Essays

Everything Turns Away

Steven Heighton

W.H. Auden, “Musée des Beaux Arts”




The first of June 215 was also the first day of ideal summery weather, hot but not humid, the grass and young leaves as freshly green as they would get, the banks of lilac along the old railway line in exuberant bloom. We were driving west into the franchise fringes of town in a silver Toyota Corolla that had rolled off the assembly line near the end of the previous century. We meant to test drive several less-used Toyotas at a dealership overlooking a postcard marina on a Lake Ontario bay.

A salesman named Walter—heavy, bespectacled, delivering his pitches in the laconic monotone of a man who has learned not to get his hopes up—introduced us to the three prospects I’d found online. One was a new-looking black Prius Hybrid that cost about $5, more than we were ready to pay. I’d thought I might be able to bargain, but Walter in his anaesthetized drawl apologized that in this case the price was final. Still, the crimson Camry was promising—the paint looked fresh, the odometer reading was modest, and the price was in our range. Walter handed me the key, slapped a magnetic test-drive licence plate into the slot above the rear fender, and off we drove. He sat beside me, raking his hand through an auburn comb-over that the wind kept compromising, while my wife, Mary, and seventeen-year-old daughter, Elena, sat in the back.

“Lovely day for a drive, isn’t it, Steve,” drawled Walter. In some retail circles, I guess, they still believe in punctuating every sentence with the target customer’s name—a gambit that seems touchingly antiquated. Aren’t we all too savvy nowadays for such obvious sales cons? But we’re also lonelier and needier, so maybe charades of kindness and kinship still trigger a gratified response after all.

We, I write, as if there’s a parity of loneliness between mere melancholics, like myself, and the catastrophically depressed. I’ve wondered if I have the right to frame this story—by which I mean, translate and shape such harrowing data.

Walter went on personalizing his sales script with Steves as he directed me along what he called test drive route numero uno. The route comprised urban and rural stretches and a drag strip of vacant highway where you could assess a car’s acceleration; the Camry had a lot more pickup than our failing Corolla.

We were returning to the dealership the same way we’d set out, on a busy four-lane road that ran alongside the backyards of modest suburban houses from the sixties or seventies, their decks or patios visible some thirty metres away through the trees. It was along this stretch that I became aware, in spite of Walter’s autopilot patter, that behind us Mary and Elena were anxiously discussing something.

Mary tapped me on the shoulder.

“Excuse me,”—this more to Walter, who was talking—“I think we should pull over for a second.”

I asked what was going on.

“We need to back up. Elena thinks something’s wrong back there.”

“With the car?” Walter asked with a resigned sigh.

“She thinks someone might be hurt.”

I pulled over onto the gravel and stopped. Elena leaned forward as I turned to look back, her face serious, close to mine. She said, “I saw something the first time we went by, but that was from the far lane. I just saw again, closer. I think a guy is hurt, maybe unconscious.”

I started to back up along the shoulder. Mary said, “She had to point him out to me. Maybe he was drunk and fell. He’s lying on his deck. She says he hasn’t moved since the first time we passed.”

“I think he might be bleeding,” Elena said.

“She thought he might be wearing a red cap.”

“He’s there, Dad!”

I stopped again. For the first time on our test drive, silence from Walter.

“His face is still upside down,” Elena said. “His head’s back over the edge.”

“Probably sleeping one off,” Walter said. “I can’t see anything, but then I’m due for new specs.”

“It’s not a red cap,” Elena said quietly.

I looked hard but couldn’t see the man either, though I saw the deck, the patio doors, a white brick bungalow. From my point of view the branch of a large tree beside the road was hiding part of the deck.

“Could be drugs, too,” Walter said. “He’ll probably be okay, though.”

“He’s not okay,” Elena said.

I pulled back onto the road, U-turned, accelerated up the inner lane and veered left on a yellow light just as it turned red. Silence in the car—Walter rigid, his arms stretched straight in front of him, thick veinless hands braced on the dashboard. I drove a block west and turned south onto a quiet residential street.

“Here?”

“I think so,” Elena said.

I pulled in at the curb in front of a landscaped front yard: groomed flower beds, hedges, a blue spruce symmetrical as an artificial Christmas tree. Beyond it, a white bungalow. Picture window, drapes drawn. The vacant driveway recently paved. As I jumped out Mary said, “Don’t go behind the house yet—knock on the door.”

“Why?”

“Could be a drug thing—there might be someone back there.”

Walter was staring ahead through the windshield with unblinking eyes.

“Be careful, Dad!”

Elena’s concern was touching and then disturbing as it hit me that she with her sharp vision had seen something we couldn’t, something “not okay.” I walked toward the house, my legs weightless with adrenaline. As always in situations of potential emergency I was excited; also worried about the fallen man; also anxious about seeming a busybody, puncturing a stranger’s privacy, maybe antagonizing some hostile type whose friend or customer had passed out on the back deck.

