Clutter

Andrew Walker

The drawer on the right side of my desk is similar to the drawer my mother kept under the counter, next to the refrigerator in my childhood home. One I opened daily in search for something, but never finding what I needed inside. Hers held

old pens with the names of realtors and contractors;

mini-calculators, mostly broken;

half-eaten Snickers bars and bags of M&Ms.

Mine with old ticket stubs,

ash from cashed pot pipes,

candy wrappers and

antidepressants spilled from the broken, child-

proof lid, lost somewhere beneath the chaos.

***

I am fourteen years old and on my way to take a shower. My bathroom is adjacent to my parents’ bedroom, her door is slightly ajar. I walk in, hoping to grab a towel, freshly washed, dried and warm: it is laundry day.

When I turn the corner, I see my mother, stark naked, digging through a makeup drawer. We gasp at the same time, and I run from the room, apologizing all the way out. I skip my shower, warm water already swishing through my stomach.  

Later, at breakfast, my mother is over the stove, cooking eggs. She scrambles them with cream cheese, so they are soft and light and creamy. She keeps her eyes down in the pan when she apologizes to me. I tell her that there isn’t a need to, that I shouldn’t have walked in, that I should have knocked, that I’m the one who should be sorry.

She sets my plate down in front of me and turns, avoiding eye contact.

“No one should have to see their fat mom naked.”

***

There are unfinished, pocket-sized Moleskine journals in my drawer, covered in long forgotten imagery. Inside each is nothing more than abandoned, half-baked short story ideas:  a writer who turns into a pencil, a bed that consumes its sleeper, a man who implodes from the stomach. I title each entry “Fiction,” trying to hide my confessions even from myself.

***

I am attempting to coax my brother off the Playstation. He beats me home from school every day and usually gets first dibs, but our permitted school-day hour of video games has long since passed, and I want to get my time in before mom gets home. I tell him his feet stink, that his breath is putrid, that maybe what I had for lunch isn’t sitting too well in my stomach. I begin to gag.

Not buying it, he tells me to stop and continues playing his game, not looking away from the tv. I continue to fake-choke, telling him that if he doesn’t leave soon, I’ll puke everywhere, that the stench of his presence is just too much to handle.

I gag and gag and gag until, finally, my body takes action and purges me of the contents of my stomach, onto the brand new carpet, installed not even a month ago.

My brother runs screaming from the room, grabbing my father, “Andrew puked! Andrew puked!”

I apologize to my dad and attempt to explain the situation: that I didn’t think I was actually going to vomit, that I didn’t even feel it coming until it was already out.

Dabbing the carpet with a rag and cleaner, my father mumbles, “This is what gluttony leads to. This is because all you boys do is snack and snack and snack. This is what happens when all you do is eat.”

***

It is 4:00pm and I am making a PB&J sandwich at my parents’ house. They are both at work, and I am home from college for a few days’ visit. I am shaky and aggravated, my stomach grumbles with anticipation. It is my first meal of the day.

I go to pull a butter knife from the drawer. I open three other drawers before I find the one with silverware. When my mother gets bored, she rearranges the rooms of the house. Every time I visit, something is somewhere else.

The drawer opens halfway but catches, so I can only see the hilts of each utensil. There is a spoon caught between its tray and the top of the cabinet. I push the drawer back in and pull out once more, but the spoon does not budge and the drawer, again, catches. My mother’s cat watches as I do it again, and then again. I am not sure why I keep pulling instead of reaching a finger in to flick the caught spoon down, but I keep pulling, until the spoon is bent, until I have chipped away at the cheap wood holding the drawer in place. I am shaking and close to tears. I scream “FUCK” and slam the drawer shut, scaring the cat from its perch on the table’s chair. I cannot reach a knife, so I lift the trashcan lid, and pour what’s begun of my sandwich into its mouth.

***

In my desk drawer, beneath everything else, are old pictures of me and my friends, before I had a beard, before I grew my hair long, before I was this skinny. I keep them there as reminders of how far I’ve come, how much I’ve grown (or shrunk).

The weight was not dropped on purpose, but lost like a memory in a move. Placed in the wrong box labelled “Misc.” and stuffed in the back of whatever closet had enough room.

