look. “Marvelous!” he said.
No one ever said marvelous anymore.
“Oh, you’re nice,” she said.
“I have an idea! Can you drive me downtown? I have an appointment in a half hour and I’d like you to come with me. Besides I’m not allowed to drive.”
“All right,” she said. Of course she had guessed that soon she might be taking him to doctor’s appointments.
Instead, she drove him in his old scarcely used Audi, which she found stored in the garage with a dust cloth over it, to his lawyer’s. “Meet my lovely new friend, Casey,” he said, introducing her as they were ushered into the lawyer’s gleaming office and the lawyer stared at her skeptically but shook her hand.
“Rick, I would like to change my will,” he said.
“Yes, I know. You wanted to—”
“No, now I want to change it even more than I said before. I know we were going to leave the house to the Children’s Hospital, which was Rachel’s wish, but they’re doing fine without us, their machinery’s over there tearing things up every day on that new wing. So instead I’d like to leave everything, absolutely everything, to Casey here. And to make her executor as well.”
Silence fell over the room as Milt’s beaming face went back and forth between pale-feeling KC and pale-looking Rick.
“Milt, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” KC said, clutching his arm. It was the first time she had actually touched him and it seemed to energize him further.
“Nonsense!” he said. “I want to free you from any burdens—it will keep you the angel you are.”
“It hardly seems that I’m the angel.”
“You are, you are. And I want you and your music to fly untethered.”
Rick gave her a wary look as he made his way slowly behind a mahogany desk the size of a truck flatbed. He sat down in a leather chair that had ball bearings and a reclining mechanism that he illustrated by immediately beginning to bounce against it and spin slightly, his arms now folded behind his neck. Then he threw himself forward onto a leather-edged blotter and grabbed the folder he had in front of him. “Well, I can get Maryanne to change everything right now.” Then Rick studied KC again, and in a voice borrowed from either his youth or his son, said to her, “Nice tats.”
She did not speak of it to Dench. She did not know how. She thought of being wry—hey, Villa is back! And this time it’s an actual villa—but there was no good way. She had been passive before Milt’s gift— gifts required some passivity—and she would remain passive before Dench. Besides, the whole situation could turn on a dime, and she half hoped it would. God only knew how many times Milt had changed his will—so she would try not to think of it at all. Except in this way: Milt had no one. And now he had no one but her. Which was like having no one.
Dench appeared in the bathroom doorway as she was cutting bangs into her hair with nail scissors. “I thought you were growing your hair,” he said. “I thought you were going to sell it.”
“It’s just bangs,” she said, threw down the scissors and brushed past him.
She began to take Milt to his doctor’s appointments. “I’ve got reservations both at the hospice wing where your grandmother was and also right there,” he said as they passed the Heavenly Sunset Cemetery.
“Do you have a good tree?”
“Do you have a good space beneath a strong tree?” she said loudly.
“I do!” he exclaimed. “I’m next to my wife.” He paused, brooding. “Of course, she has on her gravestone ‘Alone at Last.’ So I’m putting on mine ‘Not So Fast.’ ”
KC laughed, which she knew was what he wanted. “It’s good to have a place.”
At the doctor’s, sometimes the nurse, and sometimes the physician’s assistant, would walk him back out to her and give her hurried and worried instructions. “Here is this new medicine,” they would say, “but if he has a bad response we’ll put him back on the other one.” Milt would shrug as if he were surrounded by a gaggle of crazy relatives.
Once, a nurse leaned in and whispered, “There’s a fear it may have spread to the brain. If you have any trouble on the weekend, phone the hospital or even the hospice. Watch his balance particularly.”
One morning, KC took another of Ian’s books to Milt’s book nook and, not seeing the old man outside, she worriedly tied Cat to the book-nook post, went up to the main door, and knocked. She opened it and stepped in. “Hello? Good morning? Milt?”
Out stepped a middle-aged woman with an authoritative step. Her heels hit the floorboards and stopped. She wore black slacks and a white shirt tucked into the waistband. Her hair was cut short—thick and gray. It was the sort of hair that years ago, when it was dark, wigmakers would have paid good money for. She stood there staring for a long time and then said, “I know what you’re up to.”
