Along the block of mostly abandoned storefronts, the barber turns the sign to Sorry we're CLOSED Please come back tomorrow, and moves the red plastic arrow to 7 AM. No customers came in today, yesterday, or the day before. But no matter, you keep the same hours every day, said her father when, after her mother's hysterectomy, he began officially training her for her inheritance.
She sweeps the floor, cleans the mirror, wipes the counter, changes the disinfectant, ties up the laundry bag of towels, and lets down the blinds. She didn't have a customer all morning, but she didn't really expect to.
Work ethic, her father said. Dependability, he insisted. Same hours every day. Reliability is trustworthiness. Trustworthiness earns respect. Respect runs a business and fills our stomachs.
From the closet, she takes down the black barbering bag carried by her father, and his father and his father's father, back when barbers not only shaved and trimmed but also pulled teeth, dug out gallstones, tonsils, rot. When barbers were men, and men who weren't barbers went to barbers—not salons where single moms popped gum and chatty-chatted about the best diaper dispenser and the chicken-fried steak they had ordered at the new family restaurant in the shopping mall.
Her father had paid off the building, and property taxes kept decreasing because, as she'd heard one of the city council members say at the last meeting she bothered to attend, the neighborhood was in transition. She'd laughed, and the board member had glared out into the audience, trying to find her. Although it was an audience of mostly empty chairs, he couldn't spot her. She had a good poker face.
Once one of the solid middle-class neighborhoods of the mid to late twentieth century, the neighborhood began transitioning in the 1980s into one of the abandoned, like an old family album that a god had replaced with a new one, and year after year, the god turned the page and peeled the pictures out and slipped them into the new plastic album that he kept shelved by the interstate with his strip-malls and look alike restaurants and billboards.
Now the neighborhood is mostly empty of those who once lived here. Once, the streets were sided with laughing and bickering children. Housewives leaned over porch railings and talked across yards, their bare arms in the sunlight.
Just as she could see the green summer trees turning orange and red before they did, she could see the shadows of the past, like the scent of distant burning leaves, stretching longer and longer from the footfalls of the present. There's the street sign children once shimmied up while other children stood below, shouting and calling time and figuring out whose turn it was now and who they had to beat if they were going to win. Now, the street sign leans, from teenagers leaning day after day, smoking cigarettes, skipping out of the school around the block. Bullet holes speckle the house across the street, where her mother bought tomatoes and watermelon from the old man every Saturday. The man's garden is gone, gone yellow and the resting spot for a car that's always for sale by owner.
She used to feel twinges of panic, to see the old through the new, the old wealth through the poverty—that wasn't wealth at the time, and the poverty then was there, just in another neighborhood doing the same work it did now. Nostalgia, she thinks, is what happens to those who imagine other people's memories as their own. And people have a hard enough time with their own memories, much less trying to wear someone else's.
As her father kept the husbands and sons of the neighborhood clean shaven and groomed each day, she silently grew up by his side as he recorded numbers in the books, wrote checks, cleaned razors, sharpened scissors, and every Tuesday afternoon, drove to the homes of the shut-ins and widowers or the few remaining of his father's elderly clientele in nursing homes or the basements of funeral parlors. And now she is visiting the last of her father's clientele. But few new customers replace the gone.
When her mother came home from the hysterectomy, her father helping her slowly out of the car and slowly up the stairs at the back of the house, and slowly down the hallway to the guest bedroom at the back of the house, her mother closed herself in the room for many days. Now and then Susan would hear a low, terrible moan, and she'd creep to the end of the hallway and stand by the door. She lightly pressed her hand against the door.
If she asked her mother if she was alright, the moan would end, and her mother would let out a delicate cough then say, Everything's fine, dear. Go playa little. Everything's fine dear, don't forget to thaw out the hamburger for the meatloaf. Everything's fine dear, make sure to fill the birdbath. And then Susan realized she hurt her mother more by asking because her mother, once thinking Susan was out of earshot, would return to the moan, climb back inside it as it climbed out of her. So Susan stopped asking and would stand at the door, touching its clean white paint as though she could touch her mother's cool forehead. The sheets tossed against her mother's legs.
Her mother was likely already suffering from keeping quiet enough that the neighbors couldn't hear. The houses were built closely together and, in the summers before air-conditioning, they could hear the family eating dinner next door. The forks against their plates. Lila Thompson now and then speaking between the low tones of her husband's, now and then one of their children piping up about the street-sign race that day or the movies that would play on Saturday's matinee.
When she asked her father about her mother, the pain she was in, he said not to worry. Your mother's a tough bird. Can't be a woman in this family if you aren't, he said and patted her back.
