Command of his pistol
1. Answer the phone. You wouldn’t normally. You are at rehearsal for a play, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, where you say, as your character, Lady Croom, “I charge you to take command of his pistols… he is not safe with them.” You see your mother’s name on the screen, recall that just today, when discussing your dad’s depression/dissatisfaction, you asked: “Do you feel safe?”
2. Hear the news. Your mother sounds hysterical, which helps the information to penetrate. Your mother, or your brother in the background, follows with: “He’s dead.” He’s dead. Keen. Apologize to the mostly-strangers in the rehearsal room for your eruption of grief. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. My dad shot himself.”
3. Hand your phone off. You have literally forgotten how to operate it. Say, “Call my husband.”
4. Wait on an empty, downtown street corner. Your husband is less than a mile away. Two cast members stand with you. One plays your daughter, Thomasina (“I have grown up with the sound of guns like a child of siege”). They are less strangers to you now.
5. Call your brother’s wife. Deliver the news. Plan to pick her up, too. Talk to your husband on the phone, he is almost there. Discover that whoever called him from the theatre did not deliver the whole news. Deliver the whole news. Worry he will crash.
6. Proceed on the route to Mockingbird Canyon. Recall the first time you drove here in 1977, the scent of hay and horses, wild sage, and the creek at night. Drive in shock. Cry every few minutes, the three of you, in a kind of chorus. Nothing is real. It will be real when you get there. When you get home.
7. Arrive. It is not real. Note the many sheriffs’ vehicles. Wait, as instructed while they finish taking photos.
8. Meet your mother and brother in the long driveway. Hold onto each other, the five of you. You are all lifted out of your skins a little, like in a newspaper run when the press goes askew and the colors don’t match up. Your outlines are fuzzy. You are all blurry.
9. Hear your mother tell the story of your dad’s suicide as you huddle in the dark. Realize she is a widow now. Hear the widow speak. Hear it as dialog, complete with blocking: “I was standing in the studio, he was across from me. ‘I have a solution,’ he said.” See it: your dad moves upstage, exits through the laundry room, and enters the walk-in closet. Your dad picks up a gun, crosses through the bedroom and exits house. Your dad crosses swiftly to the garage. Purposefully to the garage. Finally to the garage.
10. Listen to your mother confess that she was afraid to call out, that when your dad stepped out with the loaded gun, she locked the door. Assure her there is nothing to forgive in this, that she did the right thing.
11. Look up the driveway towards the garage. The lights are blazing, as if your dad were in there working on a project.
12. Approach cautiously once the sheriff waves you in. You have never seen your dad dead. Lying on a concrete floor.
13. See him.
14. Sing a kind of self-song that only you and maybe-him can hear, Oh dad, oh dad, oh dad, oh dad, oh dad, oh dad, oh dad, oh dad, oh dad.
15. Drink. Go into the kitchen and drink your dad’s home-brewed Belgian Dubbel. Some of his last bottles. How right to drink them now, on the night of his last day.
16. Pour a shot of tequila.
17. Hear your mother keep repeating that it feels like a dream. Note that it feels more like coming down from an acid trip, but do not tell your mother this.
18. Wait for the coroner, the night air halfway between warm and cool.
19. Pore over the evidence. Your dad had said many times before that if “it” didn’t get any better (his life, his health), he would blow his brains out. Sometimes he’d make the gesture of the gun with his fingers. You took it as hyperbole. He was prone to exaggeration.
20. Recall how thirty years earlier your dad marched into the house, got his gun and shot the family goat. The buck kept getting out and ramming him so he fixed the problem. I have a solution. File this as evidence of something.
21. Make calls. His brother and his blood-daughter. Feel the news travels like a dynamite charge, an explosion on the other end.
22. Attend to his brother who says, “Honestly, I’m surprised he didn’t do this ten years ago.” Hear your uncle on the phone recall the many physical ailments your dad has suffered: Guillain-Barre, tinnitus, two knee replacements, two wrist surgeries brought on by the recoveries from the knee surgeries, vocal chord issues, chronic stomach problems. “No one should endure that kind of pain,” your uncle says. Do not disagree.
23. Watch your husband curse your dad in this first hour. “Goddamn him,” he says. “How could he do this to your mom? He had no right.” Do not disagree.
24. Weigh the competing narratives, the contradictory details. It was a rash act. Your mom had just told your dad she had an appointment to see a marriage counselor. She would go even if he would not. “I have a solution,” he’d said. Turn, cross, grab, exit, shoot. As Chekov advised: "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it must absolutely go off.”
25. Remember your dad just two weeks earlier. At the Elk’s Lodge where your husband’s band was playing. He seemed happy, the glow of a drink or two. He told a friend how great his new knees were, how he wished he’d done it ten years earlier. That afternoon, you’d brought your friend to the canyon to get baby chicks from him. Chicks he’d just ordered. He had 50 laying hens, but was expanding. Does a man planning a suicide in sixteen days order more chicks, build more pens?
26. Open another beer.
27. Imagine, only for a second or two, his last moment. The cocking, the pulling of the trigger. It is the loneliest you can imagine another human being feeling. It will eat you. Pull back immediately.
28. Watch the unmarked van arrive, the two men that get out. One shorter than the other. Both African-American. Watch them unload a gurney. Stay.
29. Move closer even. Watch it all, the way the men unfold the plastic sheet, lay it on the ground, how they lift your dad’s body, wordless, practiced.
30. Love fiercely in these last moments. Talk to your dad, words like a stream in your head, sometimes audible. I am here, I am here. See the blood pooling on the floor, wonder that it is not disgusting like you might think. It is precious. It is wasted. I love you, I love you, I love you.
31. Go to your dad now zipped tidily in the black bag. Place your hands on him. Feel your family gather round. When the older of the two men ask if you’d like him to pray, say, Yes. Introduce yourself to the men. Learn they are father and son. Take the hands they offer. Watch a human being call a thing sacred and it becoming that, this circle of hands over the body of your father.
32. Watch the taillights of the van as it rolls slowly out the driveway. (“When you stir your rice pudding, the spoonful spreads itself around making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you start backward, the jam will not come together again.” – Thomasina, Sc. 1)
33. Five days later, return to rehearsal. Sit with the cast, most of whom will act like nothing has happened. Remember what you’ve been taught: acting is not being emotional, but being able to express emotion. “I wish it had passed uneventfully,” you say in scene six, “with you and Mr. Chater shooting each other with the decorum due a civilized house.” You picture the house in the canyon, your mother the widow, the man on the floor of the garage. Decorum, from the Latin, decorus, seemly. Swallow. Float outside your body a little. “Again,” the director will say, “But cross up to the table earlier.” You nod and do it again; acting is not being emotional. “ … With the decorum due a civilized house.” The house in the canyon, your mother the widow, the man on the floor of the garage.
This piece first appeared in Cherry Tree: A National Literary Journal, Washington College, Issue 3, 2017