Letter from a Dead Man
by Paul Negri
The Winter Solstice
By the time you read this, I will be dead.
How’s that for originality? Shaking those lovely blonde tresses of yours, are you? Okay, let me begin again.
By the time you read this, I will be sleeping with the fishes.
Borrowing lines from classic Italian gangster films not permitted? Non c’è problema, signorina.
How about this:
By the time you read this, I will have reached the end of my rope a foot short of the floor.
Try harder, Punch, you say. That’s what makes you such a great editor and reluctant lover. Just choose one of the following then so we can get on with this:
By the time you read this: I will have kicked my bucket; I will be resting in pieces; I will have blown out my candle.
Shall we go with the last one? I’ve always hoped that my death would be simple and quiet, a final pucker, a last puff of breath, out goes the flame, up floats a wisp of smoke, life’s afterthought…then the dark. Well, we can hope, can’t we, sweetheart?
Bottom line is, by the time you read this, I will be dead.
So why have I resorted to the sad old anachronism of a sheaf of papers in a manila envelope, sealed with saliva, carried to your mailbox by a footsore postman (or is it postperson?) rather than the pure, ethereal, electron-speed and non-corporeal grace of an email or text message? Because, my dear, I believe (or more accurately believed) that some things still cry out for the human touch of hand-delivery and the balm of time passed between the doing and the telling of it rather than the blunt shock of the instantaneous. This way there’s no need for a panicky call (I won’t answer), a rush over to my apartment (I won’t be there) or the urgency to intervene (I’ll be beyond intervention).
Just take a deep breath, fetch a glass of Vouvray (remember the limestone caves of the Loire Valley, sweetheart, how cold they were?), sit up in your warm comfy bed, the site of our vain but valiant attempts at mutual gratification, and listen patiently to me this one last time, a kind of pillow talk with the deceased. And please, lay down your editor’s blue pencil for once and leave me unmarked and unremarked upon, my flawed eloquence no one’s but my own.
When I do count the clock that tells the time/And see the brave day sunk in hideous night—not your favorite Shakespeare sonnet, nor mine, but apropos, me thinks, on this winter solstice, the longest night of the year.
I did not plan it this way, Judy; I did not plan it at all. I just woke up this morning and started putting my affairs in order. Checked my Last Will and Testament and put it on the bedroom dresser next to that framed photo of you with the slight swelling under your eye (yes, you get everything, so you’re $9,622.34 richer plus whatever you can get for my car and the stuff in my place); erased the messages on my answering machine (mostly from you and a persistent telemarketer who never quite gave up on me); cleaned out the refrigerator (as the thought of those little white containers of Chinese food festering inscrutably for days gave me the collywobbles); took one last drink of my beloved Jim Beam Black and poured the rest of him down the drain (where I’ll be joining him shortly); straightened out a little (I admit I did nothing about the dust, from which we come and to which we shall return, after all); did what I could with the toilet, although I think you’ll have to have a plumber come (please give the plumber my apologies for whatever he may find clogging the pipes, unless it’s a tampon, for which you can apologize). I know, Judy, I know. So many parentheses (but I always was rather parenthetical, wasn’t I?).
I did all this without consciously planning that this would be the night. It all came together later on when I sat down at my PC and my homepage informed me (along with a plethora of other unwanted news) that today was indeed the winter solstice and we faced the longest night of the year. To me they’ve all been the longest night of the year lately, but now, with this incontrovertible proof from the omniscient Internet, and after having made such a conscientious effort to tidy up, so to speak (even to the point of cleaning out the refrigerator, for Christ’s sake)—I knew the time had come. Let others face the fucking longest night of the year—including you, dear Judy.
I must apologize, sweetheart. But where to begin?
Certainly I’m sorry for hitting your father with the paddle. I know it’s ancient history in terms of our three-year run, but I still have bad dreams about it (there are indeed some bad dreams—a few—that I have actually concealed from you). I am only glad that your father was wearing that asinine hat which softened the blow and that the paddle was a cheap fiberglass one and lacked the heft of real wood. In my defense, I was fairly drunk, I was in a canoe despite my fear of water (to please you, Judy), and Ben did call my book—that singular progeny of my booze-soaked brain, that cri de coeur of my dumb heart, that yellowing relic of my once promising career—“campy.” Campy. And he made all those bad jokes about it. So I hit him. In my dreams I still see the look on his face, not shock so much as surprise, not anger but more like amusement, as if I was a fool who had done something idiotic to entertain him.
