Curses and Reverses
Ned collapsed face-first on his bed the second they arrived back at the apartment and refused to move. His last clear notion was of Emerson donning a pair of rubber gloves and reaching out the windows into the roof drains to collect dead things. Strange half-dreams about bent-winged pigeons and one-eyed crows flapping past his bedroom door with Emerson on their tail, swinging a broom, failed to stir him. The pillows still smelled of her hair and the sheets of them--he wanted to stay drowned in that memory and not come up for air for weeks. Or ever, the alternative being altogether too depressing. Here, in his sleeping life, she was spooned up next to him--soft, warm and happy.
There was sunlight on his face and a tailless rat near his ear when he woke.
"Agh!" Ned jumped up off the bed and the rat twitched its nose at him, content to bask in the morning rays. "There's a rat in my bed!" He looked over at Chuck's bed to find it occupied by gophers. "Agh!"
Emerson opened a red eye. "Be glad that's all you got in your bed. I took care of most of the roaches."
"Most of them? Where's Chuck?"
"Madame Curie's on the couch. You can tell her it's the last time this boy's playin' animal control for her or anybody."
Ned took note of the feathers wafting across his flooring. "What did you two do last night?"
Emerson rubbed his eyes and begrudgingly sat up. "Guess you'll need to know. Better to hear it from me than her, I suppose."
Something in his tone told Ned he'd better sit down, basking rat or no.
Emerson started counting the facts out on his fingers. "Here's how it goes down: Dead girl can't touch nothing alive. If she does, it gets dead and stays dead as long as she lets it lie. She touches it again, it's back in the game, but after the 60 second whistle blows, something else gonna die in its place. Sound familiar?"
Ned felt his heart sinking into his still-tied shoes. "It does. Go on."
"If she touches something that was dead already, it comes alive and stays alive and acts like it owns the damn place like your rat friend here. Had a hell of a time getting the chipmunks out of your bathroom."
"But what about Harmon?" Ned asked. "He went right back to blue and bloated the second she gave him her hand."
"That one got me, too," Emerson admitted, scratching his head. "Seems to me he's the piece that don't fit. 'Course that sucka did die under less than natural circumstances. Might have something to do with it. She did send him back to never-everland under the clock, didn't she?"
"I think so. I didn't think she could." Ned moaned and cradled his head in his hands. "I really messed things up, Emerson. Why do I do that?"
Emerson shrugged. "'Cause you stupid in love, that's why. Never met a guy who had it as bad as you. Best count your blessings and move forward."
Ned looked up, aghast. "But she can't touch anyone. At least before she could...if we or she wanted to...with somebody else...eventually, maybe..."
"Thing of it is you didn't want to--neither of you did or would. So you stuck your neck out and got it all chopped up. Was gonna happen one way or other. That's just how love is. One of these days you gonna die for that girl, sure as pie."
Ned wiped his eyes and looked toward the living room. "How'd she take it?"
Emerson looked glum. "Not so good."
Ned got up and stepped into the living room. Chuck was fast asleep on the couch with her arm around Digby. The dog opened his eyes and gave Ned a tail whap. "Hey, boy," Ned said quietly, kneeling next to them. "Don't worry, I'm not going to touch her." He looked back at Emerson. "At least there's Digby. And...what about Olive?"
Emerson shook his head. "No good. Dead forever if she tries that hug again."
"Then what about Mrs. Wilcox? She was the trade-in for keeping Olive alive."
"A repercussion death, stays dead. We tried it on a couple of roaches. No change no matter how many times she poked 'em. Your Mrs. Wilcox died of natural causes. Though, your girl here told me with all the ruckus you two were making over Olive you might have killed her either way."
Ned was puzzled. "Then who...?"
Emerson patted his pajama pocket. "Got a call early this morning from my man at the morgue. Street person was found dead last night by the dumpster behind this place. Time of death was estimated at 9:30 pm. Cause of death--unknown."
Ned shuddered. "Chuck know about that?"
Emerson shook his head.
Ned reached out a careful hand and petted Digby's head while Chuck slept. "Let's keep it that way."
Ned opened the passenger side door and held out his hand to Chuck. She sat unmoving, clutching Bob in her lap with gloved hands.
