There is another chapter entitled Grieving Your Estranged Alcoholic Daughter Who Has Just Died at the Age of Twenty-seven After Eighteen Months of Not Speaking to You which you should consult immediately after finishing this one. In the coming years you may also need to read the chapters Dissolving Your Marriage as Amicably as Possible, Identifying Precisely What It Was That You Did in Her Childhood That Caused Your Baby Girl to Curl Up Under the I-94 Overpass with Only a Pint Bottle of Fortified Wine for Company, and Tempering Your Own Inevitable Degeneration into Blood-Vomiting, Hand-Trembling Alcoholism. For the moment, however, please focus on this chapter, which is designed to get you through the next half hour.
At the start of this instructional, you should be in the car with your wife. You are driving south on I-94. Later, when you have received more information, you will realize that you must have driven over the exact spot where, between the hours of 11:30PM and 5:00AM, your daughter Tracy’s heart rate slowed and slowed until finally an infinite space opened between one beat and the next. For now, though, think only of your wife, whose nose has begun to bleed.
Grab a tissue from an unwrapped stack in your glove compartment while murmuring “Jesus, Wanda! Jesus,” as if the nosebleed is the most distressing element of this situation. Clap the tissue to your wife’s face while keeping your eyes on the road. She will take the tissue and do the rest. She may even apologize.
Slow to avoid a semi whose lethargic horn strikes you as more appropriate for the sea than the road. Mutter “asshole” to your wife; she will know you are referring to the driver of the truck. She will cluck her tongue in solidarity.
Navigate to exit 52A. Once on surface streets, begin a one-sided dialogue with Wanda about the blighted, industrial unsightliness of this part of Chicago. Explain to your wife that most of these buildings were built in the 1970s Brutalist style. Characterize the style for her: imposing, top-heavy structures with extensive use of unadorned concrete. Comment that this architectural movement has not aged well. She will nod and agree; this is not the first time you two have had this very conversation in this very neighborhood.
Pass the University of Illinois-Chicago. Be suddenly overcome by a memory of your daughter, age 8, asking where she will attend college. Recall telling her that the best colleges are in the Ivy League, far from Illinois, but that she can go anywhere she wants to. Note that this was a lie.
Return to the present when your wife cries: “Mark! Red light!” Stop at the red light. Block the box. Curse.
Pull into the parking garage of the Cook County Morgue. Express dissatisfaction to Wanda that you are required to pay for the privilege of…the privilege of…
Realize that you cannot get the words out. Wanda will, without looking at you, put her hand on yours as you engage the emergency brake. She will stare out the window while running her thumb over the chapped skin on the back of your hand. Muse that Wanda’s thumb is still soft even as she approaches the fifth decade of her life. Mull this over and think that it is stupid: age does not affect the softness of thumbs.
Ask Wanda how her nose is. She will pull back the tissue to show you that no more blood is flowing, though some will have dried around her left nostril. Say, “that’s good” or something else equally obvious. Get out of the car.
Find yourself inside the doors. Later you will try to remember leaving the car and entering the building; these 90 seconds will, however, be lost to you forever, like baby teeth.
Approach the front desk. Wanda will be at your side, but you two will have forgotten how to touch. Behind the desk there will be a plump middle-aged woman whose glasses will contain only the bottom half of a pair of bifocals.
“We are here for an identification,” Wanda will say in a small clear voice.
“Name?” The attendant will ask. She will not smile at you. Be offended. Think to yourself that morgue employees should also be required to give wise and loving counsel. Then think that perhaps this plump middle-aged woman knows that you have killed your child – somehow, someway, in some conversation you’ve since forgotten but that your daughter remembered with every sip she took – and will give you no quarter.
Wanda will say both of your names. The attendant will tell you to take a seat in a row of blue plastic chairs. Sit. Place your hands on your knees. Watch Wanda’s foot bobble almost out of its shoe. Think better of saying anything about it.
Wait less than five minutes.
Notice her out of the corner of your eye. Register unwanted feelings of danger and arousal. Recoil at the inappropriateness of your thoughts. Experience horror at the feeling of your stubby penis semi-hardening in your slacks.
Look up. Gape.
Lorna will look up at the same time. She will also gape. Both of you will gape for what feels like millennia. No one, not even Wanda, will notice; in a morgue waiting room there are no suspicious facial expressions.