It should have been a red flag to you that I had some teensy-weensy anger issues. And not the first red flag at that. What a petty farce my life has been. I am—was—a man of many scenes, if not parts. Creating them, that is. No, not scenes, but skits. Quick. Forgettable. And most not even very funny. A failed sitcom of a life without a laugh track.
Just like the scene—skit—I created at the publisher the first day we met, you a junior editor, twenty-five, delicate and pretty, like a Dresden porcelain figurine, albeit in black pantsuit, so fine, so fragile (how I misjudged you, Judy); me, a “new” writer at age forty-five, miraculously discovered sans agent by a bona fide BIG publisher. When I literally foamed in protest at my second book being managed by anyone less than one of their senior editors (despite the embarrassing sales of my first novel), do you remember what Harwood said, from behind the safety of his impenetrable oak desk? How he told me, in that nasal twang of his, to calm down or he would have to have me removed. Removed. As if I was an unsightly stain on the carpet.
Oh stop, Punch, I hear you say. Stop kicking yourself. But don’t you know, sweetheart, that kicking myself was the only way I could keep from kicking you? And we both know it didn’t always work, did it?
It’s getting late, Judy, and as I’m determined not to see another dawn I must make haste, so please forgive me if I run roughshod over usage and grammar and make of myself more of a literary bounder than usual. You don’t really mind, do you? I know you’re sharpening that blue pencil, so much more visceral than correcting on the PC with key taps and software edits. You’ve used that pencil of yours like a scalpel, performing a vivisection on my work. Couldn’t you hear the words scream, sweetheart, as you excised them? See the parentheses tremble at your approach? Note how the paragraphs cringed with your insertions? Feel the whole manuscript shudder under your evisceration? You see, my sweet mortician, the book wasn’t just words, it was me.
Do you wonder then that there were times I wanted to bash your head in with a hammer?
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes/ I all alone beweep my outcast state—now that at least is my favorite Shakespeare, if not yours. Although I was never one to beweep my outcaste state alone, was I? There were always friends I had not entirely used up, and when I wore them out, the familiar bars I frequented, and when I was no longer welcomed there, the dives where nobody knew my name, and when even those piss pots of benign indifference shut me out, there was—you. You’d open your door and I’d tumble in drunk and bloody with a split lip and I couldn’t remember who hit me or who I had hit. Oh, Punch, you’d say. Oh, Punch, and shake your pretty head sadly. And smile.
Shall I admit something, Judy, at this late hour of my life? That smile, sweetheart, it began to disturb me. When I first knew you (and for a long time after that) it had an enchanting quality about it, something enigmatic and irresistible, like the smile on the Mona Lisa. Oh, don’t roll your eyes, I know how cliché that sounds. I am a writer, for Christ’s sake. No, let me rephrase that: I am a good goddamn writer! Bold plus an exclamation point. What good goddamn writer would do that? What a fucking fraud I am. But I digress (don’t be so parenthetical, you say).
That smile, I came to notice, was at its sweetest, its most luminous, its most potent, when I was at my weakest and my worst. It was not there when I brought you a gift, like that edition of the Shakespeare Sonnets illustrated by Robinson (so rare and costly); or when I completed a chapter of my eternally gestating second novel on the schedule you had so sternly set up for me; or when I actually managed to rise to the occasion during our rare forays into intimacy; or when I said, cold sober, that I loved you.
You were pleased with all that and smiled—but not with the smile, the deep, cryptic smile that starts in your eyes and descends slowly to your lips and confers on your pale and placid face all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming (with apologies to Poe, the raven, and to you, as I know Poe is one of your bête noirs). That smile was there when I fell off the wagon and into the ocean of booze (forgive the mixed metaphors); or as I worked and re-worked and re-re-worked a paragraph of my never-to-be magnum opus and you asked me to revise it again; when I rolled off you and you sighed with grim satisfaction, as if you’d done a hard job well; and when you whispered, as if you were afraid someone else might hear you in the cavernous silence of your bedroom, “I love you too.”
I love you too—the lamest of all the lame declarations of love. Don’t you see, Judy, how the “too” guts the very heart of it? (more mixed metaphors—I’m really on a roll, am I not?).
