By the time I left the hospital on Christmas Eve the afternoon was slipping away. It was a murky gray day there in that little town; there was a sloppy covering of snow and a damp fog was moving in off the river, bringing a weird, early dusk. Some of the houses along the narrow streets had modest or half-hearted displays of Christmas lights, and the combination of fog and the sort of gloomy, crepuscular light lent a spectacularly forlorn quality to these feeble outbursts of color. The whole town had the feel of that hospital basement; everything seemed poised, ready to shut down for the holiday. Many businesses along the Main Street were already closed for the day.
I stopped off at a little grocery store to get some food for the next several days. I had already made up my mind to hang around town and get my unpleasant job done with. The two women at the checkout counters were just leaning at their stations and shooting the shit. The store was otherwise completely silent and empty of customers. I asked one of the women if they were getting ready to close and she said, “Another hour-and-a-half, hon.” I didn’t understand that ‘hon’ initially, and I thought for a brief moment that she had mistaken me for somebody else and called my by that person’s name. It finally hit me about half way down the first aisle. The woman didn’t appear to be much older than me.
How sad it all suddenly seemed to me as I moved up and down the aisles of that little grocery store. Christmas had sort of disintegrated for me as a holiday; it was a real thing and a nice thing when I was a kid and my parents were still married. Even into my early adulthood we had all made an effort; before my sister moved away to France my father had always made a point to be home for Christmas. We were never an extravagantly sentimental family, but we were always comfortable with each other; we had a good time together. All of us loved to talk and eat and sit up late. I think eventually we just learned to take each other for granted. My sister, for instance, is by no means estranged from the family; she just fell in love with a Frenchman, and France. None of us are letter writers or telephone talkers, so it’s easy enough to drift out of touch for these long stretches, but I have no doubt that the next time I see my sister we will pick right up where we last left off and have a grand time. For whatever reasons, I seem to lack the ambition and wanderlust that characterizes the rest of my family. I am a drone of the fluorescent lights; all I ask of any job is that it provides me with enough money and leisure time to enable me to spend as much of each day as possible sitting around reading and listening to music.
My family had always been a remarkably insulated and self-contained unit. Despite my parents’ divorces there really hadn’t been much in the way of drama or anything you could call real tragedy in my life. Even when my parents would fight they would do so with a sort of quiet resignation; we didn’t have a lot of shit storms around our house. We weren’t people who made scenes, which was both a point of pride and a sort of mantra with both of my parents.
Because my family was so small, and I suppose because we lived in a quiet suburban neighborhood, my childhood was relatively untouched by grief. We were this strangely insulated little group of emotional spectators, distantly puzzled by suffering and calamity and the usual public and private responses to it. Typical small, ugly things happened to us, but we had been spared calamity, let alone anything approaching true tragedy. People in my life didn’t die, or hadn’t died, and in this, I realize, I was remarkably lucky.
There had been an older boy in my neighborhood that had drowned when I was a kid, and a couple of high school classmates were killed in a car accident, but I hadn’t been close to any of these people and hadn’t attended their funerals. Their deaths had been shocking in that general way that all sudden deaths are shocking, I suppose. They had also been profoundly mysterious to me, largely because of the way they had been announced, briefly tsk-tsked over, and then dismissed by one or the other of my parents with a rattle of newspaper pages being turned. Yet death didn’t hold any emotional mystery or meaning for me. It seemed to be simply this strange or puzzling thing that happened to other people.
I suppose I would have to characterize both my mother and my father as reserved, or perhaps buttoned down is the phrase that other people might use. My mother could get paranoid, and had a voluble, eccentric streak, but she didn’t do hysterical. If I thought about it hard enough I might consider my older sister the most thoroughly rational person I know.
