How close have you come to the edge? How close can you get and still manage to back away? Here is an excerpt from a short story I’m fiddling with (title pending):
To Be or Not to Be (is that the question?)
Karen stumbled out of the house blindly that June morning, not sure where to go but knowing she had to get away from her husband and away from the agony of admitting the marriage was over. After years of threats, he was finally leaving.
She knew her incessant crying was annoying him. Her eyes, red and swollen from hours of crying, widened in amazement as she watched him moving about the house doing his usual Saturday morning “shuffle-putter.” Jim was an expert at the shuffle-putter, an activity that accomplished nothing while simultaneously making him feel productive. He moved papers from one place to another, organized his golf score cards, and rinsed dishes (but didn’t load them into the dishwasher).
His indifference to Karen’s paroxysm of suffering cut as precisely as a surgeon’s scalpel – perfectly excising her faith that sometimes “forever” really is forever, and that of all the people in the world who would hurt her the most, he would never be one of them. Not Jim.
Each shuffle-putter activity turned the blade a bit more, perfectly removing the illusions of who they were, what they had, and the worth of it all.
“My God,” she observed in disbelief. “He’s actually whistling.”
She knew then she had to leave immediately or risk saying or doing something deeply regretful. Of course, as in all cases of a broken heart and terror over what the future holds, that would come later.
She put on her running shoes and tried her best to clear her eyes. Mustering all the energy she could, she launched herself up the hill and to her favorite running road, Skycrest Boulevard. Winding and scenic (but most important for her aging knees, largely flat), the boulevard tiptoes along the top of a hill and gives occasional views that make you think you could almost touch the sky if you just reached high enough. Roughly two miles out was Skycrest Cemetery: a beautiful and quiet spot she visited on her runs several times per week.
Karen felt at peace there.
For one thing, she could run and sing out loud at the same time. It’s not as if the residents of this particular neighborhood were going to complain. Her recent obsession with the musical “Hamilton” made this a very important component of her run location choice, because she found it nearly impossible to listen to Hamilton without experiencing the compelling urge to loudly sing along.
(Jim never “got” Hamilton, despite her entreaties to sit, listen actively, and be educated and entertained by the sheer genius of the work. She realized later he was Burr, and she Alexander – but that’s another subject for another chapter.)
Besides the joy of singing amongst the dead, powerless to complain, the perspective gained by spending time surrounded by them is invaluable. After all, how sorry can you feel for yourself when everyone around you is in a much worse spot? Your heart is broken? Fine, but theirs are gone, seeped into the pointlessly beautiful coffin linings or burned in the fires of the crematorium. You’d have to possess a deeply flawed frame of reference to lament your woes around those whose concerns are a thing of the past, many of whom with family still suffering mightily from their loss.
The child of a former love was buried at Skycrest; hers was alive. Parents of friends were buried there; hers were alive. This was not a place for self-pity.
As Karen made her way along the meandering road to the cemetery, her thoughts returned to The Plan.
“I’m clever as hell,” she thought. “At least I have that going for me.”
The Plan was simple and beautiful, and as much as one can be proud of the construction of a hoax, she was. It began to take form a few days previously, when she finally allowed herself to believe that her husband was walking out of the marriage and the family and she had no say in the matter.
“What are we supposed to do?” she cried. “Where are we supposed to go?”
“That’s really not my problem,” he replied. “You’re smart – you’ll figure it out.”
Leaving aside the emotional impact of losing a spouse, something with which Jim would clearly not have to struggle, how could she go from financial dependence to independence overnight? Karen had faith in her abilities, but how could anyone make such a profound change in income within the time it takes for the next cycle of bills to arrive? She added up the monthly expenses and thought to herself, “I’ll never make it.” The genesis of The Plan arose at that moment, and she went to her Facebook page to make a post:
“What is with the massive increase in dump truck traffic on Skycrest?”
She had noticed the trucks weeks before, ferrying loads of dirt to an unknown construction site. They were loud, which was a good thing, because when she heard them coming she could make certain she was in a safe spot so as to avoid becoming roadkill. The drivers of these trucks sped along Skycrest far too fast for the curves, number of pedestrians and cyclists, and size of their vehicles.
Then again, the noise and speed of the trucks served another purpose for her. They were loud, which meant she could assume her position on a hairpin turn and initiate The Plan without the driver having the chance to see her and react. The speed at which they traveled with their heavy loads ensured that The Plan would succeed. There would be little left to identify her beyond dental records and her unusually spectacular ankles if she planned the timing just right.
Two days before, she had phoned her son’s father Alan (a man she would later refer to as “my favorite ex-husband”). Choking back tears and feigning normalcy, Karen asked him in the most nonchalant voice she could muster, “Say, when does that life insurance policy you have on me expire?”
Alan, no dummy, was concerned. As she listened to him on the phone, she pondered the concept of having another ex-husband, something she had always been certain would never happen. No – it would not happen. She would not have two ex-husbands.
“Why? Are you OK? What’s going on? Do I need to worry about you?”
“God, no,” she assured him. “I’m fine! It just popped into my head and I was curious when that damn thing ends. It’s for $500,000, right?”
Alan, a meticulously organized man, had the policy at his fingertips. She heard him make a few keystrokes over the phone and almost immediately he was reading from the policy. He confirmed it had another 15 years on it and that upon her demise, he and their son would receive a $500,000 benefit.
“$500,000 is a lot of money,” she thought to herself. “It’s enough to get the kid through college and maybe even help him buy his first house.”
“Thanks! I’ll speak with you soon!” She squeezed the words out of her throat as naturally as she could, making every effort she could to mask the deluge that had begun yet again.
As Karen jogged along the road that morning, The Plan solidified in her mind as her only option.
The night before, Jim made his announcement in a perfunctory and businesslike manner, listing her inadequacies as one might recite a shopping list. She knew this was it – that she and her son were going to be suddenly on their own – and on that Saturday morning she couldn’t see how strong she was. On that Saturday morning Skycrest run, she did not know yet who she was and what she was capable of. All she saw was failure, rejection, and her own deep inadequacies and piss-poor planning.
“What a hypocrite I am,” she berated herself over and over again as she made her way to the cemetery. She thought about the numerous times she lectured women to never become financially dependent upon a man, because people leave. They can promise they will love and be with you forever, but in the end, the vows and the words are as worthless as scratched losing lottery tickets.
Nothing is forever.
So she made The Plan, because the financial devastation and humiliation of a divorce, and worse than that, being “left” like so much garbage on the street, was simply unacceptable to her.
The trucks roared past her, throttling their engines and kicking up dirt from the side of the road. This morning, her reaction to the trucks was not as it usually was. On this glorious and sunny June morning, when the massive vehicles packed with tons of earth and stone got too close at too fast a speed, she didn’t yell at them and extend her middle finger in their direction as was her custom. She didn’t grow angry every time one of the trucks nearly ran her off the road.
Instead, she grew confident.
(continued here: The Plan, Part II)