In the hazy aftermath of Sheriff Doyle’s unexpected visit and in the wake of his confirmation of my wife’s untimely demise I found myself navigating the eerily nebulous events transpiring around me from what can only be described as an out-of-body experience. I felt like a piece of my soul had escaped the shackles of my mortal shell simply to bear witness to my body being smothered in the frigid waves of inconsolable grief as I continued to draw painful breaths into my struggling lungs. The surreal visual of my own eyes seemingly witnessing the agonizing fit of despair that my body was enduring intensified this strange perspective exponentially. The experience was cold and frantic in the way that a choice between suffocating to death and burning alive might be. In the end I found my out-of-body existence even more painful to bear than the incalculably vast and impossibly empty vessel of torture which my body had now become. I remember thinking that if this horrifying occurrence didn’t conclude, and if I didn’t find some way to reacquaint my fleeing mind with my dejected body then this would be how I would suffer through hell for all eternity. There was no question in my mind that I deserved to agonize over this horrifying turn of events, but somewhere in that vacant house dimly lit by the setting sun’s inescapable illumination I convinced my mind to re-engage my body with the knowledge that this particular version of hell would be available to me at some other time.
I immediately recognized the flawed logic of my decision. The immediate physical pain of drawing breath after having traumatized my lungs with the unabated wails of a forlorn victim of a merciless, invisible attack was unsparing and accompanied by a confusing struggle between my mind and my hands which were tearing at the hair on my head so ferociously that my neck muscles felt as though they had been injected with a crippling toxin. I cried out through clenched teeth as I silently and desperately convinced my hands to release my hair. As my shaking arms lowered stiffly in front of me I saw clumps of my own hair held together by bits of pink scalp tumbling from the relinquishing grip of my fingers. The sight of this instigated another caustic moan from my diaphragm ending with long-neglected tears and stringy saliva dripping from my chin.
As the spit and tears fell onto my hand, the sensation nauseated me beyond the point of being able to withhold the violent gagging and retching that took place next. As I hurried to wipe the now gooey and matted clumps of hair from my hands onto my jeans I began speaking to myself out loud.
“You have to quit this now, do you hear me?” I dry-heaved, seeming to punctuate the pleading request. My voice sounded more like the scratching whine of a horsehair bow being dragged carelessly across the out-of-tune strings of some nightmarish violin. This only served to drive me deeper into a rage-fueled outburst.
“YOUR!” I drove a closed fist fiercely into my cheek near my eye.
“WIFE!” I struck the same spot again with the same closed fist as warmth blossomed over half of my face.
“IS!” The other hand was balled and struck the bridge of my nose sending tears to my eyes and a salty, warm trickle of blood down my throat.
“DEAD!” The same fist was driven into my lips and teeth which sent sparks through my field of vision.
“You selfish motherfucker!” I collapsed onto the floor and now gently buried the fists I had used to deliver my own ass-kicking into the swollen flesh surrounding my eyes. I curled into a fetal position and immersed my thoughts in the new sensations of stinging warmth in my cheek and lips, while blood oozed down my throat. I fought to stay ahead of hyperventilation and eventually won. I began drawing unsatisfying shallow breaths into my badly bruised lungs until I was breathing with the deliberate rhythm and muted wheeze of an antique oscillating fan.
When I had regained control of my breathing I opened my eyes and removed my fists from their sockets. I slid towards the nearest wall and propped myself up against the wainscoting. The sight of my hands generated anxiety in my brain, as if I didn’t know whether or not to expect another beating to be delivered without notice. I felt familiar rage beginning to simmer beneath my aching lungs, but my exhaustion drove any thoughts of further self-pugilism almost shamefully into remission.
My thoughts turned reluctantly towards the task I had been obligated to fulfill by Sheriff Doyle. I needed to find transportation to the Littleton County Morgue so I could identify and claim my wife’s remains. I was completely out of friends as long as Bull was sitting in jail, and I recognized the futility of pursuing the task by requesting help from Rhonda or any of the other dope-fiend associates I had come to pass most of my time with up until recently. At the end of my short list of possible choices was clearly the most responsible and rightful person to ask. I began dreading the phone call even before the familiar face of my wife’s sister appeared in my mind. Up until very recently I could scarcely remember the seven simple numbers required to connect with her home phone. In fact up until my self-imposed and recently delivered ass-kicking, the most ridiculous thing I had done today was tear apart the house looking for just that particular set of digits. Regardless of my faulty memory, and before thoughts of it could consume my fragile mindset, I set out to find one of the cordless phones. I didn’t have to wander far as the phone was resting where I had carelessly let it slide from my face onto the computer desk following my unfavorable conversation with Bull before the Sheriff’s arrival in my driveway.
