Dying is a wild night and a new road.
It was May 3rd, a Thursday, and Walter had agreed to work an additional shift when another driver unexpectedly called in sick right before Walter’s first shift ended. Dispatch caught Walter as he was turning in his time card and requested that he take the run, which began a half-hour later. He called home and, when Mara didn’t pick up, he left a voice-mail message letting her know what was up.
“Hey Baby, it’s me. I’m working an extra four-hour shift tonight so I won’t be home until late. I’ll buy you a new car with the money. I hope you’re doing okay. I love you.”
“She’s probably watching Dexter or already knocked out by her pills,” he imagined.
The earth moved, at that moment, but Walter didn’t notice it until later when it moved again, and by then it was too late.
He joined two other drivers for the shuttle ride from the garage over to Central Station where he would wait until the Route 21 came in. It was a busy route with passengers usually standing at the lollipops at every stop, even though they’re only a block apart, and always one or two wheel chair riders.
When a wheelchair rider wants on, there are a couple of spots right behind the driver, on each side of the isle, where the seats fold up and a wheelchair can be latched for safety. If passengers were sitting in those seats, the bus operator would request that they get up and make room but it wasn’t a requirement. Some passengers knew they didn’t have to move, so they wouldn’t, but most people were considerate enough to make room. If the existing passengers wouldn’t move, the driver would have to tell the wheelchair rider that there was no safe room, and then phone it in to Dispatch so that the next bus coming along would be given a heads up. In rare cases, The River would send out a small vehicle to pick up the stranded wheelchair rider. If there was room, the driver would have to deploy the handicap ramp, let the wheelchair rider maneuver into a spot, and then, after asking permission and giving warning, fasten four strong nylon woven straps with metal hooks to the chair and then tighten them.
“Would you like the seatbelt also?” the drivers were required to ask. Almost no one wanted it, feeling that they were secure enough in their familiar chair.
The process took some time and slowed the bus down and added to the delays caused by the passenger load. Walter stood under the Teflon-coated fiberglass rood of Central Terminal while he waited, protected from the heavy rain that seemed like it had been falling for weeks. There was a black man standing near him, wearing a black fedora, a red shirt buttoned up to his neck, a red and black checkered vest, black slacks and shoes; looking sharp. Walter had seen him before.
“What’s up with this rain?” Walter asked.
“Highest spring rainfall on record, 42 inches over the past year,” Fedora answered, “following the highest snow fall on record, 83 inches this winter.”
“Man! So much for global warming,” Walter responded.
“Maybe, maybe not,” Fedora said, “The melt came late. Probably be a lot of flooding.”
“There’s my ride,” Walter said, nodding towards bus no. 291, Route 21 lit up on the overhead sign.
“You riding with me?” Walter asked.
“Not today,” came the reply.
The inbound passengers off-loaded, as did the previous driver, telling Walter that the bus was running fine and just to watch out for some heavy water accumulation at some of the intersections. Walter hopped aboard, shutting the door behind him until he could get admin taken care of.
He punched in his codes, adjusted his seat and mirrors, did a quick walk through the bus, then sat down, buckled up, and opened the door for customers.
“Welcome aboard!” he shouted.
The run, up and back, was nothing out of the ordinary except for the heavy rain. He had to adjust his interior fans and keep them on full blast, as well as keeping the driver’s side window open an inch or two, to keep the windshield from fogging up.
The rain, and the hour, seemed to keep people off of the roads and resulted in a low number of passengers, also. He finished his second split four hours later, at about 8:30, shuttled back to the garage, turned in his paperwork, and headed down to the underground garage to find his car.
As he walked through the garage, he felt a trembling under his feet and momentarily lost his balance.
“What the fuck?” he said, out loud.
By the time he pulled his Honda out of the underground parking garage, it was nearing nine but the rain had let up and was almost stopped. It was a four mile drive from there to Mara’s home and it took him just over fifteen minutes, through the city, to make the trip. There was a car on his tail, headlights on high, as he slowed to make the turn off of Michigan Ave. onto her street, so he pulled to the shoulder as he started his turn, to give them room and let them pass. As he pulled into the driveway, water pushed by the wind dropped from a tree onto his windshield, and his lights glanced across something hard to see but white lying on the pavement.
“Crazy cat,” he said to himself.
Walter stepped out of his car, leaving his driver’s bag, thinking he’d be headed back early enough, shut his door and locked it.
“Hey Shakti, what…” he started to speak but then stopped when he saw her.
