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Suicide

I wrote this story in 1979. Before this one, my stories were stuck in a genteel loop of trying to find my voice in the ‘longing for love’ and ‘love lost’ stories that rolled off my pen, stories that incorporated the tearjerker side of the underlying otherness and pain I felt every day into the kind of stories I’d been exposed to that I thought were special because they’d been published in popular magazines.

I was the oldest ‘kid’ in my household and I didn’t have friends — definitely none to help me expand my oeuvre. I had an acquaintance who I thought was a friend at the time, who didn’t really understand me, but she wasn’t drawn to art the way I was. We didn’t explore galleries or offbeat places together and I didn’t explore those places much on my own. But I listened to a lot of radio and ran out and bought Elvis Costello’s album “Armed Forces” because it did something to me. I loved Neil Young and understood the breadth of emotion he wrote about, but Costello woke me up to how different words could be while still expressing things I understood deeply. I loved the old school rat pack feel of his pinched vocals, his melodies juxtoposed with the lyrics and way the music sounded, and I loved going to the dictionary or encyclopedia to understand the words and phrases he used that had gone over my head. Mostly I reveled in the otherness in his work that made me feel like I did belong on earth after all.

One day I sat down to write something different from the stories I’d written that I’d come to hate. In the blank that took over my mind (which felt as blank as the paper) I got restless and scared that I’d been chosen by a nebulous something to do a thing I had no skill at. I sat for a long time before I challenged myself with this: What would Elvis Costello write?

Of course he couldn’t have written this. He wasn’t me. And of course I couldn’t know that he might have written this sort of thing. The point is that with one idea, I thought differently about my writing and the stories I’d lived that already made up my life and I thought differently about what my words could do. Other writers will understand what I mean. No one else needs to ‘get’ that part. With a little editing after rediscovering that story this week (much less than I would have thought after having learned so much this year) this is the story I wrote from the prompt that changed my writing life:

Suicide

by Ré Harris

The city is never dark, he thought. Too many lights everywhere, staring in your face, assaulting you even through the windows of your own place. People are too scared, afraid of their own shadows — weaklings running through the streets like rabbits, squealing at the slightest sound. Why don’t they stay home, he thought. When the sun goes down all the little rabbits should stay at home in their little holes, nibbling cabbage and sleeping in the far corners, with one eye open.

He was angry. The world didn’t suit him and he had long before cultivated an attitude of perfect apathy toward everyone and everything except his own butt, but now everything inside him was shaking. He had feelings again that ran in more directions than he could name — all of them negative.

He tapped his cigarette with his thumb, letting ashes fall over the bed. Then he turned on his side and kicked her, a calculated move intended to wake her up and (although it fell short of this objective) to knock her to the floor. She shrieked and extended a foot quick to keep herself from falling. As she sat up in bed, that one long bare leg holding her steady, she shook her head, willing wakefulness into the remnants of a dream. She stared at him, seeming to hold her head in place with the back of her hand beneath her chin, the blandness in her expression unique to those who hold tight to sleep for as long as they can — two eyes, a nose, and a pair of lips saying nothing at all except ‘let me go back’, but he was smiling.

“Let’s go again,” he said, slapping at the knee she left curled around the sheet.

Incredulity crossed her face. “What is it with you lately? You crazy for me all of a sudden?” She yawned. “Or just crazy?”

He smiled broader. “Of course I am,” he grunted, stretching his arms out as if reaching farther than he ever had, making a show of reaching out to nothing and pulling nothing around him like an overcoat. He dropped ashes onto the floor and turned back to the lights. “But you knew that didn’t you?”

She rubbed one of her eyes and tilted her head back and forth like a ball between her shoulders. He grabbed at her with one hand, but she darted out of his reach. “I’m going home,” she said.

She slipped out from under the sheet and stood for a moment blinking before walking across the room to where she’d left her clothes on the floor.

