When she turned forty-five, Julia began to collect deaths, much as her friends collected china cats or varieties of roses. Each morning before her husband came downstairs for breakfast, Julia would scan the obituaries in the newspaper, looking for a notice of the passing of someone like herself: an older mother of small children, a woman with a husband and a good address. She examined the obituary in its minutest detail: “Adored mother of Jessica and Emily. The family requests contributions to the Asthma Foundation in lieu of flowers.” She pictured the paramedics attempting to revive the gasping woman, the children, bewildered and weeping, at their mother’s funeral, the “adored spouse” trying to cope with homework, ballet lessons, and notes from school. Julia waited until her husband left for work, clipped the death notice, then hid it with the rest of her collection under old dress patterns in the guest room closet.
For days, as she went about her chores, at her desk, picking up and dropping off children, Julia would wonder about the life of the dead woman and how it was similar to and different from her own, then polish the details of the passing to a fine burnish, until she could at last put it in a back room in her mind’s gallery–a tragic, untimely death perhaps, but not her own.
“Did you know Jean Hamilton?” Julia’s manicurist, Charlene, asked, one bright morning when Julia was the first customer of the day. The leaves were just beginning to turn and Halloween decorations were up in store windows on Park Street. The salon smelled of fresh coffee and the sun through the window warmed Julia’s shoulders as she and Charlene sat bent over her hands, examining the damage wrought by a weekend of gardening.
“No, I don’t think so,” she replied warily, conscious of the past tense Charlene used. Julia’s mother had the habit of announcing deaths in just the same way, with a question.
“Oh, I thought you would have. She seemed like the sort of person you would know.” Charlene glanced up, narrowing her eyes appraisingly, then frowned down at Julia’s cuticles.
Julia loved her time at the nail parlor, the luxury of being taken care of, having her hands stroked. She had found in Charlene a true soulmate: a fearless, shameless collector of deaths. Every week or two Charlene brought a new acquisition for her appraisal. Unlike Julia, whose conservative collection was austere, devoid of unnecessary ornament, the Shaker version of death, Charlene was the curator of an assortment of lavishly gilded rococo demises, flying saints with folded hands, plumed crowns and feathered skirts, ascending towards the heavens.
“What happened to her?”
“Well, one of my ladies told me that she just heard last week that she had a month to live…”
“Who heard, the lady or your friend Jean Hamilton?”
“She’s not really my friend. I just know who she is. Anyway, it was Jean who heard she had a month to live and one of my ladies that told me about it. And four days after the doctor told her, she died in her bed. Well, part in and part out of her bed, I heard. Her husband came back from golf and found her. He said it looked like she was trying to reach for the phone. She died alone, hanging off the side of her bed. Forty-five years old. Can you imagine?” Julia could imagine.
“Did she have kids?” she asked.
“Grown and married. That’s not the problem. They’re shook up, of course, but that husband of hers–he always was helpless-no one knows what’ll become of him.” They fell into silence as Charlene snipped at the tags of skin by Clare’s nails with small, curved scissors. “I see you’ve been working in the yard again,” she commented.
“Don’t you worry that one of these days, God, or whatever–that giant fmger in the sky–will point at you?” Julia asked. Charlene laughed. “No, kid, I don’t. Of course, someday it will be me, but I’ve got a lot of time left. I haven’t even gone through The Change.”
“Well, neither have I,” Julia said, wondering what that had to do with it, anyway.
Julia had developed a dread of menopause, which was described in distressing detail in every magazine she picked up. To hear the authors tell it, menopause was either the final indignity the medical profession had inflicted upon women or a liberating passage to transcendent old age, when neither men nor bodies mattered. How could they not matter? She pictured herself, wraithlike, dried up, scuffmg along the sidewalk in a head scarf and oversized coat, picking through trash–deserted by her husband, ignored by her children, gray, withered, worthless.
“It sounds so depressing,” Julia told Charlene. “Either you take hormones and get fat, or you know, you dry up down there,” she wrinkled her nose.
