When Mike Noonan's wife dies unexpectedly, the bestselling author suffers from writer's block. Until he is drawn to his summer home, the beautiful lakeside retreat called Sara Laughs. Here Mike ...(more)
Johanna began to sprint across the parking lot toward the street. Others were doing the same all around her. One of them, Miss Jill Dunbarry, had been window-shopping at Radio Shack when the accident occurred. She said she thought she remembered running past Johanna -- at least she was pretty sure she remembered someone in yellow slacks -- but she couldn't be sure. By then, Mrs. Easterling was screaming that she was hurt, they were both hurt, wouldn't somebody help her and her friend Irene.
Halfway across the parking lot, near a little cluster of newspaper dispensers, my wife fell down. Her purse-strap stayed over her shoulder, but her prescription bag slipped from her hand, and the sinus inhaler slid halfway out. The other item stayed put.
No one noticed her lying there by the newspaper dispensers; everyone was focused on the tangled vehicles, the screaming women, the spreading puddle of water and antifreeze from the Public Works truck's ruptured radiator. ("That's gas!" the clerk from Fast Foto shouted to anyone who would listen. "That's gas, watch out she don't blow, fellas!") I suppose one or two of the would-be rescuers might have jumped right over her, perhaps thinking she had fainted. To assume such a thing on a day when the temperature was pushing ninety-five degrees would not have been unreasonable.
Roughly two dozen people from the shopping center clustered around the accident; another four dozen or so came running over from Strawford Park, where a baseball game had been going on. I imagine that all the things you would expect to hear in such situations were said, many of them more than once. Milling around. Someone reaching through the misshapen hole which had been the driver's-side window to pat Esther's trembling old hand. People immediately giving way for Joe Wyzer; at such moments anyone in a white coat automatically becomes the belle of the ball. In the distance, the warble of an ambulance siren rising like shaky air over an incinerator.
All during this, lying unnoticed in the parking lot, was my wife with her purse still over her shoulder (inside, still wrapped in foil, her uneaten chocolate-marshmallow mouse) and her white prescription bag near one outstretched hand. It was Joe Wyzer, hurrying back to the pharmacy to get a compress for Irene Deorsey's head, who spotted her. He recognized her even though she was lying face-down. He recognized her by her red hair, white blouse, and yellow slacks. He recognized her because he had waited on her not fifteen minutes before.
"Mrs. Noonan?" he asked, forgetting all about the compress for the dazed but apparently not too badly hurt Irene Deorsey. "Mrs. Noonan, are you all right?" Knowing already (or so I suspect; perhaps I am wrong) that she was not.
He turned her over. It took both hands to do it, and even then he had to work hard, kneeling and pushing and lifting there in the parking lot with the heat baking down from above and then bouncing back up from the asphalt. Dead people put on weight, it seems to me; both in their flesh and in our minds, they put on weight.
There were red marks on her face. When I identified her I could see them clearly even on the video monitor. I started to ask the assistant medical examiner what they were, but then I knew. Late August, hot pavement, elementary, my dear Watson. My wife died getting a sunburn.
Wyzer got up, saw that the ambulance had arrived, and ran toward it. He pushed his way through the crowd and grabbed one of the attendants as he got out from behind the wheel. "There's a woman over there," Wyzer said, pointing toward the parking lot.
"Guy, we've got two women right here, and a man as well," the attendant said. He tried to pull away, but Wyzer held on.
"Never mind them right now," he said. "They're basically okay. The woman over there isn't."
The woman over there was dead, and I'm pretty sure Joe Wyzer knew it...but he had his priorities straight. Give him that. And he was convincing enough to get both paramedics moving away from the tangle of truck and Toyota, in spite of Esther
Easterling's cries of pain and the rumbles of protest from the Greek chorus.
When they got to my wife, one of the paramedics was quick to confirm what Joe Wyzer had already suspected. "Holy shit," the other one said. "What happened to her?"
