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Companion to an Untold Story

Marcia Aldrich

Publication Year: 2012

When Marcia Aldrich's friend took his own life at the age of forty-six, they had known each other many years. As part of his preparations for death, he gave her many of his possessions, concealing his purposes in doing so, and when he committed his long-contemplated act, he was alone in a bare apartment.

In Companion to an Untold Story, Aldrich struggles with her own failure to act on her suspicions about her friend's intentions. She pieces together the rough outline of his plan to die and the details of its execution. Yet she acknowledges that she cannot provide a complete narrative of why he killed himself. The story remains private to her friend, and out of that difficulty is born another story— the aftershocks of his suicide and the author's responses to what it set in motion.

This book, modeled on the type of reference book called a “companion,” attempts to find a form adequate to the way these two stories criss-cross, tangle, knot, and break. Organized alphabetically, the entries introduce, document, and reflect upon how suicide is so resistant to acceptance that it swallows up other aspects of a person's life. Aldrich finds an indirect approach to her friend's death, assembling letters, objects, and memories to archive an ungrievable loss and create a memorial to a life that does not easily make a claim on public attention. Intimate and austere, clear eyed and tender, this innovative work creates a new form in which to experience grief, remembrance, and reconciliation.

Published by: University of Georgia Press

Title Page, Copyright

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Age at death

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pp. 1-

In obituaries, a proxy for the worth and fullness of the life. Joel was born May 23, 1949, and died, according to the official determination, on November 20, 1995, at age forty-six...

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Aldrich, Marcia

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pp. 2-3

I myself, friend, spouse, and secretary, reader, sorter, scrivener of my past, mortographer and augur, maker of lists, reciter of lines, inspector-reluctant of things the dead leave behind...

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Alpha

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pp. 4-

In this book, the destination of a cross-reference—like the target of a go to statement in a programming language, or the sign to which the musician ascends in a D.S. al fine—whence again down the page flows the river of words...

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Ambition

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pp. 5-

His death was not the practice of resignation: “Here is the difficulty about suicide: it is an act of ambition that can be committed only when one has passed beyond ambition...

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Answering machine

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pp. 6-8

The odd contents of the box, added to the evidence of Joel’s prior gifts, allowed no doubt that his behavior was not in keeping with the ordinary run of things. I laid the items on the bed and showed the note to...

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Apartment

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pp. 9-10

At the end the apartment was empty except for a gun, a phone, and a corpse. His efforts to make it a home when he had moved in twelve years earlier—rolling out carpets, hanging posters, shelving books, cutting and displaying roses...

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Arborvitae

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pp. 11-12

In early October I walked home from work at the end of the day, as I always did, wondering if he had arrived and how changed we might appear to one another. In memory he was compact and taut in build, not taller than I am, with a...

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Augury

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pp. 13-

Divination by omens, in particular the behavior of birds, an art known to Roman priests and others in the ancient world. Especially meaningful were birds in flight, a swerve to the left or right, and their cackles and caws, and the...

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August 21, 1995

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pp. 14-15

Date of our return from six weeks in London and the British Isles. A few days later Joel called to say that he was going to visit us. It would be the first time in more than ten years, should the trip pan out. During...

Auto

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pp. 16-

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Awake

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pp. 17-

“At 8:00 this morning, I was in line at Bell Market, morally aglow. I was early to rise to my homely duties. My oranges were chosen for thin skins and minimal navels; my chicken would tax neither my vascular system nor...

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Banal suicide

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pp. 18-

Impossible to romanticize or mythologize a suicide carried out in the most private room of the house: the bathroom, a space off-limits even to other family members, where dissocial acts are performed in solitude...

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Barbara

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pp. 19-20

Joel’s friend in his last years, an acquaintance made in teaching. She took one of the last photos of Joel, in which, lowering his eyes from the camera, he holds her dog Pepper. She sent the photo to Richard when he contacted...

Bartleby

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pp. 21-

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Bathroom (1)

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pp. 22-23

The bathroom had technical advantages as the final choice of occupancy. Having lived alone in obscurity, Joel knew that no one would come upon him in the normal course of events, no child or spouse or parent or lover or friend...

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Bathroom (2)

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pp. 24-

Where I retreat for privacy in times of emotional despair. I cry in the shower, the tears I shed flowing down the drain and underneath the city streets to the river, which runs to the lake and perhaps some sea. I can curl like a fetus...

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Bed

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pp. 25-

Device of rest and procreation. Before I met Richard, I slept in many beds but belonged to none. Most often I slept in single beds, many of them uncomfortable, unfit for dreams, as if stuffed with stones. Here and there I shared...

