Mr. Estie set down his drink and answered the phone. It was the insurance people—they were revamping their technology at Quality Everything Insurance.
The provider said, “You are absolutely our top customer, what with your Everything Insurance Package, so we’d like to ensure your complete satisfaction with your insurance.”
Mr. Estie nodded into the phone. “Yes, the insurance…”
“At no cost to you, we’ll make your customer satisfaction skyrocket simply through the roof! Not literally, of course, though you are onboard for our Roof Insurance.”
“Do tell.” Mr. Estie looked around, forgetting where he’d left his drink.
“We’d like to send along Gerard. He’ll watch over your insured items twenty-four hours each day. No cause for alarm—he will basically stay completely out of your way.”
There was his drink, atop a package of ToilutPapurU on the stove.
“All we need is your verbal consent. Say ‘yes’ right into the receiver. Our new technology makes it possible for your ‘yes’ to be transformed directly into a signature.”
“Isn’t that something.”
“ ‘Yes.’ ”
“Yes,” said Mr. Estie, and so it was signed.
The next morning, a Tuesday, Killer’s barks alerted Mr. Estie to a figure hovering beyond the flowered curtains of his front window.
“Trespasser!” Mr. Estie took up his AirSofty gun and jumped onto the stoop.
“Oh lord, this has got to be so many violations right now.” The man, short and portly, darted out his stubby-fingered hands and snatched the gun before Mr. Estie could clear his head enough to aim. The two men stood so close that Mr. Estie could smell something like turned earth on the trespasser’s breath.
“No—stop—hand me—I thought you were the paperboy.” Mr. Estie couldn’t quite wrench the gun back; the compact man possessed an unusual strength. “This is a little game we play. Nothing more than BBs. Johnny-boy loves it.”
The man’s suit bagged in places and bunched in others. “As your Personal Accidental Incidents Prevention Team-of-One, I got to get it through your head that you never point a gun at any living human being.”
“What if they’re invading my property?” said Mr. Estie. “Or threatening my canine?”
“Then whaddaya know you should probably call the police.” The man held the gun over his little mound of a stomach. “Besides, dogs are a hazard to the home.”
“Well. I assume you are Gerard.”
Gerard adjusted the thick, black-framed glasses perched on his button of a nose. “I got you a safe for this.” He held up the gun. “Go on about your day as normal.”
It was breakfast time and, since childhood, Mr. Estie had been accustomed to an elaborate meal. Mrs. Estie, a supreme cook, hadn’t allowed her son to touch the stove, but now that she was gone, Mr. Estie tried: after a night at the Meat Rack, the neighborhood bar, his stomach required pancakes. When the batter burned, the smoke failed to set off the fire alarm, and so Gerard fiddled with the device until it screeched a warning.
Gerard shook his head at the blackened stack Mr. Estie offered. “I’m partial to HealtheeOats, myself. The ex turned me on to them. You should give them a shot.”
“I didn’t know that suggestions for my diet were a part of your job description.” Mr. Estie tried to inject venom into his voice, but the truth was, another person taking interest in his well-being mollified him. Never had he felt the desire to live alone; it had simply happened. He pushed the food around his plate and held out a fatty strip of bacon. Killer snapped, her jaws narrowly missing his fingers. Half pitbull and half cairn terrier, her head, though powerfully mouthed, looked small, puppyish, against the muscled expanse of her back.
“You got to understand.” Gerard covered a sneeze with a wet wipe yanked from his pocket. “You yourself so happen to be the most important item we insure.”
Mr. Estie slowly nodded. His mother, a practical woman, had set up their insurance policies long ago—of course she’d list her son as her greatest asset. “I need a shower.” Mr. Estie dropped his syrup-smeared plastic plate to the floor, and Killer pounced. “I don’t suppose you’d want to join me for that, as well? Get your nice tie all wet?”
Gerard cleared his throat. “I’m not gonna bug you. I’m only doing my job. For me to shush up, just give the word. Or maybe even a secret hand signal. You want a hand signal?”
