My children are gambling. They are sitting in front of the television set screaming for horse number seven in the second race. It is my daughter’s turn to hold the ticket, color coded and included with the week’s groceries. Cereal, milk and racing tickets: staples of life. She is waving it in her six-year-old hand, screaming at horse number seven to run faster. Her cheeks are pink with excitement; they still haven’t lost their baby roundness, yet she urges that horse on like a seasoned pro at the track.
Groceries and racing tickets. Why not? Nothing is in bad taste anymore; everything that exists can be promoted. I try to imagine the ad man who dreamed up a night at the races with Ringer’s Supermarkets. Does he have children? Does he care about his children if he has them? No matter. He cares more about his baby, “Saturday Night at the Races with Ringer’s Supermarkets.” A winner for every race. A commercial between every race. Five races and five commercials. The commercials run longer than the races, a sponsor’s dream.
The ad man has his job for another year. He is almost safe.
I let the children watch and scream for horses that will finish last, but I won’t let it happen again. Next week I’ll shop at another chain, one with a promotion for dishes or washcloths. Tonight I didn’t have a choice. When I told them they couldn’t watch the races, they argued: “Daddy would let us. He wouldn’t care.” I relented, fearing another round of questions. The questions are becoming frequent. Is our daddy really dead? How did he die? Why did he die?
I have gone back to that night, studied the seconds of every minute like a jeweler examining the facets in a gemstone, and found nothing, not a clue.
It was a Thursday like any Thursday. You came home at six thirty. We had dinner with the children—roast beef, baked potato, salad, and ice cream. After dinner, they watched television. You went upstairs to your study. I gave the children their baths and put them to bed. You went to their rooms to say good night, looking preoccupied.
It was not unusual. You generally wore that look when you came out of your study. We had no social plans for the evening, no meetings or parties. You went back to your study. I took a bath. You were still in your study. I put on a robe, checked my calendar for Friday, and went downstairs. It was ten o’clock. I picked up some needlepoint and turned on the television. A commercial for trash bags was on the air. I remembered that you hadn’t taken out the garbage. I went back upstairs and knocked on the door of your study. You didn’t ask me to come in. Again, nothing unusual. “Tomorrow is garbage day,” I said, trying to speak loud enough to penetrate the door without waking the children. “The garbage in the kitchen needs emptying, too.” I heard your chair swivel. “I’ll take care of it,” you said. I returned to the family room. You came down an hour later with some papers in your hand. The eleven o’clock news was just beginning. You picked up the trash container in the kitchen, which was the only unusual thing about that evening. You generally emptied the garbage after dinner. Garbage in the house offended you.
“I’m going to bed now,” I said, turning the television off.
“I’ll take care of the garbage,” you replied.
You took the garbage into the garage. I knew it would be a while before you were finished. You always put the garbage into plastic bags and carried them to the street. You took care of the garbage the same way you took care of everything else; our garbage was lined up each week in a straight, neat row at the curb. Each bag was perfectly balanced.
I went upstairs, checked on the children, brushed my teeth, and set the alarm. I was in bed with the light out at eleven fifteen. You were still in the garage.
I must have fallen asleep immediately. I rolled over at one o’clock and realized you weren’t there. You had been having difficulty sleeping, so your absence wasn’t unexpected. Some nights you would go to bed, lie still at first, then toss for a while, moving your legs as though they were painfully cramped, and finally get up. You had always been a heavy sleeper, able to block out the children’s cries at night, thunderstorms, even my first attempts to awaken you when my labor pains were coming eight minutes apart with Catherine. The insomnia came suddenly, like a bad cold, a few years before your death. We had argued about it. I wanted you to go to Barney Leadman for a checkup. You refused. I insisted. You said it was your insomnia, not mine, and you had no intention of discussing it with Barney. I didn’t understand, then. It was another argument to add to the neat stack we were accumulating like a pile of canceled checks. Today I understand the insomnia, if nothing else.
I couldn’t fall back to sleep. I wish I could say it was intuition, or some kind of premonition, but that wouldn’t be true. I was trying to decide upon an outfit to wear to the Foxes’ cocktail party Friday night. I had narrowed it down to the blue or the black. Your life had already been extinguished, and I was lying in bed debating the relative merits of dresses versus pants.
By two o’clock, I had mentally cleaned my closet without making a decision. The blue and the black no longer appealed to me. I got out of bed and checked on the children. When I looked in your study and you weren’t there, I went downstairs. There was a hum, the noise of a running engine. It was coming from the garage. I opened the door and found you. You had taken care of the garbage first.
I have gone back over that evening and found nothing, not a clue. You knew you were going to do it. When I forced myself to enter your study the next day, the sum of our life together was neatly arranged on the desk: the insurance policies, the deed to the house, the key to the safety deposit box. Your last act before emptying the garbage was to show us how to obtain the rudiment of our existence, the money to survive. Nothing was missing; everything was there but you.
The funeral was fast and private. I was numb. There were words spoken, but I cannot remember what was said. By the time you were lowered into the ground, I could no longer see. I just stood in place like a mannequin until someone steered me into the waiting limousine.
I didn’t cry until almost a year later. You know that the women in our family don’t cry, at least not in public. If one must cry, it is done in the privacy of one’s room. With the door closed. I didn’t sleep in our room—my room—after you died, so I couldn’t cry. I slept in the spare room like a guest in my own house and never closed the door.
