A Dirty Job Chapter 12

A Dirty Job Chapter 12



Charlie named the hamsters Parmesan and Romano (or Parm and Romy, for short) because when the time came for thinking up names, he just happened to be reading the label on a jar of Alfredo sauce. That was all the thought that went into it and that was enough. In fact, Charlie thought he might have even gone overboard, considering that when he returned home the day of the great firecracker/sewer debacle, he found his daughter gleefully pounding away on the tray of her high chair with a stiff hamster.

Romano was the poundee, Charlie could tell because he’d put a dot of nail polish between his little ears so he could tell it apart from its companion, Parmesan, who was equally stiff inside the plastic Habitrail box. In the bottom of the exercise wheel, actually. Dead at the wheel.

“Mrs. Ling!” Charlie called. He pried the expired rodent from his darling daughter’s little hand and dropped it in the cage.

“Is Vladlena, Mr. Asher,” came a giant voice from the bathroom. There was a flush and Mrs. Korjev emerged from the bathroom pulling at the clasps of her overalls. “I’m sorry, I am having to crap like bear. Sophie was safe in chair.”

“She was playing with a dead hamster, Mrs. Korjev.”

Mrs. Korjev looked at the two hamsters in the plastic Habitrail box – gave it a little tap, shook it back and forth. “They sleep.”

“They are not sleeping, they’re dead.”

“They are fine when I go in bathroom. Playing, running on wheel, having laugh.”

“They were not having a laugh. They were dead. Sophie had one in her hand.” Charlie looked more closely at the rodent that Sophie had been tenderizing. Its head looked extremely wet. “In her mouth. She had it in her mouth.” He grabbed a paper towel from the roll on the counter and started wiping out the inside of Sophie’s mouth. She made a la-la-la sound as she tried to eat the towel, which she thought was part of the game.

“Where is Mrs. Ling, anyway?”

“She have to go pick up prescription, so I watch Sophie for short time. And tiny bears are happy when I go in bathroom.”

“Hamsters, Mrs. Korjev, not bears. How long were you in there?”

“Maybe five minute. I am thinking I am now having a strain in my poop chute, so hard I am pushing.”

“Aiiiiieeeee,” came the cry from the doorway as Mrs. Ling returned, and scampered to Sophie. “Is past time for nap,” Mrs. Ling snapped at Mrs. Korjev.

“I’ve got her now,” Charlie said. “One of you stay with her while I get rid of the H-A-M-S-T-E-R-S.”

“He mean the tiny bears,” said Mrs. Korjev.

“I get rid, Mr. Asher,” said Mrs. Ling. “No problem. What happen them?”

“Sleeping,” said Mrs. Korjev.

“Ladies, go. Please. I’ll see one of you in the morning.”

“Is my turn,” said Mrs. Korjev sadly. “Am I banish? Is no Sophie for Vladlena, yes?”

“No. Uh, yes. It’s fine, Mrs. Korjev. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Mrs. Ling was shaking the Habitrail cage. They certainly were sound little sleepers, these hamsters. She liked ham. “I take care,” she said. She tucked the cage under her arm and backed toward the door, waving. “Bye-bye, Sophie. Bye-bye.”

“Bye-bye, bubeleh,” said Mrs. Korjev.

“Bye-bye,” Sophie said, with a baby wave.

“When did you learn bye-bye?” Charlie said to his daughter. “I can’t leave you for a second.”

But he did leave her the very next day, to find replacements for the hamsters. He took the cargo van to the pet store this time. Whatever courage or hubris he’d rallied in order to attack the sewer harpies had melted away, and he didn’t even want to go near a storm drain. At the pet store he picked out two painted turtles, each about as big around as a mayonnaise-jar lid. He bought them a large kidney-shaped dish that had its own little island, a plastic palm tree, some aquatic plants, and a snail. The snail, presumably, to bolster the self-esteem of the turtles: “You think we’re slow? Look at that guy.” To shore up the snail’s morale in the same way, there was a rock. Everyone is happier if they have someone to look down on, as well as someone to look up to, especially if they resent both. This is not only the Beta Male strategy for survival, but the basis for capitalism, democracy, and most religions.

After he grilled the clerk for fifteen minutes on the vitality of the turtles, and was assured that they could probably survive a nuclear attack as long as there were some bugs left to eat, Charlie wrote a check and started tearing up over his turtles.

“Are you okay, Mr. Asher?” asked the pet-shop guy.

