The King and Me
Tobin stood over the deceased man’s mail fingering the envelopes on the desk. The young woman was in the front calling out information about the house. It was the first time in the last twenty minutes that she had lingered behind and let him browse on his own. Perhaps that had been a mistake, letting him roam. Here he was snooping through unopened mail.
He heard her shoes click over the wood floor. He had forgotten her for a moment, forgotten why he was here, and he lifted his fingers off the envelopes. They weren’t his, so what the hell was he doing?
“The mail keeps coming,” she said. She seemed lost for a moment. “There’s a form you fill out-- Deceased Do Not Contact--and you have to show a death certificate and that puts an end to it. You have to write deceased on the right line or the mail keeps coming. It’s insane.”
Tobin knew this. He received Gordon’s mail at the house, mail that he stacked on the table in the hallway as if Gordon would eventually open it. He squeezed his eyes shut and balled his fists like a child. She’d seen him looking at the envelopes and he felt like a fool.
“I guess the guy was some sort of set designer in theater. He did all the wood work in the house.”
Tobin looked around the room, to the wooden tables and chairs, the dusty papers, the books on the shelves. He turned back to her and studied her profile. There was a small black stone of jewelry pinned to a nostril. She was a child. He guessed she was in her early thirties. “It’s dark,” he said.
She turned to the windows, thin white arms reaching forward. “I can open the blinds. Here.” She swiped the air for the dusty cords, missed, and tried again, bending her thin frame in a desperate stretch. Strings of dust webs tumbled into the air. Light burst into the room and Tobin squinted.
“It was better before,” he said.
She closed them again and the light vanished.
He had seen the picture of the house in the Sunday paper. There was something about the deep orange color of exterior stucco, with its dark green shutters and driveway, that reminded him of Gordon. He would have liked this sort of place. He would have cleaned the rock garden up, excavated the weeds, re-painted the shutters and the driveway the same color. He would have admired the colors.
When Tobin had entered the old house earlier a wall of inert air stopped him, and when he inhaled he had smelled mothballs. The scent of old wood and mustiness crept in, a stagnant river of time.
“It’s oppressive in here,” she had said. “I tried to air the place out.”
He walked back to the front foyer and stood there a long time. The floor was covered in red, Tuscany tile. He removed his shoes and rocked on his socked feet. The floor was cold but it felt good in the humidity.
“The owner died suddenly,” she called from the other room, then stuck her head into the foyer. Her red hair seemed to have a life of its own, each strand going in its own direction. She held out a postcard with information about the house. “Oh, and call me Sam.”
Tobin took the postcard and noticed her name, Samantha Jools, at the bottom of it, then looked out of the door into the rock garden. A few morning doves bathed in the dirt, their puffy gray coats partly obscured in wisps of dust. The walls groaned as the air conditioner heaved on. Mildew filled his nose. When he looked up at the air vent he saw a black soot fanned along the ceiling.
She followed his gaze. “That’s not good. It means there’s mold in the vents. Probably in the air handler, too.”
Her nonchalant disclosures about the house surprised him. Did she really want to sell the house? Tobin put his shoes back on and moved into the living room. The doves’ cooing and occasional flutter filled the stillness and he looked behind him to see if they hadn’t somehow found a way in. The right wall was filled with wooden shelves. The dark wood formed one solid frame, and extended the full length of the room. Each wide tier of shelf seemed perfectly placed, as though the room were built around them. Magazines, books and papers overloaded the frames. Tobin tilted his head to read the spines of the books.
She followed him into the living room. “The house foreclosed before he kicked.”
Kicked? He’d never heard that before.
“Of course you know it’s an estate sale.”
There was a beautiful rocking chair in the corner. It moved slightly from the air conditioning draft, as though someone unseen were rocking in it. The chair made a scraping ping on the wall every time it went back, and suddenly he realized how tired he was. He’d barely slept in the last few weeks. He had made up his mind to begin looking at houses. He couldn’t live at the townhouse any longer. It was as though gravity had released everything and nothing was rooted to the earth. Gordon had spent days positioning the furniture when they first bought the place. He had taken a Feng Shui class in the city and Tobin never heard the end of it after that. The couch against the wall was too Yang, the chair in the corner under the painting too Yin. Gordon said there must be no dead air, no restricted energy, no Sha. Tobin found him wandering around the house one night at three in the morning. “What are you doing?” he had said.
“Calculating whether the house is positioned properly in the solar system.”
As though Gordon were only a child taking apart a toy to see how it worked, Tobin had said, “I see.”
Gordon smiled and patted Tobin’s back. “We will now live healthy, happy lives.”
“Do you have a large, dysfunctional family?” she asked.
