There we were, taking the long way home through the park, Toby, my black lab, bounding on ahead, doing two miles for every one of ours. Lovers we were, holding hands when we weren’t struggling single file over rocks and roots. Lovers, inhaling the autumn afternoon, conscious only of the tromp and slide and crunch of our footsteps-and the silence. Lovers. Hardly killers.
The path narrowed so that one of us would hold the branch for the other, until gradually the path, once a logging road, now weedy and rocky from disuse, widened to the width of a car. And there, quietly edging upon our consciousness, was a car facing us in the turn of the road, with its motor running.
At a moment like this you become embarrassed, feeling as if you’ve been discovered at something. Discovered just being unself-conscious, maybe. You pull yourself out of your reverie, out of your private joke. You think: Damn people, intruding upon our afternoon, our privacy. Then you’re embarrassed for whomever you’re going to come upon. You think: Lovers maybe, necking, or more. You think: Oh, someone’s just gone to take a leak. You think: Maybe there’s a dead body in the front seat.
You prepare your face.
Your lover takes the left side of the car, and you take the right, the branches and tall weeds forcing you to pass close to the car. It’s an old, gray, nondescript car, four doors, some rust along the fender you can see out of the corner of your eye. Of course you try not to look, but the car is running, and you glance in as you brush past sideways.
There’s a body, a guy on the front seat, curled up fetal fashion, asleep. So, he’s got a right. But the car is running. You think: He’s gonna suffocate, no windows open, car running-he’ll be dead before he wakes. You look over the roof of the car at Rob, who hasn’t given in to curiosity, who hasn’t looked.
And now you’re behind the car, and you glance back and see the hose attached to the tail pipe, and, by God, just like in some movie, just the way it would be in that movie we’ve all seen in our heads, the hose goes around on Rob’s side, and you say, “Rob,” who has passed by now, and your heart is pumping with excitement (this is real life) and fear, and you follow the hose around to the other side of the car, and sure enough, the hose goes into the front door, and you realize what’s happening, and again, urgently, you say, “Rob,” and finally he turns and sees.
So you realize there’s a guy in there who has hooked up a hose to the tail pipe of his car, and the hose enters the front door and-he’s doing it. He’s actually doing it, just as you imagine when you hear how people kill themselves in their garages by turning on their cars and waiting. You’ve pictured yourself doing it. Well, by God, there’s a guy doing it right out here in our park, broad daylight, well, afternoon, a glorious afternoon, your much-needed afternoon with Rob, unself-consciously melding with nature, and suddenly all your nerve endings are standing at attention, and you’re sharp and distinct from the bushes and trees, and you think you should do something. Deal with this. You want to enter the drama but simultaneously resent that it has upstaged your own private, low-keyed, small, lover drama.
I have to enter the drama. I have to open the door. There’s a temptation, a pull, a seductiveness to be in the presence of someone who’s actually doing it. I want to see what it’s like, although I’m scared now. Someone who’s actually doing it is scary. Maybe it’s done already, but then just seeing death is scary.
My hand is on the door, and now I’ve opened the door, stepping back quickly into the bushes. Fear makes me sound angry.
“Hey, what are you doing? What’s going on here?” I sound like a cop.
Slowly, groggily, the guy lifts his head. He’s alive, although his pale eyes looking up into my face are clouded, unfocused. He’s youngish, probably Irish, with stringy, reddish-blond hair, a blond mustache. He looks like someone I would know.
“Leave me alone,” he mumbles.
“Well, I can’t, you see,” I answer nervously, with a little laugh, just as if we’re having this perfectly natural conversation. Toby’s worrying a stick to death over near Rob.
“Go on away. Leave me alone.” He’s struggling to prop himself up on the steering wheel. It’s a struggle, not only because he was on his way out, but because his gut is wedged in by the wheel.
“What are you doing, buddy?” Now I sound overly jovial. Rob has finally come back, but because he’s still standing a little way off, as if about to run, I feel he must know something. His glasses are winking in the sun; I cannot see his eyes. Maybe somehow I’ve spoiled our afternoon by having to look. Maybe Rob is angry. Now I’m torn. This guy doesn’t want me, and Rob wants to go home. He keeps shuffling, hands stuffed into the pockets of his jeans, shoulders hunched. He keeps glancing toward the paved road. It’s silent here in the park except for this shuffling, the thrum of the car motor and Toby still humbling that stick. There’s no one else around, and we can’t see the main road from here. I think maybe I’ve created this.
