As of yesterday, there is a woman on the run: Eudoxie Gilmore, 32, a lifetime resident of Cape Jasmine who up until recently had worked at the Peoples Funeral Home as hairdresser to the deceased. Eudoxie specialized in finger waves, press and curls, and city feathers, earning an annual salary of fifteen thousand dollars which, even in Cape Jasmine, did not stretch very far. For this reason, she was always thinking up business ventures that might improve her station in the world—selling shoe mops, for example, or face vibrators, or body gloves that made a clothed person feel completely naked. However, none of these was in her field of expertise; they showed nothing but her need for whimsy, and little by little she was coasting into poverty.
Having no money was bad, but the real problem was that people could sense it, or anyway they could sense Eudoxie’s desperation. She felt this most strongly in the parlor room after she had styled a corpse and stood by waiting on Mr. Peoples’ and the survivor’s critiques. “But you got Jonetta looking like a hooker!” they’d say, when all Eudoxie had done was come through on an impossible request—that is, to make a defeated-by-cancer dental assistant look famous. How could she explain that? Mr. Peoples looked on sadly; Eudoxie was the kind of woman people enjoyed saying no to. Too much time spent with Eudoxie, and people felt obligated to scold or give begrudging advice. Mr. Peoples: “Your problem, Eudoxie, is that you’re trying to do a home run when all anybody wants from you is a base hit. That’s all. Try to do a base hit.”
After work Eudoxie walked all evening until sunset, just as Cape Jasmine started to take on its particular quality of embittered unreality. Grackles screeched and dipped on invisible slides. The mixture of heat and gasoline gave the townscape a glossy, rolling expression, as though the buildings and shotguns and old time storefronts might melt to the ground with a low, synchronized moan.
Glancing into one of those storefront windows advertising quick title loans, Eudoxie became the last to notice her descent. She saw herself hunched under that shawl of high expectation, with gourd breasts already, wearing fishnets, her work smock, and size ten leather skirt; she saw her almond-shaped head, short hair of purple waves, a set of heavy, bald eyelids that never went all the way up; who was she tired of? Surely not the dead. The living? The ones who lived to complain? Who lived to suffer. Herself? She reflected with fear and surprise: I am from Cape Jasmine and I am hairdresser to the deceased. I live alone, but I have a style. And she was beginning to look desperate—stylish, but desperate.
Desperate?! screamed Eudoxie’s innermost parts. Her heart shot up into the frontal lobe, then down between the hip bones, and back up to its usual place where it rolled around like a tied hog on a spit. When she got home, the rolling slowed enough for Eudoxie to pull her smock over her face and scream.
For the last twelve years she had roomed in a space-heated efficiency on Manor Road with drifters and their brood who considered Eudoxie snooty and odd. Their main objection was to her drapes, which seemed to flourish most unabidingly in the way they broke the continuity of all the others. The neighbors could not associate the decay of the building (which they were noticing once more) with her loud choice of design and material.
Gloomy mist and plant funk covered the apartment. Eudoxie edged in sideways, between the ziplocked sofa, portable dishwasher, and crates of hair products that clouded the room in a sweet, chemical smell. It was dusty and cramped, and a cockroach scuttled boldly up the wall. Eudoxie passed by the closet that spilled multicolored silks onto the bed like a big tongue. From the pile, she chose the kimono. She oiled her scalp and elbows. She clipped her eyebrows and fingernails. She tried looking at herself in the mirror, tried to see and know just how she looked the moment before she’ d caught her own eye. That’s when it hit Eudoxie that she was getting ready. She lay back against the bed, leveled blood drumming her ears. She was getting ready for the unsatisfiable and the dead because in her life there was no in between. The vibrating red light of the sign outside flickered its rays between her eyelids, and somebody in the next apartment was struggling with the clarinet. In a stumbling melody somebody played B-flat but not B over and over, close but not quite, again and again. Eudoxie tried to guessing what note came next in the song, but her imagination threw its hands up. How was it supposed to end?