"Heart, most likely," the first one said. "She got excited and it just blew out on her."
But it wasn't her heart. The autopsy revealed a brain aneurysm which she might have been living with, all unknown, for as long as five years. As she sprinted across the parking lot toward the accident, that weak vessel in her cerebral cortex had blown like a tire, drowning her control-centers in blood and killing her. Death had probably not been instantaneous, the assistant medical examiner told me, but it had still come swiftly enough...and she wouldn't have suffered. Just one big black nova, all sensation and thought gone even before she hit the pavement.
"Can I help you in any way, Mr. Noonan?" the assistant ME asked, turning me gently away from the still face and closed eyes on the video monitor. "Do you have questions? I'll answer them if I can."
"Just one," I said. I told him what she'd purchased in the drugstore just before she died. Then I asked my question.
The days leading up to the funeral and the funeral itself are dreamlike in my memory -- the clearest memory I have is of eating Jo's chocolate mouse and crying...crying mostly, I think, because I knew how soon the taste of it would be gone. I had one other crying fit a few days after we buried her, and I will tell you about that one shortly.
I was glad for the arrival of Jo's family, and particularly for the arrival of her oldest brother, Frank. It was Frank Arlen -- fifty, red-cheeked, portly, and with a head of lush dark hair -- who organized the arrangements...who wound up actually dickering with the funeral director.
"I can't believe you did that," I said later, as we sat in a booth at Jack's Pub, drinking beers.
"He was trying to stick it to you, Mikey," he said. "I hate guys like that." He reached into his back pocket, brought out a handkerchief, and wiped absently at his cheeks with it. He hadn't broken down -- none of the Arlens broke down, at least not when I was with them -- but Frank had leaked steadily all day; he looked like a man suffering from severe conjunctivitis.
There had been six Arlen sibs in all, Jo the youngest and the only girl. She had been the pet of her big brothers. I suspect that if I'd had anything to do with her death, the five of them would have torn me apart with their bare hands. As it was, they formed a protective shield around me instead, and that was good. I suppose I might have muddled through without them, but I don't know how. I was thirty-six, remember. You don't expect to have to bury your wife when you're thirty-six and she herself is two years younger. Death was the last thing on our minds.
"If a guy gets caught taking your stereo out of your car, they call it theft and put him in jail," Frank said. The Arlens had come from Massachusetts, and I could still hear Malden in Frank's voice -- caught was coowat, car was cah, call was caul. "If the same guy is trying to sell a grieving husband a three-thousand-dollar casket for forty-five hundred dollars, they call it business and ask him to speak at the Rotary Club luncheon. Greedy asshole, I fed him his lunch, didn't I?"
"Yes. You did."
"You okay, Mikey?"
"How the fuck should I know?" I asked him, loud enough to turn some heads in a nearby booth. And then: "She was pregnant."
His face grew very still. "What?"
I struggled to keep my voice down. "Pregnant. Six or seven weeks, according to the...you know, the autopsy. Did you know? Did she tell you?"
"No! Christ, no!" But there was a funny look on his face, as if she had told him something. "I knew you were trying, of course...she said you had a low sperm count and it might take a little while, but the doctor thought you guys'd probably...sooner or later you'd probably..." He trailed off, looking down at his hands. "They can tell that, huh? They check for that?"
"They can tell. As for checking, I don't know if they do it automatically or not. I asked."
"She didn't just buy sinus medicine before she died. She also bought one of those home pregnancy-testing kits."
"You had no idea? No clue?"
I shook my head.
He reached across the table and squeezed my shoulder. "She wanted to be sure, that's all. You know that, don't you?"
A refill on my sinus medicine and a piece of fish, she'd said. Looking like always. A woman off to run a couple of errands. We had been trying to have a kid for eight years, but she had looked just like always.
"Sure," I said, patting Frank's hand. "Sure, big guy. I know."