“Sign language? I never excelled at other languages, but I certainly did take a shine to English. Mrs. Estie’s doing, that. She was a teacher, you know—before the marriage.” But Mr. Estie’s father had not wished his wife to work, and because of his life insurance, she hadn’t needed to after his accident, either, which had happened when Mr. Estie was ten. Since then, the father’s ghost had terrified Mr. Estie—“Don’t ever do anything bad or touch yourself,” Mrs. Estie had often repeated, “because your father is hovering over us, and he’ll see it; he’ll tell me.” Even now, especially when sneaking a drink, Mr. Estie pictured all those souls, like masses of clouds, staring down at him, disappointed.
Gerard was sheathing all the kitchen knives in plastic. “Don’t lock the bathroom door. Seventy-three percent of household accidents happen in there. Just using the bathroom can be a real death sentence.”
Mr. Estie dropped the fork he’d been holding. His poor mother. Putting her in the nursing home had been a sort of death sentence—she’d employed the term, herself.
Gerard said, “Okay with you if I pop into the little boys’ first?”
After Gerard’s visit, the bathroom looked like a whole new world. Mr. Estie entered it wondering if he’d wandered into someone else’s house, on someone else’s block, in a different town entirely. Textured flower shapes plastered the bottom of the tub, a NoSlip bath mat replaced the towel perpetually bunched on the floor, the hairdryer had been choked with its own cord and stored in a cupboard, the toilet paper roll sat no more atop the radiator, and the massive splinter along the edge of the door had been smoothed away. Heart beating in his belly, Mr. Estie reached behind the toilet, but didn’t feel the cool flat metal of his flask.
In the shower, Mr. Estie sniffed a bottle of his mother’s MsBubble—the scent brought her voice, dumpling, dumpling, scrub behind your ears, and he rubbed a comforting, iridescent smidge into his chest. Mr. Estie liked to see Mrs. Estie’s things still populating the house: the romance novels, her one pleasure, on the shelf; her CoverGurl in the medicine cabinet. When Mr. Estie shopped, he bought all the brands Mrs. Estie had got him used to, even NutChunky Peanut Butter, though he’d disliked the consistency all his life.
When Mr. Estie returned to the kitchen, he said, “For your information, that flask in the bathroom you disposed of was my mouthwash container.” He should feel angry that Gerard had invaded his space and tossed his stuff, but instead, he felt nostalgic: Mrs. Estie had used similar housecleaning techniques. Since her death eight months before, Mr. Estie had only interacted with other people when buying something from them, until now, when Gerard had collided with his life, overtaking it rather like a mother with her son. “How long are you going to stay?” Mr. Estie asked.
“Long as it takes. I mean, if that’s okay. You can dismiss me at any time, but then, well, your premiums would skyrocket.”
Mr. Estie turned towards the kitchen window; he’d been lonely since the loss of his mother. It was actually rather nice to have another body in the house.
Gerard said, “But it looked like Quality Everything Insurance gave you a big settlement not long ago, so maybe you don’t care. What’d you do with all that money, anyhow? Seems to me you have no one to spend it on.”
Mr. Estie considered it his mother’s death money, and he’d left it unmolested in the bank. He couldn’t think of a use for it that wouldn’t shock her.
“Remember: cleanliness is key,” Gerard said between lines of “Happy Birthday.” He scrubbed his hands vigorously. “The time this takes to sing is also how long it takes to kill germs. All the mold here makes me sick, like when I was growing up. And that dog my dad had, that awful dog.” His eyes were pink-rimmed. “We got to get the vacuum out. I’m allergic to all this dog hair. Happy birthday dear Bacteria, happy birthday to you!”
Mr. Estie stared at Gerard, curious: Mrs. Estie, too, had claimed an allergy to Killer.
Gerard air-dried his hands. “In my childhood home, junk tumbled on your head if you opened a closet. Roaches shared your bed. I don’t want that to happen here! You’re such a vital man for fifty-seven. You got great life insurance, but what good’ll that do you?”
Something about Gerard’s short plump physique, waggling a finger, looked especially matronly. Mr. Estie said, “I’m sorry”—the same words he’d most often relayed to his mother.
“I don’t want nothing bad to happen to you,” Gerard said, still unknowingly impersonating (though not grammatically) the late Mrs. Estie. “We got to take precautions.”
