Zip Moneyman died vacuuming. At least that's how Bunky got it from Al Humphry, whose son-in-law is an EMT over in Riverdale, Zip's town. The mailman heard the vacuum machine humming, peeked through the screen door to wave hello and saw Zip in a heap on the living room carpet.
Sudden cardiopulmonary arrest, Al Humphry's son-in-law called it. Quick. No time to shut off the vacuum, much less shout for help. Not that shouting would have done much good, Bunky said, being how Zip's wife was out at the time working the baked goods booth at the Riverdale Founders' Day Fair.
Bunky's telling me this as we're driving to Monahan's Mortuary for Zip's viewing, and after the part about Zip's wife he kind of goes quiet, stares out the car window like he's got nothing more to say, then turns back to me.
She's why Zip's dead, he says.
I asked him how he figured Zip's dead because his wife happened to be out of the house. Didn't he say Zip went quick?
Bunky just rolled his eyes at me. I didn't say her being out of the house is what killed Zip, you moron, he says. What I said was, she had him pushing a goddamned Electrolux. Happens all the time, he said. Spend half your life busting ass for the wife and kids, then finally retire, think there's time now to do whatever you damned please, and then the old lady's blowing reveille in your ear and shoving you an apron before the sun comes up.
He went on to remind me how Tommy Raposa survived Korea, plus thirty years as a city cop, plus moonlighting behind the VFW bar, then had his stroke lugging a basket of wet laundry up the cellar stairs for Mrs. Raposa. Zip wasn't the first, he said, and he won't be the last.
Bunky's hardly someone you'd expect to know anything about henpecked husbands dying from too much housework. He's never even been married, though he did come close once. He'd taken a job giving dance lessons at Arthur Murray's after we came home from 'Nam, and Brenda was one of his clients. Now Bunky's always gone through women like a chain-smoker through cigarettes, but Brenda was different. They hit it off from the start, and before long you couldn't walk into a Boston dance club without seeing the two of them twirling and dipping under the spotlight, joined at the hip and lip like they couldn't get enough of each other. Bunky eventually popped the big question, and wedding plans were sailing right along, until one day, without a word of explanation, according to Bunky, Brenda called the whole thing off.
Bunky swore off marriage for good. Told me if I ever again caught him falling under a woman's spell like he had Brenda's, I should lock him away somewhere. I'm not saying Bunky swore off women in general. Far from it. He's always got one or two of them waiting in the wings, and I haven't seen one yet who couldn't be in the movies if she wanted to be. And none of them, as far as I can tell, has seemed the type to hound Bunky into picking up his dirty socks, much less introduce him to a vacuum cleaner.
So as we pulled into Monahan's parking lot that day, I had a feeling that something more serious than Zip keeling over behind an Electrolux was weighing on Bunky.
I'd met Zip through Bunky, and what little I saw of him was mostly at the race track. Truth be known, I'd driven all the way down from New Hampshire– more for Bunky's sake than for Zip himself. When Bunky called to tell me Zip had died, he said his Camaro had popped its clutch, and maybe if I felt like coming down for Zip's viewing he could ride with me instead of showing up in a taxicab like a loser. He said maybe we could go to the track afterwards. It'll be like old times, he said, and if I wanted to, I could sleep over at his apartment.
Zip was older than Bunky and me. He'd got himself a Purple Heart in Korea but didn't like talking about it. I can't remember ever seeing him without his Red Sox baseball cap and smoking one of his god-awful-smelling drugstore cigars. He'd been Bunky's supervisor at United Produce over in Malden, and after he retired and Bunky got canned for drinking on the job and spearing a pallet of lettuce crates with a forklift, the two of them took to hanging out at the track together.
I was selling houses down on the South Shore at the time, so I couldn't get up to the track that often. But the fact is, Bunky hardly ever asked me to join him and Zip. And times that I'd kind of invite myself, I'd end up feeling like a kid brother, just tagging along and in the way. What's more, after Karen and I got divorced and I took the job selling timeshares up north in New Hampshire, all I heard from Bunky was Zip this and Zip that, like he wanted me to think that my leaving town was no big deal.
Now don't get me wrong. I was naturally sad to hear that Zip had died and all, but you can't blame me for feeling a little bit resentful thinking Bunky had called me only because his Camaro was on the fritz and he needed a damned chauffeur. At first I told him I couldn't make the trip, lied about being too busy. But I couldn't help picturing him riding alone in that taxicab, with me just moping around my apartment, so I called him back, said I'd drive down and we'd go to Zip's viewing together.
