Nurse Pigeon found Kidstuff dead in the dirt road a little after midnight. She squatted down and laid two fingers on his wrist and held up a piece of bottleglass from the road in front of his mouth, but already she knew he was dead by the way two snails of moonlight turned in the whites of his half-cocked eyes. He had on his best lizard paddock boots and a new turquoise dress shirt with a white bottle print that turned out when you looked up close to resemble tiny naked girls. His dove gray, seventy-five-dollar cowboy hat was lying in the ditch.
Nurse Pigeon could tell from his fancy-man clothes that he hadn't thought about dying or even being sick when he left. She found that hard. Death ought not to sneak up on a thoughtful person like Kidstuff. In life you wished to see what was coming to you, which had nothing to do with where you were going. You weren't going anywhere. Nurse Pigeon didn't hold with that churchy philosophy. She had had a scientific education and knew when you were dead you were dead.
It was a Saturday night in late May and the weather had been unusually fine. Kidstuff must have taken sick at the racetrack and tried to make it home to Nurse Pigeon, who had finally gone down the lane to see why the dogs were barking. It touched her deeply that he had made it home, even if the long walk had finished him, even if his body had ended up lying in Little Rockcamp Run, county road 80, and only his fingers touching the post with the late Weems Pigeon's blue mailbox on it.
Kidstuff was a blacksmith by trade, with arms knotted like rope and a leathery hide from working all year long in the weather on the dirt strip between shedrows. A kid-sized man with a slow, tilted smile, he had always been liked, and not only by women. A blacksmith is one of the few at the track in business for himself alone. Kidstuff made nor man nor woman feel like a two-bit flop, though there were plenty in Charles Town who met that description, and people said he could even work for Frances Blinky Cornford without ruining his good name, for a hood needs a decent blacksmith the same as anybody else. Kidstuff always had all the work he wanted, but as far as work went, he never was trying to corner the market. He was out there in the sun and wind almost every day with his farrier's box and tools, but why, he would ask, add ten more horses to his rounds when he couldn't hold onto a dollar with a pair of firetongs?
That he was not jealous of every sawbuck added to Kidstuff's popularity, especially since he did not think himself too good to gamble. Plenty of times he worked on the cuff, for nothing at all in front until a horseman's luck changed, and now and then he found out this jeff was trying to win with some old stalwart he'd been saving away, finally running him where he belonged. "Going to let my mama here run tomorrow?" Kidstuff would smile, hammer in hand, from the shadow under the long dark belly. "She got a shot if she don't come up lame," the one in the porkpie hat might shrug coyly. But from time to time the horseman said, "She'll win, that's from me to you, cowboy," and the next evening Kidstuff would stand at the post parade and try to make out from the lilt in her feet if she had been properly medicated. Just because a trainer told you he had sincerely decided to win didn't mean he would win, and plenty of times Kidstuff went down with him.
Kidstuff hadn't been looking well lately, but the idea there was no life left in his agile body came to Nurse Pigeon as a shock. She had loved Kidstuff a long time, even after he confessed she was no longer everything to him as she once had been, and he would start, he could not help himself, chasing other women. Ruth Pigeon had always been a big girl, and now, it was true, she was plain fat. She wore loose flowered dusters without belts, or white uniform tops shaped like pillowcases over pants with elastic waistbands. As for how she looked any more, she had decided a few years ago to put it out of her mind, and she had. She reminded herself that for some of those terrible midlife diseases you had a better chance if you saw them coming and had some padding on you. And anyway she didn't care to take diet pills at her age. It wasn't restful.
Nurse Pigeon had enjoyed her share of Kidstuff's company all the same. She took care of him when he was sick, or pie-eyed on bootleg whiskey and goofers, or tapped out. Sometimes he slept on the foldout sofa in her living room, though by the time he showed up at night he might be in no shape to unfold it. When he did come into a roll, he made sure Nurse Pigeon had her stake -- maybe two or three times a year.
They were true friends, though now she was sorry she had let him borrow away the last grand of the 3000-dollar savings account she had started up for the two of them in 1956 from what was left of Weems Pigeon's death benefit, one dizzy summer when there were seventeen-year locusts and they almost got married. She regretted handing it over even to save Kidstuff from having his pretty nose and jaw broke for a bad debt, because, after all, he was going to die in a week anyhow. But how could she have known he would die, though it's true his eyes had a yellowish cast and for months he hadn't eat anything but boiled eggs and toast and fifteen-cent racetrack pizza? She had seen that small wiry type of hard-drinking gambler last for years and years without taking in any type of solid nourishment whatsoever. Sure he'd have been mad if she'd said no, but she knew him so well she could bear by now to have Kidstuff mad at her for a week, even if it was his last week.
Nurse Pigeon had worked like a man all her life. She had ended up in a woman's profession, but it was always the hard cases the county sent her to -- that bricklayer who had a tumor growing on his brain that gave him the idea he was flying off his bed and out the window. And half a dozen other big laboring men who taken sick all of a sudden and had to be lifted on and off the pot like babies, and of course some of them didn't like it and would wrassle her like a gorilla.
She had always figured that when Kidstuff finally passed, she would comfort herself with a trip to a faraway place with palm trees. Palm trees were a thing she had never seen. She would put a wide line, not black, but broken diamondy white like sunshine through palm trees, between this life and that. She wouldn't even swim, she had heard the South Seas were warm as a bath tub and full of sharks. Moreover, swimming wasn't restful. For two weeks she would lie in a hammock between two palm trees and comely brown boys would fan her and wait on her hand and foot. Then she could go on alone.