She got up from the bed, opened a window to air the place, went to the kitchen, and fixed herself a pitcher of sweet tea.
In the first days of September the temperature suddenly dropped to the low eighties and a dark haze moved in from the gulf to stoop motionless over the town. The aberrant change in weather brought on allergy flare-ups, upper respiratory infections, pneumonia, moderate depression. By the fifteenth, business at the Peoples Funeral Home was booming. The back parlor was crowded with five from the asylum, two from the county, and two more from the abandoned house on Fite Road; the last had delivered an asthmatic stray cat Mr. Peoples was too shy to do anything about and a former classmate who’ d taken too much drugs but had died without knowing about it, without knowing even maybe that she was going to die. Eudoxie was canvasing the deceased’s hair with Duranet, the cat at her side, when Mr. Peoples walked in with the sister.
“I see y’all take in strays,” called Wanda Griffin in a casual attempt to instill hard feelings, and without seeing it, Eudoxie drifted toward her voice.
Wanda Griffin moved boldly and unsteadily, dragging her left foot in the back and leading with her cane with the jade handle. She wore a large, monogrammed purse and spoke with her head cocked to the side, a gesture of mockery and relish. “Good for you,” she said, more to the cat than to Eudoxie.
Mr. Peoples nodded and put his hands behind his back where he hoped they would disappear. Besides his timidity, Mr. Peoples’ major features were his wreath of white afro and a potato body that ended with bowed legs and socks with sandals. He wore thick plastic framed glasses behind which his eyes looked like pound keys. And yet, or so therefore, he had a disposable income. It was true, nobody was going to buy you a drink just because you were ugly. Ugly people had to be self-reliant like kitchen appliances. They knew better than anybody that you couldn’t yield unbelievingly to your future. Instead they knew to confront the world courageously and instead of listening to the dream killers they cultivated a hardiness of character, a platinum will that earns them their money if not their keep.
Quiet as it’s kept, Mr. Peoples was the only one who had been ambitious like Eudoxie. He had tried to make something different of the funeral home and had offered celebration funerals: mourners could pose with the deceased boxer in his corner; they could surround their partying mama with canned beers and carnival masks at her last supper. But these ideas did not go over well in the town, and if not for people’s need to pity and forgive, he’ d be out of business. He seemed to be looking back at these failures with resigned passion and bitter acceptance. Then he gave one of his flat line smiles, and said, “I’ll leave you gals to it.”
Wanda Griffin crossed one arm across her middle and eyeballed the parlor. There were too many lilies. Too many lilies and standing sprays which carried a rich, faintly corrupt sweetness, cut only slightly by formaldehyde. They were tacky in their excess, their bursting, spraying cores outrageous in their implications. Dressing up a death was silly, and the baldheaded girl in the leather skirt—truly, she did not have the personality to carry either—was responsible. For revenge, Wanda Griffin watched Eudoxie until Eudoxie looked away.
Still, to be gawked at was flattering. Eudoxie might never admit it, but it was this sensation precisely that informed her best work. Gesturing toward the dead, she whispered, “I gave her a style.”
“Oh?” Wanda Griffin brought her free hand to her chest, flaunting a remarkable ring.
“I parted her hair and fluffed it in the back to give it some volume,” Eudoxie said, staring.
Wanda Griffin’s ring held a raw silver nugget about three times the size a moral conscience might allow.
“Then I clipped and bumped her bangs.”
On top of the ring was an onyx the size of a quail egg.
“And then I set some ringlets on both sides.”
There were tiny diamonds on the tips of each prong that clawed around the stone.
“The color, length, and glitter—I hope you’ll agree—are in accordance with your directions.”
Along the band, shards of tourmaline, amethyst, and quartz threw prisms everywhere; Eudoxie bugged her eyes, charmed by this ring and its blatant disregard for public appearance.
