Digital artwork by Adam Ferriss
It was while quaffing either his seventh or his twelfth beer (counting by fives occasionally presented minor problems) that Clovis Transue had the epiphany: the only girl he'd ever loved, really loved, was Karen Falon. That they'd never slept together was not sufficient cause for doubt or hesitation. He'd kissed her once and had never forgotten it. And she'd said things to him no one had ever said before. The comment that had remained with him for all these years was this: "Spit on your nipple and spit on my tit." As an adult he understood, of course, that this was an inappropriate utterance for a girl of nine, that it didn't make much sense, and that it might well be an indicator of some larger issue: family troubles, physical, emotional or sexual abuse, mild retardation. But at the time it was the most titillating thing he'd ever heard, and for reasons he didn't fully understand, it had left an in indelible impression on his juvenile psyche. That he hadn't seen her since fourth grade was only a trifling concern. The only significant obstacle to attempting to find her was he might have to spend time back in Emmaus, though it seemed unlikely she would have had the poor taste or appalling misfortune to have remained in the same gloomy Pennsylvania town where his own undiscriminating sister had chosen to settle.
Certainly it would be difficult to avoid Bunny and her bearded dwarf of a husband if he went to Emmaus. Last he'd heard, his sister was working as a desk clerk at the only hotel in town, or maybe she was the night manager. In any case she had a way of knowing when he was within what she called (one over-painted eyebrow archly arched) her psychic perimeter. Three years ago he'd crossed the border into Pennsylvania at Delaware Water Gap on his way to Port Jervis, New York, to meet with a potential client. Less than a week later Bunny sent him a scathing 14-page letter accusing him of avoiding her (generally true), wishing she were dead (an exaggeration), and stealing the batteries from her transistor radio when she was eight (well, yes, but...). He'd only stopped twice in Pennsylvania, once for a ham sandwich, potato chips, and a six-pack, and a second time for gas and a bathroom. He hadn't been within 50 miles of Emmaus, and the client had ultimately gone with another consultant, but somehow she knew. She always knew.
Where she got her information remained a mystery, but it sure as hell wasn't psychic powers. Most days she had trouble just trying to determine which planet she inhabited. A far more likely explanation was Melman's mob connections. Although the hirsute hoodlum was just a small town criminal, there was something oddly intimidating about him, his dark unblinking gaze shooting out like a death ray beneath a single simian brow, his chunky arms and broad shoulders carpeted with a thick, black pelt making Clovis want to lay him down and run a Hoover over him till the bag was full. And Melman did seem to have contact with the underworld. He ran a sports gambling business out of his station wagon, and their home was always full of unopened boxes of televisions and car stereos, cameras, children's toys and root vegetables. They hadn't spoken often, but their conversations were always awkward. And yet Clovis couldn't restrain himself from goading him.
At the wedding reception at the Emmaus volunteer firehouse, a clip-on bowtie hanging from the collar of a ruffled shirt a shade of beige nature would have rejected with a smirk, Melman glared up at Clovis. "I see you decided to show up."
"Congratulations," Clovis said, and grinned down at him.
"What you got against my Bunny?" He slurped the foam from the top of a can of Pabst.
"Not a thing." Of course he could barely tolerate his sister, but he wasn't about to admit or try to explain it to the deep-pile Lilliputian. It was at that point Clovis noticed the holster, which looked particularly out of place under a rented tuxedo jacket apparently been designed for a ten-year-old fullback on a strict diet of steroids and raw cattle. "I see you're prepared for the honeymoon," he said and gestured toward the lump.
"Your sister's helped a lot of people," Melman said. "A lot of people."
"She helps somebody every time she decides to keep her mouth shut, which has been about twice in the last 30 years. And that's probably giving her double credit."
"I don't guess I know what that means, but you're the smart one, or so they say. And you don't even know your own sister's age. Ha!"
"You got me there."
"So much for being the smart one."
After that Melman just stared up at him for what felt like 20 minutes. It was astonishing how long he could go without blinking.
Now with a fresh beer in front of him, Clovis worried his resolve might fade with the coming morning and the unwelcome but ineluctable return of sobriety. As certain of his love for Karen as he was at this moment, he was aware a substantial quantity of alcohol had paved the way to this realization. The important thing was to hold onto it, cling to it like burrs to a tumble-dried polyester sock. To that end he borrowed a pen from the bartender and on his napkin he scribbled a note: Karen Falon is the only woman you've ever really really loved. Find her. I'm serious.