But now it turned out that, speaking strictly of money, Kidstuff would be no more good to her dead than he ever was alive. This was hard, very hard, and when she gazed at Kidstuff lying there on the bone-white dirt he seemed to be shrinking from the meanness of it. To be worth nothing to an old friend in the end was too low: for Nurse Pigeon to go right on working like she always had was too cold to his memory. Right then she saw the correct thing to do.
But first she went through his pockets, for he hadn't definitely told her he'd gotten around to straightening that old debt with her thousand, and even if he had she wouldn't put it past him to hold out a few yards on Two-Tie or anyone else if something good was running.
And sure enough, she found a dispiriting thing -- a one-inch-high bundle of fifty dollar parimutuel tickets from Thursday's fifth race at Pocono Downs, the pink stack wrapped in a rubber band, and a stub from a round-trip Greyhound ticket to Scranton, P.A. She threw them in the ditch in disgust. The rubber band busted and they blew about the bottom of the culvert and lost themselves in the tangled suckers on its bank.
Whereupon she really had to wonder, though Kidstuff hadn't been looking well lately, though last month he had wandered to the kitchen door and puked into the dark garden with a terrible silky ease as though he didn't even feel it, all the same she had to ask herself if she could be one hundred percent sure this death was due to natural causes or if some discontented creditor had not helped him out of this life. She reflected on Two-Tie Samuels, who had the reputation of being a square dealer, though certainly he had to keep a little low-grade muscle on call in his line of work. Two-Tie might be seriously out of patience with Kidstuff, who had seemed in a deep hole of late, even apart from what he owed. Of late he'd be sitting at Nurse Pigeon's kitchen table at two in the morning with the Telegraph spread out over his cold greasy toast that had one little half-moon bit out of it. Night after night he had combed the racing cards of dinky tracks and county fairs in Ohio and Pennsylvania for a sure thing he could horn in on. "I hear Blinky's got an old stakes horse from Cucaracha Downs or somewhere. They're hiding him on a farm back of Middleway, going to drop him in for nothing one day when nobody's looking. But I'm looking." "It ain't healthy to bust into somebody else's game," Nurse Pigeon had warned him. For that could make a person hot. But hot enough to kill? Nurse Pigeon knelt down and examined her dear one for a sign of foul play. He did not look banged around. He did not even look scared. It was something about the way the wild honey eyes just floated, fixed in one place: he looked cut loose, and satisfied to be so.
You can't keep a-hold of ten dollars? Three weeks ago she had asked Kidstuff to pick her up a sack of chicken and a six pack on his way home from the track, and tried to hand him a ten-dollar bill, but he wouldn't take her money. I'm a-going down the drain, he had said, and he had. If it wasn't for the half in hock, I wouldn't be here at all. Of course if he had taken her money, he would have had to come home to Nurse Pigeon with the chicken. Kidstuff did not always intend on coming home to Little Rockcamp Run anymore. His favorite dolly lived in the Horseman's Motel just to the south of the backside fence. His second best girl lived in town. He had never had any trouble locating women who would take an interest in his welfare. He still looked like a handsome youth who had fallen in a tanner's vat, not much different in death than in the contrary condition. His skin was red-brown like a chestnut and drawn tight over the bones -- you could say he was baby-faced right down to the skeleton. He had always struck Nurse Pigeon as refined, even delicate, at least compared to her, and she could easily have leaned down and kissed his parted lips and the white teeth winking through them. He was a man who had never had a bad smell about him, and somehow even after falling on his face one night down a complete flight of stairs in the old building of the Horseman's Motel, and once, on the gravel service road between the two tracks, getting hit from behind by a lady in a station wagon who had lost big, he still had all his pretty teeth.
She might have kissed him, but instead she took hold of his fancy paddock boots and carefully drug his legs out into the road. She sank down in the dirt next to him, slung his head and chest like a baby over her shoulder, and clawed her way back up the post with the Pigeon family mailbox on it. He was a clumsy bundle more than a heavy one: his sharp little bones pressed into her like springs from bad upholstery. She winced but shuffled all the way up the lane with him and unrolled him into the backseat of the rusted out Grand Prix before she remembered about the muffler- all that racket would not do -- then grasped once more the purple lizard bootheels, a little less patiently and tenderly this time, so that his head bounced from the running board into the blue-rocked lane, and his eyes appeared to roll up half in his head like a broken babydoll's. "Jesus lead me to the cross," she muttered, trying to maintain a certain respect. But it was better to realize Kidstuff was nothing but a busted suitcase by now, empty but proof of his hard traveling.
In the other car, the little Volkswagen, she had nowhere to stuff him where she could hope to get him out again by herself except for the seat beside her: so she stood on the driver's seat and, with her back braced against the roof of the car, placed her two hands on the top of his head and pressed down as hard as she could, till his knees popped forward and the skull full of sweet black curls sank down out of sight.