“I’m sorry,” Charlie said. “It’s just that this is the last entry in the register.”

“And your bank didn’t give you a new one?”

“No, I have a new one, but this is the last one that my wife wrote in. Now that this one is used up, I’ll never see her handwriting in the check register again.”

“I’m sorry,” said the pet-shop guy, who, until that moment, had thought the rough patch that day was going to be consoling a guy over a couple of dead hamsters.

“It’s not your problem,” Charlie said. “I’ll just take my turtles and go.”

And he did, squeezing the check register in his hand as he drove. She was slipping away, every day a little more.

A week ago Jane had come down to borrow some honey and found the plum jelly that Rachel liked in the back of the refrigerator, covered in green fuzz.

“Little brother, this has got to go,” Jane said, making a face.

“No. It was Rachel’s.”

“I know, kid, and she’s not coming back for it. What else do you – oh my God!” She dove away from the fridge. “What was that?”

“Lasagna. Rachel made it.”

“This has been in here for over a year?”

“I couldn’t make myself throw it out.”

“Look, I’m coming over Saturday and cleaning out this apartment. I’m going to get rid of all the stuff of Rachel’s that you don’t want.”

“I want it all.”

Jane paused while moving the green-and-purple lasagna to the trash bin, pan and all. “No you don’t, Charlie. This kind of stuff doesn’t help you remember Rachel, it just hurts you. You need to focus on Sophie and the rest of both of your lives. You’re a young guy, you can’t give up. We all loved Rachel, but you have to think about moving on, maybe going out.”

“I’m not ready. And you can’t come over this Saturday, that’s my day in the shop.”

“I know,” Jane said. “It’s better if you’re not here.”

“But you can’t be trusted, Jane,” Charlie said, as if that was as obvious as the fact that Jane was irritating. “You’ll throw out all the pieces of Rachel, and you’ll steal my clothes.” Jane had been swiping Charlie’s suits pretty regularly since he’d started dressing more upscale. She was wearing a tailored, double-breasted jacket that he’d just gotten back from Three Fingered Hu a few days ago. Charlie hadn’t even worn it yet. “Why are you still wearing suits, anyway? Isn’t your new girlfriend a yoga instructor? Shouldn’t you be wearing those baggy pants made out of hemp and tofu fibers like she does? You look like David Bowie, Jane. There, I’ve said it. I’m sorry, but it had to be said.”

Jane put her arm around his shoulder and kissed him on the cheek. “You are so sweet. Bowie is the only man I’ve ever found attractive. Let me clean out your apartment. I’ll watch Sophie that day – give the widows a day to do battle down at the Everything for a Dollar Store.”

“Okay, but just clothes and stuff, no pictures. And just put it in the basement in boxes, no throwing anything away.”

“Even food items? Chuck, the lasagna, I mean – “

“Okay, food items can go. But don’t let Sophie know what you’re doing. And leave Rachel’s perfume, and her hairbrush. I want Sophie to know what her mother smelled like.”

That night, when he finished at the shop, he went down to the basement to the little gated storage area for his apartment and visited the boxes of all of the things that Jane had packed up. When that didn’t work, he opened them and said good-bye to every single item – pieces of Rachel. Seemed like he was always saying good-bye to pieces of Rachel.

On his way home from the pet shop he had stopped at A Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Books because it, too, was a piece of Rachel and he needed a touchstone, but also because he needed to research what he was doing. He’d scoured the Internet for information on death, and while he’d found that there were a lot of people who wanted to dress like death, get naked with the dead, look at pictures of the naked and the dead, or sell pills to give erections to the dead, there just wasn’t anything on how to go about being dead, or Death. No one had ever heard of Death Merchants or sewer harpies or anything of the sort. He left the store with a two-foot-high stack of books on Death and Dying, figuring, as a Beta Male typically does, that before he tried to take the battle to the enemy again, he’d better find out something about what he was dealing with.

That evening he settled in on the couch next to his baby daughter and read while the new turtles, Bruiser and Jeep (so named in hope of instilling durability in them), ate freeze-dried bugs and watched CSI Safari-land on cable.

“Well, honey, according to this K??bler-Ross lady, the five stages of death are anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Well, we went through all of those stages when we lost Mommy, didn’t we?”

“Mama,” Sophie said.

The first time she had said “Mama” had brought Charlie to tears. He had been looking over her little shoulder at a picture of Rachel. The second time she said it, it was less emotional. She was in her high chair at the breakfast bar and was talking to the toaster.

