A DIRTY JOB
This book is dedicated to Patricia Moss, who was as generous in sharing her death as she was insharing her life.
To hospice workers and volunteers all over the world.
PART ONE THE SORRY BUSINESS PART TWO SECONDHAND SOULS PART THREE BATTLEGROUND EPILOGUE Author’s Note and Acknowledgments About the Author Other Books by Christopher Moore Credits Copyright About the Publisher
THE SORRY BUSINESS What you seek, you shall never find. For when the Gods made man, They kept immortality for themselves. Fill your belly. Day and night make merry, Let Days be full of joy. Love the child that holds your hand. Let your wife delight in your embrace. For these alone are the concerns of man. —The Epic of Gilgamesh
BECAUSE I COULD NOT STOP FOR DEATH—HE KINDLY STOPPED FOR ME—
Charlie Asher walked the earth like an ant walks on the surface of water, as if the slightestmisstep might send him plummeting through the surface to be sucked to the depths below. Blessedwith the Beta Male imagination, he spent much of his life squinting into the future so he mightspot ways in which the world was conspiring to kill him—him; his wife, Rachel; and now,newborn Sophie. But despite his attention, his paranoia, his ceaseless fretting from the momentRachel peed a blue stripe on the pregnancy stick to the time they wheeled her into recovery atSt. Francis Memorial, Death slipped in.
“She’s not breathing,” Charlie said.
“She’s breathing fine,” Rachel said, patting the baby’s back. “Do you want to hold her?”
Charlie had held baby Sophie for a few seconds earlier in the day, and had handed her quicklyto a nurse insisting that someone more qualified than he do some finger and toe counting. He’ddone it twice and kept coming up with twenty-one.
“They act like that’s all there is to it. Like if the kid has the minimum ten fingers and tentoes it’s all going to be fine. What if there are extras? Huh? Extra-credit fingers? What ifthe kid has a tail?” (Charlie was sure he’d spotted a tail in the six-month sonogram.Umbilical indeed! He’d kept a hard copy.)
“She doesn’t have a tail, Mr. Asher,” the nurse explained. “And it’s ten and ten, we’veall checked. Perhaps you should go home and get some rest.”
“I’ll still love her, even with her extra finger.”
“She’s perfectly normal.”
“We really do know what we’re doing, Mr. Asher. She’s a beautiful, healthy baby girl.”
“Or a tail.”
The nurse sighed. She was short, wide, and had a tattoo of a snake up her right calf thatshowed through her white nurse stockings. She spent four hours of every workday massagingpreemie babies, her hands threaded through ports in a Lucite incubator, like she was handling aradioactive spark in there. She talked to them, coaxed them, told them how special they were,and felt their hearts fluttering in chests no bigger than a balled-up pair of sweat socks. Shecried over every one, and believed that her tears and touch poured a bit of her own life intothe tiny bodies, which was just fine with her. She could spare it. She had been a neonatalnurse for twenty years and had never so much as raised her voice to a new father.
“There’s no goddamn tail, you doofus! Look!” She pulled down the blanket and aimed babySophie’s bottom at him like she might unleash a fusillade of weapons-grade poopage such as theguileless Beta Male had never seen.
Charlie jumped back—a lean and nimble thirty, he was—then, once he realized that the babywasn’t loaded, he straightened the lapels on his tweed jacket in a gesture of righteousindignation. “You could have removed her tail in the delivery room and we’d never know.” Hedidn’t know. He’d been asked to leave the delivery room, first by the ob-gyn and finally byRachel. (“Him or me,” Rachel said. “One of us has to go.”)
In Rachel’s room, Charlie said: “If they removed her tail, I want it. She’ll want it whenshe gets older.”
“Sophie, your Papa isn’t really insane. He just hasn’t slept for a couple of days.”
“She’s looking at me,” Charlie said. “She’s looking at me like I blew her college money atthe track and now she’s going to have to turn tricks to get her MBA.”
Rachel took his hand. “Honey, I don’t think her eyes can even focus this early, and besides,she’s a little young to start worrying about her turning tricks to get her MFA.”
“MBA,” Charlie corrected. “They start very young these days. By the time I figure out how toget to the track, she could be old enough. God, your parents are going to hate me.”
“And that would be different how?”
“New reasons, that’s how. Now I’ve made their granddaughter a shiksa.”
“She’s not a shiksa, Charlie. We’ve been through this. She’s my daughter, so she’s asJewish as I am.”