Is that the beginning of the smile, I see? Well, not so fast, sweetheart. For one thing I’m stone sober. As I mentioned, I sent old Jim Beam down the drain while I was cleaning my filthy sty of a life this morning. Calm down, Punch, before you hurt yourself. Do you remember when you said that? Right after they cancelled the contract on my second book, the impertinence of them, merely for my being two years late with no discernable end in sight? They made you give me the news, you, an ingénue, the up and coming editor of a down and going (now gone) one-book wonder. And I began to punch holes in the plaster board wall of your bedroom and bellow like a poet, in iambic pentameter, and paced back and forth as you sat calmly on the edge of the bed and I punched a third hole in the wall and my hand started to bleed and you said calm down before you hurt yourself and I have to tell you, sweetheart, you’ll never know how close you were to getting hurt, really hurt yourself, cause the wall just wasn’t enough, I needed something live to damage.
Four days to Christmas and that carnivalic family gathering of yours. How brave I was last year as I wandered through the menagerie of your esteemed elders, aunts and uncles, first and second cousins, and the hordes of feral children (surely, they could not all be blood relations) running wild around your parents’ pool and through the parched landscape of their Florida manse. How I smiled warmly at each and every one, as I sweated like a pig in the blue seersucker suit and matching bow tie in which you wrapped me like something to be placed under the nine-foot silver fiber optic Christmas tree, a bad dream of constantly morphing pin pricks of colors not found in nature. And I sucked my ginger ale through a straw and could swear I smelled alcohol in my sweat and would have gladly fed the most adorable of the rampaging tykes to an alligator for a half a pint of Jim Beam Black.
You were mingling, the young editor from New York, basking in the admiration of your cracker clan (yes, you told me that ‘cracker’ was what the true Floridians liked to be called, but I am using it here, dear Judy, in the New York sense, as in ‘those fuckin’ crackers’) and your father Ben took me aside and asked me to take a walk with him in back of the house, he wanted to show me something.
We walked over the spiky grass, your father regaling me with those ancient one-liners from his boyhood Borscht Belt days and pointing out the variety of winter weeds that threatened his ugly lawn, naming them like they were honorable old adversaries, chickweed, sour grass, henbit, and I tried to act interested, or at least not comatose with boredom. We stopped by what he said was the edge of his property and he told me he was going to show me something dangerous. Behind a tree was the rusting wreck of a car, although you had to look hard to see that’s what it was, under a massive cloak of brown vines with a few spots of green here and there. These vines had swallowed the car whole. Kudzu, he said. Very dangerous. Are they man-eaters? I asked. They eat everything, he said. They’re eating the entire South. I nodded gravely, concealing my delight. He told me there was no way to destroy kudzu, that once it appeared, there was no killing it off, it crept over everything, growing a foot a night, until, in summer, whatever it touched was a mass of green leaves and vines, choked off from the sunlight and doomed. Okay, I said. And then he said, some people are like kudzu and he looked at me hard and I told him I would never hurt you and he said he knew that, it wasn’t Judy he was worried about and he looked embarrassed, maybe ashamed. So what exactly are you saying? I asked him. He just looked at me and said “Kudzu.”
Funny, isn’t it, that when I finally hit you I wasn’t even angry? I suppose that’s worse, isn’t it? Cold blooded. So unlike me. A quick and careful pop in the eye. I did it with care and deliberation. I took aim. I timed it. I controlled the force of the punch. It should not even have left a mark. What I didn’t count on was the ring. My old college ring, pathetic on a middle-aged man. It was the prominent blue zircon stone that caught you and raised the welt just under your true-blue eye. Still, I had done it with such delicacy and quiet grace that no one at the other tables even noticed it (or at least they pretended not to), except for the old man alone in the corner who paused in eating his soup—but just momentarily. Then, like Father Time, who has seen it all before, went on slurping. But it actually shocked you. You folded your napkin, got up, and left. I thought that perhaps my little experiment had gone too far and I would hear from you nevermore. And I was afraid.
But nevermore lasted only a week. You called and behaved as if nothing had happened. And when you came over I snapped that picture of you and later bought a frame for it and it was only when I put it on my night table that I noticed the still visible swelling under your eye. I knew then that you would never leave me, that I could not beat you away with a stick, that what I was (and becoming more and more as time passed) was exactly what you needed, that the on-going wreck of my life was blood to your heart, marrow to your bones, and you were watching it with the hypnotic paralysis of someone standing in the path of an oncoming train bearing down on her.