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Bed of metamorphosis

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pp. 26-27

Our bed was once Joel’s, purchased with Gale at a big indoor flea market on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, just a few blocks from where Richard lived. It was a water bed, and on one of the pieces of plywood...

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Beginning

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pp. 28-29

A note on appearance was my first writing about Joel. He isn’t mentioned, though his presence, or I should say his absence, infuses the whole. I didn’t begin with the facts but with my own blindness, as if that was the first cause...

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Berkeley

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pp. 30-

The University of California, Berkeley. In Joel’s mind, the University, a proper name. Though he politely used the same term in connection with the institutions that granted degrees to Richard and me, in that usage the word was...

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Better world

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pp. 31-

“My last day sub-ing was sometime in early May, I think. No matter: regardless how seldom you do it, you never forget how; it’s just like retching. I try, from time to time, to figure out a plan for public education that I could...

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Beyond Insight

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pp. 32-33

A book by Sumner L. Shapiro, Joel’s childhood analyst, a follow-up to Moment of Insight: Vignettes from a Psychoanalytic Practice, written at a time when psychoanalysis, like a Rust Belt manufacturer whose labor costs are too high, was losing market share to newer therapies...

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Binoculars

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pp. 34-

Uncomfortable and intrusive things. I didn’t buy them in a fit of bird-watching zeal, nor were they given to me brand new. They aren’t very good binoculars. In their day they might have been fine for a child. They’re compact, fit for a...

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Birthday

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pp. 35-36

“Deer coming through,” Richard calls out from the kitchen. Eight deer in a line walk slowly through the snow-filled yard in back just before seven in the morning. The dark is vanishing, and the scene is lit by the night’s fallen snow...

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Breathless

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pp. 37-

On the phone Joel sounded breathless, as if the rarity of human exchange made him anxious—or perhaps he was excited at the contact. In his last years, he became more and more oblique and fragmentary in conversation and...

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Buji

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pp. 38-39

Literary publication of Reseda High School, under the direction of Bernard Goodman (“Bernie” to Joel), with an Eastern tone, under the discipline of the haiku and other short forms meant to ward off the grand effusions of poets composing...

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Bullet

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pp. 40-

In some attempted suicides, the would-be victim manages to fire the gun but quails at the final moment, wrecking face or skull but surviving. Not Joel, a performer whose hands trembled at the harpsichord. He made an excellent...

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Buteo regalis

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pp. 41-43

Death in the making, in the form of an old black cat with green eyes, curled in the curve of my arm, in the hollow space between Richard and me in the marital bed, the cradle of light, labored breathing, still it was, facing...

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Cassanego

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pp. 44-

The officer who was dispatched on a well-being check to Joel’s apartment when the police received his suicide note. With no response to his knocks at the front door, Cassanego unlocked it, using the key Joel had sent along...

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Cause of death

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pp. 45-

A juridical concept. All official deaths must have a cause. If a person dies at home and the police cannot arrange for a medical professional (such as the deceased’s doctor) to specify a cause, an autopsy is performed. Thus Joel...

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Certificate of death

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pp. 46-47

Formal proof of passing on. The pronouncement of death by an authorized person determines the official date and time, which may differ from the moment of physiological death. Joel may have died three days before...

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Chain, chain, chain

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pp. 48-49

How did Joel assess, how did he feel about his mother’s death? His overt response was to blame his father (see Prell, Ruth Sosin). A few months after her suicide, having moved north to start school at Berkeley, Joel described...

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Circle

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pp. 50-

Image used to make concrete the distinction between inclusion and exclusion. A fine example is Edwin Markham’s “He drew a circle that shut me out.” In planning his own death, Joel changed from the man we had long known, redrawing...

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Clare and David

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pp. 51-

My daughter and son, ages eleven and seven at the time of Joel’s last visit. On the day he arrived, David’s first new bed was delivered by the furniture store, replacing the corroded brass headboard donated by my older sister...

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Clementine

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pp. 52-

A favorite fruit served to Joel during his last visit. He said, “I’ve never tasted anything so sweet and bitter at the same time. And the smell lingers long after they are gone.” I see curled peels heaped in mounds...

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Collector’s “I”

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pp. 53-54

From the mundane to the exotic, from the useful to the useless, the collectible is tangible, and that is its point. You can see, touch, categorize, and name it. However, it is not the thing itself, but the eye cast upon the thing, that...

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Colma

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pp. 55-

A city of crypts. It buries the dead of San Francisco, which prohibits graveyards within its limits (the only exceptions are the national cemetery in the Presidio and the tiny walled garden within Mission Dolores, featured in...

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Contact person

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pp. 56-

Michael, Joel’s brother, made the final arrangements. He told the police that Joel had been depressed about his landlord’s plans to sell his building. Joel didn’t say a word on that subject to us...