“What are you doing?” I can’t seem to think of anything else to say. He’s looking straight ahead, up the path further into the woods, one arm hanging onto the steering wheel for support, thick, nicotine-yellowed fingers (he’s a lefty) tapping on the dash, no wedding ring. Then I see the case of Budweiser on the floor in the back, crumpled cigarette packs and some dirty laundry on the seat.
“Why so much beer?” There are empties tossed onto the floor in the front, and his cigarette is still lit in the ash tray. There’s something forlorn about that cigarette burning, waiting to be dragged on, life going on.
“It’s for the people who find me.” His words are slurred. “So they can have a real party when they find me. Now shut the door and leave me alone.”
That part about the people who’ll find him drinking his case of beer ticks me off. I shift my weight and look at Rob.
“Rob, what’ll I do?”
“Get his keys.”
“Aw, shit, just shut the fucking door. Get the fuck away from me.”
More minutes of silence while I look back and forth between the guy and Rob. The guy stares out the front window, fully upright now. Rob is impatient. He shuffles a little farther from the car, a little closer to the main road. I think, this guy means business. I picture wailing sirens, cop cars, flashing lights, the ambulance, all that noise breaking into this guy’s final moments. This thing he’s doing is as private as masturbation. This guy is serious, and I am timid before him. I have never done anything so deadly serious. Now I am moved. I do not want the cops with their sirens and stretchers and their loud bullying voices to disrespect this man and rush him unwilling to a hospital and pump out his stomach, or whatever they do for carbon monoxide poisoning, and treat him as if he doesn’t mean it. I am sobered. This is no joke. I think he means it.
And I have no words of hope for him. I have my own problems and my own doubts. What he’s doing makes me want to glance behind me, over my shoulder, as if he knows something about life I don’t. As if he’s leaving a bad party and by leaving makes me see how dreary it really is. What’s so great about taking a walk in the park with your supposed lover? I mean, it doesn’t solve anything. Nothing at all. It’s irrelevant, really, when you consider all the times in life when things go wrong. This party stinks.
If Rob were not here, I know what I would do. I would gently close the door on the hose, being careful not to shut off its supply of noxious gas. I would raise my hands, palms forward, to show I meant no harm, and, crouching, I would back away.
“Keys. Get his keys,” says Rob, suddenly efficient, crisp, though still standing down the road, out of the guy’s sight.
His words galvanize me, and now it becomes a game: Will I dare to reach in past the guy (maybe death will grab me too) and pull his keys out of the ignition? That will spoil it for him, inconvenience him, when, after all, if he’s gone to this length, he’s probably been troubled enough in life.
“We’ll put the keys at the end of the road. That’ll give him time to think it over.” Rob has it figured out now.
“But I don’t want to inconvenience him.” Rob and I are talking the way you do in front of a child. We’re talking as if he’s already dead.
“Tell her to shut the door, Rob.” He’s heard me call Rob’s name. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing? Both of you, leave me alone.” His voice is weary. I understand.
“I’m sorry, but I have to do this.”
“Get the fuck away. I’ve got something in the back seat that’ll make you get away.” He straightens up, his left hand on the steering wheel, his right arm over the back of the seat.
Oh, shit, what’s he mean, “something.” A gun, under all those clothes? This man, so free with his own life, would not have the usual compunction.
Quickly, I reach in and pull the keys out of the ignition, thinking if they stick, he’ll grab my arm and pull me into where he’s going. But they don’t stick, and I get them and start backing away, apologizing.
“Aw, shit, what are you gonna do with my keys?”
High on my courage, I run to catch up with Rob, whose long legs are carrying him toward the road at a great rate. He calls back, “We’ll leave them at the end of the road. You’ll have to come and get them, see?” And to me he says, “This will give him time to get some air and think it over.”
“How will I find them?” the guy yells. I turn to Rob, who seems to have done this many times before, so sensible is his idea, whereas I just wanted us to figure out a way not to inconvenience the guy, to leave him with his dignity.
“We’ll leave them on,” (we’re striding away now and calling back, and then Rob sees a beer can) “on a beer can.” (How fitting.)
