Title: A Great Perhaps
Series: Sunshine Cleaning
Rating: PG-13, I think.
Summary: through death they learn how to live Winston/Rose
Author's note: Yuletide 09 for BucketMouse. The title comes from a quote by Francois Rabelais said to be his last words. ( "I am going to seek a great perhaps")
Even throughout life, 'tis death that makes life
Gives it whatever significance
-Robert Browning, The Ring And The Book
Winston and death meets early, before he even really knows what it is. It starts with noticing the dead things, looking at the run over toads with their flattened bodies and crushed organs pushed out and blackening on the pavement.
Then, the burials.
About the time he turns ten, give or take a few months, a kitten was hit by the side of the didn't see it happen, only the body left behind. It was plain ally cat, some stray. No one comes for it. No one cleans up its entrails that spills across the pavement. Everyone walks past it day by day. Nobody cares, really. It's just some death on the side of their vision, like starving children in Africa or wars, or homeless people in other cities.
Day by day he passes it on his way to the local store, to school. Unlike everyone else, he looks, he cares.
One day, when the corpse is so rotted that it barely resembles something that was once cute, something that was once alive, he takes a shovel and buries it in a shallow grave. He didn't come from a religious family, so when it comes time to say words over it, he doesn't have any to say. He can't say some bible verse like the people on tv. So he just stands there a while and then walks away, the shovel dragging behind him, making a terrible clatter.
This is hardly the first time he meets with death. When he's fifteen, he keeps his life but loses his arm. He's the lucky one. Charlie isn't so lucky. A car accident, alcohol, it's so common a tragedy.
At fifteen, in shock and in pain, he watches his brother die. (He shouldn't be able to remember it, but he does in flashes. Charlie's face covered in blood with shards of glass all stuck in him, the brother he idolized all his childhood, who he used to follow after to movie theaters and on his bike, peddling fast – Charlie turned a monstrous thing of torn flesh. Charlie dead and dying and gone. )
And from there, death is something intimate and close. Death looks down from towers, proud, as dire as a story by Poe, and he does not fear it.
He thinks of being a coroner, but white coats and medical school aren't his thing. He gets into the cleaning business by an accident, a friend of a friend. It's barely an anecdote when asked, and he isn't much of a storyteller to begin with. Maybe a part of him always knew he'd be working with death in some way, if not tracking down, stopping or identifying, then cleaning up the remains.
So it goes for years, saving and scrimping. Little by little he holds a dream close, one of having his own store. Even if being a small business owner isn't smart in this economy, even if he could probably live off of his wages in his ratty apartment.
Right until he buys his own little cleaning business, he isn't too rich, but he's not scraping either. He lives without ties, with no boss and only the barest number of other workers. He goes home to an empty apartment every night, and life goes on. And one day, she shows up at his door. She's hopelessly clueless and hoping to just get a buck. Another woman, her sister he supposes, and her looks through the cleaning supplies he's stacked.
He fills her in with the details. He's always been good at that. He isn't much of a people person, but he's helpful, at least. Without her even saying a word, he pulls out the book of guidelines.
Winston has an intuition about people, and all he sees with her is bad news, bad news.
you're going to be nothing but trouble, aren't you?
They start with little things. She returns the guidelines a week later and by then, she looks almost professional. She learns death and grows accustomed to smells, the gore, the wiping away and folding up of the end of a life. She doesn't say it outright, but he sees. She's stronger, because when someone looks death in the face, when they see the tracks, witness the soulless husks that a corpse becomes, they find ways to finally start living.
One day she's desperate, and asks him to watch her child. She's dressed in a brown long dress, it's form fitting. It's beautiful, even more so because it's on her. He accepts. And one day (that day), a house burns down. And then one day, he's her confidant, if only that no one else is there, and he's being invited to her son's party.
And one day it seems like they're losing, lost it all only to have her father come to him, to ask him the details. And then one day, there's something warm and growing and hopeless, and he knows that she really is bad news. Bad news for his solitude, his distance.
His intuition is never wrong.
He knows what she's going to say before she says it as she pulls Oscar in. With Norah gone, and her father working with her, she is constantly busy trying to refit the pieces of her life. This also means that there is no one to watch Oscar anymore. After two babysitters up and left due to licking related issues, her options grew scarce.
He knows this by the look on her face, a bit sheepish.
"If it isn't too much trouble," she says.
It's only happened once before, and he hasn't minded then either. He's kept the secret, the
phoenix rebuilding to The Lorkowski Family cleaning from Sunshine Cleaning.
He's done this before, and he doesn't mind, really.
"Winston," Oscar says. He's a quiet, inquisitive kid, imaginative and too old for his years.
"Come on back," he says.
"How did you lose your arm?" Oscar asks. He tugs on the empty shirt sleeve. "Did you run into the Lobsterman?"
"The Lobsterman comes at night. His footsteps sound like–"
Oscar traces his fingers over the counter. He frowns slightly and tries again. He eventually bends to the popcorn tin that Rose left with them and runs his fingers over that.