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Cryptic

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pp. 57-

Descriptive of a technique of diversion. Even Joel’s expressions of personal reflection were cryptic: “This weekend, I confessed something of the truth about my self to myself. I cannot speak of it. Have you ever felt sympathy with...

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Data

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pp. 58-

I can imagine someone else, an investigative reporter, getting to know the sources, interviewing people, gathering data in an organized fashion. This person would have distance and therefore treat the material more objectively, less...

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Death of a Salesman

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pp. 59-60

A play much taught in schools. Arthur Miller innovates in making the protagonist of his tragedy not the typical prince but a low man, Willy Loman, to whom, though he leaves behind no monument to his industry...

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Death wish

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pp. 61-

“No one kills himself who did not want to kill another or, at least, wish death to another.” Less than a year after his mother’s death, Joel gave a detailed account of a dream in which Michael too had died. Perhaps that was a...

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Deference

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pp. 62-

A fatal politeness. Richard deferred to Joel; I deferred to Richard. I suspected Joel’s gifts foretold some dark future. But in the end, I deferred to Richard’s judgment and greater intimacy, and he deferred to faith in Joel’s abhorrence...

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Diabetes

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pp. 63-68

A bounding horizon of Joel’s life. He developed diabetes before he was out of elementary school, and he was not a cautious manager of his condition who lived a nearly normal life, the cheerful self-helper of pop...

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Disposition of the body

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pp. 69-70

When passengers are lost at sea, survivors pray for recovery of the bodies. The passengers are lost, but relatives want to know where the ship went down; they need to reconstruct events, even if that...

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Disposition of the weapon

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pp. 71-

What do the police do with the guns they collect from the public? Guns used as evidence in a trial, once they have confessed their role, are added temporarily to a police stockpile, where they fall mute to the...

Distance learning

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pp. 72-

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Domestic past

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pp. 73-

You entered the apartment through a spacious garage; his neighbor, Chuck, lived in the house above, to which the apartment had been added on. All of it formed a little complex. Traversing the garage, you went through a small...

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Dream

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pp. 74-

If I made up a dream: Joel was following me in his car. We played all kinds of road games. I tried to trick and lose him, racing over a bridge, only to find his headlights waiting for me...

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Eagle

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pp. 75-76

The river house is made much of glass, and I often catch something in my eye outside the windows and run for my binoculars. By the time I stop fumbling and manage to remove them from their cozy case, get the two caps off the...

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Egg coddler

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pp. 77-79

As he was ridding his apartment of his last possessions, Joel may have found the egg coddler languishing way back on a high shelf, coated in dust. Sweeping for whatever items remained, he stood on a chair, reached as far back as he...

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Endings

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pp. 80-

The novelist creates the beginning and discovers where she is going as the plot unfolds. Her characters know still less than she does and suffer the hurts and shames of benightment (see Role). But I, a secretary, know where all the plot lines...

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English 1B

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pp. 81-

She had gone underground, and Joel could no longer be “the apple of his mom’s eye, abnormally so,” as Gale put it. Gale’s familiar expression, the apple of her eye, was made familiar by the King James Bible, which uses it in...

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Epictetus

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pp. 82-

Greek Stoic philosopher, circa ad 55–135. He commended suicide as the right path in the face of irremediable suffering, represented by an image of smoke...

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Esse est percipi

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pp. 83-

It is difficult enough to enter another person’s life when both parties are willing to find the crossing points between two wills, minds, and hearts. Joel made the crossing impossible, destroying the bridges. He underwent a long...

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Eulogy

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pp. 84-

Suicide deprives survivors of the sanctioned rituals of burial and mourning. Joel’s suicide destroyed ritual and gave us no hold with which to brace ourselves. In a funeral or memorial service, a tribute is delivered to the dead...

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Failure

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pp. 85-

“To be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail, that failure is his world and the shrink from it desertion, art and craft, good housekeeping, living...

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Fast car

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pp. 86-90

Joel was always in a state of anxiety about his car’s performance. Would it start? Would the brakes bring him to a stop on the hills of San Francisco? Was air escaping from the tires? Was the car leaking oil or overheating? Were the taillights...

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Figurines (1)

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pp. 91-92

I am not a collector. When I was seven or eight years old, Aunt Virgie began to give me horse figurines for Christmas and birthdays, knowing that I loved real horses. Other aunts and uncles followed suit, and soon the shelves...

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Figurines (2)

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pp. 93-

I would not be writing this if Joel were alive. There would be no need. It is the traverser of the underworld who requires a companion-guide. Even the great organ of elegy can only substitute a poetic creation for the person...