Again, her boldness surprised him. He thought about that. Celia was divorced now. She had suggested they live together after Gordon died. “I don’t think you should be alone,” she had said. It would be Tobin, his sister and a dog. They would live in her house and share common themes. Celia’s husband had left her years ago and her children were all grown, so she was alone in many ways. Tobin and his sister were a year apart in age, both of them entering their sixties. He couldn’t comprehend living with her at this age, existing with her collection of dolls or deflecting the onslaught of judgments from the rest of his family. Yet it was more than his brother would ever offer. He didn’t even come to the funeral service; his wife had sent a card and signed his name under “Our Condolences.”
When he didn’t answer she said, “Thought so. It’s a plague.”
The rocking chair pinged again and he looked away. “Do you mind if I look myself?”
So he had gone and snooped through the dead man’s mail and now Samantha Jools was in the room with him again.
“I’m almost done,” he said. He left her and moved into the back hallway. There was a twin bed in the third and master bedroom. The man must have lived alone. Two people could not share a twin bed. Tobin had always insisted on a king because of Gordon’s restlessness at night. When a stray leg occasionally found its way on Tobin’s side of the bed he threatened to tie it to the bed post.
In the week after he died, Tobin put blankets on the floor in the bedroom and tried to sleep there. He hadn’t slept in the bed yet. Toward the end Gordon required a hospital bed that was adjustable and that’s where he’d been until the last day. Tobin had slept alone in the king and listened for Gordon’s breath in the dark room. There were nights when Tobin never slept but crossed the room every hour to put his ear on Gordon’s chest to see if he were breathing.
The man’s bed was stripped with blankets balled at the end. There was a night table on the left that held books and a beautiful antique alarm clock with an oversized face. It ticked so loudly he wondered how anyone could sleep with it. He bent down and studied the clock hands. The time was wrong. Tobin almost reached down to set the proper time. Then he wondered who had wound the clock and not set the proper time.
There was a recliner against one wall in front of a small TV. A large oval stain bled across the headrest, oil from hair tincture. The cloth was indented, too, where it had once supported the weight of a head for endless hours. Gordon had once told him that the human head weighs about the same as a cooking chicken. Tobin foolishly held one up in the market one day, testing what he had said, the cold, frigid bird pushing into his hand.
The remote rested on the arm. An ancient boxy VCR was below the television, stacked with dusty tapes without jackets. What had he been watching toward the end? Gordon had requested The King and I in those last days, Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr leaping across those magnificent sets. They’d watched it many times; Tobin had propped Gordon’s head up by innumerable pillows so he could see the television. His mouth was always dry from the medications, so Tobin had to hold the straw under his puckered lips when he was thirsty. They rarely finished the movie before Gordon’s head tilted back and his eyes closed.
“You can turn it off now,” Gordon would say. And Tobin stood there, his body exhausted and sleep deprived, held up as though only by a wire. He felt his heart beating and felt the sting of blood pulsing through his body. He felt like he was a million light years away looking in at this tableau through a window in the universe. Sitting in the room with him for too long became stifling, so he took strolls, sometimes onto the sidewalks along the city. Pigeons pecked furiously around his feet, barely moving as he stepped through them. When he looked behind him, the feathered mass was converging on new bread crumbs tossed by an elderly woman on a bench. He smelled peanut oil and meat cooking from China town. The smells triggered something in his head, and fuzzy images came unanchored. It was enough to make him stop, and as he stood there he felt passing people brushing his body, as though they were merely bits of clothing blowing in the wind. He waited for the images in his head to clear so he could see one, but there was never one but many, a thousand snapshots firing all at once. When he began walking again he occasionally collided with a pedestrian on the sidewalk, or aimlessly dodged someone’s attempt to avoid hitting him. He would move to the right of the person, then to the left, the stranger mimicking his movement as though he were looking into a mirror. It was a ridiculous thing, yet it somehow made him feel in sync with the living.
Now Tobin sat on the man’s bed. He wanted to reach down and eject the tape and check his presumption, that all men requested The King and I as a final wish, but he felt foolish. He reached for the clock. It was heavy in his hands. The large brass bells were pitted and they needed polishing. He wished he could tend to that, that he could get some polish and clean the pitted metal.
“What time do you think it is?” Sam was in the doorway, her white face and wiry frame leaning into the wood frame.
Tobin looked at his watch. “It’s one o’clock.”
“No, the clock. Is it 10:30 in the evening or 10:30 in the morning? It’s maddening.”
Tobin arranged to look at the house the next day. The mothballs assaulted his nose again as he stepped through the door. He turned in the threshold and stared at the rock garden in front, dry and full of weeds, and ran his eyes down the green driveway. The green mailbox jutted out toward the sky, waiting for mail that was still being delivered and never opened.
Sam hadn’t heard him. He found her seated at the kitchen table, her paperwork on the house spread out before her. There were trash bags lined up on the floor, filled, he knew, with remnants of the man’s life. She stood and looked out over the mess as though she had no idea how to clean it up.