"Ned, what if there's children in there!" They were parked in front of the Sakura Emporium, not a block from Japantown's dilapidated gardens.
"There isn't. There's never anybody in here. Just the old woman."
Chuck took his hand tentatively and let herself be coaxed out of the car. She was dressed head to toe in long sleeves, scarves and gloves. A bit excessive he felt, but it was necessary to keep her comfortable. It took him three patient hours just to convince her to leave the apartment and only then on account of his lousy Japanese.
"Look, we'll just ask her about Bob and then go get sushi or something."
"Sushi? Ned! We can't just...walk around here like nothing's wrong."
"It won't be so bad, or at least not as bad as you think. Come on, sweetheart, I need you."
Inside the cluttered gift shop Ned led Chuck though the plethora of hanging scrolls, multi-color kimono, Buddha fountains, watercolor fans, silk slippers, masks, charms and incense. An ancient woman sat behind a trinket-cluttered desk in the back, watching Fuji TV on a six-inch screen.
"Excuse me..." Ned began.
The old woman held up a hand. "Ee, ee, eh, eigo."
"No English," Ned repeated, turning to Chuck. "See?"
Chuck took a breath and eased forward. "Chotto sumimasen, anata no baru wa doko ni arimasu ka?"
The old woman lifted her hooded eyes from the tiny moving image of a samurai about to slit his belly open with a bamboo sword. "Donna baru desu ka?"
Ned looked at Chuck. "Did she ask what kind of bowl?"
Chuck nodded and held up Bob.
"Ah.." the old woman said. "So no baru."
Chuck glanced at Ned. "I think she's seen it before. Ko no baru wa yuumei na baru desu ne?"
"Hai!" the woman responded, pointing up to a high shelf behind them. On it was stacked ten or twelve 'Bobs' of identical size and pattern.
"Bob's got friends," Ned commented.
"Eh?" the woman said.
"Ko no bowl...uh, baru no namae wa Bob-san desu," Ned clarified, hoping she'd recognize the name.
The old woman pointed at their bowl. "Bob-san desu ka?"
Ned nodded. "Hai."
The old woman burst into laughter.
Ned turned to Chuck. "This isn't going very well. Ideas?"
"Not everyone names their bowls around here, I guess. Let me try something else..."
Chuck stepped forward and engaged the woman in a deeper, faster conversation in which Ned could only pick out the occasional word. Something about Nihon no niwah--Japanese garden, ojiisan—old man and shinto. At which the old woman stood up and rattled off a list of directions, waving her hands about in such a way that made Chuck back up nervously. Ned caught her scarf swathed shoulders.
"What's she saying about a path--komichi?"
Chuck stepped away from him. "We need to seek the path behind the sakanaya—fish market."
"And...what's behind the fish market?"
"Ojiisan," Chuck said "Hopefully your ojiisan."
Ned bowed to the old woman. "Domo arigato gozaimasu." Chuck echoed the thanks and they headed out with Bob in pursuit of the scent of fish.
"Wait, Ned. Stop the car."
Ned pulled over beside a busted parking meter at the bitter end of Japantown where the wharf began and the tug boats came in to rest and rust.
Chuck pointed out the front windscreen to a large weathered sign, cut in the shape of a fish. The name, once painted in Hiragana, was now peeled into obscurity. Ned pulled the parking brake and made a point to roll up the windows and lock the Mercedes' doors. Chuck peered through the plywood boarded windows of the abandoned market with Bob tucked under her arm.
"See anything in there?" Ned asked, examining the peeping view from a few feet higher. All he could see was the random detritus of a long gone-out-of-business establishment. "This can't be the right place."
"Look, a path!" Chuck said, moving to slip through a narrow gap in the chain link fence just behind the building. Ned followed her and tried to avoid the worst of the rotting tide-abandoned garbage as they picked their way along under the docks. Anchored here in the shallows was a long narrow fishing boat, shrouded in tangled netting and lit from within.
Ned approached the gangplank and tried a hello. Nothing. He turned to Chuck with a 'what now' face when a voice called out from inside. Yokoso! A young man with a shaved head and ceremonial robes opened the cabin door and bowed. "You are expected," he said graciously. "Please remove shoes."