* * *
Over the barbershop door hangs the portrait of her great-grandmother as a young woman ina straw hat. Her sleeves are rolled to her elbows, her hands stuck jauntily in the pockets of her striped skirt. She leans against the barber shop window, beneath the twirling pole that still twirls today, although jerkily, although faded from its blood red to stain-pink. On the collar of her blouse there's a spot of black ,discernible only by someone in the family or someone who has been shaved here long enough to feel like one. The tiny black bloom is blood from the removal of her tooth. And not one tooth, her father and grandfather would brag. Six teeth out. Six teeth that day. And, mind you, that was before Novocaine, Susan's grandfather would say when he caught her looking at the photograph. And she didn't scream one. She had a good poker-face, your grandmother.
Helluva woman, her father would say once a year when he annually climbed the stepladder to wipe the dust from the woman's face.
There's something inside the woman's face that explains time.
At the beginning of every month, Susan writes in the names of the men she'll shave in their homes, retirement communities, and—when she gets the call from widows or children—funeral homes.
There were three names written in today's box, but when Mr. Adams called last week, she cancelled the other two.
* * *
Susan didn't know how the deliveries had begun. Perhaps her great-grandfather who had opened the barber shop had brought his delivery skills down from Chicago just as he had brought his wife with her mouth of blackened teeth, or perhaps he had begun his deliveries after he opened the shop—maybe first for the mafia which was rumored to have used the Ohio River for transporting booze, jazz, and murderers to downstate docks.
By the time her father told her about the deliveries, she'd already wondered why he sometimes did not take her on his barbering drives. When she asked, he could never really explain why, he said that hewas her father and she should do as he said since one day he would be dead and she'd be running the barbershop by herself. And I want you to run it right.
Her first real glimpse came when a former customer came into the shop around noontime. A taxi waited by the curb. Usually, the man was dressed plainly, but he wore a suit that time, and he wore a hat, even though most men had stopped wearing them daily and had begun reserving them for the racetrack or church. The man leaned on a cane. His cheeks had hollowed. Need to talk to you about a delivery, he said to her father.
Mr. Paul was the first person she'd seen who had the cancer. She had heard the others talking about him, asking whoever had most recently visited him how he was doing. They all agreed it was a goddamn shame, and she nodded, because Mr. Paul would bring her a marble when he came in for a shave.
Inside the doorway, Mr. Paul had removed his black hat. It had a ribbon red as the holly berries that fell outside the shop. Mr. Paul and her father nodded at each other, and her father turned the sign to Sorry we're CLOSED and handed her a broom and jerked his head at the door. She went outside and glanced at the hundreds of holly berries littering the sidewalk. She swept at a few then leaned against the barbershop window. She dragged the tip of her tongue against the backs of her teeth and peered through the crack in the blinds.
Her father was laying the steaming towel on Mr. Paul's chest, pulling it gently beneath his chin. Mr. Paul took his free hand. His grip was weak. He said something. Her father nodded. Mr. Paul let go. Then, her father began drawing circles on his cheeks. She rubbed circles on her own. She pressed in to feel where her skull hinged beneath the skin, following her teeth down to the ripple where the roots grew. She sucked in her cheeks.
She swept at the holly berries, and they rolled across the sidewalk. She impaled a few on the broom's sharp bristles. A few black birds watched, like the boys who had cornered her inside a retaining wall on her walk home from school. One had pointed at her thin legs sticking out from under her plaid dress. One pointed at her scraped knee, his finger getting closer and closer to the wound. She held still. He pushed his finger against the red and the scab. He looked up at her. She held still.
Boys don't wear dresses, one of the other boys said.
I'm not a boy, she said—but when she remembers the incident, she says, Then I won't let you borrow mine.
The leader laughed, and so the rest did, too.
Then what are you? I ain't ever heard of a girl barber. You ever heard of a girl barber, Frankie?
Frankie shook his head.
I have long hair, she said.
Hey, Joey, maybe it's a wig. My grandmother wears a wig.
Your grandma wears a wig?
Frankie dropped his eyes. Hell no, she don't.
Joey grabbed at her hair.
Don't you dare cry, she thought. You're nine-years old, she thought, as she did whenever she needed to not show how she felt. Nine-year olds were too mature for that, she thought, and she used it as her steadying mantra. Even now, when she needed to keep herself together, she would think, You're nine-years old, you're nine-years old.
Her mother said the boys couldn't help it, that their bodies wanted her body to have a baby. But don't tell your father because worse things than babies can happen.
Her father wouldn't have liked her had she grown up with him. He set a great deal by survivors—hardy children, strong children, children who could climb jungle gyms in tornadoes. Those are the children whose heads he patted when he walked about the neighborhood after dinner. Those are the children he called out to, whose footballs he would intercept and return. All the neighborhood children loved her father.