“That’s not Mommy, Soph, that’s the toaster.”

“Mama,” Sophie insisted, reaching out for the toaster.

“You’re just trying to fuck with me, aren’t you?” Charlie said.

“Mama,” Sophie said to the fridge.

“Swell,” Charlie said.

He read on, realizing that Dr. K??bler-Ross had been exactly right. Every morning when he woke up to find another name and number in the day planner at his bedside, he went through the entire five-step process before he finished breakfast. But now that the steps had a name – he started to recognize the stages as experienced by the family members of his clients. That’s how he referred to the people whose souls he retrieved: clients.

Then he read a book, called The Last Sack, about how to kill yourself with a plastic bag, but it must not have been a very effective book, because he saw on the back cover that there had been two sequels. He imagined the fan mail:

Dear Last Sack Author:

I was almost dead, but then my sack got all steamed up and I couldn’t see the TV, so I poked an eyehole. I hope to try again with your next book.

The book really didn’t help Charlie much, except to instill in him a new paranoia about plastic bags.

Over the next few months he read: The Egyptian Book of the Dead, from which he learned how to pull someone’s brain out through his nostril with a buttonhook, which he was sure would come in handy someday; a dozen books on dealing with death, grief, burial rituals, and myths of the Underworld, from which he learned that there had been personifications of Death since the dawn of time, and none of them looked like him; and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, from which he learned that bardo, the transition between this life and the next, was forty-nine days long, and that during the process you would be met by about thirty thousand demons, all of which were described in intricate detail, none of which looked like the sewer harpies, and all of which you were supposed to ignore and not be afraid of because they weren’t real because they were of the material world.

“Strange,” Charlie said to Sophie, “how all of these books talk about how the material world isn’t significant, yet I have to retrieve people’s souls, which are attached to material objects. It would appear that death, if nothing else, is ironic, don’t you think?”

“No,” Sophie said.

At eighteen months Sophie answered all questions either “No,” “Cookie,” or “like Bear” – the last Charlie attributed to leaving his daughter too often in the care of Mrs. Korjev. After the turtles, two more hamsters, a hermit crab, an iguana, and two widemouthed frogs passed on to the great wok in the sky (or, more accurately, on the third floor), Charlie finally acquiesced and brought home a three-inch-long Madagascar hissing cockroach that he named Bear, just so his daughter wouldn’t go through life talking total nonsense.

“Like Bear,” Sophie said.

“She’s talking about the bug,” Charlie said, one night when Jane stopped by.

“She’s not talking about the bug,” Jane said. “What kind of father buys a cockroach for a little girl anyway? That’s disgusting.”

“Nothing’s supposed to be able to kill them. They’ve been around for like a hundred million years. It was that or a white shark, and they’re supposed to be hard to keep.”

“Why don’t you give up, Charlie? Just let her get by with stuffed animals.”

“A little kid should have a pet. Especially a little kid growing up in the city.”

“We grew up in the city and we didn’t have any pets.”

“I know, and look how we turned out,” Charlie said, gesturing back and forth between the two of them, one who dealt in death and had a giant cockroach named Bear, and the other who was on her third yoga-instructor girlfriend in six months and was wearing his newest Harris tweed suit.

“We turned out great, or at least one of us did,” Jane said, gesturing to the splendor of her suit, like she was a game-show model giving the big prize package on Let’s Get Androgynous, “You have got to gain some weight. This is tailored way too tight in the butt,” she said, lapsing once again into self-obsession. “Am I camel-toeing?”

“I am not looking, not looking, not looking,” Charlie chanted.

“She wouldn’t need pets if she ever saw the outside of this apartment,” Jane said, pulling down on the crotch of her trousers to counteract the dreaded dromedary-digit effect. “Take her to the zoo, Charlie. Let her see something besides this apartment. Take her out.”

“I will, tomorrow. I’ll take her out and show her the city,” Charlie said. And he would have, too, except he woke to find the name Madeline Alby written on his day planner, and next to her name, the number one.

Oh yeah, and the cockroach was dead.

I will take you out,” Charlie said as he put Sophie in her high chair for breakfast. “I will, honey. I promise. Can you believe that they’d only give me one day?”

“No,” Sophie said. “Juice,” she added, because she was in her chair and this was juice time.

“I’m sorry about Bear, honey,” Charlie said, brushing her hair this way, then that, then giving up. “He was a good bug, but he is no more. Mrs. Ling will bury him. That window box of hers must be getting pretty crowded.” He didn’t remember there being a window box in Mrs. Ling’s window, but who was he to question?