“What are you talking about?”
“One of his Concertos in Be Minor. How old are you?”
“I wonder if he knows that. You look younger.”
“Well, I’m not.”
“Hence your needs.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“No? You don’t?”
“No.” Denial, when one was accused, was a life force and would trump any desire to confess. An admission of guilt would knock the strength right out of you—making it easier for your arms to be twisted behind you and the handcuffs put on. It was from Dench, perhaps, that she had learned this.
“Shall we sit?” The pewter-haired woman motioned toward one of the sofas.
“I don’t think that’s necessary.”
“No, besides, I was just walking my dog, and he’s still tied up outside. I was just checking on Milt.”
“Well, my sister has taken him to his doctor’s appointment, so he won’t be needing you today.”
In bed, KC lay next to Dench, staring at the ceiling and smoking a cigarette, though they were not supposed to smoke inside. Cat lay on the quilt at the foot of the bed, doing his open-eyed fake sleep. They were carnies at the close of Labor Day. She stared at her Hammond keyboard, which right now had laundry piled and draped over it in angles.
“What illness do you suppose Milt actually has?” Dench asked.
“Something quiet but wretched.”
“Early onset quelque-chose?”
“I don’t think I can go on visiting him anymore. I just can’t do it.”
Dench squeezed her thigh then caressed it. “Sure you can,” he said.
She stabbed out her cigarette in a coffee cup then, turning, rubbed her hand down along Dench’s sinewy biceps and across his tightly muscled stomach, feeling hounded back into his arms, which she had never really left, and now his arms’ familiarity was her only joy. You could lose someone a little but they would still roam the earth. The end of love was one big zombie movie.
“Do you realize that if you smoke enough you will end up lowering your risk of uterine cancer?” she said.
“That’s a bad one,” said Dench. “The silent killer. Especially in men.”
“What did you do today?”
“I worked on some songs about my slavery-oppressed ancestors. I’m blaming the white man for my troubles.”
She thought of his father. “Well, in your case it’s definitely a white man.”
“For most people it is. That’s why we need more songs.”
“Life! It’s a hell of a thing, isn’t it.”
“I wouldn’t have voted for it.” She kissed him on his shoulder. “Wouldn’t it be lovely just to fly out of here and live far away on a cloud together?”
“To be birds and see Gawwd!”
“Yes! We could be birds in a little birdhouse that had books and we could read them!” she exclaimed.
Dench turned his head quickly on the pillow to stare at her. “Perhaps we have that already,” he said. “But darlin’, we ain’t seeing God.”
“Because God is off in some cybercafe, so tired from all those biblical escapades that now he just wants to sit back and google himself all day.” She pulled her hand away from Dench, since he had not reciprocated with his own. “If he’s not completely deaf to our cries, he’s certainly deaf in one ear.”
“For sure. Not just the hardware of the inner ear but the hairs and jelly further in: all shot.”
“You’re a strange boy.”
“You see? We’re getting past the glaze and right down to the factory paint here.”
She let a few days go by, and then she resumed her stopping at Milt’s on her coffee runs. Because summer was creeping in she was now bringing Dench iced coffee, but invariably the ice cubes would melt, and she would just drink the whole thing herself. Milt still heated up his muffins but often needed her to drive him to doctor’s appointments as well as to other places, and so she ran his errands with him, watching him greet the salespeople, the druggist, the dry-cleaning girl, all of whom he seemed to know. “I’m so glad my wife’s daughters are gone,” he said at one point as they were driving home. “I dread the house with them there. I’d rather just return to the cave of my own aloneness!”
“I know how you feel.”
“You have no idea,” he said and leaned in to kiss her on the cheek before he got out of the car. “They are as cold as they come. I mean, even the ice on Mars melts in springtime!”
Once she took the old man swimming. They went to a beach farther north on the lake, at a state park on a weekday when there was no one there. “Don’t look!” he squealed as he took off his shirt and limp-jogged into the water, where he was safer than he was on land. He was not in bad shape, merely covered with liver spots, and his stomach was only slightly rounded and his breasts about the size of her own.
“How’s the water?” she called to him. A line of silver at the water’s edge sparkled in the sun. The sky was the deep belligerent blue of a hyacinth.