And so, feeling as though she ought to be lucky to have such a father, and because one day he would be gone, and she would be him, she followed him down the stairs of funeral parlors and watched him trim the beards of dead men.
She's too young, her mother said.
Susan, do you think you're too young? he would say.
And so when she woke up in peed-in bedsheets, she clenched her teeth and climbed out. She pulled off her damp nightgown and stripped and hauled the sheets quietly up the hallway and down the basement steps to the washing machine, and hoped her mother wouldn't betray her to her father.
Then one night after dinner, as she rose to help her mother clear the table, her father said, We need to have a talk, he said.
The back screen door slammed.
Her father glanced up.
She imagined her mother crossing the yard to the alley behind the garage where she smoked cigarettes. Don't tell your father, she said.
She worried that he was going to talk to her about the boys who had cornered her. Ask her why she hadn't punched them all out like he'd taught her to punch a few years before. Her mother had promised not to tell, but her mother had broken promises before. Like before the hysterectomy when she promised Susan's father that she was fine never having children again but then Susan had come home to her mother opening the attic door and stepping back into the kitchen. Her eyes were puffy and there were dark smears of dust down the front of her dress and sticking to the light hairs on her bare arms. Susan, h r mother said, and took her into her arms. Later, Susan went into the attic and found her crib had been assembled and pulled into the light of the one, small window.
Her father set a thick, hardback book on the table between them. It had a rubber-band around it. He held it like the cigar box he kept his gun in beneath his bed, the one he showed her and told her never to touch. Promise me, he said. She had promised. Ever since the boys had cornered her, she would come home and crawl underneath his bed ,the frame scraping her back, and with her cheek against the cold wooden floor, stare at the lone cigar box. It made her feel better. Just like it made her feel good to sit at her desk at school and pretend to shave boys' faces from afar with a flick of her pencil, and with a flick of her pencil, slit their throats.
Her father pushed back their place-mats and opened the book between them. Its thin pages were stacked with names, addresses, dates. Written in her great-grandfather's wobbly and blotched cursive, her grandfather's slanting print, her father's upright script. So many columns and rows of names that her eyes blurred.
Her father pointed at the top of the page, at the name on the far left. Harcourt Broman was the name. This is the man, her father said. He slid his finger over. 303 W Buckeye. This is his address. He slid his finger over again. Cheryl. The wife, he said. The children, he said, pointing at the names—Gerard, Ophie, Tandie—on the turning-edge of the page.
She followed his finger across one row then down to the next. It reminded her of the sticker inside all her school books, the list of names of the children who had used the book before her.
There were numbers next to two different children's names. What's that?
This boy, he said—then flipped through the book until he found the number again—became this man, at this address, with this wife, two daughters, and a son.
Then she noticed the check-marks. She looked up at her father.
Deliveries ,he said.
* * *
She carries the black bag through the shadows of the old neighborhood surrounding the barber shop, close to where her grandparents once lived beneath the large trees that now reach into the sky as though eventually their roots will let go and they'll escape into the gray sky, float toward faraway fields where there must be soft, deep soft holes made just for the roots of tired trees.
The cracked streets carry on, and the sidewalks are tied to them like the shoelaces tied around the ankles of ghost children. The yards are yellowing or weedy. A shopping cart rusts by a tree. The street sign leans from teenagers leaning against it during school hours.
After every three or four houses is an empty lot edged by trees that grow in the shape of the house that once stood there. The stone walkway lolls back from the sidewalk to what's left of the foundation—grass, dandelions, beer cans. Now and then a little girl who must live in the neighborhood wanders the sidewalks with a red plastic pail and a rusty metal spade and climbs the stairs to the empty lots and crouches in the grass. She'll stick her spade into the dirt ,wiggling it back and forth and listening to the crunch of the earth and the pop of the grass roots letting go. Susan has seen the girl a few other times on her way to shave Mr. Adams. She imagines Mr. Adams walking to the barbershop and stopping to give the girl a marble on his way. He always had a pocket-full.
A young boy with a soda straw in his mouth pushes a pink stroller up the street. His pants bag, his arms are lean and lightly tattooed. When he saves up enough, he'll get them colored in. Probably after the kid's potty-trained because jesus the price of diapers.
He calls to the little girl, Whatchyadoin', Darla?
But the little girl doesn't look up. She's concentrating on digging up an artifact. The best times to dig are after rains, just before the sidewalks dry and the earthworms stop wriggling.
A door unlocks, an old woman pushes it open by the storm window, which will need changed to a screen soon. She steps onto the front porch. The silk nightgowns she hung in her closets have, over the years, turned to cotton. Down the block, a man in steps onto the back porch where the milk was once delivered. He makes his way to the garage where he'll start the car and let the engine run for a while to keep the gas good. The widow listens for the sound of the widower's car starting then she returns to her watering cans, moving up and down the porch of planters full of phlox, geraniums, marigolds, pansies and wandering Jew.
