“I’m sure Jonathan’s okay,” I say to his dad on the phone.
I’m lying through my teeth.
I haven’t been sure of anything since my last husband pulled the plug on what was starting to feel like a pretty endless marriage.
“I’m sure he’s okay,” I say to Tom again. Whenever I’m spinning, I repeat the thing about six times. That is sometimes the only way I know I’m lying.
This is Sunday evening.
Monday afternoon I hear, third-hand, that Jonathan, while he may or may not be okay depending on the particulars of your theological provisions, drove his car out to the old quarry and shot himself through the heart. That’s how everybody says it. That’s what the friend who found him told me when I asked if there was any chance that Jonathan had died by accident. Shot himself through the heart. A person has to watch how many words you try to stuff into one sentence when you’re not just sure you’ll make it to the period at the end.
I drive out to Tom’s house when I get the news, and go in without knocking, walking into the old, front sitting room, where Jonathan’s mom, Ruby, sits on the blanket-covered sofa. I sit down beside her and put my arm around her shoulder like a bony drape. Jonathan’s dad, Tom lives in this scrinchy, little farmhouse in the country, lives here with his two monster hounds, who lie now sleeping at Ruby’s feet. She sits passive at my side, supporting the full weight of my left arm which seems to have fallen asleep, all sensation gone, in five seconds flat.
“Man, I got so fuckin’ drunk in Boston,” a girl’s voice in the kitchen all but fills the little room we share with Jonathan’s girlfriend and an older man who sits beside her on the sofa, a man who has not spoken a word since I came in. I love men who do not speak. I’ve heard the girlfriend is a serious born-again, but she looks only frail and barely once-born tonight.
“Man, I got so fuckin’ drunk in Boston too.” In the kitchen, another female voice, reedier, trying harder, clearly second fiddle.
“You don’t need to go to fuckin’ Boston to get wasted. I got wasted at Harry’s last night. I woke up totally pissed.”
I use my right arm to lift my limp left arm from the grieving mother’s shoulders and go out to the kitchen to quietly suggest the young folks might want to shut “the fuck” up. But once I’m as far as the refrigerator, I start grilling them instead. It’s always a tossup. To read the riot act or start the interrogation. My greatest pleasure in this life is asking people questions. I should have been a reporter. But then when you start to write it all down, people get so fussy about facts.
I ask these young men and women how well they knew Jonathan and for how long and did they see it coming and could they figure it. They seemed grateful for the questions. People mostly are. It’s surprising how often a question can feel like a gift. I ask a lot of them, though I am not generally speaking-generous in other ways.
Jonathan asked a lot of questions. Even as a kid. Especially then. His dad would bring him to my house when he came for dinner or a party, and Jonathan would end up in the kitchen washing dishes, or helping someone chop something or other into fine, tiny pieces, less likely to induce choking as guests neared inebriation—that wasn’t the thinking, of course; we chopped things to bits because we had bought the knives. I remember one time telling Jonathan to go out and have a game of catch with the boys next door. He said he didn’t know how.
Jonathan’s dad, Tom, gets off the phone and finds me in the kitchen with the drinking crowd. He hugs me with his gruff body. Not a first in our experience, but perhaps the first time with us fully clothed. I think of myself as the punctuation mark which sets off each woman in his life from the next one. Tom finds me—always unaccountably available—when a woman exits his life, and we are together till the replacement appears. A friend suggests I’m allowing him to use me. She misunderstands, I think, the nature of power, the folkways of control.
“You have to call Penny,” Tom says to me. He’s in the early-days shock mode that makes a person efficient, if distracted. Penny is his second wife, a force to be reckoned with, if Tom is to be believed. “Call her and tell her what happened.”
“Okay,” I say. I know I won’t call, but I’m not about to say so.
“She might want to come over,” he says. “She can’t stay here.”
“No,” I say. “She really can’t.”
Tom answers his phone again, and I wander back into the living room. Our number has increased. Chantou, Tom’s housekeeper, a slight Cambodian woman, stands in the shadow, and Jonathan’s aunt has arrived along with Penny, the wife I was just instructed to call; she sits perched on the arm of the chair. I’m trying to get into the whole harem mood of the gathering, the many-Mormon-wives vibe, but it just feels like a roomful of disparate people feeling wrecked because a young man has ended his one precious life. But regardless of circumstance, I do not imagine it is the stuff of tight communion that three women in the room have shared the same man’s bed.
There’s the sound of conviviality in the kitchen, hard to explain, impossible to ignore.
No such disturbance here. I look at the women. I’m thinking I have weathered as well as any one of the trio. I met Tom before he married Ruby and have been threaded through his story, woven warp and weft, one strong strand, I like to think, through the years of ardor and his frank confusion. People think the on-again, off-again lover is the victim, but I think in this little scenario, I’m the only one who really gets what she wants.
Ruby says she needs a tissue and four of us jump up to grab the box. The silent man sits on. He may not know he’s here. It occurs to me this tiny living room is like heaven, where all the people in your life are gathered in a little cloak room, some oak-paneled antechamber, to decide for time and all eternity what’s to become of us all. Sometimes I think that I have spent my life sitting in one living room or other with a group of women, sipping tepid tea, under guise of book club, bake sale, candidate debate, telling each other the story of our lives, inventing things like crazy, trying to make it all sound reasonable, even to ourselves.
But tonight the rules are different. There’s a firing squad, all trigger happy, poised to shoot us if we so much as consider telling one white lie. There is an open coffin in the middle of the space, even