The local newspaper saves obituaries for the weekend edition. All week long the column is calm as old dishwater, but on Sunday there is a zealous burst of pictures and dates. The rush gives the impression that everyone expired during one unlucky sweep — the old people dying in hospital beds, the young people dying vague deaths at home — in a weekly cull.
Recently the neighbor boy died. Deb Hartley’s son, Chris. Self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head, in the basement, next to the laundry machine, and it was his mother who discovered him. He was 23. The morning of his death, I watched out a side curtain as a team of uniformed people hauled out objects that had been soiled. They laid each thing carefully on the Hartleys’ front lawn before going back for more. Boxes of Christmas ornaments, blocks of carpeting, a crate of books. There must have been half the basement out there.
The last item removed from the house was Deb, prostrate and inconsolable. She was also deposited on the lawn. A gloved paramedic knelt over her and administered a shot like a vet would to a lame horse, and even from as far away as I was I could see her whole body relax. I also noticed there was a dark smear on her shirt. The stain was black-red and near her breast, where one would hold a baby. I turned away, dizzy.
Tragedy! everyone said. A tragedy. And the obituary had read, that following Sunday, “…died at home.”
Here, everyone knows everyone. Chris had moved back in with his mother a year ago and set up his room in the basement. He’d just been laid off from the factory two towns over and Deb had been having some health troubles, so it worked out. At the time, when Deb confided in me how blessed she felt to have Chris back home, I’d almost been envious. My daughters left home as soon as they finished high school and never looked back. But now, in the few weeks since Chris died, some kind of jinx falls over me when the phone rings. I’m afraid it will be one of my children making a plea for refuge I cannot refuse, the beginning of an end. It’s a foolish thing, looking for Chris’s warning signs in my own daughters.
Deb isn’t looking for anything. Her windows have been dark for the past month while she sleeps off the memory.
As a kid, Chris would come over to my house when it snowed. He and his little brother sledded down our hill with my daughters. Afterward, everyone trooped inside to drip-dry next to the furnace while I made a hot lunch. They would be outside for hours, sledding and building forts and slides, only coming indoors when their fingers were wet and numb through their gloves.
But one January afternoon, I found Chris standing in my living room, his snowsuit dripping on the frayed area rug. He was holding an old photograph of myself and my brothers. In the picture I was just old enough to be recognizable.
I was surprised to see him in the house alone. I said his name and asked where the other children were, but he didn’t respond. He was standing next to the front window, where all the family pictures sat on the sill, some of them framed and some of them loose. Dull mid-morning light filled up the room.
I repeated his name, gently, but again he didn’t hear. Finally, he looked up at me with an odd expression and held out the photo. This was you? was all he said. His voice quavered, and his eyes had wrinkled into an unbelieving panic. His cheeks, mottled by cold, looked ashen underneath.
I put my hand on his shoulder and smiled and tried to say something wry, funny, to lighten him up, but his face never changed. He stared and stared at the picture until I took it away from him. He’d been gripping it so tightly the corner had creased.
This was ten, fifteen years ago. All the children were young then. For a few years it seemed like they’d be young forever.
I scan the obituaries with different eyes now. I wonder about Chris, about all of these “died at homes,” each one a riddle. They stick with me now, piling up every Sunday.
Last week I visited Deb. She still cannot believe it. She is still waiting for him to walk in from another room. I told her I understood although I couldn’t understand how she felt exactly, not really.
But secretly, privately, I understand enough. Chris used to beep hello as he drove by our house. When I last saw him in the grocery store, he was picking out cantaloupes like anyone else. And on the day he died, as I watched the clean-up crew carry out a bloody mattress, the splattered hamper, a shrouded mound on a stretcher, I couldn’t help but think of it: Chris gripping a photo in winter-raw fingers, snow melting off his little shoulders, that small, earnest face — This was you?
Ashley Hutson lives in rural Maryland. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in several journals, including Fiction International, McSweeney’s, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Conium Review, and The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. Read more at www.aahutson.com.
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