I rapped on the solid door. From the other side, a detonation of high-pitched barking. The outburst subsided until I knocked again. I looked back at the car. Mary and Elena—faces side by side—watched me through the open back window. Walter too had now turned his pale, despairing face in my direction. I walked past the garage, rounded the corner and ran along the concrete walk that led toward the backyard.

I emerged into the yard and froze. Ten feet away, a man was lying face up on the sunlit pine of the deck, his head lolling back over the edge as if craning to look across the yard toward the road. Because the deck was the height of my chest, he lay directly in front of me. A grey-green face under streaks and spatters of dried blood. The eyes shut hard. On his emaciated torso, as if placed there lengthwise, a polished mahogany cane. Cane, emaciated, old or ailing—he has slipped, fallen, smacked his head. Unconscious? No, it’s too late. He’s gone. I have never seen a body look so utterly vacated.

These impressions occupy maybe two or three seconds. I’m caught inside a coroner’s forensic snapshot. No: it’s not a finished image but a fresh print, still developing, the polished cane transforming into the stock of a rifle, no, something shorter, thicker, a shotgun fallen onto the man’s torso. Barrel toward the face. The blood there not from facial wounds but splattered up from below. I can’t see the wound, or somehow don’t see it, and in fact I’m already turning and fleeing back toward the car. The passengers gape as I run toward them. I leap in, slam the door, start the car and babble words at them, old man, shotgun, suicide, dead.

One reason to explore a horrific event in nonfictional instead of fictional terms is to avoid having to convince the reader of the plausibility of key details, no matter how farfetched. It is 215. In a speeding vehicle sit three middle-aged adults, one of them a used car salesman. A teenager sits with them. And not one of these four individuals is carrying a phone. My daughter has left hers in our car in the parking lot at the dealership. Walter has always seen these drives as a chance to get away from calls, he explains now—adding softly, hopelessly, as if assuming I’ll ignore him, “Better not speed, Steve… We’re almost there… If he passed a while ago, a minute won’t matter.”

Silence from the back seat. I look in the rearview mirror: Elena staring fixedly out her window. We reach the dealership a few minutes later. Mary and Elena decide to wait outside in the parking lot while Walter leads me in through the showroom to his open concept cubicle. It’s like the mock-up of an office on a stage: three walls that go part way to the ceiling, no front wall at all. He gestures toward his chair, his desk, an office phone. I sit and key in 911. I try to speak calmly, quickly. A burning current crawls under my scalp. The pulse in my jaw is like a second heartbeat. The dispatcher, as if new to the job or too sensitive for it, sounds genuinely shaken.

“I wonder if I should have stayed with him,” I say, feeling queasier as it hits me: by leaving the scene I might have done something unconscionable. The body is alone, as it must have been for who knows how long before we arrived, and this condition—of almost interstellar solitude—is a terrible insult and indignity.

“No,” the dispatcher tells me. “There was a gun there, you had to leave.”

She gets me to repeat the address, sends two police cars and an ambulance, then keeps me on the line to collect my own details—address, telephone number—as well as Walter’s. He’s leaning against the back hatch of a gleaming charcoal grey SUV, polishing the lenses of his glasses with a Kleenex, as I recite coordinates into the phone.

I hang up and stare at my hand, still gripping the receiver. The hand looks prosthetic. My wristwatch says 12:16. I half-see Walter approaching his desk, approaching me, this stranger in his chair. He leans down and—as if gently reminding me of the masculine duty to push on with life’s errands in the face of disaster—murmurs, “Dare I ask, Steve, if you’ve made a decision about the Camry?”

Two hours later a cop parked his motorcycle in front of our house. I led him around to the side porch and we sat down. He drank strong-smelling coffee out of a stainless steel mug he’d brought, while I tried to sip a beer that I wanted to guzzle. I wanted something stiffer than beer but wondered if I was already violating some statute by drinking while providing a sworn statement. The man was messily printing my account on foolscap with a pencil. I tried to describe exactly what I’d seen and done—often a challenge for a fiction writer, although not in this case. The incident seemed—still seems—to deny any licence to the part of me that compulsively reshapes or redacts experiences.

The cop was tall, had an action-figure physique, and wore aviator shades and motorcycle boots. Despite the glare he removed his sunglasses, exposing thoughtful blue eyes and long lashes.

“Such a beautiful day, too,” I said moronically.

“Those tend to be the worst ones,” he said. “It’s a myth that Christmas is the worst time.”

Still buzzing, hardly able to sit still, I blurted that maybe the first true summer day feels like a leering “fuck you” to someone whose inner world is gripped in winter. The cop inclined his head noncommittally. After a moment he said he hadn’t gone into the backyard with the paramedics—he didn’t need to see that sort of thing, he’d seen one too many.