Charlie went down on one knee next to the bed and took one of Sophie’s tiny hands between hisfingers. “Daddy’s sorry he made you a shiksa.” He put his head down, buried his face in thecrook where the baby met Rachel’s side. Rachel traced his hairline with her fingernail,describing a tight U-turn around his narrow forehead.
“You need to go home and get some sleep.”
Charlie mumbled something into the covers. When he looked up there were tears in his eyes.“She feels warm.”
“She is warm. She’s supposed to be. It’s a mammal thing. Goes with the breast-feeding. Whyare you crying?”
“You guys are so beautiful.” He began arranging Rachel’s dark hair across the pillow,brought a long lock down over Sophie’s head, and started styling it into a baby hairpiece.
“It will be okay if she can’t grow hair. There was that angry Irish singer who didn’t haveany hair and she was attractive. If we had her tail we could transplant plugs from that.”
“Charlie! Go home!”
“Your parents will blame me. Their bald shiksa granddaughter turning tricks and getting abusiness degree—it will be all my fault.”
Rachel grabbed the buzzer from the blanket and held it up like it was wired to a bomb.“Charlie, if you don’t go home and get some sleep right now, I swear I’ll buzz the nurse andhave her throw you out.”
She sounded stern, but she was smiling. Charlie liked looking at her smile, always had; it feltlike approval and permission at the same time. Permission to be Charlie Asher.
“Okay, I’ll go.” He reached to feel her forehead. “Do you have a fever? You look tired.”
“I just gave birth, you squirrel!”
“I’m just concerned about you.” He was not a squirrel. She was blaming him for Sophie’stail, that’s why she’d said squirrel, and not doofus like everyone else.
“Sweetie, go. Now. So I can get some rest.”
Charlie fluffed her pillows, checked her water pitcher, tucked in the blankets, kissed herforehead, kissed the baby’s head, fluffed the baby, then started to rearrange the flowers thathis mother had sent, moving the big stargazer lily in the front, accenting it with a spray ofbaby’s breath—
“I’m going. Jeez.” He checked the room, one last time, then backed toward the door.
“Can I bring you anything from home?”
“I’ll be fine. The ready kit you packed covered everything, I think. In fact, I may not evenneed the fire extinguisher.”
“Better to have it and not need it, than to need it—”
“Go! I’ll get some rest, the doctor will check Sophie out, and we’ll take her home in themorning.”
“That seems soon.”
“Should I bring more propane for the camp stove?”
“We’ll try to make it last.”
Rachel held up the buzzer, as if her demands were not met, the consequences could be dire.“Love you,” she said.
“Love you, too,” Charlie said. “Both of you.”
“Bye, Daddy.” Rachel puppeted Sophie’s little hand in a wave.
Charlie felt a lump rising in his throat. No one had ever called him Daddy before, not even a
once asked Rachel, “Who’s your daddy?” during sex, to which she had replied,puppet. (He had
“Saul Goldstein,” thus rendering him impotent for a week and raising all kinds of issues thathe didn’t really like to think about.)
He backed out of the room, palming the door shut as he went, then headed down the hall and pastthe desk where the neonatal nurse with the snake tattoo gave him a sideways smile as he wentby.
Charlie drove a six-year-old minivan that he’d inherited from his father, along with thethrift store and the building that housed it. The minivan always smelled faintly of dust,mothballs, and body odor, despite a forest of smell-good Christmas trees that Charlie had hungfrom every hook, knob, and protrusion. He opened the car door and the odor of the unwanted—thewares of the thrift-store owner—washed over him.
Before he even had the key in the ignition, he noticed the Sarah McLachlan CD lying on thepassenger seat. Well, Rachel was going to miss that. It was her favorite CD and there she was,recovering without it, and he could not have that. Charlie grabbed the CD, locked the van, andheaded back up to Rachel’s room.
To his relief, the nurse had stepped away from the desk so he didn’t have to endure her frostystare of accusation, or what he guessed would be her frosty stare of accusation. He’d mentallyprepared a short speech about how being a good husband and father included anticipating thewants and needs of his wife and that included bringing her music—well, he could use the speechon the way out if she gave him the frosty stare.
He opened the door to Rachel’s room slowly so as not to startle her—anticipating her warmsmile of disapproval, but instead she appeared to be asleep and there was a very tall black mandressed in mint green standing next to her bed.
“What are you doing here?”
The man in mint green turned, startled. “You can see me?” He gestured to his chocolate-browntie, and Charlie was reminded, just for a second, of those thin mints they put on the pillow innicer hotels.
“Of course I can see you. What are you doing here?”
Charlie moved to Rachel’s bedside, putting himself between the stranger and his family. BabySophie seemed fascinated by the tall black man.