Before I take showers now, especially after a few drinks or after I’ve been crying, I do not look at myself in the mirror, opting to stand off to the side by the toilet. When I am sitting or staring down at myself, the curve of my stomach looks larger than it actually is, but I still get shivers whenever the underbelly touches the cool metal of my belt. When I am brave enough to look at my figure in the mirror, I notice how my skin bulges over the band of my underwear.

I watch the mirror fog as the shower warms up, staring into the emptiness it reflects, just a door with dirty towels hanging from hooks.

***

I am in high school when the Denver Museum of Nature and Science begins its Body Works exhibit, where those who donated their body had their flesh stripped away to show only the muscle and bone and fat underneath. My mother takes my brother and me, although she seems disturbed by the prospect. She waits outside the exhibit and allows us to roam through freely.

I expect the room to reek of decay and blood, like meat unknowingly spoiled in a broken freezer, but it smells sterile, like sheets on a hospital bed.

Some bodies are standing like mannequins, propped up by poles welded to what used to be their person. They stand in different poses, showing how different exercises affect different muscle tensions. Some move mechanically, attached to pedaling bikes or walking in place.

In one corner, there are torsos with the flesh and muscle stripped away to show the inner organs beneath the rib cage. My brother is fascinated by the beating heart and breathing lungs, while I’m intrigued by a body bigger than the rest, one that shows more yellow than red and white, implying the fat buildup over the lifetime of unhealthy eating. On the body’s torso, there are handles, so I grab and pull to reveal the things this body has consumed, things that made it swell like a balloon: candy, pizza, soda, hamburgers, fried chicken. Above the body is a sign that says, “You Are What You Eat.” I grimace and close the drawers, continuing to wander around the room of bodies that are all but living.

***

This is what I keep within myself. It is a deep sense of shame with every bite I take, every bit of me that I no longer want to love, that I want to watch wither and fall from my body like leaves from a hibernating tree.

I tell myself

that I do not have a problem, rationalizing the constant rumble in my stomach. I still eat something every day. I snack, late at night, pulling peanut butter pretzels from the cabinet, hiding Ben and Jerry’s deep within my freezer (not in hopes that my roommates won’t get to it, but that I may forget about it behind the frozen strawberries and flour), candy hidden in the glove compartment of my car. I can put down an entire box of pasta over the course of three meals, as long as those three come between 5 and 11 at night.

I tell myself

that this is not a problem that men have, even if I have worked to break down every other gender stereotype forced on me throughout my younger years. I have even read other stories of men that share in my shame, but I see them as smaller versions of myself, further cementing the idea that I am overreacting when I think otherwise.

I tell myself

it isn’t a problem in and of itself, but one that sprouted from my depression. A way of coping with the sadness I feel. It’s not that I’m wasting away because I’m ashamed of how I look, but simply too sad to pull myself from my bed or my couch or my desk to nourish myself. A body unused is a body unneeded.

I tell myself

that even if I do have this problem, it is my burden alone to carry as I have carried this extra weight I believe that I have. I learned to politely cross my legs so that I do not see my thighs spilling out over the bone, to suck in my belly when the seatbelt pushes against it so that I do not have to see what bulges over from where it hugs me. I only take a single piece of pizza, maybe two if the party is small, and I see someone take three.

When I am hungry, I spread peanut butter on a piece of stale bread folded in half, drink a couple cups of coffee, chew gum to swallow the sweetness—anything that will satisfy me until I can’t stand the hunger shaking in my hands, blurring my vision, phasing my mind.

Eventually, I may fold all the way into myself, implode and disappear, my stomach a black hole so hungry it begins to swallow itself. It is not my goal to be nothing, but I often find myself envying those who can disappear into a crowd instead of stand out in one.

I am a drawer within which I keep all the things I have lost and no longer want or need. The clutter within myself has become so unmanageable it has since been forgotten. I hide my problems as much as I try to hide myself.

Maybe I will eventually tackle the organization of my drawer, unhook it from my track and shake out all the dead pens and crumpled sticky notes, find myself amongst the chaos, find peace in the simplicity of order. Maybe one day, when I feel broken or incomplete, I will be able to point myself to the right drawer and pull out all the tools I need to fix, to clean, to eat,

to feel worthy in the space where I exist.

##

Suicide Notes

My daughter Jacqueline started “honors physics” this fall despite her thinking she wasn’t good enough at math to qualify for the class. I considered hiring a math tutor over the summer. I wish my dad could just come by for homework help.