Laid out in his casket, Zip didn't look dead as much as just resting his eyes, like he sometimes had a way of doing in the middle of me talking to him at the track. We stood peering down at him, respectful like, Bunky crossing and re-crossing himself like he's making up for lost time, the gold bracelets he'd gotten as gifts from various female admirers catching the light from the candles lined up behind the casket. In 'Nam, Bunky crossed himself more than the Pope even. He said it cancelled out evil thoughts and diverted bad shit to Lutherans like me. But after we came home and didn't have to worry anymore about getting shot at, he pretty much quit doing it, at least when I was around. Maybe he figured it wouldn't look right crossing himself as horses charged down the stretch, or maybe he just decided to give it a rest until something he couldn't handle– maybe something like Zip dying– came along.
Anyway, before long, he kind of elbows me in the ribs. You know how I can tell he's really dead? he says. I gave him an elbow jab to shush him up. It's that zoot suit they've got him in, he whispers at me. When I croak, he says, don't let them do that to me. It's goddamned unnatural. It's like putting whipped cream on a hotdog.
Crazy as it sounds, I think Bunky was serious. It was as if he'd all of a sudden figured I'd be around to handle things when his time came and he wanted me to give him a proper send-off. Dying isn't something we'd talked about much, except a few times in 'Nam, when we were half in the bag from cheap beer and fine reefer. We'd picture ourselves being blown to bits in a rocket attack, and then everyone who'd ever screwed us over showing up at our memorial service, forced to listen to sad songs we'd requested ahead of time to make them feel as rotten as possible. Bunky put "Heartbreak Hotel" at the top of his list.
But real dying we had no reason to talk about. Dying old and alone, no wives, no parents, no kids to give a damn...the kind of dying Bunky might have been thinking about over Zip's casket, his head bowed and his hands clasped at his belt buckle, the bracelets hanging at his wrists like gold handcuffs.
The kind of dying I'd thought about more than once since the last time I talked to Karen.
I'd bumped into her at the Burger King a couple of years after our divorce. She was sitting alone at a sunny window, and when she saw me, she waved me over to her table. She said I looked good, like I'd been taking care of myself. She didn't ask about my drinking, but maybe from the way I looked she didn't need to. And I was glad she didn't ask, because if she had, and I had told her how I'd quit, who knows but she might have gone right back to blaming herself for me boozing in the first place.
Which is how she saw it when we were married. She looked wonderful, as pretty as the day I first met her. Soft around the face, and rosy cheeked in a natural kind of way, almost like pregnant women look even before they begin to show.
It's Karen who'd taught me what to look for in a mother-to-be. Send her into a roomful of women wearing muumuu dresses, and I'd lay money on her picking out the pregnant one every time. I think she lived for the day she'd look in the mirror and see a baby glowing back at her. Seeing her across the table, I couldn't help wondering if she'd finally gotten her wish, but I didn't ask. Just imagine if she hadn't.
When I heard later about her daughter being born, I called to congratulate her. Told her about my earlier suspicions at the Burger King. She said she wished I'd said something then. She thought I'd figured it out and hated her for it. When I asked who's the lucky father, she said she'd done it artificially. Never even met the donor and didn't want to. You ought to come down and see my little girl, she said. She's so beautiful.
Then, out of the blue, she dropped a bombshell on me. Asked me if I ever thought about the last time we made love.
That's something we'd circled around during the divorce, kind of swooped at it like buzzards at some wounded thing that's still twitching enough to scare them off. But talk about it in so many words? No.
And we hadn't talked about how we'd eventually given up on having kids, pretty much abandoned making love altogether. How Karen had quit taking her morning temperature, put away the notebook and colored pens from the night stand. Or her eyes filling up whenever someone else she knew got pregnant.
Or about me coming home late and crooked from the VFW again that last night, her in bed, me falling asleep in the living room watching TV. Or about me waking up to the TV blaring and the room lit up gray like I'm being X-rayed. Me undressing and sneaking into bed beside her, and then her climbing on top of me, all sweet-smelling hair and sharp fingernails and hard wet teeth. And her bearing down on me while I'm growling her name like some caged idiot. Or the way she stroked my face afterwards, smoothed my hair back like she's off alone in a faraway place sculpting something for herself of clay. Maybe crying a little, I never knew for sure.
And I'd never told her about waking up alone in the morning, the shadows of the window curtains rippling across the ceiling. Or the dead quiet then, and knowing she'd finally left me.
We hadn't talked about these things back then. What was she looking for me to say now?
Do you think about it? she asked again. That last time?
Sometimes, I said, hoping to leave it at that.
She went quiet for what seemed a long time, like she was waiting for details. When she finally spoke again, it was in a whisper. I wanted you to know, she said, that I still loved you.
You're with someone you love, maybe walking on the beach like Karen and I used to do, and they tell you they love you, and your whole world lights up. But that night, alone in my apartment, hearing those words from Karen, I don't know that I'd ever been sadder in my life.
Anyway, Bunky crossed himself one more time at Zip's casket, then made a beeline for the door. I caught up with him outside, asked him what the hell's going on? I didn't even know Zip was sick, he said. He should have told me. Why didn't he?