He stared at her as she sorted through her things. The neon light flooding through the window, shone on her skin, giving it a luster that made her appear luminous, like an angel. At first that vision made him laugh. She was anything but an angel, yet standing there bathed in that blue-white light …

He found the thought unsettling. He decided he had never liked her, never cared what she felt or what she wanted. From his view, the only reason she drew breath was to take care of him, do his bidding and take care of all those unsavory little chores that were far beneath him.

He put his cigarette out in the ashtray instead of on the nightstand he’d pitted with scores of circular and oval shaped burns through the veneer down to the pale wood base. She had turned toward him as she shimmied into the lace-trimmed thong she’d worn for him, that she knew he hadn’t noticed and never would. She watched his expression cycle through spoiled, sneering little boy to something serious she hadn’t seen from him before. Her thin blouse was in her hands as she watched him come toward her, slow, deliberate, without humor — puerile, twisted or otherwise.

He said, “You’re not going anywhere. You’re not through,” the near whisper of his voice belying the command and the look on his face that struck her as strange. She thought it odd, but was still reacting to the kick. He’d kept her awake for hours that day after knowing she’d had a long night before, so she was trying to slip the blouse over her head when he came at her, punching her in the face and pushing her over the chair. He watched her fall to the floor on the other side of it, listened to the thud of her hip on the bare wood. For all his demanding, grabbing and little kicks, he had never hurt her that way. She knew to be afraid then, that she would have to get away from him or be devoured by his runaway sense of self, overblown now into an unrecognizable version of the man she’d never really known, but had been drawn to like insects around light bulbs.

She crawled across the floor as fast as she could toward the door, but he stepped in her path. “No,” he said. “You’re not leaving.”

He punched her again, pulled her up by her hair and tossed her on the bed. She rolled over the side and tried to crawl under it.

She attempted to yell, but her voice cracked as she felt her jaw swell. “Stop it … what are you … why are you doing this …”

He ran around the bed and pulled her out from under it with one of her legs. She swung at him and kicked and tried to dig her fingernails into his angry face, but he was much taller and heavier than she, and in his crazed, violent state could do her more harm than she could do to him without a weapon. She fought him anyway, flailing and jabbing, accumulating battle scars and inflicting as many as she could until he slammed her against the nightstand on the side of the bed he slept on when she was there. She closed her eyes tight while anticipating another blow, and remembered something from the week before while waiting for him to hit her again.

*****

“See this?” he said to her, loading the gun, then holding it in his hand and pointing it at various objects in the small dark room tinged with the neon he hated. “Loaded and ready.”

She tried to stifle a giggle. “For what?”

He dropped the hand with the gun to his side and turned to face her long-legged body sprawled sideways across the easy chair. He barked at her, “What the hell are you laughing at?”

“Everybody’s scared of you already, so what d’you need a gun for?”

He lifted it until it pointed straight at her face. She stiffened and he began to sneer.

“Come on … stop that,” she said. “I mean, hey, come on …” She sat up in the chair. “You know, everyone else thinks I’m crazy, putting up with you. You know? But, like, aside from getting paid on time, I really like you.” She looked into his eyes and tried to ignore the gun. “I don’t think you’re as different from everybody else as you want us to believe. I think you got real deep feelings. Lot’s of ’em. So come on … you’re okay with me. Why do you want to play with me like that?”

He came a step closer, pointing the gun so deliberately at her that she got angry. “You want me to be scared? Okay, I’m scared. Put that goddamned thing down and stop it, okay? Shit.”

He lowered his arm with a triumphant smile, walked over to the nightstand, opened the drawer slow and placed the gun inside. He watched her watching him as he closed the drawer, and as she wiped sweat off her neck, she couldn’t help wondering what the whole scene had been about. If there was anything she was sure of about him, it was that he always knew what his twisted doings were about. He didn’t care if he made sense to anyone else. In his own head, in his version of reality, his actions were fully thought out and sensible.