If Dad were around, Jacqueline would be “Debbie” or maybe something more exotic like “Dauphine”—a “D” name in honor of my brother Danny, not “Jacqueline” to honor the memory of my father, “Jack.”

Things my father missed:

The hooding ceremony when I got my doctorate

Me landing a tenure-track job

Jacqueline’s birth

Me quitting the tenure-track job

Jacqueline’s bat mitzvah

At the end of the summer I’ll celebrate my 50th birthday, and my dad will miss it.

Like he missed my 40th.

Also my 30th.

Grandpa was almost 100 when he died.

Daddy missed that too.

Grandpa and his four siblings lived well into their nineties.

I was robbed of four decades with Dad.

Speaking of birthdays, my 10th was in 1978. That’s the year one of the most iconic moments in movie history was imprinted in my memory:

A bereaved Superman played by Christopher Reeves cradles the lifeless body of Lois Lane, killed during a massive earthquake. In his agony, Superman lets out a primal scream and takes off flying. Whoosh! The camera pans out and cuts to a view of Earth from outer space where bluish-white lines streak around the globe at the equator in the opposite direction of the planet’s rotation—zip, zip, zip—about 17 times!

At which point the Earth actually stops! Then reverses!

Next, those bluish-white lines whiz around the planet a few times the other way, Earth goes back to rotating in its regular direction, and Superman flies back down to the surface of the planet, arriving in time to save Lois Lane—before she dies!

What would you do if you could turn back time?

“Daddy, how come you became a mathematician?”

“Because there’s safety in numbers.”

When Superman came out, my father coauthored what I later learned were seminal papers characterizing the “seismic inverse problem.” Those papers are written in a foreign language called mathematics, filled with Greek symbols and notations indecipherable to me.

“What’s it mean, Daddy?”

“They take a spikey-mikey, and they put it in the ground and make it go ‘boom,’ and these equations graph the vibrations that bounce back.”

  Pop quiz:  
  Lois Lane’s 1972 Ford Galaxie is traveling in a straight line at top speed on a dirt road when it runs out of gas. Calculate how far it will travel on fumes and momentum before a massive earthquake splits open the road and buries the driver alive inside the car.  
  Hint: Assume the car is red.  

I got my driver’s license in 1984.

“Keep this in the trunk in case of emergencies,” Dad instructed, handing me a can of S&W kidney beans as visions of me stranded on I-25 during a blizzard flashed before my eyes. Until Dad deadpanned, “In case you run out of gas.”

Cut to 12 years later. Our hero opens the door of the house leading into the garage. The camera tracks him as he walks over to his silver Honda Accord and climbs behind the wheel. Cut to a shot of a hand turning the ignition key. Cut to outside where a yellow Honda Prelude pulls into the driveway, waits for the automatic garage door to open, then pulls alongside the Accord. Moments later, we hear a woman scream.

The retired police officer who lived next door to my parents performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but it was too late.

My parents had lived in the house next to the retired cop about 18 months. They’d had it  custom built about 30 minutes outside of Denver, near the university where my father worked. The idea was to get a fresh start after my brother died at the age of 28 from familial dysautonomia, a rare and degenerative neurological disease he’d had from birth.

Mom and Dad liked that the new house had wraparound decks and windows with views of the Rockies. They liked that the curved driveway meant the garage didn’t face the street. Garage doors are ugly.

My parents threw a party for me and my then-fiancé at that house in March, then came to LA for my wedding in May. Dad’s physical was in July.

A weightlifter, jogger, and hiker, Dad’s health was excellent except for a terrible malaise he couldn’t shake. His sense of purpose had died along with my brother. His concentration and enthusiasm had waned. He confessed to feeling washed up as a theoretician. Another academic year was about to start, and the prospect of facing graduate students the same age as Danny when he died felt like more than Dad could bear. The physician had also been my brother’s doctor. He knew our family well.

The doctor suggested my father speak with a mental health provider. He gave Dad a list of therapists to call, but only one had an immediate opening. That’s the one Dad went to see. Appointments were set for one hour, every other week. The psychiatrist prescribed Prozac. Within three months, Dad was dead.