I asked about the dead man and, a little to my surprise, the cop related as much as he knew—not much, but enough to collapse my assumptions and deductions. The victim was not old, just in his late fifties. He didn’t live alone, although on the morning of his death he was alone, except for that dog I’d heard barking.

“We’re trying to track down his wife. Looks like she went out of town for the weekend.”

“So he planned this—waited for her to leave,” I said, instantly replacing my old assumptions with new ones. She was with another man and didn’t realize he knew. Or, There was no other man, but she was leaving him anyway.

“And he recently retired from the military,” the cop said.

“Could he have been over in Afghanistan?” I asked, then added, “No. Probably too old.”

Was I making the cop uneasy? Likely he was unused to such persistent curiosity and reflexive deduction—the professional habits of fiction writers and investigative journalists, along with private detectives, gossips and conspiracy theorists.

I told the cop how surprised I was that no one had seen or heard a thing. He explained that one neighbour did hear something, around 1: a.m., but figured it was a big firecracker.

“So he was lying there for two hours.”

“I’m afraid so.”

The cop gave me contact details for mental health professionals that we, and especially Elena, might want to consult. As he got to his feet he said, “You should be proud of your daughter. Good eyes.” He pointed to his own eyes as he slid his sunglasses back on. “And she chose to speak up.”

The realization that your child is further evolved than you were at her age both humbles you and makes you proud; that she’s conscientious, empathetic, an adult in a world understaffed by adults. All that. But she will have to carry something heavier than you ever did at seventeen, something that might linger for years on the threshold of her sleeps.

II

For ten mornings afterward, I checked the obituaries on the website of the local newspaper until I found it. I didn’t recognize the face in the overexposed black-and-white photo; it looked much fuller and younger than the blood-streaked face I’d glimpsed. But other details made me all but certain: the date of death, the code phrase “died suddenly” and a reference to retirement from a logistical job in the military. An online check to link the surname to the house address came up positive: a paving company listed his driveway as a recent contract.

I made a note of the memorial service date.

From the beginning I’d felt that if there was a service, and if I found the information in time, I should try to attend. Again forming an assumption out of skimpy evidence and ready stereotypes, I’d decided that few mourners would be present. A final existential insult. The military, I guessed, might dispatch some kind of small delegation, but who could say? Elena told me she thought she might want to attend as well. Our intention was to enter quietly, sit at the back, and slip out before any next of kin could approach and ask about our connection with the deceased.

On the morning of the memorial service, she decided not to go. I didn’t ask her to explain her decision. I put on some decent clothes but then, agonizing, changed back into my summer writing gear—cargo shorts and a T-shirt—before deciding last minute that I had to go after all. I dressed again and ran out the front door, re-knotting my tie as I jogged the five blocks to the funeral home chapel.

Sitting at the back turned out to be the only option. At least two hundred people, dozens of them in military dress uniform, packed the room. There were children; there were teenagers who looked genuinely distraught, not simply dragooned into the pews. My sense of relief was twofold: people had come to mourn the man after all and, for that very reason, I could come and go anonymously.

The widow, barely able to walk, was helped up the aisle by bulky men who looked awkward in ill-fitting suits and loose-knotted ties. Over the next hour she remained seated and sobbing at the front, while others got up to speak at the lectern. Then a priest with a bald head, a boyish face and an irrepressibly sunny demeanour read a eulogy the widow had written. The content and tone made it clear that the manner of the man’s death was no secret. In his late forties he had slid into depression and then, developing ailments unspecified in the eulogy, had to give up or cut back on the physical outlets that had helped him manage: beer league baseball, fly fishing and, more recently and devotedly, gardening. Now it came back to me: the landscaped front yard, the trimmed hedges, the parterred and graded flower beds that—come to think of it—had been sparsely flowered despite the season. Maybe just perennials, the stubborn aftermath of his endeavour.

In the room where I write, I unshelve a plump, important-looking anthology and turn to the poem “Musée des Beaux-Arts,” in which W. H. Auden reflects on Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus:

how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water


In a footnote, the anthologists observe that the figures in Breughel’s composition have not only failed to notice Icarus plunging out of the sky but also “a dead body in the woods.” I quickly find a reproduction of the painting online. Locating the overlooked body is less easy, but eventually—using the magnifying tool to search the woods beyond a field that a farmer and his horse are plowing—I spot him. Only his face shows clearly, inverted, staring upward, white against the dark forest floor. I recoil from the screen; his positioning and pallor strongly recall the face of the man on the deck.

Could Auden have missed the figure? He wrote his poem after examining the painting in the Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and he must have studied the work closely. I assume he saw but chose to ignore that secondary, nameless casualty and to focus on Icarus. If so, it was the right decision. Adding a stanza of reflections on the dead stranger would have herniated the poem, introducing a distracting sidebar, like dropping a second protagonist into a short story.

