Valentine’s Day makes me think of committing suicide.
Not in a figuratively contrarian, “oh those cynical greeting card companies” sort of way, but because, 10 years ago, the old man who lived across the street from my parents’ home picked Valentine’s Day to put a revolver to his head and pull the trigger.
Admittedly, at the time, the significance of the date didn’t register with anyone cobwebbed to that tragic event until well after the muffled shot startled his wife downstairs. Until after a shaky-voiced phone call drew my father and I across the street into that high, white, unwelcoming home. Until after I passed a grieving old woman on a narrow staircase and went searching for a life unmade. For a man who used to be called Josef.
Death and unemployment
I had come home for the weekend from Martinez, a rubbled little refinery town in the East Bay that was starting to symbolize the internal disarray of my professional life. My first real journalism job was turning out to be a bust—I worked for a madman who papered his employees with bad checks and was loathed by the community. My apartment was a derelict hovel outside of which domestic disputes and car break-ins kept me up. The nattering, 85-pound methamphetamine addict with caved-in cheeks (who used to be a beauty queen, according to the police chief) was starting to haunt my dreams as much as she haunted historic downtown’s neglected streets. And Steve—a sweet, stammering, middle-aged reporter who was the only person as dumb as me to work for a newspaper that didn’t pay us—was gallantly soldiering through cancer treatments. He rarely discussed his worsening condition and never complained. The most he did was periodically excuse himself from the main office, moldered with carcassed mousetraps, to go throw up in the bathroom.
Less than a year after the paper went under and scattered the remaining few of us to distant corners, I got word that he died. A mutual acquaintance asked me to write something for his remembrance, and I agonized so much that I finally called Steve’s cellphone and listened to it ring, wondering what I’d do if someone actually picked up.
But that shock was more insulated than the one I visited a decade ago. And in a counterintuitive way, it was a privilege to witness the immediate aftermath of a person’s decision to die with such crisp violence.
You see, the man who lived across the street was an Austrian-born septuagenarian slipping into dementia. He’d be taking his afternoon constitutions around the cul de sac during a hot summer day and, the next instant, awaken to an alien new reality. Sweat beading down his pale forehead and soaking the woven polo shirts that hung loose to his skeletal frame, a man suddenly out of time and place, trying to figure out the score.
Josef fell once, my mother recalled, tumbling down a declining sidewalk like an old vaudevillian doing one last pratfall.
I couldn’t imagine what it was like to have just awareness to realize you were losing your mind, to glimpse the stars going out across the firmament, one by one.
One summer when I was back home from college, the old man’s wife left to visit their native land for about a month. Every afternoon around 3 p.m., he came across the street and rapped the door with three sharp knocks.
“Hullo! Is your mother or father home!” he’d bark.
They wouldn’t be back from work for another couple of hours, I’d explain. He’d soak up the information, nod once and promise to return.
He’d then fix his small eyes on me and hold out his hand for what was always a bone-shattering clasp. “Rasheed!” he’d smile. “I got it right this time, yes?”
I never had the heart to correct him.
Anyway, the old man returned as promised each evening to sit with my folks and drink wine in the backyard as the sun disappeared behind the front of the house. He’d talk about old times and flirt with my mother. On more than one occasion, they spoke of death.
Specifically, my mother asked him what he thought happened after we die.
“Nothing,” Josef sniffed. “We are in the ground. That is it.”
Doorways and discoveries
It’s about 9 a.m. and I’m trying to leave the house when my dad asks me to help him move this massive planter the old man across the street gave him. I grumble a little, and kind of bitchily plop my bag on the floor before hunching down and squaring up against the formidable houseplant. Its base feels weighted with heavy stones and the plant’s noodled throat is too spindly to clasp and pull. It’s a difficult and clumsy whipple, and I wonder if Josef was trying to tell my parents something about himself by donating it.
The two of us shove and drag and lift this thing across the second floor in halting fashion until the phone titters. Glad for the excuse, I skip to the office and answer it.
It’s the old man’s wife; her voice isn’t right.
Even though I’m jogging, I feel like I’m moving slow. Everything feels slow. I reach the precipice where my father stands, a little out of breath. His eyes are solemn.
“Josef killed himself,” my dad says, then disappears behind a bright red door.
I make to follow him, but become suddenly aware that: 1. I’ve never been inside this house before and 2. I have no idea where the body is. Is he right on the other side of the door, hanging from a ceiling fan, slumped in a bathtub? I’m reeling from a lack of necessary data.