The so-called “Happy Pill” didn’t take away my father’s grief. It didn’t improve his concentration nor renew his sense of purpose. What’s more, my mother confided later, after beginning his course of drug therapy, her formerly virile husband was unable to maintain an erection. Not realizing this was a common side effect of antidepressants, this distressing new symptom contributed to Dad’s spreading sense of hopelessness.

Days before his suicide, my father’s demeanor took a drastic turn. He was flirtatious with a colleague’s daughter, Abby—my friend whom Dad knew from the time she was born. Alarmed at his uncharacteristic behavior, Mom left frantic messages for Dad’s psychiatrist, “He’s too high! He’s going to crash!”

As usual, the psychiatrist didn’t return Mom’s calls.

The morning of Dad’s death, Mom accepted a call to substitute teach. That day, she says, my father seemed better than he had in weeks. “He had on a pink shirt, and he’d just shaved. He was smiling one of his gentle smiles. I said, ‘You look so well!’ ‘You look adorable!’ he said.”

  Warning:  
  In 2007, the FDA-mandated “black box” labels, its strongest consumer alert, for a class of antidepressants including Prozac, specifying that the medications can cause suicidality in children, adolescents, and adults younger than 25. Irregularities in clinical trials led some FDA reviewers to recommend adults over 25 be included in the warning. The FDA-mandated labels urge close monitoring of all patients regardless of age, “especially during the initial few months of a course of drug therapy, or at times of dose changes, either increases or decreases.”  

I took a night flight to Denver from LAX, sitting in the last row of the plane. The man beside me peppered me with questions about the book in my lap. In 1996, earbuds and headphones were as common as black widow’s veils.

Hurtling through space at 500 miles per hour, politely answering the man’s questions, my father was like Schrödinger’s cat—dead and not dead, simultaneously. When the plane came to a halt at the gate, the man retrieved my luggage from the overhead bin. Was my Colorado visit for business or pleasure, the man wanted to know. Dead? Not dead? In the time it took me to contemplate the possibilities, a funny look must have passed across my face. Suddenly my chatty seat mate looked like he’d had a swig of sour milk. “Sorry, so sorry,” said the man. A black veil would have spared us both embarrassment.

Riding the airport’s people mover, the possibility remained that my father would greet me at our usual spot near the top of the escalator. My heart in my throat, I rode that escalator. When I reached the top, it was Abby waiting there.

The garage door at my parents’ house was open when we arrived, and big fans had been set up inside. Where was my father? Did those big fans blow him away?

By coincidence, the Annual Meeting of the Society of Exploration Geophysics, of which my father was a member, was in Denver that year, just three weeks after my father’s death suicide.

At the urging of one of Dad’s colleagues, I showed up for the memorial scheduled during the convention, figuring it would be like the panels at my academic meetings: Maybe 20 people in a dingy hotel conference room, Dad’s research as a springboard to a discussion of current research. My father had always been humble about his work. “It’s not that I’m so brilliant,” he’d told me. “I’m just a hard worker.”

Given my low expectations, I wasn’t prepared for what I encountered. The meeting turned out to be at Denver’s gleaming new convention center, the session honoring Dad in an enormous ballroom filled to standing room only. Mathematicians, computer scientists, academics, industry people employed by energy or tech companies—stricken-looking people, most of whom I’d never seen before—traipsing up to the lectern, one by one.

“That face,” moaned one, hand out, palm up, fingers curled—cupping an invisible chin.

Another recalled my father’s droll wit. When asked for a simple explanation of “inversion” techniques compared with the “migration” methods, my father had rattled off proponents of inversion, a list replete with Semitic surnames. “Don’t you see? Inversion is Jewish migration!”

One of Dad’s former graduate students told of submitting his thesis proposal. My father had pointed out the error in the idea. Several days later, Dad called the fellow to his office. The student braced himself for the message that he simply wasn’t doctorate material. Instead, Dad had filled several whiteboards with mathematical proofs and proceeded to demonstrate why the student had been correct. And why Dad had been wrong.

The portrait that emerged from the accounts of these strangers corresponded perfectly with the portrait of my father I carried around in my head. “That face”—beloved and admired enough to fill a ballroom, that face was the same in public as the one I recognized from home.

I sat there in that ballroom wishing I’d brought my mini tape recorder or even just a pencil. I tortured myself with the thought that I’d arrived so ill equipped while simultaneously trying hard to track exactly what was being said, so I could commit the entire affair to memory, verbatim.