Wanda Griffin followed her own high-sailing nose. “She actually looked worse when she was alive,” she said. “But no. Just make her a wig. Black bob, chin length. Think you can handle that?” The cat leaned into Eudoxie’s leg and looked up with large, wet eyes that seemed to say, The lady asked you a question.
Eudoxie pulled up the sheet, concealing the day’s work. It occurred to her then that at the end of every day, win or lose, she had to cover up all that she had done. And worse, those efforts would soon after get burned or buried. There was no other way.
Well now, she thought, pinching the gauzy cotton between her fingers, there’s really nothing a person can change at will. She wants to reassemble what’s ugly, assert her freedom. She can’t change the way she naturally holds her face, or what time she makes it home at night. Still, she makes a gesture to do something. She purchases a wonderfully ugly ring. She hangs a pair of loud drapes. It was, Eudoxie knew it was, her desperate bid for freedom. Clearing her throat, she tried to shake the idea from her mind because it made her feel too smart and evil to think everybody was the same.
Wanda Griffin asked if it would take very long to make a new wig but “correct your first attempt” was how she put it. When Eudoxie told her the job would take a few hours but that she’ d finish before daylight, Wanda Griffin seemed very pleased. “Gilmore, I just couldn’t be like you. I could never do that type of job. I’m like the sun—cap the job and to hell with it.”
“You can say that,” said Eudoxie, “until the sun comes up again.” She felt a certain tension in the pit of her stomach, to be so watched, in the silence of disapproval. The cat looked from Wanda Griffin to Eudoxie, and Eudoxie to Wanda Griffin. Then he went, tail high, to a corner of the room.
“These days,” said Wanda Griffin, “it’s near impossible to have an everyday conversation. I don’t have to tell you I’ll be expecting that wig tomorrow.”
Eudoxie felt a smile creeping. “But you did.”
As Wanda Griffin exited the parlor, her slow-moving backside reminded Eudoxie of the lopsided yellow cakes in the front window of the bakery—that right-left shuffle resembled them squatting and sloping on multi-tiered stands. Eudoxie and the cat could not look away.
Later, while working on the wig, Eudoxie ransacked her brain’s vault of business plans. What about a reform school for stray cats? Franchises would crop up across the country. They would learn to walk on their hind legs while balancing little New Testament bibles on their heads. A strict dieting plan would be enforced in an effort to make them all so sleek and slim that they seemed to disappear. The vision made Eudoxie’s knees tingle.
How about a Lover-on-Loan service? Already the skeptical tongues of her customers were wagging. “Isn’t every lover a temporary one?” they said. And, “How is your business different?” Her lovers appeared when you most needed them coming from only God knows where. Their motivation was to see you get the look of love in your eyes again, assuming you still had it.
What about a store that sold artificial wishbones? There were only so many wishbones in the world but an innumerable amount of wishes. As she tied knots and threaded the caps, she became full of wishes. She worked through the night, bursting with dreams.
Eudoxie was seated at the workbench fixing the wig to the mannequin’s head when her dreams started to come true. A demon glowing purple stumbled through the parlor, raking his curls frontward with an ivory pick, eyeballing everything, and turning circles that seemed more about leisure than confusion. He stood six feet two inches tall and had a waist like the Devil’s. He wore a suit from the old days, a pair of clanking books, and gold necklaces that cascaded down his chest. Cocked opposite to his barber’s part sat a torn up top hat.
Absently he scratched his face; some time ago the bone over his right eye had been opened up in a fight, and sewn so poorly that ages later, you could still see the cross-stitching. Turning another circle, he faced an arrogant cat sitting sentinel beside a woman who was holding a mass of hair, herself terrified, but retaining color.
“Lovely to meet you too,” he said before flopping onto the settee. “Allow me to introduce myself. My name was Collester Royale and I am pleased to be at your service. You got problems, I hear, the type that I just love. I’m what those worst than me used to call a problem solver. Therefore, I do encourage you, Mizz, to bring every one of yours to me—on the condition that you understand that I may not be of any help at all.”
