Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Two Suicides - Part II of II

“Uuum – just read on FB that Elizabeth is dead???”

That was the entirety of the text message sent from my not-so-tactful sister at 6:57 PM on Sunday, October 12.

Elizabeth was my best friend in high school. We graduated from Minden High School in 1988.

I sent messages to a few mutual friends, and learned that she’d just committed suicide that day…30 days after marrying a 28-year-old ex-con. It had been her fourth or fifth marriage. All I could think was, shit
On a hot August morning in 1983, my mother unceremoniously delivered me to Webster Junior High School in Minden, Louisiana for the very first time. Having dropped off my siblings at their respective new schools, she drove our green 1973 Ford Grand Torino station wagon into the parking lot and mumbled “have a good day” as she puffed her cigarette and blew smoke out the window. I fumbled out of the car as she looked away, her parental duties fulfilled until 3PM when we arrived home on the school bus.

I grew up in rural Joyce, Louisiana where my awesome hunting, fishing and arm-wrestling skills made me one of the most popular girls in school. As I stood under the old aluminum canopy in this new parking lot, I realized that the girls in Minden were definitely not like the girls in Winn Parish. They wore hair bows and fingernail polish. I sported a cropped haircut, no makeup, and cheap but well-worn tennis shoes. It was 8th grade, and I was the new kid in a small town junior high school. This was not going to be fun.

I stumbled around campus until I heard voices coming from the track and field bleachers. There, sitting on that tiered metaphor for pre-teen popularity, were a bunch of kids I did not know. I didn’t know the school building. I didn’t know the schedule. I didn’t know any teachers. And I definitely DID NOT look like these girls.

Elizabeth spoke up. “Hey, why don’t you come sit with us?” I joined a group of overly-thin, studious-looking girls who sat, appropriately, halfway up the bleachers. “Who are you?” they asked.
I mumbled, “Debbie. I’m new.”

They sized me up, and continued the conversation they had started earlier. I sat there, quietly listening, trying to look interested, and wishing for this day to end. Fast.

Now Elizabeth is dead. That day on the bleachers in 1983 plays in my mind like a VHS tape of E.T. There is lots of static, and the VCR has a tricky rewind button.

Elizabeth’s dad was an American History teacher at Minden High School – a clear kiss of death for any junior high student. But she got my nerdiness, and I got hers. She made straight A’s, and she didn’t have boobs yet. Her parents were super-religious and didn’t allow her to wear make-up. We were practically twins. But she was confident. She was the epicenter of the school’s pre-pubescent geek gang. Any promise of long-term, school-wide popularity with this clique was non-existent but, at that point, I just didn’t want to stand out as the new, backwoods country kid with the butch haircut, flannel shirt, and cleats. I stuck with Elizabeth and her friends, and they tolerated me as long as I didn’t say too much.

Fast forward to 1988. Elizabeth and I were seniors. We were soul-sisters. We were inseparable. Her parents adored me, and provided a safe refuge from my Dickensian home life. Elizabeth found an out-of-town guy who was nice enough to take me to the prom. Her mom made my dress because my parents were too poor to buy one. We both had to be home at 10:30 PM.

After graduation, she and I went parking with some good ol’ Minden boys. It was horrible. She was in love with her date; I barely knew his friend, who slobbered when he spoke and told me he loved me 15 minutes after we pulled into the woods. It was one of the longest, most miserable nights of my young life.

Around 1990, Elizabeth married her date from that night. I was a bridesmaid, and gladly wore the most ghastly pale blue, puffy-sleeved bridesmaid’s dress for my dear friend. As a good Sibley Missionary Baptist Church girl, she had “saved herself” for marriage. She called me after the honeymoon to say that her new husband had laughed at the way she walked after they had sex. Of course he was a crude backwoods ass, and I’d always hated him for that. I should have punched him in the face when I had the chance at prom. But Elizabeth was determined to marry him. Her taste in unruly, ill-behaved men never left her.

Two husbands and two kids later, Elizabeth was having a hot affair with the accounting guy at the Shreveport law firm where she worked as a bookkeeper. Her husband at the time (#2, if I remember correctly) was a saint. She was also sleeping with some guy we went to school with; he managed the local video rental store there in Minden. She and I would have lunch, and I’d listen to her escapades.

“Your husband is an angel,” I’d tell her.

“He’s boring,” she’d reply.

In her mind, her obligatory Sunday-morning church habit absolved her compulsive sex binges. I gave her an ultimatum tinged with judgment: quit destroying your family, or forfeit our friendship.