“Expect the unexpected!” he called back. She could see he’d once been a strong swimmer. His arms moved surely, bold, precise. Of course, when you expected the unexpected, it was no longer unexpected, and so you were not really following instructions. As she approached the water she saw that the silver line along the sand was the early die-off of the alewives: washed ashore gasping and still flipping on your foot as you walked. The dead lay in a shiny line up the beach, and if one of the fish had died closer to the waves it caught the light like the foil of a gum wrapper. Another putrid perplexity of the earth. She dove out anyway—to swim among the dying. She would pretend to be an aquarium act, floating among her trained, finned minions; if she imagined it any other way it was all too sad. She bobbed around a bit, letting the olive waves of the lake crest up and wash over her.
They picnicked back on shore. She had brought cheese sandwiches and club soda and difficult peaches: one had to bite sharply into the thick, fuzzed skin of them to get to the juice. They sat huddled in their separate towels, on a blanket, everything sprinkled with sand, their feet coated in it like brown sugar.
“Too bad about the dead fish,” Milt said. “They’ll be gone next week, but still. So may I!”
Should she say, Don’t talk like that? Should she, in her bathing suit with her tattoos all showing, feign a bourgeois squeamishness regarding conversations about death? “Please don’t talk like that,” she said, peach juice dripping down her chin.
“Okay,” he said obediently. “I’m just saying: even Nature has her wickednesses.” He took out a flask she didn’t know he carried and poured her a little into a paper cup. “Here, have some gin. Goes in clean and straight—like German philosophy!” He smiled and looked out at the lake. “I was once a philosopher—just not a very good one.”
“Really?” The gin stung her lips.
“Terrible world. Great sky. That always seemed the gist.” He paused. “I also like bourbon—the particular parts of your brain it activates. Also good for philosophy.”
She thought about this. “It’s true. Bourbon hits a very different place than, say, wine does.”
“And actually, red wine hits a different place from white.” She sipped her gin. “Not that I’ve made an intense study of it.”
“No, of course not.” He rinsed gin around on his gums.
Back at his house he seemed to have caught a chill and she put a blanket around him and he grabbed her hand. “I have to go,” she said.
A sadness had overtaken him. He looked at KC, then looked away. “Shortly before my wife died she sat up in bed and began to shout out the names of all the sick children who had died on her watch. I’d given her a brandy, and she just began reciting the names of all the children she had failed to save. ‘Charlie Pepper,’ she cried, ‘and Lauren Cox and Barrett Bannon and Caitlin Page and Raymond Jackson and Tom DeFugio and little Deanna Lamb.’ This went on for an hour.”
“I have to go—will you be okay?” He had taken his hand away and was just staring into space. “Here is my number,” she said, writing on a small scrap of paper. “Phone me if you need anything.”
When he did not reply she left anyway, ignoring any anguish, locking the door from the inside.
Perhaps everyone had their own way of preparing to die. Life got you ready. Life got you sad. And then blood started coming from where it didn’t used to come. People revisited the deaths of others, getting ready to meet them in the beyond. KC herself imagined dying would be full of rue, like flipping through the pages of a clearance catalogue, seeing the drastic markdowns on stuff you’d paid full price for and not gotten that much use from, when all was said and done. Though all was never said and done. That was the other part about death.
“I had the dog all day,” complained Dench, “which was no picnic. No day at the beach.”
“Well I had Milt. He’s no kiss for Christmas.”
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to think about all the time you spend with him. ”
“According to you, you never know what to think.”
“It just seems to me that if things are going to take, they shouldn’t take so long. By the way, I’ve found out what that odor is.”
The smell, even with the warm weather ostensibly drying things out, was still in the walls. There was the occasional scurrying of squirrels in the attic. It was surprising that Cat didn’t jump up and start barking.
“The rot of a bad conscience.”
“I really doubt that.”
“Well, let me show you.” He opened the hatch to the crawl space that constituted the attic. He pulled down the folding ladder and motioned for her to climb it. “Take this flashlight and move it around and you’ll see.”