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Finality

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pp. 94-

We do our best to avoid it, defy it. We dislike good-byes, departures, breakups, losses of memory, exile, divorce, aging, and death. Suicide is final. You cannot take back what was said or done, can no longer contemplate some...

Fleck

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pp. 95-

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Gale

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pp. 96-

The one woman. Joel met her at the University of Utah (see Higher education); they began living together in 1970 and moved to Santa Barbara in 1973. In July 1974 she planned a trip alone to Europe, which Joel (perhaps believing her travel...

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Garage sale

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pp. 97-98

The project of his last months was to get rid of all that he had accumulated. Joel prepared his own death by eradicating traces of his life. He emptied his apartment with precision and care, leaving the minimum to be faced by...

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Gas

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pp. 99-

Painting by Edward Hopper from 1940, depicting a man standing near gas pumps, in the lonely isolation typical of Hopper. The man might be straightening the area, checking supplies of motor oil. Or maybe he’s filling...

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Gender gap

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pp. 100-

Men are more likely than women to choose guns to achieve the desired outcome, for reasons that are studied and speculated on by experts. Some suggest that women dislike a technique that results in disfigurement; others...

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Gifts

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pp. 101-103

Was Joel hoping we would see through his deceptions? Suicide textbooks inform us that “suicidal behavior is a form of communication in which the person is expressing in a desperate and dangerous way his feelings about himself...

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The Glory Hole

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pp. 104-

A pamphlet of his poems that Joel, shortly after quitting high school, typed up on heavyweight paper and assembled between pasteboard covers with brass clips. Some of the poems he sent to Karl Shapiro, respecting his...

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Golden Gate

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pp. 105-

A place of many suicides. Such a spot seizes the imagination and becomes a “suicide magnet.” Waterloo Bridge in London, the Sussex Cliffs on the English coast, the Eiffel Tower, the forest called Jukai at the foot...

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Gun

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pp. 106-107

In his left hand—he was left-handed—a .38 caliber revolver, with a five-round cylinder. Guns are used in 60 percent of all suicides in the United States. A gunshot is the most effective method, the most lethal, the most irreversible...

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Halloween

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pp. 108-

Time of year when people die. Ghosts hang from tree limbs, collide against the trunks, swing as if from the gallows. Cut pumpkins on stoops are drenched with rain; no candle will light tonight. During this holiday, Joel was...

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Harbor

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pp. 109-111

In the following years, many women slept on the bed of metamorphosis. The bodies piled up. It moved to San Francisco, then from one apartment to another within the city. In that place of mists the blue plastic mattress, with its...

Heart

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pp. 112-

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Heron, doe, and fawns

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pp. 113-114

We had no idea what we would see outside our windows at the river house. We knew we’d see the river, we knew we’d see trees, but we didn’t know what lived in these trees, this river, what would pass through...

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Higher education

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pp. 115-116

Joel, done with high school but lacking a diploma, dipped into community colleges. In the fall of 1967, he tried Los Angeles Valley College, where his mother worked in the admissions office. He viewed his classes with contempt...

Hole

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pp. 117-

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Home teaching (1)

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pp. 118-

“If I tell you I’ve been doing nothing to speak of, I’m not lying. So, I shouldn’t have anything to say, right? Fine, I don’t! I take a shower, sometimes I shave, sometimes I don’t; I have breakfast (nothing worth mentioning...

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Home teaching (2)

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pp. 119-

“Being human beings (rather than class members), tutorial students tend to be main characters of engrossing stories. One student, an award-winning baseball-playing honors student, was suddenly stricken by...

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Impasse

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pp. 120-

I want to know why Joel chose November as the month to die. The seventeenth. Friday. Was there any significance to the date? Some circle traversed? I ask Richard when Joel was born, thinking there might be a relationship between...

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Informed consumer

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pp. 121-

How did he educate himself ? Did he frequent gun shops, check out weapons books from the public library? There are books detailing methods of committing suicide, in the how-to, self-help mode, as well as gun...

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Inheritance

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pp. 122-123

“The soundest way of acquiring a collection,” saith Walter Benjamin. “For a collector’s attitude toward his possessions stems from an owner’s feeling of responsibility toward his property. Thus it is, in the highest sense...

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In remembrance

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pp. 124-

The decision to die was secret. We did not know how to interpret the changes in Joel that we observed. Richard and I saw surface differences but did not properly attach the changes to their cause. Joel derived pleasure in keeping...

Intimates

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pp. 125-

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Invisible ink

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pp. 126-

There are those who have kept a journal since they were sixteen. Every letter written or received is organized and meticulously maintained. And there are those who don’t. When the collector dies, survivors are overwhelmed...

