A Dirty Job Chapter 10
Do not seek death. Death will find you.
But seek the road which makes death a fulfillment.
– Dag Hammarskjöld
DEATH TAKES A WALK
Mornings, Charlie walked. At six, after an early breakfast, he would turn the care of Sophie over to Mrs. Korjev or Mrs. Ling (whoever’s turn it was) for the workday and walk – stroll really, pacing out the city with the sword-cane, which had become part of his daily regalia, wearing soft, black-leather walking shoes and an expensive, secondhand suit that had been retailored at his cleaner’s in Chinatown. Although he pretended to have a purpose, Charlie walked to give himself time to think, to try on the size of being Death, and to look at all the people out and about in the morning. He wondered if the girl at the flower stand, from whom he often bought a carnation for his lapel, had a soul, or would give hers up while he watched her die. He watched the guy in North Beach make cappuccinos with faces and fern leaves drawn in the foam, and wondered if a guy like that could actually function without a soul, or was his soul collecting dust in Charlie’s back room? There were a lot of people to see, and a lot of thinking to be done.
Being out among the people of the city, when they were just starting to move, greeting the day, making ready, he started to feel not just the responsibility of his new role, but the power, and finally, the specialness. It didn’t matter that he had no idea what he was doing, or that he might have lost the love of his life for it to happen; he had been chosen. And realizing that, one day as he walked down California Street, down Nob Hill into the financial district, where he’d always felt inferior and out of touch with the world, as the brokers and bankers quickstepped around him, barking into their cell phones to Hong Kong or London or New York and never making eye contact, he started to not so much stroll, as strut. That day Charlie Asher climbed onto the California Street cable car for the first time since he was a kid, and hung off the bar, out over the street, holding out the sword-cane as if charging, with Hondas and Mercedes zooming along the street beside him, passing under his armpit just inches away. He got off at the end of the line, bought a Wall Street Journal from a machine, then walked to the nearest storm drain, spread out the Journal to protect his trousers against oil stains, then got down on his hands and knees and screamed into the drain grate, “I have been chosen, so don’t fuck with me!” When he stood up again, a dozen people were standing there, waiting for the light to change. Looking at him.
“Had to be done,” Charlie said, not apologizing, just explaining.
The bankers and the brokers, the executive assistants and the human-resource people and the woman on her way to serve up clam chowder in a sourdough bowl at the Boudin Bakery, all nodded, not sure exactly why, except that they worked in the financial district, and they all understood being fucked with, and in their souls if not in their minds, they knew that Charlie had been yelling in the right direction. He folded his paper, tucked it under his arm, then turned and crossed the street with them when the light changed.
Sometimes Charlie walked whole blocks when he thought only of Rachel, and would become so engrossed in the memory of her eyes, her smile, her touch, that he ran straight into people. Other times people would bump into him, and not even lift his wallet or say “excuse me,” which might be a matter of course in New York, but in San Francisco meant that he was close to a soul vessel that needed to be retrieved. He found one, a bronze fireplace poker, set out by the curb with the trash on Russian Hill. Another time, he spotted a glowing vase displayed in the bay window of a Victorian in North Beach. He screwed up his courage and knocked on the door, and when a young woman answered, and came out on the porch to look for her visitor, and was bewildered because she didn’t see anyone there, Charlie slipped past her, grabbed the vase, and was out the side door before she came back in, his heart pounding like a war drum, adrenaline sizzling through his veins like a hormonal tilt-a-whirl. As he headed back to the shop that particular morning, he realized, with no little sense of irony, that until he became Death, he’d never felt so alive.
Every morning, Charlie tried to walk in a different direction. On Mondays he liked to go up into Chinatown just after dawn, when all the deliveries were being made – crates of produce, carrots, lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, melons, and a dozen varieties of cabbage, tended by Latinos in the Central Valley and consumed by Chinese in Chinatown, having passed through Anglo hands just long enough to extract the nourishing money. On Mondays the fishing companies delivered their fresh catches – usually strong Italian men whose families had been in the business for five generations, handing off their catch to inscrutable Chinese merchants whose ancestors had bought fish from the Italians off horse-drawn wagons a hundred years before. All sorts of live and recently live fish were moved across the sidewalk: snapper and halibut and mackerel, sea bass and ling cod and yellowtail, clawless Pacific lobster, Dungeness crab, ghastly monkfish, with their long saberlike teeth and a single spine that jutted from their head, bracing a luminous lure they used to draw in prey, so deep in the ocean that the sun never shone. Charlie was fascinated by the creatures from the very deep sea, the big-eyed squid, cuttlefish, the blind sharks that located prey with electromagnetic impulses – creatures who never saw light. They made him think of what might be facing him from the Underworld, because even as he fell into a rhythm of finding names at his bedside, and soul vessels in all manner of places, and the appearance of the ravens and the shades subsided, he could feel them under the street whenever he passed a storm sewer. Sometimes he could hear them whispering to one another, hushing quickly in the rare moments when the street went quiet.