Mr. Estie hadn’t been cared for in a long time: even before the advent of the nursing home, Mrs. Estie’s mothering skills had unraveled. How could a mother bake her son muffins if she couldn’t recall the location of the kitchen? How could she wash his laundry when she used a container of yogurt as the detergent? But instead of their roles switching, as Mr. Estie had heard tell of happening at the end of a parent’s life, he’d watched helplessly as the takeout containers piled up. He hadn’t, he’d decided, a mothering bone in his body, a physiological condition that didn’t prevent him from blaming himself for his mother’s descent into a squalid childhood.
Two days later, the phone rang and Mr. Estie answered to an automated voice. He was being asked to complete a survey about the effectiveness of his Personal Accidental Incidents Prevention Team-of-One.
“He has the key to my new gun cabinet somewhere,” said Mr. Estie when queried whether or not he felt safer as a result of the cost-free service.
“Certainly I do, yes—but you must understand that feeling intruded upon is familiar to me. My whole life, up until recently, was a series of intrusions. When I was alone, intruder-less, I felt… lost. And then you sent me Gerard.”
“A-ny-ad-di-tion-al-com-ments-or-com-plaints?” asked the robot.
Mr. Estie sipped from the drink he’d concealed inside a coffee thermos. “Mrs. Estie would have felt shocked to see her home transformed this way. I wish that I could show her. You see, my dear mother died, but Gerard has an excess of energy, he finds ways to—”
With a sharp beep, the machine cut him off.
By the time Mr. Estie dragged himself from bed the next morning, Gerard stood before a pot of oatmeal bubbling and burping on the stove.
“Where did you get that?”
Gerard turned. His eyes were lined with dark chalk, which looked suspiciously like the eyeliner Mrs. Estie had worn, and which Gerard claimed helped his mold allergy. “HealtheeOats follow me wherever I go. It’s about the best food can be got.”
“No, the apron.” Mr. Estie had last seen it covering his mother’s housedress.
“This old thing?” Gerard shrugged and lifted one corner of the garment. “It’s a precaution, really. Would you want third-degree burns on your stomach?”
Mr. Estie had to assent: Gerard wore only his paisley underwear, so the apron truly acted as protective covering. Mr. Estie had never seen his mother in her underwear, not even in his imagination—until now.
Mr. Estie considered it one thing to feel that Gerard had replaced certain of his mother’s roles in his life, and another thing altogether to believe that Gerard evoked his mother—or, stronger than that, channeled her. This bizarre association had wormed its way into a corner of Mr. Estie’s mind that had likely been weakened by his hangover. In front of the sink, he sang “Happy Birthday” while he washed his hands; he wished that he could do the same to his brain, that soiled place still consumed with an image of Mrs. Estie in her elasticized control-cut Hanez.
“How’s about a bowl?” Gerard brought a spoon of the mush to his lips and blew.
“I’m feeling a bit queasy,” Mr. Estie said and retreated to his room, the place he always hid when he was a bad little boy.
Mr. Estie emerged only when it was time to feed Killer. After Mrs. Estie had passed, the dog had, at times, been his sole reason to carry on.
“Got some electrical problems here,” Gerard said. “All kinds of fire hazards.” He was fully dressed, messing with an outlet. The air smelled like a penny held in a moist hand. “You’ve been cooped up in your room for ages. Never hold your pee—that is a leading cause of bladder infections. My wife got them all the time. Ex. Is yours an ex?”
“Certainly not.” Mr. Estie had never wed, had never even considered it.
“It’s strange, how much the world wants you to get married. So I did. It was like living with a weird roommate who asked how you felt about her all of the time.”
“I’d have no idea what that would be like.” Mr. Estie and his mother had avoided the topic of feelings. But through his silence, she’d known he loved her, even if he couldn’t take care of her, she’d understood his love. Mr. Estie had to believe this in order to carry on.
“Where did you relocate Killer’s KibbleBigs?” Mr. Estie opened all the cupboards; nothing was in its place. The microwave was mounted on the wall, almost too high to reach. “Why are there so many canisters of oatmeal?”
“Do you know what a health hazard it is to keep dog food at ground-level? You’re making a rodent haven. Do you know what diseases rodents carry?”
“Killer is starving.” This near-fight, an out-loud disagreement, exhilarated Mr. Estie. Mrs. Estie had shown disapproval by following behind her son, undoing whatever he did. He’d open the fridge and she’d close it before he finished perusing the contents, or he’d pull a blanket over himself and she’d snatch it back to refold. That was Mrs. Estie at her most outspoken.