When she poked her head into the crawl space and flashed her light around, she at first saw nothing but dust and boxes. Then her eyes fell on it: a pile of furry flesh with the intertwined tails of rats. They were a single creature like a wreath, and flies buzzed around them (and excrement bound them at the center) while their bodies were arrayed like spokes. Only one of them still had a head that moved and it opened its mouth noiselessly.
“It’s a rat king,” said Dench. “They were born like that, with their tails attached, and could never get away.”
She scrambled down the ladder and shoved it back up. “That is the most revolting thing I’ve ever seen.”
“They’re supposed to be bad luck.”
“Put the door back down.”
“A surprise for Ian. I did phone the pest-removal place, but they charge a thousand dollars. I said, ‘Where are you taking them, Europe?’ We may just have to burn the house down. It’s completely haunted.”
“We could work up plausible deniability: What kerosene can? Or, Many people are known to go shopping while cooking pot-au-feu.”
She studied Dench’s face as if—once again—she had no idea who he was. Having found the rat king he now seemed to be the star of a raucous horror film. He was trying to be funny all the time and she no longer liked it, as if he were auditioning for something. Soon he might start telling Milt’s jokes: I keep thinking of the hereafter: I walk into a room and say, What am I here after? She only liked Dench’s Jesus jokes, since in them Jesus was kind of an asshole, which she thought was perhaps a strong possibility, so the jokes seemed true and didn’t have to be funny, and so she didn’t have to laugh. “Don’t ever show me anything like that again,” she said.
Cat came up and started to hump Dench’s leg. “Sheesh,” said Dench, as KC turned to leave, “he’s had his balls cut off and he still wants to date.”
Summer warmed all the houses. Most of them did not have air conditioners, Ian’s and Milt’s included. She took Milt one evening to a nearby café, and they had to dine outside, at a wobbly metal table near the parking lot, since the air within was too slicing and cold. “I think I would have liked that cold air when I was about seventeen,” he said. “Now I feel the heat is good for the old bones.”
They ate slowly and although the food clung to his teeth, KC did not alert him. What would be the purpose? At some point, good God, just let an old guy have food in his teeth! They ate squash soup with caramel corn on top—molar wrecking.
“You know,” he said, chewing and looking around, “people get fired from the barbershop, a restaurant closes, this is a slow town and still things change too fast for me. It’s like those big-screen TVs: all the bars have them now. I can’t watch football on those—it feels like they’re running right at me.”
KC smiled but said nothing. At one point he said loudly of his custard, “The banana flavor doesn’t taste like real banana but more like what burped banana tastes like.”
She glanced over at the next table. “I kind of know what you mean,” she said quietly.
“Of course old people are the stupidest. It’s the thing that keeps me from wanting to live in a whole facility full of them. Just listen to them talk: listen to me talk. It’s like, I’ve been waking around with this dumb thought for forty years and I’m still thinking it, so now I might as well say it over and over.” He again sang the praises of his wife, her generosity and social commitment—“She went to clinics in India all the time!”—and then turned his attention to KC. “You are not unlike her, in a way,” he said. Behind him the sun set in the striped hues of a rutabaga.
“I can’t imagine,” she said. Instead her mind was filled with wondering what the neighbors must think.
“Your faces are similar in a way. Especially when you smile!” He smiled at her when he said this, and she returned it with a wan one of her own, her lips in a tight line.
When she walked him back to his house the crickets had started in with their beautiful sawing. “Tinnitus!” Milt exclaimed.
But this time she didn’t laugh, and so he did what he often did when he was irritated: he walked with his most deaf ear toward her so that he could stew in peace. She noticed him weaving and knew that his balance was off. At one point he began to tilt, and she quickly caught him. “An old guy like me should wear a helmet all the time,” he said. “Just get up in the morning and put it on.”
He then turned and peered through the dusk at her. “Sometimes at home I think the ringing in my ears might be the phone, and I pick it up, hoping it might be you.”
She helped him into his house—he took the front stairs with greater difficulty than he used to. She turned on the lights. But he switched them off again, and grabbing her hand sat in a chair. “Come here and sit on my lap,” he said, tugging her firmly. She fell awkwardly across his thin thighs and when she tried to find her footing to stand again he braced and embraced her with his arms and began to nuzzle her neck, the u and r of Decatur. His eyes were closed, and he offered his face up to her, his lips pursed but moving a little to find hers.