“I just want you to know you are my first showing and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.” She took a breath. “The bank said they’d pay me $500 if I move all this junk out of the house.”
He turned to the window. The doves were outside again rolling in the dirt, an entire family now, the dust-haze rising up from the ground, feathers and beaks in a surreal plume of chaos.
He felt her behind him. “You know they dustbathe about the same time everyday. A circadian rhythm.”
One of the birds stepped out of the cloud and extended its wings and bristled. “And what happens if the rhythm is broken?”
“If denied a dustbath, they’ll gradually want to do it more often. Like a drug.”
He moved through the hallway. “I’ll let you know if I need you.”
The house was dark, with few windows and a back lanai covered in tinted glass.
The hallway walls held poster prints of Le Miserables and Death of a Salesman, and several others. He squinted to see them in the fragile light and straightened one picture frame. Gordon had purchased various lithographs for their townhouse, had come home one day with three wrapped frames stacked in his arms. He unwrapped them and began eying the walls. He told Tobin to hold each frame against the wall while he placed his thumb where he thought the nail should go. He hammered nails clumsily into the drywall, stepped back and told Tobin to hang the paintings.
Gordon shook his head. “No.” He waved his arms, a signal to remove the paintings from the wall. This went on for an hour, Gordon hammering nails and his fingers, first in the living room then several places along the hallways. Tobin knew better than to intervene, so he plastered the holes later and occasionally said things like “That’s a good spot” or “Perfect!”
Gordon finally decided on the hallway leading to the kitchen, the lithographs scattered along the wall in a zigzag pattern. He stepped back and put his hammered raw fingers under his chin. “Now that was easy, wasn’t it?” he said.
Now Tobin thought he felt a warm sensation over his right shoulder. There was a tingling on his ear, like a warm breath. He spun around, somehow expecting to see Gordon standing behind him.
“Hello?” he said and then wondered why he said it.
“Do you need me?” From the kitchen her voice was strained, as though she couldn’t find the breath to get it out.
Tobin leaned his head against the wall.
“No. I’m nearly done.”
He went to the desk in the large family room. He studied it, moving his eyes from its clawed feet to its base. At home he searched for swirls of fingerprints on wineglasses or furniture, the indents on cushion and pillows, anything that held evidence of Gordon’s existence. At first there was a solace in this act. The objects were rooted in their place as life existed around them. In a peculiar way, they collected particles of existence and preserved them. But now it troubled him to have them around. In the short moments of sleep, he’d dreamt of furniture and glasses and plates and silverware floating above the ground, uprooted, circling him in an orbit of disarray.
In the weeks after his death, Tobin tried to disrupt and change what Gordon had insisted was the perfect environment for living. He bought air purifiers and placed them in all of the rooms, hoping to filter the odors of sickness that he knew would stay with him for some time. He knew this when he purchased the purifiers, that the smell was not in the bed, furniture, or walls only; the smell was embedded in his own pores to remind him of his own mortality. Yet he set them up and listened to their fans purr and tried to change the unchangeable. He moved the couch against the wall, moved the bed under the window. He took paintings off one wall and hammered them onto another. He stood in the center of the room as if waiting for a sign. When he felt no better he positioned the furniture askew all over the room. He didn’t go out of the house for days. He smelled and he liked that he smelled. For a few hours his reeking clothes obscured the tired molecules of sickness.
When the smell came back he decided to shower. He lost count how many showers and baths he’d taken, how many different kinds of aromatic soap he used to scrub his pores empty. His arms and his legs were red he’d scrubbed so hard. He lay naked and raw in the bathtub as mail peeled through the door and fell to the floor. The phone rang and messages from his sister and friends filled the answering machine. He fell asleep like that, and in his dreams Gordon bent over him rubbing chamomile paste into his pink skin.
He heard Sam talking on her phone and tried to ignore it. On the desk’s surface were several framed black and white photographs. He moved his fingertips over them and twisted his head to see them better. A shirtless man held a little girl on his lap. The man looked down at her with a face that understood that the moment was gone as soon as the shutter clicked. The other frame showed the same little girl, older, standing next to a little boy. They were both barefoot and pruning their faces the way kids do. In the background was the rock garden, weedless and pristine. He heard Sam again, her voice louder and more distressed.
He waited and stepped into the kitchen. Her forehead was pushed into the wall as she spoke on the phone. She ended the call abruptly and turned to face him.
“Do you think he had any booze in the house?” she said.
So she had searched the cupboards and found a dusty bottle of Remy Martin. They sat on the stucco wall to the garden sipping from coffee mugs, watching geckos scamper after insects. Sam sat with her legs folded under her, ankle over ankle, her torso bent into a crooked C. Her phone rang but she ignored it. “Most people think those are geckos,” she said, eyeing a sunning lizard. “They’re actually green and brown anoles – anolis carolinensis.” One of the lizards exposed a red fan under his chin.