A car door shuts, a bird calls for another, a TV sells insurance and a free magnifying glass or pack of cards with any inquiry.
A few blocks away and out of sight and hearing, the stoplights click from green to yellow. The traffic has fledthe old neighborhoods for the streets with wide lanes that lead to new neighborhoods and strip malls.
A few more women and men will open their doors, but once they retreat behind the locks, the newest residents will come out to sit on concrete stairs and shout at each other, at phones, at the garden statues wandering across the yards in heavy diapers, hair thick with sleep, their small stone hands trying to shove fistfuls of acorns and straw wrappers into wet mouths.
But right now, the neighborhood is quiet and other than little Darla carrying her bucket and spade down the sidewalk in search of another yard, the woman with the black bag is the only one moving through it.
* * *
Out of courtesy, she knocks on the storm door of Mr. Adam's house, and just as she's reaching to open the latch, there's the sound of feeton carpet. When the door opens, her reflection is replaced by a similarly heavy-hipped Midwestern woman in beige pants and a striped pastel shirt. Tiny silver bells hang from the reflection's earlobes.
You’re late, the woman says. The earring's bells clink in her ears, off rhythm.
I'm his daughter, the woman says after a moment. Joanne, she says.
Of course, Susan says. Usually the person waits until after the delivery to pretend not to know her or her father.
Joanne holds the door open until Susan steps over the threshold. As she passes by Joanne she can see she's lost weight, and has the sunken face of those who have been watching death work on someone they love for a long time.
Inside, a long, green couch backs against curtains closed on a sliver of light. Two recliners sit with their backs to the fireplace. One covered in plastic, and next to it a TV tray that probably holds a ceramic mug crammed with pens, scissors, a magnifying glass, and a set of coasters from a coastal shop back when their children were young enough to build castles too close to the waves. Beside the other recliner, worn dark at the headrest and armrests, is a spittoon. On his TV tray is a magazine and the remote control wrapped in the same plastic.
The first time she came to the house to shave Mr. Adams, she thought she'd walked into her grandparents' old house. Even down to the same thick rug of different sized rectangles, although his lay in the bathroom instead of sunning on the floor beneath the kitchen window.
She follows the daughter into the man's bedroom that, like her grandparents' house, is directly across from the front door.
Mr. Adams is in the far corner on a narrow bed, under blankets as heavy as the drapes. Unseen but there, and as though Susan followed its feathers here, a large black crow perches on the man's chest. Red scarves twist through its wings. Its talons are punched through Mr. Adams chest, have grown into the bone, marrow with marrow. She looks for its shadow but on the far wall is only an old, faded decal of a man in a trench coat holding balloons.
His back is to the room, and the balloons have faded. A pink balloon is slipping from his fist and is cut to make it seem like it's slipping up into the room above them. She had the same decal in her childhood bedroom. Probably half the neighborhood had, since all the mothers shopped at the same small dime store that was a few doors down from the barbershop. And where once they shared customers, now they shared mice.
A clot of toast crumbs collects in the corner of Mr. Adams's mouth. So he's taken the pills, and then the toast to settle his stomach. Yes ,she is late. Usually, she's the one to make the toast.
Again stone wall is a bureau with a mirror where, if this were her grandparents' house, she had once stood as a child, plucking off the lids to her grandmother's jewelry boxes and holding crystal flowers to her earlobes.
When her grandmother died, her grandfather had distributed the jewelry among his daughters and set his record player on the bureau. Toward the end of his life, Susan's mother would go visit him and play records for him. The night before her grandfather was found dead, her mother had come home late. When she asked her mother why, she said each time a record ended, she just found another one. It seemed to tire him, but she kept going, glad he had so many.
I thought you said it was broken.
Igot it fixed, her mother said. Her mother paused and her lips nearly disappeared. She said, Remember your father took it to get it fixed.
After the funeral, when the family had changed into their everyday clothes and roamed her grandfather's house, picking up memories from shelves ,she had slipped into her grandfather's room. The same stack of records hovered on the spindle from the last time she'd visited. A thin layer of dust covered the plastic lid over the records. No fingerprints in the dust.
Maybe it was a coincidence. She removed it and set the needle on the record's last groove. A sultry voice began to sing. Mid-song, the next record fell, the needle skidded, and the voice ripped through the other grooves on the whirling plate, ripping silent songs into screams.
She tried again. Then she took off the waiting records and played just the one, and so the needle sang into the woman's voice until only silence was left. Like her grandfather's last heart beats, she thought.
* * *
It's not something for you to see, Mr. Adams is saying.
But I'm your daughter, Joanne says.
Susan steps back, out of the room, and the daughter and man stop and look at her but then continue.