Ned did and stooping, followed a de-heeled Chuck past the young man and into the low-ceilinged cabin. The interior was hung in bright silks that shimmered in the glow of dozens of lit candle boxes. Finely woven tatami was laid in over the decking and made cozy with embroidered floor pillows and a few low tables. Red and gold charms with dangling ribbons were hung from the hull ribs and tinkled with tiny bells as the boat rocked gently in the harbor. In the center of it all, upon a futon, reclined the old man, muttering into a small incense dish, cutting the scent of old fish. He looked much more ancient than Ned remembered. Together, Ned and Chuck knelt on the pillows beside him and bowed. "Konbanwa."
The ojiisan bowed his head in reply and set his incense aside. "What took you so long?" he asked.
"I didn't know you were waiting for us," Ned said.
"I am always waiting. Much as you are always waiting. I see you have found Bob."
"Yes," Chuck said, presenting the bowl with another bow. "We'd like to return him to you."
The old man made no move to take it. "You keep Bob," he said. "I can not take care of him anymore. Treat him kindly. He likes roses." The old man studied Chuck thoughtfully for a moment. Then Ned. "This is your no-touch girl, eh?"
Ned was a little embarrassed. "This is Chuck, or Charlotte, I guess. I don't get to introduce her to too many people."
"You should, she is beautiful."
Ned grinned, definitely embarrassed.
Chuck looked fondly at him. "Ned's my childhood sweetheart. And my grown-up one, too. But I suppose he told you that."
"He did. But he did not need to. Now that I see you both together, I understand."
Ned looked up. "So you know what's happened? Why we're here?"
"Yes, I am very sorry," he said to Chuck. "When two souls are so bound, one can see how the curse was passed. I am sorry that it must remain so. Gomen nasai. "
Ned's hope sank with the tide. "You mean...? Is there nothing you can do for her?"
"I have done all I can. But it was not enough. I am old. Not so strong. Many year now people come to me to seek answer to problems. Most come for what they do not have. Most come out of loneliness. With you, this was not so."
Ned was distressed. "Was the garden my fault? Because I'll do whatever I can to fix it. I didn't want it destroyed. I didn't want anything to suffer on my account." He looked at Chuck. "Or anyone. I know now I should have left it alone. It was my gift, my burden. She doesn't deserve this. No one does."
"Your curse is very powerful. Very connected to you. I could only hold onto it a little while. When I came out of my trance, my strength was gone and the niwah with it. My life is at its end, just as another will begin. Everything changes, but nothing is lost. The path you chose for her began long ago--the first time you said, 'hello.'"
Ned felt seasick. "What?"
"You know, this no-touch girl is capable of picking her own path just fine," Chuck said, irritated. "Ned's not alone in this. What about you and Harmon? Hardly blameless, I'd say."
The old man frowned. "Harmon was a bad man. He brought great shame to us," he said, indicating his young ward who sat in meditation near the door. "He would not see where his path would lead him, either."
"I don't understand," Chuck said. "Are you punishing Ned? Because if you are, shame on you."
The ojiisan grunted and reached for Bob, caressing the rim like a mortician. "I do not punish. I do not create or destroy, only push and pull. We punish ourselves, not each other."
Ned blinked, trying to grasp the meaning. "Then you believe we brought this upon ourselves? Is that what you mean? And Harmon, what...he had it coming for all the bad faith he led people to believe in? Where I come from we call that murder."
The old man tapped the bowl with a bony finger. "Bob asks if he may speak to you."
"To whom? To Chuck? No way," Ned insisted.
Chuck held out her gloved hand. "Let me at 'im."
She turned to him. "When were you going to tell me about the homeless man, Ned?"
Ned's jaw dropped. "How...?"
"Pretending to be asleep seems to be the only way to get the truth out of you."
Ned shut his eyes. "I'm sorry."
Her eyes were moist. "You're always sorry. Are you still trying to protect me?"
"I am," he whispered. "I can't seem to help it."
"It's a little late now, don't you think?"
Ned dropped his head.
Chuck took the bowl from the ojiisan. "What do I do?"
"Take Bob up above. Fill him with water. Tell him your name and speak from the heart. Clap three times when you are finished."
Ned shook his head in defeat. "Chuck, please don't do this."
She stood, bowl in her arms and left him for the deck ladder.
"Don't let her do this," Ned implored. "Please."