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Kidney failure

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pp. 127-128

In the aftermath, survivors look for a reason, a cause, a correlation. Richard culled passages from Joel’s letters from the last months, piecing together the decision to die. He put a chronology together...

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The knocking at the gate in Macbeth

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pp. 129-130

In February 1976, eight months after his mother’s death, Joel undertook a critical analysis of Macbeth in an essay for English 1B. He was a good student, intelligent, engaged, and comfortable with the...

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Lady Macbeth

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pp. 131-133

Joel’s essay asked a version of the question I have asked (see Chain, chain, chain): How did Macbeth assess, how did he feel about his wife’s death? I want to draw from his answer an insight into Joel’s feelings about his mother...

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Larry

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pp. 134-135

On the Beara Peninsula in western Ireland an old sheepdog kept watch from the driveway and hill above our B&B. I tried to befriend him, but he’d have nothing of it. He didn’t even turn his head in my direction when...

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Last visit

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pp. 136-

The installation of his haunting. In October he drove across the country in his Ford Escort wagon with bad tires, having stuffed it with belongings he wanted us to have (see Arborvitae). When he arrived, the flowers...

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Last words to me

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pp. 137-138

A cheerful list of objects. When almost nothing was left in his apartment, he sent the remainder to me. On Friday afternoon, November 17, a package arrived at our door. Inside were a small box and a short letter, addressed...

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Last words to Richard

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pp. 139-

His letters, once full of frustration, financial worries, his unsteady cars, anxiety, and poor health, became blankly anonymous. “Are you entirely, perfectly happy? Or do you find yourself unhappy in response to bills...

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Literary criticism

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pp. 140-

The more diffident Joel became, the more I wanted to understand him. He became a great, difficult poem that unsettles and exhausts me and that I never get to the end of understanding...

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Macbeth

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pp. 141-142

Less than a year after his mother’s death and two decades before his own, Joel asked: If life is meaningless, why doesn’t Macbeth kill himself ? Let me play therapist for the moment and respond to this question with...

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Manhattan (list of lists of reasons that life is worth living)

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pp. 143-144

Such fondnesses have little to do with refusing suicide, which a person chooses because his calendar of tomorrows is full of suffering. It is not the nearness of the end but interminable time that takes away a person’s tastes. Otherwise...

Marital status

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pp. 145-

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Men on women: cinema verité

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pp. 146-150

During the period he lived with Joel, Richard kept a journal, from which Joel is strikingly absent. It does, however, re-create one conversation between them, built on the male principle of chasing women...

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Mentor

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pp. 151-

Joel and I had a conversation over dinner, Richard having been called away by a phone call. We sat across from one another at the table, candles burning between us. Suddenly Joel said, “I can’t tell you what pleasure I have in seeing...

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Method

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pp. 152-

Long summers ago I picked up my son at a friend’s house and noticed black smoke pouring from the second-story windows of the house down the street. A middle-aged woman, living only with her cat after a divorce, had doused...

Money

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pp. 153-

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More forest

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pp. 154-

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? . . . But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that...

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Mother’s Day

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pp. 155-

“The holidays have since elementary school days meant appreciation of the suffering my presence in the world brought those to whom I owe more than my puny powers and monstrous incapacities would ever allow...

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Mouse

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pp. 156-

Joel’s bequeathed computer was Richard’s introduction to use of this interface. He was clumsy at first, and Joel was impatient and irritated in his instruction on how to use it. It was in this irritation that the supreme effort Joel’s...

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Neuropathy, diabetic

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pp. 157-

Degeneration of the nervous system caused by high blood glucose and other factors. In January 1994, Joel began to suffer pain in his right leg; it was so severe by late February that getting into, driving, and getting out...

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Note

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pp. 158-

I wanted Joel to leave a note behind that bore the traces of his disaster, to bear the traces of his having reduced himself to a ghostlike status, a disappearing man. (Perhaps the eradicating of the personal is that...

Now he tells us

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pp. 159-

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Oban

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pp. 160-162

Reluctant to depart, he stayed longer than we expected. On Joel’s last full day, Richard accompanied him to the Goodyear store, where he bought a replacement for a worn tire to which the long journey back across plains and mountains would...

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Onset

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pp. 163-

Joel believed always that he would live a shortened time, and he was a prescient actuary. He told Gale before he was twenty-five that he would not live to fifty. This number was not arbitrary, but the result of a good calculation...

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Other women who passed through that I know of

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pp. 164-

Fran, Becky, Janice, Beth. Some of them mattered for a while. The breakup with Beth prompted an identity crisis (see Time travel), and at the end of an evening with Becky, Joel “walked her...

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Path (1)

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pp. 165-

A direction constrained by a past direction. The autopsy report described the gunshot wound thusly: “directed left to right, front to back, and downwards, forming angles of two degrees with the horizontal plane. Through the...