And then she took the old logger's road that came down into Charles Town the back way, over Bushrod Hill, where no other car would venture at this hour. She went slow, you had no choice but to go slow down the slick-ditched red clay roadbed, so that she wouldn't reach the service drive between the motel and the two racetracks until at least three o'clock in the morning. She knew from Kidstuff that Rose Dewglass crawled under the fence from the backside of Shenandoah Downs around eleven, opened up a bottle of Portagee red, and at midnight went down like a rock sinker, you could not wake her with a fire horn, till three thirty when she sat up in the bedclothes with her wide-open blue bottleglass eyes staring at the snowy TV screen. Then you could talk sense to her, Kidstuff said. I bet you was talking sense into her, Nurse Pigeon remarked. Kidstuff said that wasn't the point. The point was you could wager your last dollar on this routine, which he would have liked to do, but since Nurse Pigeon would not take the bet and there was nobody else to whom he would divulge a ladyfriend's secrets, he never could figure out a way. Whyever do you tell me this, Nurse Pigeon had thought but not said. Alas, there was nothing he might not tell her, his true friend, that last sorry and dwindling year.
Rose Dewglass had the one-room-plus-dinette clear at the tail end of the new pre-fab motel block, spitting distance from the racetrack fence. So Nurse Pigeon knew what to do: she backed up the Volkswagen into the thicket of piss-elm and serviceberry that grew along the fence, reached across Kidstuff to open his door, and then planted her pink mocassins against his side and pushed with her stout calves until his shoulders tilted north out of the car and his right arm caught in the bushes. Whereupon she hurried around the car and, hooking his limp arm around her neck, half dragged, half shoved him on her hip through the damp weeds. "Damn you, Eugene, pick up them feet," she stage-whispered, in case an insomniac was spying on them from the darkness behind a pair of gray-glowing drapes. She wondered where she had got the name Eugene; she didn't know a single person named Eugene.
At last they arrived at a little quilted metal door that reminded Nurse Pigeon of the toilet in a Greyhound. She managed to twist the knob and knee the sticky door across the yellow cat-pee smelling shag rug, and just as she unloaded Kidstuff through the opening with a swing of her hip, she heard a boing and a squeeze of soap opera music went off in her chest. But it was only four foot of metal stripping waving over her head like a magic wand. The pointy toe of Kidstuff's lizard boot had forked sideways and caught in the sardine-can door jamb, and the rest of him unrolled like a camp mattress into the living room, except his head, which came down in the dinette in a pile of Super Shoppers, still rolled up with the red rubberbands around their middles.
Nurse Pigeon was out of breath from hauling Kidstuff even this far, and now that he was lying face down on loopy wall-to-wall carpeting, she couldn't make him slide. She locked his head, or rather his skinny neck, under one arm with the round knob of his skull sticking out frontwards, and pushed off like a mule, letting her whole weight fall forward. That pulled his boots over the threshold. At last she was able to close the door behind them. The electric clock on the stove said 3:24. Of course stove clocks were always out of whack, it might even be slow, she realized, and her heart began to pound. She and Kidstuff might not make it to the bedroom- but then she happened to see a pair of ballbearing roller skates sticking out of a box of galoshes and other junk. She parked the two flattened bug-looking things side by side next to Kidstuff's hind end and, rolling him over half at a time, like making a bed with the patient still in it, managed to set the skates under him and drag him bit by bit through the goldy loops of the rug. The skates cut tracks that she couldn't quite rub out with her mocassins. Cheap gold carpet fluff was sticking all over his trousers. Nurse Pigeon considered these things only a moment. Rose Dewglass was not the observant type. She wouldn't think it strange if Kidstuff's head was twisted around backwards, which by now it halfway was.
Finally they arrived at the bed and Nurse Pigeon drew a breath. Rose lay naked except for pink nylon underpants, spread-eagled on her back down a trench in the rotten mattress. Seeing the ponygirl in this position with her breasts pooling sideways like lily pads and soft red-gold hairs peeking out of the legbands of her panties, she knew why Kidstuff had spent so many evenings over here. She was pretty, pretty like a cream rose, and if she was less than brainy, at least she was not trying to outsmart anybody. She was a regular ponygirl. She would get up on any horse, but she had no morals. She took money and dope from her boyfriends if they had any, but half the time she gave it away, the stuff and herself too. Even Kidstuff said that on her own back, not a horse's, was Rose's natural position. But oh she was pretty. Nurse Pigeon refused to be sad about how pretty she was: tonight, heck, the prettier the better. And Nurse Pigeon got down on the floor, tunnelled under Kidstuff and with a huge grunt bucked him up onto the bed. Then she stood up, knees crackling, and regarded him disconsolately. There were blue marks on his forehead and neck. A pinkish liquor had leaked from his nose and some kind of grit or gravel was sticking to it. One of his eyelids was rolled back almost all the way open, with a little yellow carpet lint glued to the corner. The other was half closed. From both all the light had drained out. They looked dusty. When she had found him in Little Rockcamp Road, he had seemed pretty much the old Kidstuff whose smiling face was always squinted to one side as if trying to see around corners, which he was. But now his upper lip was curled back in an expression of mild disgust. She spit on one finger and rubbed the dirt off his front teeth. Even Rose Dewglass might notice that. And still he didn't look right.
Nurse Pigeon tried to make herself get out of the room. She could feel her heart beating in her ears. Any minute now Rose Dewglass would sit bolt upright and take in Nurse Pigeon between her and the TV set. Suddenly Nurse Pigeon realized that, even drunk, Kidstuff, who was always a gentleman, would have pulled off his boots before lying down in a lady's bed, and probably his britches too. She bent over and pried, cursing, at the fancy purple boots until she remembered the cunning brass zippers down the back and the boots plopped to the floor. And she had worked his jeans down to the backs of his sad-faced kneecaps when Rose Dewglass hiccuped once and Nurse Pigeon bolted for the exit.