The kibble was in an airtight bag in the cupboard over the stove, which before had held bottles and martini shakers. “Killer!” Mr. Estie said. “Here, girl!”
Killer’s toenails clicked against the linoleum.
“We really got to carpet the place,” Gerard said. “Less chance of slippage.”
“What is this on Killer’s face?” Mr. Estie yanked at the contraption, which appeared to be locked.
“It’s not my job to insist on much,” Gerard said, “but I totally must insist that the dog get muzzled. You cannot imagine all the horrors that you’d go through if that animal bit somebody. Even with our Pet Insurance.” Gerard unplugged a power strip.
Mr. Estie, pushing pieces of kibble one by one through the mouth cage, said, “Killer is a sweet girl. She loves me. Perhaps you’re jealous.” Mr. Estie had always suspected his mother of this envy, though he’d never had the courage to say so out loud.
Gerard continued. “The dog’s name freaks me out. I think you realized somewhere deep down that the animal is a big old liability to your well-being.”
“Killer has never hurt a fly,” Mr. Estie said. “Not even a flea! The name is ironic.”
Gerard tipped his head into the lamp’s shadow, his hair in a trick of light seeming to pile higher, rather like Mrs. Estie’s beehive. Had Mr. Estie consumed one too many, or was Mrs. Estie in there, somehow, and struggling for his acknowledgement?
Gerard said, “Oh lord, truly? Not even a flea?”
Mr. Estie felt the clench in his bowels that meant he’d lied: Killer may have left fleas alone, but she did harbor a penchant for squirrels. Mrs. Estie had always seen through her son’s lies, and she didn’t stand for them lightly. Lies meant Tabasco doused over his meal, enough hot sauce to make his stomach slosh. And he always had to clean his plate.
Gerard said, “I’m here to help you. I can tell when you’re lying to me.”
Only Mrs. Estie would know about the squirrels. The kibbles in Mr. Estie’s palm dropped and scattered across the floor, and Killer scrounged after them in vain, her tongue crashing against the muzzle’s bars. If Mrs. Estie really was hovering behind Gerard’s eyes, then Mr. Estie had to take the risk of sounding addled in order to draw her out. “Gerard,” Mr. Estie said, “dearest: why are you here?”
Gerard had bent down to sweep the straying kibbles back into their container. And then he said the phrase that Mr. Estie had heard each night as his mother washed the pans: “Waste not, want not.”
Suddenly, Mr. Estie felt overwhelmed with the certainty that Gerard housed some small portion of his mother’s soul, that he’d sought Mr. Estie out because of a subconscious familial bond. His mother couldn’t have died and let herself float up to heaven, not with her son abandoned, and now her soul must’ve chosen this man to take her place. “Why do you care about me?”
“It’s the new computer system,” Gerard said. “An algorithm. Assigned me to you.”
Mr. Estie smiled, knowing that Gerard had to say that, to keep up pretenses. A man rearranging your cupboards wasn’t a symptom of technological advancement.
Gerard said, “It pulled you as the biggest liability of our clients. We got to pay our own insurance, you know. The company that insures us wants me here, to keep our deductible reasonable. I’m lowering our rates. That’s why I’m valuable to the company.”
“Of course you’re valuable!” Mr. Estie patted Gerard’s shoulder. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a homemaker—we don’t need more money, anyway—you’re still accomplishing plenty of work! I appreciate you.”
Gerard shook his head—Mr. Estie could practically see his mother inside there, shaking in all her gratitude for hearing these words her son had never spoken during her lifetime—then heaved himself onto the LayZBoy. From the deep cushion, Gerard said, “Thanks. You know, our statistics are deadly accurate. That dog will attack.”
Mr. Estie sighed. “You never did like Killer, ever since she grabbed your wig. It looked too much like a squirrel.”
Gerard blinked several times. “Is there something you’re hiding? I thought I trashed all the booze.”
Maybe Mr. Estie sounded a little crazy, but sign after sign had revealed that a portion of Mrs. Estie was buried within this man. Ignoring Killer’s howls, he perched beside Gerard on the chair’s armrest. “What about Mrs. Estie? Look deep inside yourself and tell me: is she in there?”