“See that? It’s called a dewlap. It means don’t fuck with me and come fuck me. When they fight, or something tries to grab them, the tail falls off. Instant escape.”
Tobin sipped from the mug and savored the cognac in his mouth, watching the lizard bob its head and do tiny push ups. He felt like he was skipping school or something. “And that?”
“It’s all part of the show. See that other lizard? He’s warning it not to enter her territory.”
Tobin was amazed. He’d never considered these things.
Sam noticed his expression. “What?”
“Your knowledge of those creatures and the birds.”
She uncrossed her legs and sipped from her mug. “My father was a science teacher. It was brainwashing in my case. He told me everything could be explained by studying nature.” She took a sip of cognac and swallowed. “The coward shot himself. Epic contradiction.”
He’d always thought it was a violent, uncouth way to end it. “I’m sorry,” he said.
Her phone rang again. She looked at it in disdain. “Let’s get a refill.”
When he called Sam again the next morning she used his first name. “Hi Miles.”
“I’d like to look the house over again.”
“Of course you do,” she said. “Why don’t you just buy it. It will save us both a lot of time.”
When he arrived at the house Sam was standing at the doorway, posed against the orange shell of Mediterranean stucco. She wore a grey shirt and a black skirt and closed toed shoes. If Tobin had a camera he would have taken her picture because she looked like such an anomaly; he would ask her to stand in front of the garden and the mailbox and the driveway. He didn’t know whether he wanted to take the pictures to help him remember or help him forget.
They sat in the dark kitchen surrounded by worn black and yellow linoleum wall tiles. The floor was an eclectic checkerboard, with larger tiles spreading out to the walls. Some corners were pealing badly and the floor was incongruous with the Tuscany tiles in the foyer. The kitchen was another thing he thought Gordon would change about the house. Tobin stood and went to the window. He opened the blinds, bathing the room in a yellow haze that was better than before. “The owner of the house, how did he die?” he said, sitting again.
“I don’t know. The same way anyone does.” She stared at her thin fingers spread out on the table.
He had pulled a dark shadow over her and he regretted it. He closed his eyes as though it might make what he had said vanish.
He wanted to tell her about Gordon, that he’d had plenty of time to prepare for Gordon’s death but could not. That the entire time he convinced himself that it wasn’t going to happen. He wanted to tell her that Gordon’s eyes wouldn’t close and that disturbed him. That he had bent over him and tried to fold them shut, that it was as though Gordon had gone into the end struggling to keep his eyes open so as not to miss anything.
“It’s a reflex,” the Hospice woman had whispered touching his shoulder.
“I don’t want a commotion. The neighbors,” he said.
The woman patted his arm. “It’s only an unmarked van. I’ve already called.”
They had wheeled Gordon out of the house in the late afternoon light and one wheel of the gurney was shot, like a bad shopping cart, so it rattled all the way to the elevator. Tobin heard the elevator ding on the ground floor, then the gurney rattle through the foyer. He hoped no one would notice but he knew they would.
Then Tobin had sat there on the couch. It felt good to sit, to rest his legs, to let go of every muscle. He didn’t have to listen to Gordon’s raspy breathing or count his pulse or wipe his mouth. He could just sit. When the red morning sky bled through the east window eight hours later he was still awake. The horizon split and a river of color set the room on fire.
He wanted to tell Sam all of this but when he looked at her he felt she already understood. She smiled but something quickly fell away from it.
He pushed away from the table and the scraping of the chair made them both jump. “I’m just going to look again.”
“Of course you are. Looking for something that’s not there.” She stood and walked through to the foyer.
He could see her from the kitchen. She had her back to him as she gazed out the front door into the rock garden, the pale nape of her neck exposed and vulnerable. When he turned away he heard the front screen door shut.
Tobin moved slowly into the den. He peered around the corner before he let his body slide into it. He saw the photographs on the desk, the boy and the girl and the man forever encased in glass, and moved his eyes to the vacant wall above them. He walked over and stroked the wall with his palm as though searching for a secret passage, then turned and faced the opposite wall. He surveyed the room from this perspective, seeing it as though he had lived here. There was a painting on the far wall he hadn’t noticed before, and its glass reflected a light that flickered. He moved toward the painting and then stopped in the center of the room. From his periphery a soft light flashed, and he turned to it. It was in the hallway he had just come from, dancing along the shadowed walls.
He stepped into the hallway again. From where he stood he could see Sam in the bedroom. There was a door in the room that led to the outside of the house, and it was open, allowing bright tendrils of light into the room. She stood there winding the antique clock, her body half turned, uncertain. Dust particles danced around her body as they floated into the light, tiny constellations pulsing and fading.
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