As it turned out, the note wasn't necessary. For one thing he was still drunk when he woke up. He was not quite as giddy as he'd been the previous evening, and his level of enthusiasm was somewhat attenuated thanks to a looming hangover's early warning system, but he hadn't forgotten his epiphany or its inspiration. If he had forgotten, the six-foot blonde whose legs were draped across his, cutting off his circulation and creating enough additional heat to roast a frozen Cornish hen, would have reminded him.
"Good morning, Sweetheart." A husky voice came from behind a tangled curtain of hair.
Clovis attempted to shrink. Situations like this brought the shallowness of his life into bold relief. Although he didn't quite remember how they'd ended up in bed together this time, or her name for that matter, he remembered well enough the last time she'd been there. The question now was, could he somehow escape before her heartfelt declarations of love sucked the remaining oxygen from the room?
"Mmmm." She snuggled closer.
"Are you hot," he said, turning his head away from her and trying to repossess one of his phantom limbs without grunting.
"I am. I'm a little warm," he said. "Aren't you a little on the warm side?"
"Oh yeah. I'm hot," she said. "I'm real hot." The thrust of her pelvis nearly catapulted him off the bed.
"I'll put on the air." He squirmed loose.
She was attractive in a round-faced, thick-lipped, corn-fed sort of way, and she seemed nice enough, but something about her was just a tad off, as though her brain had been installed at a slight angle. That first night she had decided within seconds of her first orgasm that she was deeply in love with him. She gazed up at him with those clear blue eyes, one of which may have been ever so faintly higher than the other, and said, "I can't believe I found you. Wow." She pulled him toward her. "Wow. Wow. Wow."
"I really wasn't very well hidden," he mumbled into her shoulder.
Monique, the cute but vacant-eyed Friday night bartender at Sam's Place, had introduced them. The three of them had a few glasses of wine together and talked about books and movies. Neither she nor Monique had ever seen Young Frankenstein so he suggested renting it when the bar closed and watching it at his apartment. Why not? He hadn't actually expected them to consent. About two thirds of the way through the movie, Monique put down her wine glass, frowned at Clovis and said, "Is this a spoof?"
He and the altitudinous blonde had been laughing throughout the film, and their laughter increased at this point, which seemed to add to Monique's bewilderment. Clovis paused the movie in the middle of the scene so they wouldn't miss anything, and Monique yawned, pulled herself out of her chair, smiled, and said, "Thanks so much for the movie."
As soon as she was gone the blonde rose.
"Don't you want to see the end?" Clovis said, trying not to sound desperate.
"Do you have any eggs?" She gulped her wine.
She cooked a spectacular cheese omelet, which they consumed along with another bottle of wine. They never saw the end of the movie, but her postcoital pronouncements of emotional repletion kept him awake until the sun was up.
This morning Karen Falon was his major focus—finding her, talking with her, gazing into her blue, or green, or possibly brown eyes, getting to know her again. Still, he didn't want to be rude to his guest. "I don't remember what you said you did for a living," he said as he searched the floor around the bed for his underwear, conscious of but only faintly bothered by the fact he was not exhibiting his most attractive feature. It was a bit broad and perhaps too hairy by some unspoken standard.
"You have a great ass," she said and pinched him.
"Hey." He jumped. "You should see my father's." It was then Clovis had two simultaneous but distinct realizations. The first was his response had no relevance whatsoever to her comment—in fact it was the punch line to a very old and particularly puerile joke having nothing at all to do with the fundament; the second, and more physically apparent, was he had the capacity to feel embarrassment even in the presence of someone he didn't particularly care about.
She grimaced, then smiled. "You're so cute."
"Do you mind if I smoke?"
He knelt by the foot of the bed and felt around underneath with one hand. "Yes. Yes I do. Nothing personal, but I can't stand cigarette smoke."
"You know, I tried to quit right after I got out, but I was still kind of nervous. But I could try again if it's that important to you. I bet I could do it if I had a good reason."
His vision was a little blurry, but he thought she'd raised an eyebrow.
"Oh... no." He shook his head. "I wouldn't do that. I mean... You don't have to do that. Ha, ha."
"You're so sweet."