Eudoxie did not laugh. “I don’t believe I’m seeing you,” she said. “I don’t even believe in ghosts.”
“I know.” Collester slouched into his purple aura. “It’s a trip, right?”
When the cat slinked by, he leaned down and ran a deadening hand from the head to the tail. The cat toppled to the floor, hard as lead, the fur turned a lovely shade of green. Glancing up from the accident, Collester took a tone of forced formality: “With and without the breath of life, old Collester always did a heavy hand. Sorry for your loss.” He raised a piece of rug over the cat and lowered the carpet flat against the floor. “Surely you’ve encountered a personality type like mines. Every family has that one. You might think of me as an ancestor if that helps.”
Eudoxie eyed the rug and said, “It doesn’t.”
“No. I don’t guess it would. But how about some cash, Mizz Boss?” Collester thumbed the glow from his chin and edged forward one cheek at a time. “How about some actual help for you. Spiritual help from yours truly. How about some cash, Mizz Boss?”
He rose up, tugging on his lapels, the flowers behind him swooning with the air conditioner. Outside the windows the fog was a humid solid gray, more blinding than the night. It was just there, looming and blocking like something that deserved an apology.
“The sounds of your most desperate ideas,” Collester said, “put the animal spirit in me again—just when I thought I was long finished with all my earthly carousings. Now Mizz Boss, I understand you got a lot of ideas, enough to fill a garbage heap, but throw this one on top: you and old Collester, we going into business. We—make that I—is gone shave the heads of these here corpses for our brand new line of luxury wigs. Call it the Cape Jasmine Collection. I will take care of the dirty work, as is my pleasure, and you my dear will do the styling. Between your need for status and mine for vulgarity, I believe we can have it all. And so can the discerning consumer—for the right price.”
More often than not, Eudoxie resisted introspection without effort, but now as she watched the ghost thief reclining on the settee with crossed ankles, scratching where nobody scratches, eyeing the room with surprise and hostility while filling it up with his impossible presence, she wondered, What was the difference between stealing and selling anyhow?
Take hair, for example, which was dead regardless of whether the person it had sprouted from was living or not. And in the case of the Peoples Funeral Home, it was hair that belonged to nobody since the one it had belonged to was now dead. If something belonged to no one, could you really steal it?
Collester made impatient noises; it was time to come on with the come on. She had the suspicion that rocking around in her answer, in the difference, was her eternal soul. Eudoxie pursed her lips and gave the nod—and she immediately regretted it. From the way Collester smiled, she knew he had already pegged her for a woman who was easily convinced.
Collester conjured their line of wigs and arranged them across the table so that the Styrofoam heads faced Eudoxie. Their expressions on anticipating the makeover of a lifetime seemed sweet and grateful. Eudoxie set direction giving wings; she pinned updos that exploded with thick, glossy curls; she stacked twists and braids in the shape of ancient temples. Way after the haze of Duranet cleared, she remembered that she had expected to feel guilty.
Before sunrise, the catalog for the Cape Jasmine Collection of Stylish Luxury Wigs reported its first three orders. By the time Mr. Peoples walked in, hugging a sack of discount cat food, five more wigs had sold. At noon Wanda Griffin returned to the parlor to hand over an envelope fat with twenties and demand two wigs for herself. The first was a perfect replica of her everyday press and curl, but the second wig, twisted and knotted over her forehead, resembled an orgy of cobras. Seeing her reflection in the mirror, Wanda Griffin told Eudoxie, “You are a dream.” Even in her compliments, she sounded like she was cursing.
Collester stood back to get a good look at Eudoxie. “You almost got it back, Mizz Boss. That look, I mean.” He had an awkward tenderness that embarrassed both of them. “Thanks for reminding me about it.”
Later, Eudoxie walked home feeling her heart beating in her fingers and lips. Without cars on Liberty Drive, she could smell the salt of the gulf. A fog descended on the town but sunset filled the sky too, with a spray of desert roses, tiger’s eye. She caught sight of herself in the store windows—how young she still looked—and of people in the background looking too. Something was different, their expressions seemed to say. Eudoxie stomped with character and style, her gaze directed just above the heads of each person that passed by.