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Path (2)

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pp. 166-167

I had turned the corner onto the street fronting the school where cars were pulling to the side of the road to let their kids out. From out of nowhere a boy ran right in front of me, or at least at the time he seemed to come from nowhere...

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Path (3)

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pp. 168-

“Last week was brutally difficult. I got myself locked into a four-day assignment in the classroom of a teacher whose reputation for immaturity and self-indulgence continues to grow well into his thirtieth year in the profession. He relies...

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Path (4)

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pp. 169-170

The snow, soft and heavy, is falling, and the blood is flowing to my heart. As I stop at a red light, I see a boy tearing down Hagadorn and sweeping right onto Burcham. I am alarmed at his speed, the danger he is courting. Where can he be...

Pentobarbital

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pp. 171-

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Philosopher

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pp. 172-

Saving nothing, Joel unharnessed himself from the furniture of his being. Where he was going, he required no baggage. Like Thoreau’s philosopher, he stripped his life bare, compacting everything into himself, and could “walk...

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Piano four hands

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pp. 173-

During his visit to Seattle in 1982, we accompanied Joel to a dinner engagement at the home of a woman whose daughter, Laurel, he had been dating. The woman doted on Joel with cuisine and wine, and he became less...

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Plan

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pp. 174-

We did not see the subtext beneath Joel’s extraordinary behavior, but I ask myself what we would have done if we had. What if we had confronted his impending suicide? If I see that the last fawn is dragging its legs, what am I going to do about...

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Police

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pp. 175-

He chose the police—always singular but collective—to discover him because the officers were not friends or relatives but impersonal operatives. Their experience and training would equip them to manage his body, disfigured...

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Police report

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pp. 176-

On 11-20-95 at approximately 1600 hours, Officer Cassanego was dispatched to the address on a well-being check. After receiving no response to repeated knocks at the door, he used the key that was sent to the department...

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Prell, Martin

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pp. 177-179

Joel’s father, a Lockheed engineer and a diabetic (Joel, then, was at least the third generation). What was he like as father to the son? I did not know him and asked Richard to play proxy...

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Prell, Michael

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pp. 180-

Joel’s older brother and contact person, an economist, one of the powerful “barons” at the Federal Reserve during Alan Greenspan’s tenure. Sometimes you spotted him on C-SPAN, backing up Greenspan in testimony before...

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Prell, Ruth Sosin

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pp. 181-

Joel’s mother. Formerly a semiprofessional vocalist whom Joel accompanied at the piano in art song, she took a fatal overdose of pentobarbital one month short of her fifty-fifth birthday. She had been reconciled with...

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Project

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pp. 182-183

May we think about suicide as a construction project or a creative one? Does it have a planning phase and a construction phase like a new apartment complex, or pre- and postproduction like a movie? If Joel envisioned the project...

Questions

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pp. 184-

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Reassembly

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pp. 185-186

The day before Joel’s departure we dismantled the bed of metamorphosis for new carpet to be installed, moving the parts down to the basement. That evening Richard had a meeting to attend, and I raked leaves in the backyard while...

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Reception

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pp. 187-188

As we passed through the lobby of the church for the memorial service for Charlie, my neighbor’s father, a montage of photographs culled from his childhood, maturity, and old age greeted us. Its bracing centerpiece was a blow-up...

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Red-tailed hawk

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pp. 189-190

When we first moved to the river house, I was purely excited by what I saw outside it. The birds and deer did not speak words I didn’t want to hear, like loquacious neighbors, or leave objects behind I could not handle, or so I thought. But...

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Richard

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pp. 191-

My husband, and Joel’s oldest and best friend. The two grew up in L.A. in the fifties and sixties, went to the same schools, walked the same orange-tree streets, became acquainted in a health class at Reseda High School...

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Rigor mortis

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pp. 192-

Achieved. This stiffening of the muscles after death is temporary, lasting up to three days. If Joel’s note to the police accurately stated his appointed day of death, his body was in the last hours of rigor mortis when he was found...

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River house

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pp. 193-

Moved into during the trailing years, necessitating an evaluation of things to be transferred from the old house, with its silver maple and arborvitae. The river house is nestled in trees just above and along the Red Cedar River. From...

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Role

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pp. 194-

A part defined by a script. Joel could not have considered how hard it would be for us to play the role he wrote for us. Richard’s refusal to believe that Joel could have written such a cruel story blinded him to its denouement...

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Roses

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pp. 195-

Cultivated by Joel in the backyard of his apartment, loving no one near, roses his only companions in domestic life. “The fragrance of dying roses is a perfume against which even a young girl’s hair can’t compare...