"No. No, I'm really not. Got out of where? Were you in the military or something?" He squeezed under the bed. No underwear, but a hearty sneeze would have set off a violent dust storm.
"No. I had a... a breakdown. Didn't Monique mention it?"
"Well... No." He dragged himself out from under the bed, stood up and squinted at her. "No, she didn't."
"Is that okay?"
"I hope so. Ha ha." Where had that ridiculous laugh come from?
"What?" She threw the blankets off and rose. Her eyes widened, and her face flushed. "Oh, yeah." Her blanched complexion returned. "The meds are helping quite a bit. I feel a lot better, and I'm not nearly as impulsive as I was for a while there, thank God."
Standing there naked and available and possibly psychotic, she was suddenly quite appealing. Well, almost naked. She was wearing underwear, men's underwear. In fact it was his underwear. But she had a great body, she was in his apartment, and unless he'd dramatically overestimated himself, she would notice any second his nether region was becoming reanimated. But another whirl would just make things worse, wouldn't it? To her, to most women he'd met, desire meant affection, which meant fondness, which meant love, which meant eternal commitment, a family, life insurance, divorce. To him that simply meant death was gaining. And yet he wanted love, true love, if there was such a thing. At least he believed he did.
He went to his dresser, grabbed a fresh pair of underwear, and slipped it on.
"Spoilsport," she said.
"Ha ha." The laugh was becoming a problem. "So, if you don't mind talking about it, how did you get... wherever you were?"
"Well, I wasn't exactly committed, not technically. I mean, I was, but I voluntarily committed myself." She laughed. "I guess I couldn't involuntarily commit myself, could I?" She stepped toward him. "Unless I was really nuts. Ha!"
"Ha ha." He put a hand over his mouth and took a step back. "I don't usually laugh that way."
"Or unless someone was holding a gun to my head or something, which they weren't. I was pretty screwed up, though. Are you trying to get away from me?"
"What? No. You aren't scary. Not at all."
"I know that. I just think you're feeling a little uncomfortable."
"You mean because you were in—"
"Ha ha. Ha ha. Well—"
"No, I mean because you can see I like you. What I think is you'd like me to leave because I like you, and that makes you uncomfortable."
"Ha ha ha."
As soon as she was gone, he began to regret his reaction. She was sweet, sexy, attractive, and not at all stupid. And she was right there, in his apartment, naked. Almost. Still, she was no Karen Falon. On the other hand, he wasn't sure who was.
"You probably don't remember me," he said as the nurse stepped out of the room. He slid a chair close to the bed and sat down. Perhaps the long drive had made him dizzy, or it might be his growing hunger or the amount of alcohol in his system. "We went to school together."
She frowned, took a long, noisy breath. "I'm sorry. I don't remember you. Were you in a fraternity?"
"A what?" He rubbed his eyes.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah. No. I mean, not college. We went to Lincoln together. Mrs. Palmer's class."
She inspected him. "Grade school?"
Even her facial muscles seemed to be touched by paralysis. "Yeah," he said and leaned toward her. "Yes, grade school."
"You're drunk, aren't you?"
"Yeah, I suppose I probably am. Sorry," he said and smiled. "I guess I—"
"I'm afraid I don't have much patience for... for drunks these days. Come back when you're sober. If you want to, that is. I don't get a lot of company." She let her eyes fall shut.
"How is she doing," he asked the nurse as she led him to the door.
She glared at her fingernails and said, "She's how she looks like she is, is how she's doing."
It took him a moment to translate. "You're doing great work here," he said and stepped outside.
He sat in his car and opened his thermos. Before he could raise it to his mouth, his cell phone rang.
"Hello," he said and took a swig.
"Were you not planning to tell us you were in town?"
"Jesus," he said. "I've only been here for—"
"I know how long you been here, Clovis. You just don't give a damn about your family."
"What the hell are you doing here if you wasn't going to visit? I mean what?"
"You don't know nobody else around here, do you?"
Why did she sound like a sixth grade dropout? "Not a soul."
"Look, if you want to honor us with your presence, and you think you can still find your way to our humble adobe, we're having dinner around six." She hung up.
