If you want to write The
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You can’t, you say to yourself defiantly, pulling the rope tight over
the load in the pick-up truck, save them all. It’s a crapshoot, and it
was her choice, after all, to jump into that river. There was nothing you
could do. You can’t watch over them every minute of every day.
All right. Maybe you should have said something else when she turned at
the door and said, “I have decided to quit writing. Nothing much is
coming of it anyway.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” you said, your thoughts already with the
next client as you raised your left hand good-bye. The right has already
put away her file and reached for another although she isn’t yet out the
“Good talking to you, Mary Hudson. See you next week.” You smile,
waving her out the door. Not dismissively. Never dismissively. Just busy.
And why did she wait until the end of the session to tell you? What could
have been solved at the moment of her leaving? Her time was up. One hour a
week. No more, no less. She knew that.
The rope burns your hands, and the pain feels real and immediate and
comforting. It keeps you, for the moment anyway, from playing that same
scenario over and over in your mind. Keeps you, for an instant anyway,
from feeling guilty for what you have done. Or rather, what you failed to
But then the image of her standing in the door comes rushing back, and you
try to keep it from festering by telling yourself that you are not, after
all, God. That you can’t be perfect all the time. Can’t watch every
small thing you say, be watchful of every gesture. You are only human, for
Heaven’s sake. Tried to squeeze in as many people as you could. Not
because you’re greedy, but because there is so much need. At night, in
bed, just as you drift off to sleep, you remember her, suddenly, standing
in the door. Her words startle you awake. The desperation in her words,
not in her voice, just her words. You promise yourself that you will call
her. First thing in the morning. No. Better at lunchtime. When things
slowed down a little. You’d have more time to talk. Could apologize.
Could tell her that your response was not born of indifference. She should
know you well enough by now to know that you care.
She knows that you have a schedule to keep. She knows that there are
people just like her who need to talk things out. You will say, We’ll
talk about your writing at the next session. Don’t give up ship, Mary.
You are doing well. Just keep writing.
Instead, her husband calls. In the morning. He doesn’t say much. The
essentials. She must have walked all night. Someone saw her jump at four
in the morning. Someone jumped in after her, trying to save her. But she
sank like a stone, they said.
You ask questions, but he does not add anything. It was something she had
mourned in most every session—that he never said anything, not in thirty
years of marriage. Only the essentials. The food, the house, the boys, and
only when it could not be avoided. He knew little of her writing. She
worked only when he was out, putting everything away before he came home.
“Did you ever show him your work?”
- She smiles. For the first time in
weeks. The smile starts in her eyes, a good-natured smile out of deep blue
eyes that mocks you. “Once. The story was triggered by something that
happened in his family. One of his sisters had adopted a little boy who
went bad. He read it as I sat beside him on the floor, looking up at him,
watching his face. There was nothing written in it. Then he said,
‘That’s not the way it was.’ I said that I didn’t try to tell
exactly the way it was. I wanted to explain that, unless you tell people
that you love them, they can’t know. That’s what the story was about.
He gave it back to me, his eyes on the television and turned up the
volume. ‘I don’t think it makes any sense the way you wrote it,’ he
said. For a few hours afterwards, I kept on writing anyway, while his
words grew inside me like poison. Finally, they were too powerful, and I
put the story in the box where I keep all the others.”
After her husband’s monosyllabic call, you understand her better, but
that doesn’t help her now.
That night you start falling in your sleep. Not off a bridge. Never off a
bridge. But out off a window. Or off a cliff. Or off a tall building. Or
out off a plane. And you fall every night from then on, your arms and legs
flailing helplessly. You dread going to sleep. But it’s not the falling
that scares you. It’s the cry for help that won’t come. You know, as
you fall that, if you shout and, shouting, gather all of your strength,
you will be able to open your eyes. But the sound does not come, and you
keep on falling. You cannot bear the blackness that hurls toward you with
immense speed. You know that you will die when you crash into it. Every
night, the horror when you realize that your jaws are welded shut and that
you must fill your body with all the strength you can muster until the
sound comes, finally, after an eternity, inhuman, and you open your eyes.
You lie still, paralyzed, exhausted. Your hand reaches out and turns the
clock with its face to the wall. You don’t even have to look. You know
that it is four o’clock in the morning, and you know that you will not
go back to sleep.
After days and weeks of this, your body is depleted. You are dizzy from
lack of sleep when you walk into the office. But someone looks up at you
expectantly, eager to talk out a hundred troubling things, while you find
it difficult to concentrate on what is being said. And you may not yawn.
Their egos are fragile and, in spite of your assurances to the contrary,
they will think they bore you, and they will feel hurt and rejected.
And who knows what her husband, or someone else, said to her when she came
home after your abominable performance. Sometimes, Camus said, it takes
merely a man not returning the greeting of another.
You check the rope, the knotting, one more time and walk back into the
house for a final check. The movers will get the furniture in a day or so.
They will take it to the house where the woman you had been married to for
the last twelve years will live from now on. You don’t know that house,
and you don’t care to know it. As you don’t care about the furniture.
Because that, along with a good many other things, is trivia now.
You open the closet doors where, for the last twelve years, you had kept
your clothes. The shirts to the right, the pants and suits to the left,
the shoes beneath. You check the shelf where your sweaters were and the
summer shorts. All empty now and white. You close the doors and check the
bathroom one more time. She had taken her things weeks ago and left wide
gaps on the shelves that you stared at as you brushed your teeth.
The phone rings, and you answer it for the last time.
