It’s mad, really, what you can buy in a costume shop. The best items are hidden on the bushiest racks, in the middle. I often scrounge around in those caves, sometimes sit back to have a smoke and wonder if I’m going to set it all alight.
I’m a December baby, I tell everyone. Born the same month as Christ and Santa Claus. This house would look bonzo in the snow, it really would. I ring the doorbell.
The lady who opens is wearing a robe, no slippers.
“Can I help you, Officer?” she asks.
“Ma’am,” I tell her. I’m a December baby, baby. “Ma’am, I have bad news. Your husband was in a large fire last night. I’m so sorry to report that he passed away. So sorry.”
It’s seven in the morning. Exactly the time when you might think you’d get bad news. Certainly about the time of day when you’d least question something like this. She leans against the doorframe, then flops onto my chest.
“Ma’am, please. I need you to come with me to identify the body. Could you come with me please?”
She’s got her hands on her cheeks. This is the most awkward part, the one where you have to feel what’s happening to them, the vibration of it. I push her away and ask her to put on her shoes. That much she can handle.
On the way to the black car – that’s what Addie and John call it – I nod to them in their SUV. They’re parked across the street, next to a balloon hanging off a light pole, and I think to myself that you can find beautiful things in the world if you really look hard – sometimes you have to work for it, like getting up early on a Saturday morning, but it’s worth it. It’s mad how much it’s worth it.
Me and the lady pull out; Addie and John slip into her driveway. She didn’t lock the door, but so what? They’ll have a time of it in there. Less than two weeks ago, a big truck backed up to the house and dropped off box after box of stuff. Probably some of it’s still in boxes, we’ll see. I laugh to myself as I drive through the subdivision. I’m a December baby, baby. That’s right.
The lady’s taking breaths, crying. I turn up the heat. Usually they ask how it happened, but she doesn’t do that. I should have told her to change. The robe’s flopped open a bit, and I can see freckled skin in there, settling in folds. I turn up the heat some more. She keeps crying.
The subdivision is made of flowery p’s that end in the hard t’s of main roads. She should be talking by now. I say, “Ma’am, is there anyone you’d like to call?”
“No,” she sobs.
“Would you like a coffee? I can stop for one.”
“No. Why don’t you just leave me in a ditch? Let me die.”
She’s looking at me. “Let me out,” she says. “I don’t want to see his body. I don’t want to identify it. I just want to die.”
“I can’t do that,” I tell her. “I’m sorry, but I can’t.”
“Asshole,” she says. At least I think that’s what she says. I look over. Her robe’s opened up even more, and I can see most of a breast.
I keep my eyes on the road. There are parts of this that are hard. So hard. But this part’s easy: “It was a natural gas leak in his building. Pipes weren’t installed to code, and there was a rupture. When a crew came in to do repair work on the boiler, their welding torch lit it up. The portion of the building under the rupture caved in. Your husband was badly burned, and passed away in hospital.”
Her knees come up and hit the glove compartment. Head buried in the flowery pyjamas of her knees, robe fully open, she’s got her hands behind her head. “I can’t believe this,” she says, and it’s the smallest voice I’ve ever heard – not the quietest, but the smallest, as though she’s shrinking right in the car seat.
I try to talk but something won’t let me. Ahead there’s a donut shop, the one I’d planned on stopping at if she’d been of a mind to have a coffee. I drive past. Then there’s the on-ramp to the highway, and suddenly we’re on a deserted six-lane stretch of raised-up concrete, and I’m looking down on the city. And I’m trying to talk but can’t. Nothing’s coming out. The lady sits balled into herself like a scroll that’s being twisted smaller and smaller.
“Ma’am,” I finally tell her. This part I have to make up. “I do have to tell you something. Maybe something you should know. Your husband wasn’t alone in his workplace. We found the remains of a woman too.”
“I should let the doctors explain, or the investigator. But reports are that this woman and your husband have been involved for some time.” I don’t know a better word than ‘involved’, it’s funny how that is. In fact, it’s mad. “They were together.”
The lady uncurls, like a snake about to eat me. She’s staring. “Todd was having an affair? Is that what you’re telling me? He was having an affair at work?”
She looks at the mountains at the end of the highway. “I thought so. Knew as much,” she says, and I feel a surge of relief. “I had suspicions, but he… I can’t believe he actually did it.” She’s staring at me. “What do you mean they died together?”
“I wanted to prepare you for the identification,” I tell her, breathing again. This is how it should be – a conversation amongst people. It’s mad how good this feels. “You’ll see both of them. Badly burnt and melted together in some respects, but enough of their faces still there that you can see something.”
“Died in each other’s arms. So romantic. That’s just like Todd. He was always a romantic. Always was the type that could fall in love over and over again. Knew he’d die in someone’s arms,” she says. “Knew it.”
We drive. There’s other cars out here, but not many. The sun’s coming up, out of the mountains. This is my favorite part, and sometimes I’ll take the black car and drive this stretch just to get a feel for what it’s like to be out here all alone, and when Addie and John ask why I do it, I tell them that it’s mad really, how much beautiful stuff there is in this world.
“May I borrow your gun?” she asks.
“Sorry, ma’am? What for?”
“What do you think?”
It’s not a real gun, I want to tell her. And what are you thinking, anyway, with your eyes narrow as pieces of paper and all that freckled skin exposed as though you’re trying to entice me into something.
“Where are we?” she asks. We’ve been off the highway for a while, on a long stretch of road that skims the edge of the mountains. “Where are we going?”
I stop the car. It’s a lonely place. The perfect place.
“Ma’am, please get out of the car.”
“Why? What is this?” But she opens the door and steps out.
Against the meadows of the foothills, she looks very small. There’s nothing out here, for miles around. I know that to be a fact.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry. Listen, there was no accident. No fire. Your husband’s fine.”
“No accident? No fire?”
“And you’re not a cop?”
“That’s also right.”
“Are you going to kill me?”
“Ma’am – what kind of person do you think I am? This is just a robbery.”
“And my husband – he’s not having an affair?”
“Not that I know of.”
When the wash of joy comes over her face, I pull the door closed and drive off. It’s nice to do good things for people, to bring them happiness when you can. In the mirror, she’s standing against the foothills in those flowery pyjamas. She’s tied the robe up properly, and I can still see her curls of hair. She should look tiny against the hills, smaller against the mountains, but somehow doesn’t. It’s mad, really, how big she looks, how huge, as I leave her there.
And now for the winners of A.H. Browne’s “Double Service” (https://trentlewin.com/2016/01/24/book-review-double-service-by-a-h-browne/)… I picked randomly from amongst the entrants, as I thought all entries were pretty good (and very different). Winners are Jaded and Amy Reese – if you guys already have a copy of the book, let me know and I’ll hand off to someone else. Otherwise, send me an e-mail at email@example.com and I’ll get the books over to you.