“Good,” Kate said. “I expected him to like you. Not that that makes you anything special… Had you heard about him from Ina, by the way? Is that why you weren’t surprised?”
“You think I wasn’t? She said you had a cat, so I assumed—Never mind. It all comes clear now.”
“Such as what?”
“Why you stay on at UMKC instead of sampling other universities. You must be very attached to him.”
“Not especially. Sometimes he’s a drag. But when I was sixteen I said I’d accept responsibility for him, and I’ve kept my word. He’s growing old now—won’t last more than eighteen months—so… But you’re right. Dad had a license to transport protected species interstate, but I wouldn’t stand a hope in hell of getting one, let alone a permit to keep him on residential premises anywhere else. I’m not exactly tied hand and foot, though. I can take vacations for a week or two, and the girls downstairs feed and walk him for me, but that’s about his limit, and eventually he gets fretful and they have to call me back. Annoys my boyfriends… Come on, this way.” She led him into the living room. Meter-high freehand Egyptian hieroglyphs marched around three of its walls; over the fourth, white paint had been slapped.
“I’m losing this,” Kate said. “It’s from the Book of the Dead. Chapter Forty, which I thought was kind of apt.”
“I’m afraid I never read the…” His voice trailed away.
“Wallis Budge titles it ‘The Chapter of Repulsing the Eater of the Ass.’ I bleat you not. But I quit repulsing that fiercely.” She gave a mocking grin. “Any how, now you see what you can lend a hand with.”
No wonder she was wearing a layer of dust. The whole apartment was being bayquaked. In the middle of the floor here three piles of objects were growing, separated by chalked lines. One contained charitable items, like clothing not yet past hope; one contained what was scrapworthy, like a last-year’s stereo player and a used typewriter and such; one contained stuff that was only garbage, though it was subdivided into disposable and recyclable.
Everywhere shelves were bare, closets were ajar, boxes and cases stood with lids raised. This room had a south aspect and the sun shone through large open windows. The smell of the city blew in on a warm breeze.
Willing to play along he peeled off his shirt and hung it on the nearest chair.
“I do what?” he inquired.
“As I tell you. Mostly help with the heavier junk. Oh, plus one other thing. Talk about yourself while we’re at it.” He reached for his shirt and made to put it back on.
“Point,” she said with an exaggerated sigh, “taken. So just help.”
Two sweaty hours later the job was finished and he knew a little about her which he hadn’t previously guessed. This was the latest of perhaps five, perhaps six, annual demolitions of what was threatening to turn from a present into a past, with all that that implied: a fettering, hampering tail of concern for objects at the expense of memories. Desultorily they chatted as they worked; mostly he asked whether this was to be kept, and she answered yes or no, and from her pattern of choice he was able to paradigm her personality—and was more than a little frightened when he was through.
This girl wasn’t at Tarnover. This girl is six years younger than I am, and yet…
The thought stopped there. To continue would have been like holding his finger in a flame to discover how it felt to be burned alive.
“After which we paint walls,” she said, slapping her hands together in satisfaction. “Though maybe you’d like a beer before we shift modes. I make real beer and there are six bottles in to chill.”
“Real beer?” Maintaining Sandy Locke’s image at all costs, he made his tone ironical.
“A plastic person like you probably doesn’t believe it exists,” she said, and headed for the kitchen before he could devise a comeback.
When she returned with two foam-capped mugs, he had some sort of remark ready, anyway. Pointing at the hieroglyphs, he said, “It’s a shame to paint these over. They’re very good.”