~This piece was previously published in New York Stories (2004).
Melissa asks us each to write four sentences – three true, one not true, and then we will read them and have everybody guess the false one. I’m not sure how this is supposed to make us less likely to try to off ourselves again, but it’s probably as likely to succeed as any other plan. I’ve been here three days – 259,200 seconds at tonight - and it seems to me a full half of what we’re asked to do here makes suicide the sensible alternative.
But what do I know? They say a person never kills himself for the reason he thinks he’s doing it, which seems to me a real kick in the teeth. I mean, if you cash in your chips early, you like to think you’ve got at least the whys and wherefores figured. But hey, I like to think these people know their stuff. I’d hate to think that all these Melissa’s are as befuddled as the rest of us who pick up pills and razor blades for reasons we will die not knowing.
I write: I have two brothers, I have three brothers, I have four brothers, I have five brothers, for my four sentences Actually, all four sentences are true. I did have five brothers till one died in the Gulf War, then four, till they invented AIDS, then three, till 9/11. I have two this afternoon. My last shrink said she hoped the irony of these American watermark deaths did not escape me. My shrink here says I didn’t do the pill thing because of any one of them. (Like I say, a person likes to think these people know what they’re talking about.)
The woman beside me reads her sentences. She says she’s had four husbands. (Anyone with that much optimism would most likely be willing to live a hundred years.) She also says she was on Jeopardy, which I seriously doubt. She says her mother was a suicide. Probably true. She says she never had a daffodil or tulip that did not come from a store. Bingo. I say she did a 50-50 split.
The next lady, which she most decidedly is - with her cashmere sweater, pearls, nylons, high heels - says she chooses not to play.
I’m with her.
Melissa smiles her social worker smile, made up of equal parts of practice and chagrin, and says would the group like to explore this. Hello? We wouldn’t bother to walk across the room to peer over the abyss if they told us we could see the
Grand Canyon. This group has done about as much exploring as a person needs to do in this or any lifetime, thank you very much.
The guy beside the non-starter lady - whom I cannot imagine being willing to make the mess it takes to die - says he’s been #1 canoeing and #2 water skiing and #3 snow skiing and #4 parachuting. I know all four are lies. His skin’s that pasty white that tells you he has never one time in his lifetime been out of doors. We have our very own Boo Radley here tonight.
Melissa asks if it’s her turn. Let’s think. If we’re going around a circle, and the six people in a row leading up to you have gone, then yes, it is. Your turn. I think her not committing suicide may be some kind of cry for help. She tells us #1 she cannot cook, #2 she cannot swim, #3 she cannot see a thing without her coke-bottle bottom glasses, and # 4 she can’t eat peanuts without breaking out in hives.
“Who cares?” I say.
I must be getting better.
My shrink, two shrinks ago, says my aggression is good. He said it’s better for me to turn it on the world than on myself. That’s how much he knows. It’s not better. It’s worse, way worse, not because it hurts people, my kind of aggression doesn’t injure, it only annoys. It only pushes people farther away and leaves me more alone in company than when I’m by myself. It only makes me hate me more.
It’s my turn. I’ll let my brothers rest in peace. “I like spaghetti. I like tuna. I like
. I like TB,” I say. Tunisia
Now they’ll up my meds and put me on full watch another day.
After me, my mother started killing off the babies. “There was a baby in my belly, here.” She would put her flat hand on her sunken belly, sometimes grab my grubby hand and put it under hers. “There was a baby right here, and I paid a doctor $700 to take these little reeds and stick them deep inside and kill the little boy. $700.”
I couldn’t think about the money. The Reeds lived directly across the street and I would try to puzzle how a doctor could use any one of them to kill a little boy. “I’m not having any more of you,” she’d say. I would be four or five or six, when she would tell me this when we were home alone, when everybody else in the whole family had gone off someplace safe for the whole day.
I played it both ways: staying miles away from my mother, plus, running like a crazy person whenever I saw any one of the Reeds. The doctor was of course a bigger problem. But even at the age of five, I did convincingly, I thought, play dead on the rare occasions I was taken to his office. Why would anybody, even him, want to kill a little girl who was already dead.
Shrinks go nuts when you tell ‘em stuff like this. But I watch their faces; you can see that it reminds them of things they will not be remembering.
“Some lives are worse than others.” They mostly get around to saying.
I wonder if that is a fact.
When my first brother who died, died, my mother, who was a trapeze artist long before she was a mother, brought us all into the living room: Andrew and Gregory, and Jake and Paul who would not die for nine and twenty years respectively, and I who would try and try to die, only to suffer violent and repeated resurrections at the hands of inept ambulance attendants - who two times in a row got lucky - and one time by a passing nurse well-trained to interfere, and one time by my sister Pammy who was also in the living room that night that Jonah died. My father was off somewhere getting dutifully drunk, a thing he did, I often thought, because he could not think what else to do. Lacunae of imagination. His legacy to us.
