Content Note: Suicide
Blue was her favorite color.
He touched the glass case one last time before returning to the desk, but his handprint lingered on, an ethereal smudge above the backlit, cerulean shadow of her face. No matter how often he tried to write their story, he couldn’t shake free of the lies he had built around them. He suspected that even if he could discover the truth, it would pass him by unrecognized, as ephemeral and false as a balladeer’s concept of love. Love knew you better and could hurt you worse. Where fear faded so did love, and he nurtured a delightful terror, a trembling fascination bred in tales. He wanted to reach her and make her understand, but all he had left was the elusive call of memory.
A decade out of fashion, his pin-striped suit hung well on him. A man of occasion, his father would have called him, with a head full of gray hair, a filigree of wrinkles around his gray eyes. His manicured nails adjusted his tie one final time before his appointment. The door chimed fifteen minutes earlier than expected. If he didn’t have to inspect the merchandise he wouldn’t have bothered. The living offered little except their stories.
“May I help you?” he said.
“You the old dude who buys stuff?” A young boy looked past him with heavy-lidded, half-upturned eyes. His camouflage hoodie, drawn up, shadowed most of his face. He under-enunciated his words.
“I am. I’m also quite busy. I have a one o’clock appointment.”
“Yeah, with me. JaQuon Wilson.”
“I see…JaQuon. Shouldn’t you be in school?”
“I should be a lot of things.” The bulk of the hoodie hid his husky frame and JaQuon allowed his wrinkled clothes to hang from him in calculated slovenliness. His book bag, half-slung over his shoulder, slid into the crook of his elbow before he hitched it back. He avoided eye contact, all the while clutching a skateboard to his chest, protecting it as if it held all the secrets of childhood.
“Is that the item in question?”
“Yeah.” JaQuon gripped the skateboard even tighter.
“It won’t do. I have quite…specific requirements.”
“I know what you want. You think I’d be caught in this creepy joint if I didn’t have what you wanted?” His determined eyes half-pleading with him, JaQuon puffed up his chest and stepped broadly, all bravado and empty swagger.
The man’s hard-soled shoes sat by the doorway. Walking barefoot into the room, he checked his watch, age spots, like tiny scars, on the back of his hand.
The great thing about wealth was that things mattered less. Not the trappings of power. Not the social jousting of civilized behavior behind smiles like gleaming swords. Money excused eccentricities and only the dreams mattered. That was the last lesson his father had taught him before he went away, leaving behind a blood-splattered envelope—addressed to him in exquisite calligraphy—shaded by the slumping body with the large hole in its head on the couch.
Thigh-high clusters of golden ropes of grass, pallid from lack of water, provided beauty in their dying. Burrs and brambles clung to his pants and socks, scraping his thin skin as he walked without care, a boy with the blush of ruddy peach in his cheeks. Resting in the crook of a low-lying branch, he daydreamed of the castle atop a hill he would one day build for a princess.
Glass enclosed the porch. He dreamed of tending hydrangeas, lilies, and morning glories. From the patio they would sit and watch the sunsets together. The paint fresh and the wood polished, the furniture stopped short of being inviting, museum pieces meant to be stared at and appreciated, but not for too long. Serviceable rooms held little decoration as not to give too much away. No knickknacks, bric-a-brac, or curios; no pictures, no portraits. Thick curtains didn’t rustle when he moved past them, a ghost in his own home.
“Your house is bigger on the inside,” JaQuon said.
“Is it? I hadn’t really noticed.” He leaned down and whispered. “It lies, you know. The walls have ears and move to confuse you when you aren’t paying attention.”
“You ain’t right in the head, old man.”
“You’re the one trying to sell me your skateboard,” he said. “Tell me about yourself.”
“Ain’t much to tell. I go to Persons Crossing Elementary. I’m nine years old.”
“What’s that? Fourth grade?”
“Yeah, I stay with my grandparents. My mother doesn’t come around much anymore.”
He thought he’d seen JaQuon before: a latchkey kid, after a fashion, who punched in the code to the garage—probably because he so often lost his key. JaQuon wandered about the sitting room, without shame or pretense, directed by the insatiable curiosity of childhood.
“So what’s your deal anyway?” JaQuon studied an empty curio cabinet.
“Word is you buy stuff people died on. That’s the story anyway.”
“Stories take on a life of their own. Voices of the past, grief working itself out in patterns of familiarity. Objects hold memories of a life lived, but the memories of the death outweigh the memories of the life.”
“You talk funny.”
“Do you wish to hear this or not?”
“It started with the couch my father died on. My mother set it outside to be hauled away, but I had it brought to my study. She never came near my room after that. When I curled up on it, I could still feel his presence. At night I could still smell him, the scent of loneliness and pain.”
“Dang.” JaQuon gave the word an extra syllable for emphasis.
“My collection has grown over the years. That chair over there? A grandmother of seven fell asleep while knitting and watching her soap operas only to never wake up. A man stroked himself out on the toilet, not to put too crass a point on it, straining during his morning sit down. It reminds me that death comes at any time, and there is no place safe from it.”
