Later Page 2

I also knew that talking to Mrs. Burkett any more would freak him out. Mom, too. Even a little kid knows certain basic things if he’s not soft in the attic. You said please, you said thank you, you didn’t flap your weenie around in public or chew with your mouth open, and you didn’t talk to dead folks when they were standing next to living folks who were just starting to miss them. I only want to say, in my own defense, that when I saw her I didn’t know she was dead. Later on I got better at telling the difference, but back then I was just learning. It was her nightgown I could see through, not her. Dead people look just like living people, except they’re always wearing the clothes they died in.

Meanwhile, Mr. Burkett was rehashing the whole thing. He told my mother how he sat on the floor beside the couch and held his wife’s hand till that doctor guy came and again till the mortician guy came to take her away. “Conveyed her hence” was what he actually said, which I didn’t understand until Mom explained it to me. And at first I thought he said beautician, maybe because of the smell when he burned Mom’s hair. His crying had tapered off, but now it ramped up again. “Her rings are gone,” he said through his tears. “Both her wedding ring and her engagement ring, that big diamond. I looked on the night table by her side of the bed, where she puts them when she rubs that awful-smelling arthritis cream into her hands—”

“It does smell bad,” Mrs. Burkett admitted. “Lanolin is basically sheep dip, but it really helps.”

I nodded to show I understood but didn’t say anything.

“—and on the bathroom sink, because sometimes she leaves them there…I’ve looked everywhere.”

“They’ll turn up,” my mother soothed, and now that her hair was safe, she took Mr. Burkett in her arms again. “They’ll turn up, Marty, don’t you worry about that.”

“I miss her so much! I miss her already!”

Mrs. Burkett flapped a hand in front of her face. “I give him six weeks before he’s asking Dolores Magowan out to lunch.”

Mr. Burkett was blubbing, and my mother was doing her soothing thing like she did to me whenever I scraped my knee or this one time when I tried to make her a cup of tea and slopped hot water on my hand. Lots of noise, in other words, so I took a chance but kept my voice low.

“Where are your rings, Mrs. Burkett? Do you know?”

They have to tell you the truth when they’re dead. I didn’t know that at the age of six; I just assumed all grownups told the truth, living or dead. Of course back then I also believed Goldilocks was a real girl. Call me stupid if you want to. At least I didn’t believe the three bears actually talked.

“Top shelf of the hall closet,” she said. “Way in the back, behind the scrapbooks.”

“Why there?” I asked, and my mother gave me a strange look. As far as she could see, I was talking to the empty doorway…although by then she knew I wasn’t quite the same as other kids. After a thing that happened in Central Park, not a nice thing—I’ll get to it—I overheard her telling one of her editor friends on the phone that I was “fey.” That scared the shit out of me, because I thought she meant she was changing my name to Fay, which is a girl’s name.

“I don’t have the slightest idea,” Mrs. Burkett said. “By then I suppose I was having the stroke. My thoughts would have been drowning in blood.”

Thoughts drowning in blood. I never forgot that.

Mom asked Mr. Burkett if he wanted to come down to our apartment for a cup of tea (“or something stronger”), but he said no, he was going to have another hunt for his wife’s missing rings. She asked him if he would like us to bring him some Chinese take-out, which my mother was planning for dinner, and he said that would be good, thank you Tia.

My mother said de nada (which she used almost as much as yeah yeah yeah and right right right), then said we’d bring it to his apartment around six, unless he wanted to eat with us in ours, which he was welcome to do. He said no, he’d like to eat in his place but he would like us to eat with him. Except what he actually said was our place, like Mrs. Burkett was still alive. Which she wasn’t, even though she was there.

“By then you’ll have found her rings,” Mom said. She took my hand. “Come on, Jamie. We’ll see Mr. Burkett later, but for now let’s leave him alone.”

Mrs. Burkett said, “Turkeys aren’t green, Jamie, and that doesn’t look like a turkey anyway. It looks like a blob with fingers sticking out of it. You’re no Rembrandt.”

Dead people have to tell the truth, which is okay when you want to know the answer to a question, but as I said, the truth can really suck. I started to be mad at her, but just then she started to cry and I couldn’t be. She turned to Mr. Burkett and said, “Who’ll make sure you don’t miss the belt loop in the back of your pants now? Dolores Magowan? I should smile and kiss a pig.” She kissed his cheek…or kissed at it, I couldn’t really tell which. “I loved you, Marty. Still do.”

Mr. Burkett raised his hand and scratched the spot where her lips had touched him, as if he had an itch. I suppose that’s what he thought it was.

2


So yeah, I see dead people. As far as I can remember, I always have. But it’s not like in that movie with Bruce Willis. It can be interesting, it can be scary sometimes (the Central Park dude), it can be a pain in the ass, but mostly it just is. Like being left-handed, or being able to play classical music when you’re like three years old, or getting early-onset Alzheimer’s, which is what happened to Uncle Harry when he was only forty-two. At age six, forty-two seemed old to me, but even then I understood it’s young to wind up not knowing who you are. Or what the names of things are—for some reason that’s what always scared me the most when we went to see Uncle Harry. His thoughts didn’t drown in blood from a busted brain vessel, but they drowned, just the same.

Mom and me trucked on down to 3C, and Mom let us in. Which took some time, because there are three locks on the door. She said that’s the price you pay for living in style. We had a six-room apartment with a view of the avenue. Mom called it the Palace on Park. We had a cleaning woman who came in twice a week. Mom had a Range Rover in the parking garage on Second Avenue, and sometimes we went up to Uncle Harry’s place in Speonk. Thanks to Regis Thomas and a few other writers (but mostly good old Regis), we were living high on the hog. It didn’t last, a depressing development I will discuss all too soon. Looking back on it, I sometimes think my life was like a Dickens novel, only with swearing.

Mom tossed her manuscript bag and purse on the sofa and sat down. The sofa made a farting noise that usually made us laugh, but not that day. “Jesus-fuck,” Mom said, then raised a hand in a stop gesture. “You—”

“I didn’t hear it, nope,” I said.

“Good. I need to have an electric shock collar or something that buzzes every time I swear around you. That’d teach me.” She stuck out her lower lip and blew back her bangs. “I’ve got another two hundred pages of Regis’s latest to read—”

“What’s this one called?” I asked, knowing the title would have of Roanoke in it. They always did.

Prev Next