That's nothing for a lady to see, Mr. Adams says.
Like hell, he says, his voice raising in a way Susan hasn't heard for along time—the voice that belongs to the thick-chested, adamant man. Even the one who sometimes bought her a cherry coke in the diner next door never spoke like that.
His voice weakens. Please, he says, and Susan knows the daughter can't refuse, can't make a dying man beg.
His daughter pauses then asks does he want to walk around the house one last time?
I know what it looks like, he says.
His daughter looks away, and Susan remembers walking in on her father and mother curled in bed. Her mother was thin and hairless and pressing her lips to her father's palm.
Oh, Dad, Joanne says and Susan imagines her bending over him, her fists on either side of the mattress so he won't roll to one side under the weight. She kisses his forehead then turns and walks out of the room, past Susan. Then she pauses, and begins to speak.
Susan's chest clenches. It's always more difficult when the relatives leave while she's there.
How long did you say again? Mr. Adams' daughter says.
Probably an hour. Maybe two.
Thank you, she says and Susan hears her take her purse from the hall tree and open then shut the front door behind her.
When she was younger, she thought that seeing such things that she knew no one else, or few, had ever seen gave her a rare and privileged insight into the world. But as she has learned that there is no such thing as special insight from experience. Putting a grocery bag over her head didn't tell her anything she didn't know before she put one over her head.
Susan steps into the room again. She asks Mr. Adams whether he wants her to leave the bedroom door open. He waves his hand, like it doesn't matter. Probably it doesn't, she thinks.
His fingers clutch the bottom sheet, pulling it up like a small tent then crushing it. She sets the black bag on the bedside table. As she sits beside him, the mattress rolls his body against her. At onetime, she was embarrassed by frailty, and the intimacy it automatically caused. His eyelids are thin, drawn by a blue spider.
She opens the barber case and takes out the handful of white towels, the small cardboard soapbox, razor, brush, apron, oven bag. She sets theses on his bedside table.
He passes his hand over his cheeks then nods slightly. She reaches into the drawer for the helium tank the postman left on the porch last week. On the return address label was a cluster of colorful balloons and a smiling clown: Mister Birthday thanks you for your order! The small helium tanks have always reminded her of the green Stanly thermos her father took to work in the winter and she used for her tea-parties during the summer, tipping the silver cup to the ghosts of the delivered patients who sat around her, their porcelain hands still on the table, waiting for their relaxing pills.
She sets the tank against his pillow and lays the oven bag on his chest ,patting it. The opening of the bag is hemmed with tape and threaded through with blue ribbons she'd gotten on sale at the craft outlet on the other side of town. He lifts his head and begins to pull the bag over it. His hands shake. The bag catches on his ear. He keeps trying to pull it down. She hooks her finger beneath the bag, freeing it. As the bag unwrinkles over his nose and lips, he smiles. Shyly?
She doesn't know. Once, she felt she understood people, as though her customers and patients were everyone, as though their whole lives were what they told her or didn't tell her as she shaved them on Monday, Tuesday, Saturday mornings in front of the large mirror in its heavy scrolled frame. And it was thinking that she understood people—herself included—that not only allowed her to continue the deliveries but also to want to deliver—to help, to comfort, to stand by when no one else could or would—as though a wife or a husband refusing to sit by his spouse during her death would prevent it instead of just make the chair beside the bed so vacant.
She was the caretaker, the death nurse, the endtime midwife. But as the years have passed and another row of the cemetery filled, her role seems more minimal, less needed, and with age she has begun to feel less empathy for the patients and more anger. Perhaps because their deaths have become more like her own, eventual death and less like a distant grandparent's.
Now she often stands in the house or bedroom after—instead of before—a delivery, gazing around, wondering, What here in this room, in this life, could he not find to keep living?
But she knows. She knows what it is to walk under the streetlights until she reaches the bridge over the wide, dark river and stand with her ghost waiting for her to swim into it.
The bag tightens against his throat as he pulls the ribbons in the hem of the delivery bag. He ties the two ribbons in a sailor knot. She made the bag last night in her kitchen while the radio dedicated love songs from one name to another. As a child, she would imagine that one day she would hear a song dedicated to her. What if she didn't hear it?
He sees her through the plastic bag, seemingly annoyed that she's there, but she can't be sure since pain changes the eyes like one color over another. She moves the helium tank onto his chest. He crosses his hands about it prayerfully then wraps his fingers around the small wheel like a miniature helm. The bag crackles between his cheek and the pillow as he turns toward her, watching. She lay her hand, palm up beside him so he knows he can hold her hand. He's looking out ahead of him, as though focusing on breathing or pain.
The red numbers on the alarm clock flicker against the plastic.