Josef isn’t on the other side of the door, but his wife is. She wails inconsolably from the bottom of a carpeted staircase. She’s blind and adrift, and appears unreachable by speech or consolation. My father tries anyway, murmuring soft things to her and gripping her heaving shoulders. I try to add to his purpose, but my words die in the wilted musk of this time capsule home, with its outdated furniture and 1980s wallpaper patterns. I’m given a phone to call 911 with, and make a bad job of the task, speaking in vague generalizations so as to avoid rhetorical daggers like “suicide” and “killed himself” within earshot of the senseless widow. The dispatcher, a weary voice poking through raspy fuzz, instructs me to locate the body and describe the scene in detail.
“She, uh, wants someone to go upstairs and, um, look,” I tell my dad, shrugging at the landline cord anchoring me to this floor.
He nods, turns around and, with brilliant comedic timing that would double me over with laughter if not for the terribly heavy moment, produces a portable phone for my unhappy expedition.
The rest of what I recall comes to me as if visions from a childhood nightmare. There was a glaze to the air that happens when the morning sun slices through blinds and shutters and catches on the dust particles floating through still air. I remember a maze of shut doors on each side of a long hallway, gathering my courage with each turn of the knob and pushing through to discover…one empty room after another.
I can’t convey the nauseating sense of expectation that builds from wandering through a strange home looking for a dead body while the static of a piss-poor connection purrs into your ear. It’s both otherworldly and unnervingly familiar.
I remember my dad suddenly appearing behind me, sailing his hand forward, motioning further down the claustrophobic hall. And I remember finally opening the right door.
A crimson flap folded over a burrowed knot in his temple. A dark splatter on the wall. A crooked cross on its back, whiter than white. Translucent.
I don’t know who that was stiffly folded onto a soiled guest bed like a rusted lawnchair, but it wasn’t the old man who came over every day that summer to see if my parents were free to play. It wasn’t the man with the iron grip handshake. It wasn’t the man who got my name wrong again and again, hoping with such desperate kindness that he finally got it right.
Of course we would talk about it during the ensuing days and weeks. How could we not? At some point, it did occur to all of us that the poor bastard, suffering from the early stages of dementia and reeling from a nasty spat with the wife (something to do with spilled apple juice), chose that particular day to trudge upstairs to a guest bedroom, set a stack of green bills on the nightstand and turn his betrothed into a widow.
She stayed with us that night and a few nights after. I’m not proud of this, but I avoided her as much as possible and blamed her for her husband’s death. I saw her as insensitive to her husband’s condition, barking at his lapses, making him seem a fool in mixed company. But marriages, especially long ones, are complex firmaments. I didn’t know of his past as a womanizer or that she was made to feel unpretty or that his softening came at this late point, when he needed her. I only knew he was dead, and that she had scolded him shortly before.
Standing out on their balcony, watching the emergency vehicles scream up the hill, I spotted a neighbor lady screwing her face at the commotion and trying to get a read on the transpirations. Her curiosity was so abject, so ghoulish, that I considered picking up a decorative stone turtle outside the dead man’s door and caving in her skull with it. Then she could ask him in person what happened.
Inside, the initial shock had apparently worn off. The woman of the house complained about the paramedics’ dirty footwear, of the mess her husband left in that room, of the embarrassment he caused her.
But hey, it’s human nature to fixate on the few things we can control, rather than the dark galactic vastness we cannot. There would be no service; the entire family saw to that. What would they have said if there was one? Who would come?
I wouldn’t have. I vowed never again to cross their doorway, and I’ve kept my word. A year or two later, the widow moved back to Austria and a different family with young kids bought the place, tore down the wall of trees blockading the façade, slapped on new paint and, I hope, conducted a spiritual cleanse. I’ve waved at the husband and wife now and again, but have kept my distance.
New hedge garden or no, there are some things you can’t unsee.
Even though I wheeled away from that grisly sight—jamming the phone into my dad’s hand when the dispatcher told me to check the dead man’s pulse and give him mouth to mouth—there was something in it that I was glad to witness.
Don’t get me wrong, seeing a body in that destructed state is horribly traumatic. I didn’t sleep right for weeks. And I’ll never forget Josef’s wooden corpse, frozen in t-shaped descent, or the bloodless skin, or that lower mouth, pawed open like an ancient mausoleum. But that’s sort of the point.
The old man didn’t look like anything I recognized, certainly not like anything resembling a person. The essence of Josef was no longer there. And once he left, what remained behind was little more than a gruesome sack.
I’m not saying he had a soul, or that any of us do. (Who knows?) But he had something. And it left with that bullet.