When her hands stopped shaking on the doorknob, she knocked politely. In a minute or two Rose Dewglass came. She had put on a green chenille wrapper, which was falling apart like those bathrobes always did, and with one fingernail she scratched sleepily in the V of the neckline.
"Is that Ruthie? What you want, Ruthie?" And her clear pale eyes, through which even in the dark you could practically see out the back of her skull to her thoughts falling through a hole into empty space, told Nurse Pigeon she hadn't taken any notice of Kidstuff in her bed -- not yet.
Nurse Pigeon said: "I want my husband."
"I ain't got him," Rose said and yawned. "He never come, not all week." Then she blinked quizzically. "Your husband? Say, y'all never really got married, did you, Ruthie?"
"I wouldn't call him my husband if we was not legally married," Nurse Pigeon lied with dignity.
"Gee," said Rose. "I thought you was just old friends."
Nurse Pigeon nodded. "I have reason to believe he come here tonight. I am not sore about it, only he wasn't looking too good this week, and I am here to take him home and nurse him."
"He ain't here," Rose repeated.
Should she have seen this coming? Nurse Pigeon decided to steamroll right over it. "Also, he was carrying quite a large roll of cash money," she continued calmly, "which he happened to have borrowed it from me."
Rose just stood there in her green thready robe, shaking her red-gold, permanent waved head. She was embarrassed. She was not the mercenary kind, Nurse Pigeon knew that already. Now Nurse Pigeon had to think of a way to get Rose back into the bedroom where she would see Kidstuff, without actually telling her to do this. To take up time she told Rose:
"He off-ten told me he loved you best of all his girls," though this wasn't quite true.
"Yeah?" Rose smiled shyly. "I seen him at the track tonight," she admitted. "I won't say I didn't, but he didn't want no parts of me. I seen him up the clubhouse hanging around that bleach blonde sheila of Blinky's. I hope he don't have a case for that tart."
"I believe it was a passing thing," Nurse Pigeon said.
"Somebody oughta tell him."
"He's gone on to other foolishness, I believe."
"I bet he's over there right now."
Nurse Pigeon shrugged, but inwardly she was perplexed. What had Kidstuff been doing all week?
"Y'all could use my telephone if you want to," Rose offered. "Call the bitch."
Nurse Pigeon hesitated. "I don't care to step foot in your room," she said. "I get a funny feeling just thinking about it. However, maybe you would do me the favor to dial the woman and ask if she seen Kidstuff? Kidstuff looking the sorry way he was and all." What was that Boston floozy's name? There was no time to worry about such refinements. Nurse Pigeon made a number up. Rose padded off towards the bedroom. Nurse Pigeon sat down on the curb of the concrete apron around the motel and clamped her teeth. It wasn't a shriek when it came, more like a cat yodel, but you could hear it. Rose came flapping back in her green bathrobe.
"I swear to my god, Ruthie," she panted, "I never seen him come in."
"I ain't sore," Nurse Pigeon said. "I just come to take him home."
"He ain't decent," Rose said.
"I'll sit in my car till he comes out."
Rose's fingernails dug into the soft part of Nurse Pigeon's hand. "I think he's dead, Ruthie. He looks dead." She was crying.
The two of them hurried through the kitchenette into the bedroom. Nurse Pigeon winced: the end of the bed was like a scene in a blue movie, where the man lies on his back and his pants dangle with dowdy obscenity from his ankles to the floor. It was hard to look at his bluish peter flopped sideways out of its scrubby nest in the way a peter can look dead even when it's alive; it was hard to look and it was hard not to look. Kidstuff's face was gray, the O of his lips gone ragged at the bottom, and by now even the rows of pretty teeth looked outsize for his mouth like cheap dentures. On this side of the bed, Nurse Pigeon spotted the ball-bearing rollerskates.
"We never did nothing, not tonight," Rose squeaked, "I swear," and she began to sob.
Nurse Pigeon said: "I tried to fix it so's he'd die in his own bed, but it was not to be."
"Ain't you going to pull his pants up?" Rose suddenly pleaded.
"Why should I do so?" Nurse Pigeon said. "I seen him naked plenty of times before." She made as if to back out of the room.
"You ain't going to leave him here with me?"
"Why, whatever else?"
"He's your husband." Rose was shocked.
"You was the one he loved," Nurse Pigeon replied.
"He always come home to you," Rose argued.
Nurse Pigeon said with sudden bitterness: "He took my last one thousand dollars and blew it in the Poconos Thursday. Now I don't even have money to bury his carcass."
"You can explain to people what kilt him."
Rose's eyes went big. "I don't know what kilt him."
Nurse Pigeon shrugged. "They'll find out."
"Kidstuff said he was spending this week with you," Rose tried, and burst into loud sobs. Nurse Pigeon eyed her, trying to see if it was true.
"Well, he didn't," Nurse Pigeon said. Something peculiar here, she was thinking, for Kidstuff didn't lie to women for the fun of it; lying was too much work.
"I never took no money from him, Ruthie," Rose said.
"I know that," said Nurse Pigeon, feeling sorry for her now. "But you didn't need no money from Kidstuff, everybody knows that too."
"What do you mean?"
Nurse Pigeon shrugged. Rose on her pony escorted jumpy horses from the barn to the track, and sometimes, if they weren't too sore, even jogged them around it, and for this she made peanuts. But she had more boyfriends than Nurse Pigeon had ever dreamed of, not all of them no accounts either, though two out of three wouldn't work in a pie factory.