“This is not good,” said Mint Green.
“You’re in the wrong room,” Charlie said. “You get out of here.” Charlie reached behindand patted Rachel’s hand.
“This is really, really not good.”
“Sir, my wife is trying to sleep and you’re in the wrong room. Now please go before—”
“She’s not sleeping,” said Mint Green. His voice was soft, and a little Southern. “I’msorry.”
Charlie turned to look down at Rachel, expecting to see her smile, hear her tell him to calmdown, but her eyes were closed and her head had lolled off the pillow.
“Honey?” Charlie dropped the CD he was carrying and shook her gently. “Honey?”
Baby Sophie began to cry. Charlie felt Rachel’s forehead, took her by the shoulders, and shookher. “Honey, wake up. Rachel.” He put his ear to her heart and heard nothing. “Nurse!”
Charlie scrambled across the bed to grab the buzzer that had slipped from Rachel’s hand andlay on the blanket. “Nurse!” He pounded the button and turned to look at the man in mintgreen. “What happened…”
He was gone.
Charlie ran into the hall, but no one was out there. “Nurse!”
Twenty seconds later the nurse with the snake tattoo arrived, followed in another thirtyseconds by a resuscitation team with a crash cart.
There was nothing they could do.
A FINE EDGE
There’s a fine edge to new grief, it severs nerves, disconnects reality—there’s mercy in asharp blade. Only with time, as the edge wears, does the real ache begin.
So Charlie was barely even aware of his own shrieks in Rachel’s hospital room, of beingsedated, of the filmy electric hysteria that netted everything he did for that first day. Afterthat, it was a memory out of a sleepwalk, scenes filmed from a zombie’s eye socket, as heambled undead through explanations, accusations, preparations, and ceremony.
“It’s called a cerebral thromboembolism,” the doctor had said. “A blood clot forms in thelegs or pelvis during labor, then moves to the brain, cutting off the blood supply. It’s veryrare, but it happens. There was nothing we could do. Even if the crash team had been able torevive her, she’d have had massive brain damage. There was no pain. She probably just feltsleepy and passed.”
Charlie whispered to keep from screaming, “The man in mint green! He did something to her. Heinjected her with something. He was there and he knew that she was dying. I saw him when Ibrought her CD back.”
They showed him the security tapes—the nurse, the doctor, the hospital’s administrators andlawyers—they all watched the black-and-white images of him leaving Rachel’s room, of theempty hallway, of his returning to her room. No tall black man dressed in mint green. Theydidn’t even find the CD.
Sleep deprivation, they said. Hallucination brought on by exhaustion. Trauma. They gave himdrugs to sleep, drugs for anxiety, drugs for depression, and they sent him home with his babydaughter.
Charlie’s older sister, Jane, held baby Sophie as they spoke over Rachel and buried her on thesecond day. He didn’t remember picking out a casket or making arrangements. It was more of thesomnambulant dream: his in-laws moving to and fro in black, like tottering specters, spoutingthe inadequate clichés of condolence: We’re so sorry. She was so young. What a tragedy. If
…there’s anything we can do
Rachel’s father and mother held him, their heads pressed together in the apex of a tripod. Theslate floor in the funeral-home foyer spotted with their tears. Every time Charlie felt theshoulders of the older man heave with a sob, he felt his own heart break again. Saul tookCharlie’s face in his hands and said, “You can’t imagine, because I can’t imagine.” ButCharlie could imagine, because he was a Beta Male, and imagination was his curse; and he couldimagine because he had lost Rachel and now he had a daughter, that tiny stranger sleeping inhis sister’s arms. He could imagine the man in mint green taking her.
Charlie looked at the tear-spotted floor and said, “That’s why most funeral homes arecarpeted. Someone could slip.”
“Poor boy,” said Rachel’s mother. “We’ll sit shivah with you, of course.”
Charlie made his way across the room to his sister, Jane, who wore a man’s double-breastedsuit in charcoal pinstripe gabardine, that along with her severe eighties pop-star hairstyleand the infant in the pink blanket that she held, made her appear not so much androgynous asconfused. Charlie thought the suit actually looked better on her than it did on him, but sheshould have asked him for permission to wear it nonetheless.
“I can’t do this,” he said. He let himself fall forward until the receded peninsula of darkhair touched her gelled Flock of Seagulls platinum flip. It seemed like the best posture forsharing grief, this forehead lean, and it reminded him of standing drunkenly at a urinal andfalling forward until his head hit the wall. Despair.
“You’re doing fine,” Jane said. “Nobody’s good at this.”