Except I couldn’t because of all the references to names and companies and specialized terminology. Because my brain wasn’t working right. Because I was in shock. Because the person they were talking about wouldn’t have killed himself.

When I was 8 years old and won a bike at a school raffle, Dad sprang for his own first set of wheels. The two of us learned to ride our bikes together in the vacant parking lot around the corner from our house.

Despite his late start, Dad became an avid cyclist. He could take his bike apart, down to the ball bearings, then put the whole thing back together, good as new. He was intimately familiar with every bike lane in the metro Denver area, every strip of uneven pavement, every back alley shortcut.

He’d strap bungee cords around a cardboard box containing hole-punched cards onto the back of his bicycle, don his helmet, clip one of those nerdy side mirrors onto his Foster Grants, and off he’d go—to feed those cards into the IBM mainframe computer at the Denver Tech Center.

Now I carry around a much more powerful computer I can slip inside my back pocket.

“Hey Siri. Show me psychology articles on suicide by car exhaust.”

“Here’s what I found on the web for ‘show me psychology articles on suicide by car exhaust’:”

The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry published a study of hospital patients receiving treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning after surviving deliberate exposure:

  1. Subjects reported choosing this suicide method because of the accessibility of motor vehicles, because of the method’s painlessness and because they were aware of the method’s lethality.  
  2. Most subjects denied excessive time spent planning. Few had composed suicide notes. Regret of the attempt and lack of further suicidal ideation afterward were common traits among these patients.  
  3. Low suicide intent scores indicated the attempts were impulsive acts.  
  4. The most common diagnosis in this group was adjustment disorder with depressed mood.  

“It sounds like your father had a hard time experiencing joy,” said my psychologist. The therapist had a Ph.D. Many books lined his shelves. My husband and I had been seeing him for couples therapy, but grief counseling seemed more pressing in the wake of Dad’s suicide.

Hmmm. Father. Hard time experiencing joy. I mulled over the therapist’s words, my brain flashing through images of Dad: animated over a new jazz recording. Engrossed in a book of Greek philosophy. Planting a passionate kiss on Mom’s mouth. Biting into a plump nectarine and letting the juice run into his goatee. Dad’s outgoing message on our telephone answering machine: “We can’t answer the phone right now. Please leave your name, number and maximum bench press. Beep!”

Suicide is all this therapist knows about my father. There’s so much more I urgently need this therapist—and my husband—to know. 

Sitting on the therapist’s beige couch I see myself sitting on a boulder beside a mountain stream. I pull off my dusty clutter boots and shake them out, then Daddy takes them along with his Army surplus knapsack and goes jogging back to where the Toyota’s parked. He returns with our sandals and a canteen of fresh water and, “One! Two! Three!!!” we plunge our feet into the icy currant, and I squeal, “Aiee!” Daddy smiles his Buddha smile and sighs, “Ahhh.”

I don’t tell the therapist about the post-hike ritual. I don’t mention the nectarine or Dad’s message on the answering machine. Instead I say lamely, “But my father enjoyed lots of things.”

The therapist rotates the ankle of his crossed leg. My husband arches his eyebrows. Taking in the subtle gestures my protest elicits, I feel myself negated, reduced to some Freudian theory about daughters idolizing fathers. The therapist’s ankle, my husband’s expression, the beige-colored silence in the psychologist’s office are like my old wool hiking sock shoved in my mouth: suicide, therefore, depression. All else irrelevant, nothing more need be said. 

I can’t remember who suggested I join a grief group. I called the big medical center near my house, and someone there referred me to “Survivors of Suicide,” a support group operating under the counseling program at the University of Judaism. You weren’t allowed to attend meetings until the person who’d killed himself had been dead for 6 months. I don’t know why, but rules are rules.

I got lost driving to my first meeting. Actually, no, I wasn’t lost, just not expecting it to be so far away and panicking because it was rush hour and I was upset about stop-and-go traffic and being late and about going to a group for suicide “survivors”—and that joining implied the suicide was actually real.

I pulled off the freeway to consult a map. After satisfying myself that I hadn’t missed my exit, I executed a U-turn to get back on the freeway. Across a set of double yellow lines.

I nearly bumped my head on the roof of the car when I heard a loud siren and saw lights flashing in my rearview mirror and a man’s stern voice through a megaphone ordering me to pull over.