"There was an accident," Winston says. "I have a prosthetic. I don't use it much, though."
"Why?" Oscar says.
"Can I see?" Oscar asks.
The prosthetic looks monstrous enough that he just makes do with one hand. Maybe this is why he took up a job like this. Because after cleaning up maggots and blood, they don't ask or look in horror. They've seen enough to be jaded. They stay at a distance and don't chat him up for details on the wife and kids he doesn't have, the social life he doesn't have, or the family who lives on the other side of the country who still call him up from time to time.
His prosthetic arm looks wiry, making him look almost like a cyborg. He straps it on, and picks up a pencil in the hooks just for show. Oscar's eyes widen. He touches it, just as he touched the empty shirt sleeve.
"Do you fight crime too?" Oscar whispers, as if he's found some deep secret.
Winston just smiles. "You could say that, in a way."
All after that, Oscar acts like he's met a superhero – Captain America or Batman, one who
personally makes model planes with him.
When Rose comes to pick him up, Winston can hear the first words out of his mouth Winston fights crime. He looks back in awe.
"Does he now?"
She looks back at him, but he doesn't hint or explain the situation, so she just helps Oscar's coat on.
She calls him again days later on short notice, with three hours until closing. He'll have to stay out late, but it's not like that's any huge dent in his social life. She's wearing another dress, black and red. This is a date dress, and not the sort of thing someone goes for a business meeting.
"It's nothing really. A friend set me up on a blind date I can't get out of."
She looks apologetic. She should. For a second he tenses. But then it's the same old Winston, should-know-better Winston.
She swishes off in a to-die-for dress and he returns to the model he's working on. He has a sudden desire to crush it even if it's just a blind date, and everyone knows save for very rarely, no one gets married on a blind date. Blind dates are what great anecdotes are made of: Comedy routines, movies and trashy books.
He sets aside the model. No use in breaking it. It'd just be a waste of good money. He looks over and sees Oscar looking down.
"Do you have something on your mind?"
"What do you think death is?" Oscar asks.
He thinks of Peter Pan, of great adventures, carriages of death stopping and immortality. He thinks of World War II, the bombers shot down in flames and so-called glory, the scared boys dying down in the bunkers for freedom. He thinks of Mary Ellison, 73, who died alone in her house, her body left for weeks alone with no one calling in, no not one.
He thinks of Charlie.
He thinks of her because she's entwined with all the death with her first time, when she probably barely even puts on a pair of gloves, with the way she sees it as a calling, and not just work.
"It's like falling asleep when you're really tired. All the pain slips away until there's just happy dreams," he says instead.
"Does it hurt?"
"Depends on how you die," he says. He knows enough ways to die, and once read the whole source book. He could list them off in the morbid years after Charlie: asphyxiation, slitting of the wrists, decapitation, broken neck--enough to give him nightmares all his life.
"Will I die?"
"Everybody's going to die."
Oscar grows quiet, thoughtful.
"Death isn't so bad, though. Living too much would drive us all crazy. You need to watch Highlander some time," Winston says.
"It's all about these powerful immortals..."
Instead of staying there at the shop, he just drives Oscar home. His grandfather is bound to be there, or if he isn't, Oscar knows where he keeps the keys. Hell, he's been around enough that even he knows where the spare is.
She comes back with a broken heel a ripped strap. He tenses oh so slightly when she walks in. The slammed door and the kicked aside heels give her away before she says a thing.
"Can you believe that he made me walk four blocks home? What an asshole."
She looks around belatedly. She never likes to swear in front of Oscar. He picks up things so easily, it's bound to come out back at school. She doesn't need another expulsion when it's finally going well.
"I put him to bed already. You should have called," he says, "I'd have picked you up. It's not safe to be walking around this late."
"I tried, but I couldn't get through. Damn cellphone bars. After I take a shower, or maybe two, I'm calling Norah. Do you need anything? I feel bad for asking on such short notice."
She should. But he doesn't rub it in. Good ol' Winston. Always in the friend-territory Winston.
"No. See you tomorrow," he says.
But she's already gone to change out and wash away in this life that he only lives at the fringes of.
"I closed early. It was a slow day." He lifts what's in his hand--a little worn, a little creased, a well-loved book.
"I brought a book," he says. Norah hasn't read to him since she left. Rose is usually too tired after a day's work. It's always been a favorite of his.
"Oh, Tuck Everlasting. That's light reading."
"I tried to have him watch Highlander to teach him why living forever isn't all it's cracked up to be. It backfired though – he just wants to be Methos when he grows up."
She laughs. "I see now. That explains why he was singing Queen. Well I'm sure he'll be glad to see you."
Winston nods and goes to Oscar's room. He knocks for he knows Oscar always likes it when he knocks, when he's treated like an adult.
He's called in, and Oscar is already in Batman pajamas under Superman covers. He drags over a black beanbag chair to the side of the bed. Oscar pats on the bed. "Norah always read like this. Or on the couch."
Winston tries to sit on the edge, but Oscar shakes his head.