Clovis hadn't really expected his Internet search to be fruitful, but after fewer than ten minutes, he'd found a Karen Falon-Strunk, Ph.D. listed as President of the Emmaus Public Library for 2003 and 2004. An hour later he was driving across the George Washington Bridge, a thermos full of Jack Daniels cradled between his legs and a bag of pretzels on the passenger's seat. It was some time after 2:00 when he stumbled into the Emmaus Public Library and inquired about his ex-classmate. The librarian, a pale, almost translucent twig of a man with a moustache looking as though it had been crafted with an eyebrow pencil, twitched and cleared his throat before excusing himself.
A minute later an elderly woman approached him. "I understand you're looking for... for Ms. Falon," she said. She tightened her lips and fixed her narrow blue eyes on his.
"We were... we went to school together."
"I see," she said and shrugged her shoulders. "I'm afraid she hasn't been associated with the library for quite some time, sir. Not since... not for a couple years now." She had the superior air of someone with an important secret. And there was a dead gnat on her forehead, which he chose not to mention.
When the apathetic young nurse invited him into Karen's home 15 minutes later, he had no idea what to expect. The woman at the library hadn't bothered to mention her condition, or what might have caused it. She hadn't told him anything but the address where he might find her. Perhaps her initial glare, which he'd interpreted as a prudish rebuke for his crumpled appearance and the aroma of alcohol, had been something else entirely.
But now what was he supposed to do? Going back to New York seemed the obvious choice. Karen hadn't even asked his name, and she'd been offended enough by his elevated level of intoxication to dismiss him without any thought. Given her condition he wasn't about to try to rekindle whatever his pickled imagination had been attempting to persuade him might have had the potential to exist between them. In spite of his irrational expectations, she was really little more than a stranger to him. And yet it seemed wrong, even cruel to simply vanish now, with her alone in that dreary little rectangle of a house but for an apathetic nurse and unable to move anything below her neck. He should have stayed home with the Amazon. At least she was only crazy.
If Clovis hadn't been so tired, so hungry, so intoxicated and confused, he would never have gone to his sister's house; he would never have called her back. But there he was, leaning against her doorbell actually hoping someone was home. There was something troubling about Karen's comment. He'd felt embarrassed about an issue he'd long ago decided to cease feeling embarrassed about. Yes, he liked to drink. In fact he drank too much, but he made a good living and he had a reasonably good if somewhat shallow life. Still, he felt like a little boy who'd been caught masturbating to pictures of his older sister.
"Are you coming in, or are you just going to stand there with your hands in your pockets?" Bunny stood in the doorway, one hand resting on her hip.
"I'm still trying to decide." Already he regretted this. "Anything to drink?"
"You mean other than the fancy bottle of wine you're holding?"
"Oh, yeah. Ha ha." He handed her the bottle and shook his head. The idiotic laugh was back.
"Don't forget to doff your shoes," she said and motioned him inside.
"Did you say doff?"
"Least your ears is working." She snickered. "But if you ast me you look like somebody forgot to bury you. Now get them shoes and socks off before you soil my nice clean carpet."
High on the list of reasons to avoid visiting Bunny was her obsession with white. Fluffy white cats tiptoed silently across fluffy white wall-to-wall carpeting on which sat a white couch, a white loveseat, and, though no one played a note, thank God, a shiny white baby grand piano. And it wasn't just the living room. The towels in the bathroom were white, the bedding was white, and all the drapes were white. Perfectly sober it was dizzying, but with half a bag on, it was absolutely stultifying. Clovis surveyed the stacks of boxes lined up against two walls of the room: Televisions, iPods, microwave ovens and twelve huge cases of... Big Macs.
"Looks like a hospital for ill-gotten gains," he said.
"Well, would you look what the cat drug in." Melman stepped into the living room, a can of Pabst gripped in his furry paw. He was wearing a blue satin robe, about ten inches of which followed along the floor behind him like a devoted wave. The sleeves were rolled up, and the belt was tied about midway between his knees and his waist.
"Now I get it," Clovis said. "She's Snow White..." He motioned to his sister. "and—"
"I know exactly where you're going, smart guy." Melman said. "And I'm supposed to be the big bad wolf, right?"
"Ha ha ha."
"I can keep up with you and then some." Melman gulped his beer.
"Yeah, looks like you've met your match, Clove."
"And then some."
"I was meditating if you really want to know," Melman said, and slurped his beer.
"It must be edifying to get in touch with your inner felon."
"I hate to break up the friendly spurring, but maybe you jokers could set your dueling knives aside long enough to set down for some chow. Let's see if we can't get on the same plane and maybe raise a consciousness or two."