Of course Collester followed her, watching from Cape Jasmine’s prime locations: the bank, the elementary school, the four-screen movie theater, the bus stop, the church, the stop sign that marked one side of town from the another. He trailed like a spinning asterisk in his circling, stumbling way down the left and right sides of the street, more or less in a row, as he travelled east:
* * *
* * *
Eudoxie closed the door to her bedroom. This happiness, one she would never feel again, made her chest burn and her legs go loony. But the feeling was already melting into sadness. It elbowed its way inside her, threatening to come out her ears and nose. She was happy and miserable, which horrified her in the most beautiful way. She fell back against the bed, watching dazzling red light flicker across the room. She knew, even if nobody else did, that she was a success.
Just when she’ d forgotten about him here came Collester riding into her bedroom on a wave of purple mist, cradling a bottle of André Spumante and two coupe glasses. He grinned hungrily, revealing a pair of gold incisors studded with diamonds. Above them his eyes remained sober, and the scar on the side of his face inched vertically like a satin slug.
Pointing at the scar Eudoxie asked him, “How’ d you die?”
“Like this,” said Collester crossing his eyes, throwing up don’t-shoot-hands, pointing his tongue. “Everybody dies the same way, Mizz Boss. Only the living have trouble accepting that. Don’t you think it’s better to know how I lived?”
In the manner of so many dead crooks who liked to talk, Collester Royale’s history was short and knotted. Nobody seems to know the year he was born or the day he’ d had to turn over his body, so his claim went uncontested that, a mere two centuries before, he had been a twenty-year-old thieving genius who “by hand” created jobs where they’ d been denied and had become something like Cape Jasmine’s local celebrity. Early in life Collester noticed two things about himself, and this was all he’ d ever learned: he loved to deceive and he hated to be alone. So he ran with a ring of juvenile pickpockets, then burglars and killers for pay before establishing a consulting firm of his own. Before his twenty-fifth birthday he had apprenticed Cape Jasmine’s most accomplished little thieves. He liked to see them lowering a piano from a window or tossing some human-object lakeside the way he’ d instructed so it didn’t make a big splash. Still, he believed that theft was the worst sin, the only sin. Whether taking a block of cheese or taking a life, it was all the same. “And that’s why everybody does it,” he said, hoping Eudoxie could relate.
Before Eudoxie had ever been thought of, Collester had demonized himself by virtue of his own loyalty and admiration. He killed for his friends—even when they didn’t ask him to. Eventually a gang of meek-looking prostitutes poisoned him to settle a score he had a hard time remembering, even now. Collester did remember how sweet they looked when telling lies.
His ear twitched with a realization. “I guess my real problem is that I could always remain positive,” he said. Eudoxie scrunched the majority of her face.
That wasn’t the point. The point was that centuries of grief had delivered him to Eudoxie’s bedroom. Some cosmic desperation had brought them together tonight. Sitting beside her he placed his hand on her knee with an unbearable delicacy, so tender that she could not look away. When she turned to Collester, he pulled a double take and asked if she used a brand of lotion that had been discontinued for one hundred and ten years.
Eudoxie poured more champagne down her gullet, released the muscles thronged in her shoulders, when her shoulder strap fell she didn’t bother to pull it back up again.
“Should we celebrate?” he said.
Under his gaze, Eudoxie felt her skin prickle. “We shouldn’t,” she said, and removed his ghost claw from her knee. “Not until we finish this bottle.”
The complaints began the second week of October. In Eudoxie’s mail with the sales pages was letter after letter criticizing the quality of her wigs. “Your wigs,” wrote Cape Jasmine’s most belligerent, “smell like church lady perfume and embalming fluid.” They wrote, “You sent me a possessed rat’s nest.” There were three from Wanda Griffin alone. But between the letters were no late bills! These were only threats from folks who she’ d long suspected to be, not unlike her former self, of little consequence. She smiled to herself with the false excitement of a flight attendant. That’s what happened when you got famous.
