“The key to killing your wife is to give her the means,” Jim told me, by way of marital advice. I love my wife, but some things never get better.
I had shown up to the Claremont Club to play racquetball with him in accord with our agreement to not let the other person let themselves go on our watch. Our mutually agreed upon solution was to play racquetball every Tuesday morning, 6:30 am sharp. I showed up at 6:12 and Jim was there already; he is old like me. We sat down in bonded leather recliners and watched the empty courts through the glass, mesmerized by what we could be doing, if only in our minds.
At our age we say what we want. We have earned what is called leeway. I am no longer nice and instead, just aim for being accurate.
I never thought I would get old. Not when I turned 30, not 50 either. Not when colonoscopies became as routine as Thanksgiving, or “Christmas: Part 1,” as Lewis liked to call it. “Men are wood,” I used to say to my wife, who was 12 years younger than me until she turned 35, at which point our age gap started contracting each year until one day it disappeared altogether, and men no longer looked at me with a cocktail of awe and contempt when I introduced her to them for the first time. I stopped telling her that women were flowers, because the joke was no longer on her; it was on me. In a spurt of hopefulness I waited for the ‘how did you pull this off’ look to come back when, at the age of 43, she got herself breast implants, but it didn’t come. I told her it was a bad idea.
“Two basketballs shoved under skin still look like basketballs,” I said.
“You’re a dick,” she told me. “Most men would give their left nut for this.”
I shrugged. “Most men are idiots,” I told her, “Or perhaps you are being inaccurate again.” She did not appreciate my saying ‘again.’ It was her least favorite word after 23 years of marriage.
“Did you see Lindsey’s new set?” This was the family conversation for weeks. I never told anyone but pretty soon my brother Luke, who lived in Boston and never visited, not once in the three years he has been gone, made a surprise trip to see us in October. His wife and son showed up too, quiet and judgmental as usual. Lindsey answered the door in an orange gingham dress that made her new knockers look like peeled cantaloupes. Luke held out his arms, beckoning sacrosanctly to her belly button, like he was aiming for her tits and missed and got her pouch instead. Linds ignored his bad aim and bent at the waist, giving him one of those collarbone hugs she had always seen well-endowed women give to old men. Christine emerged behind them, wearing a black crocheted tank and white short-shorts, which I only mention now because afterwards Linds went in the back and when she re-emerged, she was donning a sleeveless black shirt and blanched linen shorts the color of slivered almonds. My wife is not creative and prone to suggestibility; hence, the boob job. Now you understand?
“Women don’t use handguns,” Jim told me. “Too effective,” he explained.
“So what, pills?” I said.
“30 Tylenol would do it,” he said. “Just leave an open bottle on the kitchen counter.”
“She has tons of Tylenol,” I lamented. “Once she ate half a dozen Vicodin but that didn’t get the job done either.”
“Not to be Captain Obvious here,” Jim began, “but have you thought about just divorcing her?”
“That would be cruel, all things considered.”
“What, the Alzheimer’s?”
“And impractical,” I added. “Alimony alone wouldn’t cover the cost of full-time care for someone in her condition.”
At this Jim nodded; he had just sold his foothills condo to buy in a spot at Hillcrest, a retirement community in San Diego where there is a wait list that rivals that of NOMA and the downpayment involves a pretty string of zeros. Still, he could afford it, because when he is not doling out marriage or suicide advice, Jim is a doctor, the regular kind for when your knees go out or when sex with your underage student gives you a hernia; not the kind you go to when your wife’s dementia turns your bride to someone you used to know, like Gotze without the breakup. Now she is a stranger who refuses to leave the house or put on underwear and yet still in her clearer moments will manage the mental wherewithal to point out that I haven’t been watering the goddamn houseplants. “They’re drought-tolerant,” I’ll object, not inaccurately. “They’re dead,” she’ll say. This is also accurate.
The following week I bought a .22-caliber Colt Gold Cup pistol, gilded and so light I wondered if it’d work when my life depended on it the most. Colts came out before the Gun Control Act of 1968 obliterated the two most common ways Americans got guns—imports and mail order. They recently went out of business, but you could still find them floating around on gunbroker.com, or ebay for Libertarians, I liked to call it.
I have just come from teaching a class on Civil Society. A small brown box is sitting on the jute doormat the last owner left behind when we closed on the house. My name and address are handwritten on the top flap in ball point ink by someone who never learned how to plan ahead; the letters of my last name are squished together and almost bleed into the side of the package. I had forgotten about ordering the Colt and am surprised to find that I am now a proud, gun-owning American. If the other faculty at Pomona College find out, they will revoke my mandatory liberal card and find someone new to teach Civil Society, someone who can be trusted with the precarious balance that is democracy. Praise the Lord for the tenure system. It is too bad tenure doesn’t offer an immunity clause for murder, even of the most thoughtful kind.