I kept my face blank while the police officer quizzed me about my infraction (“Do you know why I’ve pulled you over?”) and checked my driver’s license and registration as a heated argument with myself ensued inside my head.

Tell him where you’re going and bust out crying, and he won’t write the ticket!”

That old cliché? It’s straight out of ‘I Love Lucy!’”

Do it!”

 No way!”

Meanwhile the officer tore off the ticket and handed it to me. Only then did I say, “I’m going to a Survivors of Suicide meeting at the University of Judaism, and I’m lost.” The officer just blinked at me. Finally he said, “Follow me,” and hopped back on his motorcycle, lights flashing, and Interstate 405 parted like the Red Sea as I enjoyed a police escort all the way to my freeway exit.

It was awfully nice of the officer, but I still had to pay a $100 ticket and take a daylong driver safety course.

I couldn’t relate to much of anything that was discussed at the Survivors of Suicide meetings, but I kept going anyway, like when my mother cooked calves liver for supper and told me to eat it because it’s packed with iron. Week after week, I tried to square stories of loved ones who’d repeatedly slashed their wrists or filled journals with drawings of tombstones and demons with everything I knew—or, by then, began to wonder if I merely thought I knew—about my father.

The other people in the group spoke of loved ones who were “badly damaged.” “Wired wrong from birth,” one mother said of her son. “Tried three times,” said a young woman about her friend. Words like “obsessed,” “compelled” and “inevitable” came up a lot. Another word that came up was “empathy.” Going through something as painful as a loved one’s suicide cultivated empathy. That was the consensus of the survivor group.

  Bedtime prayer:  
  “Hi, Almighty, it’s me. Howsabout a trade? Jimmy, my mother-in-law’s blowhard husband, for my father?”   
  Postscript: My heart went out to my mother-in-law when her husband died a few years later. What those people in my support group said about empathy must have been right.  

After one of those meetings, I remember screaming at my husband, “My father was nothing like that!”—referring to those the suicide survivors group had lost.

  Fact check:  
  My husband claims what I actually said was, “Those people were losers!” To the extent that I may have chosen such an unfortunate word, my sincere apologies to anyone who’s ever lost someone to suicide. I’m not sure my husband’s remembering that right—but if I did say “losers,” I’m fairly sure my husband and I were arguing, so I was probably frustrated and saying extreme things I didn’t mean.  

Why was I screaming? Because of the obscene cosmic absurdity that a man like my father had taken his life. And because I was choking on the wool sock shoved in my mouth by the therapist who rolled his ankle, the spouse who arched his eyebrows, the traffic cop with the fallen face, the group of survivors to whom I couldn’t relate.

I felt like a gutted fish, mouth opening, mouth closing, no sound coming out or none that would be believed. Because . . . suicide. Particulars didn’t matter. Pointing out particulars only proved the point: You know what they say about daughters and Daddy fetishes.

For more than 20 years, a big part of me has remained that gutted fish, unblinking eyes incapable of tears. Until just the other day when I finally cried a few of them.

I was driving along, thinking about my 50th birthday coming up and sort of daydreaming about a party when it hit me: “Daddy was 56!” That’s when the tears came, for the first time in maybe ever.

And those tears felt good. I pulled my car over and smiled a little to myself and took a minute to appreciate my father and imagine myself in his shoes.

He was all of  26 when my brother was born. At 26, I regularly ate two bowls of Honey-nut Cheerios and called that dinner. At 26, my father had a doctorate to finish, a family to support, a son with a disease most doctors had never even heard of, let alone treat. Dad sang us nursery rhymes and folk songs and read us books and paid the bills and did his best to make our family feel happy and safe, and we did.

Along the way, he had no signposts like “odds are your son will be unable to walk by this age,” or “renal failure by that age,” so Dad just did his best when Danny was well, believing he’d survive. And he did his best when Danny was sick. I never heard him beating his chest about any of it. He remained emotionally present, didn’t turn to alcohol or drugs. Day after day after day for 28 years, the whole time engaged in intellectually demanding creative work. I don’t know how he managed it.

If that moment in my car had been a scene in a movie, this is when the camera would pan out, and you’d see my car pull away from the curb and cruise slowly down a tree-lined street under Kodachrome skies. Gently uplifting music would play, something like Hans Zimmer’s score, “This Land,” from the Lion King soundtrack.