“No problem,” Charlene said, leaning forward, confidentially, eyes twinkling. “You just tell him, ‘Honey, spit on it.’” Julia tried to imagine what it would be like to say such a thing to Philip. Charlene’s husband, Mike, Julia knew from descriptions of him, was six foot four, a crane operator with feet so big Charlene could fit his shaving kit in his shoes when she packed his suitcase.
“Do you know what he did last night?” Charlene asked. “He was watching Monday night football and he asked me if I’d give him a blow job during the second half. I had to laugh.”
“Can you imagine?” Julia asked Philip that night.
“Imagine what?” he asked, distractedly. Julia looked across the dinner table at her husband of fifteen years. Reliable, punctual, a loving father and good breadwinner, he had lost much of his hair and had lately acquired his father’s faintly exasperated expression. Philip was much praised at work for his concern and caring for others–“He always has time to listen,” his secretary marveled–but at home his mind wandered. Even the shortest conversation seemed an effort.
“Can you imagine giving your husband a blow job while he’s watching football?”
“What are you talking about?” he asked, indignation rising in his voice.
“What Charlene told me her husband wanted. Today when I was getting my nails done.”
“Who is this woman?”
“Charlene, the woman who does my nails. She was telling me about it. I just thought it was funny–such a different life,” Julia said.
“It’s different, all right,” Philip answered, folding his napkin and standing up.
Julia checked her two sleeping daughters in their beds, pulling the blankets up, brushing damp hair off their foreheads. She imagined what it would be like: a husband on the couch, watching Monday Night Football, his enormous feet planted in front of him, Julia kneeling, her hair cascading into his lap, no gray roots showing. He would massage her scalp with his firm, masculine hands. She would bend lower over him, cupping him with her hands, and she would not feel her stomach folding over on itself. She would stroke him as Charlene stroked her own hands, finally drinking from the fountain of youth, all worry overcome, menopause, death–forgotten.
October’s passing was marked by increasingly frequent visits to the auto repair shop. Their old Volvo station wagon, once a great beauty, a symbol of their middle-class solidity, liberal world view and firm commitment to domesticity, was worn out, rusted and in need of constant mechanical attention.
“Let’s try to hang on for six more months,” Philip urged. “I’m expecting a big case settlement by then, and we’ll be able to afford a new car.”
Julia sighed and rolled her eyes, though in truth she didn’t mind because she loved their mechanic and looked forward to her frequent visits to his repair shop. Steve was different from the other men she knew, though she knew so few. If it weren’t for the occasional pleasantries with the UPS man and the reproachful glare of the letter carrier when he collected postage due, she would have almost no male contact. But Steve was different. He was someone she was comfortable with, a man who appreciated her like a friend would. That was it, really; he was a friend–her only male friend. There was Philip, of course, she thought with an occasional guilty twinge. But marriage, with its complicated rhythms, its approaches and retreats like the mating dance of the sandhill crane, was not for Julia the territory of friendship. With Steve, the casual exchange of remarks while peering under the raised hood of the car, the long waits in his office made pleasant by a mug of his French roast coffee and conversation about books they had read–that was friendship.
In late November, as Julia was fretting over her Thanksgiving menu–Philip’s parents were coming this year–Laurie called to say that their mutual friend, Roseanne, had a recurrence of breast cancer.
“I never knew she had it before,” Julia said.
“It was years ago, before Matty was born.” Julia was shocked. They had met when they were both newly pregnant but Roseanne had never mentioned it.
“She says she’s going to beat it.” Laurie paused, swallowing. “I wish I could believe that.”
Together, Laurie and Julia organized car pools to take Roseanne to her treatments and dinner networks so that Roseanne and her husband Chris wouldn’t have to cook. They arranged for seven-year-old Matthew to go to friends’ homes after school, made sure he got his hair cut.
One day it was Julia’s turn to pick Roseanne up from the treatments that made her sick. She helped her friend, now thin and weakened from weeks of chemotherapy, into the car. It was unseasonably warm, so hot in the car that Roseanne put the window down on the way home.
“Do you mind?” Roseanne asked. “I’m dying.” When she turned and saw Julia’s stricken face, she added, “Of the heat, Silly!”
