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Authors: George Saunders

Pastoralia (11 page)

BOOK: Pastoralia
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“Yeah right, Ma,” says Min. “After what happened last time?”

When I first moved in, Jade and Min were working the info booth at HardwareNiche. Then one day we picked the babies up at day care and found Troy sitting naked on top of the washer and Mac in the yard being nipped by a
Pekingese and the day-care lady sloshed and playing KillerBirds on Nintendo.

So that was that. No more HardwareNiche.

“Maybe one could work, one could baby-sit?” says Ma.

“I don’t see why I should have to work so she can stay home with her baby,” says Min.

“And I don’t see why I should have to work so she can stay home with her baby,” says Jade.

“It’s like a freaking veece versa,” says Min.

“Let me tell you something,” says Freddie. “Something about this country. Anybody can do anything. But first they gotta try. And you guys ain’t. Two don’t work and one strips naked? I don’t consider that trying. You kids make squat. And therefore you live in a dangerous craphole. And what happens in a dangerous craphole? Bad tragic shit. It’s the freaking American way—you start out in a dangerous craphole and work hard so you can someday move up to a somewhat less dangerous craphole. And finally maybe you get a mansion. But at this rate you ain’t even gonna make it to the somewhat less dangerous craphole.”

“Like you live in a mansion,” says Jade.

“I do not claim to live in no mansion,” says Freddie. “But then again I do not live in no slum. The other thing I also do not do is strip naked.”

“Thank God for small favors,” says Min.

“Anyways he’s never actually naked,” says Jade.

Which is true. I always have on at least a T-back.

“No wonder we never take these kids out to a nice lunch,” says Freddie.

“I do not even consider this a nice lunch,” says Min.

For dinner jade microwaves some Stars-n-Flags. They’re addictive. They put sugar in the sauce and sugar in the meat nuggets. I think also caffeine. Someone told me the brown streaks in the Flags are caffeine. We have like five bowls each.

After dinner the babies get fussy and Min puts a mush of ice cream and Hershey’s syrup in their bottles and we watch
The Worst That Could Happen
, a half-hour of computer simulations of tragedies that have never actually occurred but theoretically could. A kid gets hit by a train and flies into a zoo, where he’s eaten by wolves. A man cuts his hand off chopping wood and while wandering around screaming for help is picked up by a tornado and dropped on a preschool during recess and lands on a pregnant teacher.

“I miss Bernie so bad,” says Min.

“Me too,” Jade says sadly.

The babies start howling for more ice cream.

“That is so cute,” says Jade. “They’re like,
Give it the fuck up!”

“We’ll give it the fuck up, sweeties, don’t worry,” says Min. “We didn’t forget about you.”

Then the phone rings. It’s Father Brian. He sounds weird. He says he’s sorry to bother us so late. But something strange has happened. Something bad. Something sort of, you know, unspeakable. Am I sitting? I’m not but I say I am.

Apparently someone has defaced Bernie’s grave.

My first thought is there’s no stone. It’s just grass. How do you deface grass? What did they do, pee on the grass on the grave? But Father’s nearly in tears.

So I call Ma and Freddie and tell them to meet us, and we get the babies up and load them into the K-car.

“Deface,” says Jade on the way over. “What does that mean, deface?”

“It means like fucked it up,” says Min.

“But how?” says Jade. “I mean, like what did they do?”

“We don’t know, dumbass,” says Min. “That’s why we’re going there.”

“And why?” says Jade. “Why would someone do that?”

“Check out Miss Shreelock Holmes,” says Min. “Someone done that because someone is a asshole.”

“Someone is a big-time asshole,” says Jade.

Father Brian meets us at the gate with a flashlight and a golf cart.

“When I saw this,” he says. “I literally sat down in astonishment. Nothing like this has ever happened here. I am so sorry. You seem like nice people.”

We’re too heavy and the wheels spin as we climb the hill, so I get out and jog alongside.

“Okay, folks, brace yourselves,” Father says, and shuts off the engine.

Where the grave used to be is just a hole. Inside the hole is the Amber Mist, with the top missing. Inside the Amber Mist is nothing. No Aunt Bernie.

“What the hell,” says Jade. “Where’s Bernie?”

“Somebody stole Bernie?” says Min.

“At least you folks have retained your feet,” says Father Brian. “I’m telling you I literally sat right down. I sat right down on that pile of dirt. I dropped as if shot. See that mark? That’s where I sat.”

On the pile of grave dirt is a butt-shaped mark.

The cops show up and one climbs down in the hole with a tape measure and a camera. After three or four flashes he climbs out and hands Ma a pair of blue pumps.

“Her little shoes,” says Ma. “Oh my God.”

“Are those them?” says Jade.

“Those are them,” says Min.

“I am freaking out,” says Jade.

“I am totally freaking out,” says Min.

“I’m gonna sit,” says Ma, and drops into the golf cart.

“What I don’t get is who’d want her?” says Min.

“She was just this lady,” says Jade.

“Typically it’s teens?” one cop says. “Typically we find the loved one nearby? Once we found the loved one nearby with, you know, a cigarette between its lips, wearing a sombrero? These kids today got a lot more nerve than we ever did. I never would’ve dreamed of digging up a dead corpse when I was a teen. You might tip over a stone, sure, you might spray-paint something on a crypt, you might, you know, give a wino a hotfoot.”

“But this, jeez,” says Freddie. “This is a entirely different ballgame.”

“Boy howdy,” says the cop, and we all look down at the shoes in Ma’s hands.

Next day I go back to work. I don’t feel like it but we need the money. The grass is wet and it’s hard getting across the ravine in my dress shoes. The soles are slick. Plus they’re too tight. Several times I fall forward on my briefcase. Inside the briefcase are my T-backs and a thing of mousse.

Right off the bat I get a tableful of MediBen women seated under a banner saying BEST OF LUCK, BEATRICE, NO HARD FEELINGS. I take off my shirt and serve their salads. I take off my flight pants and serve their soups. One drops a dollar on the floor and tells me feel free to pick it up.

I pick it up.

“Not like that, not like that,” she says. “Face the other way, so when you bend we can see your crack.”

I’ve done this about a million times, but somehow I can’t do it now.

I look at her. She looks at me.

“What?” she says. “I’m not allowed to say that? I thought that was the whole point.”

“That is the whole point, Phyllis,” says another lady. “You stand your ground.”

“Look,” Phyllis says. “Either bend how I say or give back the dollar. I think that’s fair.”

“You go, girl,” says her friend.

I give back the dollar. I return to the Locker Area and sit awhile. For the first time ever, I’m voted Stinker. There
are thirteen women at the MediBen table and they all vote me Stinker. Do the MediBen women know my situation? Would they vote me Stinker if they did? But what am I supposed to do, go out and say, Please ladies, my aunt just died, plus her body’s missing?

Mr. Frendt pulls me aside.

“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.

BOOK: Pastoralia
12.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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