That was the one thing about me you always admired: I wasn’t a crier. I didn’t use tears to get what I wanted or hit you with them when we fought. I was fair, you always said. You should have thanked my mother for that.
I believe I should curse her for it.
The tears came when I went to visit your grave. I started to drive to the cemetery a number of times but always turned back until that day. It was easier for me to accept your death as a permanently extended absence than to see the reality of it, the neat plot and the headstone with your name and dates carved in polished granite.
The stone is in good taste, Richard. You would have approved.
I had difficulty finding you. A sense of direction has never been one of my strong points, which is why I could never protest when you told people I could get lost in my own backyard. “Jenny has problems finding her way to the bathroom,” you used to say. You weren’t always kind.
In case you are interested, you are buried on the extreme right side of Section 9 in Forest Heights Cemetery. By the time I spotted your stone, I must have walked better than half a mile on soggy grass looking at strange names on headstones. My shoes were soaked and muddy. I was tired and aggravated, ready for a fight. I stood at the foot of your grave, unbuttoned my coat, and threw it open. “Look at me, Richard,” I said. “Look at me. I’m five feet five and weigh one hundred twelve pounds. I’m svelte, as thin as you always wanted me to be. I’ve lost twenty pounds since you died.”
Quoting figures to a dead husband on the first belated visit to his grave, the last visit before leaving permanently. I was still your wife, a statistic-spouting wife of a CPA, although until that time I hadn’t realized it. Did I quote figures when you were alive?
I am beginning to discover things about myself, about the way I was when you were alive. Discoveries aren’t always pleasant. That is one of the things I have discovered.
I don’t know what I expected, speaking to you as though you would rise out of the grass, sit on the headstone with your legs crossed, and congratulate me for my weight loss.
You didn’t materialize. I was ready for a fight, expecting you to sit there and take credit for my figure. I could almost hear you saying, “My death did it.” I had the perfect rebuttal. I was going to tell you the weight loss was mine because you weren’t there, forever counting the calories I consumed without subtracting one for chewing. It would have made a great argument.
When you didn’t appear, I buttoned my coat. Your death was no longer an extended absence. It was a fact.
Even after I had sold the house, given your clothes to the Salvation Army, and packed for California, your death wasn’t real. It was a nightmare, but nightmares are never real. They aren’t supposed to be real. You wake up and they are gone. I woke up when I buttoned my coat. The nightmare was still there.
“Why, Richard?” I cried to the headstone. “Why?”
The waste of your death stood before me mute, hands extended, palms up and empty.
I sobbed until I was reduced to watery hiccups. The hiccups lasted for hours. I still get them occasionally, especially at night after the children are in bed. They start suddenly and for no apparent reason. None of the remedies I’ve tried has helped, so I alternately hold my breath and hiccup until I fall asleep, exhausted.
When I meet people and they inquire politely about my husband, I say, “I am a widow,” and lower my eyes. The sign language of facial expression generally works. Most people understand lowered eyelids. They say, “Oh, I’m sorry,” and change the subject or stand awkwardly until I do it for them, much to their relief and mine. I have become quite adept at changing the subject.
Others aren’t put off that easily. If they pursue the circumstances of my widowhood, the when, how, or why, I close my eyes completely and whisper, “It was recent.” Few people dare trespass over closed eyelids. For the inquisitive few who do, I give my finest performance. When they ask, “How did he die?”, I hesitate, choke, clear my throat slightly, and manage to croak three words: “in a car.” If I am standing, I turn and look for a chair. If I am sitting, I stand and excuse myself, barely managing to get the words out. Bernhardt couldn’t do it any better. But then, she didn’t have as much time to rehearse and polish a single act.
I don’t know how much is an act and how much is real. I do choke sometimes when I think of your death. Or I hiccup. My throat muscles constrict and the saliva in my mouth evaporates. And I do lower my eyes, as if to shut the world or the memory out. It doesn’t work, though. I see you silhouetted against my eyelids, sharp and clear, slumped in the seat of your Mercedes in the oak-paneled garage.
Matthew and Catherine are entitled to more than the evasions I use with strangers, but your choice of death hasn’t made it easy. Oh, I could tell them the basic facts. I could start out by saying, “Your daddy killed himself.” That’s basic. But where do I go from there? I want to give them something more than a daddy who killed himself because he couldn’t face what he had done or the people he had done it to. I want to give them—I hesitate to use the word—I want to give them an honorable death. A death with honor. Immaculate. Pure and honest. A death they can attach healthy memories to. And I don’t know how to do it.
At dinner tonight, Catherine asked, “How old would Daddy be?”
“Why?” I asked, dreading another round of how-and-why-did-Daddy-die questions.
“Lisa’s daddy is forty and he’s bald,” she said. “Was our daddy bald?”
“No,” I answered, “Daddy wasn’t bald.”
“Well, how old was Daddy when he died?” she persisted.
“Daddy was thirty-three,” I said, firmly but nonchalantly in an effort to end the conversation.
“Would he be bald if he were here now?”
“Do you think he would be bald?”
“No, I wouldn’t want Daddy to be bald,” she said. “Does dying make you stop getting bald?”
“What do you think?” I asked. “And what do you think about chocolate cupcakes for dessert?”
The diversionary tactics worked. I fed our daughter sweets and answered her questions with questions. It isn’t always as easy as it was this time. How long can a dam built with cupcakes last?