“No,” he said, “and I’m still having trouble believing you.”
She fluffed her hair. “Well, I just touched it up last week, so it shouldn’t show, but if you look closely maybe you can see the roots.”
She leaned toward him, and he looked down into her hair. Was there some gray showing at the roots? He couldn’t really tell, it was hard to put the image into focus at that range, but what he did notice was the smell of her hair, all fresh and clean.
She straightened up, and her face looked a little flushed. All that coffee, he thought. She said, “You want to keep from being recognized, right? I have some ideas. Let me think about it, and tomorrow we’ll see what we can do.”
“Do you want any more coffee? Because I’ve already had more than I should.”
“I feel the same way.”
“I’ll show you to your room,” she said. “It’s a nice room. I think you’ll like it.”
In the morning he showered in the upstairs bathroom, then put on the same clothes and went downstairs. She had breakfast on the table, grapefruit halves and French toast with syrup, and after a second cup of coffee she got her Ford Taurus out of the garage and gave him a ride to where he’d parked the Sentra. There was a ticket on it, as she’d said there might be, but what would they do if it went unpaid? Send a summons to a broken-down farm in eastern Tennessee?
He followed her back home, and parked in her garage as instructed, while she left the Taurus in the driveway. “You’re going to stay here for a while,” she’d told him over breakfast, and he said he bet she was good at getting little kids to mind what she said. She said if she was being bossy that was just too bad. “I didn’t object when you saved my life,” she said. “So don’t give me grief when I return the favor, you hear?”
“That’s better,” she said. “It sounds funny, though. ‘Yes, ma’am.’”
“Whatever you say, chère. That better?”
“Now when did you turn into an Orleanean?”
“Calling me chère.”
“That’s your name, isn’t it? It’s not? It’s what your father calls you.”
“It’s what everybody calls everybody,” she said. “In New Orleans. It’s French for dear. You order a po’boy for lunch, the old girl who brings it is apt to call you chère.”
“The waitress in the place I go in New York calls everybody hon.”
“Same idea,” she said.
But she didn’t say what her name was. Nor did he ask.
He sat at the round kitchen table in one of the oak captain’s chairs while she played barber. His shirt was off and she’d draped a bed-sheet over his shoulders. She was wearing faded jeans and a man’s white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and she looked a little like Rosie the Riveter in a patriotic World War II poster, only her rivet gun was the electric clippers from Walgreen’s.
Back in New York, Keller had gone to the same barber for almost fifteen years. The man’s name was Andy and he owned his own three-chair barbershop, and once a year he flew back to São Paulo to visit his relatives. That was all Keller knew about him, along with the fact that he was a heavy user of breath mints, and he didn’t suppose Andy knew very much about him, either, because his monthly visits were relatively silent affairs, and Keller almost always fell asleep in the chair and didn’t wake up until Andy cleared his throat and tapped the arm of the chair.
He didn’t expect to doze off now, but the next thing he knew she was telling him he could open his eyes. He did, and she steered him down the hall to the bathroom, where he looked long and hard at his reflection in the mirror. The face that gazed back at him was his face, that much was evident, but it looked very different from anything he’d ever seen in a mirror before.
His hair had been shaggy and now it was short, but not crew-cut short. It was just long enough to lie flat, and she’d shaped it in what had once been called an Ivy League style, or a Princeton. Add a tweed sport coat and a knit tie and a pipe and he might look almost professorial.
But she hadn’t just cut his hair, he realized. His forehead was higher, and his hairline indented at the temples. She’d used the clippers to create the illusion of a decade’s worth of male-pattern baldness, and added a good ten years to his appearance in the process. He tried different expressions, smiling and frowning, even glaring, and the effect was interesting. It seemed to him that he looked a good deal less dangerous, less like a man who could assassinate a governor and more like the trusted assistant who wrote his speeches.
He went back to the kitchen, where she was running a vacuum cleaner. She switched it off when she saw him and he told her he felt like Rip Van Winkle. “When I woke up,” he said, “I was ten years older. I looked like somebody’s lovable old uncle.”
“I wasn’t sure you’d like it. I have some ideas about the color, too, but what I’d like to do is wait a day or two so both of us can get used to it the way it is now, and then it’ll be easier to figure out what else to do.”
“That makes sense. But—”
“But it means staying here, is that what you were going to say? Last night you talked about how tired you were of running.”