Blood and marrow—so wonderful in the body, so awful outside of it. Make a nasty mess. So there will be no leap from a rooftop to the cement below; no gun in the mouth to leave wide splatter on the wall behind; no hundred-mile-per-hour collision with an innocent oak tree. No, dear Judy. My muse has not altogether deserted me. She has slipped on her widow’s weeds and whispered in my ear an inspired way to expire. They shall not find me any more than they could find the candle’s flame once it is extinguished.
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;/ Coral is far more red than her lips’ red—so now we come to your favorite Shakespeare, Judy. It puzzled me that you should so favor the Dark Lady of the sonnets. Was it an admission, sweetheart, a hint, perhaps, of the shadow behind the sunshine? All blonde and blue-eyed and golden girl, skin so fair and tender a kiss could bruise it, but beneath that a second skin, already black and blue and glistening like scales and eyes like polished anthracite reflecting my own startled face back at me and as you turn away I come up behind you with my pointed hat and long red nose and raise high the splintering plank over your fragile head as the frantic and gleeful children of all ages scream warnings that you ignore until it’s too late.
Which is why, sweetheart, I must drop the curtain prematurely on this miserable comedy. You will not leave me and I can leave you one way only.
An envelope, a stamp or two, a walk to the mailbox and beyond. There’s snow on the ground to muffle my footsteps and no moon tonight will betray me with its light as I steal away.
Once more to the Bard, though not the sonnets. We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep. But what to do when our dreams are waking nightmares and sleep just won’t come? I am tired now, Judy. Too tired for words.
Yours no more,
“Where did you find this?” The police detective stood over the old man who sat on the edge of the bed. The old man had his coat on and held a handkerchief to his nose. One police officer and a few other men bustled around the apartment. “Mr. Bottler?”
“On the kitchen table,” said the old man. He seemed exhausted, too tired to move.
“You should probably not have moved it.”
“It’s just a letter,” said the old man.
“Still,” said the detective. She put her hand on the old man’s shoulder. “What’s your first name, Mr. Bottler?”
“Can I call you Ben?”
“You can call me anything. Just don’t call me late for supper.” Ben glanced up at the detective. His blue eyes were bloodshot. “Sorry. Old joke. I used to do standup a million years ago when I was a kid. In the Catskills. Even though I was a goy.”
“When was the last time you spoke with your daughter?”
“Last week. Christmas Eve. She said she had the flu or something. Wouldn’t be coming down for our holiday gathering.” Ben put his hand on his stomach. “I don’t feel so good. That smell.”
“How did she sound? Did she seem upset? Or depressed?”
“She sounded like she had the flu, you know? Or something. She sounded—I don’t know—funny.” Ben stood up. “I think I’m going be sick.” He started for the bedroom door.
“No, Ben,” said the detective. “You can’t go in the bathroom.”
”Oh, yeah.” Ben sat back down on the bed.
“And that was the last time you heard from her?”
“We called on Christmas. And the day after. Just got her machine. We figured she was sleeping. After three days we got scared.”
“So you flew up. You have a key?”
“Sure. She’s my daughter. What do I do now?”
“We have to do an autopsy. Determine cause of death.”
“Cause of death? Her wrists are slit. She’s in the bathtub. She’s got her clothes on.” Ben began to cry. “Why’s her face black like that?”
“After four or five days—well, the body—you know, it changes. I mean after.”
“I can understand the smell. But black like that?”
The detective sat down on the edge of the bed. “Did you know the man who wrote the letter?”
“Ron Punch. He wrote a book once. Judy was his editor. He’s been her boyfriend for a couple of years.”
“Do you know where he is?”
“Didn’t you read the letter? He’s gone too.”
“We can’t assume that. We’ll look for him, Ben.”
“You won’t find him. Not in a tub. Not with his clothes on. He knew how to make a dignified exit. That letter. It was like a bow, you know?”
“Can you tell me anything else? Anything at all?
Ben whispered something.
The detective leaned in toward him. “What was that?”
“Kudzu,” said Ben. “Kudzu.”
Paul Negri has twice won the gold medal for fiction in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Writing Competition. He is the editor of a dozen literary anthologies published by Dover Publications, Inc. His stories have appeared in print and online in The Penn Review, Into the Void, Concho River Review, Northwest Indiana Literary Journal, Pif Magazine, Jellyfish Review and more than thirty other publications. He lives and writes in Clifton, New Jersey.