Gerard folded his arms across his chest. “In where? I haven’t seen an urn here.”
“Dearest—you didn’t want to be cremated!” Mr. Estie almost fell into Gerard’s lap.
“We’d better get some HealtheeOats into you,” Gerard said. “I know these changes are hard.” He squeezed Mr. Estie’s hand. “Listen: it’s okay with me if you want to pretend I’m your old lady. If it makes you feel good. I know all about different strokes for different folks, and I’m fine with it, I get it. In fact, I don’t mind playing games.”
Mr. Estie didn’t expect the bottle of red wine to break when he dropped it (in the week they’d been reunited, Gerard had carpeted the whole place, including close-knit pile in the kitchen and bathroom), but break it did. The red splashed across the floor, up onto the cabinets, and across Mr. Estie’s pants. Killer came running, and luckily the muzzle kept her from slicing her tongue on the shards. As Mr. Estie surveyed the ruin—he’d only wanted a nice glass of shiraz!—his good mood soaked into the carpet along with the wine.
Gerard came in from the yard, where he’d been posting BEWARE OF DOG signs. “Oh lord! Are you alright?” Gerard rushed to Mr. Estie and placed his hands over the largest stain, on Mr. Estie’s thigh. “We got to staunch the wound.” A few buttons launched as he ripped the shirt from his chest. “Where’s the nearest hospital? I should know this!” A trickle of sweat, running between his nipples, kept catching on curls of hair, and as Mr. Estie watched the progress of this rivulet, he began to love Gerard with a complicated, deniable, filial love tinged by relief: here was a person whose concern for Mr. Estie overpowered everything else.
“Grape juice,” Mr. Estie said. “This is nothing but grape juice. I’m fine.”
Gerard sniffed the air, his eyes traveling the room. “I leave you alone for a few minutes and this is what happens? I am gonna flip. I am gonna bust a gasket.”
“I was thirsty,” Mr. Estie said, wrapping his arms around himself.
Gerard had a LySolve bottle out now, and streams of cleansing chemicals jetted across the carpet. “I try to keep a nice house for you. Safe. Do exactly as you want. Play by your rules. You got to ease into things, sure, I’ll take it slow. But look here! What would your old lady do, huh? Because I want to slap you.”
Mr. Estie began to silently recite homonyms so as to keep from crying. Pear pair pare. Air err heir. He thought that maybe a piece of glass had punctured him and was the cause of his pain, but it was his mother’s disappointment that had always cut him. The way she’d stared—so mournful!—as he’d tried to decide what to pack her for the nursing home.
“You’re not scot-free!” Gerard said. “Get down on your knees and help me blot!”
“Yes.” Mr. Estie’s emotions felt juvenile, fresh, out of control. Mrs. Estie had never made him clean up his own messes. He had never felt at home because the house had always been his mother’s—but now he started to see that it could have been theirs, that from now on, it would be theirs. They were both responsible. He began to scrub.
After nothing but a faint pink stain marked the accident, Gerard sunk with fatigue into the nearest seat, Mrs. Estie’s old wheelchair. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand, and his new gold watch flashed. Mr. Estie had finally broken into the death-money to buy it—Gerard deserved the thing, after he’d complained and complained about the impossibility of maintaining a healthful schedule when he couldn’t keep the time.
Mr. Estie placed his hands on the wheelchair’s handles, testing. After she’d passed, he sometimes wheeled himself about the house in hopes of bringing his mother closer, but now he could feel her—his hands slipped to Gerard’s shoulders—right here.
“Buy you a drink?” the bartender asked.
That’s when Mr. Estie knew he looked really bad. The bartender at the Meat Rack was a stringy older man who wore leather chaps and a beer opener on a metal chain around his neck. He never asked the drinkers how they were doing, and he never poured more than a drop of the one ounce regulated for cocktails into the tumbler.
“Please,” Mr. Estie said and took a seat atop one of the stools. He slumped over the bar, propped by his elbows. A pounding beat deep inside his head.
The day before, something terrible had happened: the paperboy had come round. Gerard, looking to improve Mr. Estie’s diet, had been testing lean meats with Killer as taster. The paperboy demanded a tip. Gerard handed him some turkey—how could he know that a boy encased in baby fat belonged to a family of vegetarians?—and the boy held the meat before himself, uncertain, and as it hovered in the air poor innocent Killer, muzzle-less taste-tester, snatched the tidbit with unusual hunger.