Accept the flood of memories:
- Meeting Lorna when she was one of two temp admin assistants assigned to your office’s reception desk in 2009
- Thinking that the other temp, Bethany, was much prettier and more buxom
- Lusting after Bethany with some of your male colleagues at lunch and declaring Lorna “too pinched in the face”, “too dressy”, and with “an ass too big for her body”
- Greeting Lorna every morning when she transferred to your floor
- Teaching Lorna how to use the photocopier in exchange for her teaching you how to use the fax machine, and laughing about your little quid pro quo
- Eating lunch with her once
- Eating lunch with her everyday
- Driving her home to her parents’ house once
- Driving her home everyday
- Fucking in your car after after-work drinks in the parking lot of a Circuit City
- Promising yourself that you would never do that ever again, and telling Lorna the same
- Fucking in her room while her aged parents watched Dancing with the Stars with the volume on loud enough that you could hear a rumba when you came inside her
- Thinking about Lorna while picking up Tracy from community college the one semester she attended, trying to listen to her talk about ethics or economics or whatever the class was
- Lying in bed alternating between feeling guilty and feeling stupid – stupid because this was your one affair, and you knew it would be your one affair, and you’d wasted it on a girl who looked, from the neck down, exactly like Wanda: too skinny in the belly region with an ass too big for her body
- Breaking it off with Lorna in your car in a state park in the middle of winter, with her saying “okay, okay. Sure. I get it” in such a noncommittal monotone that you became very, very frightened she was becoming unhinged and would confront Wanda at the first opportunity
- Slowly realizing after several weeks that Lorna actually was not particularly bothered by the end of your relationship and, indeed, acted the exact same around you at work: jokey and mildly flirtatious and not even bothered when you asked her to do the things that, as an admin assistant, constituted her official duties
- Feeling an unbearable ache of nostalgia and lost danger when, after fifteen months at your office, Lorna left to go back to school
- Attempting one final hook up, via text, and receiving back “No thanks [Symbol]” from Lorna in about twelve seconds flat
- Deleting your texts and looking around for other evidence to destroy and realizing there was not a whole lot
- Driving past Lorna’s parents’ house when it was a little bit out of your way and never seeing her
- Resigning yourself to the fact that you would never see Lorna again and that your marriage would continue unaffected, until right this very second
Close your open mouth. Turn instinctively to Wanda. She will have also noticed Lorna, and will be waiting expectantly. Experience relief as your penis retreats into sluggish hibernation.
Be struck, when you think of your own penis, by another memory of Tracy. Remember Tracy, age four, pushing open the bathroom door when you were peeing and gazing at your limp penis expelling urine into the bowl. Remember that you were midstream and couldn’t stop, and that you said, “honey, close the door, honey, come on,” but she didn’t and instead stood staring at your penis for the duration of your piss. Remember that it was an epic piss, too, a six-beerer.
Question whether this incident – a four year old seeing a grown man’s penis – was so shocking and upsetting that it curdled inside Tracy and warped her view of men and led her here, to these thick double doors and fluorescent-lit hallways that squeak under your rubber soled shoes. Then calm down and assert to yourself that there is nothing strange about a child seeing her father’s penis in a nonsexual and entirely accidental setting, and in fact there are many families who practice total nudity within their own homes and whose children do not end up frozen to death in a shit-stained sleeping bag the thickness of which is laughably inadequate in a Chicago February.
Lorna will greet you and Wanda with, “Mr. and Mrs. Baum?” Rise from your seat in tandem with Wanda. Consider that Lorna has very graciously agreed to pretend that you do not know one another. Feel gratitude toward Lorna as she crisply asks you to follow her.
As Lorna pushes through the padded double doors two paces in front of you and Wanda, revisit your previous line of thought. Question whether you were in fact too austere and reserved in your comportment with Tracy; you were, after all, a thrice-a-year hugger and even that was only when Tracy was little and huggable.
Think to yourself that there will be plenty of time for this torture later. Renew your commitment to Wanda and resolve to be a pillar of strength and stability for her as the both of you undergo the worst experience any parent can ever have.
Wanda will feel suddenly nauseated at the moment you are trying to calculate your hug frequency. Seeing a lady’s room up ahead, she will let go of your hand and sprint for it. Ask uselessly if she is all right as the door swings shut. Lorna will explain that this happens all the time.