Pammy thinks that’s why I try to kill myself, because I am bereft of good ideas. Because I have no hobby, no abiding interest, no friends, but I don’t make quilts or decoupage, or friends, or a great difference in the quality of life for anybody on the planet, because I try to kill myself. I have one foot in that canoe. Even the shrinks don’t get it.
So fine, explain it to me, one shrink said. He had a mole that could not be ignored, right where a mustache might so easily have grown as camouflage. Yet every morning, every sticky summer, every bone-chill winter dawn, he stands and shaves away the one thing that could rescue his whole face.
Explain to me, he said.
First tell me why you shave, I did not say. There is a certain type of violence even suicides will not perform.
Perhaps if you could put it into to words you would not have to act it out. I do not think he was not right.
But suicides do not do self-murder for reasons. If they had reasons they could call somebody up, or shake someone awake, and sit down at the kitchen table in the middle of the night, and talk about them till the first gray light saddened the dark kitchen.
That night, it was a Tuesday - no one in our family dies on any other night - my mother sat us down and said in her shot-dead voice, that one night, years ago, when she was just fourteen, she was on the trapeze way up near the ceiling of the big top, and her hands started to sweat. She said it was the only night, before or after, that that happened. Well, when she swung down from the ceiling to grasp the waiting hands, her fingers slipped. She said they slid off the saving hands like two wet fish, and suddenly she was falling, and that night, she said, she fell forever. It never stopped, she just kept going down and down, and then she hit the net. “It saved my life,” she said. “It made it so that all of you would be ever born. But, I have to tell you and you have to listen. The net isn’t always there.”
Then she pulled herself to standing and said we would drink tea. The brothers frowned – they did not have a clue who would be next – and Pammy said, “That woman drives me crazy, wicked, and insane.” But all of us sat silent, for once intent on deciphering our mother’s message.
When Jake died, Pammy screamed, “So let me guess? No net.” And my mother just looked up at her and held her gaze with her doe eyes. When Paul died, Pammy didn’t come back home. She’s stopped calling me to see if I am still alive. Pammy has decided she will live forever.
My mother was a trapeze artist with the circus, hanging by nothing but her teeth a thousand feet above the earth, and swinging down – a death fall swing – and letting go a death-outwitting nanosecond before she caught the hands that were the only thing that kept her living long enough to reach the tiny platform at the top.
I stopped telling people about her when I was a child. Nobody wants to believe that acrobats and clowns and trapeze artists are real people in real life, who give birth and cook spaghetti, and lose children and make tea. And over time I stopped believing for myself that this what she had for so long been. I stopped believing in the circus. My mother never mentioned it.
She was a trapeze artist – that’s the idiom – and she lost more sons than I can say. There is no idiom for that. And now she walks around all day, miles after mile. And I keep failing suicide, and Pammy goes through life holding her hands over her ears and humming, screaming I can’t hear you, and my father sidles very close to other people when he’s very drunk - but only then - and my living brothers go around all day not dying.
I’m saying that it isn’t simple.
Melissa tells us to write down this sentence: It’s pretty tough to be me, which I don’t write, because I have this thing about not doing what people tell me. But I do agree. It is tough to be me, but I also know for a fact, it’s a whole hell of a lot easier than being anybody else. At least being yourself you got some half-way idea what the program is. Every person in this whole asylum knows exactly what he is about, and in a great deal of detail. Every body in this room has one more suicide left in him - don’t let anybody fool you – and what’s more, he could tell you when and where, with what, and a pretty precise likelihood of failure or success.
Now Melissa tells us to write down, I wish that I was prettier. I slam my notebook shut. I’m out of patience altogether. If I ever get myself straightened around again, I’m coming back here and applying for her job. I know exactly what to get this crowd to scribble in their notebooks.
Babies. Someone else’s or your very own.
Telephone calls from five brothers, two alive, three not dead after all. Chance meetings with your many other brothers on the streets of glory, or in the supermarket.
And a prayer for all the mothers who fell from their trapeze.
That’s the kind of thing can keep a person living for a lifetime.
Melissa calls on me. She says it’s my turn.
That’s how much she knows.
I’m standing in the library after group, after morning group, and before afternoon group. They’re very big on groups here. I think sometimes it’s cause the shrinks are afraid to be alone, not with the patients, but alone with themselves and just one other person. Shrinks need a lot to keep them steady in the water.
The morning group ended with Melissa making us all read this horse poem in unison, out loud. It freaked the new girl who started shrieking about how some bishop messed around with her brother, and how she wasn’t here to play church. I liked it. I always liked stuff like that: the Pledge of Allegiance, singing Oh beautiful for spacious skies, or the sing-song I made you look you dirty crook you stole your mothers pocketbook you turned it in you turned it out: the kind of stuff that people chant together. It hooks you up for a minute to the human race, which usually I tend to be pretty leery of.