3:25 PM. Music is playing from inside the house—the slow, coarse whine of Etta James on the hard knock life of a whore. Listening to songs—it’s the only thing she can do these days without losing her nut, like Baby Suggs and color. Once a student asked me during a historical fiction seminar whether Sethe had to kill Beloved. “It seems a little drastic, that’s all,” she said. I asked her if she had ever been in love. I asked her if salvation was a necessity or luxury. She answered neither of my questions but came to my office after class and told me she would like to find out. Her name was Lindsay and that was 25 years ago. Now she is my Lindsay, and I must take care of her.
Here is the thing—I can’t walk in with a .22 handgun in my hand and the three-inch barrel makes it too big to sit comfortably in my pocket; I am well-endowed but not a monster; not at my age. The sun illuminates the half-open box, the sharp nose of the .22, the lone house before me littered with small mines awaiting my entrance. Thinking Linds is not home, and even if she is, she will not look at me, will not see the gun.
For days the sky above the Inland Empire has been overcast with the fine soot of another forest fire, the air marinating with the perpetual fragrance of camp. It’s a mistake to be here, here in general and here in particular, at my age especially; I should abandon my bad ideas in the most literal sense. Lewis lives in a blue two-story in Jacksonville, Florida, where the water runs warm, like blood, and the neighbors all own trucks with open cabs large enough to fit a body without trying. Jacksonville would be useful for someone in my situation.
In Civil Society, I tell my students why democracy is our best domestic product and a lousy export.Like avocados, the Kardashians, and other choice domestic products, you can’t just plant democracy anywhere, I tell my students; you need certain pre-conditions, specific prerequisite infrastructures in place, like oh, I don’t know, a literate society with the means to know who the hell the vote for; otherwise, enfranchisement is like that Biblical passage where Jesus talks about throwing pearls to swine. The two Midwestern kids in the class are the only ones who understand this reference but I suspect its meaning is entirely lost on them. They glance at each other skeptically, sharpening their suspicion of Jewish professors who talk like atheists but use the New Testament to support their liberal agendas. Maybe I should tell them about my new status as a gun owner to win their favor and end the class discussion already, but that would be unfair. It’d also make the other 22 students nervous.
Last week I was grading papers, handing out free points every time a word with “pre” at the beginning was mentioned (prerequisite, precondition, prevalent, predecessor, preventative, preponderant—my favorite) while Linds was going through her full-body nakedness phase, another notch on her crescendoing list of ever more bizarre behavior, like a reality TV star writing her own plot. Her basketballs had migrated towards her sternum and upon arriving there, deflated a bit, revealing a marvelous uni-boob that renders push-up and under-wiring completely ineffectual; hence, the naked protest—although against whom, or what, neither of us knew. To be fair, she still had terrific lower abdominal muscles; truly flat and spectacular for a woman who never bore a child, interrupted only by a fleshy pocket that surrounded her belly button like an ill-fitting, alabaster fanny pack. From behind her ass stood square and dimpled, hip bones jutting out like abrupt edges on Ikea furniture, although age had rounded them out a bit, shaved off the corners. Things might’ve changed though; I hadn’t seen her ass in eight months, given that she was always sitting, reading the love letters I used to write her in all caps on the backs of her papers, back when we were young and believed in time, believed that we could live unscathed. Perhaps by the time I saw them next, her rear would have sprouted horns upon which I would’ve been able to cast my crowns.
I drew a red smiley face next to presumptuous and inscribed the paper I was holding with an A without reading further; after three decades of teaching I can give a grade after the first two sentences.
The prerequisite for getting up in the morning and not blowing a hole through your parietal lobes is having something to live for. When I was seven, I had a calendar where I marked every upcoming event I looked forward to—birthday parties (other people’s), play dates, free days at the museum, the start of school, the end of school, lunar eclipses, planned power outages, a biennial trip to Bass Lake. My subjective well-being hinged on the proportion of empty boxes to marked ones; I was an emotionally precocious child, or perhaps an anxious-depressive one with a high need for inclusion. On this basis I learned to count, subtract, do fractions, calculate probability, though back then no one threw around the word genius like middle-aged mothers do these days (the proliferation of geniuses in Southern California alone would render their existence meaningless).
“I see folks with no quality of life everyday,” Jim says to me. I am back at the Club with a half open brown box and its contents in my gym bag.
“And I go, if that were me, I’d take myself out,” he continues.