“Would you leave the key under the mat, please? I told the movers
that’s where they’d find it. Just in case I’m late getting there.
Are you done?”
“Yes. I was just walking through one more time. Making sure I didn’t
forget anything. If you find something, send it to Paul.”
There is a pause, and the images that made up your marriage fall into the
pause like pebbles cast, one by one, into a quiet pond on a lazy Sunday
afternoon. Her lipstick on a coffee cup. Two robes hanging side by side at
the bathroom door. Pots and pans rattling in the kitchen. The toilet
flushing in the quiet house while you sat reading. The screen door banging
when she came in from playing tennis. The pillows neatly arranged on the
couch. The percolator bubbling brightly in the morning. The phone ringing
and her voice chirping like a bird, and her laughter, always an octave or
two too high.
the final image that is as significant as the period at the end of a
sentence. Her standing on the steps that lead down into the rec room,
which you had turned into your study. She stands tall, her body athletic.
She has a tennis racket in one hand and the Champaign bottle she has won
at the tournament in the other, while you sit on the floor. Your back
leans against your desk as you stare out at the woods that hug the house
tightly, wondering how you could have lived all these years in the
darkness cast by these dense suburban trees and never cared until Mary
“Why are you home? Did something happen?”
You look up at her who does not move, her hair short and permed, even
though, when she asked a day or so before, you said, “I like your hair
long. Of course, it’s your hair, but since you ask. I like long hair.
Most men do, I think.”
Her asking touched something in you, something soft and tender. As if she
were a child, asking for permission. Or were unsure of herself. Or valued
your opinion, after all.
“It’s cooler,” she said when she came back from the hairdressers.
“Doesn’t get into my face when I play tennis. I hate that.”
You say, trying not to let her see that you have been crying, “One of my
clients committed suicide this morning.”
She does not move. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
You have heard her say the same words, in the same flat voice, to someone
in the country club.
After a pause, she adds, “Is there anything I can get you?”
You hope that she will come down those damn stairs and sit beside you and
put her arms around you, because you feel lost and confused and empty and
mad, mad as hell at something you can’t even define. Maybe at the damn
miseries you listen to day after day. Or at Mary. Or at your damn tears.
Or at the whole fuckin’ world. Or your own cocky sense of superiority
that it would never happen to you. At her seeing you cry. And though
you’ve have told your clients a thousand times that it’s all right to
cry, you have never cried yourself. Until now. And it scares you. As if
you were losing it.
And maybe you are losing it. And you want someone to tell you that it’s
all right to cry. That it’s all right to lose it, once in awhile. You
want her to come down and to comfort you like a child and to tell you
it’s all right to cry and it’s all right to lose it, sometimes, and
it’s all right to lose, sometimes.
But she does not move. She has seen your eyes and the tissue in your hand.
There is something like confusion in her face. And contempt. Only a little
contempt, but it is there, in her perfectly plucked eyebrows that raise
ever so slightly.
“I’m sure it wasn’t your fault,” she says, looking down at you and
stiffens after that meager attempt at consoling you as if it were
distasteful and improper. “I have to take a shower. The garden club
luncheon is at one, and I’m already late. You’re sure there is nothing
I can get you?”
- “No, thanks. I’m all
- She turns and walks up
the stairs. Your eyes follow her tanned legs that once you thought were
the best in town, and for some absurd reason you smile at the memory of
But you also know that this is the end of your marriage. This one moment
when it is suddenly clear to you that you had not given her what she
needed, and she had not given you what you needed, although you can’t,
this moment, define clearly just what that is. You never knew that you
needed anything at all, until you watched those tanned legs walk away from
And when she pauses, on the phone, you hope that she will not get
sentimental on you. Will dig up something that meant something once. Offer
eternal friendship. Cry. Say, ‘Remember when ...?’
Instead, she says, “You will call me, will you? Sometimes? Let me know
how you are?”
You hang up, and the sores the rope has left burn, suddenly, like fire.
You rub your hands, lightly, run cold water over them, and the pain
subsides a little.
You lock the house and put the key under the mat as she had asked and
check the tarp over the few things you want to hang onto one more time.
Books. Not many. Fiction, mostly. You have donated your professional books
to the local library.
You put the key into the ignition, and the truck roars and drowns the
feeling of loss that wants to surface and that you don’t want to feel.
Somewhere along the road, you will have the muffler checked, though the
roar makes you smile. It reminds you of having been young and having just
such a truck and it sounded great and impressive and powerful. You wait
until the engine calms to a rhythmic tucker before you look at the house
one more time.
It is an unassuming house, brick, with blind windows, and dark. Dwarfed by
the trees, it is neither friendly nor unfriendly. It lacks personality. It
looks small from the road, although it is roomy. You had discussed its
possibilities endlessly when you first moved in. But in the end, things
stayed the same. So much else took precedence, and you fitted your life
into that of the house after awhile.
It was home, anyway, for a while.
You pull out and head west, toward desert country, where the rivers are
shallow and disappear into the ground in the summer. Maybe it will stop
you from falling at night.
She was an unassuming woman, her blond hair braided on top of her head in
a sort of crown. When she talked, you studied that crown, puzzling over
the intricacy of the braiding, which struck you as quintessentially
feminine. You had to resist the notion of getting up and coming around
your desk and undoing the crown and the braid to see how long that hair,
falling in waves down her back. Weighing it in your hands like gold.
“Sometimes,” she had once said, “I would like for him to look at
If you want to write The
Good American Diary
of a Naive The
on the Fencepost Short Stories
Info Memories of