"I never been alone with a dead person."
"It's only Kidstuff. You was always good to him. A dead body is nothing but meat. Science tells you that."
Rose began to cry again and Nurse Pigeon sighed. She had had the only scientific education in her small circle of friends. Often she felt like a freak on account of her opinions.
Rose went to the doorway and barred the way with her arms sticking straight out. "You can't leave me here with a dead person."
"All that about ghosts is so much business," Nurse Pigeon said.
"Put him in your car and take him home with you," Rose begged.
"That wouldn't be one bit right," Nurse Pigeon said, and, being the bigger woman, began to push past her.
"Ruthie! Wait!" Rose ducked behind the counter of the kitchenette and came up again holding a peanut butter jar full of curly bills. Nurse Pigeon, her hand on the doorknob, was careful not to stare straight at it.
"Lookit. I got money. You can take as much as you want if you'll only carry him out of here."
Nurse Pigeon stopped in the doorway as if turned to stone by this idea, and Rose caught up with her and took her hand by the wrist and stuffed it into the jar. The green bills had that cool, sharp-cornered, hardly used feeling of fifties or better -- and sure enough, when Nurse Pigeon pulled out her hand, it had three fifties and two hundreds woven between the fingers. And the jar was empty. She held a fifty out to Rose. After all, the girl had to eat. But Rose pushed her hand away. "Take it," she said. "I don't want it." Young and foolish, Nurse Pigeon thought. They stood looking at each other. "You done the fair thing by Kidstuff," Nurse Pigeon said. "Don't tell nobody," Rose said.
Now Nurse Pigeon asked, in a practical voice: "How am I going to get him in the car?" For it would show a certain lack of mother wit to advertise how she could drag Kidstuff around all by herself. Together they went into the bedroom and at once Nurse Pigeon knew she had made a mistake. "Stand backwards to him," she ordered Rose, "and take up his feet. And don't look." Rose did as she was told, but they got only as far as the concrete strip around the cheap new part of the Horseman's Motel before her hands were shaking so bad that she dropped Kidstuff onto his heels. She turned and looked down at what she had been holding: his two feet in striped stockings. A bruise-colored second toe, long and jointed like a peanut, poked through each sock. In the eerie white light of the last sodium lamp on the racetrack side, they saw more: his pants, which Nurse Pigeon had yanked up but in her haste neglected to button, had bunched at his hips; this gave him a disrespected, manhandled look. His face hardly resembled Kidstuff at all in this light. And on his white stomach, purple threads raked the skin like the cheap tattoos that used to come in Crackerjack boxes. He looked ransacked. Even Nurse Pigeon gasped a little.
"Lookit, Ruthie," Rose whispered. "You can't tell me his soul ain't quit him. How can I go back in that trailer?"
"Aw go on to bed," Nurse Pigeon said, picking Kidstuff up and packing him down firmly into the passenger seat of the Volkswagen all by herself. "The sweet falsehood has gone out of him, that's all."
But when she drove off from the Horseman's Motel parking lot, the small hairs were moving on the back of her neck. And she caught sight of Rose Dewglass in her rearview mirror, crawling under the fence to hole up in some tackroom on the backside.
Kidstuff's other dolly was of a stripe that the late Weems Pigeon liked to call a diamond hussy. Shirley O'Reedy, Nurse Pigeon recalled, or was it O'Rooney? It went without saying that she came from somewhere else -- seven or eight years ago Blinky had brought her in from Suffolk Downs, or Scarboro or Rockingham Park or one of those bullrings up north. You saw her in spikes and spangles in the clubhouse every night, not so often with Blinky nowadays, but when approached by some neon shirtfront full of mucty-muck and flashing a fat roll that he hadn't had time to lose again yet, she could ice the chump with a single glance. Nurse Pigeon had a grudging respect for women in the sex profession, so long as they managed to practise their arts without keepers. At first when Kidstuff took up with Blinky's concubine, even his yesterday concubine, Nurse Pigeon naturally feared for his health, and yet nothing untoward had occurred. But now Kidstuff had no more health to protect.
Nurse Pigeon drove up in front of a low brick house on Berryville Street, a half-pint but classy looking place, its white porch deep in glossy bushes, an oval window over the front door and one of those metal signs in the garden that said Dollie Madison popped a garter there or something on the way to her wedding. A lantern poured light like honey over a porch swing. At first Nurse Pigeon tried to prop Kidstuff lifelike in a corner of the swing, but the sight of that Dollie Madison plate had shortened her patience, who did that Boston Irish think she was, and so Nurse Pigeon pushed the bell, Miss Shirley O'Rickey it read, and squeezed herself on the swing beside Kidstuff and the chains creaked and the slats groaned and pretty soon the door opened.
"Great Jesus, lemme call my doctor," Miss Shirley O'Rickey said. Around her neck she clutched a silky robe whose collar of feathers shuddered like white tarantulas. She was around forty, maybe, and to Nurse Pigeon's mind had always had slightly piggy charms, puffy lips, pink cheeks, big round breasts, but now her face looked waterlogged and oyster white under the platinum hair, like too much hooch over too many Miltown. "He don't need a doctor," Nurse Pigeon informed her.
"Is he gone?"
Nurse Pigeon let the matter speak for itself.
"Shouldn't I call somebody to make sure?"
"I am a licensed practical nurse."
