That morning I drank for about an hour and a half and thought about Brenda; the manner of her death, or the moment of her death. I would put it all in a box. It would need to be light enough for me to lift. On a sunny Thursday afternoon, Joel’s knockout of a wife had been clubbed like a ham hock and thrown thirty yards by a refrigerated produce truck sliding through a yellow.
The broad bug-flecked plane of the grillwork saw to it that she would neither roll nor sidle past nor sashay around the frank inertial cruelties that wreak such easy havoc in these settings. Witnesses describe the contact as hammer-blow-like. Brenda arced obediently through shrieking summer air, following the famous immutable laws. She would have been, by then, a worthless husk. Witnesses describe a flapping rag doll the size of a human being. She hit the asphalt half a block away and rolled like a stunt dummy.
The Bible says not to expect thanks for doing what’s expected of us anyway, but sometimes the brute ingratitude from on high is too much for the rational heart to want to bear. There may be a dark and bemused comic mind somewhere, perhaps just drifting, like Donovan’s Brain, in a puff of ether. It can conjure a plague of frogs and can execute a man’s wife by seeing her tossed like garbage, powerfully, into a row of decorative roadside bushes. Brenda negotiates a horizontal flapping pirouette, quite violently, into the bank of dirty pfitzers. Again again again. That’s the picture I see.
She was somewhat hastily buried two days later, on Saturday, but first the coroner had fixed the cause of death, which was one or another kind of trauma. The funeral had been brief, nearly perfunctory, in accordance with what Joel assured us would have been Brenda’s wishes in this contingency. Almost exactly halfway through the ceremony, Joel fell down in complete silence, sprawled, like a vaudeville drunk. Those who rushed to help him found Joel’s expression blank, though not slack. The muscles of his face were prone, his mouth was agape slightly, his eyes were aimed skyward and dry. He seemed about to say something. But the face didn’t move, and was mask-like, something to me at that moment as disorienting as the focused, intense stare of the dead. Trying to get Joel on his feet was like trying to hoist a corpse, or, again, a stunt dummy. So we just held him where he lay on the wet ground, three of us on our haunches.
The following Wednesday morning at around nine I sat at my kitchen table. I’d had a shot of scotch and was preparing to have another. My kitchen serves as a dining area as well, and there are two enormous windows. My smallish back yard and patio were beautiful to see. Sun fell all over the place. The oak shivered restlessly in early breezes. Two red birds the size of flashlight batteries stair-stepped down from somewhere overhead in a controlled flutter-and-drop descent and alighted on the brickwork. I dribbled another shot into the glass. The phone yelped like a Tourette’s patient and I banged the shot glass against my teeth. It was Joel.
“Stop me if you’ve heard this one!” he managed through a kind of ongoing guffaw. It sounded like he might be laughing with food in his mouth. What could this mean? Why did it have to mean anything? I flashed on a snapshot-like image of myself sitting almost forlornly under a demure little reading lamp with a book on my lap, and I thought for that instant I might burst into true hysteria.
“’I’ll never dance with another’. Here’s a kid writing a line like that. But he did dance with another.”
“He went on to dance with another.”
“I know it.”
“Aren’t you something. My wife was butchered in traffic, you know. Remember Brenda? Remember her? Her body survived the collision, so there is that to be grateful for.”
“Okay,” Joel said. The booze I’d dropped down my neck was quietly wilding through all my neighborhoods.
“This life is a kaleidoscope,” I said. You always described it that way, Joel.”
“Yes, yep. The box of chocolates. A dimwit in a crew cut selecting chocolates from a box.”
I reconnoitered. “Why don’t you come over here and have a drink with me?”
“And if I accept?” he replied with the sudden and disorienting air of a dilettante shooting his lace cuffs.
“I’m asking you to accept.”
He seemed to think about that. Then, “No. I’ll see you Monday.”
“At work?” he yelled.
“You’re going to back to work? You…you can’t. Not yet.”
“Man lives by bread alone,” Joel managed, through what sounded like a yapful of bread.
We’re slapped into stunned tears by startling and unearned cancer diagnoses, see our loved ones raped and murdered, lose limbs and senses in horrific leisure time accidents involving hammocks, oars, mowers, kitchen utensils, sporting goods. We bear personal witness to spirit-breaking tortures and massacres and mop up the viscera with both hands. An hour or a day later we are immersed, impossibly, in the full-bore asininity of the workaday. The limned fluorescence of the ordinary seems almost to holler. The clock on the office wall ticks like a rude farting idiot, ergonomically calibrated office chairs reach out with their thalidomide arms, promising comfort. Our little fabric cubicles assume the aspect of veal stalls; they are tenderizing us by preventing any meaningful movement. Staple removers begin to enrage the senses and one is tempted to gales of laughter at the sight of an office colleague standing expectantly before a fax machine, arms slack. The small trash cans yawn extravagantly and everything thrums with the unstoppable and banal energies of the river we are all famously borne down.
