“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 if no one can see it. There are years of unremembered history come here tonight with consequences that may kill, but not surprise a one of us.
And in the kitchen there is balance, ballast, counterweight. If we women sit and sigh and let our bodies tell their secrets, the black-clothed, tinted, stapled, pinned and tattooed men and women in the kitchen, seeing out their teens as they turn twenty-nine— the age of Jonathan, the boy whose suicide has called this unlikely meeting—these men and women, hardly young another summer, guffaw and sputter fuck, spill beer, leer and posture when it occurs to them. They have no choice. If Jonathan is well and truly dead, they’re too close to that thin knife-edge themselves, they’re capable of ending their lives, too. Given that, their clamor is not rowdiness. In their peril, no noise is loud enough tonight, no curse too profane.
And we need them here. Jonathan’s dad, he needs them most of all.
“So then.” Penny speaks. Tom always said that she was brave.
“So,” Chantou echoes, but in her native tongue it might mean something different: rice, grandmother, lunacy. I want her to teach us Khmer. We have all night, and I have got a feeling that the language that we know already will hardly fill the bill.
Penny makes a humming sound to signal she’s about to speak again. It’s a churchy sound. I know that Penny is Episcopalian—the church that used to be Republicans at prayer which has evolved to Unitarians who give up gluten for Lent and pray to Buddha’s mother. I think you can just about guess everybody’s religion just by talking to them for two minutes about why the bus is late. I’m saying I think we’re all pretty obvious. Jonathan’s aunt told me earlier that Jonathan was never a regular kid. I wanted to ask her who among us is.
“What do we have then?” Penny says. I have an image of a basket she intends to pass around, we each one expected to make a contribution. Penny: family money and good breeding, for starters. Chantou: peace brought from a country where not even war could do it in. The born-often girlfriend, one likes to think, contributes Jesus. Jonathan’s mother chips in her new sorrow, though its signs are frozen still in icy shock. And I, I bring my bafflement, my cynicism that is only sadness when it is at home.
We all are wearing clothes tonight, fabric draped or stretched to cover bodies, some only Jonathan’s dad has seen and touched with his peculiar care. We are wearing clothes, jackets we will not remove, and selves buttoned up on top of selves. But if we are not very careful, the violent death done in that quarry, in that car, will strip us bear.
“It’s really chilly for this time of year,” I say.
The women pounce with sharp assent, ascend to shrill agreement in a flash.
Jonathan’s dad walks in all brisk and military.
“I have so many calls to make,” he says, but stands, deer-in-headlights in the middle of the floor, reminiscent of a game we played as children, twirled about, then forced to freeze and hold flung poses: Statues.
“Sit down,” I say, and he drops, seeming almost to fall onto the vacant seat beside the silent man. The boys against the girls: another preview of heaven, or remembered junior high school hell. Boys lined up against one wall, girls on the other, giggling, primping in their heads.
“So many people are bringing food by,” says this father, who may now never eat again except by express, mechanical intention.
We don’t know what to say back in reply. There is a danger that anything could trigger a collision with reality. He is a fragile egg shell lying on a roadway where a herd of buffalo is trammeling tonight. He will crack, he will be smashed to smithereens; it’s just a matter now of when.
That, or he will explode. He will self-detonate, and we, every one of us, will be blasted to pieces.
“Did you check the hot water heater?” Chantou asks. I think she chose well what to say. Can we not each of us now offer him a wifely question. There must be appliances aplenty we could send him off to check, though not knowing of course which room might hold a memory he is not steeled enough to bear. Too many metaphors attempt to hold this night in images and stories. There is too much of everything, too many women, too much food, too many Goth-draped friends. We need some open space, a meadow on a hillside in the moonlight with a warm air breeze. We need to be on horseback, every one of us. We need to pound the packed-earth bridle trail and ride hell-bent for leather if we mean to ever reach the morning.
The aunt walks through the doorway, her arms full of coats and sweaters. “Jonathan’s clothes,” she says. “from the mudroom, where shall I put them?”
How could we any one of us invent a reply.
The phone rings when I go out to the kitchen to get Ruby a cup of coffee. I answer it. It’s not as though there’s anyone here better suited to talk to whoever it might be.
“We wanted to do a feature story on the boy,” a man’s voice says. The boy? “It would be a memorial of his life.”
“Who is this?” I try to sound as mean as I am feeling.
“Paul Mitchell, as I said, from the Daily Journal Recorder. We could make this into a tribute to the young man’s life.”
“What are you talking about?”
“A tribute we would write, a feature story on the young man.”
“Yes, we know.”
The aunt walks into the kitchen.
“We thought you died,” she says. I frown. “The coffee,” she says. “For Jonathans’ mother.” Nobody ever calls her by her name. Jonathan’s mother. Tom’s wife. He says she used to surf; he said she was a hippie. Hard to believe, even if a hippie was, and probably still is, a fairly low-energy, low-tech thing to be. I see her shapeless clothes and hair and life, and I can see how on a girl of twenty it might be a thing that you could give a name to.
“Could we come over for an interview?” the man on the phone says.
“Are you out of your mind?” I hang up, letting the receiver make the question rhetorical.
Chantou comes in and starts to clear the counter. The aunt grabs my sleeve and pulls me into the small pantry alcove, although the kitchen’s empty now, the younger people having moved their beery cursing to the dining room. They’ve drunk enough they’re happy to sit down. I wonder if it might not be a good idea for them to just move in, at least for now.
“We have to do something,” the aunt says. “Tom doesn’t want a Christian burial.”
“I thought that suicides didn’t have the option.”
“That’s just a Catholic thing. There is nothing, I mean nothing, the Episcopal church will stick at. The church exists for the sole purpose of not rejecting anything. Tom says he won’t pretend that there’s a God, not even for his son. He says Jonathan’s gone. He’s dead. The end. He refuses to pretend that Jonathan is in some happy place.”