"Well, shit," Miss Shirley O'Rickey said. She held onto a porch post as if her knees were weak. "He told me he was all through. He said he was going home to his nurse and I laughed at him. He didn't look any worse than usual. What did he die of?"
"Fast women," Nurse Pigeon tried, but it sounded so foolish she had to add: "And red eye. His liver give out I think."
"The liquor sounds right. Pussy kept Kidstuff going."
"I wouldn't say that much," Nurse Pigeon pointed out icily.
"How far'd he get last night?"
"You was the last to talk to Kidstuff."
Miss Shirley O'Rickey laughed unpleasantly. "You wouldn't be trying to sucker me?"
"Don't pretend you wasn't jazzing him."
"That was over. We had business. He took care of a little matter out of town for me, strictly business. In business matters your sweety and me always saw eye to eye."
It dawned on Nurse Pigeon what sort of business was alluded to and her blood pressure whirled up like a chain saw. "I heard you rolled high, but you didn't need to drag my husband in," she said, standing up in Miss Shirley O'Rickey's face.
"I know he wasn't your hubby," Miss O'Rickey said sweetly.
"Kidstuff worked hard for his nut."
"You know what I liked about your sweety?" Miss O'Rickey recalled. "When he was sweet on me Kidstuff never gave me a goddamn thing. Well, maybe he brought me over a pizza now and then."
"A pizza is better than nothing," Nurse Pigeon declared, glaring at her. "It so happens he borrowed heavy from me and I don't even have the loot to put him in the ground proper. Where was he all week?"
Miss O'Rickey touched her pinky to the corner of her mouth and blinked her glued on eyelashes genteelly at Nurse Pigeon. "I believe my partnership in this last deal went down all right for Kidstuff. Didn't he come home to you?"
"That's correct," Nurse Pigeon said, not without pride.
"I mean, girlfriend, you had to checked his pockets, that's the type you are." Automatically, both of them glanced at Kidstuff's pockets, hanging out like tongues, pale and obscene, from his undone, wrenched up pants. "So what are you trying to get out of me?" All at once Miss Shirley O'Rickey's summing up tone was hard as a jackhammer, and she was eyeballing Nurse Pigeon in a manner like to freeze her hair at the roots. Something about that face convinced Nurse Pigeon it was time to back out quietly, taking Kidstuff with her. Miss O'Rickey had powerful friends.
"I mean to send the finest flowers you ever saw," Miss O'Rickey added. "A nickel wortha white roses and that's a promise, to Kidstuff not to you. He was good for it."
"Why, that would be princely, more than ever I hoped," Nurse Pigeon exclaimed sincerely, just as Miss Shirley O'Rickey slammed the door in her face.
In the watery first light Nurse Pigeon drove Kidstuff down Charles Town Avenue, as she had done on a thousand less weighty occasions. Kidstuff had not driven an automobile since 1955, for as soon as he found himself behind a steering wheel he suffered from a panicky notion that his luck had run out and some berserk motorist would plough into him at any moment. Often Nurse Pigeon had dropped him at the track in the morning when she was on her way to pick up charts at the Jefferson County Department of Health. She had even chauffeured him to Two-Tie's after hours card game now and then, when they were both flush and in good humor. Once he had won four hundred dollars at Two-Tie's and they had driven 52 miles straight to Baltimore, stayed in the McKeldin Suite of the Sheraton Belvedere Hotel and sent out for bottle beer and steamed crabs. That was before middle age overtook them and Kidstuff's health went into decline and Nurse Pigeon's weight rose over 170 pounds. They couldn't indulge that way in front of each other any more without one of them getting worried and sad and picking a fight. And once she had driven him into town on the Fourth of July because he had a pain deep in his nose. He had been dizzy for two days; suddenly they had each other talked into thinking it was cancer of the brain. Nurse Pigeon used her little bit of pull with the Charles Town medical establishment to get him seen on the Fourth. Dr. Lois Pettiman had been giving a barbecue, and examined Kidstuff up in her own bedroom. After a few minutes she came to the window and threw up the sash and stood there hollering down at Nurse Pigeon in her car in the driveway, that it was just sinus and she ought to be ashamed of herself, a trained nurse like she was. But that had been two years gone. When he was really dying, Kidstuff never complained at all.
Now Nurse Pigeon pulled up in front of Two-Tie's storefront on Charles Town Avenue and peered into the blacked out windowlight from the curb. Way in the back she saw a tiny flicker: Light from the back room was leaking through a hole in the door where the doorknob had been removed, and people were moving in front of it, which meant they were still back there playing cards. Satisfied, she zigzagged over alleys and parking lots until she was in a dead-end court, her bumper almost touching a fifty-gallon drum outside Two-Tie's back door. She got out of the Volkswagen and stood on tiptoe to see to the bottom of it -- sweepings of sawdust and cigarette butts, old Morning Telegraphs, bent up flat pizza boxes and greasy paper napkins, unopened junk mail. The drum was about half full, loosely packed.
This time Nurse Pigeon tried fishing Kidstuff up from the seat by the collar of his turquoise dress shirt, but she had forgotten that the shirt with the tiny naked girls on it closed with snaps instead of buttons, and just as she had him up in the air, the snaps popped open one after the other, his arms flew out like heavy wings and he sank back down with his knees sideways under the dashboard. Something starless and black as stove iron settled on her then. She knew it for a kind of doom. She had come to a place where even Kidstuff would stick and say no, but she would ignore his imploring voice. Naturally you do not have as much to say about it as you did once, she heard herself explain, but you will be taken care of. And in a hurry now she clutched Kidstuff around the middle and plunged him headfirst into the trash barrel. Above the rim his feet in their two striped stockings pointed outwards like nautical flags. Nurse Pigeon studied this sight for only a moment. Then she drove the Volkswagen from alley to alley until she was back on Charles Town Avenue, and this time she parked in front and banged on Two-Tie's office door.