Melman stepped closer to Clovis and stared up at him, his eyes wide and unblinking. "You look like you're about three sheets to the window, pal."
"That's the popular opinion, expressed with some originality. But I do feel a sudden, urgent need to catch up with my appearance."
"Huh?" Melman was still staring, still not blinking.
"What's with the burgers?" Clovis motioned to the boxes.
"The Big Macs? They was supposed to of been them Powerbook computers with the big 17-inch monitors."
"I figured something was wrong when they said they was on a refrigerated truck."
"Oh my God," Bunny said.
The two men turned toward her.
"You two was connected in your former lifes."
"Handcuffs?" Clovis said.
It was while struggling through his third well-done, extra-dry Big Mac that Clovis let it slip. Bunny had just finished explaining everything wrong with his life and how he could mend it with meditation, positive thinking, faith, numerology, and psychic chiropractic when Melman leaned toward him and confided, "This sister of yours is in a class of her own, my friend. She knows things nobody knows and nobody ever will."
"Neato," Clovis said and sipped his wine.
"I know you're messing with me, smart guy, and that's fine because you're my brother-in-law and plus we're related, but if you weren't family, I'd maybe take a certain amount of pleasure in dealing with you on my own terms."
Clovis picked up his drink. "You mean, like... you'd spin me around and punch me in the ass?"
"Keep pushing me, and I might forget who I am. Anyways, you don't have to like me, but if you weren't so grounded in things earthly you'd see how smart and receptful this little girl is."
"It's true, Clove. You are too grounded in things earthly. I can see things probably nobody else can. You're stuck here on earth."
"I seen it, too," Melman said. "He's too grounded in things earthly."
"You said that, Mel." Bunny sighed and continued. "And yet you don't even care about your own family, which is also here on earth with you much of the time. What I wonder is, what do you care about?"
"I wonder that same thing," Melman added, nodding his head.
"What do you think you don't know, Clovis? Or do you just think you know everything?"
"What don't I think I know?"
"That's what we're asking," Melman said. He was staring at Clovis again. "Just give us a couple for instances or such as that."
"Anywhere," Melman said. His lids were glued open.
Clovis wiped his mouth and sat back. "Let's see now. Well, I don't know how my sister got so fucking weird. I don't know how the hell you do that annoying thing with your eyes. And I don't have a clue what happened to Karen Falon."
"What thing with my eyes?" Melman raised and lowered his brows.
"Karen Falon?" Bunny was frowning at her brother as though he was something she'd stepped in.
Melman turned to his wife. He had a mouthful of burger. "What thing with my eyes, Bun?"
"How should I know?"
"Why are you looking at me like that?" Clovis said.
Bunny sat up straight and folded her arms. "Everybody in the Lehigh Valley knows about Karen Falon."
"Now there's a girl who could pour them back." Melman was opening and closing his eyes.
"That was big news a couple years ago, but what in hell do you care?" Bunny scrunched up her face. "Do you know her?"
"No. I mean, I went to school with her one year, I think, but—"
Melman pressed his palms into his eyes. "Drink like a fish, she could. More than you, Clovis, if you can believe it."
"She had it coming, and a lot more if you ast me," Bunny said. She looked at her husband. "Now you're going to get one of your migrate headaches if don't you stop that."
"Had what coming?" Clovis poured more wine. "Wasn't she president of the library or something?"
"She had good breeding and a real good long college education. She had everything a young gal could want. No excuse for her. She was married to a nice looking young fellow, too," Bunny said. "Real nice looking."
"Jack something," Melman said. "Or Fred maybe. Sold insurance and never Welshed on a bet. You think he was good looking?"
"Nothing like you, fuzzy bear. Anyways, she stopped drinking when she got pregnant."
"I never did believe it." Melman was dabbing his eyes with ice water.
"We'll never know, dear. No one never seen her drink when she was carrying."
"Got back to it pretty quick when the girl was born then."
"Well she must of cause the poor thing was only six months old when she killed her."
"What?" Clovis sat up straight.
"Same as," Bunny said and shook her head.
Melman was at the refrigerator. "Killing's not the worst thing in the world," he said. "Not by a long shot. Anybody want another beer?"
"I'll have one," Bunny said. "And get one for our guest. He looks like he can use one."
"What do you mean she killed her daughter?"