Turn to Lorna and struggle to think of something to say. Notice that Lorna seems to be doing the same.
Settle on this opener: “Is this what you went to school for?” Lorna will look sheepish and tell you that she dropped out after one semester. Suppress the urge to tell her that Tracy did the same.
Ask how Lorna has been.
“Well, this is my job, so…what do you think,” Lorna will say. Eight hours a day, five days a week Lorna tells people that their loved ones died alone.
“Government jobs have good benefits,” you will remark like a goddamn idiot, but Lorna won’t care. She will nod instead and set her jaw like she’s preparing to grind her teeth. Remember that she used to set her jaw like that before she had to stand up for herself; you have a vivid memory of Lorna setting her jaw in response to a VP at your company berating her for assigning an important client meeting to a conference room that was too small. Recall Lorna, flushed and thin-lipped, dressy scarf hanging sweaty and limp around a neck you used to nuzzle, marching away from the VP, getting her laptop, marching back, and showing him the email where he’d told her exactly which conference room to use.
Be struck by yet another memory: that time Tracy was almost suspended for punching a girl in her fourth grade class. Ask yourself what that girl’s name was and then pluck the name from a forty-nine-year-long spool of memories: Millie Dugan. Millie Dugan was ten-year-old Tracy’s bully and you could not for the life of you imagine how a girl named Millie could ever bully anyone; it was such an old-fashioned and square name.
Which may be why when Wanda called and told you that the principal had Tracy in his office and was seriously thinking about giving her the dreaded, record-blemishing out-of-school suspension, you drove to the school, walked into the office and really flew off the handle at Tracy, asking her at least six times what the hell she’d been thinking in front of Principal Burnett. And then later in the car when a sobbing ball of Tracy had tried to explain that it wasn’t her fault, that it was Millie Dugan who’d been tripping Tracy in the hallway and aiming above Tracy’s neck in dodge ball and making fun of the fact that Tracy had some off-brand binder instead of a genuine Trapper Keeper, and that Tracy had finally just snapped and started whaling on Millie Dugan, you were not sympathetic. You may have even told her that girls named Millie have enough trouble.
Return to the present even though you are still plagued with fears that your handling of the Millie Dugan situation was what Tracy thought about every time she lifted Wild Irish Rose to her lips.
“I’m all right, thank you,” Wanda will say preemptively as she exits the restroom. Note that the dried blood around her nostrils has been removed. She will take your hand again.
Lorna will steel herself and then lead you down the rest of the hallway to a big white door at the end of the corridor. “It’s a little chilly in here,” she will say. “I’m sorry.”
This is all the preparation you will receive. Lorna will open the door and hold it for you and Wanda.
The body room, as you will uncreatively call it, will not look the way you picture it. You are expecting a glass wall, a soundproof booth, and a second attendant who will pull the sheet back when Lorna taps on the glass.
Instead the room will contain about twenty gurneys. All of them will have blue sheets. Most of them will be unoccupied, but there will be maybe four or five, all in a row, that have lumps under the blue.
While Lorna checks the handwritten manila chart at the base of the second gurney, speculate as to the price of a Trapper Keeper in 1996.
“I’m going to pull the sheet back,” Lorna will say. “Please confirm that this is Tracy Elizabeth Baum.”
Wanda will give your hand a squeeze.
“Please confirm,” Lorna will repeat, her hand at the corner of the blue sheet, “that this is Tracy Elizabeth Baum.” You and Wanda will nod.
Lorna will pull the sheet back.
“Is this your daughter?” She will say.
It will be Tracy on the gurney. She will have red flowing hair and dark lips. Her eyes will be closed. She will not look as terrible as she could have. Later you can be thankful for that.
Wanda will stagger. She will step on your foot. Yelp involuntarily. Lorna will replace the sheet quickly.
“I’m sorry,” Wanda will say. “I’m sorry,” Lorna will say. “It’s her,” you will say.
“Thank you,” Lorna will croak. She will make a note on her clipboard. “We can do the rest where it’s warmer.” Realize for the first time that it is very cold in the body room.
Lorna will lead the way again. Gaze down. Remember what you and Steven and Mike J. used to say: ass too big for her body.