I remember when I was young and something disruptive happened in my life or around my house my mother would say to me, “How do you feel about that, David?” Yet it was always clear to me that this was something almost uncomfortable for her, something she assumed was expected of her as a parent. She was attempting to communicate with me, I know, but I also know that what she really wanted from me was almost always what she got, a shrug. There was nothing more reassuring around our house than a shrug. A shrug might mean, “I don’t really care,” “It’s no big deal,” or “What can you do about it?” And all of those things ultimately meant that we weren’t going to have any big scenes or make a fuss.
I suppose you could infer something about my emotional makeup as a child by the nickname that dogged me through junior high school: The Zombie. And also from the fact that being called The Zombie never really bothered me in the least.
One of my first jobs out of college was as a legal assistant at a large Chicago law firm, and I remember the first apartment where I ever lived alone was in this non-descript five-story cinderblock building, one of those absolutely generic and utilitarian examples of (I assume) 1960s architecture that you’ll see all over every big city. My apartment was in the back of the building, and every one of my windows had a view of the brightly lit parking lot of a huge funeral home.
Shortly after I moved into this place I developed a severe and persistent case of insomnia, and I got tuned into the disturbing nightly routines of the funeral home. From appearances the place did a bang-up business. It seemed like several times every night hearses –and the occasional ambulance—would pull into the parking lot after midnight and disappear into the darkness of the underground garage. Night after night I found myself sitting in my living room with the lights out, drinking beer and watching this mysterious and very final transfer or transaction taking place. I found the routine oddly compelling.
Often in the aftermath of the arrival of the hearse or ambulance there would be other visitors to the funeral home. Cars would show up and take a space in the huge expanse of the otherwise empty parking lot. It was always curious to me that most of these people would choose to park at some distance from the actual entrance. I’d watch as these people made the long walk to the backdoor, where there was a lighted vestibule.
Sometimes people came alone to the funeral home in the middle of the night. Other times they would come in pairs, or in even larger groups. However they came, they would make their way, clinging to each other (if they had anyone to cling to), up the incline of the long sidewalk that led to that backdoor.
I have to admit that this spectacle was gripping theater, and it reached the point where the basic routine became pretty much predictable. Once I’d seen the people into the building I felt strangely obligated to sit there in the darkness until they came back out.
Sometimes they’d be back out in fifteen or twenty minutes, and other times they’d be in there for what seemed like more than an hour. What they’d do when they came out, however, virtually never varied. If there was more than one person and they had arrived in different vehicles they would gather around their cars under the lights of the parking lot, and they would stand there quietly, alternately embracing and moving away from each other and pawing at the pavement with their shoes. In warm weather, when I had my windows open, I could often hear them weeping, sobbing, choking through great, wrenching, congested squalls of grief.
If they had come alone, or in a pair, they would almost invariably sit there in their car in the parking lot for a prolonged period of time –I once saw one man sit there all night in his running car. I assumed they could not bring themselves to go home.
This nightly ritual made me feel lousy, but I couldn’t seem to escape it. Every night I found myself making my way out to the living room and settling into the one chair in the room, directly facing the windows. I’d tell myself that I was just checking in, but inevitably I’d end up sitting there for the whole grim spectacle.
It didn’t take long for that experience to sort of infect my entire life and affect my job. I felt like I had acquired a dark secret, and was carrying it around with me every day. I never told anyone about it, and I didn’t have any close friends at work.
This business went on for many months, through one entire summer and into the late fall. I suppose it was inevitable, but one night about five or six months into what I had come to think of as a sort of vigil I watched as a car pulled into the parking lot and a woman I recognized from my office emerged alone and made that long walk to the backdoor of the funeral home.
I saw this woman every day; she was a secretary on my floor, and I suppose she was probably in her fifties. She wasn’t in the funeral home for very long, but after she came back out she followed the standard routine by lingering in her car in the parking lot for more than an hour.
The woman didn’t show up at work for a couple weeks, and I never heard anyone in the office discuss a reason for her absence. I couldn’t even tell you whom the woman had lost, whether it was a husband (my first assumption, I guess, although now that I think about it I never even entertained the notion that she might have lost a child) or a parent. For several days I carefully studied the obituaries in the local newspaper (another disturbing habit I’d gotten into, trying, I suppose, to fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle), but I never saw her name –or what I understood to be her name—show up in any of the fine print.