She was dead; it was obvious. He didn’t describe her to me; he just said that he thought she’d finally been run over while lying there, unafraid in the driveway. Walter took off his uniform shirt and placed it on the hood of his car, then took of his white undershirt before putting his arms back through the sleeves of his uniform. He knelt down and, using his T-shirt, picked up the little vessel that he had been so attached to, folded the shirt gently and warmly around her, and carried her around the side yard, past Mara’s raised vegetable beds, to the back yard of the house. He said that he wanted her remains to be safe until the morning, when she could have a proper burial, so he put her furry body into a plastic litter canister that stood, somewhat fittingly, on the patio, and closed the lid.
The back door from the breezeway to the patio stood open, which wasn’t usual but also wasn’t alarming; Mara often left it open, giving her cats easy passage, but usually only during the day.
“She was probably out for a smoke and forgot to close it,” is what he said he had thought.
The door from the breezeway to the hall of the kitchen also stood open and, as he passed through, he noticed that the two nightlights that they turned on by habit each night were not shining. Something inside of Walter started to pull back.
He checked the living room and saw that the television was off. He could see Shiva lying on the pad in the bay window, partially lit by the streetlight, and knew that something odd was up. Shiva would either have jumped up to great him or would have been long gone into the night at that hour.
Walter walked softly down the hall to Mara’s door and gently pushed it open. He could see her form, lying on her right side in her normal fetal position, most of her body covered by her burgundy comforter. Near her feet but more towards his side of her bed was Zoë. She looked as if her rear legs were paralyzed, maybe broken half-way down her spine, and she tried to rise up on her front legs but couldn’t. Her head was up, her eyes looking at him. She knew who he was and she wasn’t scared. He understood that the thing that she had always feared had happened while he ferried people around the city in the dark.
“There was no need to rush,” Walter told me.
He sat down in front of Zoë, on his side of the bed. There was no movement from the form that lay on the other side, no sound of heavy breathing, no sense of life.
He put his fingers to Zoë’s brow and caressed her.
“Hey girl. It’s okay,” he whispered, “Just sleep.”
She died to this world as he sat there with her, and then he rose and took the short walk that he had feared for these past six years. I think, in reality, it was the walk that his soul knew of and the one that he feared for his entire life.
Mara’s body laid there, the form that he held so dear.
“Are you gone now? Have you disappeared?”
She was surrounded by her pill bottles, empty booze glasses, and nearby was a sketch that Jade had drawn. The room was still filled with the fragrance of incense, a gift from Sam on her birthday just passed.
He lay down beside her form and took her in his arms. Her smell was still there in her hair. He whispered to her that he understood. He whispered to her that he would miss her. He whispered to her that he had always loved her and always would.
“Thank you for saving my life,” he whispered to her as he kissed her forehead.
He heard the sound, “Goodbye” from a thousand voices, and then he heard the sweetness in the silence that remained after she was gone. Walter looked at her clock; it read 9:15 p.m. He put his lips back to her skin until hours later, when he looked at the clock again; it read 9:21 p.m.
They lay there, together, until the day pushed away the night.
He didn’t cry.
He called Dispatch and told them he wouldn’t be in that day.
“It’ll cost you three points,” they said.
“Write me up. I’m not coming in,” he emphasized.
He called the funeral home where her mother had been cremated and, per her wishes, had them come get her remains and take the shell away.
Three hundred miles away, Jade woke up and rose from her bed.
Walter thought of calling Jade’s estranged husband first and then he thought about calling her neighbors first and then he gave her the respect she deserved and he called her first.
“Hi Jade,” Walter softly said.
She knew something was wrong.
“She’s gone,” is all he had to say.
There was no response, no sound; she just hit “End” on her IPhone and sat down.
He called Sam. Sam wanted to know when, and how, and where she was. He started talking and then stopped. He drove over, bringing his lover with him. He was crying but not talking. Walter told him about Shakti, and Shiva, and Zoë, and that Ringo was nowhere to be found. Sam stood there crying harder, sobbing, and then he walked through her house and yard, looking for Ringo. Sam’s girlfriend was crying, too. Walter never cried.
That weekend, Walter stopped the world so that he could move about in it. He had known what was coming. Before the bomb went off, he had turned to face it. The part of life that dealt with death, he understood, he knew that his pain was because of his attachment to her and, I suppose, to the cats.
On Sunday, people drifted in until there were a couple dozen in her house, some breaking into tears as they gave each other hugs, only a few talking, good people thinking of her and how much they loved her but how they couldn’t reach her. One by one, they made their way to a sofa, chair, or the floor and sat until the room became quiet and still. When he felt that the time was right, Walter motioned to the motionless guests and they followed him out into her yard and garden.
To Walter, it seemed that the energy that had activated her form and now left her had been infused into the vegetables and flowers in her garden. It seemed that in the course of just the few days since she had been gone, the tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squash, carrots, basil, and onions had all grown to an enormous, healthy size.