The phone was droning on in a warbling, obnoxious tone indicating that I had failed to hang it up at the conclusion of the previous phone call. I stamped my thumb on the END button to silence it. I began to concentrate very hard on very specific words that I would use when I heard the sound of my sister-in-law’s voice at the other end. As the rehearsed statement and request played out obsessively in my mind I absently began tapping the phone on my forehead. The words I had chosen began to find a morose rhythm in my head which promptly negated the weight of their intended purpose and began the process of distracting my brain with their dirge-like pulse. The strangely twisted and wonderland-like requiem was making a shockingly effective play for my remaining sanity when the phone rang loudly in my hand. I let out a startled yelp, which was quickly silenced by the pain in my lungs as I threw the phone away from me. I quickly gathered what was left of my senses, and walked several paces towards where the phone had landed and bent over to pick it up. I suffered momentary paralysis when I saw the name of my wife’s sister appear on the caller-id panel along with the previously elusive telephone number. I bit my swollen and split bottom lip and pressed the TALK button.
“Hello?” My voice still retained its gruesome, out-of-tune violin quality.
“Well it’s about bleeping time Steppy! I’ve been trying to call for an hour… Did you leave the phone off the hook again? When is mommy coming back to pick me up? I’m bored out of my gourd!” The sound of Lil’ Step’s voice brought instantaneous tears to my eyes. I had been so completely sucker-punched by my own reaction to her mother’s death that I had completely failed to consider her at all. I felt the boney, corpse-like fingers of anguish sliding up my spine as the hair on my flesh began to stand on end. I was completely unprepared to communicate anything at all with the voice I was now obligated to answer on the other end.
“Not yet baby, she’s not coming for you right now.” My voice cracked as I struggled to find the necessary words to tell her that would result in her aunt’s voice replacing hers on that end. “Lil’ Step, I need you to put your aunt on the phone for me, okay?” The sound of tears fighting with my words were painfully obvious and immediately noticed.
“Steppy, what’s the matter? Why are you crying? Didn’t you tell mommy you’re sorry yet? I just know that now that she’s not so tired and cranky like the other morning that all you’d have to do is tell her you’re sorry and you’ll never do again whatever you did that made her angry in the first place. If you just do that, then everything’s going to be just fine again. Please just tell her you’re sorry, huh?”
“Okay baby, I’ll try.” I was struggling with sobs now. “Can you please put your aunt on the phone for me? I love you Lil’ Step…”
“I love you too Steppy! Stop crying though… " She was feigning exasperation, "Papaw says that grown-up men shouldn’t cry. Just tell mommy that you're sorry. Here’s my aunt!” I heard her tell her aunt that I wanted to talk to her and the phone switched hands.
“Yeah?” The rough, cigarette-hardened voice of my wife’s sister was always too loud for whatever phone I was on.
“You’ve gotta come pick me up and take me to Littleton County. You’re sister died yesterday in a car crash and they want somebody to identify her. Please come pick me up…” My voice trailed off into tears and sobs that I was struggling to silence beyond the breath it took to produce them.
“What?” Her voice became as soft and sweet as her sister’s always was, and I recognized genuine concern and an attempt not to draw alarm from anybody close to her.
“Oh fuck… please don’t make me say it again. I’m a fucking mess, and I really need your help right now.” I groaned in frustration.
“Oh… my God…You’re… totally serious.” She was stammering, but stammering quietly. “I’ll be right over.”
I pressed the END button on the phone and dropped to the floor where I remained immobile and sobbing softly until my wife’s sister let herself into the house to hoist me off the floor and to my room. While she was carrying me through the house I relayed as much information as I had been given between sobs. She found a clean and respectable change of clothes in my dresser and helped me change into them while her own tears and confusion manifested. Together, in tears, and arms around each other for support we limped to her van and started the journey to where my wife’s lifeless body was waiting for me to acknowledge her identity.
This work is the intellectual property of Jerome J. Panozzo