[Insert record scratch sound effect here]

“Hey Siri . . .”

“Go ahead, I’m listening.”

“Was my father’s suicide an act of passion, or was it premeditated?”

“It sounds like talking with someone might help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has confidential, one-on-one, 24 hours a day. Would you like me to call them for you?”

NO!

“OK.”

“Show me articles about suicide being an act of passion or premeditated.”

“Here’s what I found on the web for ‘suicide being an actor passion or premeditation’:”

  1. A Harvard study of survivors of nearly-lethal suicide attempts concluded the acute period of heightened risk of suicidal behavior is often mere hours or minutes.  
  2. Harvard’s Injury Control Research Center statistics indicate suicide methods requiring forethought or exertion—implying premeditation, e.g. wrist slitting—have the lowest chance of “success.” Methods requiring the least effort or planning happen to be the deadliest. Consequently, those most closely fitting the classic definition of “suicidal” might be “safer” than those who act impulsively.  
  3. A landmark study from the Berkeley School of Public Health of the 515 would-be jumpers who’d been pulled off the Golden Gate Bridge between 1935 and 1971 culled death-certificate records to determine only six percent went on to commit suicide. “The vast majority had passed through an acute, temporary crisis, came out the other side and got on with their lives.”  

The Berkeley study was published 40 years ago in 1978, when Superman grieved onscreen for Lois Lane.

Just what was going on in that scene when Superman caused time to reverse? The Earth weighs six septillion kilograms (6 * 1024 kg) and is spinning at approximately 460 meters per second, around 1,000 miles per hour. So wouldn’t the force required to cause Earth’s rotation to stop, reverse, and then reverse again actually destroy the planet?

I don’t need honors physics to know it doesn’t matter. If turning back time would stop Lois Lane from dying, Superman would do it.

##

Between Parachute and Rifle

We’d bought the beer and ice at a gas station near Parachute, Colorado. I stood with the pump while my father acquired the goods. I was a couple years off the buying age, although I had a decent fake in my wallet. I laid a bed of ice in the cooler and tumbled the cans in, keeping two for the ride. I cracked his open as he got in and held it out as he put us in gear. He said: “Goddammit, son. Don’t hand me my beer yet. Wait till we’re on the road.”

For the trip up he’d bought a half dozen maps for us to fumble through. They meant nothing to me. I didn’t actually remember the area, only the monumental yellow mesa, sparse landscape. Only the smell of old tires and the stubbornness of barbed-wire fence gates. I remember tying up horses, or stumbling into the ghost-white cold and taking a shit in an outhouse in the middle of the night.

A poet, maps are mostly useless to me. These ones detailed every switchback between Parachute and Rifle, places my father ran cows as a teenager. The stated goal was to find an old shack with a corral where a couple of hands could get a few winks if they couldn’t get off the mountain before dark. For that, maps are pretty worthless anyway.

The maps did lead us along a dirt road where we only had to open one barbed-wire fence gate. I’d opened a few of them before, mostly on trips up to visit my grandfather Otis Murray. That’s how I knew it was my job as passenger to get out, struggle with the post and loop for a few minutes, cut my hand, say a few oaths to all such fences, and wait while he drove on through. Repeat process to close the gate, then hop back in. “Cut your hand?” he said. “Meh, a little,” I said, sucking the blood. “They’re hell for a kid to open,” he said. “I’ve always hated ’em.”

My siblings and I had gone up on numerous trips to the Western Slope as kids. It was quite a drive from the big city. We’d pack into the wood-paneled Ford Taurus: me, Dad, brother Chris, and sister Katie. Sometimes my mom would brave it, and she’d say to me playfully, “You and me is city folk.” Most trips were designed to see Dad’s side of the family, but we’d usually end up doing something obsolete like fix a fence at the old ranch house or paint something thirsty like a crappy old barn or a front porch.

Once, Dad took only the boys to paint my grandfather’s horse trailer and learn how to do something, some real work. According to him, we didn’t know how to do anything. That was because we lived in the city. On the way up, brother Chris said, “Dad, is a horse trailer goddam or son of a bitch?” This was a legitimate question. Everything was goddam or son of a bitch, but how could one tell which? Dad thought for a minute and said: “That’s a good question. We’re goin’ up there to paint a goddam horse trailer, and when we’re done we’ll have painted the son of a bitch.”