Her father and all the family barbers before her had delivered only men. Once she took over the barbershop completely, she had delivered a few women. She didn't know what sort of equality it was. .
Will it be okay? a woman once asked her, and she saw the fear in the woman's eyes. Why is that there? She had wondered, back when she was naïve enough to believe right decisions never hurt.
I don't think so, she said to the woman.
The woman nodded, and closed her eyes. The woman's breaths deepened. The delivery had taken three hours and ever after that Susan had only told the truth when the customers asked a question whose answer she didn't know: Will it hurt badly? I don't know. What will it feel like? I'm not sure. Would you do this? No.
But they never asked why not. Had they, she's not even sure how she would explain the memory of visiting her father's father in the nursing home, of him squeezing her hand as she turned to follow her parents out of the room. And she tugged, but his grip grew tighter. You leave me to it, he said. It's mine, it's mine and nobody else's. Spittle sprayed from his lips and wet her cheek. She wrenched her arm from his hand and hurried out of the room, trying not to slip in the slick hallway as she ran to meet with her parents who were already turning the corner toward the front door.
She eventually began saying, at some point during every delivery, You can change your mind at any moment. I can't guarantee what will happen, but you can change your mind.
They seemed comforted by this, but her father would have been aghast. He had explicitly taught her never to question the customer's decision. But she was only reminding them they could control what happened. Of course, it was sort of untrue that they could change their minds at any point during the process. Before she arrived, they would have taken the pills, enough over any safe dosage—enough to put them in a heavy stupor if not kill some of them without any further precautions. And, after enough helium had replaced the oxygen in their bloodstream, even if they did have the where-with-all to change their minds, they wouldn't be able to communicate this.
On the first delivery she witnessed with her father, the man's fingers had lifted as though waving, and she'd grabbed her dad's sleeve and told him to save the man, that the man wanted it to stop. Her father had cursed at her and sent her out of the room. She had sat on the couch with the man's neighbor. The neighbor had said he would be with the man when it happened but changed his mind at the last minute. I'm sorry, he's said and stood from the recliner next to the bed. I'm sorry, Harold. I thought I could. . . And Harold had shaken his head slightly, startled as his old friend backed out of the room. I'll just be outside.
Do you know him well? the man had asked her after a while.
She nodded. Well, not really, she said. She was about to explain that she'd seen Harold a few times a year because he came to the barbershop on Fridays while she was at school, so she only saw him during school holidays. But then she thought maybe her father wouldn't want her to talk about it. Even though the man clearly knew what was happening, probably she should just lay low.
The man reached inside his jacket pocket and pulled out a pack of cards. Harold and I started playing poker together what was it?—twenty, no thirty, years ago.
She watched him remember.
You play? he said.
He stood up, and she followed him into the kitchen. Instead of a table there were two TV trays pressed up against each other. Lawn chairs were pulled up to each one. They sat down, and the man began to shuffle the cards. The rush of them sent a breeze against her face.
On their walk home, her father explained that the man hadn't waved on purpose, that it wasn't any sign because his mind didn't know what his body was doing. His body was moving on its own. Sort of like how your heart beats without you having to tell it to.
She touched her fingers to her neck and held her breath. Her pulse went on. Then she swallowed without trying. Her heart slowed. She choked then gasped a lung-full of air. Her heart sped up, and she let go and looked at her father who was smiling down at her.
But how do you know the difference?
After enough time, the mind's gone, her father said. If there's consciousness, it's not strong enough to affect the body's actions. Sort of like being under water.
Another time, they came to a house where the man had tried to deliver without them. The man's black rimmed glasses were on the floor, and his face looked struck by an electric storm. Her father pressed his fingers against the man's throat. Then shook his head as he examined the terrible skin. And that's what happens when a delivery goes wrong ,or you interrupt one. Never let this happen, he said to her. No. Matter. What.
Mr. Adams turns the helium valve that has always looked to her like the helm of a doll's ship.
The bag begins to fog, reminding her as always of looking out of winter windows, trying to breathe away the frost but not breathe so hard the dead houseflies in the corners rock hollowly on shriveled wings.
His breath begins thickening, and death begins on his body as though death is new to this, too.
This will be another normal delivery, whether he has ever trembled before his god, his woman, or war. His eyes will roll into darkness, his daughter will return to idle in the empty house, the funeral director will type up the paperwork, the realtor will unlock the door, the next residents will take their pictures by the SOLD sign, before they move it to the attic or basement, the mail will be delivered, hair will grow, children will be born, hair will grow, storms will come ,doctor appointments will be made, hair will grow, picnic blankets will be laid out, hair will grow, be cut, swept, taken out with the rest of the trash.
Moisture drips inside the bag over his head, down the planes of his nose and cheeks and through the tiny sluices that end at his throat, the water dripping on the pillowcase that covers pillowcase speckled with the old nosebleeds.