The clock on the Farmers and Merchants Bank said 5:03. Through a scratch in the window blacking she saw Two-Tie himself barge through the doorknob-less door from the backroom. He was hunched over a big, bluish, bonafide-looking pistol, but as soon as he cracked the entry and saw who it was, he let the thing hang down by his side.
"It's Ruth Pigeon," he called to the back, "Kidstuff's woman." With one hand he fumbled a gray padlock back onto the front door. "What's on your mind, dear?"
Two-Tie Samuels was so called because he had the sartorial peculiarity of wearing two bow-ties at once, one black, one striped, every day of his life. He had a high, mild peep of a voice that seemed to have been squeezed down to nearly nothing by the short fat neck and its redundant haberdashery. Even so she could tell he was worried to see her here by herself at this hour. It couldn't mean anything good.
"Where's my husband?" she asked.
Two-Tie placed a hand on her elbow to steer her towards the backroom. Like the one on the gun, it was hairless and white and dimpled like a girl's. "Frankly, Ruth," he piped in his small voice, "I was about to ask you the same question."
"I ain't seen him all week," Nurse Pigeon said.
Two-Tie's upper lip nested in his lower lip and he nodded thoughtfully, for he was a thoughtful sort of businessman. He had been ruled off the backside long ago for alleged conflicts of interest and unsavory associations, but racetrack people, down to the lowliest one-man one-horse gyp rope operation, or down-and-out hotwalker, or toothless groom living in a tackroom on a two-dollar dose of king kong liquor per day, still required his services from time to time. What services were these? Usually a loan -- cash in front for a set of teeth, cash to pay the feed man, cash to straighten a traffic ticket or buy a new starter to get the truck back on the road. And once Kidstuff, having almost lost his pretty front teeth to a spooked filly he was shoeing in the packed dirt between two barns, had seized the fat and snot encrusted kid who had come clattering through for the fourth time on his training wheels, and shaken him till his wad of pink bubblebum popped out like a cork. And the boy had turned out to be the son of a cousin of Blinky Cornford, the kind of hood who unlike civilized Two-Tie had people snuffed -- but Kidstuff called Two-Tie, and Two-Tie cooled things down. In exchange for such services, Two-Tie naturally expected a consideration. But from racetrackers he sometimes asked no interest at all -- just the pleasure, as he would say, of doing business with a sportsman who had an insider's view of life on the backstretch.
Through the back doorway Nurse Pigeon recognized a couple of sour-faced, wrinkled jockeys from the Charles Town tracks, and an old lady trainer named Sal. Nurse Pigeon followed Two-Tie into a shabby den fragrant with delicacies: On a dusty desktop in the shadows, next to a big gray adding machine, lay half stripped carcasses of take-out barbeque chicken, open bottles of Carling's Black Label, and yawning pizza boxes with a coagulated wedge or two sticking among pearly orange polka-dots of oil. From all this, though it was getting to be breakfast time, Nurse Pigeon turned her face the other way.
"I ain't seen Kidstuff for a week," she repeated, "and it ain't like him."
"You been looking?"
"I have not exactly had time to look," said Nurse Pigeon. "I am a full-duty licensed practical nurse."
Two-Tie nodded. "Well, I been looking high and low for Kidstuff," he said, "and I still ain't seen him. I hear he flashes through the clubhouse tonight but he's gone before my boys can pull his coat. So if you should run into him before I do, I want you to tell him this for Two-Tie. Two-Tie wants the whole story. He'll know what I mean. For if that is his regular plan on how to act at the racetrack, it don't matter how good a blacksmith he is, that sucker is out of work and nobody won't do business with him. Tell him that, will ya?"
Nurse Pigeon, ears hot, said she would tell him.
"He'll turn up. Now how about a cold beer, Ruth?" Two-Tie held out a bottle. Nurse Pigeon shook her head. Her back was up against the doorknob-less door, as if she was edging out the way she came in, towards the blacked out storefront.
"And Ruth -- puh-leese bear it in mind -- always use the back door." Two-Tie waved a hand and a humpbacked jockey named Archibald, if she remembered right, held open the steel alley door for Nurse Pigeon. "I can't have people banging on my office door at this hour of night, attracting God knows what order of riffraff," Two Tie went on. "Come any time, dear, but always, always, come to the back."
Nurse Pigeon had to decide whether to work up a scream or play it more natural. She was not the screaming kind; to utter a noise at the sight of a dead body was contrary to both her temperament and her scientific training. However, since this company hardly knew her, she felt that a scream would be to the point, and put the least strain on their understanding. She screamed. The steel door behind her was still coming to the end of its hydraulic gasp. She focussed on Kidstuff's striped feet sticking up out of the trash and screamed raggedly and as loud as she could, while behind her the heavy door swung back open.
"You kilt him," she hollered.
From behind her came Two-Tie's high small voice. "Yank him out of there. Is it the blacksmith?"
Archibald and the other jockey each took hold of an ankle and they pulled Kidstuff free of the trash barrel.
"Gar," said Archibald. "It's him."
