WHIRLAWAY MAN

He was laughing wildly, so much so that she put down her dishtowel and went to the front room to see what was happening. She had expected him to be looking at one of his endless collection of electronic gizmos but he wasn’t. He was holding her book on Canadian literature which she had acquired up there a few years earlier in a doomed teaching job.

“What is it?” she asked.

He could hardly stop laughing. “It’s this quote from Stephen Leacock about jumping on a horse and riding off in all directions. It’s a perfect description of my family.”

“You’ll have to tell me. Let me finish the dishes first.”

But now he was sober. The laughing had drained off enough energy for him to feel that skeletons in his closet elbowing each other, jangling, knee-capping, even the baby who died so soon after birth, starting a wave of guilt and blame that could only be handled with total denial that it ever lived at all.

His main defense against the waves of misery had been super-rational analysis, dispassion. Becoming a distant critic unplugged from any of the emotional short-circuits. It wasn’t easy, partly because the main demand of the rest of the family was that he should be special, a famous man that the rest of them could claim like a badge because they could say, “Oh, I knew him when. . .” or “I changed his diapers.” Or “I encouraged him when no one else would.” None of this was true, of course, much less rational.

But he still had had secret delusions of being powerful, a genius, an artist of transformative skill. There was no focus, but that was the logical result of riding off in all directions. So he had thought maybe if he found a totally different community, made a new family out of those he had some affinity for — shared their loves, their skills, connecting into something larger than any individual. But it turned out that they rode off in all directions, too. No sooner did they begin to bond among them, immediately someone would challenge the group, start a fight, and have an excuse to leave.

He chose a partner — doesn’t matter whether it was a man or woman. Pretty soon they were shouting — or worse, hoarding bitter accusations and threatening to leave — or even worse, just disappearing so that he was tortured with fantasies of death or capture or just the idea that he had imagined the whole damn fiasco from the beginning.

What he attracted then, naturally, was naive young women (or men — gender doesn’t matter) who swore they would never leave, never betray, never even argue — though he saw in their eyes their desperate desire to escape.

Maybe he should offer to help finish the dishes.

“Too late. All done now.”

When they were in bed, she with her book and he with his thoughts, she put down the book and said, “Tell me now what all that laughter was about. Tell me about your family.” Too late. The door had closed.

For the rest of the night the phantoms rode through his head. His father, drunk but still powerful and in control, went through in one direction, his black stallion rearing so that the silver trappings of controlling a horse all jangled and flashed. Was that lightning among the rolling clouds?

His mother in a old-fashioned open sportscar with a long chiffon scarf around her neck that blew straight out in the wind she was making, until there was an eddy making the scarf whip too close to the wheels so that, like Isadora Duncan, it tangled, went taut and broke her neck.

The baby in a buggy, like the famous scene in the Russian (was it Russian?) movie rolling down the long stairs of some official building, bumping along straight ahead and never tipping to one side or another, so that the baby didn’t fall out but couldn’t be seen either, so maybe it wasn’t even there.

When he woke, he was exhausted and she was gone. Pulling on jeans, he went down the stairs bare-chested and smelled coffee, followed it into the kitchen with its long sweep of windows above the drainboard and counter. It was quite English, this way of making a kitchen merge with a garden by keeping out the rain with glass but calling the sunlight to pattern the floor and walls.

She was out there with her book, her inevitable book, sitting with one leg hooked over the arm of the yard chair, the sun making her hair into an aureole. He felt he loved her and then instantly was jealous of her ability to be where she was. That book — wasn’t it an evasion of him? Or was it an anchor, a safe place for her to return when his need of her was over — a book that was a book mark.

“What is there to eat?” he called. He loved to interrupt her, to claim her back from that world that was only in her head, to check where he was on her priority list, to see how many “bars” of power on this little gizmo that was their relationship. By the time she came, smiling, with the cat twining around her bare feet, barely avoiding being stepped on, he was in his chair in the front room reading the online NYTimes on his new tablet.

Or pretending to. The ghosts of his dreams were still fighting it out in his head. Sometimes he had fantasies of some brain surgeon drilling a hole in his skull so they could all fly out like cartoon characters, blobs that trail off into a point at the bottom like dialogue balloons. His mother slammed the front door as hard as she could as she raced for the car before his father could stop her. His father went out the back with a six-pack of beer and got onto his riding mower. He would stay out there in the big field behind the house, roaring back and forth, getting besotted.

What could he do? The pattern was deep inside him, riding off in all directions. There was no cure, no respite.

She knew that, accepted it, put down cat food in a saucer, picked up her book which she had left face down on the table, wiped off the page a spot of blood-red jam that she hadn’t seen was on the table from her own breakfast.

THREE SUICIDE ATTEMPTS

As an old woman she reflected quite a bit on her three suicide attempts. They were far in the past now, when she was young and drastic and not quite in control because she never thought about what her options were.