His eyelashes flutter, his finger tremble.
The helium tank under his hands rises and lowers against his chest. The more helium he breathes, the colder the metal. She once imagined untying the ribbons, loosing the bag, shoving her hand up between the plastic and the patient's face—the first time this was beside a woman with dark eyebrows and violet eyes, a mother of three. She had nestled the tank beneath the woman's hand as the woman's husband sat outside the door. I don't want him to watch, the woman had said after her husband left the room, thinking he'd be allowed back inside.
She had imagined tearing the bag off the woman's face, cupping her cheek as the woman's children had. She knew without knowing her children had done so. It was just the way the woman's cheekbones were, the way her eyes were, the way her children stood in the large family portrait on the bedroom wall.
A s she watched her father's watch and began to count silently back from100, the woman began singing about going down to a riverbank and washing her hair. Singing about the sunlight through the trees along the bank, singing about the cool water on her legs and white dress. The woman sang, and the delivery bag crinkled in and out with her breath as Susan sat by and imagined the woman kneeling down on a sandy knoll and unhooking a pair of bloody wings from her back and pulling them like a fan through the river water, back and forth, but the blood, though it faded, still tinged the wings pink.
The sun through the window is hot.
The refrigerator kicks on.
A car door shuts.
She cups her hand against the back of Mr. Adam's skull, gently lifting his head from the pillow while removing the bag. Rivulets of moisture slip down inside the plastic, wetting his shirt and sprinkling her arm. His jaws sink open slightly, and she can see the roof of his mouth, the silver-black fillings inside his upper teeth. She waves her hand through the sunlight, waiting for his pupils to dilate.
She folds up the bag until its a square inside the palm of her hand. She ties the ribbons in a knot and packs it up into the black bag with the used towels and shaving instruments. She returns the ceramic mug to the kitchen, rinsing it out and leaving it in the rack. The house has the quietness about it. She pauses and listens for breathing. Of course, she expects to hear nothing as usual.
But she hears something.
But that can't be.
She holds her breath and listens over it.
Never leave the room until you are sure, her father would say. You must be absolutely sure. In every way. And they would sit by corpses for another ten minutes, her father or her pressing their stethoscopes lightly against the unmoving chests. She thinks she sat there for ten minutes. Or almost ten.
And never, never—and, Susie, I really do mean never—remove the bag until you are sure. Even then, it would be better to leave it on, especially if the person had agreed to leave a suicide note. But Susan has always hated the bags, hated knowing that most of the time some unknowing person would walk into the room to find the dead person and in such a state. Of ugliness. Ugliness.
Her father had assured her that one day she would get over it, that it wouldn't bother her. But she'd never gotten over that part—or ,really, any of it. Even her grandfather had been found without the bag on his head, which was why, according to the newspaper articles ,the coroner had ruled it a natural death at first, and why had a little girl who didn't identify herself not called and said maybe something was wrong about a certain, everything would have gone on as business as usual.
Business as usual, her father would say. That's the goal, always. Business as usual.
The person won't wake up if you do all this, her father had said in response to her what-if. There are no what-ifs if you do everything as I've told you.
She listens. No, there's no breathing. She has made the mistake before, and more than once she'd listened for the deceased's heart and mistaken the thump of her own. To be sure, she forces herself to return to the bedroom, to glance in. Everything is as it was. The man is still walking away on the wall, the same balloons have faded, and the same balloon is on its way through the ceiling. But everything is not as it was. No, something is different. Business is not as usual.
She takes one of the white towels from the bedside table and takes it into the bathroom where she had shaved him before he'd become bedridden. She lets the water run until the mirror steams then wrings the towel under the faucet then takes his shaving mug from the bathroom cabinet and fills it.
She tests the heat by speckling some of the water against the inside of her wrist. When it’s hot, she carries the mug back to his room ,careful not to let it spill. She lays the hot towels over his face and takes out the shaving soap and brush. She lathers up the soap then moves the towels to his chest. With one hand, she smoothes the skin across his cheek as she pulls the blade down through the crème and flicks it against her palm.
When she has dried him off, she takes out the hand-mirror and holds it up to his face. It doesn't fog. Of course.
Then a little girl appears in the window and then disappears. It's the little girl Susan passed on her way here, the little girl with her plastic bucket and shovel.
The little girl appears again in the window.
What had she heard that boy call her? Darla?
Darla jumps again, her face appearing again in the window, her dishwater hair spreading across the air, her eyes wide and searching into the bedroom.
How long has little Darla been watching? Had she followed her in that stealthy way some children had—especially bored ones who spent their time wandering empty neighborhoods?
The next time Darla jumps, she waves at Susan. Hey!