I look at some of the book titles, Why Do I Think I’m Nothing Without a Man, How to Collect Coins for Fun and Profit, The Pictorial History of the Peloponnesian Wars. I’m not interested. I only read books with one word titles. I don’t have many what you would call rules of life, but I do try to stick to that one.
“Did you want to be alone?” The red-haired lady who sat across from me in group last night speaks in a squeaky voice, the way some people talk to babies.
“I don’t know” I say.
“I just wanted to ask you if you’d raise my little girl if she ever turns out to be an orphan.”
“Boy, that’s a new one,” I say. The woman stands, silent, patient. “What’s your daughter like?”
“She likes most things really, even broccoli, and parsnips and fish, just about any kind of fish. She draws the line at squid, but even people who like squid, can’t stand it.”
“No, no. I mean, what is she like? What kind of little girl is she?”
“Well, she wants to be an adult when she grows up. She always tells you that. She says she’s sick to death of grown up people who are children. You think she’s real serious, it’s not that, it’s just she looks at the world with a pretty clear eye. She plays the flute.”
I’m feeling like I could use a whole lot more information here, but I hate like hell to pry.
“If you’re worried about money, that’s all set,” the woman says.
“No,” I say “I wasn’t worried about money. I guess I was more thinking about this adult business. A lot of people would tell you I’m not much in that department.”
“Well, she’s pretty flexible. Janey. I’ve seen her change her mind then change it back again then back again two times.”
“Janey. Her name is Janey? I used to be called that. A very long time ago.”
“I think you’d do just fine with her.”
“Well, I’ll tell you the truth. My plans are a bit uncertain.” I’m trying to think if there’s a word in English for a double orphaning.
“Where’s her dad?”
“I didn’t go that route,” she says.
“My dad was really nice when he was drinking,” I say.
“My dad was crap.”
“What does Janey think of life?”
“She seems to like it,” the mother says. “Go figure. Kids. Right?”
“So what do you think. I gotta’ go do my meds pretty quick here.”
“Well, it’s not a thing I get asked to do that much. And who knows, maybe she won’t get orphaned.”
“But like you say, Who knows?”
We’re on the same page there.
She waddles out.
This is interesting. Nobody ever said would I raise their child for them. I don’t remember if I ever even got asked to baby-sit. But, I can tell you this, it is an offer that can make you think. I mean it.
I know all the danger that a family is, but old Janey and I could be some other kind of thing, not family. Not relatives at all. Boy, would that be nice. I could go live with Janey and her mother when we get out of here, so I’d know, like how to light the stove, and where they keep the Cream of Wheat. Of course, her mom might feel like I was just waiting around for her to do it. But we all mostly have a full supply already of people doing that.
We could have Thanksgiving dinner there. I could invite all my shrinks and so could Janey’s mother. Twenty, thirty shrinks around card tables, with place cards Janey makes, and little turkey decorations, and marshmallows melted on the sweet potatoes, which is the one thing in life I’m really good at. And after all the turkey and the mincemeat pie, we could push our chairs back and the fat shrinks could burp away, the skinny shrinks could purse their little lips and dab them with the white cloth napkins Janey’s mother has collected from hotels, and we could read poetry out loud together. The Highwayman: “I galloped, Dirk galloped, we galloped all three.” And “ Go tell aunt Rhody the old gray goose is dead,” and whatever other pieces we remember, and later, with the candles all but burned down to the base, the shrink who always wished that she could sing would start to hum, We Gather Together to Ask the Lord’s Blessing, and Janey would roll her eyes, and all the shrinks would start to join in, one by one, and by the last verse, Janey would be rolling on the floor.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
The inspiration for this story came from my familiarity with psychotherapists, back in the day when I was one myself. I wanted to write from the interior of the patient’s experience to highlight the ways in which the helping profession might sometimes be most helpful by coming over for dinner and joining in a sing-along. (In another of my stories, there is a psychotherapist who comes to your house and cleans and irons and washes dishes while you tell her what’s on your mind.)
ABOUT LINDA MCCULLOUGH MOORE
Alice Munro writes of the collection of linked stories, THIS ROAD WILL TAKE US CLOSER TO THE MOON: “These stories won me over at once, heart and mind together.” Publishers Weekly in a starred review called them “immediate classics.” Linda McCullough Moore’s work is published in more than 300 fine places and has won a number of national short fiction awards, including PUSHCART PRIZE XXXV. Linda lives and writes in western Massachusetts, where she mentors aspiring writers by phone, email, pony express, and sometimes even in person. For more information: www.lindamcculloughmoore.com