Chapter One

 

          Jack usually ignored everyday sounds, like the chirp of crickets or the neighbors’ TV or the roar of a jet plane overhead.

But that day, Jack listened.

          The warbling of a wren in a nearby tree. The soft purr of downtown traffic. A garbage truck rumbling down the block. The neighborhood slowly coming to life.

          As he shuffled to the bathroom, his bare feet cold on the hardwood floor, old age creaked in his bones, especially his back and knees.

          Cursed arthritis.

          It wasn’t as bad in the summer, when the heat and humidity provided temporary relief to his inflamed joints. But over the past few weeks, the familiar ache had settled in, more accurate than any barometer. Winter would be here soon.

          He went about his daily routine of shaving, showering, and dressing. Despite his throbbing knees and the crisp weather outside, he felt an added energy in his movements, renewed in a way he never would have thought possible.

          In planning his death he had learned to live again.

          At the breakfast table, he pulled out the list he had started a week before. Jack had always been a list-maker. He didn’t like to admit it, but it helped spark his memory concerning those everyday tasks which slipped his mind so easily, like forgetting to buy toothpaste, or the time he neglected to pay the light bill. His eighty-first birthday was next month. The occasional memory lapse was inevitable.

          He reviewed the completed tasks. He had cancelled a December dental appointment. He called Munden Dairy to stop his weekly delivery of two half-gallons of skim milk and one pint of cream. His electricity and telephone would be turned off tomorrow. He told them he was moving.

         In a way, it was true.

         Two days ago, he had called his cleaning lady to inform her he no longer needed her twice-monthly services. He hadn’t offered an explanation, and Jack could tell by the tone of her voice he had hurt her feelings. He knew she needed the money. But he couldn’t do anything about it now. She would soon learn the real reason.

          Jack rubbed his hands together in anticipation of the day’s activities. Two items left on the list. Time to get busy. He took his jacket and hat from the coat closet in the foyer and patted the right breast pocket to ensure the envelope was still there. Then he went down the hall and opened the door at the end.

          Norma’s room.

          At one time this airy, light-filled space was their master bedroom. He looked at the rose-patterned wallpaper and cherry wood furnishings as if seeing them for the first time. For the last few months of Norma’s life, as she waged her battle against cancer, the space was transformed into a makeshift hospital room. With Norma as its focal point, Jack felt his presence was insignificant, as if he didn’t belong among the pill vials and bedpans and other items that accompany the dying. Even after her death, the feeling lingered. Jack wasn’t able to sleep a single night there.

          Crossing the room to an antique dresser, he picked up a small brass-framed photograph and gazed at the youthful, smiling image looking back at him. A fresh arrow of pain pierced something vital inside his chest. This was his Norma, his bride, the woman who had shared his life for more than half a century.

          The four-poster bed drew his attention. He remembered Norma’s slight form huddled beneath the covers, her ashen face slick with sweat and agony. The final few weeks were especially difficult. Before she slipped into a deep coma, Norma was confused and racked with pain, despite the large doses of morphine. He could only keep vigil at her bedside, talking softly and clumsily patting her hand, utterly helpless. There was nothing he could do for her.

          Jack closed his eyes and shook his head. No sense dwelling on the past. He’d done enough of that in the eight months and twelve days since she died. Besides, today was a very special day. Their sixtieth wedding anniversary. He pocketed the picture frame and left the apartment.

          He took the elevator like always, the three flights of stairs to the lobby too intimidating to consider. But outside his building he didn’t have a choice, so he grasped the metal railing with one hand, his cane in the other, and carefully descended the concrete steps to the sidewalk.

          Only half a block to Doumar’s. He should be able to make it there in time and still catch the bus. He crossed Granby Street, the main artery leading straight into the heart of downtown Norfolk, so absorbed in his thoughts he didn’t see the oncoming car until the driver blared his horn.

          “You need to watch where you’re going, old man,” a male voice reprimanded as the car sped away. Jack ignored him.

          Nearly all the details were in place. All he had left to do was say goodbye to Norma and give the envelope to Frank, his neighbor on the second floor.

          He stopped. He had forgotten to make sure Frank was home.