Susan goes to the window and leans across the reclining chair that sits beside it. It's a well-worn chair with a blue hand towel spread over the headrest. The window's unlocked and lifts easily.
The little girl squints up then smiles. Her knees are stuck with blades of wet grass.
I'm Darla, the girl says. Then she waits for Susan to introduce herself, but Susan doesn't. Then the girl smacks her forehead with her hand—hard enough that Susan winces. I forgot! It's shaving day!
Susan nods. Yes, that's what it is, she thinks.
I got sumpin, the little girl says and struggles a bit as she lifts up her arms. She holds the pail's handle with both hands, and the red pail swings heavily. Can Mr. Adams come have a look?
Susan shakes her head.
Darla' s forehead wrinkles. You ain't the boss of Mr. Adams. Where's his daughter?
She'll be back soon, Susan says.
But he told me he'd buy her if I caught her, Darla says and lifts the pail up to her chin. Her arms tremble with the weight.
Susan tries to think, but it's too hard.
Darla sets the pail down, quickly. Then she takes a deep breath and raises up again, wiping her forehead in what seems to be an exaggerated way, with the back of her arm that leaves a worse streak of dirt than what was there. Both straps of her dress are held by safety pins, and one of the two front pockets is torn half off. The other is full of something that, through the thin fabric, almost looks like turquoise gravel from a fish aquarium.
Maybe tomorrow? Darla says.
The girl jerks her head in a way that makes Susan look down at the pail setting at the girl's bare feet. Maybe Mr. Adams can see what I got tomorrow—if he feels okay and stuff.
He's dying, Darla says. You ever knew anybody who died? I never did. Squirrel died in the road last week. Nasty. I was going to bury it but the road-workers came and got it. My dad works on a road-crew maybe and maybe he took care of it. Ma said leave it alone anyway you crazy girl. My mother's twenty-six, how old are you?
Susan pauses, taking it all in. She watches the girl assess her.
What's your name anyway? Darla says, perhaps finding a name more telling than a number.
Susan has the urge to lie. My name's Susan, she says.
Susan, maybe you wanna see sumpin. I'm selling this here cat. So you can actually buy it.
But before Susan can answer, the girl is lifting the pail. It's my cat, Darla says. Lookee.
A fat orange tabby is curled in the bucket. It has a pink nose and content or dissatisfied look.
Darla's name is being shouted from across the way.
Oh, shoot, Darla says, looking toward the sound of her name. I'll tell you what, Susan, I'll bring him you tomorrow if you're here but don't tell Mr. Adams cause it's gonna surprise him okay, Susan?! He said he'd pay per pound, and it's a big one, I think.
Darla waves and turns around, heaving the pail as she moves back toward the sidewalk. By the way she moves, Susan can tell the pail is very heavy, that the cat must be pretty old to cope with such treatment.
Susan sits down in the recliner where Mr. Adams might have been sitting If she hadn't come here today, or if she had left after his shave, and if he felt well enough. She feels the worn velveteen under her hand. What would he and Darla have talked about? What to name the cat, where she found it, how old cats live, what happens to cats when they die, other cats they'd known in their lives, the habits of those cats? Maybe he would have bartered with Darla until she gave him the cat for free. Likely the cat belonged to someone in the neighborhood.
By the time Susan reaches the front door, she's moving almost at a trot. Without looking, she's taking her purse from the hall-tree and slipping its strap over her head and shoulder. She'll stop at the barber shop on her way home to collect the towels she'll launder at home. But the landscape of the purse feels wrong beneath her hands, and she looks down. This isn't her purse. Mr. Adams' daughter must have accidentally taken her purse as she left. An easy mistake under the circumstances. The keys that she digs out of the bottom aren't hers but Mr. Adam's daughter's.
Each of the keys is stuck with a tiny white sticker, labeling the doors in her father's stern capitals. BACK where the milk arrived in thick bottles each morning, SHED in the alley where the neighbor boy unbuttoned her cardigan one autumn day as the neighbor children played tag on the other side of the hedges and where her father made love to her mother one snowy morning after the children were grown, ATTIC at the top of splintering stairs to boxes of old books and former furniture phases of the family's life folded up and stacked against the walls, where her father would sit in the early evenings reading from his grandfather's bible, where a number of wild animals had found themselves stuck and living over the years, to the FRONT door that leads to the porch, the swing whose silver chains he had insisted on replacing the week before her mother's death, her body a shadow against the curtains over the living room window. The SCREEN door where she stood as a child, holding her peanut-butter sandwich in one hand and turning the deadbolt of the front door with her other hand.
She presses her baby-face against the wire mesh and waits for her father to come home from work, to turn the corner into sight. And every time he appears and sees her waiting, his face becomes the sun before set, and he starts walking faster, she runs away, giggling.