He stood by the foot of the bed and stared down at Carol. She was a year younger than he. Thirty-six. She and Harry had tried for years to have kids. Finally adopted one and when it was two years old it fell off the upstairs porch onto the edge of a brick planter and died. And Carol and Harry started drinking a little too much, and when she fell in the tub and hit her head she was drunk. Harry contributed all he could afford, a hundred and fifty a week. The rest of it was eating Wilbur up. He was confused. What good was she? She could live another thirty years. In order to support a corpse, keep it clean and plump, he had entered into an arrangement with Mr. Loomis. When they were plugged into something, you could pull the plug. These people would not stop feeding her. She was money in the bank. This thing on the bed wasn’t Carol. So what was it? The soul had fled. It was an unburied body. You could not get public assistance if you owned property and made a good salary. She was his only close blood relation. Sister. There was a welter of Christmas-card relatives over in Georgia. No help at all there.
Close the door behind him. Gently squeeze the nostrils together, place the palm of the other hand firmly and carefully over the pallid lips. It would be so easy. Thirteen hundred and twenty-five a month. Less Harry’s six hundred. Seven hundred and twenty-five divided into… So the other half of the money from Loomis would mean he could stop thinking about it for an additional batch of years. There was a box of Kleenex on the nightstand. He snuffled and wiped his eyes, looked at her again and left.
Harry was in the little lounge near the front door. Wilbur was surprised to see him there.
“You could have come up while I was there.”
“I wanted to see you, Wil, not her.”
“I don’t go in there and look at her anymore. What’s the point? I haven’t seen her in six months. I hate to have to tell you this, but we’ve all had to take a voluntary cut at the plant, all the middle-management people. Our taking a cut is the only way they can get the union to agree to their cuts. So I got to cut back on this too. I can’t swing it anymore. Four hundred a month. That’s all I can do. Sorry.”
“You’re her husband.”
“And you’re her brother. So?”
“My God, Harry! What am I supposed to do?”
“Are we supposed to be doing this? Is it some kind of sacred obligation or something? You’re the lawyer. You tell me. We walk away from it, what can they do? Sue?”
“I can’t do that.”
“If the whole thing was up to me, I would. But as long as you’re hanging in, I’ll do what I can. But it will have to be less from now on.”
Wade sat at his desk looking at the brochures from the state capital. They were intended to promote tourism, to entice permanent residents and to lure industry. All real estate brokers were on the state’s mailing list.
The color photographs and the self-conscious text created a Mississippi he had never known. All the miles of empty sandy beaches, pretty girls under bright beach umbrellas, tours of the old plantation houses with the hostesses in hoop skirts, the million acres of national forests DeSoto, Holly Springs, Bienville, Tombigbee and Homochitto with pretty girls standing under flowering magnolia trees, pretty girls water-skiing, pretty girls smiling and holding armloads of azaleas, camellias and Cherokee roses. Pretty girls in skiffs holding up specs and mackerel and giant shrimp to be admired.
West Bay still had some of the old houses fronting on West Beach Road, big old frame mansions showing the French and Spanish colonial influence. Only a few left. Helen Yoder had just sold one of them for a nice dollar. And there were a few of the narrow pedestrian alleys left in the old part of downtown.
But what they were trying to sell seemed to him to be the Mississippi of 1950, when he was three years old. Nowadays Route 90 had gutted the whole fifty-four miles of Gulf coast, and 1-55 and 10 and 110 and 20 had carved up the old land soaked long ago by the blood of Nate Forrest’s troopers. Another brochure picture showed the line of cheerleaders, hopping and screaming for Ole Miss, an obligatory scene in all state propaganda.