          Turning around in the middle of the sidewalk, he saw Frank’s late-model Ford truck parked at the curb. His gaze traveled upward to a set of windows on the far side of the building. The shades were drawn, which meant Frank was home, asleep. He continued on his way.

          He bought a newspaper at the corner drugstore and then slid into his favorite booth by the window at Doumar’s. Business was brisk. A young girl dressed in low-cut jeans and a red apron approached his table.

          “Having your usual, Mr. Dozier?”

          “Not today.” Jack looked at her nametag. Carla. He never could remember. She was pleasant enough, but he had hoped Betty was working today. “Where’s Betty?”

          “New grandbaby,” she said. “That makes number four. She’s in Phoenix with her daughter. She’ll be back next week.”

          Oh, well. He ordered a large blueberry muffin, his favorite, and a pot of gourmet hazelnut coffee, the house specialty. He didn’t usually splurge on such items, but today he felt entitled to make exceptions.

          Basking in the warmth of the sun’s rays streaming through the bay window, he read the headlines and chuckled over the antics of Snoopy and Hagar as the conversations of the other patrons flowed around him. He skipped the business and entertainment sections. Tomorrow’s stock predictions and ads for the weekend’s movie premieres were of no interest to him.

        Finished with his reading and his breakfast, he leaned back and drank his coffee. Outside, a cluster of autumn leaves skittered across the sidewalk and into the street, where a gust of wind carried them off to places unknown. Above the half-naked branches of the towering pin oaks lining the streets, the sky was the color of faded denim with a few wispy brushstrokes of clouds. Jack couldn’t remember when a day was any finer.

          His knees were a cluster of bee stings by the time he reached the bus depot. He eased his tall, wiry frame onto a bench. A young black girl dressed in white scrubs sat at the opposite end, reading a book. Within minutes, the HRT bus rounded the corner. Jack glanced at his watch. 10:22. Right on time.

         The driver, a portly woman with brassy blonde hair beneath her navy blue driver’s cap, greeted him as he boarded the bus. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”

        Jack acknowledged her with a nod. She waited until he had taken his seat and placed his cane across his lap before she pulled away from the curb.

         Jack looked out his window. The tinted glass was coated in a thick film of dirt and grime. Caught within the square metal frames, the passing landscape looked like a depressing series of overexposed Polaroid snapshots. After a mile or so the once-familiar sites blurred into places he no longer recognized. Jack turned away.

          At his destination, he got off the bus and walked the short distance to Rosewood Memorial Gardens. He paused and looked up at the black wrought-iron arch spanning the entrance. Today would be the last time he would make this trip.

          As he wound his way through the vast maze of narrow cobblestone paths, he passed row after row of headstones and grave markers. Some of the stones were more than a hundred years old, as were the massive oaks and maples towering above, their thick trunks and gnarled branches bent and bleached with age. When he reached Norma’s plot, he took the picture from his coat pocket and set it on top of the marble headstone. He sat down on a nearby bench and removed his hat. “Hello, sweetheart.”

          The grainy black-and-white photo was from 1940, when she had been Norma Comstock, a vibrant twenty-year-old college student who had moved from a small town in Kentucky to Virginia to pursue a teaching degree. Jack was twenty-one.

          They met at a dance hall in Norfolk when he was in the Navy. Norma’s easy smile and striking features drew him irresistibly. When the band slowed things down with Gershwin’s “Summertime,” they danced. The minute he circled his arm around her waist and took her hand in his, he never wanted to dance with another woman as long as he lived.

          They were married a year later, and on their wedding night Jack had tenderly taken her to their marriage bed. She was his first and only.

          Except for that one time, in South Korea.

          He considered himself a good husband, despite the indiscretion, and he could honestly say their bond had grown richer with each passing year.

         Their two-year stint in Hawaii was a joy, with white sandy beaches and flower-strewn paths and a mesh hammock strung between two palm trees in their backyard. Jack could still recall the sounds of the exotic birds and Norma’s sighs of approval as he ran his fingers through the mahogany silk of her hair.

          Jack smiled. “Those were good times, weren’t they, sweetheart?”

         They never had children.

         Not because they hadn’t tried. But it wasn’t meant to be. “I’m so sorry, sweetheart.” His voice cracked on the last syllable. 