Maybe Zip didn't know it himself, I said. Sometimes things like that just happen. One minute you're here, the next you're dead. Bunky let out a little huff and kicked a stone across the pavement. And besides, I said, what would you have done differently if you'd known he was sick?
We could have talked, Bunky said. We could have goddamn talked.
After we drove out of the parking lot, I kept peeking at Bunky out of the corner of my eye. What signs of Zip's dying heart, I wondered, had he missed? Or had he seen something that scared him and couldn't bring himself to ask Zip if everything was alright with him, if he wanted to talk?
Bunky wanted to go to the track. Zip would want it that way, he said. And he was right. Zip wasn't one to dwell on life's adversities. Korea. Horses he's bet on losing by a nose. Maybe even knowing he's dying. What can't be cured, he used to say, must be endured, and I guessed he wouldn't want Bunky and me mourning him any longer than we had to.
As we're driving to the track, Bunky reached into his blazer pocket and pulled out a fat cigar like the ones you sometimes see horse owners smoking in their private clubhouse boxes. He'd bought the cigar for Zip, he said. Wanted to sneak it into the casket as a keepsake, but got cold feet at the last minute. He said he'd paid seven dollars for it at Ehrlich's Tobacco. The clerk had told him it was the closest thing to a Cuban smoke you could buy legally.
He turned the cigar between his fingers like he didn't know what to do with it, as if wishing he'd gone ahead and slipped it into the casket like he'd planned, or maybe wishing he hadn't waited until Zip was gone to do something nice for him, to let him know how he felt about him.
Bunky reached over and started to slip the cigar into my breast pocket. I don't smoke cigars, but I let him finish. He gave the pocket a little pat, then turned away to gaze out the side window. He sat like that the rest of the way to the track, so still and quiet that I didn't know if I should say something or let him be.
He reminded me of Karen near the end of our marriage. We'd be riding in the car or having dinner out somewhere, making small talk like married people do, and the next moment she'd look away from me and go quiet, like she needed to be alone with her own thoughts.
At the track, Bunky took off for the grandstand entrance ahead of me like a man on an emergency mission. After I picked up a Racing Form at the concession stand, I went looking for him and eventually found him sitting where Zip always sat, the same exact seat.
Every horse I bet found a way to lose, but Bunky didn't make a single bet. Just sat in Zip's seat with his arms folded at his chest like he couldn't care less about what's going on with the horses. I knew Zip was on his mind, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't annoyed.
About the time of the fifth race, I'm walking back from the betting windows and I see Bunky sitting where I'd left him. But his head was bowed and he's crossing himself again. I didn't feel right interrupting him, so I paused and waited for him to be done. When he finally raised his head and settled back in his seat, I joined him, pretending I hadn't seen a thing.
The horses break from the starting gate, and my horse is on top. Turning into the stretch, he looks like a sure winner, and I'm on the edge of my seat rooting him home. But Bunky's sitting with his arms folded and his eyes shut like he's taking a damned snooze. At the sixteenth pole, my horse begins to run out of gas, and as the other horses fly past him I slump back in my seat, rip my ticket up and toss the pieces into the air. When I glance at Bunky, he's smiling at me like Zip used to smile at the two of us when our horses got beat. He didn't say a word, but I knew what he was thinking.
After a time, Bunky said he'd like to leave. Said he was tired and wanted to go to his apartment, maybe take a nap. I said sure, why not? It wasn't like he'd been much company, I'm thinking, glued to Zip's seat and off in another world that apparently didn't include me.
Bunky started talking about Zip the moment we got in my car. He said he'd been thinking about the last few times he and Zip had been at the track together, searching his brain for clues he might have missed about Zip being sick. I reminded him what I'd said earlier, that sometimes things happen and there's nothing you can do about it.
Bunky smiled again. What can't be cured, right?
Pure Zip, I said.
Maybe, Bunky said, but maybe not.
Then I remembered Bunky crossing himself in Zip's seat in the grandstand, and how he'd at long last smiled at me, almost like his old self, when I ripped up my losing ticket. And as I looked at him staring out the car window, kind of whistling through his teeth now, it came to me that he'd proven Zip and me wrong, that he'd found a way to settle things between Zip and himself. I dropped Bunky and my suitcase off at his apartment, told him to go ahead and have his nap and that I'd come back in time for us to go out to dinner together.
Outside Karen's apartment, I put Bunky's cigar on the car seat. Why have Karen believe I'd replaced booze with cigars? I didn't know if I'd find her home, and part of me, I think, hoped I wouldn't. I wished I'd called ahead. Showing up unannounced is what stalkers and drunks do, but ex-husbands ought to know better.
I rang Karen's doorbell, straightened my necktie and smoothed my hair back like a nervous sixteen-year-old on his first date. I heard footsteps approaching, a child's laughter, and then the rattle of the security chain. In a moment, I knew, I would see her little girl. And then, when the time was right, I would ask Karen to forgive me.