In hers, he paid her when he was supposed to, tossed her extra for food when she was hungry, and never asked where it all went. He never bugged her about other johns and hadn’t put a lasting mark on her, even when he was rough. In her mind, that was a version of love that got her through the day and brought her back when she wasn’t on the clock. Once he put the gun in the drawer, she wanted to smack him, but she was fine so she forgot about it.

*****

She opened her eyes now and reached up to the drawer above her head. She expected another blow as she fumbled for the pistol, but when it was in her hands, she pointed it at arm’s length toward his chest. “I’ll kill you,” she spat out at him. “I’ll do it.”

He’d been close enough to knock it out of her hand before she could focus, but he stared at her, taking heavy breaths, his heart pounding as though he was sick and close to sinking down with something like fever. He eyed her, but the rage she’d seen had dissipated. He took a step toward her, but there was no malice in the movement. If not for the beating, she would have accepted him into her arms, but she was bruised, maybe cracked, her shoulders scratched and aching, face bleeding. She could no longer take her chances with this strange man. Being hurt that way wasn’t what she expected from him and she couldn’t take the time to figure out what she’d done.

“I know it’s loaded,” she said. “I remember from when you were playing with it. So don’t come near me. I’ll shoot you.”

“Yeah?” he said.

“I’m not playing  … I’ll do it.”

“So do it,” he said, soft like when he wanted her to do something she didn’t think she had time for, like when he wanted her to rub his back for an hour or suck his toes.

She began to cry from the confusion, and he came toward her, head cocked, elbow raised in the air, fingers clenched into a fist and angling down at her.

She shot him in the chest, but he didn’t seem to feel it. He was almost knocked over by the bullet’s force, but his fist was still hovering over her so she shot him again as his figure blurred behind her tears. She was sure he would kill her because he had become invincible, shot twice in the chest (through the heart, she was sure) but still standing. She blinked and waited for him to move, but he didn’t.

She slid across the floor, around him to her clothes, dropping the gun and gathering most of her things in a sloppy scoop as she barreled toward the door. He didn’t try to catch her. He dropped his fist and stood where he was, waiting for her to leave. She had served her purpose and he no longer had any use for her. He listened for the door to slam, then went to the window and looked out at the street ablaze with a thousand lights. He sneered at the sight and sank down to the floor.

At least half the neighborhood had heard the shots, he thought to himself, but no one would come. Chances are no one would even call the cops. They would just run and hide and pray they wouldn’t be next. He’d be long gone before anyone discovered him.

In a few minutes, he felt the two burning holes in his body, looked down and touched the blood running out of his chest faster than he thought it would. Then he closed his eyes, leaned his head back against the wall, and waited for death.

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37 thoughts on “Suicide

  1. Wow. I love what you’ve told us about the genesis of this story, and I’m stunned that in your first attempt at a different writing direction, you came up with something as strong as this, that ends on such a great, raw note. Thank you for sharing this with us — both stories, the fiction and the backstory.

    • Thanks, Lisa. It took me a while after writing it to see what this story said about my thought process, but it fell out of the sky and hit me on the head right after I figured out how to open my mind. I’m glad both stories struck a chord with you.

  2. The background is as captivating as the story itself. I would argue that the works that preceded this all led to it, even if this was the first that came out right for you. You were building technique even if you didn’t like the end results.

    • Thanks, Jessie. I’ll take your word about the stories that came before. I see interesting ideas in some of them, but my execution was simplistic in the worst way before this one. It was as if my idea of what it took to compose a story jumped a light year when I finally made myself think differently. I’ve been trying to build better technique ever sense.

  3. Wheeew! I leaned forward in my seat the entire time I was reading this – the characters were so real, so believable! My favorite sentence was the one that began, “The world didn’t suit him . . . “ So simple, but so telling.

    ’79 . . . wow . . . very nice job, Ré!