“Don’t you think maybe it’s time to stop running, now that you’ve finally got a good chance? Your car’s parked off the street. No one can see it, but it’s there whenever you need it. You can have the room upstairs for as long as you want. No one else has any use for it and you’re not getting in anybody’s way up there. It’s no trouble at all cooking for one extra person, and if you start to feel guilty about imposing I’ll let you take me out for dinner every once in a while. I bet I know a restaurant or two you might like.”
“I could get new ID,” he said. “A driver’s license, even a passport. It’s trickier than it used to be, they’ve tightened up security in the past few years, but you can still do it. It takes time, though.”
“What exactly have y’all got,” she said, “besides time?”
She cleaned out the dresser and closet in his bedroom, filling two Hefty bags with clothes she swore no one had worn in twenty years. “All of this should have gone to the Goodwill ages ago,” she said. “You’ll have enough room for your things, won’t you?”
His things, everything he owned in the world, filled a small suitcase and a shopping bag. He had almost enough room to give every garment its own dresser drawer.
Later, she had to go out, and wondered if he could stay downstairs where he could hear her father if he called out. “He sleeps most of the time,” she said, “and when he’s awake he doesn’t do much but talk back to the television set. He can get to the bathroom by himself, and he doesn’t like to be helped, but if he should fall down—”
He sat in the kitchen and read the paper, and when he’d finished it he went upstairs for a book in the hall bookcase that had caught his eye earlier. It was a Loren Estleman western, about an itinerant hangman, and he sat in the kitchen reading it and drinking coffee until the old man called out.
He went in and found the man sitting up in bed, his pajama top unbuttoned, a cigarette smoldering between two fingers of his right hand. You could see the illness in his face. Keller wondered what kind of cancer the man had, and if it was smoking-related, and if he should be smoking now. Then he asked himself what difference it could possibly make at this stage.
“It’s liver cancer,” the man said, reading his mind. “Smoking’s got nothing to do with it. Well, next to nothing. You believe doctors, smoking’s to blame for every damn thing. Acid rain, global warming, you name it. My daughter around?”
“She stepped out.”
“Stepped out? You got a nice way of putting things. Not teaching her brats, is she? She usually gets this colored girl to look after me when she does.”
“I think she had some shopping to do.”
“Step over this way so I can get a better look at you. Man gets old and sick, he gets to order people around. I call that inadequate compensation, myself. You think much about dying?”
“A man your age? I swear I never once gave it a moment’s thought, and now here I am doing it. I’ll say this, I don’t think much of it. You sleeping with her?”
“Can’t be the hardest question anybody ever asked you. My daughter. Are you sleeping with her?”
“You’re not? Y’all aren’t queer, are you?”
“You don’t look it, but in my experience you can’t always tell. There’s people who swear they can, but I don’t believe them. You like it here?”
“It’s a beautiful city.”
“Well, it’s New Orleans, isn’t it? We get used to it, you see. I meant this house. You like it?”
“It’s very comfortable.”
“You be staying with us for a while?”
“I believe so,” he said. “Yes, I think I will.”
“I’m tired. I think I’ll get some sleep.”
“I’ll let you be.”
He was on his way out the door when the old man’s voice stopped him in midstep.
“You get the chance,” he said, “you sleep with her. Or one day you’ll be too old to do it anymore. And what you’ll do is hate yourself for every chance you let get away from you.”
The following day they were at an optometrist’s shop on Rampart Street. She’d vetoed his plan to get reading glasses, insisting they wouldn’t look right, and when he said he didn’t need regular glasses, she told him he’d be surprised. “And if your vision is almost perfect,” she said, “he’ll give you lenses with almost no correction.”
It turned out that he needed one prescription for distance and another for reading. “Two birds with one stone,” the optometrist said. “In other words, bifocals.”
Jesus, bifocals. He tried on frames, and the one he liked was of heavy black plastic. She looked at him, laughed, said something about Buddy Holly, and steered him to a less assertive metal frame, with rounded rectangular lens openings. He tried it on, and had to admit she was right.
There were shops where they made your glasses in an hour, but this wasn’t one of them. “About this time tomorrow,” the fellow said, and they stopped at Café du Monde for café au lait and beignets, and paused on their way through Jackson Square to watch a woman feeding the pigeons as if her life depended on it.
She said, “Did you see the paper? The DNA test came back. He was definitely the man who raped and killed that nurse in Audubon Park.”
“No surprise there.”
“No, but wait’ll you hear what they think happened. You know how the live oaks will have branches that come almost to the ground?”