“So where is Leslie?” Baxter’s sweater sleeves are pushed up and Karen watches him from her desk. He has come straight from work
to ask this question. Leslie didn’t tell him her parents had died earlier that week when she first
“She’s on the roof.” Karen’s eyes stared at an invisible point at the ceiling, pointing with the tip of her pen. “Right up there, somewhere. There’s a stairway behind the utility room.” She returns to her paper, picking up the phone, pretending to make a call, and waits for him to leave. Karen’s known for a while now, so she’s frustrated at this point with anyone who doesn’t already know.
Leslie is sitting Indian style, her head barely above the wall that lines the roof of her office building, watching the suburban traffic getting flaked with dust from the nearby construction. They’re opening the Boulevard to take two way traffic right in front of her building, and now it annoys her more than it used to. Baxter claps his hands to release the dust that has collected on the outside stairwell’s railing, seeing Leslie’s hand prints on it in a dotted line. She has never held much back, but then, he thinks, nothing like this has happened before. He sits next to her, trying to see what she’s seeing in the traffic, trying to keep most of his pant legs from touching the tar paper.
“What are you going to do?”
“Guess I have to go home to Lancaster and settle things.” She claps her head in her free hand, shaking the cigarette away from her face. “There must be a lot of things to do when two people die.”
He nods. He knows she has never talked of her parents with much love but knew deep down she loved them and yet still wished there had been more in the exchange there. Sitting beside her, Baxter turns his whole body to see her profile talking to what looked like the traffic from where he was.
“I can’t do a funeral, Bax. I just can’t. It’s not so much that I can’t afford it, which I can’t, but I refuse to pay all that money to make them look like they’re just sleeping. And the coffins, I mean, really. All that polished wood and procession just to bury them.” She shakes her head, leaning back to wriggle another cigarette out of a box that to Baxter, was worn more than it should have been. He pulls out a lighter for her so she can keep going. “I mean, does everyone have to have a funeral?”
“What about their friends, their family? You can’t just bury two people and not tell anyone…”
“Why not? I’m only doing this because I’m the only kid of theirs left in the states who gives a shit about them anyway. Lee is in freaking Italy right now, and all my father’s kids are worthless.” She strains her eyes against the sun’s reflection on the hotel across the street, each pane of glass a mirror of pain. Cast in this light, Baxter can see the freckles coming out of her face, and the lines around her eyes, and he remembers that while she is the baby in her family and he the middle child of his, they have both gotten pretty old this year.
“My parents’ past was always such a mess. I’d like this to be a clean affair. I want them to leave quietly from this world, if anything than to make it easier for me.” For the first time she turns to face him. “And it has been hard on me.”
“Why didn’t you tell me when you knew?” Leslie had been his closest friend of late, but even after 2 years, there was so much he couldn’t tell about her. Even now, he couldn’t say if what she was saying was what was on her mind.
“I needed a few days where someone didn’t know, just to see what it felt like. Shit, Bax, what about their house, and the fucking dogs? I’m not ready to move back yet. I was going to move in the spring…”
He knew. She had wanted to make amends. She had spent some time away on trips, seeing old friends, remembering home and college and her parents. Each time he hauled her off from the airport, her voice all full and lofty, and each time he wondered what she was doing with it all, where she stored it in her mind. She had been talking about Lancaster for months now, and the job opportunities there and about making peace with her parents. They had even offered her the house to sell because they were moving back to Greencastle, so they could finally and begrudgingly retire. It was their peace child, and even when they were alive, Leslie didn’t know what to make of it. The thought of this seemed to glaze across her face in a fierce wave of helplessness, but soon enough she straightened up and turned back to the traffic light.
In spite of the dull sound of tractors and traffic, they sat for moment, not speaking. Her last words resonated in his head. I was going to move. He had counted the time between places she would move from him. 23 hours. Less than a full day, and covering half the country just didn’t seem fair.
Leslie hefted herself up into standing, smoothing out her jeans. “No. No funeral. No boxes, no fucking preservatives. They used to tell me to pull the plug if they were vegetables, so now, instead, I’ll just have to plant them.” Against a false chill, she wrapped her arms around her shoulders. Before he could stand up, before he could hold her as he’d been taught to do when comforting one who’s mourning, she was already to the stairs.
“I want them to go out as unseen as they came. As unseen as they stayed.”