         A sudden gust of wind rustled the stiff, dead leaves overhead. Behind him, Jack could barely make out the muffled incantations of a priest as he spoke to a group of people standing around a raised casket.

         Ignoring the other gathering, he continued his conversation with Norma, making sporadic comments about remembrances they had once shared.

         The funeral ceremony drew to an end, and mourners trickled past, paying no mind to Jack as he carried on his one-sided conversation with his deceased wife.

         He was alone again. He rose and held his hat in his soft, veined hands. “I have to be going now.” He fumbled for his next words. How could he say he wouldn’t be seeing her again, because he wouldn’t be alive after today? There wasn’t an adequate way to explain it.

          A heavy sigh escaped him. “I won’t be coming back.”

          Tears filmed his eyes as he brought Norma’s photograph to his lips and kissed it. “Happy anniversary, sweetheart. You were the best part of me.” He placed the frame on the headstone and walked away

***

          Back at his apartment building, Jack leaned an ear to the closed door of apartment 212 and listened. No sound of anyone bustling around or the mindless jingle of television commercials. Frank was still asleep.

          Being a creature of habit himself, Jack had long since memorized the comings and goings of the building residents. Officer Frank DeMarco, a sergeant with the Norfolk Police Department, worked ten-hour shifts four nights a week. Tuesday night was a regular work night for him, so he would sleep until late afternoon.

           By then, it would all be over.

          Confident no one inside was awake, he pulled the envelope from his coat pocket. Frank’s name was written across the front of it. Inside were several documents. The first was a note telling Frank where to find Jack’s body and which funeral home to contact. No relatives or friends needed to be called. The remaining documents spelled out his burial arrangements.

          Before Norma’s passing, a longtime friend suggested he start making plans for her funeral. At the funeral home, the dour-faced mortician helped select Norma’s casket, flowers, and headstone. Ever the shrewd businessman, he then deftly steered the grieving Jack to thoughts of his own “time of passing.”

          “Wouldn’t it be simpler for everyone,” he suggested, “if you made those arrangements now?”

          A couple of hours and several thousand dollars later, Jack left with his and Norma’s burial plots paid for and preparations made for his future demise. He would be buried next to Norma, in military fashion, with a simple oak casket and marble headstone. The only things he wanted inscribed on his marker were the dates of his birth and death and a small American flag.

        Lifting the narrow metal flap of Frank’s mail slot, Jack hesitated before pushing the envelope through, fully aware he stood on the opposite shore of his own Rubicon. There was no turning back. He shoved the last third of the envelope through the slot.

***

          Back at his apartment, he left the door unlocked and turned off the security alarm. He went to his bedroom and removed his shoes and socks. He felt a pang of hunger as he padded down the hallway in his bare feet. He had purposely eaten a light breakfast for fear he might become ill from a sudden attack of nerves. But surprisingly, he felt nothing as he opened a cabinet drawer in the kitchen and pulled out the rope.

           Jack had spent weeks debating the easiest way to pull this off. Pills took too long. So did slitting his wrists or ingesting something poisonous. He finally concluded hanging was the best way to go about it. A gunshot to the head would be quicker, but Jack wasn’t a gambler by nature. Bullets carried too many variables. And the carnage left behind was far too messy. Frank was a good friend. He wouldn’t do that to him.

          So … hanging it was. No noise. No mess.

          At least he hoped not. He had heard stories of how people sometimes lose control of their bowels and bladder during the final stage of asphyxiation. But he figured that particular cleaning chore was far less offensive then scraping bits of his brain off the walls.

          He tilted his head back. The cathedral ceiling loomed twenty feet above, with a pair of skylights, one on each side, set into the slanted plaster. Below the level of the windows, a row of solid oak beams spanned the entire width of the room, roughly ten feet above his head.

          In a far corner of the living room, a wrought-iron spiral staircase led to the roof. Only the larger units on the top floor offered this amenity. Before his arthritis had gotten too bad, he and Norma would climb the narrow stairs to the rooftop and tend their herbs and flowers and vegetable garden. Jack hadn’t gone up there in months. The last time he did, he was so dismayed by the sight of the empty flowerpots and patch of gray lifeless dirt, he vowed never to return.