"It is out of my hands," the old man said. "And yours as well, I fear. Bob knows best."
Ned struggled with himself whether to go up or to stay put. He could hear the sounds drifting down from the upper deck. Of Chuck filling the bowl and of her seating herself beside it--no doubt seeing herself in Bob's reflection just as he had.
"She stopped calling me 'honey,' today," Ned said, weakly. "...she loves honey. I should go up there."
"Tread carefully, tomodachi. Or you will lose much more than her endearments."
Ned lay in bed, unable to sleep. His heart was running amok in his chest, refusing to calm. Too many unexpected joys and sorrows had rushed through his life in the last 48 hours to properly metabolize. He had been too frightened to sneak up the deck ladder and listen to what she might have said to Bob. Frightened into a state of inertia. Did she speak of love as he had, or of disappointment? Sorrow? Regret? These were the very things he had wanted to keep her safe from. When she returned, her face flushed from tears, the ojiisan looked into Bob's brassy depths and spoke:
"Bob says, 'Trust in yourselves, alone. Only then will you walk the path that leads to each other.'"
They didn't speak on the drive back. She seemed exhausted; they both were. There would be no more miracles or reprieves. How was Ned to trust in himself now, when himself kept screwing everything up? And alone: he tried to picture it and the thought of a life without her in it was worse than death. And death, well...
Ned sat up in bed and turned on the light. "That's it. It's so simple I don't know why I didn't think of it."
Chuck yawned and rolled over. "What's simple?"
Ned felt a sense of wonder come over him. "I have to die."
"Ned, what are you talking about?"
Ned got up and started pacing, turning the notion over in his mind. "I'll have to come up with a good way to do it because I don't want to come back missing an ear or with...things sticking out of my face. You looked really good dead, and still do—how was your death? Not too bad, right?"
"Oh my God, Ned. What...?!"
He knelt at her bedside. "If I die, then you can bring me back. I'll be just like Digby and Mrs. Wilcox. Thanks to her at least we know it works on people who have died naturally. Don't you see?"
Her face was as horrified as it was beautiful. "You're not talking about a natural death. You can't just...Ned, I won't let you..." Tears broke over her eyelids. "I don't want you to...I can't believe you would..."
"But I would, for you, don't you know that?"
"I don't want to know that! This is crazy. You're not thinking."
"No. For once I am really thinking. It's the perfect solution. It will even the playing field. I made a life happen when it shouldn't have, not against any law of mine, but by the laws that govern this...balance everyone keeps talking about. Everything changes, but nothing is lost. That's what the ojiisan said. It's give and take. You saw the garden. That was a sacrifice. I need to make that same sacrifice."
"You're talking about your life, Ned. Life is a gift, not a bargaining chip. You can't cash it in for goods and services. If there's anything I learned from my death it's this—you don't give a gift back, ever."
"And I won't give you back," Ned said, steadying his voice. "Not after...what we had. Not when you can't be touched by anyone. I used to tell myself if we didn't work out in the end, at least you had a chance with someone else."
"I don't want anyone else," she said.
"Neither do I. So what can we do other than play the cards we've been given? I still have one left."
She covered her mouth and let out a sob. "I won't let you do this. You can't make me just sit here and watch you..."
He shook his head. "I wouldn't do that to you. Chuck, baby, no. Please don't cry. Please."
She cried anyway, big gulping sobs that went into her pillow instead of his arms.
"I want to hold you more than anything in this world," he said. "I don't think that's too much to ask."
"I do. I do," she said, trying to catch her voice. "Please don't talk about this again."
"Please. Just go to sleep. We need to sleep. We're very tired and we're not making any sense. Go. Go!"
Reluctantly, he got up. "Okay. We'll sleep. I'm sorry...about all of this."
She wiped her eyes on her pillow. "I know you are. It's all right. Just shut out the light."
Ned did and crawled back into his bed. Somehow, the thoughts spinning through his head leveled off when her breathing evened and he drifted into a deep peaceful sleep void of dreams. And the next morning when he woke, renewed, she was gone.
