Because I could not stop for death he kindly stopped for me
Charlie Asher walked the earth like an ant walks on the surface of water, as if the slightest misstep might send him plummeting through the surface to be sucked to the depths below. Blessed with the Beta Male imagination, he spent much of his life squinting into the future so he might spot ways in which the world was conspiring to kill him -- him; his wife, Rachel; and now, newborn Sophie. But despite his attention, his paranoia, his ceaseless fretting from the moment Rachel peed a blue stripe on the pregnancy stick to the time they wheeled her into recovery at St. Francis Memorial, Death slipped in.
"She's not breathing," Charlie said.
"She's breathing fine," Rachel said, patting the baby's back. "Do you want to hold her?"
Charlie had held baby Sophie for a few seconds earlier in the day, and had handed her quickly to a nurse insisting that someone more qualified than he do some finger and toe counting. He'd done it twice and kept coming up with twenty-one.
"They act like that's all there is to it. Like if the kid has the minimum ten fingers and ten toes it's all going to be fine. What if there are extras? Huh? Extra-credit fingers? What if the kid has a tail?" (Charlie was sure he'd spotted a tail in the six-month sonogram. Umbilical indeed! He'd kept a hard copy.)
"She doesn't have a tail, Mr. Asher," the nurse explained. "And it's ten and ten, we've all checked. Perhaps you should go home and get some rest."
"I'll still love her, even with her extra finger."
"She's perfectly normal."
"We really do know what we're doing, Mr. Asher. She's a beautiful, healthy baby girl."
"Or a tail."
The nurse sighed. She was short, wide, and had a tattoo of a snake up her right calf that showed through her white nurse stockings. She spent four hours of every workday massaging preemie babies, her hands threaded through ports in a Lucite incubator, like she was handling a radioactive spark in there. She talked to them, coaxed them, told them how special they were, and felt their hearts fluttering in chests no bigger than a balled-up pair of sweat socks. She cried over every one, and believed that her tears and touch poured a bit of her own life into the tiny bodies, which was just fine with her. She could spare it. She had been a neonatal nurse for twenty years and had never so much as raised her voice to a new father.
"There's no goddamn tail, you doofus! Look!" She pulled down the blanket and aimed baby Sophie's bottom at him like she might unleash a fusillade of weapons-grade poopage such as the guileless Beta Male had never seen.
Charlie jumped back -- a lean and nimble thirty, he was -- then, once he realized that the baby wasn't loaded, he straightened the lapels on his tweed jacket in a gesture of righteous indignation. "You could have removed her tail in the delivery room and we'd never know." He didn't know. He'd been asked to leave the delivery room, first by the ob-gyn and finally by Rachel. ("Him or me," Rachel said. "One of us has to go.")
In Rachel's room, Charlie said: "If they removed her tail, I want it. She'll want it when she gets older."
"Sophie, your Papa isn't really insane. He just hasn't slept for a couple of days."
"She's looking at me," Charlie said. "She's looking at me like I blew her college money at the track and now she's going to have to turn tricks to get her MBA."
Rachel took his hand. "Honey, I don't think her eyes can even focus this early, and besides, she's a little young to start worrying about her turning tricks to get her MFA."
"MBA," Charlie corrected. "They start very young these days. By the time I figure out how to get to the track, she could be old enough. God, your parents are going to hate me."
"And that would be different how?"
"New reasons, that's how. Now I've made their granddaughter a shiksa." "She's not a shiksa, Charlie. We've been through this. She's my daughter, so she's as Jewish as I am."
Charlie went down on one knee next to the bed and took one of Sophie's tiny hands between his fingers. "Daddy's sorry he made you a shiksa." He put his head down, buried his face in the crook where the baby met Rachel's side. Rachel traced his hairline with her fingernail, describing a tight U-turn around his narrow forehead.
"You need to go home and get some sleep."
Charlie mumbled something into the covers. When he looked up there were tears in his eyes. "She feels warm."
"She is warm. She's supposed to be. It's a mammal thing. Goes with the breast-feeding. Why are you crying?"
"You guys are so beautiful." He began arranging Rachel's dark hair across the pillow, brought a long lock down over Sophie's head, and started styling it into a baby hairpiece.
"It will be okay if she can't grow hair. There was that angry Irish singer who didn't have any hair and she was attractive. If we had her tail we could transplant plugs from that."
"Charlie! Go home!"
"Your parents will blame me. Their bald shiksa granddaughter turning tricks and getting a business degree -- it will be all my fault."
Rachel grabbed the buzzer from the blanket and held it up like it was wired to a bomb. "Charlie, if you don't go home and get some sleep right now, I swear I'll buzz the nurse and have her throw you out."
She sounded stern, but she was smiling. Charlie liked looking at her smile, always had; it felt like approval and permission at the same time. Permission to be Charlie Asher.
"Okay, I'll go." He reached to feel her forehead. "Do you have a fever? You look tired."Dirty Job, A. Copyright © by Christopher Moore. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore
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