Think: Like Wanda, but Wanda was prettier than Lorna at that age. Did Tracy have an ass proportionate to her body? Did men like Tracy? Did she excite them? Recall that you were never very accepting of Tracy’s paramours when she brought them around. Skinny, planless boys who kept wiping your beer off their vulpine faces with the backs of their hands. Allow that that actually describes only one of at least six that you met. Try to picture some of the others.
Wonder whether you had been too unwelcoming to Tracy’s boyfriends. Remember that they always broke things off, and never the other way around. Yet to hear Wanda tell it (because you never talked about it with Tracy directly) it never had anything to do with you. Tracy’s boyfriends didn’t seem to notice you one way or another.
When you are out of the body room, ask Lorna politely: “Are you seeing anybody?”
Then blink. Blink lopsidedly, harder on your left eye than your right, more of a twitch than a blink. Do it again.
Ask yourself if you just asked Lorna, in front of Wanda, if she was seeing anybody. Inquire of yourself precisely what species of fucking halfwit you are. Do not look at Lorna or Wanda. Look at the wall and think about what possessed you.
“Seeing anyone else today?” Lorna will reply quickly. “Only four more.”
It will be too late, however. Wanda will be staring at you as if you are out of your goddamned mind.
This is it. This is the end. Not the text messages or the loose lips of your colleagues at the office Christmas party Wanda dutifully attends each December. This: an absurd question no one has ever asked a morgue attendant in the history of the state-sponsored recovery and storage of the deceased. Are you seeing anybody?
Realize that Wanda will now piece together your affair. She will learn of your infidelity on the very same day she has learned of her daughter’s death. Understand that you will break her heart twice, and that you are the lowest piece of human excrement who has ever existed. Think that if there was any moral justice in the universe it would be you in the body room instead of Tracy.
Don’t stop there, though. Go on to consider why you didn’t have that thought before this moment. Consider that you didn’t immediately think, it should have been me. Consider that for the past ten minutes you have been more concerned about Wanda puzzling out your relationship with Lorna than you have about your own daughter lying motionless on a gurney in a very cold room.
Grasp that Tracy was not killed by a singular moment in the twenty-seven years, nine months, and thirteen days you shared: she was killed by the crushing sum total of your despicability.
Wanda will be mouthing something at you. Stare at her lips wringing and unwringing.
Are you okay?
Snap back. Smile. Nod. Shake your head as if to say, I don’t know what all that was about!
Sign some forms. Leave Lorna. Lose another ten minutes.
Return to yourself in the car, on the freeway, sputtering toward Des Plaines. Wanda will be silent, staring out the window at the Morton salt plant.
“When it rains,” she will say for no reason you can divine, “it pours.”
Lose more minutes.
Arrive at home. Collect the mail from the box. Watch Wanda pluck a softball from her snow-encrusted hydrangeas and toss it underhand over the neighbor’s fence. Open the door and enter your house.
Go your separate ways. Enter the den. Look through the drawers of the entertainment center for the key to the liquor cabinet. After five minutes, realize that the key is jutting out of its lock like it always is.
Wanda will come in and place her hand on your shoulder. “I’m going to bed,” she will say even though it is not quite 5:00 PM. She will eye the glass in your hand.
She will pause at the door. “Don’t stay up too late,” she will say.
When she’s creaked up the stairs to your bedroom dispense with the glass and begin slugging straight from your bottle of Famous Grouse. While you drink determine where you are going to hide the empty bottle when you are done. Think about Lorna in the parking lot of Circuit City. Think about young Wanda in the parking lot of Circuit City. Give Tracy no thought at all.
When the Famous Grouse has dwindled to nothing put the bottle under the couch cushions and stand up. Put your hands on your hips. Resolve to do your best for Wanda in the coming days, weeks, months, years, and decades. Nod emphatically even though there is no one around to see you do it.
Then imagine the coming days, weeks, months, years, and decades.
Emit a choked sob before collapsing back onto the couch. Bury your head under one of the throw pillows and allow your tears to darken the upholstery. Pray fervently for your own death.
Wait a few minutes. When nothing happens, proceed to the next chapter.
Christian Hayden lives in Chicago, IL. His work has appeared in Word Riot, Buffalo Almanack, Yemassee, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and others. He also contributes to ClickHole.