No one was more terrified than I when Joel entered the 10 o’clock Bettany triage . The recent and reportedly irreparable travails of the Bettany account were shining Grail-like at the far end of the small conference room; Stone’s laudable PowerPoint presentation of everything the team was dismantling through its ineptitude. When Joel entered unceremoniously and without a knock, a kind of suggested gasp befell the room. He was clean-shaven and hustled by with the ordinary alacrity of a well-rested but tardy office drone. He was wearing an unfamiliar necktie whose motif was visible even in the near darkness.
As he made for his seat at the long long table crowded with suddenly bowing heads, I saw in a cinematic flash the timeworn and culturally predictable drama about to play out; the newly minted existentialist waving his arms, gesturing grandly, if crazily, at the explosive lack of meaning we marinate in daily. The stupid glowing PowerPoint and its pitiable suggestion of technology’s triumph of over whatever vagaries haunt us, the perfumed carcasses in their carefully chosen shirts and blouses—what a fat, slow moving target is a marketing meeting to a newly minted existentialist! Fish in a barrel are more elusive than the ghastly nebulae of emptiness that sink down around the heads of assembled marketers in a meeting whose sole aim is to conjure the means to move unneeded product; a sleight of hand whose terminus is dust. Look at these heads, these sideburns, breasts, earrings, pearls, shoe tassels, wristwatches, collarbones, etc. See the swollen eyes and cleft chins, all the phantoms killing time as the river bears them away and away.
But Joel took his seat without fanfare and aimed his face at Stone’s glowing cartoon. A stylized seismographic line reached a summit then headed back down to earth, and Stone, after a pin-drop pause at Joel’s entrance, indicated this uninspired symbol of failure with his laser pen.
“Here. The drop is precipitous,” Stone breathed with stagy disappointment, tracing the jagged nosedive with his little red beam, clearly enjoying his moment. And why all the sneaking embarrassed glances, tipping and bowing and peeking over at Joel in the darkness, dipping their dumb little heads to sneak a look? What do they hope to see? What suggestion of the Next New World do they hope to glimpse in the person of this bereaved tick-tock man, my Joel? Isn’t there something that ought to be said by someone in the room? Something on this occasion that might trump even Stone’s laser? But there is no right way to acknowledge this stuff, no standard way to die or to remark on death, no template for tactfully leaving this plane, or for referencing absent acquaintances who have done so. All these accidents and murders and so forth, in all the world! All the throbbing clocks that are suddenly or slowly made to stop ticking, in the cities and villages, in beds and forests, out on the open sea, on carpeted living room floors and in the monoxide midst of traffic. Living people are as various as the accidental and premeditated acts of physical congress that produce them, but the dead are all the same. There is a kind of magic in that transubstantiation. Is that why we imagine the dead as roaming phantoms? Translucent ectoplasmic tatters of visible energy gracefully negotiating the winds between the stars? Supernature has its allure, but it’s been all but proven that there is no wind up there but solar wind, which blows everything away from the sun and its light.
“Joel, your comments,” Stone was saying, and at that I felt my complexion flare. I imagined Joel driving downtown alone in the after-work dusk, windows down, his thinning hair blowing. In this reverie he is looking for something or someone—a friend, two friends—driving among and past the alleyways and shadowy declivities of the city, the shop fronts and hanging electric works of the place, civic flourishes designed with love and a sense of grandeur, I imagine, by excitable men and women with pencils behind their ears. And for what? But a moment in the sun is no less enjoyable for being merely a moment. He took Stone’s gauntlet without pause.
“The ROI on the Bettany debacle is a stinker,” Joel said evenly, not looking up from the table where he had flattened his palms, as if in the throes of analysis. “Largely because we failed to speak to the target in any comprehensible language. If we refuse to talk to our constituencies in the vernacular they use in addressing each other, we’re climbing up our own asses.”
“Our own asses,” Stone mused, thoughtfully. He cocked his head in a gesture of frank reproof. “Joel, I admire your coming here today. I do. But it’s too soon, I think. If I may. You need to be here, but now is not the time. You are jumping the gun.”
“Why.” Joel’s response was absent the interrogative lilt that would have indicated actual interest in the exchange. “Why jumping the gun.”
“Because I say so,” Stone offered without pause, in his own haste to have done with this episode retreating to the humdrum hierarchies of the office. “You’ll break yourself this way.”
Joel looked up at Stone and squinted appraisingly. “Because you say so?”
“Joel – “
“Your say-so, Stone.” Then Joel turned to me to speak, and I recoiled.
“She loves you. Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
And at that Joel sprang noisily out of his seat, and he is hanging there still, his necktie a crenellated ribbon frozen in time, forearms reaching out of rolled-back shirtsleeves; strictly business. And the stars wheel and the solar winds gust and eddy through the firmament and the angels, all of them, are blown to heck by the tumult.