“You’re making that up,” JaQuon said.
“Like most stories, some parts are real. But they comfort me.”
Death was separation, leaving unchanging echoes of the people they used to be. He was the caretaker of a grove of memories, his and others. He kept them like a scrapbook, taken out and revisited, an echo chamber of death. Grasped onto like a skateboard he couldn’t bear to let go of.
A time of remembrances, of the day, of days past, of summertime dresses and walks along the canal, of hands held. Her leg brushed against his and he still received the same thrill from her presence as the first day he saw her.
A farmhouse had stood on the field when he finally bought it. He covered her blue eyes as he walked her to the spot.
“This will one day be your castle,” he said.
“But it’s such a beautiful farmhouse.”
“We erase history when the memories become unbearable.”
She leaned into him and kissed him on the cheek. She filled his spaces. That was what love did.
“What am I going to do with a skateboard?” he asked.
“What did you do with the couch?” JaQuon said.
“I can sit on the couch.”
“You can skate on the skateboard. You can sit on the motherfucker for all I…”
“Watch your language. You have plenty of words to choose from in order to express yourself. Why limit yourself to the basest ones? It’s so…common.”
“You a weird old dude.”
“You haven’t told me the story of the skateboard.”
JaQuon peered at him, his eyes suddenly seeming too large for his face. His legs quavered and he sat down on the couch without thinking. “It was my brother’s. I was the oldest. It was my job to protect him, you know. My mom used to always hover over us. Wouldn’t even let us walk down the two courts to our friends’ house.”
“It’s a mother’s job to overprotect. It’s difficult to let their children rush off into the dangers of the world. As if they can keep you safe by force of will and control.”
“Sometimes it was like she wasn’t happy unless we were rolled up in bubble wrap before going outside. Playing on the lawn, where only she could see us.
“Demarcus really wanted this skateboard. We tag-teamed Mom for weeks, wearing her down. Demarcus was in third grade, so if she let him have a skateboard, she’d have to give me more room to…be. She bought him this board. Plus knee pads. Elbow pads. Mouth guard. Cup. And a helmet. The next two weeks she insisted on watching him learn to board. And we counted down the days until we’d be able to run free. She began to let us go. Just a bit. We could go over to the next court to play. She even stopped driving by…like we wouldn’t notice her car. Though a couple times I swear I saw her peeking over bushes. Eventually, she trusted us to return. ‘Don’t worry about it, Mom, we just ride around on sidewalks and we just sort of push ourselves along.’
“No one wore a helmet. Definitely not our friends. That stuff was for babies.
“Demarcus wasn’t even going that fast. He turned the corner and the wheels stopped when it hit a break in the sidewalk, but he didn’t. It threw him from the board. I watched him fly through the air, his arms flapping like a drunk bird. He landed head first into the sidewalk and I laughed.
“It was like one of those funniest home videos. But then he didn’t get up. They said it did something to his brain and I had laughed.”
JaQuon didn’t wipe away his tears, probably wasn’t aware that they trailed down his face. “So, you want to take it off my hands?”
The man leaned forward. In this chair a man cheered on his favorite basketball team and had a heart attack. “Five dollars.”
“I can do better than that.”
“I didn’t amass my wealth by throwing good money after bad. I make wise investments. Hold onto it for a while. Offer’s good. Whenever.”
It wasn’t about the money. JaQuon couldn’t bring himself to allow it to go out in the trash. For him to let it go was to begin to let go of his brother and, as painful a reminder as the skateboard was, forgetting his brother was worse.
Death pruned childhood. Sometimes to grow you have to lose something. Sometimes you have to force people to grow and change, shock them back into life, before they become a ghost trapped in a museum.
She found the first stray by the back door, sick and wounded. A large white husky with eyes the color of overripe persimmons. She couldn’t leave it behind: she had already pledged her heart to it. Rivulets of blood streaked when she shifted its matted fur from unseen wounds. Its head lay heavy in her lap, it didn’t move, but simply closed one eye. Its tongue lolled across its lips in pathetic repose. She fed it pieces of torn chicken by hand. Stroking its fur for its pleasure, then for hers, as she nursed it back to full health.
He bought the dog a mate and they patrolled the grounds, fiercely protective of her.
A cat park had once circled the outer gardens, but she was allergic. He loved cats, but he loved her more. Each cat was buried in a carpeted casket under a brass nameplate. His shoes click-clacked, click-clacked, click-clacked along the plated sidewalk each day.
“Come upstairs. I have something I wish to show you,” he said.
“I ain’t going upstairs with you,” JaQuon said.
“You’ve already come into my house.”
“You could be a pedometer.”
“True. And you are wise to be cautious. I was going to show you her bed.”
“I for damn sure don’t need to go to your bedroom with you.”
“You’re right. I don’t know what I was thinking. I get so caught up when I tell the stories. I miss her.”
“Helen. My wife. I was going to show her to you. I’m not going to touch you. I just need someone to know. Someone who’d understand.”
An unspoken knowledge leapt between them. JaQuon nodded. The old man led the way up the stairs without any tiresome soliloquies about the state of his bones or kidneys.