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Salesman

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pp. 196-

By March 1979, following his graduation from Berkeley, Joel had a job at Pactel, marketing telephones and telephone service. He took some pride in himself as salesman, talking customers into buying all the phone service they...

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"Secretary of Death”

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pp. 197-199

An unpublished, full-length literary mortography of Joel. I derived its title from John Berger: “Truly we writers are the secretaries of death.” When I ask Richard questions about Joel, he often can’t answer, doesn’t...

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Self-accusation

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pp. 200-

I accuse myself of refusing to connect, to attach myself to the things Joel left us. He cut his ties to things, one object at a time, sending them out into the world, to us. Like Joel, in reverse, I refuse to accept them...

Self-annihilation

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pp. 201-

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Self-pity

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pp. 202-

“It won’t surprise you that what’s been keeping me from getting a letter to you has been the usual problem of griping and self-pity. Not that griping and self-pity are bad: given something worth griping and pitying oneself about...

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Sisyphus

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pp. 203-

Mythological figure who suffers a human condition. Joel was the substitute teacher, the futile laborer, his students the rock of his impossible uphill climb. He was the modern absurd man...

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1635 San Andres Street

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pp. 204-

A home briefly shared with Gale in Santa Barbara. Joel’s descriptions of it were ecstatically rendered dreams of domestic bliss to be. The house was spacious after their student life in an apartment, the neighborhood busy...

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Spanish main

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pp. 205-206

In the winter following Joel’s death, the bed of metamorphosis lay too low to carry me safely through the long nights of grim storm. The foam sagged until my hips touched the plywood foundation that still insisted on natural environments...

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Spectacular suicide

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pp. 207-

A suicide staged in a landscape of outsize proportions, a sublime setting, publicly noted and recorded; a performed suicide where the place overshadows the act itself and the consequences it leaves in its wake. These...

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Spin the bottle

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pp. 208-209

A game of luck with large consequences. Joel referred to it in an analysis of his reasons for choosing the teaching profession...

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Spoon altar

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pp. 210-211

My mother collected silver spoons. She had a special illuminated nook constructed between the kitchen and dining room where she could hang them, a shrine you’d pass by several times a day. At Christmastime she stood before it...

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Spoons, commemorative

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pp. 212-213

In the package that came on November 17 were two commemorative spoons from the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933—polished by Joel before he sent them. The front of the stem reads “A Century of Progress,” the theme of the Great Exposition...

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Stamp collection

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pp. 214-216

Joel was the son of a collector and inherited a collector’s impulses, manifested most fully in the form of raw accumulation. In childhood he began a collection of stamps, then abandoned it, but never disposed of those...

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Steinway Model K

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pp. 217-218

At the time of Joel’s last visit we had a spinet. He played, sitting down in a moment when we were busy with our tasks and he had time to touch some chords of a piece I could not name, contemplative and gentle, a beautiful surprise of...

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Story

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pp. 219-

“It is . . . characteristic that not only a man’s knowledge or wisdom, but above all his real life—and this is the stuff that stories are made of—first assumes transmissible form at the moment of his death. Just as a sequence of images...

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Substitute

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pp. 220-

(1) A person who takes the place of or acts instead of; (2) something that is put in place of something else or is available for use instead of something else; (3) something cheaper or inferior that is used instead of a standard article...

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Substitute teacher

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pp. 221-222

Joel did not wear lightly his status as a substitute teacher. Substitution became the sign of who he was, his position in society. He thought that only someone like himself, sloughing in the trenches of public school teaching—and worse...

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Suicide

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pp. 223-

An act that names the actor; an act that creates a mystery, a gap between the promise and the outcome, between the person we thought we knew and the person who decided to die. The forbidden. The dark secret disrupting the family...

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“Suicide”

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pp. 224-

A poem. Or should I call it performance art? Albert Camus, the great philosopher of suicide, recognized the aesthetic quality of certain deaths of this sort: “An act like this is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a...

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Suicide Intent Scale

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pp. 225-227

The Suicide Intent Scale was developed by Aaron T. Beck and colleagues to measure the seriousness of attempts at suicide— the intensity of the intent. Under each of eight headings, one can score zero, one, or two points; the higher the score...

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Suicide note

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pp. 228-229

Last written words of the dead. Perhaps one-fifth of suicides are accompanied by a note. In style and form these final words seem to refuse all of the patterns that define literary genres. Some are written to ease the pain of survivors...

Synecdoche

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pp. 230-

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A tale told by his rabbi, full of sound and fury, etc

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pp. 231-

A young boy had been sent to the grocery store to pick up some essential doodads for lunch. Minutes, under the influence of the additive property, became larger and larger fractions of an hour, and the boy’s mother...

