Morbid curiosity compels us to do strange and awful things.
I sit at the Magnolia Café tucked in the odd space between lunch and dinner, waiting. Normally clients have no interest in meeting their writers face to face. But he insisted, and for three thousand dollars I can’t say no.
He arrives in plaid joggers, carrying papers while everyone else in the café grips a laptop or iPad. Only someone carrying papers would want to speak to their writer in person. See the veins in their hands. The crack of space between their lips.
He slides in so close to me our arms touch. His hair is beginning to grey at the temples. His eyes are too dark to see light in them. I’m wearing a yellow sweater for him to easily recognize me.
“I follow your work. It’s good,” he says.
He shuffles through his stack, unearthing an obituary I wrote last month. A woman died on the train tracks. It took weeks to identify her, and the words hurt to type. With each click I felt the impact of the speeding locomotive. Obituaries are my least favorite to write. They take an emotional toll but they’re steady pay – someone’s always dying.
“That’s not my best. Here.” I scroll through articles on my phone published in the last year but he shakes his head.
“You’re clever at making something awful sound beautiful. The woman on the tracks, did she kill herself, or was it an accident?”
His eyes flicker with embers of interest.
“No idea,” I tell him. His question feels like picking a scab. “What exactly do you want?” I know the answer. I read his email, but I need to hear the words.
“A suicide note.”
His voice is flat. He waves to the waitress, asking for a black coffee and slice of pie.
“What kind?” she coos, leaning on charm for tips.
When he grins, he’s attractive.
“Is this a joke?” I ask once she’s scuffled off to the next table. I don’t know what to do. Call the police? Toss my water at him? Take the job?
“Nothing funny. I need to leave a note for my loved ones, to ease their suffering after I’m gone.”
I nod, not because I think I can change his mind. Save him. Instead, I nod because I want to be a better writer. The writer he needs for this job.
“Here.” He opens an envelope, and cash flops out. “All yours if the note fits the bill,” he adds grimly. “Unlike the obituaries, I’ll see your handiwork before I’m dead.”
“Where do we begin?” I fish out a notepad and pen from my purse, retiring my phone.
“You’re the journalist. I’ve never written one of these before,” he says.
I think he’s lying and wonder how many times he tried to write the note before deciding to hire a professional. How many crumpled goodbyes litter his trash bin. When I don’t speak, he volunteers meaningless information.
“I’m an attorney. Not the charitable kind. I work for profit, so there’s no saving that,” he says after a pause.
“Wife? Children?” I ask. He wears no ring but mentioned love ones.
“Neither. Four sisters, though. And a mother and grandmother.”
This isn’t getting us anywhere.
“Tell me a story about yourself. Let me get to know you,” I try instead.
He grips the paper napkin, tugging it back and forth as if he’s fighting with himself, then drops a black leather wallet on the table.
“I don’t have stories. I have clippings. Mementos.”
I’m afraid to pick up the evidence. His name is in there. His address. Once I know those things, I can’t unknow them. I am an accomplice, like it or not.
He’s older than I thought. Forty-two. Taller, too, because who can tell when you’re sitting with someone that they’re well over six feet. He’s saved movie tickets from the old theater downtown that still prints them like it’s 1987. He watches historical films. He’s a man who favors the past over the present. And a few barely worn credit cards, organized by color. He prefers cash. He’s neat. Orderly. Nothing screams crisis in the wallet.
Tucked off in the side pocket are two pages folded up. One is from the bible. Another, a Superman comic.
“Are you allowed to rip this out?” I ask him.
“I don’t think comic books are sacred,” he jokes. “Both are reminders. When I was little my Dad forced me to attend church, every Sunday and sometimes during the week. I’d slip comics in my pocket to read them when no one was looking. They made more sense to me than what the priest said. When Dad caught me, he dragged me out back to the treehouse behind our house where I’d dig holes until he thought I was sorry enough for misbehaving.”
“That’s terrible.” It’s only my imagination but I see dirt beneath his nails.
“No, it wasn’t. He stayed to dig with me. Otherwise he was working, or away. It kept him with me just a bit longer, so I didn’t mind.”
“Is he dead?” I ask.
“No, just gone.”
The waitress delivers his pie. She reads over my shoulder, and I can’t tell if she’s looking at the comic or the bible page. Neither hold her interest.
“Is this from your father’s bible?” I ask my client.
I’m not religious, so I can’t place the page in any larger context. I just know it’s equally as tattered as the comic. Loss has a way of gnawing at someone over time. I’m wondering how many years it took before my client stopped finding the will to unfold the pages and remember the past.
I realize there is a limit to this. If I don’t start writing the suicide note, he’ll find someone else who might take the money and never bother to open his wallet.
“Let’s start with the big questions, I guess. Who, what, where, when, why?” I’m traveling blindly, so I go back to the basics. The journalist’s prayer, because I’m down on my knees digging for a way out of this. For both of us.
“How,” he murmurs, the first bit of melancholy escaping his lips. “The how is important. I want people to know I didn’t suffer.”
“How, then?” I ask.
“Sleeping pills,” he responds. “I’ll visit a nice hotel, eat a respectable meal, then sleep.”
There’s no saving him, I decide, paralyzed by the resolve in his face. Just delaying him. Delaying him long enough to figure out what the fuck I should do. “Ok, who should the letter go to?” My voice cracks.
“My oldest sister, Eliza.” He drops a pre-stamped envelope next to his pie.
“What’s the point of going through all this? What’s the point in doing anything for another forty years? I’m just done.” His breath is even, like a pendulum swinging between us.
“The hotel. I told you already.” He sips his coffee, wincing at the heat. “Regency South. I’ve booked the honeymoon suite.”
I raise my eyebrows.
“It was the only suite left. I’m not a weirdo, and I refuse to die on a twin bed in the economy room,” he says.
He leans in and brushes my hair away from my ear so he can whisper.
“Tonight at eleven. This is confidential. I’ve paid you. You can’t warn anyone, or you’re breaking a trust.”
The last question has been asked and answered, but the interview will feel unfinished if I don’t ask.
“That I’ll leave to you in the letter. You’re a writer. Come up with a reason.”
For the third time he slides something across the table to me. Stationery with a name on the top.
“Won’t they recognize that the handwriting is wrong?” The stationery stares up at me.
“Don’t worry. My attorney will know, that I hired someone. You can’t get in trouble for this. I promise.” His eyes are dark again, narrowed towards the pen in my hand.
He bows his head over the key lime pie. I imagine him in Sunday school, perched on his knees in fancy trousers, sneaking Superman from his pocket. The nuns tell him to be sorry, to tally what he’s done wrong that week. But he’s out of their reach in the make-believe world. He’s waiting for his hero, satisfied when his Dad tells him to dig in their backyard.
That’s the letter I write for him. Not a suicide note, but the ending he doesn’t expect. The why evaporates. I write the story I’m capable of, and when he reads it, he stops breathing. Only for a minute. The story where his father doesn’t go. Where the holes are filled and guilt is relegated to the church or buried beneath the treehouse, not in my client’s heart because people leave and others come back.
“I was wrong. You’re a shitty writer.” He takes a sip of the coffee, now cooled to the autumn breeze outdoors, once he’s read the letter.
But he folds it in fours, tucking it in next to the other pages of his wallet. The envelope to Eliza sits abandoned on the table.
“I can’t take the money,” I lie, keeping it firmly under my hand.
“You can.” He wipes his mouth and stands, his shadow falling over the table. “The letter eased someone’s suffering. It’s all I asked.”