Winter was a season of losses. Steve announced one day in early January that he was closing his shop at the end of the month, and Julia turned away to hide her distress. First Roseanne had abandoned her, transformed by illness from just one of the moms to a cancer patient, crossing an invisible line from normal life to the land of Taxol. And now Steve was crossing a frontier as well, for it seemed impossible that she would ever see him again, without the dying Volvo as a pretext.
“Are you ill?” Julia asked, wondering about cancer, or HIV.
“Nope. I need to make some changes,” he said. “I’m 40 this year. I want to change my life before it’s too late, you know?”
“I know,” Julia nodded.
Roseanne died in the spring, just as the rhododendrons and hyacinths were beginning to bloom. Her funeral was attended by hundreds of people from her church, Matthew’s school, their health club. Julia sat in the row with her friends, most of them dressed inappropriately in pastels, as if ready for the tennis they would play later in the day.
Julia sat between Karen and Lisa, friends from their daughters’ soccer team. She and Laurie had planned not to sit together.
“I’ll cry,” Laurie had said. “I can’t help it.”
“Then I’m not going to sit with you,” Julia replied. “I don’t like to cry in front of people, and if you cry, I’ll start.”
The cathedral pipe organ, filling the sanctuary with the sound of Pachelbel’s Canon, sucked the air out of Julia’s lungs. She and Roseanne had danced with their babies to that music at their post-natal exercise class, holding their infants close as they swayed through the first delirious days of motherhood, when everything, even the light through the room’s tall, dust-streaked windows, seemed transformed, golden, and eternal. Roseanne’s parish priest, Father Curran, conducted the services. He was determined to give Roseanne a send-off worthy of her bright spirit. Though Julia couldn’t remember afterwards quite how he worked it into his speech, Father Curran brought the house down with his description of Roseanne’s wicked backhand. The mourners clapped when he concluded, almost forgetting what had brought them together.
“This isn’t so bad,” Julia thought. She wondered if hundreds of people would come to her funeral and clap in memory of her life and her backhand.
As they stood to watch Roseanne’s coffin carried up the aisle, a lone singer high above in the choir loft began to sing “Amazing Grace” a cappella. Julia looked from one side of her to the other, eyes blurred, as her friends, one by one, began to cry. She slid past the women to her right and left the church by a side door, not waiting for the procession to pass. She walked alone to her car and sat quietly inside the station wagon, finding comfort in its warmth and isolation. When she felt that she was ready to be with friends again, she wiped her eyes and searched through her purse for the directions to the funeral reception. Shifting into neutral, she tried to start the car but couldn’t. Julia looked around and saw that the other mourners had left and she was alone. The car sounded like it was trying to start, but the motor wouldn’t turn over. Julia pumped on the gas pedal, bouncing slightly in the seat as if to set an example for the engine. She raised the hood and jiggled a few wires. Finally, having exhausted her small store of car-fixing knowledge, she decided to call emergency road service.
Stepping onto the sidewalk, Julia realized she was on Bay Street, not far from where she had seen, in her chauffeuring of the ballet lesson carpool, Steve the mechanic’s truck parked. She didn’t think he’d mind helping; they were old friends, after all.
The truck was easy to spot–red paint so old it had oxidized to a dull, rusty orange, built-in tool boxes and a canvas tarp in the back. Julia approached a man who was kneeling in his front yard, setting out impatiens in neat rows. As she drew near, the man straightened and carefully set down by his knees a small ruler he had been using to measure the distance between plants.
“Do you know where Steve lives? Steve the mechanic?”
“Over there,” the man replied, jerking his head to the right and pointing with his trowel.
Steve’s wooden front steps needed repair, but, standing on the porch waiting for her ring to be answered, Julia was pleased with how well kept the house looked. A donkey-tail cactus hung from the eaves, its tails nearly touching the porch railing, and pots of ferns flanked the front door.
The door opened slightly, and Julia could see dimly a woman with brown, bobbed hair, in a pale pink flannel bathrobe and furry slippers. She looked vaguely like Steve. A sister, perhaps? Julia adjusted her posture, smiled and, raising her voice slightly, asked, “Is Steve here?”
“Julia! What a surprise! Come on in!”