"Story is she was drinking heavy. And they figure it was only 11 in the morning, if you can believe it. She had a load of laundry and took her baby with her down them steep wooden basement steps."
"Could of just left it in the crib." Melman opened his beer and sucked the foam.
"Could of, but no, she trips and goes tumbling down there, and the poor little thing pops out of her arms like a jack-in-the-box and lands head first on the edge of the sink before hitting that cement floor. Meanwhile Karen hits her own head and breaks something in her neck or back or maybe both."
"I think it was her spine, Bun."
"Whatever. It was somewhere in that general arena." She sighed. "Anyways, Karen's crippled, and her kid's dead."
"Her husband up and left her and disappeared soon after, and I for one do not blame the man."
"Why isn't she in prison?"
"There was a lot of talk of charges and so forth, and from what I heard, she never did deny being drunk, but it come down to the District Attorney decided not to pursue it for some reason or the other."
Melman tapped Clovis on the shoulder. "You mean this?" One eye was staring straight ahead while the other went from side to side.
Everything was pale and blurry and something sharp was poking at his foot. The serious pain began in his eyes, though, and spread through his entire head. Piercing surges of agony. If this was death he was sick of it already. If not he'd welcome it with very little negotiation. He closed his eyes. Something was crawling around inside him. It was furry and fat but it had rough edges that scraped the walls of his stomach as it moved. Fins maybe. He tried to sit up but it burrowed into a place in his stomach he never knew existed, a place about 50 percent too small to accommodate the thing. It stopped there for a moment and he took a deep breath. When he exhaled it slithered up toward his esophagus. It grew. Someone drove a nail into his toe and he sat up. A long, thunderous belch shot out of him and the cat rocketed off the couch, taking part of Clovis's toe with it and leaving a cloud of white fur floating in the air like a bad joke.
His stomach felt much better since the eruption, but someone had inflated his head with ice water during the night. He heard voices, groans, thumping. It was Bunny and Melman.
"Yes, yes. Harder, harder! To the left," she barked. "No, lower. Bingo."
Humming a march, he found his shoes and left.
"She's awake," the nurse said. "You can go ahead in." She motioned toward Karen's room.
"You're back," Karen said.
He smiled. "I guess I am."
"Why?" She narrowed her eyes.
"Well, I came down here to—"
"Came from where?"
"New York. Manhattan."
"I've heard of it," she said, and almost seemed to smile.
"It's very popular in some circles."
"And we went to grade school together?"
"And you just got good and drunk and decided to look me up."
"Sort of, I guess."
"Weren't you there?"
"When you decided to look me up."
He laughed. "Mostly, I suppose. Do you mind if I sit."
"You can bring that chair closer if you want." She turned her eyes toward the corner. "You didn't have to come back," she said.
"You seem sober."
"Yes." He got the chair and sat down.
"So what can I do for you?"
"You haven't even asked my name."
"No," she said. "I haven't."
"I used to... We knew each other. I mean, we were kids, but I liked you and I remembered you." He leaned closer. "I was thinking about you because... I really don't know. I suppose you were probably just someone to remember."
He nodded. "We all have."
"It's not quite the same," she said. This time she really smiled, but it was a bitter smile, and her eyes remained distant.
"No. I didn't mean to say it was."
"So why did you come back?"
"Yes, I mean after seeing me."
"I'm not sure." He leaned back in the chair, folded his hands. "Don't you want to know my name?"
"No," she said. "What I'd like is for you to tell me why you came back."
"Okay. I guess the truth is I felt bad. I guess I felt like it would be cruel to leave just because..." He could see she wasn't going to help him now. "It would be cruel to leave because you're disabled." He shrugged. "Paralyzed."
"I'm not going to grade you on your choice of words."
"I hope not," he said. "I'd probably do quite a bit better drunk."
"I doubt it. I hope not."
"It's easier sometimes."
"So you're here because you feel sorry for me."
"That's okay. Compassion is an admirable quality. I won't fault you for it. I just wonder how sorry you feel."
"Is this just something you needed to do so you wouldn't feel like a horrible person?"
"Partly, I suppose. But I really did feel... bad for you. I mean, you may be happy, you may think your life is perfect, but—" There was no way he was going to escape without feeling like a complete idiot.
"Yeah, I'd say it's just about perfect. You'll feel better now."