Penny and Jonathan’s girlfriend walk into the kitchen. This means Tom and Ruby—the two parents—are left in the living room with only the silent man.
“Who’s that man in the living room?” I say.
“Tom, Jonathan’s father,” Penny says.
“No, the other man,” I say.
“No idea,” she says. “He could be Jesus Christ for all I know.”
“Should we leave Tom and Ruby alone in there?” I say.
“They’re going to have to get used to it sometime,” Penny says.
So what do we think?” the aunt says. “Tom says no Christian burial. He says dead is just dead. Full stop. If there is nothing after death,” she says, “I’m cashing in my chips tonight.”
I take a sharp intake of breath that makes a silly whistle sound. I put my hand over my mouth. Jonathan is the third person to take his own life in three generations of her family. At the very best it seems a want of feeling for her to mention suicide.
“Do we want to know?” Penny says, as though once we have decided the answer will be given or withheld.
“Well, if there’s some heaven arrangement, then of course we do,” the aunt says.
“Yes,” I say, “but if there is some heaven arrangement, then there is some hell arrangement too, if I have the story straight.”
“No one believes in hell,” Penny says.
“I do,” says Jonathan’s girlfriend.
“Well, you would,” the aunt says.
“It just doesn’t seem to me to follow that it’s something decided by consensus,” I say.
“It’s not like the knowledge would change anything,” Penny says. “It isn’t as though if you knew it would really call for any major adjustments. We all go through our lives being about as nice as we can be already.”
And in whose religion exactly do heaven and hell rest upon the basis of our niceness?
Tom walks into the kitchen which changes the topic of conversation pretty quickly; in fact, it feels like it alters the oxygen level and the balance of ions and dust motes in the air. Everyone gets chatty, a surfeit of good will, as welcome as ten tuna casseroles the day of a funeral. I walk back in to the living room to Ruby, now alone, deserted by her onetime husband and also it seems by the silent mystery man.
“Who was that man?” I’m thinking it might be good for her to move or speak.
“He was just someone,” she says, and takes in a deep breath.
I could easily see her sinking without notice into a coma, and then just sitting here until forever. I see the end of the world that way: a line in the sand. Final Judgment Day, and then it starts: forever. On that resurrection morning forever will begin. (We all walk around with some loopy dogma we believe. That’s only part of mine.)
“I think I’d like to get back together with Jonathan’s dad now,” Ruby says.
“What?” Surprise escapes into the word unaltered. “What?” I say again, this time constrained.
“When we were married,” she says, “I never really took it all that seriously. We only married because I was pregnant.” This much of the story I know. Never strikes me as the most brilliant of plans. “But I’m thinking divorce was a mistake. We should have stayed together. We should be together now. We tried to monkey with the system.”
“Hummm,” I say. “Well, they say when you lose someone you love, it’s better not to make any big decisions right away.”
“Oh, no,” she says. “I’ve had this in my mind for a while. Off and on really. For like ten years, I think.”
“Well, there’s no hurry then,” I say.
“Yes,” she says. “I think there probably is. We’re not getting any younger.”
They’re really not.
Tom has told me she’s a recluse, hardly ever leaves the house. Maybe being here tonight with all these people makes her feel a little more proactive. Maybe that, or maybe tragedy has jarred her loose, made what has been seem not like what should be.
“Could you talk to him?” she says.
“Who?” I say.
“Tom. Could you tell him it’s not sudden, it’s not because of Jonathan, tell him I’ve had it on my mind a while. Tell him I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to wait.”
I got pregnant by Tom, one time. It was just after Ruby got pregnant with Jonathan. That many lifetimes ago. I didn’t have the baby. Tom and I agreed. They told me I wouldn’t be able to have kids after that. But Jonathan’s mother had her baby. Tom‘s baby. She had him for twenty-nine years, and then in one deafening blast, she doesn’t anymore.
So, which of us was blessed?
There are six women here. One man. We started out the evening with two men, but one may have been a phantom. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
We should call in a U.S. census taker, make her write this on a piece of paper printed by the government in light blue ink. Six women. Two of them: former wives, one a lover, a sister, a maid, and one young Christian who will disappear forever from Tom’s life in a week’s time. Six women. One man: spread far too thin. One child, grown, then gone into the deep forever; another child, not ever born. Do we count the phantom man? We will have to see.
Oh, I almost forgot, and the drunken twenty-somethings in the dining room. (And after they are counted, what are we to do with them?)
Someone should write this all down. Do the math.
Tell us what the numbers mean.
“Do you think Tom will marry me again?” Ruby says.
I look up and see her round, empty face, her pale, lash-less eyes, the huddled bulk of her, the vacancy she is. And Tom walks in, forced vigor, rigorous charm I never could account for, high color, posture ramrod aligned. Even dead, his jawline will be strong and fine.
“The ladies are leaving,” he says. He has decided that the day is over.
Ruby takes a deep breath. “I think I’ll stay,” she says.
I bend and kiss her cheek, and Tom walks me to the door. I turn to face him and he takes both of my hands in his.
“I want you to forgive me,” he says. “I’m going to ask everyone to forgive me. Everyone.”
But you can’t ask Jonathan, I want to say. You can’t ask your mother, who died the way your son did. You can’t forgive yourself.
We don’t need God; we’re doing fine. But I’m damned if I’ll pretend that anybody else can save us.
I look into Tom’s eyes; in my mind I am already in my car, already driving fast away.
“I forgive you,” I say.
He only winces though, then turns, and with a rough pull, opens the old, heavy door on what will be the night.
Outside, the air is fine. Cold and made to breathe. Standing by the car next to mine, I see the man who sat with us inside.