"No, like this."
He pulls the covers back, and Winston slips in a bit more.
There's a tin of popcorn there too. Oscar has already opened it up, his hands sticky from the handfuls he's gobbled up.
"You can have some too."
Winston puts the book in his lap and tastes a bit. It's not bad, not too sweet like most of the candy he's tried. He never did have much of a sweet tooth.
"I brought you something to read. We probably won't be able to get it all tonight, though."
"Does this one have Immortals like Methos?" Oscar says.
"Something like that."
He flips open the book and begins to read. "Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt. The first week in August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning."
When Winston closes the book, Oscar is rubbing his eyes but still stubbornly awake.
"I'm not sleepy yet," Oscar protests.
"Do you want me to read more?" Winston says.
"You know, I've sent messages to heaven," Oscar says.
"Is that so?"
"There's a CB radio in the van. I can show you if you want."
"I'd like that," Winston says.
Oscar throws back his covers and grabs Winston's hand. He pads out, dragging.
Rose raises an eyebrow when she sees him.
"He's showing me something," Winston says by way of explanation.
Rose nods knowingly.
"Don't take too long, Oscar."
He presses some buttons, and the radio crackles with static.
"People will hear you in heaven. God too, I think. You can try too if you want."
"I think you should go first. You can teach me how to work it," Winston says.
"Can I be immortal like Methos?"
He puts his ear to listen, but there's only static.
There's a knock at the window. it's Rose the mother, Rose the curfew enforcer.
"Oscar, it's your bedtime. Say goodnight to Winston."
"Goodnight, Winston," he says in that solemn way of his.
"Will you come read more of the book? I like it."
"Of course," Winston replies.
She leads him out, barefooted, carrying him over the sharp stones. Soon he'll be too old for superhero pajamas and getting hugs from his mother. She must treasure it, he thinks. She seems to know that the clock is ticking. Someone who works with as much death as they do knows not to let moments like this slip away.
He lifts the CB radio up to his lips. It crackles on, a far away sound like the white noise that comes with waking up in a hospital, that moment before the crash hits and the world changes.
"I miss you every day, Charlie. They say it goes away, that time heals, but it doesn't. It just turns it from being a gaping wound to being comfortably numb. If anyone asks, I say I'm an only child because I don't to have to hear how sorry they are....so I don't have to say your name out loud. I'd gladly give up another arm, a leg – hell both legs if it'd change what happened."
He pauses a moment, and can't help but feel foolish. Still, who's to see him?
"But I can't keep living like this. I can't be half a person. I guess what I'm not saying is goodbye...so much as hello."
He puts away the CB radio and puts away a part of his life with it.
He can still hear the crackling sound of static as he closes the door behind him.
He's on the doorstep and he feels about fourteen. He's leaning there, the porch light flickering, needing to be fixed. He makes a mental note to get to that. She droops, as if the world has laid too much on her shoulders.
"Heavy decomp. There were maggots everywhere, and I had to incinerate most of the bedroom. So yes. You could say that it was a rough day."
She pushes a hand through her hair, and he can't help but want to touch it too.
"I hope you don't mind all this. I can't help but think that I'm asking too much of you."
"No, I don't mind. You see, There's not a lot that I am good at. I'm good at getting women to be my friend. I'm good at being their babysitters and their helpers, but not date me or want me."
He shrugs as he says it, because he isn't crying, just laughing at life so he won't cry. But all the while, he isn't bitter. It's just life. He knows that any woman that walks into his life will be little more than this: a friend because face it, he isn't a former football star, and even if he had both arms he wouldn't be handsome, and he's no catch. He always has been a science nerd, a man who makes model planes in his spare time. He's morbid, reads Poe and meets death on a regular basis. Talks of death would disgust most women, bore the rest.
She's out of his league and he knows it.
"I'm sorry if I've used you. I needed someone and...I really didn't have anyone to lean on."
She sits on the steps, her arms wrapped about her chest. He sits down right there with her.
"We're a lot alike, aren't we? We're both not good at anything but death."
She leans in to hold him tight just like he didn't hold her when she last cried. He's never been a touchy person, even before the accident. He can smell her, some fruity shampoo, and a perfume he doesn't know the name of. Something that smells citrusy. Even beyond those smells, there's the trace of death, lingering on.
When she lets go, it's a bit awkward, the touch is lingering, even a bit sad.
"Oscar really likes you."
He just smiles.
"So you should stick around," she says.
"Is that an invitation?"
She takes his hand in hers.
"Dinner at eight on Friday – that's an invitation. Though... You're the one that watches Oscar these days. I don't even know who I'll ask to take care of him," she laughs a bit.
"Bring him along. It'll probably mean we'll be going to Chuck E Cheese and not Petrellis', but personally, I like pizza over fettuccini any day."
"You'd want to spend your date in the playpen balls with Oscar?"
"I can't think of a better way to spend an evening, personally."
She grips his hand tight, and strokes her thumb over the back of his palm.
"It's a date."