"Have you ever done anything terrible?"
"I'm in no position to judge anybody."
"So I guess you know something about how I got here."
"But that's not what I'm asking. I'm asking about you. Have you ever stolen money? Have you ever killed anybody?"
"Do you think you could? Do you think you could kill someone?"
"I don't know. Maybe, if my life were threatened and I had no other options. Maybe to defend someone else. But I guess you never know until you—"
"Well, have you ever hunted?"
"What about fishing?"
"Yes. You know, catching fish, with a pole and a line and a hook."
"Don't forget the worms."
"Of course. The worms."
"I guess it never appealed to me."
"You've squashed bugs, though."
"Yes," he said. "I admit it. Set mousetraps too."
"I'm not insane."
"I'm really not."
"Well, in terms of the people I've spent time with in the last day or two, that would make you the lone exception."
"Do you want to do something for me?"
"If there's something I can do." He nodded. "Sure."
"I'd like you to help me die."
Clovis looked down at his hands.
"I think it's a perfectly reasonable request, at least from my perspective."
"Perhaps." He studied her. "Maybe it is. But why would you ask me?"
"Well, my mother is dead, and for some reason my father doesn't seem to care for the idea. And you're a stranger. I think it would be easier for a stranger. No real emotional connection. And, well, you're here."
"No, I don't believe I could do that."
"Don't believe you could?"
"You do feel sorry for me, though."
"Yes, I do."
"Just not sorry enough."
"That's probably part of it, but—"
"How much do you know?"
"I know... well, I heard from sources of dubious reliability that you fell down some steps with a baby in your arms."
"Your baby. And that the... that she died."
"There you go."
"And I was drunk."
"Yes. That was the story. That's what I heard."
"There was a husband. Oh yeah, and you were never prosecuted. But that was about it."
"I watched my child die." Her eyes glazed over but there were no tears. "Do you understand what I'm saying?"
For a moment Clovis was silent. "I—"
"I don't know if I was unconscious for a while or not. It doesn't matter. She was still alive, bleeding, gagging. I couldn't move. I watched. I watched for a while, and then I did something worse. Would you mind if I told you what I did?"
"I don't know," he said. And yet what choice was there? "If you want... if it will help."
"I closed my eyes."
"You closed your eyes?"
"That's right. I closed my eyes."
"I don't know what to say."
"You could do that if it would help."
"You know what."
"No." He shook his head.
"You could close your eyes."
"I'm not... No, I can't, couldn't."
She was silent but for her steady rhythmic breathing.
"Look. I don't know what to say. I'm not—"
"What did you have in mind when you decided to look me up?"
"I don't know."
"You must have some idea."
"True love, I suppose."
"With a girl you knew in fourth grade?"
"My life just... I just wasn't... It wasn't working. I was groping for something... something to make me—"
"Make you what?"
"Feel, I guess. To make me feel."
"How's that working out?" The smile flashing across her face seemed real.
"I'm sorry I can't help you."
"You can. Take some time. Think about it for a day or two. I'm not going anywhere for a while."
"I should probably—"
"You have a nice face."
"Thanks. Is there anything I can get you?"
"Are you planning to come back?"
"I can. I mean I'd like to." He smiled. "I think."
"Will you think about what I asked you?"
"I don't think so."
"Please. Just think about it. Think about what you would want?"
"There's no way to know that."
"You don't have any children."
"But you could think about it. Think about what it might feel like to sit here and think about it day and night, to dream about it, about what I did, what I saw, and what I chose not to see."
Clovis rose. "Would you like me to come tomorrow?"
"Yes." She closed her eyes. "Please."
"I figured you was long gone." Bunny stood behind the check-in desk, one hand on her hip.
"Thanks for dinner, and the accommodations."
"That's what family's for."
"I'd like a room."
"You going to stay awhile?"
"Well, another night anyway."
"You could always use our couch."
"No. I mean, thanks, but I don't sleep very well like that."
"Why'd you rush out so darned early? Was we too noisy?"
"Huh? Ha ha. No. I didn't... No."
"You and Melman got on pretty good," she said.
"Hmm? Oh yes, we did. We sure did."
"He's a bright shining light in the darkness."
"Must be tough sleeping."
"So just one night?"
She looked around and then leaned toward him. "I can give you a little discount."
"You don't... Okay. Sure. If you want to."
"My karma account can always use another deposit."
