Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Chapter 3 / Aria

I had no money with which to grieve. Like Ed, I freelanced as a writer and editor. Unlike Ed, I had no special area of expertise. When he died, editorial work was halted on two different textbooks, one in emergency medicine, the other in American history, while harried editors sought—and could not find—an editor with the same combination of intelligence, skill, and speed. 
I applied for food stamps. Two-thirds of my “family income,” as the form described it, had disappeared. In its place I had an expanding accordion file, into which I organized, in separate slots, papers representing my growing financial problems. For example, the $11,000 Ed had in his checking account. Since we weren’t married, I couldn’t touch it. We had discussed this, once. If anything happens to you, your mother will get everything, I said. He had looked appropriately horrified, and given the opportunity—a small life insurance policy, his Keogh account—he left it to me. But he had no will.  
His mother took the $11,000, saying simply, I raised him. 
“She said that?” Jaime stared at me, then mimed closing her mouth with her hand.
“When Ed was little,” I said, “he decided to run away. But he told his mother first. She said OK, but he couldn’t take any of his stuff. I think he was wearing his cowboy suit, and she said she’d bought it for him, it belonged to her.” 
“Jesus.” Jaime looked aside, out the window, then back at me. “He should have gone anyway.” 
“I know. But he hadn’t even started his paper route.” 
He did get away. Through a mix of brains that led to scholarships and the paper route that turned into selling tickets at a movie theater, followed by summer jobs at a Coca-Cola factory and a hospital, he got away. Now he was back there again, reclaimed by the rocky Portsmouth soil. His mother took his body, too, and buried it next to that of his father in a New Hampshire cemetery twenty minutes away from her and more than three hours from me. He was buried after a Catholic Mass, a ritual I took some comfort in, though it would have infuriated Ed. By that point I was too desolate, frightened, and angry to care what he thought.  
I did have friends. They caravanned in three cars to the funeral, transporting me and the dogs. Back home, they wanted to hold a memorial service, for us. “Just tell me whom you want to invite,” said Kathleen. “We’ll write it together. All you’ll have to do is show up.” 
“Thanks,” I said. “Not right now. I have to think about some things.” 
“It could help you think,” she said. “That’s the last thing I’ll say about it.” 
“No,” I said. “But don’t leave me.” 
“Never,” she said. “If you won’t let us mourn, we’ll organize.” 
Kathleen supervised the food. I had always joked that if it weren’t for Ed, I would be trying to live on coffee and breakfast bars. Now that menu was staring me in the face, except for Kathleen, who like Ed, was a terrific cook—they connected that way—and who put together a food chain that brought me a soup or a casserole each week. By myself, I could make it last for days.
Jaime took me to the bank. She had a disabled brother in assisted living, so she was accustomed to dealing with people who couldn’t quite take care of themselves. “She needs to renegotiate her mortgage.” Jaime told the suited woman in an office at the bank.
“And the line of equity against the house,” I said softly. 
They both looked at me, the bank lady through cheerful eyeglasses with leaf-green frames. 
“We took it for the renovations.” 
“I’ll leave you two to talk,” said Jaime. “I’ll be right outside.”
“What else,” said the bank lady gently. 
“The car loan,” I said.  “On the car that was totaled.”
She got out pieces of paper and we talked about them and I tried to listen to what she said. I tried to listen to what everyone said and to read the papers they gave me, which I kept in the new accordion file, one slot for each problem, but I wasn’t listening carefully and I couldn’t make my eyes focus on the papers. 
What I had to think about was this: On that rainy Tuesday morning, exactly one week after my 40th birthday, Ed drove off at 8 o’clock on his way to Dave’s house for their regular weekly meeting. He and Dave functioned as a kind of freelance editorial company without offices, meeting weekly in each other’s houses, and it was Ed’s turn to travel. 
But when Ed’s car skidded off the road, he was 10 minutes and three parkway exits beyond the turnoff for Dave’s road.
He should have turned right, but he didn’t. He kept on going. What haunted me then was not why he went off the road—he braked for a deer, he was changing a cassette tape, he was testing the brakes on the slick road, something he had confessed, out loud, to doing in the past, or he had, for the third time ever in his life, given in to an urge to smoke a Gauloise cigarette while he was driving—but why he was driving where he was. 
“There are a lot of ways to get there from here,” said Dave. It was eight o’clock again, 12 hours after Ed had left the house. Dave and I had sat at the kitchen table while Lauren, his wife, fixed spaghetti with clam sauce. There hadn’t been time for a picturesque covered dish, steaming under a towel; she had grabbed ingredients off shelves and thrown them in a bag.
“He might have decided to double back on one of the town roads,” said Dave. 
He might have. He liked to drive the back roads. He might have found he was running early, decided to check out a new route. The day was misty, with a spitting rain, not a great day for exploring, but not impossible either. He often glanced at a map, even as he drove, never trusting my directions.
He might have been distracted by the radio. He loved music—all kinds, except for the trashy oldies station I liked—and he always listened to music in the car. Just last week we had sat in the car in our driveway five minutes or more, listening to “Un bel di” from Madama Butterfly, my favorite aria in the world. Ed might have figured he couldn’t do something like that in Dave’s driveway without Dave coming out and interrupting the music, so he was going farther south to double back while he listened to something he loved. 
Or, he was driving away. He had left us and was going somewhere else altogether. So unlike him as to be incomprehensible. Not the leaving, but the leaving in silence. I am running away, he told his mother. This time, no one could stop him, if he wanted to. But slipping off, hoping no one would notice, sounded like me, not Ed. He was honest, and more, he knew—didn’t he?—that he would be missed. Not only by me, but also by Jethro. He might have hurt me, figuring that I’d recover and go on, but he would have never, ever, hurt his dog like this.
I thought he was coming to the house, said Dave. That’s all I know remained unspoken between us. If Ed had confided an affair, a dream, an escape plan, Dave wasn’t going to offer it, and I didn’t ask. 
Why do I even think about this? Why ride this train of thought? 
The mail, the desk.

Copyright © Debby Mayer


  1. You've nailed the awful doubts and fears that assail some of us especially in frightening and insecure times.

    Also the inability to pay attention during awful times. I went back to work a few days after my mother died and thought I was fine. Six months later I kept finding little mistakes or omissions I'd made 6 months earlier. Fortunately for my company and me, nothing serioius, but still most enlightening and sobering.

  2. "desolate, frightened, and angry": an appropriate combo for a protagonist facing the aftermath of her lover's death. The pulp (anachronistic in a digital age?) fiction solution is to meet, as grief allows, a new love. Somehow I doubt that's direction DM will take her main character.