The first time he saw her, she captivated him from the stage of the vaudeville show. She had yellow hair straight out of a fairy tale and eyes the color of a frost-covered pond. Her smile, a melancholy upturn of her lips. She wasn’t the strongest dancer, her steps too pensive and calculated—clunky prose that flowed from the head, not from the heart.
He wanted a chance to be near her, to watch her up close. Every time you see a beautiful woman alone, someone was tired of being with her. That was the secret men told themselves. He dared asking her for a dance. Hers was an inexhaustible beauty. He feared touching her. She might have consumed him. The difference in their age was nothing, he told himself.
She loved to swim and spent hours picking out her bathing suit from J.C. Penny’s. He would build the largest pool in Indianapolis. Large enough for a hotel, but just for them. Far away from ogling eyes. The inside painted blue and lit from underneath, its glow leant a bilious tinge to the hillside. They swam in the summer months, often sharing too many glasses of wine. Lost in their moment, an eternity in routine.
They stopped in front of a set of double doors.
“Is this your bedroom?” JaQuon asked without any nervousness.
“It was her favorite room in the house.” He rested his hand on the door handle attempting to gather the strength to open it again so soon. “When we got married, her father stood up during the reception. He wanted me to take care of his little girl. All of her. They had a tradition of saving everything. He handed me a box. It had all of her baby teeth.”
“That shit is weird.”
“I remembered thinking thank God I didn’t marry their son. I’d have his bronzed foreskin or something in here.”
JaQuon stared at him for a heartbeat then stifled a chuckle.
“Do you know how the Egyptians preserved the dead?”
“They were into mummies and stuff. My mom took us to the Children’s Museum back when…” JaQuon trailed off.
“Their funeral rites were the ritual re-enactment of the acts that raised their god Osiris from the dead. Life, even death, boiled down to ritual. The act of remembrance, more than the process. They took a long hook, shoved it up the nose, and took out the brain. They cut open the side and emptied the abdomen then washed out the cavity with wine then stuffed it with myrrh and frankincense.”
“Ain’t that the stuff they brought baby Jesus?”
“Yes. Then they sewed the body back up and wrapped it with bandages of fine linen cloth smeared with gum to glue it to the body.”
“Like a cloth coffin? Sounds like they were cheap. Wrap someone in a sheet and call it a day.”
“Except that they then put them in coffins. They wrapped each of the organs and put them in Canopic jars. Each one shaped into the form of a head of the four sons of Horus, who was charged to protect them.”
“That sounds cool.”
“You young lot want the scares and blood of it all. Always with the blood—never enough evisceration for your prurient minds. But for us, the old folks, we cling to the hope of contact with the other side. We want some…consolation. Consideration. Something from that place. To let us know it’s okay. That it’s all worth it. But the dead keep their secrets to themselves.”
Their first Christmas together, he spent three weeks in the woods hanging lights. Cobalt lights, purchased from all the stores in the city, strung in the trees surrounding the house. When he turned them on, the shimmer haloed the tree tops for miles around.
The lights bathed them in sapphire luminescence when they stepped in. JaQuon twirled, wide-eyed, as he took in the room. A bank of shelves lined the wall. Jars, like soldiers at parade rest, awaited inspection. Dark shapes bobbed in clear liquid, like raw meat drained of their color. The serpentine coil of intestines piled in one jar. Kidneys floated in another. Liver. Stomach. Lungs. On and on, a collection of viscera cleaned and preserved. Attending their distant mistress. On a stand next to her glass coffin was her heart.
“They couldn’t get her eyes right. They were the most delicate shade of blue, but they lost something in the process.”
The old man ran his hand along the glass surface, the reliquary of memories, wanting all the things he had left behind. A forgotten pair of glasses here, her favorite pen there. He was afraid to disturb anything. Hoping in vain that it wouldn’t hurt as much tomorrow.
“I never want to know who I am without her.” He left one hand on the glass sarcophagus, a final lingering touch before turning back to JaQuon. “I think I’ll purchase your skateboard, after all. It’s all right to let him go. Five hundred dollars suffice?”
JaQuon nodded absently, his revulsion rooting him to the spot.
“I thought I knew what I was looking for. You know how there’s a word on the tip of your tongue, just out of reach. I’ll know when my collection is complete.” He pressed the bills into JaQuon’s hand then checked the time on his pocket watch which no longer told time, knowing that the time was always theirs. His and Helen’s. “I suppose it’s time for you to go.”
The first time he told her he loved her, she said she didn’t believe him. Trust was a razor, she said, and belief had to be earned. The threat of competition, the possibility of her absence reduced his breath to hollow gasps.
He couldn’t keep her forever; she had never been his. However, he could watch her sleep, stroke her cool cheek, brush her hair from her face. She would lie, silent and cold, the only time she would let him dote on her. A memory preserved. Her eyes were blue.
He had words to describe his love.
[But it was the love written in the margins of journals. His alone.]
© 2013 by Maurice Broaddus Originally published in The Book of the Dead. Reprinted by permission of the author.