We do it. Set the empty can on end in the tall weeds and carefully place the keys so he can see the can and the keys when he gets here.
I shout, wanting to be helpful, “They’re on a beer can.”
And then we start up the main road. Toby abandons his stick when we call. We leash him now and quicken our steps. After all, anything can happen-he could be hit by a car-we want him close to us. Death is breathing down our necks.
As we reach the top of the hill, we hear, “Rob, where’re the keys?”
I turn, see him, and make exaggerated motions toward the can, wanting to be helpful. It’s all I can do now. I want him to know we care. We want him to have a good experience. At least that’s the way it is for me. Rob and I are not talking now, just high-tailing it home.
We think he finds the keys. There is silence again; it has closed over behind us.
To Rob I say, breathless, “I don’t want to call the police. I believe a person should be allowed to make this decision.”
I believe in suicide. I believe in death with dignity, and I believe each person ultimately knows his own course-at least we must operate on that premise. When I’m old or sick, I want a pill. And when I die, I’d like my family around me. I’ll take the pill with all of them there, so they can watch, so they won’t be so afraid for themselves. We were at my mother’s bedside when she took her last three breaths. We watched and wept, but it was good to see. Her dying then became a part of my life, and now I am not so afraid. Only, I want to say when.
I am exhilarated. The adrenaline is pumping through my very alive body. We march home quickly as evening comes on.
“I don’t want to call the cops, Rob.”
He does not protest, and I, proud I have stuck by my principles, which were only words before, do not open myself to their challenge and possible overthrow.
I am saddened by what has happened. I did not know I would decide like this. I thought surely my heart would bleed. The rush I used to get from rescuing people has diminished over the years, as I begin to save myself.
I am too charged to eat dinner. We talk about it; we tell my daughter, Amy. Neither Rob nor Amy says, “Let’s call the police.” Perhaps I present the story in such a way that they see it my way. They agree that, by God, he got as far off the road as he could-he really didn’t want us to find him and stop him. We shouldn’t have happened along. “The guy intruded on our afternoon,” says Rob, almost shouting. I think he’s nervous, but I really don’t know. He does not discuss his feelings.
We wonder if we could be said to be accomplices. We talk in hushed voices without turning on the light over the dining room table. Maybe, with the breath of fresh air, he won’t do it. After all, who do we know who really means business, who sticks by what they believe. Life is so lukewarm; you are so little called upon to put your money where your mouth is. You can get by in a half-life without ever taking a stand or even being fully awake. You can hedge and compromise. There’s so much wasted time in life, so many unaccounted-for hours, so much dross. And here’s this guy doing it. He has stature, in my eyes, integrity, calling it quits when it’s no good anymore, rather than selling out, biding his time until death taps him.
I do not ask myself, is his despair only momentary? Is it merely a transient state that I should wheedle him out of? Or an inverted act of aggression which I have a responsibility to stop? I do not ask myself these things, and it is only many years later that it occurs to me that these beliefs I am so proud of may have blinded me to the particularities of the man before me. In taking for granted that this man’s action was deliberate and considered, and grew out of his principles, I was making the solipsistic assumption that he was no different from me.
I prepare for bed, a clear purposefulness to my actions. Each motion is precise, distinct from every other motion. I pay attention to what I’m doing and wonder if it’s worth it. That is, what it is he knows that I only suspect. His choosing death has brought me closer to the narrow edge of my own life, and I wonder if he doesn’t have a point.
The next morning, without a word between us, we know we want to go back and see. I’m rooting for him to have done it, but I don’t tell Rob that.
We retrace our path down the hill by car, and when we reach the dirt road, we see the car. Holy shit. This has the throb of reality. I’m always wondering when reality is going to kick in.
There are no sounds except Nature going on about her mindless business and the crunch of our footsteps on dry leaves as we creep up to just behind the car. There, with one quick look, we see him lying fetal fashion on the front seat. The hose is connected to the tailpipe and leads into the front door. The engine has run down.
We retreat fast and drive home. Now, now Rob calls the police.
We make breakfast and wait. Then we hear sirens in the distance. He can’t hear them now. It is over. I am shivering with exhilaration and awe and horror at myself. I feel proud of him, although I am aware that others might not applaud what he has done, what we have not done.
Lovers, we were, not killers. But not saviors either.