This trip was different, though. I was back from college and things had changed. Grandpa Otis had passed (“that’s a good man they put in the ground there”).  The ranch house had been sold, along with the horses and cows. Some crook had stolen most of Dad’s horse tack during a garage sale. Most of that stuff wasn’t necessary anymore, since we didn’t live on the Western Slope. We lived in Denver. Actually, this was probably the first time up that Dad didn’t bring a pistol.

One wasn’t needed on this trip and would’ve been useless—unless for letting off steam with a few shots into the sagebrush. Grandma Berniece could shoot the eye out of a bird flying, to use one expression, and Dad himself needed one shot to make change out of a quarter at 100 yards. I never saw him level a firearm at anything living, but I did once see him swoop over the side of the horse he was riding—and I mean riding angry and at full canter—pick up his cowboy hat off the dirt where it’d fallen, and set it back on his head, all while cussing a litany that’d make a sailor blush. It was amazing.

Gregg Murray’s father as a toddler on Old Mountain.

Fine, so there is some embellishment, but sometimes running cows isn’t much to talk about. Out here I knew well enough that the cowboy life had given way to the rancher life. No dirty button-ups and sixteen-hour trail drives, no sleeping in a blanket roll in a cold rain. It was all buggy bosses duded up with a new Stetson and a Ford F150, biggest goddam truck you could find. In fact, most of the land we were going to hike on was owned by some oil company that hadn’t yet scoured it.

We parked the car—and the beer—outside of a fence gate that was now owned by Exxon. It said “No trespassing.” Luckily the land we were on that day, the very brush beneath our boots, hadn’t been raked and drilled yet. Somewhere, Dad said, there was a creek, a small corral, and a cabin that he remembered from his childhood. So we yanked open that fence gate—and cussed at it for sticking in the dirt—and started looking for the cabin.

I wished I’d worn more comfortable shoes. We’d been walking a long way no matter the metric, whether hours or miles, whether silent confounded stretches or soliloquies with Dad shaking his head and saying, “Well I don’t know if I recognize this or not. That over there does look familiar.” That was mostly false alarm. He’d point along the line of a decent-size creek where cows would’ve whet their whistles. “There isn’t a stupider animal in the world,” he’d say. Sounded about right to me, since the one obstacle on the dusty road up was some dumb son of a bitch cow standing in the middle of the goddam road. Didn’t move till we’d hopped out of the car and had a conversation with him. The conversation went like this, “Move out of the road, godammit, Yaa!!!” The cow said, “Moo,” and stayed put.

Our feet hurt and we still hadn’t seen the cabin. Nor had we headed back. “No, no, I think it’s around here. Let’s just get around the bend.” What was funny is I did get excited when he thought he recognized something. I’d start asking him questions that typically drew laconic replies. “So Dad, what’s the longest ride you ever had to do? Who is Charlie Sandoval? Did you ever have to shoot a cow?” “Longest ride? Hell I don’t know. Charlie Sandoval was a worthless son of a bitch. Why would I ever have to shoot a cow?”

I’d like to say I had a different response when we reached that nondescript range where Dad spied an empty creek bed. I’d actually put my hands on my knees and said: “Dad, I’m done. I’m heading back. You can do what you want. I want a cold beer.” But he had some weird defiance in his voice too. It wasn’t that of an adult. It was kind of giddy and secretive and out of character, like the time when he told Katie and me—after trying unsuccessfully to fix something in the house—that small tools were conspiring against him. He said: “Do what you want; I’m goin’ around this bend.” And he did. So I waited.

That is until he starting running—skipping?—along the dry creek. He’d hit the bend at the horizon of my vision. Too stunned to say anything, I eventually caught up and saw him smiling and looking at it. There it was, a dilapidated, crumbling abode maybe 10 by 15, roof collapsed as a trampled cornfield, broken windows. Next to it slumped a makeshift corral, big enough to hold a night herd. The corral gate swung open so far it stuck into uneven ground, which is every pain-in-the-ass gate. I mean, it was a real piece of shit, let’s be real. But we were happy to see it.

Photo by Gregg Murray.

We didn’t use the map on the way back. You just walk where you’ve been. By that point, the beer’s gotten good and cold. Beer tastes better when it’s cold like that.

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Colored chalk drawing at the top of the page by Connie Murray, Gregg Murray’s aunt.