Of course, she chose the guy in accounting over her husband, so I walked away. I mean, I’d been no saint. Who was I to judge her? But nevertheless I walked away from her. She needed help, and I didn’t possess the tools to help her. I was trapped in a miserable marriage myself – I was a young woman from a horrible family trying to navigate the complexities of a marriage. Elizabeth would be fine. She didn’t need me. Elizabeth always bounced back.

Except when she didn’t.

Around 2005, Facebook happened and Elizabeth and I became “friends” again. Not REAL friends, but whatever you call reconnecting online with a person you don’t know anymore, but share a common, ancient history. First thing I noticed: her hair was exactly the same as it was in high school. We were 40 years old, and she still had 1980’s Square Pegs bangs. Geez, I thought, how pitiful. And she’d never left Minden. From what I could tell, she was still working as a bookkeeper somewhere, still living in a trailer, and she was a grandmother.

Wow. Glad I got out of that godforsaken town, I thought to myself. That could have been me. Poor Elizabeth.

I sent her a message, suggesting we get together for margaritas or dinner or something. She confessed that she was now “a drunk” and couldn’t possibly accommodate my request. I replied, “Ok,” and referred her to a great therapist I knew. She never responded.

Every six months or so, I’d think about Elizabeth and check her Facebook page to see what was going on in her life. She loved her grandchildren, she loved or hated her job depending on the day, she posted glowing selfies while driving her car, and she REALLY loved Jesus. She had also fallen madly in love with a 28-year-old musician who was about to be released from jail. I had no response to her posts. I couldn’t relate to her life. She never reached out to me, and I quit reaching out to her after the rejected therapist recommendation.

It seemed as though the 17-year-old girl I had known just never grew up. 25 years later, she lived in the same town, went to the same church, had the same kind of job, still obsessed over boys, and still hairsprayed the hell out of her curly bangs. I couldn’t stomach it, but I also couldn’t reach her.

Several years passed, and I got the text: “Uuum – just read on FB that Elizabeth is dead???”

Her funeral was at the same funeral home where we’d held my dad’s visitation 4 ½ months earlier. He committed suicide too. Like Elizabeth, he never left Minden, never left his old church, and never accepted help from people who loved him.

“Brother Jeff” of the Sibley Missionary Baptist Church preached Elizabeth’s funeral. I sat there, elbow propped on the arm of the pew, remembering how this guy had warned me that John Lennon was the devil and that rock music was a tool of Satan. He had called me out to the congregation during a long prayer session, admonishing me to bow my head out of respect and stop looking around the sanctuary like a heathen. And here he was, preaching over the dead body of a woman he’d “saved” 30 years earlier. That piece of shit preacher….I wanted to walk out, but was content to serve as a witness to the small-minded religiosity in the room – the same mentality that had convinced Elizabeth to self-loathe her own sexual being, and spend her short life trying to make-over men who only wanted to fuck her.

I anticipated the snake-handling to commence at any minute.

I felt superior to everyone in that room in that moment. I’d gotten out. I’d educated myself. I was fucking ALIVE! I could have easily been the woman in that coffin, but I wasn’t. Poor Elizabeth – if only she’d moved away and found herself – her true self. Damn her for not trying.

A few girlfriends from our high school visited in the funeral home parking lot after her service. Of course, they all still lived in Minden. That’s when I realized I’d probably never think of Elizabeth again. She represented the person I could have become had I not listened to wise people and learned from life’s hard lessons. I couldn’t bear to imagine the agony she must have suffered, knowing that there is a whole world out there, but she chose to be trapped by her own poorly-informed choices.

Before the funeral, her mother confessed to one of her friends that “all Elizabeth ever wanted was a man to love her, and no one ever did.”

That is Elizabeth’s sad legacy.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Two Suicides - Part I of II

“Dial 911. Lay the phone receiver down on the counter. Don’t come to the back room. Thanks for being my friend. Get yourself some cable.”

That was the note – and there was $1000 in cash on the dining room table beside it.

The house looked like normal when Debra got there. She had knocked, but there was no answer. The door was open, which was unusual. He never left the front door unlocked. Never.

She called out, “Robert,” several times with no answer, then she saw the torn envelope on the table and the cash. She did as instructed, and left the old green phone receiver on the countertop in the kitchen. It was the only phone in the house, and had been since 1982.