    • Thank you so much. I appreciate you taking the time to read this and leaving such a nice comment. I’m glad the characters felt real to you. Even when I come at a story from an arch or quirky angle, I always want the emotion to be rooted in realism. It felt good to see that this struck you as realistic. Thanks for talking to me.

    • Thanks, Nicole. I appreciate that. I don’t send things out anymore because my skin’s gotten thinner with age, not thicker. And few magazines pay anymore anyway. Sometimes it feels awful that this is what I do.

      • That awful feeling comes with the territory, I suppose. But – while of course I don’t want you feeling that awful feeling, ever – I’m so glad you feel so drawn to share your words with the world, even when part of you doesn’t want to.

  4. I believe when we come to hate our writing, or to be bored with it, it’s because it’s time to stretch and move on and improve. Those feelings are like our inner writer nudging us to be brave and try something new. After reading this piece, I’m very glad you listened. Great piece.

  5. I had printed this out ready to read when I woke up the next day but the pains came in the middle of the night. I’m always amazed at how much activity there is at 3 in the morning. Things bustle about, with important jobs to do, in smothered silence. I don’t find it eerie, just curious.

    Your story moved me. Of itself, it’s the story of a man embittered by what he allowed himself to become similarly the woman unable or unwilling to be anything other than what she is regardless of the distress it causes her. It moved me because throughout, underneath, I heard your sweet soul crying out. Bleating for the cherished inspirations you were exorcizing and whimpering in case your decided course might not work. It does. The writing could be more bald and thus more ironic, but it’s your first breakaway piece – the courage to use less to say more takes time to amass. I like this writing and would like to see more, much more of it from you.

    I think you have practised enough, now is the time to get serious with a hoot and clapping of hands release your undoubted talent.

    RR

    • I hope all’s well with you now, RR. Thanks for the kind words and for giving me your impressions about this story. Everything I hear about my writing helps me see it from different angles and edit it with a clearer focus toward what I want it to be.

      I’m very interested in what you said about using less to say more. I’ve been experimenting with that a lot in the past year, but finding that most readers want more and feel that the work needs to be opened up. I hope that someday with more practice, saying less works better for me. Maybe I have to work my way towards it by first getting comfortable with saying more. For me, saying less may be more about condensing. My practicing may be more in the line of editing now. Thanks for the vote of confidence.

  6. Wow, Ré, this is excellent. Loved it. RR’s comment is well made. I love the way you set this up and I too would edit a word here and there eg. “She could no longer take her chances with this strange man ” …..we know he’s strange by now – I would drop the “strange” – but in the end it all depends on the style you want to develop. Great read. Well done.

    • Thanks, Al. I find it hard to edit myself without the kind of input you’ve given me here. That sentence is as it was in ’79, but I didn’t notice it’s redundancy until you pointed it out. It made me think differently about the sentence as a whole and what I was trying to say with the story. Thanks for reading it. I’m glad it worked for you.

  7. I loved this, too, Ré. For all the reasons stated above and, for me, what stood out was the perspective, how we move from his to hers and back again, at just the right moments. This is fabulous. Really, really strong.

    • Thanks, Anna. I’m glad the perspective worked for you. When I came across this story, I realized this sort of perspective was one we had discussed before. I realized that I avoid it because I have a tendency to want to tell everything in too big a way.

      What do you think about the less is more that RR and Al mentioned (aside from editing a redundant word or two here or there — or is that all it means)? This story was more stark, but I opened it up some because I thought readers might not take the time to think about her point of view if I didn’t allude to it first. I’m glad this story feels strong to you. That makes me feel better about my seesaw of confidence and confusion.

  8. Sparks,

    By God, that was excellent! The opening paragraph reminded me of the symbolism and rabbit in Watership Down. It was so seductively dark and complex. A perfect short story, in my opinion. I liked the pacing, rhythm, heft and texture of it. Somehow, I knew what he was about but the unfolding of it was still cloaked until a critical moment.