A storm blew through the city. No one could say why but after it came and went, washing the streets down, something had changed. Not in an obvious glaring way, but in a subtler, sadder way--a way that tugs deep inside and places a "closed forever" sign on the door under a cold crust roof in the heart of a city that never knew it had one. The Piemaker they said had left town unexpectedly at the height of the freak storm. Disappeared after his shadow into the night never to be seen or heard from again. And with him had gone a little bit of the magic that had warmed the city, in that tugging place, even if some folks had never taken the time to step in for their own slice of pie heaven. Because, as fate and prognostication would have it, his was gone.
But others, two others to be exact (a former waitress and PI), knew more. They knew that someone with no name or credit history who should be dead, can vanish faster than the wind and leave no trace. Not a trace even a loyal barking friend can detect. And when that friend and his master at last returned, world-weary and lost, there was only so much that could be done. And through no fault of anyone's, on a night as quiet and still as the stars, the man named only for his occupation, died just as quietly in his sleep of a broken heart.
Ned whistles as he walks home along the sandy path by the sea cliffs. The sun is setting over the ocean and the gulls are flying in to shore for the night. His apron is flung over his shoulder and he holds a tangled knot of dry stems in his hand. He wonders idly if he always used to whistle or if that's a new habit he's adopted. He reaches his outer gate and hops over it into the yard.
The three-legged cat is first to greet him with a laryngetic meow, followed by the bleating of the one-eared goat and the blind moo of the cow. They're like the three evils—except with farm animals instead of monkeys. He fears it won't be long until there's one of those, too--an as-is model macaque perhaps, or a one-armed lemur discarded from the zoo. At least it was easy to tell the pets from the food. He trots up the steps to his front porch and unlatches the screen.
In the kitchen, she's pulling a turkey out of the oven which explains the lack of gobbling in the nearby coop. He imagines her chasing it about the straw-covered pen for one, then two and a third final deadly touch of her delicate hands.
"You're early," she says, basting the beast. "This has another hour on it."
"I'm only a little early. It was a slow day. I missed you."
She smiles as she pushes the bird back into the oven and comes over to give him a kiss. He squeezes her back and holds up the crackling mass he's gathered for her.
"Hmm..? What are they, I wonder?" she says.
"I think they might be bluebells."
She holds out her hand to take them, and once in her grasp, the wasted stems and petals uncurl and swell into colorful life.
"Sweet peas," she says, inhaling. "My favorite." They earn him another kiss before the offering goes into one of the many vases that cover every windowsill, cabinet top and shelf in the cottage. The kitchen table's seat of honor is reserved for Bob, chock full of cut roses. The last words spoken to the bowl, some years ago on the deck of a fishing boat, were a wish made solely for Ned.
"Go get cleaned up," she says, disappearing into the pantry. "I need to get one more thing ready."
He nods and climbs the steep stairs into the loft. Digby raises a lazy head from the last sunny spot on their bed. "Get down, boy," he reminds the dog, scratching his soft head. "You know better." He likes to keep the bed relatively dog hair free—it's an antique from a bygone era along with the homestead, removed from the bustle and noise of the city, and filled with cozy warmth, hugs, cuddles and lots and lots of touching. He smiles has he undresses for the shower.
The water pressure is uneven and the temperature not much of an improvement over the Liberty Building's plumbing, so he warms himself under the sputtering spray with the memory of his waking. There were tears in her eyes, when his opened, which only made her all the more lovely. He smiled up at her, as she leaned over him in her black dress, and pulled her down into the casket with him, slamming the lid. Their first re-introductions in the dark, lying on pleated silk funeral bedding might not be the most romantic setting for conventional lovers, but it suited them fine—reliving that magical fairytale kiss over and over, much to the funeral director's shrieking, fleeing distress. And thus, like the road-kill menagerie outside, he's become one of her creations--as she was already his. It's an intimacy no one else can ever understand—so they keep it secreted away and surrounded by sea breezes and flowers, which like them, will never fade.
Showered and changed, he returns to the lower floor, drying his hair with a hand towel. "Is that popcorn I smell?" he asks.
She holds up a steaming bowl and beckons him to her. She's sitting barefoot and cross-legged on the couch, working the remote. "Before dinner snack. There's an Audrey Hepburn marathon on. We might as well take advantage of it before you take advantage of me."
"What, no chance to work up an appetite?"
She raises her brow in a perfect Hepburn ode.
He laughs. "I'll go get the blanket."