          An unbidden memory of Norma came to him then, of her kneeling in front of a clay pot brimming with red geraniums, her nimble hands clad in a pair of pink cotton gardening gloves as she lovingly cradled the plants into their new home. He closed his eyes. He could almost smell the lavender and oregano and basil, their fragrant aromas adrift on an early summer breeze. Norma hummed to herself as she worked. Less than a month later, she was diagnosed with cancer.

         Jack opened his eyes.

          No. No more pain.

          Selecting a beam at random, he held onto the noose and tossed the other end of the rope toward the ceiling. On the third try, the rope arced over the beam and tumbled down the other side. He fashioned a simple but sturdy slipknot and pulled the rope taut until the knot rested snugly against the beam.

         He gave the rope a tug. Both the beam and rope stood fast. He reached up and grasped the noose with both hands and lifted his entire body off the floor. The muscles of his back and shoulders cried out in protest with the effort, but the beam didn’t budge. The rope and beam would hold his weight.

          He took a chair from the dining room and placed it beneath the rope. He stood back to survey the angle and height. Then he fished his list and a pen from his shirt pocket and drew a line through the last two entries.

          Now he was ready.

          A flicker of anxiety made his heart skip a beat. Using the back of the chair for balance, he carefully pulled himself up. His knees erupted in a starburst of pain. He waited for the sting to subside. His bare feet gripped the wooden seat of the chair as he reached for the noose. After a few minor adjustments, he had the loop of rope cinched around his neck.

          Jack’s heart beat faster now. But he felt no remorse or fear, only a deep sadness that things had turned out this way. He supposed he was somewhat hesitant about what lay ahead for him. He had never been an overly spiritual man. He wasn’t sure he believed in a literal Hell. He did believe in some form of Heaven away from this life. Whether or not he was headed there, he couldn’t say.

          He took a final look through the living room windows. Norma had loved this view. From this angle however, everything looked different. The skyscrapers didn’t seem as tall, nor the blue-green ribbon of the Elizabeth River as wide. Beyond the downtown area, a gunmetal gray destroyer sat in dry dock at the Norfolk shipyard. Most of the vessel’s interior was gutted, giving it the appearance of a prize fish ready for market.

          Jack turned away. Random, mundane thoughts tumbled around. He thought of his parents and his younger brother, Charles, all long gone. Of a grade-school teacher, Mrs. Boaz, who had encouraged him with his math. Of the first time he walked across the deck of a Navy ship at sea and smelled the salty air. Of an old hound he used to have as a child. What was his name? Spanky? No, Sparky. That was it. Why in the world had he given him that name?

          He thought of moving vans and the first elementary school Norma had taught at and Christmases and holidays spent with their families and the time Norma’s younger sister nearly burned their kitchen down when she came to stay after finals for Thanksgiving one year and insisted on cooking the holiday feast.

          Should have seen that one coming, he thought wryly. The poor girl could barely boil water.

          Is this all life comes down to in the end? To be left with only memories having no value except to the person who embodies them? What was it like for Norma in her last hours, deep within the clutches of her coma? Had her dying mind conjured up comforting images to accompany her through that dark valley? Had she thought of him? Of anything?

          A wave of sorrow passed over him. Jack pushed it away.

          Enough.

         Should he pray? He didn’t know what to pray for. Words escaped his throat before he realized he’d said them.

          “I’m sorry,” he croaked. He wasn’t sure to whom or for what he was apologizing. He took a final deep breath and then started to step down into thin air.

          The phone ringing startled him so badly he nearly fell. He cursed out loud as he flailed his arms in an effort to regain his balance. Finally, he righted himself on the chair.

         The phone rang a second time.

          It’s okay. His heart raced. It’s okay.

          Jack was determined to do this thing on his terms. A phone jangling in his ear as he hung from a rafter had no part in his plans. He’d wait for the answering machine to pick up and then he’d be done with it. He closed his eyes and concentrated on his breathing.

          In and out. In and out.

          The bleating of the phone continued, his anxiety mounting with each ring. After the sixth ring, the recorded playback of his own voice resounded throughout the apartment, telling the caller he wasn’t available right now and would they please leave a message. A shrill tone sounded. Then a woman’s voice came over the line.

          “Mr. Dozier? My name is Karen Price-Cochran. I’m an attorney visiting from New York.” There was a long pause. “I’m your granddaughter.”

 


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