She walked to the back bedroom – not to her designated room where he had installed a padlock on the outside of the door to lock her inside when she misbehaved, but to his bedroom. She knew it well. It was quiet, the dog wasn’t barking, and his blood was covering the walls and bed from the corner of the floor all the way up to the ceiling. His body was beside the bed, knees propped apart with a fake gold picture frame shaped like a V which had cradled the butt of the gun. He was frozen on his side on the floor. His left hand was still on the barrel of the .303 rifle. Bits of jaw and brain were sprayed across the room. His head was mostly missing, but she recognized his 336-pound body lying there on the floor. Those were his socks and his pants and his shirt.

She thought, “Don’t touch him. They’ll think you did it.”

So she walked back to the living room and sat down quietly in the old yellow chair. The police would be there soon. She’d left the phone off the hook like he said.

She didn’t dare touch the $1000 on the table.

She waited.

It was May 29, or maybe May 30. She wasn’t sure. They asked her, but she just wasn’t sure. Yes, it was definitely 2014, and she had been his friend for 20 years. And she found him this morning. She had left last night around 10 PM, and he was fine. That’s all she knew.

The police officer asked if she knew who shot the dog. She started crying because she knew he loved that dog.

“I don’t know,” she whimpered.

So many questions…they asked her so many questions. The slow Southern drawl of the officer was soft, and it comforted her. She knew what they were thinking though: she’s black and he was white. In this backwoods Louisiana town, she was guilty until proven innocent. She focused on keeping her composure.

Convinced that she didn’t have the mental capacity or physical ability to kill a man as large as Robert, the police drove Debra home. She left behind the money he’d given her. She stayed in her tiny upstairs apartment and cried alone about her lover’s death. The neighbors heard her and, one by one, knocked on her door. She simply told them, “Robert’s dead,” and closed the door. “I’m sorry for your loss,” each one would say. She didn’t deserve this — not after the way he had treated her all those years.

His youngest daughter got the call.

“This is the Minden Police Department. I’m sorry to inform you that your father has died.”

She relied on her husband to work out the details. She didn’t call her siblings until later. She had to fall apart first. He was HER daddy; the others had ignored him all these years. And she wanted to get in that house…that house held so many secrets, and she wanted first dibs. She was the only one who cared about him, after all. They had been so cruel, so unforgiving…she was sure they would be sorry now.

She submitted a prayer request at church so everyone in her congregation knew that she was going through a difficult test sent from Satan himself. She coveted their sympathy now more than ever.

Her siblings were relieved to hear the news. Finally, the nightmare was over. Should they feel sad? Or angry? Should they feel guilty for being happy that he was finally dead?

They were not close, the four of them. When they were younger, they would have died for each other. They almost did on several occasions. They would have died for their mother, the long-suffering martyr of the family. That was a long time ago, though. Things were very different now. Life was safer.

The youngest daughter made all the arrangements. She wanted flowers and a military funeral. Her three siblings went along with her plans out of compassion for her loss. She took things from his house, and tried to donate his belongings to a local crisis pregnancy center. One brother stopped her, and she never told the others of her plans. She was blunt with her siblings about her desire for a full reimbursement of her expenses from the funeral.

$18,000.00. That’s how much the gun-blast cleanup cost. The company was appropriately-named “Aftermath.” All but one sibling saw the humor in it. Laughing helped as they cleaned out his hoard of cigarettes, broken televisions, AA batteries, razor blades, and lawn mowers.

Having removed all bank account records and valuables from the house, the youngest daughter was content to let the others clean out Robert’s belongings and prepare for his “estate sale.” Each of the four siblings split the proceeds equally at about $250 each…hardly worth their effort, as predicted.

The lawyer completed the paperwork. There was no will. What was left of Robert’s substantial inheritance from his wealthy parents had been whittled away to $150,000 and change. The house was falling apart. The junked cars were scattered around his property like shipwrecks. His loyal dog, a rescue from the local pound, had been carted off the day of the suicide – found dead from a bullet wound from his .38 pistol. The flies still circled the bloody spot where the mutt had been shot in the head.

The whole mess could be sold as soon as the succession was complete. All that misery, sold to the highest bidder. It seemed too good to be true.

“If he did that to himself, I can only imagine what he did to you,” said one friend. She had no idea what he had done to us behind those walls.

That’s how my daddy died.

I keep that V-shaped picture frame on my bedside table. It’s the last thing I see each night before falling asleep, and thinking about its ultimate purpose always makes me smile.