To Eudoxie’s horror and satisfaction, Wanda Griffin called the parlor requesting a conversation. Something in Wanda Griffin’s tone told Eudoxie that she was gesturing impotently and also that she was wearing one of her purchases. In order to get the full effect, Eudoxie reached for the nearest wig, a wavy triangular thing with thick bangs, and placed it crookedly on her head.
“First of all,” Wanda Griffin was saying. “I work hard for my money. HA-Ruhd. So I expect the product to match the product description. Do you understand?”
“Do I!” said Eudoxie.
She slouched back with her knees out, taking up the maximum amount of space, and she listened amusedly while preening the bangs of her wig. When a curl came loose, she blew it from the palm of her hand like a bubble or a blessing.
“And another thing,” Wanda Griffin was saying. “I got pull in this community. Don’t think I won’t put the word out about you.”
Wanda Griffin’s threats were having an effect on Eudoxie. She returned each complaint with a sigh or a soundless eye roll the way police officers and store managers had done with her. Slouching deeply, Eudoxie pretended that Wanda Griffin deserved this kind of treatment. Eudoxie pretended that she had always been the one with all the power, and it was second nature to say something like, “If you could take the emotion out of your tone . . .” or “I’m truly sorry you feel that way.”
When Wanda Griffin’s voice came to her again, she imagined a burned square of cornbread and laughed. This caused the actual Wanda Griffin to pause. “What’s that you said, Gilmore?” Wanda Griffin demanded. “Are you laughing at me?”
Eudoxie realized how impossible it had become for Wanda Griffin to be effectively rude to her. Appeals to her sense of guilt and shame, direct attacks on her character and reputation—they did nothing to her. This realization brought an abrupt end to the conversation, and Eudoxie hung up the phone.
On the day Eudoxie was to go down in the township’s history, she arrived late to work and sailed into the parlor room of the Peoples Funeral Home sporting a new coat: fox fur dyed black and lined in red satin, the style of a fancy hearse. Mr. Peoples hung the coat on a wooden hanger and stepped to the side to let her into his office.
“Our profession,” he began, “is an ugly but necessary one. Nobody cares for an outlandish funeral. Or a beautiful corpse. We only need to make that final goodbye less ugly. Only thing anybody wants is for our work to be serviceable. Adequate.”
“We do our best,” Eudoxie said.
“If ain’t nobody told you all year, I’m telling you now. You’re good at what you do,” Mr. Peoples told Eudoxie. “And you have plenty, is what I’m getting at. You got your fur coat. You don’t need corpse hair.”
Eudoxie’s eyes were quick. “Beg your pardon?”
“Begging,” said Mr. Peoples, “ain’t it all you’ve been doing, young lady. You’ve been stealing from me, and it is going to stop.”
“You’re accusing me of stealing?” said Eudoxie. “From you?”
Mr. Peoples edged slowly forward. “Let me tell you something, baby doll. Everything in here belongs to me. See them pamphlets of encouragement? Them little green bibles? Them CDs with the thunderstorm instrumental? That little corner by the air conditioner where you set up and make trouble? That’s mine. That fleet of hearses in the driveway is mine. Them candy painted caskets and the five percent interest is mine too. And until 10 a.m. Saturday morning, you better believe that corpse is mine—from their split ends to their weary feet. Everything in here belongs to me.”
“You know what,” Eudoxie said wagging a finger, “I’m starting to think you’re a freakazoid.”
Mr. Peoples crossed his arms and shrugged. “You the one mumbling to yourself, scalping dead people. I only ask that you be fair.”
“You want a cut.”
“If not twenty percent, how much is the supplier of not-for-sale hair worth?”
“You?” Eudoxie’s eyebrows climbed into her forehead. “My supplier?”