KC at first let him kiss her, letting their lips meet slightly—she had to be obliging, she had to work against herself and find a way—and then his rough and pointed tongue flicked quickly in and out and she jolted, flung herself away, stood, switched the lights back on, and turned to face him. “That’s it! You’ve gone off the deep end now!”
“What?” he asked. His eyes were barely open and his tongue only now stopped its animal darting. She swept her hair from her face. The room seemed to whirl. Life got you ready. She had once caught a mouse in a mousetrap—she had heard the snap and when she looked it seemed merely to be a tea bag, a brown mushroomy thing with a tail, then it began flopping and flipping and she’d had to pick it up with a glove and put it in the freezer, trap and all, to die there.
It was time. “You’re completely crazy!” she said loudly. “And there’s nothing I can do at this point but call the hospice!” Words that had waited in the wings now rushed into the crushed black box of her throat.
His face now bore the same blasted-apart look she’d seen when she first had met him, except this time there was something mangled about the eyes, his mouth a gash, his body slumped in banishment. He began silently to cry. And then he spoke. “I looked him up on—what do you call it—Spacebook. His interests and his seekings.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Good luck,” he said. “Good luck to you and your young man—I wish you both the best.”
She sank against the door. She had waited all night for the hospice people to come and carry Milt off the next morning, and then she had signed some forms and promised to visit, promised to come help him with the crossword puzzle, and, taking the keys of the house, she had locked it, then walked hurriedly home.
Dench was putting his cell phone away. He looked at her worriedly and she returned his gaze with a hard glare. He then stepped forward, perhaps to comfort her, but she shoved him off.
“KC,” he said. And when he cocked his head as if puzzled and tried in forgiveness to step toward her again, she made a fist and struck him hard across the face.
Her life in the white-brick house was one of hostessing—and she poured into it all the milk of human kindness she possessed. There were five bedrooms and one suite turned entirely over to the families of children at the hospital whose new pediatric wing was now complete. She had painted the walls of every room either apricot or brown, and she kept the crown moldings white while she painted the ceilings a celestial blue. Every morning she got up early and made breakfast, a ham-and-egg bake that she served in a large casserole in the dining room, and although she made no other meals she made sure there were cookies in the front room and games for the siblings (who also played with the dog). She sometimes attempted music in the afternoons, sitting at the piano while people tried to smile at her. She wore high collars and long sleeves and necklaces of blue slag to hide her tattoos. She left magazines for people to read but not newspapers, which contained too much news. She maintained the book nook, stuffing it with mysteries. In the summer, she opened up the sleeping porches. She watched the families as they went off in the morning, walking their way to the hospital to see their sick children. She never saw the sick children themselves—except at night, when they were ghosts in white nightgowns and would stand on the stairwell landings and recite their names and wave—as she roamed the house, thinking of them as “her children” and then not thinking of them at all, as she sleeplessly straightened up, but she would hear of their lives. “I missed the good parts,” the mothers would say, “and now there are no more good parts.” And she would give them more magazines for flipping through in the surgery lounge, in case they grew tired of watching a thriving aquarium of bright little fish.
Tears thickened her skin the way cave memory and brine knitted the rind of a cheese. Her hair was still long but fuzzily linted with white, and she wore it up in a clip. There were times looking out the front windows, seeing the parents off on their dutiful, despairing visits, when she would think of Dench and again remember the day he had first auditioned raucously for their band, closing with some soft guitar, accompanied by his strong but inexpressive baritone, so the song had to carry the voice, like a river current moving a barge. She had forgotten now what song it was. But she remembered she had wondered whether it would be good to love him, and then she had gone broodingly to the window to look out at the street while he was singing and she had seen a very young woman waiting for him in his beat-up car. It had been winter with winter’s sparse afternoon stars, and the girl was wearing a fleece chin-strap cap that made her look like Dante and also like a baby bird. KC herself had been dressed like Hooker Barbie. Why had she put this memory out of her mind? The young woman had clearly driven him there—would she be tossed away? bequeathed? given a new purpose by God, whose persistent mad humor was aimless as a gnat? She was waiting for him to come back with something they could use.