In other words, be someplace else when it happened.
She’d put a sedative in the old man’s bedtime cup of cocoa, so he’d be sound asleep when she held a pillow over his face. And that was that. Sweet dreams, and a gentler exit than the old man had provided for no end of people over the years.
“I can’t say it’s what he’d have wanted,” Dot told him later, “because he never said, but I’ll tell you this much. It’s what I’d want. So if I ever get like that, Keller, and you’re around, I hope you’ll know what to do.”
He agreed, and she’d rolled her eyes. “Easy to say now,” she said, “but when the time comes, you’ll say to yourself, ‘Let’s see now, wasn’t there something I was supposed to do for Dot? I can’t seem to remember what the hell it was.’”
“I was looking in on your father,” he told Julia. “You know, if there’s anything you want to say to him while you’ve got the chance, this might be a good time.”
“You don’t think—”
“It’s nothing I can put my finger on,” he said, “but for some reason I don’t think it’s going to be more than another day or two.”
She nodded, got to her feet, and went to the sickroom.
Later that night she went upstairs with him. They didn’t make love, but lay together in the dark. She talked about when she was a girl, along with family history that went back before she was born. He didn’t say much but mostly just listened, and thought his own thoughts.
When she went downstairs he got up and went out onto the upstairs porch. It was overcast, with no moon or stars. He thought about the faithful old Sentra, rusting away at the bottom of the Mississippi, and he thought about Dot and his stamps and his mother and the father he’d never known. Funny how there’d be things you wouldn’t think of for ages, and then they’d just pop into your head.
He stayed on the porch for an hour or so, long enough for her to get to sleep, and he was careful on the stairs, avoiding the board that creaked.
Dot had used a pillow. Simple enough, and quick, and the only problem was that it would leave petechial hemorrhages, most noticeably on the eyes. That hadn’t mattered, because the family physician Dot called signed off with barely a look at the deceased. When an elderly person dies of apparent natural causes, you don’t usually have to worry about an autopsy.
Nor would there be an autopsy in this house, for a man who’d suffered two strokes that they knew about and was on the way out with liver cancer. But the doctor might take a more careful look than the old man’s physician in White Plains, and if he saw red pinpoint dots on Clement Roussard’s eyeballs, he’d think Julia had given him a helping hand into the next world. He might not disapprove, he might think it was the final loving act of a dutiful daughter, but why should he get to have an opinion one way or the other?
If they’d been allowed to hospitalize him, and were thus able to monitor him closely, they might have put him on a blood thinner to make further strokes less likely. But with his compromised liver, Coumadin, the blood thinner of choice, could easily make him hemorrhage and bleed out internally. Since that might happen anyway, even without Coumadin, there’d be nothing in such a death to raise suspicions.
Coumadin was a prescription drug, and Keller didn’t have access to it. But before Coumadin was prescribed to prevent clotting in humans, it was called warfarin and used to poison rats; it thinned their blood, and they bled to death.
You didn’t need a prescription for warfarin, but he hadn’t even needed to buy it. He’d come across an old packet of the stuff in the garage, with the gardening supplies. He couldn’t find a sell-by date on it, but thought it would probably still work. Why should the passage of time render it less toxic? And it was very likely not pharmaceutical grade, so you would be well advised not to use it on a human being for therapeutic purposes, as you might with Coumadin. But this wasn’t a case where he had to worry about impurities or side effects, was it?
He added powdered warfarin to the bag holding the IV drip, stood at the man’s bedside while it dripped into his vein. He wondered how it would work, and if it would work.
After a few minutes he went to the kitchen. There was coffee in the pot and he heated a cup in the microwave. If she woke up and came in he’d just say he’d been unable to sleep. But she didn’t wake up and he finished his coffee and rinsed his cup in the sink and went back to the old man’s side.
The doctor barely examined the patient beyond feeling for a pulse. Keller didn’t think he’d have noticed petechial hemorrhages, or even a gunshot wound in the temple. He signed the death certificate, and Julia called the funeral director her family used, and fifteen or twenty people, family or friends, attended the service. Donny Wallings and his wife were there, and he met Patsy and Edgar Morrill, and both couples returned to the house after the service. The body was cremated, which Keller thought was a good idea, all things considered, so there was no cemetery visit, no second service at graveside.
The two couples didn’t stay long, and when they were alone Julia said, “Well, now I can go back to Wichita. God, the look on your face!”
“Well, for a moment there—”
“When I first moved back I had to keep telling myself I’d only be staying as long as he needed me. In other words, until he died. But I think I knew right away I was never going to leave again. It’s home, you know?”