Partly in an attempt to break myself of this increasingly disturbing habit I volunteered to go to Phoenix for three months to work on a case that involved a lot of document retrieval. I was going to be set up in one of those large extended-stay hotels right downtown, and as I’d never really gone anywhere, I was actually somewhat excited to be embarking on something that amounted to an adventure for me at the time.
My first night in Phoenix I had just gotten settled into my room and I was sitting in the little dining room area eating a pizza and watching TV when I heard the thump of a helicopter outside my windows, growing insistently louder until it was literally rattling the silverware in the kitchen drawer. I watched, astonished, as the helicopter dropped into view directly adjacent to my window; I could literally see into the helicopter, could see the pilot in his headset.
The helicopter landed on a rooftop pad that was at almost exactly the same level as my room, and perhaps a hundred yards away, separated from the hotel by a ground level parking lot. The cargo doors of the helicopter were opened and several people dressed in surgical scrubs dashed across the rooftop in that unsteady lurching wobble that is characteristic of people approaching a helicopter. These people unloaded a body from the copter and placed it on a waiting gurney. The body was already hooked up to various I.V. bags, and it was obvious that I was watching a victim of some calamity or mishap being delivered to a hospital’s emergency room.
It should have been obvious, at any rate, yet it took me several disoriented moments to process what I was seeing. There was a sort of floodlit glare to the proceedings that gave it both an astonishing clarity and an unreal quality.
After this patient had disappeared into the hospital through what looked like the gabled entryway to a saloon, I didn’t have to wait more than ten or fifteen minutes for the appearance of the first ambulance, moving in silence up the empty service road with its lights tossing a strobing red wash over the dark adjacent buildings and empty parking lots. The ambulance disappeared beneath an overhang, and shortly after its arrival –and the arrival of the helicopter—I witnessed the appearance of a solitary car in the parking lot beneath my window, and saw a young man spring from this car and run full speed toward the area of the hospital into which the ambulance had vanished just moments earlier.
As attracted as I had gotten to my grim vigil each night in my apartment across from the funeral home, this new spectacle was certainly a noisier and more dramatic deal all around. I was astonished by how many emergencies a big city can manufacture in the middle of the night. This hospital, of course, was merely one of any number of hospitals in the Phoenix area, yet virtually every night brought the appearance of at least one helicopter, and it was not uncommon for them to come and go a half dozen times in the course of a single night.
The ambulances came steadily, at all hours, almost like taxi cabs. I supposed that the appearances of the helicopter must have represented some truly life threatening crisis. Why else resort to such extravagant transportation in the middle of the night? The ambulances, however, could be carrying anything from heart attack victims to hypochondriacs.
I’ll admit that I found it a bit disconcerting that in attempting to escape my morbid routine back in Chicago I would now find myself a helpless spectator to a variant spectacle. There was, though, a crucial difference here; these people’s lives still hung in the balance, and they might yet be spared the ride to the funeral home.
My own response to these nightly dramas continued to disturb and puzzle me, mostly because I was fully conscious that I was sort of blankly fascinated by what I was watching, and recognized my almost complete lack of any kind of real emotional connection to events that I was witnessing from the comfortable distance of my dark room.
Eventually I went back to Chicago, got a different job and a new apartment, and gradually moved beyond the strange vigils of that year. I’d sometimes think about those days, though. The memories would come to me at odd times, and I would marvel at the things I’d seen and try to make sense of that time in my life, and to figure out what it was I’d felt sitting there night after night watching the private dramas of complete strangers unfold.
I felt compelled, I knew that much. I kept, after all, returning to the windows, often for hours at a time.
But had I ever felt real compassion? Had I ever felt frightened, for either those strangers or for myself and whatever unhappy surprises the future might hold for me? Had I been moved?
I don’t think I ever did manage to find an honest answer to those questions.