They dropped him on the ground and Nurse Pigeon, tired of screaming, assumed a dazed and stony expression. Some sort of dark oil from the bottom of the barrel had made Kidstuff's hair clump together in front, and a white wadded-up napkin had got stuck in the open hole of his mouth.
"Jesus Mary Joseph," creaked old Sal, with a half scared, half compassionate glance at Nurse Pigeon. "God will punish them what done such a thing."
"You kilt him," Nurse Pigeon whispered.
"I ain't seen him in a week," Two-Tie said patiently.
"What kind of hood leaves a stiff in his own garbage can?" Archibald argued, reasonably but with too much relish. Nurse Pigeon peered at him with hatred.
"The kid looks terrible," Two-Tie observed. "He looked terrible all week."
"You said you ain't seen him in a week," old Sal said suspiciously.
"I mean last week."
"He could have a eensy little bullet hole under his clothes," said Archibald. "I seen that before, where it took the doc two hours to find the hole and meanwhile the joker kicks."
"Shut up," Two-Tie said. He cleared his throat. Nurse Pigeon could see he was getting ready to explain something to her. Ladies in her condition, when left unreconciled to the facts, had been known to talk to the authorities. On the other hand he did not know the facts, not all the facts; he hadn't seen her coming. Still, he knew something.
"Say a blacksmith got a flash," he began, "that somebody was schooling a broke down old stakes horse from Mexicali with the worst paper you ever see to win his first time out after two years on the farm. Now this was highly classified poop. But the blacksmith somehow got this flash, maybe from the owner's girlfriend, and passed it on to a professor of such flashes for a consideration. The owner would kill if he knew! But I am surely not going to show my own face at that fifty-dollar window in the Poconos, so what could he do? Nutting without he knew my source.
"Now they tell me my source -- would you believe it -- my source strolls up to the window himself! Kidstuff! And lays down the whole roll, just as the numbers change embarrassingly from 50 to 1 to 5-to-1, and then the pathetic nag goes off at even money . . . How do you explain such reckless disregard for his own safety, to say nutting of mine?"
"A thousand dollars," Nurse Pigeon said faintly.
"One grand, three grand, five grand, a lot of cabbage. My beard didn't look over Kidstuff's shoulder and count it. Which reminds me of a curious fact," Two-Tie added. "You know in the past such considerations with Kidstuff was seldom monetary. He had too much class for that. However on this occasion he had to have a dime in cold cash and, interestingly, Ruth, your name come up."
Nurse Pigeon stood blinking.
"Kidstuff said it was for you."
"Maybe he was meaning to pay me back," Nurse Pigeon murmured.
Two-Tie looked doubtful. "I see them go daffy like that before," he said. "Throwing borrowed dough around, getting on important people's nerves like they was trying to buy it at a discount." He shook his head. "What he did with all that money?" he asked rhetorically.
Nurse Pigeon said: "That was my last thousand dollars which he lost."
"Lost?" said Two-Tie. "He win. Senor Solaz win by seven lengths going away. The dumb fans like to lynch the jockeys and meanwhile Blinky Cornford posts several goons by the parimutuel windows because he would like to talk private with Kidstuff, but they are still waiting for Kidstuff to show himself when the track closes. In short the blacksmith vanished into air and nobody ain't seen him since."
"Somebody caught up with him," Archibald remarked.
Two-Tie solemnly shrugged. "I know nutting," he said. He made a little motion with his pointer finger, and Archibald and the other jockey picked up Kidstuff by the elbows and propped him against the brick wall in the blindest angle of the alley, where in the thinning shadow of dawn he appeared to be lost in desolate thought. "Bring your car around, Ruth," he said, "and get him out of here."
The tears Nurse Pigeon began to shed now were genuine, and for herself alone. Two-Tie bowed from deep in his neck, slowly and ponderously, like an oil rig on a hillside in Mineral County, and said: "Who knows what got him? I know nutting." But then he drew out a money clip and peeled off fifties until there was a loose nest of them, and pressed this poke into her hand.
"He did win," he explained.
Nurse Pigeon nodded.
"Buy him nutting but the best."
Nurse Pigeon said she would.
She had heaved the tickets into the ditch with such force that the rubber band had busted and they flew about like flower petals at a wedding, some sticking a while to the overgrown bank, some to the road, some to the curd of gray leaves in the ditch bottom. But the spring had been so very fine that the ditch was dry. Her own car, with Kidstuff in it when she first drove off into the night, had floated some into the woods forever, and others were probably lining the new nests of flycatchers and phoebes by now. A mild May wind breathed over those few that were left, lifting their edges. Nurse Pigeon walked up and down the dirt lane in the cool dawn, picking up what she could find and blowing the grit off. In the end she had seven.
She ached to think of all the ones -- a pink block of fifty-dollar tickets as tall as a joint of your finger, with a rubber band around it -- that were gone, but she had to, for Kidstuff's sake. Kidstuff would have sent her to the Isle of Tahiti. She was going maybe to Ocean City instead, but at least she was going. She had toted up her night's work on the dusty windshield of the Volkswagen: after she went to Pennsylvania to cash her tickets she would have their honeymoon roll back, hers and Kidstuff's, with a few yards to spare. Through the fingers smears on the windshield, through the clear numbers written in opaque dust, she could make out Kidstuff's upright head, his yanked back cheeks the color of gritty pavement now, and that grin. To think there went the most beautiful boy that ever was, and now it was all over, she had saved him, and everybody had done right by him, and both of them might rest.