“Perhaps you need to go home,” he says. “I’m sorry for your loss. But I’d like to encourage you not to behave like one of those Comanche ladies who bite off their index fingers when a loved one dies. Grief is good, grief is fine, but too much grief, as we all know, is excessive. If your aunt’s death has filled your mouth with too many bitten-off fingers, for crying out loud, take a week off, only don’t take it out on our Guests, they didn’t kill your dang aunt.”
But I can’t afford to take a week off. I can’t even afford to take a few days off.
“We really need the money,” I say.
“Is that my problem?” he says. “Am I supposed to let you dance without vigor just because you need the money? Why don’t I put an ad in the paper for all sad people who need money? All the town’s sad could come here and strip. Good-bye. Come back when you feel halfway normal.”
From the pay phone I call home to see if they need anything from the FoodSoQuik.
“Just come home,” Min says stiffly. “Just come straight home.”
“What is it?” I say.
“Come home,” she says.
Maybe someone’s found the body. I imagine Bernie naked, Bernie chopped in two, Bernie posed on a bus bench. I hope and pray that something only mildly bad’s been done to her, something we can live with.
At home the door’s wide open. Min and Jade are sitting very still on the couch, babies in their laps, staring at the rocking chair, and in the rocking chair is Bernie. Bernie’s body.
Same perm, same glasses, same blue dress we buried her in.
What’s it doing here? Who could be so cruel? And what are we supposed to do with it?
Then she turns her head and looks at me.
“Sit the fuck down,” she says.
In life she never swore.
I sit. Min squeezes and releases my hand, squeezes and releases, squeezes and releases.
“You, mister,” Bernie says to me, “are going to start showing your cock. You’ll show it and show it. You go up to a lady, if she wants to see it, if she’ll pay to see it, I’ll make a thumbprint on the forehead. You see the thumbprint, you ask. I’ll try to get you five a day, at twenty bucks a pop. So a hundred bucks a day. Seven hundred a week. And that’s cash, so no taxes. No withholding. See? That’s the beauty of it.”
She’s got dirt in her hair and dirt in her teeth and her hair is a mess and her tongue when it darts out to lick her lips is black.
“You, Jade,” she says. “Tomorrow you start work. Andersen Labels, Fifth and Rivera. Dress up when you go. Wear something nice. Show a little leg. And don’t chomp your gum. Ask for Len. At the end of the month, we take the money you made and the cock money and get a new place. Somewhere safe. That’s part one of Phase One. You, Min. You baby-sit. Plus you quit smoking. Plus you learn how to cook. No more food out of cans. We gotta eat right to look our best. Because I am getting me so many lovers. Maybe you kids don’t know this but I died a freaking virgin. No babies, no lovers. Nothing went in, nothing came out. Ha ha! Dry as a bone, completely wasted, this pretty little thing God gave me between my legs. Well I am going to have lovers now, you fucks! Like in the movies, big shoulders and all, and a summer house, and nice trips, and in the morning in my room a big vase of flowers, and I’m going to get my nipples hard standing in the breeze from the ocean, eating shrimp from a cup, you sons of bitches, while my lover watches me from the veranda, his big shoulders shining, all hard for me, that’s one damn thing I will guarantee you kids! Ha ha! You think I’m joking? I ain’t freaking joking. I never got nothing! My life was shit! I was never even up in a freaking plane. But that was that life and this is this life. My new life. Cover me up now! With a blanket. I need my beauty rest. Tell anyone I’m here, you all die. Plus they die. Whoever you tell, they die. I kill them with my mind. I can do that. I am very freaking strong now. I got powers! So no visitors. I don’t exactly look my best. You got it? You all got it?”
We nod. I go for a blanket. Her hands and feet are shaking and she’s grinding her teeth and one falls out.
“Put it over me, you fuck, all the way over!” she screams, and I put it over her.
We sneak off with the babies and whisper in the kitchen.
“It looks like her,” says Min.
“It is her,” I say.
“It is and it ain’t,” says Jade.
“We better do what she says,” Min says.
“No shit,” Jade says.
All night she sits in the rocker under the blanket, shaking and swearing.
All night we sit in Min’s bed, fully dressed, holding hands.
“See how strong I am!” she shouts around midnight, and there’s a cracking sound, and when I go out the door’s been torn off the microwave but she’s still sitting in the chair.
In the morning she’s still there, shaking and swearing.
“Take the blanket off!” she screams. “It’s time to get this show on the road.”
I take the blanket off. The smell is not good. One ear is now in her lap. She keeps absentmindedly sticking it back on her head.
“You, Jade!” she shouts. “Get dressed. Go get that job. When you meet Len, bend forward a little. Let him see down your top. Give him some hope. He’s a sicko, but we need him. You, Min! Make breakfast. Something homemade. Like biscuits.”
“Why don’t you make it with your powers?” says Min.
“Don’t be a smartass!” screams Bernie. “You see what I did to that microwave?”
“I don’t know how to make freaking biscuits,” Min wails.
“You know how to read, right?” Bernie shouts. “You ever heard of a recipe? You ever been in the grave? It sucks so bad! You regret all the things you never did. You little bitches are gonna have a very bad time in the grave unless you get on the stick, believe me! Turn down the thermostat! Make it cold. I like cold. Something’s off with my body. I don’t feel right.”
I turn down the thermostat. She looks at me.
“Go show your cock!” she shouts. “That is the first part of Phase One. After we get the new place, that’s the end of the first part of Phase Two. You’ll still show your cock, but only three days a week. Because you’ll start community college. Pre-law. Pre-law is best. You’ll be a whiz. You ain’t dumb. And Jade’ll work weekends to make up for the decrease in cock money. See? See how that works? Now get out of here. What are you gonna do?”
“Show my cock?” I say.
“Show your cock, that’s right,” she says, and brushes back her hair with her hand, and a huge wad comes out, leaving her almost bald on one side.
“Oh God,” says Min. “You know what? No way me and the babies are staying here alone.”
“You ain’t alone,” says Bernie. “I’m here.”
“Please don’t go,” Min says to me.
“Oh, stop it,” Bernie says, and the door flies open and I feel a sort of invisible fist punching me in the back.
Outside it’s sunny. A regular day. A guy’s changing his oil. The clouds are regular clouds and the sun’s the regular sun and the only nonregular thing is that my clothes smell like Bernie, a combo of wet cellar and rotten bacon.
Work goes well. I manage to keep smiling and hide my shaking hands, and my midshift rating is Honeypie. After lunch this older woman comes up and says I look so much like a real Pilot she can hardly stand it.
George Saunders, Sea Oak, [In:] Pastoralia, 2000.