“Please, harvest her food. Please, take down from the trees her bells and flags and ornaments and keep them as a memory of her. Cut her flowers for your table and, in return, leave your tears here, let them fall to the earth that she cared for and then stop your crying. Remember her…and live,” Walter spoke and they did as he asked.
Kara, Jade’s schoolmate who had become Mara’s confidant, approached Walter hesitantly. She didn’t look like she wanted to be there. She didn’t look like she wanted to talk with him.
“Hello Kara,” Walter greeted her.
“Hi,” she responded quietly.
“Can I ask you something?” Walter inquired.
She hesitated, maybe knowing the question, and then said, “Yes.”
“Do you remember that day when I came home and you and Mara were sitting out back talking and you took off before I came back out?” he asked.
She nodded yes.
“What were you talking about?”
She was quiet for a moment.
“We were planning this. She was planning her death,” Kara confessed.
Walter knew she was being honest. Some unspoken part of him knew that’s what they’d been doing.
“Sometimes,” she started but then stopped.
“Sometimes what?” he forced the question.
“Sometimes I wish the sun wouldn’t come up in the morning,” she said.
Her eyes were cold and black as ink, the color of a cold, deep sea. She walked away, out of Mara’s yard, out of Walter’s life.
Walter’s phone vibrated and he pulled it out of his pocket. It was Jade.
“Hello,” he answered.
“This is hard for me,” she said, “It’s your fault that this happened. You could have stopped it. You could have gotten help for her. You were right there, all along, and saw everything.”
He just took it.
“You knew how bad it was. You could have told me or Sam, you could have made us understand,” and she was crying too hard to continue. She hung up.
Walter went back inside. He looked for Ringo, again, but didn’t find him. He had lovingly buried the other three little ones in her flower garden and had asked the neighbors to keep an eye out for Ringo, thinking he might be back soon.
Walter knew how fragile Mara had become; she would be almost shattered by some occurrence or disappointment that most people would take in stride. He figured that she might have accidentally driven over Shakti and then, upset about that, decided it was time to end her life. She might have put Shiva to sleep to spare Walter having to care for him. She also had her beliefs about spirit and energy and attachment and wouldn’t have thought that she was actually ending anything, just changing it. He had cleaned up her room before the crew from the mortuary had arrived; what was there was none of their concern. In addition to the usual assortment of sleeping pills and other drugs and booze, he had found a bowl of mostly eaten pudding, an empty vial of Seconal and one of Nembutal; he had no idea how she could have gotten them but he knew, from his own experience, how lethal they could be. What he couldn’t rationalize was what she had done to Zoë. Mara had no violence in her.
A few hours later, Sam appeared at the door from the breezeway to the kitchen.
“Hi,” Walter greeted him.
“Did you find Ringo?” he asked. He was done crying but his eyes were red and his face was puffy.
“No. He’s gone missing before so maybe he’ll turn up,” Walter said.
Sam stared at him but Walter could tell he wanted to say something more.
“Go ahead. What is it?” Walter asked.
“We want you out of the house by month end,” he said it loud, with force, meaning it. He enunciated every symbol, emphasized every word, short, firm, strong, and real.
“Wow,” thought Walter.
“Who is we?” Walter asked.
“Me and Jade,” was his reply.
Walter had done many bad things, mostly before he met Mara and her family and he had given away everything that he had once thought he owned; he had walked through many doors and now he knew that they were all permanently shut behind him.
That night, when he finally slept, he dreamed.
A roaring fire burned within the hearth of each room. It had burned before but never given off such heat. The carpet loosened, the backs of the furniture blistered, and the windows heated until the glass cracked. The light of the moon was shining in through the broken windows, making them look beautiful, each one unique like snowflakes. He saw Lizzy slumped in a chair, her face obscured through the plastic, suffocated by the helium in the bag. Next to her, in her chair near the bay window, was Mara, put to sleep by the pills. The air was full of carbon monoxide, thick and deadly. The door from the breezeway opened and Jade walked in. She wanted to be with her sister in front of the beautiful windows. “Don’t follow!” Walter heard his voice saying.
Walter called me later that day and told me, simply at first, “She walked on.”
“I’m so sorry. It sounds like she went in a peaceful way, though,” an Idiot said and then there was silence over the phone.
“It wasn’t a simple, quick death, one where they will say, “She didn’t suffer.” No, it was a killing that lasted a lifetime and hurt all the while it was going on,” he finally said.
“Yes, of course. I’m just so sorry,” was all I could say.
After we hung up, I cried. I don’t know if it was for Walter or for Mara, or for me. What I did know was that now, in a way, he was free and that he might be leaving.
– …Pause, and become present… –