"You're sure are welcome."
He reached for his wallet.
"Don't pay me now."
"Just give me the cash when I finish work."
He didn't ask her if the money would go into the same account as the karma.
Clovis hadn't planned on thinking any more about Karen's desire to die; it was too depressing and he was exhausted. He'd intended to relax and try to take a close look at his own life, but during dinner and afterward in his room, Karen was all he thought of. Perhaps death would be the only release for her, and perhaps she had earned it somehow. There was no way to know. Maybe she needed something else, something that death, or its promise, couldn't provide, although what that might be he couldn't imagine. Of course, helping her die was unthinkable for him, not because of the issue of morality, which to him was vague at best, but because he simply didn't believe he had the capacity to do it.
Then he thought of Melman. Melman would do it. Most likely he would do it for a six-pack of Pabst, or he would at least know someone who would. Clovis's hands would be clean. He wouldn't have to see it, to be physically responsible. The distance might act as a buffer for the discomfort or guilt or whatever it was he feared he'd feel. That would be easier. But it still felt wrong. Not wrong, perhaps, but not possible. Not for him.
Of course, there were no answers to any of the questions hanging over him. There were only questions, questions that in the end would be irrelevant. She wanted to die, and it would be difficult, perhaps impossible to blame her. There was nothing left for her but pain. For reasons more and more elusive, more and more muddled, he wanted to help her. But all she wanted was an end, and that was something he could not provide.
"She's sleeping, but you can go on in if you really want to," the nurse said the following morning. "She should be waking up soon."
He pulled the chair close and watched her, uncertain what to say or do when she woke. Her skin was pale; it hung loose on her face as though it had been designed for someone larger. Perhaps that little girl he once knew was still in there somewhere, but for all his searching he couldn't unearth her. Perhaps she wasn't there at all. Perhaps she'd slipped out in the basement with her daughter. Her eyes flickered open.
"Good morning," he said.
"What?" She looked confused, as though she'd forgotten where she was.
"I can go, or come back later." He began to rise.
"No," she said. "Are you here to save me?"
"No." He sat back. "I guess I'm not."
She lowered her eyes.
"But I'll tell you a story with no moral, no meaning, and little if any plot."
He knew he could be glib, how easy and natural that was for him, how safe, and how distant and superior he could feel. But he also knew that wouldn't work here, not for either of them. So he told her how she'd crept into his thoughts off and on over the years, a promiscuous young girl, pretty, full of life, provocative at a time when she should have been shy and innocent. And he told how he'd been drinking that night less than a week before, how after too many beers he'd somehow come to believe, to truly believe he loved the girl he remembered. He described the tall blonde whose name he didn't know and the strange scene in his apartment and his ridiculous laugh and the blonde's sudden departure, and he told her about his sister and her carpeted mini-mobster and their clean white home and all the drinking, and then he talked about the emptiness stalking him virtually unnoticed for longer than he could say. He told her about his desperation, for the first time recognizing it for what it was. He told her everything he'd said and done, everything he'd thought since that night in the bar. He talked about his desire to help her, how it had become a need. He talked until there was nothing left unsaid.
She listened, and she laughed, and when he was finished she looked at him, her eyes moist with tears. "You aren't going to do it, are you?"
"No," he said. "I'm sorry, but I can't."
She nodded. "I'm tired," she said.
"Okay." He rose. "Okay."
"What are you—"
"I have to go home," he said. "Back to New York."
"Do you want me to... would you like me to come back... sometime?"
"No," she said. "No, I wouldn't."
"Are you sure?"
He leaned close, kissed her forehead. "Goodbye, Karen." He wiped the tears from her cheeks. "I'm sorry."
"Goodbye, Clovis." She looked up at him. "Maybe you shouldn't drink so much."
"Or at all."
"I mean it. I know it doesn't always turn out this badly. But give it long enough, and it will steal something from you, even if it's only time or a little well-earned pain."
"And maybe you should try taking that blonde out to dinner. A lunatic might be good for you. I think you're too grounded in things earthly."
He laughed and made his way toward the door. "I can come next weekend," he said.
She was moving her lips but no words were coming.
He stepped toward her.
She stopped trying to speak and smiled.
He moved closer, reached down and stroked her hair. "Karen..."
"I guess I won't be going anywhere," she said, and closed her eyes. "Not for awhile anyway."