Charlie threw open the phone book and, mercifully, found an M. Alby with an address on Telegraph Hill – not ten minutes’ walk away. No client had ever been this close, and with almost six months without a peep or a shade from the sewer harpies, he was starting to feel like he had this whole Death Merchant thing under control. He’d even placed most of the soul vessels that he’d collected. The short notice felt bad. Really bad.

The house was an Italianate Victorian on the hill just below the Coit Tower, the great granite column built in honor of the San Francisco firemen who had lost their lives in the line of duty. Although it’s said to have been designed with a fire-hose nozzle in mind, almost no one who sees the tower can resist the urge to comment on its resemblance to a giant penis. Madeline Alby’s house, a flat-roofed white rectangle with ornate scrolling trim and a crowning cornice of carved cherubs, looked like a wedding cake balanced on the tower’s scrotum.

So as Charlie trudged up the nut sack of San Francisco, he wondered exactly how he was going to get inside the house. Usually he had time, he could wait and follow someone in, or construct some kind of ruse to gain entrance, but this time he had only one day to get inside, find the soul vessel, and get out. He hoped that Madeline Alby had already died. He really didn’t like being around sick people. When he saw the car parked out front with the small green hospice sticker, his hopes for a dead client were smashed like a cupcake with a sledgehammer.

He walked up the front porch steps at the left of the house and waited by the door. Could he open it himself? Would people be able to see it, or did his special “unnoticeability” extend to objects he moved as well? He didn’t think so. But then the door opened and a woman about Charlie’s age stepped out onto the porch. “I’m just having a smoke,” she called back into the house, and before she could close the door behind her, Charlie slipped inside.

The front door opened into a foyer; to his right Charlie saw what had originally been the parlor. There was a stairway in front of him, and another door beyond that that he guessed led to the kitchen. He could hear voices in the parlor and peeked around the corner to see four elderly women sitting on two couches that faced each other. They were in dresses and hats, and they might have just come from church, but Charlie guessed they had come to see their friend off.

“You’d think she’d give up the smoking, with her mother upstairs dying of cancer,” said one of the ladies, wearing a gray skirt and jacket with matching hat, and a large enameled pin in the shape of a Holstein cow.

“Well, she always was a hardheaded girl,” said another, wearing a dress that looked as if it had been made from the same floral material as the couch. “You know she used to meet with my son Jimmy up in Pioneer Park when they were little.”

“She said she was going to marry him,” said another woman, who looked like a sister of the first.

The ladies laughed, whimsy and sadness mixed in their tones.

“Well, I don’t know what she was thinking, he’s as flighty as can be,” said Mom.

“Yeah, and brain damaged,” added the sister.

“Well, yes, he is now.”

“Since the car ran over him,” said Sis.

“Didn’t he run right in front of a car?” asked one of the ladies who had been silent until now.

“No, he ran right into it,” said Mom. “He was on the drugs then.” She sighed. “I always said I had one of each – a boy, a girl, and a Jimmy.”

They all nodded. This was not the first time this group had done this, Charlie guessed. They were the type that bought sympathy cards in bulk, and every time they heard an ambulance go by they made a note to pick up their black dress from the cleaner’s.

“You know Maddy looked bad,” said the lady in gray.

“Well, she’s dying, sweetheart, that’s what happens.”

“I guess.” Another sigh.

The tinkle of ice in glasses.

They were all nursing neat little cocktails. Charlie guessed they’d been mixed by the younger woman who was outside smoking. He looked around the room for something that was glowing red. There was an oak rolltop desk in the corner that he’d like to get a look in, but that would have to wait until later. He ducked out of the doorway and into the kitchen, where two men in their late thirties, maybe early forties, were sitting at an oak table, playing Scrabble.

“Is Jenny coming back? It’s her turn.”

“She might have gone up to see Mom with one of the ladies. The hospice nurse is letting them go up one at a time.”

“I just wish it was over. I can’t stand this waiting. I have a family I need to get back to. I’m about to crawl out of my fucking skin.”

The older of the two reached across the table and set two tiny blue pills by his brother’s tiles.

“These help.”

“What are they?”

“Time-released morphine.”

“Really?” The younger brother looked alarmed.

“You hardly even feel them, they just sort of take the edge off. Jenny’s been taking them for two weeks.”