To walk through Chinatown at dawn was to become part of a dangerous dance, because there were no back doors or alleys for loading, and all the wares went across the sidewalk, and although Charlie had enjoyed neither danger nor dancing up till now, he enjoyed playing dance partner to the thousand tiny Chinese grandmothers in black slippers or jelly-colored plastic shoes who scampered from merchant to merchant, squeezing and smelling and thumping, looking for the freshest and the best for their families, twanging orders and questions to the merchants in Mandarin, all the while just a second or a slip away from being run over by sides of beef, great racks of fresh duck, or hand trucks stacked high with crates of live turtles. Charlie was yet to retrieve a soul vessel on one of his Chinatown walks, but he stayed ready, because the swirl of time and motion forecast that one foggy morning someone’s granny was going to get knocked out of her moo shoes.
One Monday, just for sport, Charlie grabbed an eggplant that a spectacularly wizened granny was going for, but instead of twisting it out of his hand with some mystic kung fu move as he expected, she looked him in the eye and shook her head – just a jog, barely perceptible really – it might have been a tic, but it was the most eloquent of gestures. Charlie read it as saying: O White Devil, you do not want to purloin that purple fruit, for I have four thousand years of ancestors and civilization on you; my grandparents built the railroads and dug the silver mines, and my parents survived the earthquake, the fire, and a society that outlawed even being Chinese; I am mother to a dozen, grandmother to a hundred, and great-grandmother to a legion; I have birthed babies and washed the dead; I am history and suffering and wisdom; I am a Buddha and a dragon; so get your fucking hand off my eggplant before you lose it.
And Charlie let go.
And she grinned, just a little. Three teeth.
And he wondered if it ever did fall to him to retrieve the soul vessel of one of these crones of Chronos, if he’d even be able to lift it. And he grinned back.
And asked for her phone number, which he gave to Ray. “She seemed nice,” Charlie told him. “Mature.”
Sometimes Charlie’s walks took him through Japantown, where he passed the most enigmatic shop in the city, Invisible Shoe Repair. He really intended to stop in one day, but he was still coming to terms with giant ravens, adversaries from the Underworld, and being a Merchant of Death, and he wasn’t sure he was ready for invisible shoes, let alone invisible shoes that needed repair! He often tried to look past the Japanese characters into the shop window as he passed, but saw nothing, which, of course, didn’t mean a thing. He just wasn’t ready. But there was a pet shop in Japantown (House of Pleasant Fish and Gerbil), where he had originally gone to buy Sophie’s fish, and where he returned to replace the TV attorneys with six TV detectives, who also simultaneously took the big Ambien a week later. Charlie had been distraught to find his baby daughter drooling away in front of a bowl floating more dead detectives than a film noir festival, and after flushing all six at once and having to use the plunger to dislodge Magnum and Mannix, he vowed that next time he would find more resilient pals for his little girl. He was coming out of House of PF&G one afternoon, with a Habitrail pod containing a pair of sturdy hamsters, when he ran into Lily, who was making her way to a coffeehouse up on Van Ness, where she was planning to meet her friend Abby for some latte-fueled speed brooding.
“Hey, Lily, how are you doing?” Charlie was trying to appear matter-of-fact, but he found that the awkwardness between him and Lily over the last few months was not mitigated by her seeing him on the street carrying a plastic box full of rodents.
“Nice gerbils,” Lily said. She wore a Catholic schoolgirl’s plaid skirt over black tights and Doc Martens, with a tight black PVC bustier that was squishing pale Lily-bits out the top, like a can of biscuit dough that’s been smacked on the edge of the counter. The hair color du jour was fuchsia, over violet eye shadow, which matched her violet, elbow-length lace gloves. She looked up and down the street and, when she didn’t see anyone she knew, fell into step next to Charlie.