But visual art works differently, and the face in the woods is integral to the painting. On one level, it serves as a memento mori, one of those small skulls that Renaissance artists planted in the margins of their works as quiet reminders of mortality. And because of its placement on the left side of the canvas, the head also serves as a compositional balance to Icarus, who is plunging into the sea on the lower right side. The balancing works anatomically as well: the dead man’s face, along with a bit of his dark-clad torso blending into the undergrowth, physically completes Icarus, of whom we see only a pair of white legs.

Each one’s unwitnessed fate echoes the other’s, yet the hidden victim seems so much more forlorn. Icarus, after all, is the namesake of the painting, the title of which will direct any viewer to search out and find his submerging form. Nor is Icarus hard to find: his legs, in contrast to the gloomily shaded face in the woods, are lit up by the setting sun. Above all, Icarus is an illustrious figure—a sort of misbehaving celebrity, a universal metaphor, a byword to the point of cliché.

At the chapel the jaunty priest, still failing to funeralize his demeanour, read from Psalm 34: The Lord is close to the brokenhearted. He rescues those whose spirits are crushed.

A sense of being unseen, alone and spectral, must be a root sorrow for many of the broken; yet there’s more than one way of not being seen. You can feel insignificant to the point of invisibility or—while living an outwardly successful, hence visible, life—sink under the weight of a pain unapparent to the world.

Maybe Icarus, that golden boy, was a suicide too.

As for the ones who feel invisible suicide may simply finalize a self-perceived erasure. Maybe these few thousand words are all trying to say the same thing: you were seen, hence a little less alone, during the two hours after your death.

At home I studied the program from the service. The photo on the front showed a man in his late twenties or early thirties, lanky, fit in the implicit manner of people who work physically but don’t frequent weight rooms. His stance: confident but not cocky. Relaxed grin. He’s wearing a white T-shirt half tucked into faded jeans, and a red baseball cap, like the one Elena first thought he might have on. Behind him, a chain-link backstop and beyond that a baseball diamond. Judging by the light and the state of the outfield grass, it’s late spring.

I’d set him in motion on that ripening field, loping and tossing the ball to friends, fielding grounders with that easygoing grin, or wincing into the sun as he tracks a pop fly I’ve hit out to him. Later, we return to the bleachers and gather around a Styrofoam cooler packed with squat, iodine-brown bottles of Brador that he and his friends snap open with their lighters. Little older than my daughter is now, I barely say a word, shyly thrilled to be present, swigging beer, humoured by men who are firmly at home in their adult lives.

Trying to finish this piece—trying to pin down, after my various misconstructions, whatever was solidly knowable—I decided to compare my recall of his home and neighbourhood to the reality. But I couldn’t drive out there; our Corolla was back in the shop. So I turned to Google Street View.

In that eerily paused, preserved little world the sun was high, the trees in bud but not yet in leaf—that equivocal pre-season in Kingston when the light, unfiltered by greenery, is dazzling, yet the winds off the lake remain wintry. I clicked on a link and found a date for the images: mid-April, just over a year before the suicide.

I began on the main road from which Elena first glimpsed him, but I couldn’t tell which backyard was his. I navigated round to his own street. Again, nothing looked right. I checked my notes for his address, then left-clicked back up the street in blurring little surges.

Finally I recognized the house. The blue spruce looked more familiar by the moment, as did the fieldstone half-fence that I only now recalled, and those terraced garden beds raked and ready for the spring flowers. In the foreground at the bottom of the driveway sat a phalanx of brown-paper yard waste bags, evenly packed to the top, and behind them a bundle of neatly tied deadfall and trimmed branches. I glided ghost-like back down the street: no one else had left anything out for collection. Did the neighbours not bother with their yards or had the man always tidied up and then set out his refuse early in the season, ahead of collection day?

Gardening is a promissory, optimistic act. To sow is to project, to cast your faith forward into the next season or the following spring. Stumbling on this evidence of his diligence and care—this generative intention still active just a few hundred days before he blew out his heart—moved me very much.

Now I imagine the Street View vehicle, with its mounted camera, passing along the main road not when it did but some thirteen months later, the beautiful morning of his death. If I and Walter, among hundreds or thousands of others, had missed his face amid the branches and shadows of his backyard, then the Street View curators who screen the panoramas for legal reasons might have missed him too. Certainly they would have missed him. The image would still be saved online, his face half hidden in the landscape.

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Steven Heighton

Steven Heighton received the Governor General’s Award for Poetry for his 2016 collection The Waking Comes Late. He was the author of many books. His fiction and poetry have appeared in the LRB, Zoetrope, Tin House, Best American Poetry, Best American Mystery Stories and the Walrus.


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