“That’s why you guys are taking this so well and I’m a wreck? You guys are stoned on Mom’s pain medication?”


“I don’t take drugs. Those are drugs. You don’t take drugs.”

The older brother sat back in his chair. “Pain medication, Bill. What are you feeling?”

“No, I’m not taking Mom’s pain meds.”

“Suit yourself.”

“What if she needs them?”

“There’s enough morphine in that room to bring down a Kodiak bear, and if she needs more, then hospice will bring more.”

Charlie wanted to shake the younger brother and yell, Take the drugs, you idiot. Maybe it was the benefit of experience. Having now seen this situation happen again and again, families on deathwatch, out of their minds with grief and exhaustion, friends moving in and out of the house like ghosts, saying good-bye or just covering some sort of base so they could say they had been there, so perhaps they wouldn’t have to die alone themselves. Why was none of this in the books of the dead? Why didn’t the instructions tell him about all the pain and confusion he was going to see?

“I’m going to go find Jenny,” said the older brother, “see if she wants to get something to eat. We can finish the game later if you want.”

“That’s okay, I was losing anyway.” The younger brother gathered up the tiles and put the board away. “I’m going to go upstairs and see if I can catch a nap, tonight’s my night watching Mom.”

The older brother walked out and Charlie watched the younger brother drop the blue pills into his shirt pocket and leave the kitchen, leaving the Death Dealer to ransack the pantry and the cabinets looking for the soul vessel. But he felt before he even started that it wouldn’t be there. He was going to have to go upstairs.

He really, really hated being around sick people.

Madeline Alby was propped up and tucked into bed with a down comforter up around her neck. She was so slight that her body barely showed under the covers. Charlie guessed that she might weigh seventy or eighty pounds max. Her face was drawn and he could see the outlines of her eye sockets and her jawbone jutting through her skin, which had gone yellow. Charlie guessed liver cancer. One of her friends from downstairs was sitting at her bedside, the hospice-care worker, a big woman in scrubs, sat in a chair across the room, reading. A small dog, a Yorkshire terrier, Charlie thought, was snuggled up between Madeline’s shoulder and her neck, sleeping.

When Charlie stepped into the room, Madeline said, “Hey there, kid.”

He froze in his steps. She was looking right at him – crystal-blue eyes, and a smile. Had the floor squeaked? Had he bumped something?

“What are you doing there, kid?” She giggled.

“Who do you see, Maddy?” asked the friend. She followed Madeline’s gaze but looked right through Charlie.

“A kid over there.”

“Okay, Maddy. Do you want some water?” The friend reached for a child’s sippy cup with a built-in straw from the nightstand.

“No. Tell that kid to come in here, though. Come in here, kid.” Madeline worked her arms out of the covers and started moving her hands in sewing motions, like she was embroidering a tapestry in the air before her.

“Well, I’d better go,” said the friend. “Let you get some rest.” The friend glanced at the hospice woman, who looked over her reading glasses and smiled with her eyes. The only expert in the house, giving permission.

The friend stood and kissed Madeline Alby on the forehead. Madeline stopped sewing for a second, closed her eyes, and leaned into the kiss, like a young girl. Her friend squeezed her hand and said, “Good-bye, Maddy.”

Charlie stepped aside and let the woman pass. He watched her shoulders heave with a sob as she went through the door.

“Hey, kid,” Madeline said. “Come over here and sit down.” She paused in her sewing long enough to look Charlie in the eye, which freaked him out more than a little. He glanced at the hospice worker, who glanced up from her book, then went back to reading. Charlie pointed to himself.

“Yeah, you,” Madeline said.

Charlie was going into a panic. She could see him, but the hospice nurse could not, or so it seemed.

An alarm beeped on the nurse’s watch and Madeline picked up the little dog and held it to her ear. “Hello? Hi, how are you?” She looked up at Charlie. “It’s my oldest daughter.” The little dog looked at Charlie, too, with a distinct “save me” look in its eyes.

“Time for some medicine, Madeline,” the nurse said.

“Can’t you see I’m on the phone, Sally,” Madeline said. “Hang on a second.”

“Okay, I’ll wait,” the nurse said. She picked up a brown bottle with an eyedropper in it, filled the dropper, and checked the dosage and held.

“Bye. Love you, too,” Madeline said. She held the tiny dog out to Charlie. “Hang that up, would you?” The nurse snatched the dog out of the air and set it down on the bed next to Madeline.

“Open up, Madeline,” the nurse said. Madeline opened wide and the nurse squirted the eyedropper into the old woman’s mouth.