“Do they ever ask you?” I say. “You know, for help?”
“What, physician-assisted suicide? Depends on what the Governor decides. It’ll only be a matter of time before the rest of us follow suit and help the demographers out.”
“Until then?” I ask.
“30 Tylenol,” says Jim.
“Or a .22,” I say. Jim laughs because he doesn’t believe me.
Mankato Court is a private road off of Shenandoah with rolled curbs and garages that never close. At 4:12 the termite exterminators are dragging away the last bits of drywall from the evacuated rental across the way and when they pull away, it will be just me convalescing on my doorstep, deciding between fear and perpetuity.
Would I do it? Is fire the ultimate 4-letter word? And then what?
Jim had said, you don’t have to do it yourself. Just tuck it away somewhere where she would find it, somewhere hidden but easy to accidentally locate, like half-buried between the folds of the towels in the bathroom or peeking out from beneath the bed skirt on your side. If she asks, say you got it for self-defense. If she doesn’t, hope that she’ll use it when you’re not around. Pray that she has good aim. Sitting in the bathtub would be ideal for cleanup.
Now I am thinking I will save her the trouble! It’s the least I can do.
Claremont is not a dangerous area. The last time the town witnessed any type of degeneracy was at commencement, when half the graduating class at Pomona College stood up and turned their backs to the President in the middle of his speech, right when he started talking about the future. They were protesting a campus assault for which the details were opaque but the gist was clear: a male student raped a female student; she reported it; he confessed. As a reward for confessing to rape, the Omnibuds office gave him a pat and let him go back to class, no punishment delivered. Then they told her not to go to the police, because the board would get wind of it and snicker, or die. Over this the town lost their minds. I wonder what they would think if a Civil Society professor shot his demented wife in the mouth when she was sitting naked on the couch listening to Etta James. Sanity should be a precondition to the marriage bond but it is not.
Suddenly it seems to be twilight—the sun has wearied of itself. I’m walking past the unlocked door in the swift, awkward way in which people walk when they’re carrying too much mail or a bag of eggs, my head tucked, limbs calcified. I am thrilled for the first time in months. I know that doing what I am thinking of doing would be a calculated error, but wasn’t Borges the man who said on his deathbed Si pudiera vivir nuevamente mi vida, en la próxima trataría de cometer más errores?
In the living room I am exposed without cover, but Linds is not there to see me one last time. I try to console myself with the idea of dying a hero’s death in prison. Yeah I killed that bitch, I would tell my cell mates. Shot her square in the cheek, between the three fucking moles she had just sprouted. They would chide me with delicious reverence, the kind that can only be bought with uncertainty.
To my right is the hallway that leads to the bedrooms. I waver over where the gun should be when I walk in—in my hand, or tucked between my belt and my jeans, from behind (in case I change my mind? In case Linds has irrevocably crossed back over to the land of the living?).
I make my decision by not choosing anything at all; the pistol is still in the cardboard box when I enter, small and resolute like an anniversary present. My voice comes out louder than I intend. “Hey,” I say, “Linds—whatcha think—”
The cellophane is wet where her mouth is, the red VONS covering her still open eyes. Ingredients for life inscribed across her moley cheeks. Like a gift, she managed to tie the two handles of the plastic bag into a bow around her neck, like she had been expecting me to do what I was about to and decided to extend herself to me one last time, proffer up one final sacrifice, or compliment-jab. I beat you to it honey, I hear her saying. I cannot tell whether she is happy.
Shiva lasted a week but this one felt shorter, maybe because it was. I am too old for stools, my knees and back too. Instead, Jim and I sat on the recliners at the Club in lieu of playing racquetball for seven days straight, paying our respects.
I had been keeping to my side of the bed like there is a pothole in the middle, which there sort of is, where Linds’ ass made an indent from months of lying there, unrelenting and in broad daylight. Now when I think of holes, all I see is her open mouth encircling the O in VONS. I can never go grocery shopping again.
I never thought she would die. Perhaps that is why a gun seemed like a good idea. After finding her with the bag over her head it took me two hours to finally call the police, because who knew that she would not be waking up? She had disappointed me before. I waited, but the stir didn’t come. I grabbed her hand and held it awhile, just to make sure it wasn’t warm—no other reason than that.
Lewis flew in from Jacksonville. I told him not to but he came anyway; that is how you know you are friends. The three of us—Lewis, Jim and I—visited the cemetery to see the body down.
Afterwards, over mid-afternoon bagels, Jim looked at me and asked, “Was it the 30 Tylenol?”
“No,” I said. “It was me.”
This was accurate. If I were to live my life anew, I’d make more mistakes.