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Telescope

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pp. 232-

In June of the year before his last visit, as a birthday present to our children, Joel sent his old telescope, largely disassembled, with a four-inch parabolic mirror and an equatorial mount, complete with a diagram and note containing...

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Test

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pp. 233-

Was Joel testing us to see what we would and would not notice? Joel once gave such a test to Richard, who did not know he was being tested; Joel then announced to Richard that he had failed. First Richard failed the test, the contents...

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Thanksgiving

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pp. 234-

Late afternoon on Wednesday we were playing loud music, as we often do when we are in a flurry of cooking and cleaning for company. The windows vibrated with the bass guitar. We had just come home from the market, and Richard was...

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Timeline

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pp. 235-236

A chronological ordering of events. In an effort to understand what had happened and to find the story, Richard constructed a table that began with the building of a Steinway in 1908 and ended with Gale’s letter of August...

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Time travel

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pp. 237-

“At the hospital, after some tests, I was diagnosed as suffering from ‘stress.’ During the next week I diagnosed myself ‘bonkers,’ and the psychiatrist at Kaiser subsequently diagnosed an ‘identity crisis.’ I think I prefer my own...

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Toast

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pp. 238-239

Were we closer in proximity, we’d raise a glass in memory of Joel and swap funny and sad stories of memories of Joel. As second best, here’s a toast to Joel, on the first anniversary of his death. He has been much on my...

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Tools not elsewhere inventoried and not forgotten

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pp. 240-

Phillips and flat-blade, stubby, medium, and long screwdrivers, rechargeable battery-powered screwdriver with attachments, ratchet handle with attachment bits and blade, drill motor and drill bits and attachments, small...

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Truth

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pp. 241-

Siren song that haunts the aftermath. “My mother’s suicide note told my father that she loved him: she lied. I guess suicide is not a great moment of truth after all...

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Unclaimed Baggage Center

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pp. 242-

In Alabama, a warehouse full of items left behind by travelers. The baggage has stayed unclaimed, and no one knows why. Employees sort through suitcases and duffel bags, tasked with determining what...

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The underlying, unifying principle of a life

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pp. 243-246

For honesty’s sake, and for the sake of adding a few words, I confess to having achieved a really significant self-analytical breakthrough. I’ve been having some extraordinary dreams, unlike any I can recall, involving...

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Vise

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pp. 247-

The powerful vises Joel delivered are Stanley No. 700s, likely obtained from his father. Richard used them to build a garden border out of pressure-treated two-by-twos, framing a place in the little light on the west side of the river house...

Voice of authority

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pp. 248-

Why

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pp. 249-

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World’s Fair

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pp. 250-253

None of the things he gave us were mementos, intimate souvenirs, signs of his life history: these were destroyed. Letters, photos, his personal papers, that which would reveal him, document his humanness, his struggles as a son, a brother...

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X-ray

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pp. 254-

A packet of obstructed vision. When Richard moved out of the apartment they shared in San Francisco, Joel was still searching for a permanent teaching position. He moved in with a radiologist who had a room to rent. A note about...

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Years, under the influence of the additive property

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pp. 255-256

Tales of ghosts and legends of hangings in Abiquiu, New Mexico: Ghost Ranch. Georgia O’Keefe painted there, and her ashes were scattered at a spot not publicly known. On the walk back to Box Canyon, gravesites...

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Yes, this is my time

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pp. 257-258

So quiet. No sounds. Gun here on the counter. Box of shells here. Unsnap case, slide gun out. Set it on counter, gentle. Slide box open. Tremor in hands. One bullet. Fingertips numb. Slide box shut. Bullet into chamber, as before. There...

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Young manhood

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pp. 259-

Years of feeling. Living was not yet done with him, and he was not done with living. His life and letters were messy with cries and witticisms and excoriations. But this paradoxical letter, written in the bad month...

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Z, omega, taw

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pp. 260-261

The shoreline of Lake Huron near the tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula is the haunt of bald eagles, attracted by the joint presence of forest for nests and lake for prey, and perhaps by the common winds to ride...

“Zen Suicide”

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pp. 262-

AUTHOR’S NOTE

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pp. 263-

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

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pp. 265-

Gratefully acknowledged are the journals in which versions of this material originally appeared: “The Dead Dog Essay,” in the Florida Review; “Binoculars,” in the Southeast Review; “Return Baggage,” in Rock & Sling; “Death’s Acres,” in...


E-ISBN-13: 9780820344706
E-ISBN-10: 0820344702
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820343372
Print-ISBN-10: 0820343374

Page Count: 280
Illustrations: 15 b&w photos, 1 table
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction

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Subject Headings

  • Suicide -- Case studies.
  • Friendship.
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