The first one was intended to be a kind of magic. Before she married, she had been in love with her future husband’s sister and if she had been a lesbian, she would rather have married her than him, but same-sex marriage wasn’t done in those days no matter how she “self-identified.” Peg and Putt were twins, fraternal obviously, but very much alike. Except that since Putt’s DNA had a Y and Peg’s had an X, she always felt that Putt was Peg with something missing. Of course, Peg had no male appendage, but the relationship was not about penetration. It was about sharing and understanding.

They met when they were all taking the introductory English class together at university — not the bonehead class, but the one meant to sort of orient everyone and explain the focus of the department, which was very heavy on myth, both Greek and the derivatives like Jung and Joe Campbell. They each picked some version of that terrain to work out. Putt leaned towards the psychological which was nice and fuzzy so that he couldn’t be pinned down. It was his life strategy and didn’t succeed very well. The two women were sharper and more contemporary. They liked the Imagists.

But when Peg developed fatal cancer, the old woman had succumbed to a half-unconscious idea that if she herself died, Peg would not. Fate would take her in Peg’s place. By this time much had changed. Peg had married a college professor and produced three babies, one after the other, all of them dear and sweet but undistinguished otherwise. The father was developing a strong career in administration, so there was plenty of money.

Putt had found a teaching job, mostly by staying where he was and making himself useful, so they remained on the little farm just outside town where the twins had grown up and sadly buried their parents, who died too young in a car crash. The old woman had settled at the kitchen table to write, expecting to produce a novel that would pay some bills. When they modernized the kitchen, they had kept the old wood stove and she was grateful for that, loving the sound and the intermittent interruptions to add more wood. But she never tried to cook or bake on it. Much of what she wrote was letters to Peg, counting on the dependable responses by return mail.

But Peg told her nothing about the cancer until it was too late. Then the husband called to say there would be one last attempt at surgery, but she might not survive. If they wanted to talk to her one last time, they would have to come and quickly.

The old woman and Putt had a terrible battle that night. He didn’t want to go, it would break his heart, the only way to get there quickly enough was by driving and he was convinced they would be killed in a crash on the way like his parents. What good would that do?

She accused him of being afraid to die because he had never lived, which was partly true. She claimed she was NOT afraid to die, then went quietly into the bathroom, drew a hot bath, and slashed her wrist. She cut it crosswise, since the smart aleck cop procedurals had not yet explained that one must go wrist-to-elbow. She dozed, then woke in pink water, and decided Putt was right. She never knew where he was all that time, but they went to Peg. Most of the way, she drove.

When they got to Peg, she was barely alive, withered and incoherent, her babies confused. They went to their father’s aunt who raised them with no trauma. She and Putt never saw them, but the administrator moved to a job near them and provided support. There was no funeral because Peg hadn’t wanted one.

The old woman’s name was Lillian, but people called her “Lil” and she liked the kind of Old West saloon sound of that. She developed a reputation for a newspaper column that was considered very funny, though a little bitter or maybe salty. Lil and Putt were popular at cocktail parties and on panels. They grew close together in an habitual way, because what choice did they have? Lil took a new interest in the little farm, which was being engulfed by the university town. She had a horse but not many places left to ride.

The second suicide attempt was almost performance art. There was another fight between them, but it was the first in a long time and it got totally out of control. She was drinking, which made her over-dramatic. Because she had leaked the fact of her first suicide attempt to her friends and they had taken him aside to rebuke him harshly for not intervening, this time he was determined not to let her out of his sight.

So she ran from him, at first around the yard, but he was keeping up better than she expected, so she darted through the door into the little barn and climbed to the haymow with him right behind her. A rope dangled from the rafters. There was a loop in the end of it. She put the loop around her neck. It was a rough thick rope and the whole barn smelled of hay and her horse, which was kicking his stall and neighing. She had never felt so alive.

Even Putt looked alive with his eyes wide open, suddenly eloquent about loving her and wanting her to stay with him because what else did he have to live for? He made all sorts of promises, all the things he thought she would want. She didn’t want any of them. But she wanted her horse. In the end that was enough.

Not much changed. Things went along predictably until they were nearly old. Then Putt died of a heart attack. She sold the little farm to a developer and moved to the nearest big city where she bought a little studio-condo on a high floor of a tall building. By now computers had been invented and the world opened out before her, quite literally, from first light when she made excellent coffee and sat by the east window. All day she wrote and her agent said it was all good. It all sold. She was bored.

The third suicide attempt was not even with the intention of dying. It was NOT suicide. She just wanted a rest. She told her agent she couldn’t sleep and with her help accumulated enough nembutal pills to keep herself unconscious for a couple of days, waking now and then to pee and brush her teeth. But then her agent got suspicious and used a copy of the condo key to come find her and get her to the hospital where they scolded her and watched her through the possible aftermath, though there was none. (There could have been convulsions.)

They made her talk to a shrink but he didn’t understand that she hadn’t tried to kill herself. He signed off. Her agent had kept her plants watered and brought her a cat. It was almost as good as a horse. She had a few good scribbling years left in her. She began to consider whether she might be a lesbian after all. It might be fun to go dancing with another woman.