“It’s hard to imagine you anyplace but New Orleans. Anyplace but this house, really.”
“There was nothing wrong with Wichita,” she said, “and I had a life there. My yoga class, my book group. It was a place to live, but it isn’t a place to return to.”
He knew what she meant.
“I could go someplace else, and in a couple of months I could re-create my life in Wichita. Maybe it would be Pilates instead of yoga, maybe I’d take up bridge instead of trying to puzzle out what Barbara Taylor Bradford really meant. But it would be the same life, and my new friends would be the same as my Wichita friends, and just as replaceable when I moved somewhere else a few years down the line.”
“Now I’ll have to go through his things, and figure out what to give away and where it should go. Will you help me with that?”
“And we’ll have to clean out that room. All the smells, the cigarette smoke and the sickness. I don’t know what I’m going to do with his ashes.”
“Don’t people bury them?”
“I guess, but doesn’t that sort of defeat the whole purpose? Like you wind up with a grave after all? I know what I’d want.”
“The same treatment your car got, but not the river. Just scatter my ashes in the Gulf. Will you take care of that, if you should ever have the chance?”
“Odds are you’ll be the one who has to figure out what to do with me. And that sounds as good as anything, by the way. The Gulf of Mexico’s as good a place as any.”
“Not Long Island Sound? You wouldn’t want to go home?”
“No, I like it here.”
“I think I’m going to cry.” She did, and he held her. Then she said, “Not too soon, okay? The Gulf’s not going anywhere. You stick around for a while, okay?”
Donny knew someone with a boat who was willing to take the two of them out on the Gulf. They were on the water for less than an hour, and when they docked, the ashes were scattered. The boat’s owner wouldn’t even take money for gas.
The rental firm picked up the hospital bed, and two young men in a white van came for the IV equipment. Keller had filled a trash bag with the bed linen and towels that had seen service in the sickroom, along with the pajamas and such that her father had worn there. Cancer wasn’t contagious, the clothes and linen could have been laundered, but he bagged it all and put it at the curb.
A friend of Patsy Morrill’s came to smudge the sickroom. Keller didn’t have a clue what that meant, but found out when the woman produced a bundle of what she said was dried sage, lit one end of it with a wooden match, and walked around the room, sending plumes of smoke here and there. Her lips were moving throughout, but it was impossible to tell what she was saying, or even if she was producing a sound. She did whatever it was she was doing for one of the longer quarter hours in Keller’s experience, and when she was done Julia thanked her carefully and asked if she would take money for her services.
“Oh, no,” the woman said. “But I would just about kill for a cup of coffee.”
She was an odd creature, elfin in stature, and both her age and her ethnic background were hard to guess. She praised the coffee effusively, then left her cup two-thirds full. On her way out, she told the two of them that they had a wonderful energy.
“What an odd creature,” Julia said, after they’d watched her drive away. “I wonder where Patsy found her.”
“I wonder what the hell she did.” He followed Julia into the sitting room and frowned. “Whatever it was,” he said, “I think it may have worked, unless it’s just a matter of substituting one smell for another.”
“It’s more than that. She changed the energy in here. And please don’t ask me what that means.”
It was a whole new experience for Keller. He hadn’t actually done anything he hadn’t done before. But this was the first time he’d stuck around to clean up after.
One evening after dinner the phone rang, and it was Donny. He read out an address across the river in Gretna. Keller copied it down, and the next morning he got out a map and figured out how to get there.
Donny’s truck was parked in the driveway of a one-story frame structure of the type Keller recognized as a shotgun house, long and narrow, with no hallways; the rooms were arranged one behind the other, and the name was supposed to come from the observation that you could stand at the front door with a shotgun and clear out the whole house with a single round. The style had originated in New Orleans shortly after the War Between the States (which is what Keller had lately learned to call the Civil War) and spread throughout the South.
This particular specimen was in sad shape. The exterior needed painting, there were slates missing from the roof, and the lawn was a wasteland of weeds and gravel. The inside was worse, the floor littered with debris, the kitchen filthy.
Keller said, “Gee, there’s nothing left for us to do, is there?”
“She’s a real beauty, isn’t she?”
“Was that a SOLD sign I saw out in front? Got to be one hell of an optimist who bought this place.”
“Well, hell,” Donny said, “I guess I been called a lot worse’n that.” He grinned, delighted with Keller’s openmouthed reaction. “Closed on her yesterday,” he said. “You ever see that cable show, Flip This House? That’s my plan. A little love’s all it should take to turn this shithole into the prettiest house on the block.”