The door opened wide, flooding the entry with sunlight, and Julia realized that this woman had not only Steve’s face but also Steve’s voice; she was not a relative but Steve himself. He–or she?–was smiling, obviously delighted to see her, arms open for a hug. As they embraced, his breasts pressed against her and Julia felt his definite waistline, slenderer than hers had ever been. Steve stepped back and smiled again.
“I’ve gone through some changes since I last saw you,” he said. Julia felt slightly faint, Steve’s beaming face fading in and out of perspective.
“Are you all right?” He took her by one arm and led her into the room.
“It’s okay.” Julia reddened. “I mean, I’m okay.” She sank onto a couch and put her head between her legs. “I’m just not myself.”
“I’ll get you some coffee,” Steve said, heading for the back of the house.
She kept her head down and breathed deeply, waiting for the dizziness and faint feeling to fade. She noticed the rug at her feet was wool, a good quality Oriental carpet. She could hear Steve in the kitchen, humming and banging dishes. She raised her head cautiously and looked around the room. It was carefully, comfortably furnished. A single graceful vase and an artful scattering of smooth gray stones lay on a low wooden table in front of her. The room was soothing and peaceful. Julia leaned back into the sofa’s cushions.
“I see you’ve recovered,” he said, holding out a mug of coffee.
“I’m sorry, Steve,” she said. “This was just so … the whole day … ” she faltered.
“It’s Stephanie now. But you can call me Steve. All my old friends do.”
Julia giggled. It was a terrible weakness of hers, laughing at inappropriate times. As a child, she had infuriated her father by tittering whenever he scolded her. And the angrier he became, the more helpless she was to stop the giggles.
“It’s just a shock,” she tried to explain. “The whole day’s been sort of a shock, actually.” She realized she was crying now. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m not myself.”
He leaned across the table and took her hands in his. She noticed his nails were painted a demure rose shade-La Pink, the same color she was wearing. Julia looked into his mascaraed eyes and told him about Roseanne’s dying, her funeral, the singer in the choir loft. But then the death got confused in her mind with other things: her futile imitations of perfection (“Perfect mother, perfect wife,” she mimicked in a sing-song, taunting voice that was hardly hers). She didn’t enjoy her children enough; she wished to hurry them through these years so they could take care of themselves. And Philip. She was crying in earnest now, melting her eye makeup and streaking her cheeks. And now she was beginning to lose all of them: the children would grow up and away, she and Philip had already lost the thread of their relationship. He would die, just like Roseanne, before she had time to appreciate him. It wasn’t right.
“People die,” Steve said. “Wonderful, valuable people. I’ve lost a lot of friends.” He shook his head. “It made me think hard about what I wanted from the rest of my life.” He let go of Julia’s hands and sat back in his chair. “What I wanted was to stop pretending to be someone I wasn’t.”
Julia thought of all the crowded days she spent not thinking, just coping. She didn’t even know what it was she wanted. She looked down at Steve’s painted fmgernails. Well, she certainly had no interest in becoming a man. She wonld have to find a different solution. Julia realized Steve was talking again.
“You know that guy across the street? Allan? The engineer?”
She nodded. “The one planting the flowers.”
“He says it’s like his buddy died and a new person moved in. We’re still friends, but Allan made such a big deal out of this, I wrote my obituary for him.
You want to see it?” Without waiting for her reply, he got up and rummaged through a drawer in the desk by the bay window.
“Here,” he held it out to her. Franklin, Stephen W. (Steve)–February I, after a long journey; beloved son of Felicity Franklin and the late William P. Franklin, Jr.; loving brother of Rita and Richard; for the last eight years the proprieter of Steve’s Auto Shop; until recently unwilling to figure out who or what he was, in his last months Steve created his own version of happiness, and he has moved on to a new life.
She stared at the neatly typeset paragraph until her eyes lost their focus and the letters began to waver. For some reason, she thought of Philip, as distant as the memorials to dead women preserved in her pattern box. Except Philip was alive, and they weren’t–an inkling of possibility. She looked up at Steve, then at the obituary in her hand.
“May I keep it?” she asked.