In the airport, coming home from vacation, he stops at a kiosk and buys grapefruits, which he arranges to have sent to his daughters. They will stumble over the crates waiting on their porches, when they get home from his funeral.
It’s the last week of his life. Does he know that? At some point, yes. At the moment when his index finger closes on the trigger of the gun, he knows it with certainty. But before that? Even a moment before, when he sat down in the chair holding the gun—was he sure? Perhaps he’s done this much before, once or many times: held the gun, loaded the gun. But then stopped himself: no. When does he know that this time he will not stop?
What about the gun?
Has it been an itch, a temptation, the chocolate Santa in the bureau drawer? Did he think about it daily, did it draw him, did he have to resist it?
Perhaps the thought of it has been comforting: well, remember, I can always do that.
Or maybe he didn’t think about the gun and how it might be used. There was just that long, deep misery. An occasional flicker (I want to stop everything), always instantly snuffed out (too difficult, how would I do it, even the question exhausts me). And then one day the flicker caught fire, burned brightly for a moment, just long enough to see by (Oh, yes, the gun. The old gun on the closet shelf with the sweaters). He didn’t do it that day. He put away the thought. He didn’t even take the gun down, look at it, hold it in his hands. That would imply he was thinking of actually doing it, and he would never actually do such a thing.
Some days the gun sings to him. Other days, more often, he hasn’t heard it. Maybe, on those stronger days, he has considered getting rid of it. Take it to a gun shop, turn it in to the police. But then someone else would know he has a gun, and it’s no one else’s business. He hasn’t wanted to deal with their questions: Where did you get it? How long have you had it? Besides, how long has he had it? Twenty years? Twenty-five? And never fired it in all that time? So where’s the danger? What’s the harm in keeping it around, letting it sleep there among the sweaters? He doesn’t even know where the bullets are, for God’s sake. (But immediately, involuntarily, he does know: he knows exactly which corner of which drawer.)
We have to watch him from the outside. He leaves no clues, his whole life is a clue. What is he thinking when he gets up that last morning, showers, and dresses for work? He puts on a blue-and-white striped cotton shirt, a pair of brown corduroys, heavy brown shoes. Tan cashmere sweater. He has joked to his older daughter that all the clothes he buys these days are the color of sawdust. Might as well, he said, they end up covered in the stuff anyhow, at the plant. So he has shaved, patted on aftershave (very lightly: what he likes is to smell clean, not scented), and climbed into his dun-colored clothes. He’s gone to his dresser and loaded his pockets: change, wallet, keys, handkerchief. Maybe he thinks he’s going to work. Or maybe he knows, hopes, that in forty-five minutes he’ll be dead. It’s Friday morning. He’s just automatically doing what he does every morning, getting ready.
He may be thinking about it on the walk down the driveway to get the newspaper. The cold dry air gripping the sides of his head, the ice cracking under his feet as he tramps along this driveway he can no longer quite afford. It is a dirt road, unpaved; in this town, as his wife is always pointing out, dirt roads have more cachet than fancy gravel driveways. A dirt road means you are private and acting to protect your privacy. Your house cannot be seen from the road. Your real friends, that delightful, sparkling, select bunch, will know you’re in there, hidden in the woods, and they will know your dirt road’s ruts and bumps by heart.
Is there something in the newspaper? The front page is the only one in question, since he leaves the paper on the kitchen table folded and unread. More bombings. All this week he’s been sitting in front of the television in the evenings, staring at the news. Silent films of still, waiting buildings, fine white-lined crosses zigzagging dizzily over their facades, zooming in and centering. Then a long moment, just that white cross holding steady; and then the building falls down, no sound, no smoke or flash of light, just caves in. And that’s it. The screen goes blank; the camera doesn’t wait around to gloat. Then another building, another filmed implosion:We’re getting all these places, relentlessly. We’re hunting them down and getting them. There are no accidents.
What has he been thinking about this week, watching these films over and over? The silent buildings that simply implode. Is it like hearing a voice that whispers to him of his own death, first days away, then hours? Or has he been just a tired man at the end of another work day, waiting for dinner to be ready, sitting in front of the news?
The front page of the paper is full of the war. But nothing else that’s major. No market crash. Nothing that would lead, directly or indirectly, to his losing more than he has already lost, which is virtually everything.
Maybe that’s it, maybe that’s what he is thinking, not just on this last morning but all the time: You’ve lost everything, not at a single blow but gradually, over years, a small hole in a sandbag. You see the hole clearly but you have no way to fix it. No one but you has been aware of that thin, sawdust-colored stream of sand escaping, but now enough sand has leaked that the shape of the bag is changing, it’s collapsing. It will be noticed. You will be caught. And then, and then—you don’t know what. You want not to be here when that happens.
The coffee. He makes the pot of regular for his wife, fills a cup, carries it upstairs to her bedside table. The fact that he doesn’t make his own usual pot of decaf might mean that he’s already decided—or it might mean that he generally makes that second pot when he comes downstairs again. And this morning, he doesn’t go downstairs again. He stands at his wife’s side of the bed, and looks at her, sleeping. He looks at her for a long time.
Or maybe he doesn’t look. Maybe he puts down the saucer and goes for the gun and is out of the room before the coffee stops quivering in the cup.
The most recent book by Joan Wickersham is the story collection The News from Spain (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012). Her poetry and prose have appeared in AGNI, The Hudson Review, Story, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, The Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere. Her memoir, The Suicide Index—two sections of which first appeared in AGNI—was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award. She received a 2010 literature grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. She teaches in the Bennington Writing Seminars. (updated 10/2015)
Her AGNI story “The Boys’ School, or The News from Spain” was reprinted in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011.