“Mmm, strawberry,” Madeline said.

“That’s right, strawberry. Would you like to wash it down with some water?” The nurse held the sippy cup.

“No. Cheese. I’d like some cheese.”

“I can get you some cheese,” said the nurse.

“Cheddar cheese.”

“Cheddar it is,” said the nurse. “I’ll be right back.” She tucked the covers around Madeline and left the room.

The old woman looked at Charlie again. “Can you talk, now that she’s gone?”

Charlie shrugged and looked in every direction, his hand over his mouth, like someone looking for an emergency spot to spit out a mouthful of bad seafood.

“Don’t mime, honey,” Madeline said. “No one likes a mime.”

Charlie sighed heavily, what was there to lose now? She could see him. “Hello, Madeline. I’m Charlie.”

“I always liked the name Charlie,” Madeline said. “How come Sally can’t see you?”

“Only you can see me right now,” Charlie said.

“Because I’m dying?”

“I think so.”

“Okay. You’re a nice-looking kid, you know that?”

“Thanks. You’re not bad yourself.”

“I’m scared, Charlie. It doesn’t hurt. I used to be afraid that it would hurt, but now I’m afraid of what happens next.”

Charlie sat down on the chair next to the bed. “I think that’s why I’m here, Madeline, you don’t need to be afraid.”

“I drank a lot of brandy, Charlie. That’s why this happened.”

“Maddy – can I call you Maddy?”

“Sure, kid, we’re friends.”

“Yes, we are. Maddy, this was always going to happen. You didn’t do anything to cause it.”

“Well, that’s good.”

“Maddy, do you have something for me?”

“Like a present?”

“Like a present you would give to yourself. Something I can keep for you and give you back later, when it will be a surprise.”

“My pincushion,” Madeline said. “I’d like you to have that. It was my grandmother’s.”

“I’d be honored to keep that for you, Maddy. Where can I find it?”

“In my sewing box, on the top shelf of that closet.” She pointed to an old-style single closet across the room. “Oh, excuse me, phone.”

Madeline talked to her oldest daughter on the edge of the comforter while Charlie got the sewing box from the top shelf of the closet. It was made of wicker and he could see the red glow of the soul vessel inside. He removed a pincushion fashioned from red velvet wrapped with bands of real silver and held it up for Madeline to see. She smiled and gave him the thumbs-up, just as the nurse returned with a small plate of cheese and crackers.

“It’s my oldest daughter,” Madeline explained to the nurse, holding the edge of the comforter to her chest so her daughter didn’t hear. “Oh my, is that cheese?”

The nurse nodded. “And crackers.”

“I’ll call you back, honey, Sally has brought cheese and I don’t want to be rude.” She hung up the sheet and allowed Sally to feed her bites of cheese and crackers.

“I believe this is the best cheese I’ve ever tasted,” Madeline said.

Charlie could tell from the expression on her face that it was, indeed, the best cheese she had ever tasted. Every ounce of her being was going into tasting those slivers of cheddar, and she let loose little moans of pleasure as she chewed.

“You want some cheese, Charlie?” Madeline asked, spraying cracker shrapnel all over the nurse, who turned to look at the corner where Charlie was standing with the pincushion tucked safely in his jacket pocket.

“Oh, you can’t see him, Sally,” Madeline said, tapping the nurse on the hand. “But he’s a handsome rascal. A little skinny, though.” Then, to Sally, but overly loud to be sure that Charlie could hear: “He could use some fucking cheese.” Then she laughed, spraying more crackers on the nurse, who was laughing, too, and trying not to dump the plate.

“What did she say?” came a voice from the hall. Then the two sons and the daughter entered, chagrined at first at what they had heard, but then laughing with the nurse and their mother. “I said that cheese is good,” Madeline said.

“Yeah, Mom, it is,” said the daughter.

Charlie stood there in the corner, watching them eat cheese, and laughing, thinking, This should have been in the book. He watched them help her with her bedpan, and give her drinks of water, and wipe her face with a damp cloth – watched her bite at the cloth the way Sophie did when he washed her face. The eldest daughter, who Charlie realized had been dead for some time, called three more times, once on the dog and twice on the pillow. Around lunchtime Madeline was tired, and she went to sleep, and about a half hour into her nap she started panting, then stopped, then didn’t breathe for a full minute, then took a deep breath, then didn’t.

And Charlie slipped out the door with her soul in his pocket.