he sheriff's office was in a new brick building, which it shared with the post office and a video store. A flag snapped against a flagpole planted in a concrete circle in the parking lot. Between two white lines, a black car gleamed. Otherwise the lot was empty.
Stepping into the glass entryway was like stepping into an airlock or one of those radiation baths in a science fiction movie. Somewhere a machine roared ferociously, filling the box with hot air, a buffer zone between the cold outside and the warm inside. A place to preheat visitors, so they would not bring the cold inside with them.
In this space, just opposite a handwritten sign that read NO SMOKING, stood a woman smoking a cigarette, wrapped up and slouching in a big winter coat, her hair and part of her face hidden by a hat. James spoke to her. "Cold out," he said. Two words together was all he could manage. She only nodded and took another deep drag, looking out into the parking lot as if she were expecting someone else. He crossed the space in two steps. Opened the inner door. Stepped into the hallway with its shining linoleum floor. Found the door labeled COUNTY SHERIFF. Opened it. Stepped inside.
The sheriff's office had freshly painted green walls. There were no curtains on the broad windows that looked out on the parking lot; the blinds were raised up. Behind a long counter another woman sat at a desk, flipping the glossy pages of a magazine. She was not in uniform. He did not know her, but she looked familiar, about as familiar as the woman in the entryway.
It had been a long time since he had been to the sheriff's office. Things had changed. The woman's desk was sleek and modern, U-shaped. Behind her glowed the blue screen of a computer, swimming with red and yellow fish. Or birds. He couldn't tell.
James cleared his throat; the woman flipped a page. James thought he saw lawn mowers, other bright red machinery. Tractors. He thought it must be a farm catalog. "May I help you?" she said, not looking up.
"No," she said, and now looked up. "Oh," she said, as if she knew him or as if the sight of him had startled her. "Can I help you?" She rephrased the question as if it meant something different.
He hesitated to speak, uncertain how to put it. "It's a death," he said.
The woman smiled. "Sure," she said. She kept smiling and looking at him, as if waiting for something. When he didn't say anything more, she gave a little laugh. "Murder, suicide, or accident? Hard to tell these days, isn't it? They just seem to throw themselves into the road. I hit two raccoons just the other day. And my uncle hit a moose, up there on the mainland. Totaled his truck."
James shook his head. "No," he said.
Keeping a finger at her place, the woman shut the catalog, swiveled her chair to the left, and stood. Her clothing struck him as peculiar for a woman who worked in a sheriff's office: a long white sweater over black pants, and shiny black shoes that clacked against the floor. Her blond hair was short enough to reveal her ears; her earrings were silver birds that hung down from chains and swung against her neck. She looked like someone who should be working in a department store. "What happened?" she asked, coming toward him, the catalog still in her hand her expression curious.
"I'm not sure," he said.
She was standing arm's length from him now, only the counter between them. "Who died?" she said. "Tante." He used the French word unself-consciously; not worried about whether she would understand. She did.
The woman's eyebrows rose and fell. James was too old to have a guardian. "She raised me," James said. The woman nodded, understanding. "How old was she?" she asked.
He thought. "Ninety-four."
"Oh." The woman reached out to him, the gesture sympathetic, but he could not feel her hand through the sleeve of his jacket.
She leaned down behind the counter; he heard riffling noises; then she reappeared with a form in her hand and laid it on the counter, putting the catalog facedown next to it. From the collection of pens in a mug on the counter, she extracted one and held it over the form, as if about to write.
"I'm not sure," he said again.
"Not sure what?" she said. "Not sure she's dead?" She glanced away from him toward the telephone.
"Should we . . . "
He shook his head. "Not sure what happened." He looked down at the top of the woman's head; the part in her hair was very straight, and as white as her sweater.
"It's all right," she said, her voice still kindly. "There's a place for that here." She clicked the point from the pen and pointed to a line on the form. "I'll fill it in," she said.'
"No," he said. "Let me."
"Are you sure?" she said. He nodded, took the pen from her hand, and turned the form so that it faced him. The first line asked for a name. Marguerite Anne Bernadette Marie Deo, he wrote. He read ahead. Date of birth. Address, occupation. Circumstances under which the body was discovered. He stopped reading and listened to what the woman was saying.
"The sheriff's out on a call, but you can wait here. As soon as he gets in, he'll call the coroner." She had her eyes on him and spoke in low tones, as if sharing a confidence. "They'll have to do an autopsy," she said. "Whenever the circumstances are uncertain. . . "
Women in bathing suits. The cover of the catalog showed women in bathing suits. Not lawn mowers, not tractors, but women with bare legs and arms, shoulders, bony chests, fleshy hips. Flesh and bone. Not machinery. How could he have made that mistake? Flesh and bone. The foot has twenty-seven bones, the hand twenty-eight, unless a finger is missing. Together the hands and feet constitute more than half the bones in the human body. A person's feet are as recognizable as her face, once you've come to know them.
When Tante was ill, the hospital sent home a bottle of milky lotion, the nurse telling him to massage her feet to keep the circulation going while she recuperated. The first time he held one of her long, bony feet in his hands, rubbing the lotion in, he thought: What kind of protection is this skin? So soft a fingernail could damage it. Like the petal of a flower, the skin of a ripe pear. He pressed his thumbs into the arch; he rubbed each toe between his fingers. Tante was silent, her eyes shut tight. Embarrassed, he thought. Ashamed. Or in pain. There were tears in the corners of her eyes. `Am I hurting you?" he said.
She opened her eyes, smiled. "No," she said. "It's lovely"
Lovely. He couldn't remember her ever using the word before.
It felt strange to touch her. As a little boy, he'd clung to her, but growing up he'd pulled away, like a box elder leaning to get out of her shade and into the sunlight. It was only during that long period of her recuperation that he realized how infrequently, as adults, they had touched. During her sickness, he bathed her and dressed her fed, pulled the blanket up under her chin, tucked her in. Rubbed lotion into her feet, as solicitous as a lover, as careful as a parent.
He remembered what she'd said, the moment she woke up in the hospital, when she finally rose out of the hazy dementia that had accompanied her pneumonia. "How could you let them bring me here?" She'd had tears in her eyes then too. "I won't let them touch me. I won't."
He told her she had no choice, if she wanted to live.
Did he have a choice now?
Yes. He would do as she wished, as she had told him to do. One final obedient act.
James folded the form into halves, quarters, eighths; put it in his breast pocket. "I'll be back," he said, putting the pen in the mug. The woman looked startled. The silver birds flew at her neck. "Wait!" she said. She reached her hand out to him again. "Wait!" she repeated. She might have said his name; he wasn't sure. But he was out the door and into the air lock, past the smoking woman. And then back in the truck and driving.
Excerpted from Burning Marguerite by Elizabeth Inness-Brown. Copyright © 2002 by Elizabeth Inness-Brown. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.