The Quick Death
Astrid Strick had never liked Barbara Baker, not for a single day of their forty-year acquaintance, but when Barbara was hit and killed by the empty, speeding school bus at the intersection of Main and Morrison streets on the eastern side of the town roundabout, Astrid knew that her life had changed, the shock of which was indistinguishable from relief. It was already a busy day-she'd spent the morning in the garden, she had a haircut appointment at 11:30, and then her granddaughter, Cecelia, was arriving by train with two suitcases and zero parents (no school bus accidents there-just a needed escape hatch), and Astrid was to meet her at the Clapham station to bring her back to the Big House.
The bus hit Barbara just after eleven. Astrid was sitting in her parked car on the inner lane of the roundabout, the verdant circle at the center of town, adjusting her hair in the mirror. It was always the way, wasnÕt it, that oneÕs hair always looked best on the day of a scheduled trim. She didnÕt wash her hair at home unless theyÕd gone to the beach, or she had been swimming in chlorinated water, or some foreign substance (paint, glue) was accidentally lobbed in her direction. No, Birdie Gonzalez washed AstridÕs hair every Monday and had done so for five years, before which it had been washed by Nancy, at the same salon, Shear Beauty, which was located on the southeastern side of the roundabout, in the quarter circle between the Clapham Credit Union and SusanÕs Bookshop, kitty-corner from SpiroÕs Pancake House, if you peered through the open sides of the white wooden gazebo at the grassy islandÕs center. The professional hair washing was a relic from her motherÕs generation, and an affectation that her own mother had not possessed, and yet, there it was. It was not a pricey indulgence, if weighed against the cost of proper conditioner. On every eighth Monday, Birdie also gave Astrid a trim. Nancy had given slightly better haircuts, but Birdie was better with the shampoo, and Astrid had never been vain, only practical. Anyway, Nancy had retired and Astrid hadnÕt missed her. Birdie was from Texas, and her parents were from Mexico, and Astrid thought of her as human sunshine: bright, warm, sometimes harsh, but always good for oneÕs mood.
It was the end of the summer, which meant that soon, from Monday to Friday, Clapham would belong to the year-rounders again. Kids would go back to school, and the summer inhabitants would go back to being weekend inhabitants, and life would return to its quieter pace. Astrid inspected her skin for spots. Ticks and skin cancer were the twin fears of anyone who spent time outdoors in the Hudson Valley, certainly for those over the age of twenty-five. In the rearview mirror, Astrid watched Clapham go about its morning routines: women with rolled-up yoga mats plodded slowly out of the municipal hall, well-off summer residents strolled the sidewalks, looking for something to buy that they had somehow missed during the last three months, locals sat drinking coffee at the counter at Spiro's and at Croissant City, where every sixty-five-year-old man in Clapham could be found with a newspaper at 7:30 a.m., seven days a week. Frank, who owned the hardware store, which sold everything from window fans and fresh eggs to batteries and a small collection of DVDs, was standing beneath his awning as his teenage son pulled up the iron gate. The small shops that sold T-shirts and sweatshirts that read clapham in large block letters didn't open until noon. The fanciest clothing store on Main Street, Boutique Etc?, whose name Astrid had always found both grammatically and philosophically irritating, opened at noon, too, which Astrid knew because she begrudgingly bought most of her clothing there.
Astrid let her eyes wander to the eyesore, the bte noire of every Clapham resident, both year-round and summer interloper-the unweildy, trapezoidal building that had been empty for a year, the large space inside totally bare except for things abandoned by the most recent tenant: a ladder, two cans of paint, and three overstuffed garbage bags. There was a Sold sign in the window, with a telephone number, but the telephone number had long since been disconnected. The county records, which were available to anyone who cared to look-and Astrid had-said that the building had indeed been sold a year ago, but no one knew to whom, and whoever it was, they'd done nothing but let the dust bunnies proliferate. What went in was important: If it was some big-box store, or a national chain, it would be war. A death knell for the town as the residents knew it. When Rite Aid came in, not even to Clapham proper but to the outskirts of town, which did need a pharmacy, people lost their minds. Astrid still had a keep local, shop small sign in the dirt next to her mailbox. She'd spent her own money making the signs and distributing them. And if that had been in the village itself? Astrid couldn't imagine. If the person who bought the building didn't know or didn't care, there would be riots in the street, and Astrid would carry the biggest pitchfork.
Because the storefront was on the eastern tip of the roundabout, the direction from which most cars entered Clapham, the large empty windows were what welcomed people to town, a very sorry state of affairs. At least Sal's Pizzeria, directly next door, was charming, with its red-and-white-tiled walls and its boxes printed with a portrait of its mustachioed proprietor.