“And your warehouse manager, which ought to count for something. Thirty percent? I’m also your confidant. Your protector from law enforcement, grieving families, public opinion. How much is that worth, baby doll?”
“Why don’t I quit?” said Eudoxie. “Why don’t I just open my own shop?”
“Because you’re a hometown girl,” Mr. Peoples said. “You don’t think you got the stuff. You will continue to sell your wigs, and you will pay me half. If you try and keep the money, I’ll call the police—and it’s no telling what they’ll do. Maybe you’ll try and run, as a challenge. But like I said, you’re a hometown girl. You wouldn’t even know where to go. Maybe you’ll be the one to call the police with a complaint—the complaint being that I cheated you out of your money. But they’ll believe me because I’m not the one wearing all them loud clothes, cutting hair from dead bodies.”
“Loud clothes,” Eudoxie said. Her voice was fractured and airy.
As the self-righteousness wore off, Mr. Peoples uncrossed his arms and smiled weakly. “I like you, Eudoxie, and I admire your ambition. I’m only talking what’s fair.” He stood up and began to pour a bowl of cat food, dismissing her.
If anybody’s a crook, Eudoxie did not say, it’s you, you fat potato. And that old scratchy cat’s been dead. I watched it die myself.
Collester no longer lay cross-ankled on the settee while picking debris from his molars with a long pinkie fingernail. He now drifted from wall to wall clutching his necklaces and watching. He did not start a conversation with Eudoxie, but nodded placidly when she told him about Mr. Peoples blackmailing her for a percentage of their business. She shook her head at the thought of it, Mr. Peoples threatening anyone.
“We got another problem, Mizz Boss,” said Collester. He floated to the back corner of the parlor by the air conditioner and wilting flowers. “Wanda Griffin been calling.”
“So, I’m going to need five more wigs,” Eudoxie said anyway. “To cover new expenses.”
Collester released his necklaces. “You heard what I said, Mizz Boss? Old girl is making a ruckus like she got something against you. Now if it’s anybody that can help, it’s me. But you got to let me know if it’s going to be a dust up.”
“Could be,” Eudoxie whispered. She turned to a wall of canna lilies, unable to face Collester. “She’s always been so ugly to me.”
“I can make it so she’s nothing to nobody,” said Collester’s voice.
“I don’t know.”
A pause. “Yes,” Eudoxie said.
“You got it, Mizz Boss,” said Collester rubbing his hands together. “Okay. Say no more.”
Eudoxie turned slightly, giving him the corner of her eye. “And another thing. Stop following me around.” Somewhere in her recent past, she vaguely recalled a purple asterisk spinning recklessly. “Seems like every time I look up, there you are. At the post office, at the park, outside the grocery store. Why?”
Collester’s frown deepened. “It’s only ’cause you don’t invite me nowhere.”
“Just quit it.”
“Well, where am I spose to go?”
“How about the bus stop,” she said quickly, thinking that once she paid Mr. Peoples and took care of Wanda Griffin she would have no use for buses. Looking once more into the future she saw herself riding in the backseat of an expensive mulberry sedan. “Wait for me there if you want to chat.” An easiness came to her voice as though she were already reclining on a large sofa, swaddled in furs. On her left hand she wore a big gaudy ring. In her right she held a silver-wrapped chocolate bar that melted down her arm.
Half an hour later, Eudoxie bounded down the steps of the Peoples Funeral Home in a daze, pausing in daylight that belongs to no one. She stood in the town square in bewilderment, uncertain whether she should browse and buy now that her life had been transformed. She stopped at the window of Rosalie’s Cakes, selected a chocolate bar and a strawberry milkshake. Eudoxie did not even like milkshakes, but she was curious to taste one that cost nine dollars. Even when it came to selecting a milkshake, Eudoxie was already a new woman. A woman emboldened by success. In one hand Eudoxie held the chocolate bar which was already beginning to melt, and with the other hand she brought the milkshake to her mouth, feeling a hope more fierce than any pain she had ever known.