    The variety of the things your write is awesome, Rae. To think that this was a genesis for a new kind of writing for you and a first attempt is kinda stunning.

    You, my friend, are very talented. Glad you unearthed this story and brought it to light. Keep it there….

    C.

    • Thank you so much, Coco. I mostly just see the desire to do well in my work, and want to hear about the flaws I haven’t been able to spot yet. But I realize it also helps to hear what a writer such as yourself sees as good in it. Thank you, thank you.

  9. Reblogged this on The ObamaCrat.Com™ and commented:
    This is vitally important. Suicide is a growing epidemic in America as well as across the globe. Thank you Sparks In Shadow for this post and for giving Ms. Ré the talent to write this.

  10. How poignant is this! There are countless stories of parasuicide and suicide by cop, stranger and loved ones. I’m so glad that I was introduced to your website by Sis Anna Rene.

    I recall before I retired from my practice; a session in which a young man stated that although he sat at the table with his family; he always felt like a guest and an uninvited one at that. He returned once and then became a no show. I always wondered what happened to him for the counseling process became too painful. There are significant wounded souls walking among us.

    Bountiful blessings to you….

  11. ” The point is that with one idea, I thought differently about my writing and the stories I’d lived that already made up my life and I thought differently about what my words could do. Other writers will understand what I mean. No one else needs to ‘get’ that part.” (Finally, I’m making peace with that truth – “no one else needs to ‘get’ that part.” Thanks for the confirmation.)

    Wow! I enjoyed this story. I’m always amazed at the transformative points in a person’s life – in this case, in a writer’s pursuit to become more versatile in taking on such a challenge. You went dark in this story and I love that ability about you and the diversity of your writing. This is a skill that I have yet to develop. Sometimes my husband tells me that I’m not courageous enough to “go dark”. He urges me to make it twisted. Coming from his quiet self, it sounded surprising at first, but I find that being able to do just that gives me a certain confidence that I didn’t have before the challenge.

    This line struck a chord with me: “She watched his expression cycle through spoiled, sneering little boy to something serious she hadn’t seen from him before.” (Isn’t it amazing how much we can process in one’s eyes, body language, demeanor, actions in such a fleeting fraction of time?) I love how you captured that. I, the reader, knew that it really wasn’t that much time, but that that moment was a critical turning point in the story.

    • Thanks for the kind words Ms. Empress.

      I respect writers who can express deep truth in their work and hold a reader’s attention without touching on the darkness that creeps around us. But when I can express the dark truths in my writing, I feel freer and more able to write about whatever I want or need to. I’m glad you’ve found that sort of confidence, too.

  12. Dark and yet so poignant, but then isn’t that what suicide must be like? There was a time when I judged those who committed suicide–spineless cowards who found it easier to escape from their problems permanently rather than face them. Other times I thought that the person who committed suicide possessed a certain amount of courage. After all, it’s not an act for the faint of heart. Today I see an act of suicide as a person who was in a great deal of pain and either didn’t ask for help or it was denied to her or him. The words of this piece just flowed. I was captivated by the characters, the realness of the dialogue and the outcome. Beautifully delivered. 🙂

    • Thank you for stopping by and and reading my work. I appreciate your comments on the subject and am glad this story worked for you and that parts of it resonated with you. Thanks for taking the time to let me know.

  13. I blame Wp for not alerting me. Anyway, that one over with, the only thing that jarred with me was the conversation she tried to have with him starting ‘stop that.. ‘ etc. But brilliant. Especially the title and the ending, left it so up in the air and suspenseful.

    • WP does that to me a lot of the time. I’m glad you found the story eventually. Thanks for reading it. I’m glad it worked for you mostly. The flashback (the whole story really) was meant to have have a jarring sort of feel to it to go with the the feel of the events. Of course, I might revisit it someday and find edits that need to me made. Who knows?

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