“They’re not gerbils, they’re hamsters,” Charlie said.
“Asher, do you have something you’ve been keeping from me?” She tilted her head a little, but didn’t look at him when she asked, just kept her eyes forward, scanning the street for someone who might recognize her walking next to Charlie, thus forcing her to commit seppuku.
“Jeez, Lily, these are for Sophie!” Charlie said. “Her fish died, so I’m bringing her some new pets. Besides, that whole gerbil thing is an urban myth – “
“I meant that you’re Death,” Lily said.
Charlie nearly dropped his hamsters. “Huh?”
“It’s so wrong – ” Lily continued, walking on after Charlie had stopped in his tracks, so now he had to scurry to catch up to her. “Just so wrong, that you would be chosen. Of all of life’s many disappointments, I’d have to say that this is the crowning disappointment.”
“You’re sixteen,” Charlie said, still stumbling a little at the matter-of-fact way she was discussing this.
“Oh, throw that in my face, Asher. I’m only sixteen for two more months, then what? In the blink of an eye my beauty becomes but a feast for worms, and I, a forgotten sigh in a sea of nothingness.”
“Your birthday is in two months? Well, we’ll have to get you a nice cake,” Charlie said.
“Don’t change the subject, Asher. I know all about you, and your Death persona.”
Charlie stopped again and turned to look at her. This time, she stopped as well. “Lily, I know I’ve been acting a little strangely since Rachel died, and I’m sorry you got in trouble at school because of me, but it’s just been trying to deal with it all, with the baby, with the business. The stress of it all has – “
“I have The Great Big Book of Death,” Lily said. She steadied Charlie’s hamsters when he lost his grip. “I know about the soul vessels, about the dark forces rising if you fuck up, all that stuff – all of it. I’ve known longer than you have, I think.”
Charlie didn’t know what to say. He was feeling panic and relief at the same time – panic because Lily knew, but relief because at least someone knew, and believed it, and had actually seen the book. The book!
“Lily, do you still have the book?”
“It’s in the store. I hid it in the back of the glass cabinet where you keep the valuable stuff that no one will ever buy.”
“No one ever looks in that cabinet.”
“No kidding? I thought if you ever found it, I’d say it had always been there.”
“I have to go.” He turned and started walking the other direction, but then realized that they had already been heading toward his neighborhood and turned around again. “Where are you going?”
“To get some coffee.”
“I’ll walk with you.”
“You will not.” Lily looked around again, wary that someone might see them.
“But, Lily, I’m Death. That should at least have given me some level of cool.”
“Yeah, you’d think, but it turns out that you have managed to suck the cool out of being Death.”
“Wow, that’s harsh.”
“Welcome to my world, Asher.”
“You can’t tell anyone about this, you know that?”
“Like anyone cares what you do with your gerbils.”
“Hamsters! That’s not – “
“Chill, Asher.” Lily giggled. “I know what you mean. I’m not going to tell anyone – except Abby knows – but she doesn’t care. She says she’s met some guy who’s her dark lord. She’s in that stage where she thinks a dick is some kind of mystical magic wand.”
Charlie adjusted his hamster box uncomfortably. “Girls go through a stage like that?” Why was he just hearing about this now? Even the hamsters looked uncomfortable.
Lily turned on a heel and started up the street. “I’m not having this conversation with you.”
Charlie stood there, watching her go, balancing the hamsters and his completely useless sword-cane while trying to dig his cell phone out of his jacket pocket. He needed to see that book, and he needed to see it sooner than the hour it would take him to get home. “Lily, wait!” he called. “I’m calling a cab, I’ll give you a ride.”
She waved him off without looking and kept walking. As he was waiting for the cab company to answer, he heard it, the voice, and he realized that he was standing right over a storm drain. It had been over a month since he’d heard them, and he thought maybe they’d gone. “We’ll have her, too, Meat. She’s ours now.”
He felt the fear rise in his throat like bile. He snapped the phone shut and ran after Lily, cane rattling and hamsters bouncing as he went. “Lily, wait! Wait!”
She spun around quickly and her fuchsia wig only did the quarter turn instead of the half, so her face was covered with hair when she said, “One of those ice-cream cakes from Thirty-one Flavors, okay? After that, despair and nothingness.”
“We’ll put that on the cake,” Charlie said.