Not one, but two of the boy’s fingertips disappeared down Killer’s gullet. There had been blood. There had been an ambulance. There had been a man from the humane society. And where was Mr. Estie throughout this trauma? Why wasn’t he present, his AirSofty cocked and ready to protect his pet from the lethal injection?
Because he’d been at the Meat Rack with a vodka tonic. By the time he’d returned, it was all over, and Gerard had to relay the grisly details.
Mr. Estie was settling into a new routine, or settling back into the old routine he’d kept during life with his mother. Which meant he spent afternoons drinking at the Meat Rack (a place his mother had believed was, or at least referred to as, a sandwich shop).
There would never be another dog like Killer.
The bar was a horseshoe in the middle of the room. Along the edges were a few tables, a few arcade games, a jukebox and an empty popcorn machine. Everything smelled of grease and dirty jeans. Two men, hunkered over a table and whispering, sat with hands circling their empty glasses, but other than that, the bar was deserted.
“Thank you,” Mr. Estie said when the drink plunked down before him. Though it was a vodka tonic, it glowed red in the bar’s mood lighting. “I needed this.”
“So you’re coming back in regular,” the bartender said. “Was strange without you.”
“I have company,” Mr. Estie said.
The bartender wiped a cloth over the smooth metal top of the bar, and Mr. Estie felt slightly better as he watched cherry stems and lemon rinds spin to the ground. The Meat Rack’s was a floor to which your feet stuck, and Mr. Estie loved this about it, that the bar seemed to want him to stay, seemed to hold his shoe back with each step towards the door.
“You got to pay for this one.” The bartender poured a refill.
The door to the bar squeaked open, unraveling a brilliant skein of light. Mr. Estie looked away, down into his drink, where two ice cubes bumped gently against each other.
“Water,” Gerard said, placing his hand on the bar beside Mr. Estie. “Bottled.” He rubbed a wet wipe on the surface before him, then wrapped it around the bottle. The bartender took Gerard’s five and didn’t return with change.
Mr. Estie raised his glass, but then set it down. He felt wrong drinking in front of Gerard. His mother hadn’t had a drop, not one, her whole life, and Mr. Estie had kept up abstinent appearances in front of her. She’d never found her son’s hiding spots, though Mr. Estie supposed she’d tried hard not to look. His mother, reincarnated, was pushier.
Gerard said, “What are you drinking? Booze can do crazy things to a body. You know I want what’s best for you, don’t you? What’s right and good.”
“You,” Mr. Estie said. “You let them kill Killer.”
“It was the dog’s own fault. I told you from the beginning. Any animal that eats one finger like that has to be put down. By law.”
“You said two fingers. Two fingers. Right?”
“That’s right, it must’ve been two.” Gerard twisted the gold watch around his wrist.
Mr. Estie looked at Gerard suspiciously and saw his mother’s cunning inside the brown eyes. He had never trusted his mother, but he hadn’t needed to; he had only needed to agree with her: she’d always known what was best. “You could have saved Killer. But you didn’t want to.” He tried to say that he hated Gerard, but that would be a lie.
Gerard’s face wrinkled with hurt. “I don’t know why you got to ruin me, after I put my whole self into making your life better. I know what you told the company.”
“I don’t understand.”
Gerard rubbed another wet wipe between his palms. “That phone survey. What you said worried them. I’ll get fired; I know it. I thought we were getting somewhere, but instead you got what you wanted; I’ll be out of your life; and I got nothing.”
“I complimented you.” His mother had finally been returned to him, still full of jealousy and righteousness, and there was no way that he could lose her again. “Before,” Mr. Estie said, “with that home, your death sentence, I know I wronged you—but I won’t put you in another place again. You won’t have to leave.”
“So I can stay with you? Even if I’m not part of the company?” Gerard leaned close to Mr. Estie’s ear. “I’ve been searching for someone like you my whole life. And you need me; I can tell. You want someone dominant, someone can take charge.” Gerard squeezed his wet wipe. “That home is ours now. I battened down its hatches for us.”