At the consignment store she chose the largest ring in the display case, and since it didn’t fit, she held her hand in a tight fist. In Drucilla’s Closet she picked a patent leather purse with the first letter of her name emblazoned on the front. She walked by the store windows on Manor with her new reflection moving alongside her like an auntie, at once scolding and admiring who she was becoming. Eudoxie began to suspect that somehow she had stopped belonging to herself. She imagined smaller and smaller versions of herself lined up next to one another as though for display. At once they unscrewed the heads of the Eudoxie that came before, dove in, and disappeared. As for the world around her, everything became so abundant and overwhelming that Eudoxie felt like laughing. But she didn’t laugh; her eyes glistened and winced in the sunlight reflecting off the clouds.
“—Say, Gilmore,” called Wanda Griffin. She was half a block behind but drawing close, pulling her large monogrammed purse across her body, and wobbling because of the cane. “I need to speak to you about that hair you sold me.”
Eudoxie dropped the milkshake and her gaze, and was already moving into the stream of traffic. People were turning around, stepping aside to let her through. Eudoxie picked up her pace at the next intersection. When she looked over her shoulder, Wanda Griffin was almost upon her.
“Mark-ass-mark, you’re scamming people. She’s scalping dead people, y’all! She’s scalping dead people, y’all!”
Reaching into her purse, Wanda Griffin pulled out a matted wig and pitched it forward, an octopus spinning deliciously. She threw the other wig, hitting Eudoxie square in the back. Eudoxie stopped in the pose of someone caught in a falling building. “I made that,” she said and scooped the wig off the sidewalk, stuffing it into her bag. She picked up the other wig and pinned it to her chest, a spongy bunch of limbs pushing through her grip. As Eudoxie hurried down the block she could sense people looking, all of Cape Jasmine watching.
At the corner of Liberty and John Lizer, a fog came down like a gauzy linen with transparent pleats. Then the curtain parted and Collester stumbled out, drawing his fists from his pockets and glancing up with the knowing look of an outed pervert. He stomped a clanking steel-tipped boot as if he intended to squash a cockroach and kept on stomping until he caught the sharp point of Wanda Griffin’s shadow. In one whooshing movement he hugged her from behind in a desperate lover’s embrace, his heavy hand eclipsing the bulb of her throat. As he choked her she looked only where the hand directed her to look. She was swallowing at daylight, the green veins leaping up her jaw. At the end she fell hard against the sidewalk.
Eudoxie and Collester found their way blocked by a flocking mass of people who drew as near to the dead woman as they wanted. Hesitant to face the beady eyes that were already looking into hers, Eudoxie lingered and was shouldered by Cape Jasmine’s least wanted: drunks, wanderers, dog breeders, gossips, and a mob of the dirty little chaps who always finish the edges of a crowd. One of the children snapped off a piece of Eudoxie’s chocolate bar and ate it while watching her. Other children lurched forward. Some of them were also willing to grab a piece and others were willing to do a lot more.
Eudoxie turned down an alley with Collester trailing behind. Each leaned back against a brick wall, no longer speaking. There was nothing more to say, and they had not figured out where else to go.
“You outstep your bounds,” she said. “That’s your problem—one of them.”
“I know it,” said Collester too quickly, and Eudoxie realized that he had been waiting a long time for her to scold him. “I was always like that too, if it’s any consolation. I want you to know I still consider you the boss. Still. You’re the best boss I ever had. Plus, I really like you.”
“You’ve killed a woman,” said Eudoxie, “and that’s all you have to say?” She tried not to look at Collester, but saw him anyway. She felt sick, afraid, and flattered. More than anything, she felt flattered. “That’s all you have to say for yourself?”
“No,” said Collester, “but I was hoping to say it later.” He knelt down, saying Eudoxie was the best person he’ d ever met, and he asked her to spend eternity with him. Just as she realized what was happening, he presented Wanda Griffin’s ring with a curled finger still within it.
Something must have shown on Eudoxie’s face, because Collester dropped his shoulders and said, “What? What?”