Barbara was standing on the sidewalk, just beside the mailbox in front of Shear Beauty. Her car, a green Subaru hatchback with a "My Other Car Is a Cat" bumper sticker, was parked in front of the municipal building, which held the mayor's office, a co-op preschool, yoga classes, and the winter farmers' market, among other things. Was she getting back into her car after mailing a letter? Was she looking across the street, squinting at the Sold sign, as if it would offer any new information? Astrid would never know. She watched as Barbara stepped around the front bumper of her car and into the street, and then Astrid continued to watch as the yellow sixty-four-seat Clapham Junior High School bus came barreling down the street, knocking Barbara down as neatly and quietly as her grandsons' toy soldiers. Astrid snapped the visor closed and leapt out of the car. By the time she'd crossed the street, half a dozen people had already gathered. There was blood, but nothing gorier than a twelve-year-old could see on network television. Astrid had seen death up close before, but not like this, not on the street like a raccoon.
"It was empty," Randall said. He owned the gas station, which made him an easy authority on vehicles. "Except for the driver. No kids."
"Should I cover her up? I shouldn't cover her up, should I? Should I?" said Louise, who taught the yoga class, a rather dim, sweet girl who couldn't remember her lefts and rights.
"I've got the police," said a nervous-looking man, which was, of course, the right thing to do, even though the police station was two blocks away, and clearly there was nothing for the police to do, at least not for Barbara. "Hello," he said, into the phone, turning away, as if to shield the other bystanders from what was still on the pavement. "There's been an accident."
"Oh, for Chrissakes," Birdie said, coming out of her shop. She saw Astrid and pulled her aside. They clutched each other's elbows and stood there in silence until the police arrived, at which point Astrid offered Barbara's husband's phone number and address. She'd always kept an organized address book, and this was why, just in case. The EMTs scooped Barbara's body up and put her on the stretcher, an unflippable pancake. When the ambulance had gone, Birdie pushed Astrid gently toward the salon's door.
Shear Beauty had made some improvements over the years, some attempts at modernization. The mirrors were frameless, and the wallpaper was silver with a gray geometric pattern, all of it meant to make the place seem sophisticated, which it wasnÕt particularly. Birdie never could let go of the bowls of dusty potpourri in the bathroom or the embroidered pillows on the bench at the entrance. If someone wanted a fancier place, they were welcome to find one.
"I can't believe it," Astrid said. She set her purse down on the bench. The salon was empty, as it always was on Mondays, when Shear Beauty was closed to the public. "I can't believe it. I'm in shock, I'm definitely in shock. Listen to me! My brain is nonfunctional." She stopped. "Am I having an aneurysm?"
"You're not having an aneurysm. Those people just drop dead." Birdie gently guided Astrid by the elbow and sat her down at the sink. "Just try to relax." Birdie also cut hair at Heron Meadows, the assisted living facility on the edge of the Clapham border, and she had a certain sangfroid approach to the mortal coil. Everyone shuffled, in the end. Astrid sat and leaned back until her neck touched the cold porcelain of the sink. She closed her eyes and listened to Birdie turn on the warm water, testing its temperature against her hand.
If Randall was right and the bus had been empty-that was important. Astrid had three children and three grandchildren, and even if she hadn't, the loss of a child was the most acute tragedy, followed closely by a young parent, followed by cancer researchers, sitting presidents, movie stars, and everybody else. People their age-Astrid's and Barbara's-were too old for it to be outright tragedy, and seeing as Barbara had no children of her own, people were bound to call it a blessing, that is to say, a blessing that the school bus hadn't run down someone else. But that didn't seem fair to Barbara. She'd had a husband, and cats. She'd been a crossing guard at the elementary school decades earlier-oh, the irony! At least it wasn't her corner, Astrid thought, exhaling while Birdie scratched her scalp with her short nails.
What was Barbara thinking about, when the bus was careering toward her? Why had she parked there and not across the street? What was on her list to do that day? Astrid sat up, her hair dripping on her neck and her blouse.
"Are you all right?" Birdie asked, moving a towel onto Astrid's shoulders.
"No," Astrid said, "I don't think so. I didn't even-you know this-I didn't even like Barbara. I just feel a little, well, shaken."
"Well, in that case," Birdie said, walking around to the front of the chair, crouching down so that she and Astrid were at eye level, "let's go into the back." Birdie's mouth was a straight line, as steady as a Catholic schoolteacher. She always had a solution.
Astrid nodded slowly and offered Birdie her hand. They walked around the half wall behind the sink, into the room where an eyebrow-less young woman named Jessica waxed off other people's body hair three days a week, and lay down next to each other on the twin-size mattress, Astrid on her back and Birdie propped up on an elbow. Astrid closed her eyes, suddenly exhausted. As usual, because after so long, there was a certain rhythm and sequence to what would unfold, Birdie started softly kissing Astrid's cheeks and ears and neck, everything but her mouth, but today was different, and Astrid reached up and pulled Birdie's mouth straight to her own. There was no time to waste, not in this life. There were always more school buses-how many times did a person have to be reminded? This time, it was clear. She was a sixty-eight-year-old widow. Better late than never.