Mr. Estie knew that Gerard was right. Ever since his mother’s death, all he’d longed for was to revert to the way things were, easy, before he’d failed her in her decline. “You were smart to get rid of Killer,” Mr. Estie said. “She was your only rival. And now, just like always, it’s only you.”
“I’ll make you so happy. Make sure you’re safe. That life insurance isn’t for your enjoyment.” Gerard patted Mr. Estie’s knee and let his hand rest there. “In fact, the beneficiary—it’s still Mrs. Estie.”
Mr. Estie felt chilled, all except for his kneecap, which radiated a strange warmth.
“You didn’t want to believe that she was gone, and so you never updated the policy.”
“I never thought to,” Mr. Estie said. “But on paper, you’re right—your names are different, even if you are the same person.”
“So you understand.” Gerard sipped and smacked his lips, as though water were the most delicious thing in life. “Everyone wants a home. A nice, clean place. And I can give it to you. I’m the only one left at home for you, now the mongrel is gone. But I’ll stay there, I won’t leave, like she did. We’ll draw up the paperwork tomorrow. My name as beneficiary?”
The two men in the bar’s corner abruptly left together. The bartender had vanished. “You know I care for you,” Gerard said.
Mr. Estie, afraid of sobbing if he opened his mouth, nodded. How much stronger love could be when it was acknowledged out loud. “Do you think Killer might come back to me, too? As a cat, or a squirrel even?”
“No need to stress over that any more, dumpling.”
The glass Mr. Estie was staring at zoomed away like a movie shot panning out. Dizzy, he wobbled on the stool, and Gerard steadied him. Dumpling, dumpling, Mrs. Estie always said. Mr. Estie would do everything she asked, as he’d done every day, until the end, when she begged him not to banish her to the home. But she’d left him unable to care for himself, which meant he certainly couldn’t care for her.
“Careful there, dumpling. These seats aren’t sound. Let’s get you into something more comfortable. It’s hard.” Gerard squeezed his knee. “It’s hard for you, being a widower.”
Mr. Estie nodded. With his mother gone, he felt like a widower: she’d been every woman in his life. But now Gerard would care for him.
Gerard said, “I can help. Let me help; I’ve already done so much. You like me to wear her things, don’t you? I want to. It makes me feel good. You were looking for someone like me in this kind of bar, weren’t you? Now you found me, you don’t need to come here anymore.”
Mr. Estie let Gerard cup his elbow, let Gerard help him the few blocks home, let Gerard tuck him into his mother’s large bed and smooth his covers and then slip in beside him, cool sheets and warm skin. Mr. Estie thought of sick nights, when his mother had stayed up to tend him, her nightgown gaping at the neck. Mr. Estie reached out and clung to the form beside him. Maybe this was before those sick nights, all the way back to when he was a fetus, steeped in the warmth of their communal body.
“You’ll let me fix everything, won’t you?” Gerard said. “You need me. Scooch on over, this is my half. That couch was killing my back. That’s right, just pretend, and I’ll give you what you need.”
Mr. Estie put their heat all down to fever, and then to love. It was fine to love the same person in different ways. Naturally, though he never told her so, he loved his mother, and what Gerard was doing proved that his mother knew of his love, and reciprocated. She didn’t blame him for the nursing home; she didn’t think he’d killed her; she loved her son. The computer system hadn’t brought them together, no; it had to be something greater.
“Relax.” Gerard’s hand bent around Mr. Estie’s middle. “Your old woman, she must’ve scared you stiff. Kept you on a tight leash, huh?”
Mr. Estie wondered if, in her past life, her life as his mother, Gerard had wanted to peel off Mr. Estie’s clothing like this. Mr. Estie’s fists curled, uncurled, curled. He should have known his mother would never abandon him. Here was a second chance for Mr. Estie to understand the woman he’d lived with all his life. She was the one person who knew him well enough to love him and to hate him, too, but she’d come back. They’d circled around each other too much, him and his mother, spending life in orbit of each other’s little worlds, when they should have merged long ago, the way he was with Gerard, now.
M. S. COE has a novel, New Veronia, forthcoming from CLASH Books in 2019, as well as stories published or forthcoming in Antioch Review, The Cantabrigian, Electric Literature, and Matador Review. Coe, who is based in Flagstaff, Arizona, earned an MFA from Cornell University and acts as the co-editor of Eggtooth Editions.